Ovid and Mel Gibson: Power, Vulnerability, and What Women Want

Geoff Bakewell
Rhodes College
Memphis, Tennessee, USA



Knowledge of Ovid is invaluable for analyzing Nancy Meyers’s film What Women Want (2000).  Advertising executive Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) is a sexist, chauvinistic ladies’ man who acquires the ability to hear what women are thinking. He is in effect a second Tiresias, and this article examines him in light of the gender-bending seer from the Metamorphoses. Meyers links Nick’s miraculous transformation to his attempt to listen to women while simultaneously cross-dressing. He subsequently becomes an intermediary between the genders, especially on sexual matters. The article further examines the Nick/Tiresias parallel in light of Ovid’s treatment of other Theban myths in Book 3.  Like Pentheus, Actaeon, and Narcissus, Nick is a frequent practitioner of the voyeuristic “gaze.” And like them, he is both deeply narcissistic and sorely lacking when it comes to self-knowledge.

What Women Want should, however, not be mistaken for a feminist film. For one thing, it does not situate male and female desire with respect to broader issues of power. In Metamorphoses, the figures of Semele and Caenis offer powerful testimony to the susceptibility of women to violence. Ovid emphasizes this in a way that Meyers does not, depicting lustful gods and men with a spry, subversive irony that pops up time and again in his otherwise stately hexameters. And as someone exiled from Rome to a remote town on the Black Sea, he understood better than most what it meant to be exposed and vulnerable to powerful authority. By contrast, Meyers’ film offers little in the way of genuine gender analysis; her forte seems to be decking out essentialized gender stereotypes with consumerist fluff. If we truly wish to determine What Women Want, Ovid’s critique of Tiresias proves a surer guide than Meyers’ embrace of Nick Marshall.


At first glance, my title likely seems far-fetched: what possible connection could there be between the august seer, known to us from ancient Greece and Rome, a Hollywood bad boy, and an unremarkable romantic comedy that routinely airs late at night on TBS? Yet Nancy Meyers’ film (2000) is evidence of the lasting impact of our cultural predecessors: we are so profoundly steeped in their legacy that we often fail to notice its distinctive flavor. Nowhere is this truer than in the intellectual realm. When we seek to make sense of the world around us, we cannot but do so with the exempla, categories, and concepts bequeathed to us by the literature and mythology of the ancient world.

The serious study of antiquity is distinct from antiquarianism. Put differently, it offers more than a scorecard for identifying, for example, continuities in plots, characters, and motifs in modern film. Rather, concern with the past also prompts us to ask deep and abiding questions that do not admit of easy answers. In the current instance, Ovid’s Metamorphoses helps us to identify the character played by male lead Mel Gibson as a gender-bending Tiresias figure, and this analysis, in turn, leads us to reconsider naughty/knotty issues of gender and difference that persist to the present day.

Publius Ovidius Naso completed his epic masterpiece a little over two thousand years ago. As its name implies, Metamorphoses is a poem about changes of every conceivable sort. In its lines, gods become humans and beasts; people become trees, flowers, and animals; and the dead Julius Caesar becomes a god. One of the poem’s best-known changes is that which befalls Tiresias, a Greek man from the town of Thebes. Ovid describes his transformation thus:

They say that Jove, by chance, relaxed with nectar,

Had set aside his heavy cares and stirred up old jokes

With [his wife] Juno, who had time to spare, and said

“You women’s pleasure is greater than what we

Guys get.” She denied it, and so they decided to ask

Learned Tiresias what he thought: he had played for both teams.

For after he had smacked with his staff the bodies

Of two great snakes mating in the green forest,

Something amazing happened: he became a woman

And spent seven falls thus. In the eighth year,

He again saw the same snakes, and said

“If striking you is so powerful

That it switches things around,

Let’s try it again.” He did, and straightaway

His prior shape and original gender came back.

When asked to settle the divine dispute,

He agreed with Jove. Saturn’s daughter Juno,

Said to be pissed off, took it all too seriously,

And ruined the judge’s eyes with eternal night.

