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Commitments : COMMENTARY : Would 'Bridges' Move Us If Roles Were Reversed? : What If 'Bridges' Roles Were Reversed?

June 26, 1995|WARREN FARRELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Warren Farrell is the author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are" and "The Myth of Male Power." He is the only man in the United States ever elected three times to the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City. He lives in Encinitas

I am walking out of "The Bridges of Madison County," wiping my tears and searching for my Kleenex. I feel in awe of Meryl Streep's acting and feel empathy for her character's disappointed dreams.

But the light of day--or was it the darkness of night?--makes me wonder whether I've crossed that bridge in only one direction. Here is a married woman (Francesca) having an affair and I am calling it a romance; when a married man has an affair, don't we call it infidelity?

In 25 years of research, I've also seen many men's marriages continue amid dashed dreams and disappointed hopes. But when they have an affair, their pain is not communicated to the world; in contrast, they are condemned as womanizers, users and jerks before millions of women in the courts of Oprah, Donahue and Sally.

As an author, I got to thinking about publishers--could "Bridges" have ever even found a publisher if the sexes were reversed? Let us say a young man from a rural town in Italy had dreams of coming to America. So he marries an American woman who owns lots of land. Would he be seen as a user? Would his story sell as a romance novel to men? Not. It would sell to no one.

Would we empathize with him more if he refused to join his loving wife and their children for a four-day weekend at the county fair to support his daughter's hope for a prize? And then, only minutes after his wife took the children, a fantasy woman dropped by out of nowhere and he had a mad, passionate love affair with her, and then packed his bags to desert his wife and children?

Or, would our empathy for him increase if we knew how this man's affair--in rural, religious Iowa--would have led to his whole family being ostracized had anyone detected it, yet he flagrantly spent hours with this woman on a bridge over which many townsfolk crossed: a bridge of Madison County?

Perhaps, though, since he was sleeping with a roving photographer who had affairs all over the world, he would just have given his wife a good case of VD. Would I have then left the theater crying with empathy for him? Not.

Now suppose this father were portrayed as recording every detail of the affair in four diaries that his wife could easily have discovered. But when she didn't, imagine this father leaving the diaries in his will for his children to read, altering the children's view of their dad without the opportunity for dialogue. Would I have left the theater with the impression of him as a devoted father?

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The issue, of course, is not "The Bridges of Madison County" per se, but the popularity of the genre, its portrayal of men, why it is the equivalent of male pornography, how it romanticizes the separation of passion from marriage (the female equivalent of men's Madonna/whore dichotomy), and why male pornography gets censored while female pornography gets celebrated.

Let's start with popularity. A total of 25 million American women read an average of 20 romance novels a month. Romance novels constitute 40% of all paperback book sales in America.

On pornography: How is it that when a woman, even if married, treats a strange man as a sex object, it's called romance, but when a man, even if single, treats a strange woman as a sex object, it's called pornography?

Do these romance novels help women who have the affairs bring their newly discovered passions and potential back into the marriage? Hardly. In "Bridges," after Francesca discovers her repressed passion and her loving husband and children return from the county fair, she kisses them, but not him. She makes not a single attempt in any form to bring into her marriage the part of herself she had discovered in her affair.

Thus the romance novel reinforces the division between marriage and romance. No, it's worse than that. The psychological destruction of her husband is often a central theme of the romance novel--even in those of the respected Danielle Steel.

For example, in Steel's "To Love Again," Isabella "finds herself in love with a man who wants to destroy all she has left of her husband." In Steel's "Crossings," the heroine's love for a steel magnate destroys her "devotion" to her husband. (And then the reader searches her women's magazine for articles on why men are afraid of commitment.)

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Romance novels rarely make heroes of the sensitive man. She attracts, resists; he performs, persists. The novels are called "Sweet Savage Love," not "He Stopped When I Said No."

This confuses some men: When she says "no" and doesn't mean it, it's a romance novel if he persists. When she says "no" and means it, it's sexual harassment if he persists.

In brief, when he guesses right, it's called courtship; when he guesses wrong, it's called harassment. And if the courtship works it's called a marriage with her picture in the paper; if the courtship fails, it's called a court case with his picture in the paper.

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