Think Like a Man Isn’t Just Sexist: It’s Offensive to Pretty Much Everyone
by Nico Lang
Having had the displeasure of actually reading Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady, I thought I knew what I was in for with the movie adaptation, whose title was shortened to Think Like a Man. When Steve Harvey’s shamelessly self-promoting advice book isn’t offering up observations everyone already knows, it’s crazy sexist. According to the book (and the film), women should seek to control a man to get what they want, as if they are the stock spouse on a TV sitcom where Jim Belushi is always up to no good. You must nag your man into respecting you. For instance, Harvey tells us that a man will be a mama’s boy “if you let him be one,” following up that statement by directly blaming women for men still being attached to their mothers: “It’s your fault.”
Through his work, Harvey seems to think that he’s empowering women into respecting themselves, but all the book and the film do is teach women that they need to lie, cheat, manipulate, beg, borrow and steal to get into a relationship. Although Harvey loves and respects women, he doesn’t value their power enough to allow them to be their own women. In fact, one chapter is even directed toward empowered women, a type of woman that Harvey and the film take specific issue with. The book refers to them as “strong, independent and lonely,” and in the film, Taraji P. Henson stands in for this type. Her character, Lauren, is a high-powered COO who (in the grand tradition of female executives in cinema) can’t find a mate. She’s too busy being married to her job. Because of this, her partner (Michael Ealy) informs her that she doesn’t need a man because she is one. The message here is that women can be strong and empowered, only as long as their power or success still caters to male power and ego. As the opening credits tell us: “It’s a man’s world.”
This line encapsulates the gender panic of the movie and the book very well. Because Harvey knows that he is dealing with the most empowered generation of women in history, the telos of the book and movie is about reasserting traditional gender roles. One section of the novel teaches women how to be “girls” again, because it’s apparently a man’s job to teach women how to perform and respect their gender. (You’re welcome, ladies!) Harvey instructs women how to be a girl on a date and around the house, which instructs women that they are not allowed to take out the garbage, fix the sink, paint, mow the lawn, drive or pick the date location but are allowed to “make a meal or two.” Rather than valuing the ways in which modern women are subverting traditional gender dynamics in ways that are making dating more equitable, Harvey instructs women that the way to get what you want is to “put your finger in your mouth and act like you haven’t got a clue what to do or the strength to do it.”
Much has already been said about the overt “old-school sexism” of Harvey’s rhetoric, and I wasn’t necessarily surprised to see that translated to film, to watch talented actresses like Gabrielle Union and Regina King force stale Entourage stereotypes commit to them. I expected to not like the film very much — despite its talented and attractive ensemble — and to pity the cast as they acted out tropes more suitable as chapter headings than people. From the genesis of relationship-advice movies, even back in the days of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, screenwriters had to struggle with making relatable women out of observations, gender generalizations and broad stereotypes of human behavior.
However, what’s interesting about the film is that it doesn’t just stop at stereotyping heterosexual behavior (vis-a-vis the so-called “Battle of the Sexes”). The movie is also relentlessly homophobic. Although none of the main characters in the film are gay, we are introduced (in passing) to two gay males who sashay as if they were performing minstrelsy. In one scene, women are fighting over copies of Steve Harvey’s book (which might as well be billed as a character in the film), a gentleman in a pink polo with a sweater draped around his shoulders steals a copy away. As he (literally) frolics away, he shouts, “For me!” The implication here is not just that gay males would need a self-help book on relationships, but also that he would also need assistance in “thinking like a man.”
Throughout the film, any man with even the slightest inclination toward anything noted as “girly” is either implicitly or explicitly indicated as homosexual, and they are almost always in the sorts of outdated gay best friend (who happens to be an interior designer) roles I hoped we had long given up on. As a queer person, I love men that challenge expectations of male masculinity through empowered effeminacy, but these Stanford Blatch facsimiles are hardly doing anyone any favors. And if you think this is happenstance in the film and Harvey isn’t accountable for these representations of gay men, check out this passage from his book:
“You need a gay guy — someone you can go shopping with, who doesn’t want anything from you but gossip and details about what the old man bought you, which errands you sent the ugly guy to take care of, and exactly how Mandingo had you doing monkey flips for a week. See, the gay guy gives you all the conversation you need.”
As Gawker notes in their article on Think Like a Man, Harvey’s rhetoric reflects a prevailing mindset that queer folks play supporting roles in the lives of heterosexuals and the fact that none of the movie’s gay stereotypes get any real screen time or dimension makes sense. However, that does not excuse the disdain and “disgust” with which these men are portrayed or spoken. Here, Harvey’s gender panic bleeds over into gay panic. For instance, after Romany Malco’s character is successful in picking up Meaghan Good at a bar, he tells her that he’s going to “walk away like a fairy” now — which, as he hows, is supposed to indicate that he will skip or prance away. On top of that, almost any interaction between males — especially if the two are in the bathroom or shirtless — is treated with suspicion and a raised eyebrow, and the males in the film constantly attempt to one-up each others’ masculinity.
This is particularly troubling for a number of reasons. On top of making the film blatantly sexist and homophobic, the film’s pervasive stereotypes don’t do men any favors either. Although much has been said about the way Harvey makes all men into commitment-phobes, babies and leeches, one incredibly offensive aspect of the film has been little discussed. Throughout the film, the other male characters relentlessly tease Kevin Hart for (potentially) being the victim of domestic violence at the hands of his soon-to-be ex-wife, as if it’s shameful for a man to experience abuse. Being a victim simply isn’t “manly.” These claims of domestic abuse are never substantiated in the film (and he goes back to his ex), but invalidating his own experience with shame and silencing will continue to make viewers who have been victims of any sort of violence less likely to speak up.
Although it’s easy to shrug off the movie’s pervasive gender regression as just the product of one man’s intensely problematic ideas — Gawker instructed viewers to make it through the movie by getting drunk — Harvey’s book was a mega best-seller, the top non-fiction book of 2009. It was so popular that he released a follow-up, Straight-Talk, No Chaser. With that cred behind the book, Think Like a Man far outperformed expectations at the box-office, taking in $33 million over the weekend. After Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, this is the biggest opening for a film that specifically targets African-American audience in some time; that success will likely dictate how (and how often) a predominantly white Hollywood makes films for black audiences.
While we should champion greater representation of African-Americans onscreen, we should not champion greater sexism, homophobia and chauvinism and must challenge the perpetuation of this discourse. We should take Harvey’s own advice and not put up with this crap. We should think like people who know they deserve better.