But Pater Noster (since no one god

Can undo the deeds of another) gave him a consolation prize,

To know the future, and lightened his punishment with honor.[1] (3.318-338)

This tale about Tiresias provides a valuable template for assessing Meyers’ main character, advertising executive Nick Marshall. Nick, played by Mel Gibson, is an unrepentantly sexist, chauvinistic, ladies’ man, whose ad campaigns focus relentlessly on the three Bs: “butts, boobs, and beer.”[2] The story begins when he is passed over for promotion to the position of Creative Director at work; his boss is attempting to bolster the firm’s sagging fortunes by hiring a woman instead. Darcy McGuire, played by Helen Hunt, seeks to reorient the firm towards an ostensibly neglected market segment: women. From the get-go, Nick and his colleagues are set a very practical task: discovering what female consumers want and selling it to them.

Upon taking charge at the office, Darcy sets a more collaborative tone. As she meets with her subordinates around a conference table, she urges them to think creatively, noting that when Sears revamped its advertising to target women, its revenues soared. Nick and a male colleague greet this invitation to “Come see the softer side” with barely concealed skepticism, openly miming masturbation. Darcy then hands out boxes filled with women’s lingerie, cosmetics, and consumer goods, and sets a follow-up meeting. Each employee is to return the next day with a novel pitch for at least one of the products.

Nick is disgusted. At home that evening he fortifies his masculinity by smoking, drinking, watching basketball on TV, and dancing with a coatrack. At last, he resigns himself to a first: trying to get into women’s heads rather than their pants. In an effort at role-playing, he applies nail polish, styling gel, and mascara; he engages in a “hair-raising” attempt at depilation; he dons control-top panty hose; and he even fidgets with a Wonder Bra. Partway through the process, though, he slips on bath beads he has spilled, falls into a bathtub full of water, and has a plugged-in hair dryer land atop him. Miraculously, Nick is not electrocuted; when he comes to the next day, he finds he has acquired the ability to hear what women are thinking.

Several aspects of Nick’s transformation deserve comment. First of all, his change is linked, both temporally and causally, to an attempt to listen to women. Just prior to the accident, he had been trying to imagine himself as a woman and asking himself, “What do women want?” Moreover, he has recently been forced to care temporarily for his estranged teenage daughter, Alex, played by Ashley Johnson. Stung by Alex’s criticism that he never listens to what she says, Nick had been trying to remember her boyfriend’s name, and it is his subsequent epiphany (“Cameron”) that leads directly to his absent-mindedness, the spilled bath beads, the effeminate skater’s waltz, and the electrifying moment of change.

The fact that cross-dressing precedes Nick’s transformation is noteworthy. In addition to being amusing, it is a clear sign of his trying on another’s identity, and it is a potentially perilous game.[3] At one level this is obvious from his (interrupted) assertion that “90% of all household accidents occur in the bathroom,” and from the fact that water and electricity do not mix. But our foreboding goes deeper. In Ovid, the story of Tiresias is embedded within a broader nexus of Theban myths, one of whose main characters, the prince Pentheus, is similar to Nick in his simultaneous antipathy and attraction to women. In the fullest surviving version of the Pentheus story, Euripides’ tragedy Bacchae, the prince conducts an eerily similar toilette, eschewing his armor to primp and preen in women’s clothes (lines 810-845) before he is dismembered by his female relatives.

Meyers highlights the significance of Nick’s change in other ways too. One of these is the music playing in the background. At the start of the evening, Nick danced to the strains of Sinatra, the ultimate man’s man. But to explore his feminine side, he replaces Ol’ Blue Eyes with a CD rifled from his daughter’s backpack, cranking Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” And he sings along with the lyrics to drive home the point: “I’m a little bit of everything all rolled into one. I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother.” Nick’s assumption of this variegated female identity is marked by appropriate elements of ritual: immersion, symbolic death, rebirth, and amendment of life.

Both Tiresias and Nick respond to their change with unhappiness; each longs to revert to his former gender. After seven long years, the Theban has another serpentine encounter and decides to give it a whack. In the film, Nick cannot wait anywhere near that long; he is so distraught that he attempts to reverse the process the very next evening. He repeats the fateful toilette, dons his lingerie anew, grabs his hair dryer, and stands out on his balcony in the middle of a thunderstorm, praying that lightning will strike twice. And so it does – but to no avail. When Nick comes to the next morning, he can still hear what women are thinking.

