Jules Ostin, the main character of the new Nancy Meyers movie The Intern, seems like she should be the poster child for feminism. She’s a young woman who appears to have it all, having launched an extremely successful clothing company that has rapidly grown to 220 employees. She is married and has a daughter she adores.
But Ostin, played by Anne Hathaway, doesn’t have it all—and that’s partly because of feminism’s failures.
In a telling scene, Ostin, between shots of tequila, muses about male-female relationships in our modern world. Talking to some of her younger male employees and her senior intern, 70-year-old Ben Whitaker (Robert DeNiro), Ostin reflects on the fact that in recent years, women went from being called girls to women—and men went from being called men to boys.
That’s not just a matter of semantics.
The company Ostin founded and runs clearly shows this dynamic: The intern Whitaker, finds himself coaching the young men at work, advising them to ditch t-shirts for button downs, talk to women in person instead of just by text, and to act like a gentleman. He patiently explains to them that the pocket-handkerchiefs he carries around aren’t for him, but are there so that, if a woman cries, he has something to give her. He even lets one of the man-children who can’t find a place to live in the city crash at his own house.
Most of these “boys” clearly have potential and seem to be good-hearted people. But they behave as if they are unsure how to navigate relationships in the modern world and appear uncertain about what it means to be a grown man rather than a Peter Pan.
But the heart of where we see feminism’s failures is in Jules’ own life.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Midway through the film, Jules realizes her husband, Matt, is cheating on her. She’s devastated—and almost immediately begins to wonder if her career is to blame. Whitaker promptly (and correctly) points out that it’s insane for her to blame herself for her husband’s infidelity.
But in a wrenching scene, Ostin sobs about her options. She worries that if she leaves Matt, he’ll find someone else soon and she’ll struggle, perhaps never able to find another man who can accept a strong-willed woman like her. She says she doesn’t want her young daughter, Maddie, buried with her husband and Matt’s new wife while she is buried alone.
“Love and work, work and love,” the opening lines of the movie as spoken by Whitaker, are the film’s theme. As Ostin’s life suggests, feminism enabled women to pursue fulfilling careers, but it did little to balance that professional success with women’s personal lives. The work part of the equation has been solved, but what about the love?
Instead of encouraging both women and men to fulfill their dreams and reach their potential (and thus create a society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive), feminism focused on the girls, with considerable success. But women don’t want to love boys; they want to love men.
When feminists neglected boys, it created the situation the Jules Ostins of the world find themselves in every day: struggling to find a worthy partner who is truly their equal in maturity and success and confident enough in his own masculinity to support her.
Ultimately, Ostin’s own problem is solved: Matt ends his affair and makes it clear to Ostin he wants her to continue to pursue a successful career. Jules, sobbing again, takes him back.
“You know what would be good?” she tells him. “If you carried a handkerchief.”
In other words, it would be good if you were raised like Whitaker was raised, in an era that valued boys and taught them how to grow into men who could be there for the women they loved.
There’s no doubt that feminism helped create a world that allows women to be successful. But as The Intern shows, it’s crucial that the sexes thrive together, so that women’s success does not prevent boys from becoming capable, confident, and supportive men. There’s nothing less at stake than women’s happiness.