I have frequently written here about what is considered to be an appropriate ending for a story. Five years ago I first wrote about my observation that what counted as a happy ending varied depending on whether the character was male or female.
The male character faces daunting obstacles and overcomes them and the story ends with his victory. The female character faces obstacles and has a victory by deciding “I don’t need this. I am fine jut as I am.” Like Dorothy waking up in Kansas, “there is no place like home.” Whatever journey the female character takes in the world, it is really an inner journey to find self-esteem and emotional support.
The writer Catherine Nichols summed up the state of things by saying “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”
We have learned from our stories to be like the betas Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
“I’m awfully glad I am a beta.”
Today I was thinking about a film that came out my freshman year of college. “Punchline” starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks. It did not receive good reviews, but I remember enjoying it at the time.
As I am talking about endings, what follows will contain spoilers.
When I saw the movie back then I gave the ending very little thought. What stuck with me more was how Taylor Negron said “area rug.” (This joke has not aged well.)
Looking back though I realized that “Punchline” does something fairly unusual. It tries to wrap things up with both the male and the female happy end in a single story. All it needs is a little self-sacrifice on the part of the female character.
Tom Hanks plays Steve, a gifted but struggling comic who works in a mid-level comedy club. He tells an agent that if she is going to bring in someone to discover him, she’d better do it soon because “funny Steve is going under.”
Sally Fields is Lilah a New Jersey housewife who has long harbored a secret dream of being a comedian. It is an ambition her husband does not understand. Her desire to be on stage, and her time away from the family, puts a strain on her marriage. Lilah asks funny Steve to teach her the ropes. He helps her to develop her comic voice and to gain confidence and self-esteem. (So she’s already won!) She helps him to be more stable emotionally.
The dream of being a comic causes strain between both protagonists and their families. In Steve’s case, his choice has disappointed his father, who has been paying for him to attend medical school. In Lilah’s case, it puts strain on her marriage because she is not home as often as she was before. So two people with variations on the same problem.
The rule for how a conflict between relationships and dream/duty is resolved differs according to the gender of the character. The male character, when faced with disapproval from his parents or spouse is supposed to rebel against those constraints, follow his true path, and by succeeding gain the respect of his family. The female character is supposed to chose happy relationships over the goal. And this is how we get to the “double happy ending” of Punch Line.
The story leads up to a big comedy competition between the regulars at the club. The prize is discovery and a chance for a slot on a big time talk show. Even though all the comedians think Steve had the best set, the judges split three to two in favor of Lilah. Lilah, on learning this, decides to walk away and not accept the prize allowing the person who needs comedy more (Steve) to live his dream. Lilah decides that her dream is really to focus on her family and to maintain a hobby working at a mid-level comedy club from time to time. Steve’s happy end is having his genius and hard work finally rewarded. Lilah’s is discovering that she is good, and that she doesn’t need worldly success to confirm it. Her choice is presented as wise and noble.
“Alpha children… work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta…”
There is nothing essentially wrong with either narrative. In life, there are times when it is wise to go against the world in order to fulfill a duty or follow a dream. There are other times when it is wise to surrender those goals and prioritize things like relationships or emotional well-being. The problem is that each gender has limited choices and responses in our stories.