“I’m not a feminist,” Robert Redford asserted in a Megyn Kelly Today (Show) interview alongside Jane Fonda while promoting his and Fonda’s latest movie, Our Souls at Night.
That bothered me at first. Dreamy, golden Sundance Kid not a feminist?! But then I thought, maybe I’m not a feminist, either. I like “equalist,” instead. A feminist demands the right to be in combat alongside male infantry soldiers, for example, but an equalist demands that women be required to register for the draft until men no longer have to.
As much as I want it to be so, Redford probably isn’t an equalist rather than a feminist. I imagine, based on his hasty assurance that he’s not a feminist and on his disinclination to be in 1973’s The Way We Were because he thought it was a “[Barbra] Streisand vehicle,” he’s a little more like Were’s Hubbell: a “traditional” man.
And who doesn’t love a traditional man — in movies? Traditional male characters (or, in the case of TV and movies, “simple” male characters) make for truly compelling and unforgettable awkward romances. Take Jerry Maguire, for example, with Tom Cruise as the go-get-’em ambitious Jerry and Renee Zellweger as the deeper-thinking Dorothy who loves Jerry “for the man he almost is.”
And in the even more beloved The Way We Were, complex liberal activist Katie (Barbra Streisand) shares a similar wish for Robert Redford’s social-climbing Hubbell, who is in all ways wrong for her: “I want you to be better,” she says.
HUBBELL (at some point, simply): I can’t get negative enough. I can’t get angry enough. And I can’t get positive enough.
It’s tempting to characterize Dorothy and Jerry’s relationship as more awkward than Katie and Hubbell’s. After all, at least Katie and Hubbell have the good sense to break up; Jerry and Dorothy, on the other hand, commit to their shared delusion and plunge enthusiastically into a lifetime of emotional discomfort.
But the relationship in Jerry McGuire doesn’t begin with a rape that not only creates an immediate irreversible imbalance within the fictional romance, but that also — in real life — has been met for decades with either genuine blindness or willful ignorance in order to preserve the movie’s standing as “one of the great love stories in cinema.”
In the interest of equalism at a time when women are finally gaining the courage to speak out about sexual assault, it seems prudent to take a closer look at a critical moment in a movie that many women continue to idealize as a grand, tragic romance and identify the scene for what it is. If we can’t or won’t see it, then how can or will we see the real men who have been sexually assaulted but who fail to report it because they “have been taught to believe that men cannot be victims of sexual assault”?
The man, his shirt new and pressed and his hair carefully smoothed, enters the penthouse restaurant with Sarah, a radio station colleague and friend. Chairs are upholstered white. The ceiling moves with bumping, bobbing balloons that glow under recessed bulbs. People aren’t dancing, but they glide through tables as if they are, dipping to say hello, spinning and smiling at the touch of an arm.
Behind the man, the host turns away hopeful guests with a stern, “Private party, sorry,” but his voice may as well be mist, vapor, to the man. A couple pushes past him and nudges him off his balance, but his recovery is quick, automatic, unperturbed. He hardly notices. In fact, he’s aware of the couple only when they pass in front of him and briefly interrupt his view of…her.
Over the years, he had thought — hoped — he’d seen her a number of times. One winter night, it wasn’t her buying a newspaper at the kiosk outside his building. The morning before Thanksgiving, it hadn’t been her carrying a grocery sack from a bodega. The woman he’d seen sitting in a car at a red light had been too tall, but she’d had the same color hair, and so he’d daydreamed about giving her a little honk, to which she, the correct woman in his fantasy, had responded with a smile and an invitation to coffee in a charming place near the park.
But tonight it really is her, sitting at the bar in a red cocktail dress. Her lipstick is matching red, her hair a tidy, uniform ripple of waves falling just past her shoulders. Her arm, bent and propped on the bar’s rounded edge, holds her tilted head. Her eyes are closed and she’s wearing a half smile.