Their changes let the two men serve as intermediaries in worlds split sharply along gender lines. As we have seen, Ovid enlists Tiresias as referee to settle a dispute between god and goddess, while in the film, Nick operates as a go-between between men and women on many levels. Long divorced, he is forced to care for Alex while her mother remarries and honeymoons. Functioning not just as her father, but as her surrogate mother as well, he abandons his earlier aloofness. He takes her dress-shopping for the prom, dispensing unwanted advice about boys with just one thing on their minds. (Needless to say, his insights here derive from hands-on experience.) At the office, Nick likewise straddles the gender gap. One scene shows him explaining to a male colleague that women do not suffer from penis envy; in another, he is Ann Landers offering relationship advice to his female underlings, and all the while he and his new boss, Darcy, are growing closer in ways both professional and also personal. Nick’s status as a male-female go-between reaches its apex when Darcy chooses him to pitch a new advertising campaign to Nike. The target audience is women around the country; the executives Nick must convince are all women; and the campaign seeks to appeal to women’s innermost desires.[4] Relying on a combination of ideas he has telepathically purloined from Darcy and on his own intuitions, gender-bending Nick does Nike and lands the account.

Among the fault-lines Tiresias and Nick traverse, the most hazardous involve sex, and the two figures are alike in their versatile exploration of this treacherous terrain. In Ovid’s epic, Tiresias has spent years as a woman and is thus equipped to rule on the question of who enjoys sex more. Jupiter’s initial assertion (“You women’s pleasure is greater than what we/ Guys get”) is a model of double-entendre setting the tone for the entire episode. His specific language here is worth quoting in Latin: “maior vestra profecto est/ quam, quae contingit maribus . . . voluptas.” The words “maior,” meaning greater or bigger, and “voluptas,” meaning pleasure or desire, are widely separated by the relative clause beginning with “quae.” To my ear this is a characteristically Ovidian bit of humor. Jupiter’s remark seems headed towards some sort of crude joke about size (“You women’s is bigger!”), until the punchline veers off and supplies the “pleasure” that has until now been withheld, and we all remember Tiresias’ partisan response.

For its part, the film contains a scene apparently upholding the Theban’s verdict. Following his transformation, Nick beds Lola, played by Marisa Tomei, a barista from the local coffee shop, whom he has long lusted after. His ability to hear her thoughts throughout the proceedings gives him firsthand knowledge of how a woman experiences sex. As Lola puts it at one point, “you were more inside me than anybody. . . No, I mean like more inside my head. You know exactly what I like and how I like it.” Nick’s intimacy with female voluptas drives Lola wild, leading her to exclaim silently, “Ladies and gentlemen, Nick Marshall is a sex god!” It was not quite as good for Nick, however. Afflicted by performance anxiety and temporary impotence, in the aftermath, he is less ecstatic than relieved.

At this point, we must consider an apparent difference between Tiresias and Nick. The former’s change into a woman derives from “the school of hard knocks:” he saw two snakes entwined on a forest path and struck them apart. Nick’s change, on the other hand, could be said to result from faulty wiring: if only his bathroom had had a GFI, a ground-fault interrupter. Yet this surface discrepancy conceals a more fundamental similarity, namely the two men’s excessive self-love. In Metamorphoses, the Tiresias episode comes in Book 3, which begins with the founding of the city of Thebes. The wanderer Cadmus arrives at the spot foretold by the god Apollo and kills the huge serpent inhabiting it. He then sows the monster’s teeth in the ground to produce the first generation of Thebans, the Spartoi. Tiresias’ assault on the serpents thus repeats Cadmus’ initial invasion and violence; the fact that they are mating (“coeuntia . . . corpora,” lines 3.324-5) suggests an attack on sexual reproduction as well. Thebes and its citizens are inclined to autochthony and endogamy,[5] not exogamy. Put differently, they look inward rather than outward and are prone to a solipsism that stifles appropriate relations with Others.

Tiresias’ transformation must also be considered in light of the other stories surrounding it in Book 3. Just prior to his change, we read the tale of Actaeon, a grandson of Cadmus who is fond of hunting with his dogs in the mountains. One day Actaeon ventures into a secluded glen and comes upon the goddess Diana and her attendants bathing in a pool:

He entered the caverns dripping with springs,

And the nymphs, just as they were, naked, struck their breasts

When they saw him, and filled the entire grove

With their sudden shrieks, and poured around

[Their mistress] Diana, sought to shield her

With their own bodies; nevertheless the goddess

Was head and shoulders taller than they.

