The XX Factor

What Women Really Want at the Box Office

Daphne Merkin’s great profile of It’s Complicated writer/director Nancy Meyers in the upcoming issue of the New York Times Magazine is online, and it dances around the question that everyone’s been buzzing about this week: Why aren’t there more female directors in Hollywood? (Click here for a compelling Jezebel interview with Manohla Dargis , who attempts to tackle this one, too). Merkin tries to explain why Meyers-who also wrote and directed the Diane Keaton vehicle Something’s Gotta Give -has succeeded where so many other women directors have failed: at the box office. She spends a lot of time talking about how Meyers softens all the rough edges-emotionally and aesthetically-of her films:

Whether her insistence on “softening the message” through plush surroundings ultimately weakens the films-renders them more glossy and insular than they need be, even for a genre that is inherently fizzy-is a question I have debated with myself and others. Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film-studies department at Wesleyan University, says that unlike Frank Capra, who believed that victory over something significant was essential for a comedy to be memorable, Meyers’s movies don’t require that you think about them again. “She makes it easy for the actors and the audience,” Basinger says. “They can slip into their parts and be happy, and we can slip into our seats and be happy.”

This, to me, is why Meyer’s films are so successful, and it’s why movies like Twilight and G.I. Joe and The Bourne Identity and pretty much any box-office blockbuster of the past 25 years has worked. People-both men and women-go to the movies to forget themselves and their troubles. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but generally movies that are painful viewing experiences or make you think deep thoughts are critical winners that don’t make wild profits (see pretty much every movie made about the Iraq war). Maybe the truth is that women primarily escape through romantic fantasy, and according to Merkin, “Meyers’s vision of life is unabashedly romantic-call it retro or call it postfeminist-but what sets it apart is that she is putting it at the disposal not of unformed 18-year-old girls but of accomplished 50-something women.” There are worse fantasies for grown-ups to have.