He becomes aware of the shrinking distance between them and stops himself from moving even closer when he’s six, maybe seven, feet away. Like some crush-struck idiot, he just stands there. He is terrified of this moment. Or, possibly, terrified of it ending. The reality of being in the same space with her has hollowed his insides and shallowed his breath. He feels the expression on his face, but he’s powerless to correct it. He can’t help the shock, the thrill, the joy of what luck. He wants to delay it for as long as possible, for her to not open her eyes, not quite yet. Here in this spot just far enough away from her, her eyes still closed, they can be anything he wants them to be.
He says her name — out loud, he realizes when the soldier turns to respond.
“I don’t think she heard anything I said,” the soldier says.
Her eyes are still closed and she holds onto her small smile.
“I could’ve swore she nodded. I suppose they learn those incredible ‘I’m listening, no, really, you’re wonderfully interesting’ skills as children.” The soldier shrugs, grabs his drink from the bar, and slips into the noise. Sarah — the man had forgotten about her completely — raises an eyebrow, shrugs, and chases the soldier.
The man returns his attention to the red lips, smooth legs, enticing collar bone. He steps closer.
Her head tips just enough for her hair to slide out of place. A wave falls over her eye. He impulsively reaches out to move it, but stops short, his finger close enough to her face to feel the warmth of her.
If he touched her now, it would be for the first time.
* * *
He was the one with the bland, wrinkled clothes, thick hair that went wild one day past its optimum length, and a narrow jaw that wouldn’t grow a beard. If while walking home from one of his weekly Political Union meetings he happened to see her having drinks with friends, he would turn his head, or pretend to read a pamphlet, and skulk hurriedly past the lit window.
To avoid feeling small, he would remind himself that he was interested in far more important things: spreading kindness, fighting for world peace, preventing the nation’s descent into fascism. He didn’t need her to want him, he would tell himself. He had no reason to feel intimidated by her or her friends, who had nothing to offer but shimmer. (Shimmer did have its place, he had to admit, but its value was transient, at best.)
She was no different from the others, as much as he might have wanted her to be.
He came to believe this completely.
But then, one evening, she surprised him.
He was once again walking home from a Political Union meeting, mulling over the case he’d make against having that drunken federal judge as a guest speaker, when he heard her calling his name. Oh, yes, he knew her voice. It was smooth and strong, like water flowing over a creek stone. No cracks, no rough edges. It gave him goosebumps.
He spotted her sitting alone on the patio of a wine bar across the dark street. She was waving him over, her hand beckoning under a dim white lantern. Her smile made him feel sick and elated down to his knees.
He glided obediently to her, and she moved a book from a chair so he could sit. He expected one of the Brontes, but she was reading The Art of War.
He thought he might probably love her.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that I thought your rebuttal in the last debate was brilliant.”
He smiled. He opened his mouth to say thank you, but —
“But when Sheldon made fun of the way you walked across the stage,” she went on, “you really should have laughed. They were with you, you know? Up until that moment, they loved you.”
And so, she didn’t want to talk to him. Not really. She saw only the wrinkled, smooth-faced boy she could “help.”
He sighed, smiled, tipped an invisible hat, and said good night.
But in bed that night, he could think only of her smile, her graceful wave, her choice of books, the fact that she actually attended the debates, and her dizzying charisma. Hadn’t she been being kind, after all? Was he not possibly being defensive and insecure?
Possibly, he thought. No, probably, he corrected, and drifted to sleep.
She opens her eyes and looks at him, rubbing her elbow with sleepy fingers after sliding it off the bar. She says his name and, eyelids hanging heavy, laughs a little, a charming giggle. She says, “Well, what do you know?”
He ends up in a cab with her, the soldier, and Sarah. Sarah kicks the man’s ankle at a stop and uses her eyes to say she wants to take the soldier home. “You two should catch up,” she says loudly, pointing her chin at the sleeping woman in the red dress.
