When Feminists Met Harry and Sally

The movie When Harry Met Sally is 30 years old, and its anniversary has prompted a number of serious reassessments of the popular romantic comedy. Not surprisingly, a harsh feminist lens has been applied to it: while one article celebrates the movie for its revelation of the pleasure gap between the sexes, another criticizes the film for its “quiet cruelty.” Spoiler alert: in both cases, it’s the man who is in the wrong.

The Washington Post author focused on the famous diner scene in which a young Sally demonstrates to a stunned Harry how convincing a woman’s faked orgasm can be. It was a brilliantly funny scene that told a simple truth without judgement: some portion of women are convincing fakers, and even a sexually experienced man can’t be sure. Women laughed in recognition and some men may have scratched their heads, wondering why anyone would need to fake sexual enjoyment.

In the romantic-comedic world of the movie, we are to understand that Sally probably never does fake it with Harry; and that their marriage will be happy enough that it won’t matter either way. But the WaPo writer, Lisa Bonos, has to make something sinister out of the scene. In her argument, Harry is the typical macho man, someone who doesn’t care about women’s pleasure (though the whole point of his story to Sally was his ability to give women pleasure). Furthermore, according to Bonos, the fact that some women fake orgasm supposedly reveals that women’s sexual pleasure is “not prioritized” in heterosexual relationships. Wait a minute! How did it become the man’s fault that his partner lies to him about her sexual experience? How does his desire for her to orgasm prove his “macho arrogance,” as Bonos claims of Harry? Bonos, of course, doesn’t say.

While the Wapo author applauded the move for telling an uncomfortable truth about how men presumably fail to please their women, the Atlantic author, Megan Garber, took the opposite tack: not only was the movie untrue, but it was untrue in a way that was belittling towards women because it validated male-on-female criticism. This author focused on Harry’s announcement to Sally one night when they were talking on the phone about the film Casablanca that Sally is a “high maintenance” woman, someone who has to have her salad dressing on the side and her pie a la mode a certain way—someone who, in other words, is never easy. Sally protests, but Harry insists, and in creating a reductive category for his friend, he does what men, according to the author, too often do by putting women into categories from which they cannot escape.

It’s true that Harry liked to categorize things and people. But isn’t that a comic part of his character, something the film finds amusing and unserious? And yes, Sally is “high maintenance,” a characteristically if not exclusively female trait, but her various quirks don’t prevent Harry—and various other men in the movie—from caring for her and treating her with tenderness and respect. What’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because for this author, as for most feminist authors, any movie that suggests a man can have an opinion about a female flaw, even if the flaw is a minor one, is a film that impinges on women’s necessary freedom to believe themselves perfect. Knowing that Harry found Sally “high maintenance” apparently inspired this author—and others like her, she assumes—occasionally to question her own behavior, wondering if she was being “high maintenance, “ something she apparently believes women should never have to do. When it comes to having preferences or making criticisms about the opposite sex, only women, apparently, should be allowed to do it.

What neither of the writers will admit is how out of sync with the character and tone of the movie their feminist analyses are. When Harry Met Sally was NOT a feminist movie: it was a standard romantic comedy based on a traditional understanding of men and women’s different attitudes towards love and sex. It did not politicize these differences, or care whether they were produced through social conditioning or biological imperative. It imagined that both men and women were happier when they came to see the world through the other’s eyes—something neither feminist author can even imagine.

2 Replies to “When Feminists Met Harry and Sally”

  1. I eagerly await the next Fiamengo File–and always have. Janice, your deadpan delivery of jaw dropping insight has been a treasure ever since I discovered you. How I wish I could attend the upcoming conference. But I must bring the following articles in the recent New York Magazine to your attention. They’re long, but I’m sure you can get them through the hair-raising page-turning pulse of what they mean to men and that damned Title IX, which I knew when I heard about it that it was the end of due process for men. Enjoy.

    https://www.thecut.com/2019/07/bruce-hay-paternity-trap-maria-pia-shuman-mischa-haider.html

    1. That’s quite the page-turner indeed! Thanks for it. I notice the article can’t help but affirm the goodness of *most* Title IX disciplinary proceedings, despite the fact that all are ripe for this kind of outrageous abuse.

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