Will Leo Grande be a cultural turning point? 9/27
Good luck to you, Louise Perry
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a new film that stars Emma Thompson as a middle-aged widow called Nancy who hires a young “rent boy” – Leo, played by Daryl McCormack – in the hope of remedying a lifetime of disappointing sex with her late husband. Unlike her real-life counterparts who travel to places such as Negril, Nancy is clear on what she’s doing when she books Leo, and she doesn’t (at least initially) kid herself that what they’re engaged in is romantic. But as the film goes on, Leo sensitively encourages Nancy towards her long-delayed sexual awakening, and in doing so the pair build a touching relationship. The film is supposed to be heartwarming.
…The result is a depressing story, not a heartwarming one. We’re supposed to think that Nancy is taking charge of her sexuality by paying an otherwise reluctant partner, rather than enjoying the company of someone who actually desires her and so needs no compensation. “I’ve never done anything interesting in my life,” says this mother and professional, “you’re the only adventure I’ve ever had.” What a miserable assessment of what a middle-aged woman’s life is apparently worth.
It’s a really good movie, according to three friends slightly older than me who have seen it. Based on what I have heard and read about it, my take on it is more optimistic than Louise Perry’s.
Go back to feminism of the early 1970s. One of its tenets was that women were orgasm-deprived, and this was due to the patriarchy keeping women in a state of ignorance and shame about their sexuality. In rebellion, feminists turned to Our Bodies, Our Selves (1970) and The Hite Report (1976), among other culturally significant works.
I think that when it comes to sex, there are thrill-seekers and there are intimacy-seekers. The thrill seeker primarily wants novelty and daring, even to the point of feeling that what one is doing is illicit. The intimacy seeker primarily wants closeness and bonding, wanting to feel that what one is doing is normal.
Evolutionary psychologists would say that women are more likely to be intimacy-seekers and men are more likely to be thrill-seekers. A woman’s best chance of having her children thrive is in a relationship with one man who will devote resources to her and her children. A man, too, may find that such a strategy works. But a man has an alternative strategy, to try to produce large numbers of children, none of whom gets many resources from him. That is, he will try to impregnate many women.
That basic story does not take into account how cultural factors can affect behavior. If men want women, and women are intimacy-seekers, then men can adapt to accommodate that. Or if women want men, and the men they want are thrill-seekers, then women can adapt to accommodate that.
What happened to early-1970s feminism is that by the mid-1980s it had evolved into a cultural expectation that women would be what I call thrill-seekers. As Louise Perry sees it, this was a windfall for thrill-seeking men and a disaster for intimacy seekers of both sexes.
I have not yet seen Leo Grande, but from descriptions of it, the movie strikes me as a throwback to the late 1970s. Back then, it could have been made with Jill Clayburgh as the woman and Alan Bates (or better yet, Alan Alda) as the sex worker. Clayburgh and Bates starred in An Unmarried Woman (1978). As with Leo Grande, she only obtains sexual enjoyment after her marriage has ended (married men are always sexual incompetents in feminist Hollywood). But the caring and sensitive guy, played by Bates, is not a sex worker.
Louise Perry was triggered by the film’s fairy-tale version of the sex worker. She also was triggered by the film’s attempt to erase the differences in sexual desire between men and women. In my terms, the film is a throwback to the 1970s, when it was thought to be liberating for women to be thrill-seekers rather than intimacy-seekers.
My reaction (again, I have yet to see the film) is more positive. What a relief it is for a contemporary film to take a positive view of plain old heterosexuality! To not be subjected to a commercial for LGBTQ+, getting rid of the sexual binary, etc.!
If Leo Grande turns out to have cultural significance—and I doubt that it will, given that I suspect it will have little appeal to young people—it might be as an indicator that the tide of progressive sex ideology has begun to recede. I hope so, anyway.
I’ve seen the movie but not read the book.
I think Louise Perry is right when she says that the main character’s reaction that she hasn’t achieved any great adventure in life is a bit depressing. But it is pretty real. Both women and men come to a point in life where they look back with some dissatisfaction. The classic mid-life crisis where a man buys a sports car is perhaps more visible. But I don’t think that should be a knock on the movie. Perhaps because of my age, that part connected with me.
I've thought about this in terms of short and long-term mating strategies, which I think map pretty well to thrill-seeking and intimacy-seeking. We all have some ancestors that followed each strategy, and each strategy can be better for leaving descendants for certain people in certain environments.
But the important point is that a long-term or intimacy strategy becomes more difficult as more people around you pursue a short-term or thrill-seeking strategy. This is true for both men and women but for partially different reasons. So people instinctively seek environments with social norms that promote whichever strategy they want to pursue (or want their kids to pursue). Mostly this happens subconsciously. I think that preferred mating strategy is actually an important undercurrent in the abortion debate (abortion reduces the cost of a thrill-seeking strategy), though most people don't realize it because they rationalize their position in other ways.