I dont 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 http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show.cgi?show=151 for recaps). Cameron, who is Houses 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. Its not that she wants a relationship with House when Hes 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 thats properly a pathology too extreme to seem likely to the viewer/Cameron]. So while Houses 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. (Its not unknown for men – I think House is also his friend Wilsons 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 Plutarchs advice to husbands and wives, and is apparently also in one of Rousseaus 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 Cant Help Loving Dat Man with Shes 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. (Its very clear, for example in Dhuodas Manual, which a Frankish noblewoman wrote for her son William, aged 16). So since there is a very strong cultural/social tradition (I wouldnt want to go so far as say psychological/evolutionary) of this action by women, then it may get carried over into womens relationships with adult men. Id be interested in any thoughts on whether this theory holds up, or any other reasons why this pattern happens?