Like the color of clouds struck by the rays

Of the setting sun, or like the color of purple Dawn,

Diana blushed, seen without her clothing.

Although hemmed in by the throng of her companions,

She nevertheless turned to the side, and bent

Her face back, and as if trying to seize the arrows

Which she ordinarily had ready, she grabbed some water

And drenched Actaeon’s face, sprinkling his hair with a vengeful spray.

And she added these words pronouncing death to come:

“Now you can say that you have seen me with my shift off:

Go ahead, if you are able to speak. (3.177-193)

Oh deer: Actaeon’s outing becomes a stag party, and his life goes to the dogs. While his hounds tear him limb from limb, he vainly tries to speak their names. For their part, his friends grumble that he is missing all the fun. As Ovid wryly notes, “He would have liked to miss it, but he was all too present. And he would have preferred/ To see the fierce work of his hounds, not feel it” (3.247-8).

Diana’s deadly anger comes from being on the receiving end of what feminist scholars call “the gaze.” This phenomenon is generally defined as an inherently lustful, intrusive, manipulative, and possessive act of looking that that positions the looker as a male subject and the looked at as a female object.[6] What is interesting for our purposes is the way “the gaze” figures in another, earlier version of the Tiresias myth. According to the third century BCE Alexandrian poet Callimachus, the Theban was blinded not for taking sides in a domestic dispute but for gazing upon a different goddess in her bath: Athena.[7] Given the thematic importance of gazing and visual imagery to the Metamorphoses as a whole[8] and the fact that Ovid tends to conflate differing variants of ancient myths, Leonard Barkan rightly concludes that Tiresias was punished not just for striking the snakes but for seeing them in the first place. According to him, “the serpents were not only sacred but also sexual; and [his] punishment for witnessing their act [of coitus] and violating their sanctified space takes both sexual and sacred form.”[9] It is for this reason that Tiresias loses both his original gender and also his eyes: the intrusive male gazer has become a female spectacle for others.[10]

But Tiresias’ loss brings him a knowledge denied most mortals and enables him to set up shop as a prophet. According to Ovid, one of his first customers is a Naiad concerned with the fate of her young son. Like all parents, she wants to know if he will live to a happy old age. The seer answers cryptically: “Yes, if he never knows himself” (3.348). But alas, the handsome youth is pursued by a lovelorn nymph, and thirsting, stumbles upon yet another pool in yet another sylvan setting:

While he tries to slake his thirst, another thirst grows within him,

And while he drinks, caught by the image of the shape he sees,

He loves an incorporeal hope, and thinks the water is a body.

Motionless, he gapes at himself and clings to his own face

Like a form hewn from Parian marble.. . . .

Witless, he desires himself; the admirer is himself admired,

The seeker is sought, and the fire of passion burns both ways. (3.415-419, 425-6)

The boy yearns to embrace himself, and in his yearning melts away, leaving naught but a lovely yellow-and-white flower, the narcissus. Once again, the act of gazing is central to Ovid’s story of change. This time, however, the gaze does not bring forbidden knowledge about others; instead, it reveals a grievous lack of self-knowledge. By bracketing Tiresias’ change with the stories of Actaeon and Narcissus, the poet links the seer’s transformation to more than sticks and snakes. Maturity involves learning to behold both others and oneself, but how to look is crucial: navigating the perilous boundary between Self and Other requires more than the masculine “gaze.”

In What Women Want, Meyers seeks to tackle the same sort of ontological and ethical issues as Ovid and proceeds by many of the same devices. Think back for a moment to the scene of Nick’s Marshall’s transformation (image 1): it is deftly structured to emphasize his status as a gazer. Indeed, he resembles Actaeon in some ways; for instance, his lustral basin is ringed by a number of framed pictures of women in the midst of bathing and dressing. Yet more noticeable are the multiple mirrors: Nick is a Narcissus in love with his own reflection. As he twirls in his Sheer Energy nylons, he slaps his abdomen and says to himself, “You just lost five pounds!”

Image 1: What Women Want. Director Nancy Meyers. Paramount Pictures (2000).

Image 1: What Women Want. Director Nancy Meyers. Paramount Pictures (2000).