The man helps her out of the cab, careful not to let the red dress show a slip, and opens the front door to his walk-up. He guides her into the stairwell, makes sure she’s sturdy enough to go it alone, and hurries ahead. He takes the stairs two at a time and is huffing by the time he opens his own door, sweating as he declutters and then prepares a pot of coffee. He’s just pulled out two mugs when he hears her heels in the doorway.
He pops his head out of the kitchen to invite her to sit, but she’s hunched in the entry, as if her torso his too heavy to hold upright. Her eyes widen and she slaps her hands to her mouth just in time to catch a heave. He points and says, “There!”
She stumbles into the bathroom and closes the door.
He returns to the kitchen. Coffee. She ’ll be fine after coffee. They’ll sit, they’ll talk, he’ll tell her about the station, she’ll tell him about her own life. He’s not that frumpy boy from college, anymore. Surely she sees that. He’s built his body. He’s controlled his hair. He’s managed a respectable mustache. He doesn’t even drink (but then, he never really did).
He pours two cups and expects to find her sitting on the couch, but she’s not there. The bathroom door is open, the light left on. Her shoes are tipped on their sides on the hardwood floor.
Her dress is in a heap outside his bedroom door.
He sets down the mugs and steps slowly toward the bedroom. The door is half closed. He sees the end of his bed, her underwear on the floor, her bare feet on the mattress.
He steps inside.
The white sheet covers her waist, her breasts. It doesn’t cover her strong calves, her fragile ankles. He had never imagined this. He could never before have hoped to ever know how utterly perfect…
He presses his back to the in-side of the door and carefully, quietly closes it behind him.
He steps closer. She is even more stunning in the moon’s light.
He stands there for a moment, over the bed. She moves in sleep, and the sheet adjusts to expose her upper thigh.
He unbuttons the top button of his shirt. He hesitates, but then unbuttons the rest of the buttons and lets the shirt fall to the floor. He unbuckles his belt, unzips his pants, and removes them. He slides down his briefs and steps out of them.
Naked, he lies down beside her. He covers himself with the sheet. The warmth of her body fills the space between them.
She breathes evenly in hard, alcohol sleep. Even in this condition, her face bears no hardness, no weariness, no imperfections. Her skin, he thinks, must feel like downy bunny fur.
He lifts an arm until it reaches around the top of her head. He grazes her forehead with his fingertips as he moves her hair away from her eyes. Not fur-soft, but still tantalizing.
She responds to his touch, turning toward him without opening her eyes. She presses her naked body to his and kisses his neck, breathes on the tender flesh under his earlobe. He’s been responding physically since the first wave of her body heat tickled his left thigh, so he is prepared when she pulls herself on top of him and glides lazily down and around him. He tries to look at her, but her body is flat on his and her face is hidden in the (loving, at long last!) kisses she places on his temple and his cheek. When he does catch a glimpse of her eyes, they’re still closed as she rocks in a sleepy rhythm. He puts his arms around her and encourages her with his body, his hips, until, suddenly, she no longer moves with him but is motionless on his chest.
He whispers her name. And again. There is no reply but her breathing.
“You didn’t know it was me,” he murmurs, surprised and saddened that in her post-vomiting, blackout, passed-out condition she had no idea what, or whom, she was doing.
In the best scene of the film, Streisand gingerly climbs into bed next to an exhausted Hubbell, and [director Sydney] Pollack, the Michelangelo of Mainstream, delivers his own magic, an overhead shot of Streisand’s gorgeousness never exposed in the rest of the movie. — Widescreenings.com, “Arts criticism for those who appreciate landmark films, again and again”
“When someone is so drunk that they don’t remember what happens the next day, they were too drunk to fully consent — that is, to fully and excitedly say yes to having sex. When someone doesn’t consent, that’s sexual assault.” — Teen Vogue
Hubbell has no idea the next morning what happened the night before.
We need to talk about the way we talk about The Way We Were.
Originally posted on Medium
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of The Age of the Child: When a pro-creation Citizen Amendment leads to a ban on birth control and abortion, politicians find babies abandoned on their doorsteps–and that’s just the beginning. Kristen’s 5On interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.