In 2019, a time when women are fighting for long-overdue equality and calling out abusive men, it can feel a bit trite to ask “what men want.” I mean, my immediate reaction to the title of the new Taraji P. Henson comedy was a swift “IDGAF.” But the movie, which I got a preview of prior to its release on Feb. 8, is timely, hilarious and, in our current political and environmental climate, a welcome dose of on-point LOLs.
If the concept sounds familiar, it’s because What Men Want is a remake of Nancy Meyers’s 2000 hit What Women Want. Yes, like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, this is yet another example of an older movie getting a gender-flip reboot—but if we’re going to get stuck in this cycle of reducing, reusing and recycling old films (I’m looking at you, Disney), we at least need them to be more like What Men Want.
The O.G. film told the story of misogynistic ad exec Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson, perfectly cast) who gains the ability to hear women’s inner thoughts after being electrocuted in a bathtub. In the process, he discovers how little he *actually* understands about women’s needs, desires and experiences. When it premiered nearly two decades ago, What Women Want was considered fairly progressive, with some reviewers on IMDB noting that—shocker—it was a romantic comedy that both sexes could enjoy. But like Gibson, this film has not aged well. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek criticized that What Women Want was marketed towards a female audience while also being condescending to them, and falls into the long-standing trope that women can change problematic men. Oh, and except for a few side characters, the entire cast is white.
Even though What Women Want left a lot to be desired, The Outline’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot notes that by conventional measures, it was a success. (It made more than $374 million worldwide). “Remakes and reboots are all about grabbing those guaranteed, built-in audience dollars, but remakes are also about making cultural touchstones better reflect our social values today,” writes Gaillot. And What Men Want not only updates the story, but shows the true power of the gender-flip genre.
In What Men Want, instead of a chauvinist white-collar male lead we get Taraji P. Henson as sports agent Ali Davis, trying to succeed in a male-dominated industry steeped in old-school sexism and “locker room talk.” There are references to women needing to “stay in your lane” and having “brass balls” if they’re successful—lines that will infuriate you and also have you nodding your head because they are so freaking familiar. And that’s all before she drinks a mystical herbal tea, bumps her head and wakes up with the ability to hear men’s thoughts.
Yes, this film is campy and exactly what you expect based on the trailer. It’s over-the-top at times—Henson’s eyebrows deserve their own shout out for the amount she made them work—and the film sticks to the format of the original, the characters and storyline do feel predictable. But I’m not mad about it.
Everyday sexism in the workplace—ranging from the prevalence of sexual harassment to gendered language—has *finally* become a major talking point in news media, so there was lots of recent real-life content to mine for the script. Many of the scenes and lines felt like they were plucked directly from recent headlines, and that is part of what makes this movie worth watching. By casting a WOC in place of a white man, and flipping the narrative to be about how men manipulate women, rather than how women can help a chauvinist become a better person, What Men Want is able to update the O.G. concept in a fresh, relevant way.
For instance, early on in the film, Ali (Henson) comments that she knows her male colleagues have a regular poker game, but don’t invite her. The bros respond by making her think that she’s crazy. Exclude her just because she’s a woman? They would never do that. It’s all in her head. It was a minor plot point, but this moment felt like a nod to all the times women are gaslit and told, “I’m sure you’re exaggerating” or “You must have misinterpreted that” or “That’s just boys being boys.” So, when Ali discovers that her hunch had been correct all along, it was more than a comedic scene. It felt like a small way of validating the mental gymnastics women have done in order to assert our worth in a society that has systematically devalued us and wrote us off as hysterical.
That’s the potential power of gender-flipping films. Not only does this gender-flip give us a chance to see women step into more complex roles than characters designed to further a male lead, they also provides an opportunity to make smart comedies designed to resonate with an audience that has been previously overlooked. Really, despite its title, What Men Want is actually what women want, today: to hear the truth and be treated as equals.