One of my favourite film scenes is in Sleepless in Seattle: Annie (Meg Ryan) and her best friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) are watching an old film (An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr). They know all of the lines by heart. ‘Men never get this movie,’ moans Becky. Cut to Seattle, 3,000 miles away. The wife of widowed Sam’s (Tom Hanks) best friend is explaining the plot of the same film to the two men.
Tears well up as she reaches the melodramatic ending. A bored Tom Hanks mutters: ‘That’s a chick’s movie.’ Until that moment, I never consciously divided films into ‘chicks’ movies’ and ‘guys’ movies’. It’s dangerous territory. I know because my friend Katie divides books into two categories: ‘blue books’ and ‘pink books’. Once you begin looking at literature through this narrow lens, it’s unnerving how easily things slot in. Which brings me to Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir she wrote in the year following the death of her husband. They’d just returned from the hospital where their only daughter was in a coma. He was drinking a whisky while she prepared dinner in their New York apartment. Suddenly, he slumped over. Although the ambulance arrived in minutes, he was already dead.
The ‘magical thinking’ was her belief in the year that followed that he would come back. I’m a Joan Didion fan, and I read the book as soon as it was published. In the months that followed, I also read about their daughter, who died less than a year later, a case of flu that turned into septic shock from which she never really recovered. I guess if I’d thought about it, Miss Didion’s memoir was a pink book. I don’t think I ever met a man who read it or wanted to read it. I didn’t realise that until this week when my friend Valerie and I went to see Vanessa Redgrave at the National Theatre in the play based on the book.
The audience was 90% female. It was hard not to think: ‘Hmmm, chicks’ theatre.’ Scientists would see an evolutionary inevitability about this bipolar division. Men tend to die before their wives. Valerie’s husband died suddenly a few years back. My own husband survived his heart attack, and a triple bypass at Papworth spared me the mourning that Miss Didion describes, the magical thinking of dazed grief. We know that even in nature the females live longer. Hens survive cockerels, peahens outlive peacocks and ewes outlive rams, a scientific discovery I’ve made because I don’t have the extermination programme of economic farmers.
The Darwinian explanation for the survival of the female of the species usually cites the more stressful life of the male. Early death is the price he pays for being the hunter-gatherer. The female’s life is hardly free of stress, but she’s bolstered by a community of children, fellow mothers and friends. Psychologists have taken Darwin a step further, claiming that women live longer and are happier in their old age because they’ve forged social links and learned life skills such as shopping, cooking and cleaning, i.e. friendship + Cuisinart = longer (and happier) lives. It’s also thought that women live longer because they cry more.
We nurture sadness. We can lip-synch the last scene in An Affair to Remember. But despite the audience in the Lyttleton Theatre dressed in a uniform of black trousers, well-cut jackets and interesting necklaces, despite, even, the frail writer and the powerful actress, we did not shed tears. Valerie thought it was the matter-of-fact language that flattened our feelings. But I think it’s just the next stage of the Darwinian progress. It’s not pink or blue: it’s pink-and-bluish. It’s not chicks’ or guys’. It’s humanity evolving. It’s the future.