The particulars of the scene clearly support an Ovidian reading. On the one hand, Nick Marshall lusts after women and is familiar with their naked forms; his intrusive male gaze renders them objects to be seen rather than subjects capable of sight. And yet he knows dangerously little about himself and what is good for him (Image 1).

Following Nick’s change, the remainder of the film concentrates on his apparent re-education. Unlike Tiresias, he is not physically changed into a woman; he nevertheless loses his socially constructed masculine identity and must struggle to piece together a new one. No longer a crucial player in the firm’s old-boy network, he now reports to a woman widely known as “a man-eating bitch.” What’s more, his newfound awareness teaches him what it means to be the object of others’ gaze. Women all around him mock in silent but deadly fashion the very things he has always prided himself on: his looks, his jokes, his savoir faire, even his intelligence. The men who have been his friends until now, question his sanity.

The nadir comes when the homophobic Nick is compelled by circumstances to pretend that he is a gay man. As things heat up with Darcy, he realizes that he has been using Lola for sex because he can and that this is not good for either of them. He thus ends the relationship in a way that preserves the barista’s self-respect: rather than confess that he has fallen for another woman, he allows her to conclude that he prefers men. And as the film progresses, so too does Nick’s relationship with Darcy. In the early stages, the camera follows his gaze to linger on her legs and breasts as she bends over. Shortly after his transformation, he treats her as an object to be plundered intellectually. But as his stock begins to rise again at work, he is increasingly unhappy with his own behavior and conflicted about his liking for Darcy. He pointedly tries to stop hearing her thoughts and eventually writes her a letter confessing his dishonesty; even as he writes, she is resigning from the firm to make way for Nick and his seeming genius. Yet the ruthless corporate climber in him does not exploit the opening; instead he confesses to her in person what he has done. Darcy then reclaims her position as Creative Director at the firm and fires Nick. Yet she does keep him on as a different sort of partner: a junior, domestic one.

Arguably the greatest evidence of Nick’s changing views lies in the development of his relationship with Erin, a lowly file clerk at the office. At first Nick did not even know who she was. Yet as the film goes on, he notices that she is contemplating suicide, and when she does not show up at work one day, he is greatly concerned. Forgetting his own troubles, he rushes out in a rainstorm to look for her. He enters Chicago’s Chinatown, and is mysteriously pointed to her apartment by an old Asian woman, who functions as a female wisdom figure. Lightning arcs through the sky, striking an electrical transformer and raining sparks down on Nick. He shakes them off, finds Erin, praises her talent, and offers her a promotion. Only then does he realize what has transpired: he can no longer hear what women are thinking. In short, an unselfish act of empathy leads to the recovery of his former identity: his self-love has been diminished and his self-knowledge has grown.

At the level of plot and characterization, there is thus a patent similarity between Tiresias and Nick Marshall. The more important question, however, is what we should make of this resemblance. At first sight, we might be tempted to conclude that of the two accounts, Ovid’s is the more traditional and sexist, Meyers’ the more enlightened and feminist. After all, he is a dead white European male, and she, a contemporary American woman. Moreover, Tiresias emerges from his female experiences with his chauvinism intact; when pressed into service as referee, he sides with Jupiter and the rest of the guys. By contrast, Nick Marshall is at film’s end a changed man. He has learned to treat women with respect, forged a bond with his daughter Alex, and saved Erin’s life. He has even accepted a subordinate role in his relationship with Darcy, sacrificing his career for love and an uncertain future while she brings home the big bucks: in short, Meyers assigns him the traditional female stereotype.

So what is not to like about the movie and its apparently feminist message, especially for a bunch of progressive folks like ourselves? Many, many things. In the interest of space, I limit myself to a brief consideration of three important areas in which Ovid is superior to Meyers. They are the definition of voluptas; the authorial tone of voice; and the relationship of gender to broader questions of power. Taken together, these considerations undermine the idea that the film offers an enlightened take on gender.

