Men as projects

I don’t normally write about TV, but there was an episode of the drama ‘House’ I saw yesterday that raised an interesting point about gender. (The episode was Love Hurts – see for recaps). Cameron, who is House’s subordinate and in love with him, returns to her job on the condition that House gives her a date. He attempts to put her off any possible relationship during the date by telling her that she just sees him as a project, somebody to be fixed. (The episode thus manages the difficult task of suggesting that Cameron is not actually an idiot for wanting the relationship. It’s not that she wants a relationship with House when He’s Just Not That Into Her. Instead what she (and the viewer) learns is that a) House is not just smart but emotionally intelligent enough to realise the underlying psychology and b) by implication, has too much integrity to exploit a well-meaning woman for his own sexual and other benefits. [The alternative explanation to his refusal is that even in exchange for sex with a beautiful woman he is not prepared to put up with being surreptitiously psychoanalysed and improved, but that’s properly a pathology too extreme to seem likely to the viewer/Cameron]. So while House’s comments may put off Cameron in the short term, in the long term it confirms the basis for the whole Project, that there is something worthwhile in House, if it could just be brought out.)

The gendered point this got me thinking about is how much more common this idea of redeeming someone seems to be for women rather than men. (It’s not unknown for men – I think House is also his friend Wilson’s project (whether or not Wilson is gay). This gives parallels to what someone has plausibly suggested is the model for House: Sherlock Holmes. (In that case Wilson is Dr Watson, while incidentally Chase is probably Lestrade or one of the other policemen, always trying to compete unsuccessfully in his detective work with Holmes and never getting one over him).

But there are still relatively few stories about men trying to redeem initially unpromising women. (The only immediate exception I can think of is the Taming of the Shrew). What you do sometimes get is the Pygmalion myth (as taken up by George Bernard Shaw) of a man attempting to produce the ideal woman, but that normally focuses on the education of a woman as yet unformed, rather than the re-education of a morally disordered woman. (This training of girls has parallels as far back as Plutarch’s advice to husbands and wives, and is apparently also in one of Rousseau’s novels.)

On the other hand, women trying to redeem/reform/improve unpromising men are almost a whole genre (as Tom Lehrer showed when he parodies ‘Can’t Help Loving Dat Man’ with ‘She’s Just My Girl’). Beauty and the Beast, princesses kissing frogs, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc. There are an awful lot of real life examples as well. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe this has deep roots in motherhood. It is traditionally, after all, mothers who have to deal with the commonest and greatest Project: turning an anti-social baby/toddler (but one of enormous potential, which makes the whole job worthwhile) into a beautiful adult. This role of moral education was even stronger historically, before early education was more and more taken over by professionals. (It’s very clear, for example in Dhuoda’s Manual, which a Frankish noblewoman wrote for her son William, aged 16). So since there is a very strong cultural/social tradition (I wouldn’t want to go so far as say psychological/evolutionary) of this action by women, then it may get carried over into women’s relationships with adult men. I’d be interested in any thoughts on whether this theory holds up, or any other reasons why this pattern happens?


One thought on “Men as projects

  1. Interesting observation, but the analysis overlooks what is in my opinion perhaps the most important factor accounting for this gendered difference: Obedience.

    For most of human history, in most human societies that have provided us written evidence (i.e., excluding tribal, matrilineal and other societies that may have been very humane but produced little literature), men have been able to compel the obedience of women – as wives, daughters, and sisters. The promise to “love, honor, and obey” was even in the wedding ceremony for brides – but not grooms – until recently.

    When you command obedience, you don’t need to “reform” or “redeem” anyone. You tell them what to do, and they either do it (good wife/good slave) or they don’t. If they don’t, they can be either chastised or replaced. So it’s not a subject that calls for much subtlety, or for a long-term campaign to induce behavior that ought, by “right,” to be compelled. Thus, I would argue, few men have bothered to write about this (Shakespeare being in this, as in so many ways, way ahead of the curve), just as there are few interesting novels about masters figuring out how to get servants/slaves to do their appointed tasks. Just do it!

    Looked at from below, however – as women have had to look at the men in their lives (husbands, fathers, &c.) for centuries – if you want to get along, you need to use the “weapons of the weak,” in James Scott’s term. You need suasion. You need to cajole, to manipulate, to plead, to persuade [I just finished watching the movie of Persuasion] men to be what you want them to be. You cannot order them about; you have little leverage, no standing. This process of attempted suasion, though doubtless frustrating much of the time, is also fascinating, in a way that giving orders is not, and leads to the literature you describe. (Thus also the millennia-long tradition of stories about slaves outwitting masters – far more interesting than the reverse!)

    Admittedly, for the last generation or two, the “obedience” paradigm has been in serious retreat. Even 36 years ago, at my wedding, my wife did not promise to obey me! But it takes time for consciousness and literature to catch up with the new reality. For millennia, women have been teaching each other how to “reform” their men, or at least ameliorate their behavior. Men have passed on to each other advice on how to get women, not on what to do with them once you’ve got them, which presumably “comes naturally.”

    But give us another generation or two, and perhaps we’ll learn …

    (PS: There’s also a sub-genre not mentioned so far, the attempt by some men to reform “fallen women,” the “whore with the heart of gold.” Cf. Manon Lescaut (?), La Dame Aux Camellias, Of Human Bondage, &c. Rarely if ever succeeds, at least in literature, but perhaps it belongs somewhere in the analysis.)


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