Let us begin by returning to the issue of voluptas, loosely understood as pleasure or desire. As you will recall, Tiresias’ task was to judge whose voluptas was greater (“maior”), men’s or women’s. Both Juno and Jupiter take it as a given that voluptas is identical for each gender and that it is subject to quantification; their dispute is about magnitude rather than definition. By contrast, the film’s title seems to imply that what women want is qualitatively distinct from what men want. The contrast is apparent in the respective desires of Darcy and pre-change Nick. He chases sex and success with equal abandon; victory brings confirmation of his masculinity. For her, though, life is more complicated, requiring continual compromises and complicated exchanges. Her meteoric rise in the advertising world has cost her her first marriage and shaken her identity as a woman. Despite her promotion, she is inwardly fragile, with her identity more contingent upon being understood and accepted by others.

Meyers’ account of female voluptas is writ large in the presentation Nick makes to the female executives from Nike. Relying on ideas he has stolen from Darcy, he proposes a new marketing campaign for women’s sneakers and pitches the product with a brief video. The images are of a woman jogging alone on a winding road at dawn or dusk; Nick offers voice-over consisting of an empathetic response to the representative woman’s unvoiced musings about running, love, and life in general:

You don’t stand in front of the mirror before a run and wonder what the road will think of your outfit.

You don’t have to listen to its jokes and pretend they’re funny in order to run on it.

It would not be easier to run if you dressed sexier.

The road doesn’t notice if you’re not wearing lipstick, does not care how old you are.

You do not feel uncomfortable because you make more money than the road.

And you can call on the road whenever you feel like it, whether it’s been a day or even a couple of hours since your last date.

The only thing the road cares about is that you pay it a visit once in a while.

Nike: no games, just sports.

Darcy and the Nike executives are blown away by this apparently sensitive presentation, and Nick lands the account for the firm. Now, this is not the place for a full-length critique of Meyers’ view on female desires. But many critics (and most of my students) have criticized the banality of her vision. Nick’s very attempts to dismiss transient externalities, such as youth, appearance, and money, betray the film’s obsession with them. More paradoxical still is the Nike spot’s promise of independence. Although the purported focus is on the woman’s relationship with the winding road, the ad really hugs the axes upon which are plotted the tired curves of essentialized genders. According to Nick’s view of the world, even when clothing, cosmetics, and an artificial, enforced waiting period between date and follow-up phone call no longer matter, a woman apparently thinks of little else: her relationship with the pavement she pounds is built atop the familiar macadam of heterosexual romance. Put differently, an ostensible celebration of female empowerment ends with the woman’s confinement within the traditional perimeter. Nor should one forget the consumerist means by which our running woman is urged to achieve even this limited independence: by buying a pair of sneakers from a manufacturer with a history of using sweatshops staffed in substantial part by female and underaged workers.[11]

The unfortunate consequences of Meyers’ hackneyed views are evident in her portrait of Darcy McGuire. Nick’s boss is clearly intended as an example of the woman whose brains, principles, and perseverance enable her to have it all, but despite the promises of the Nike spot, even Darcy is unable to neglect her appearance. Nowhere do we see her in ill-fitting jeans or sweats, having a bad hair day, or God forbid, with wrinkles or cellulite. In scene after scene, Meyers exhibits her beautifully made-up and clad in expensive, revealing outfits. Nor is Darcy an impassioned voice for sisterly solidarity. On the contrary, she is an executive in an industry predicated upon selling people things they do not need and would not buy without persuasion. As you may remember, Darcy’s particular market niche is advertizing to women. Over and over she employs the exploitative, deceptive lingo of sales: market share, revenue, win-win. Meyers’ poster child for female empowerment winds up looking not a little like the original bad boy who saw others as means to his own ends.

A second factor to consider in our assessment of the film is its tone of voice. Once again Ovid provides a helpful frame of reference. As mentioned earlier, Tiresias seems to learn little from his experiences as a woman. At line 3.331, the poet says the seer regained his earlier form (“prior forma”) and his “genetiva imago” after striking the snakes again. The latter phrase involves a bit of wordplay. On the one hand, the adjective “genetiva” clearly refers to Tiresias’ appearance when he was born. But it simultaneously hints at the uses to which his adult genitalia can be put. In other words, Tiresias has come through his ordeal with his equipment intact, and any lingering doubt as to his gender is dispelled by his response to the question at hand. Rather than say, for example, that both men and women experience similar desire, he sides with Jupiter and makes sex a community service performed by men.

As usual, however, we must remember not to confuse authors with their characters: the context makes it abundantly clear that Ovid does not endorse the view of Tiresias and Jupiter. On the contrary, the poet is up to his usual trick of providing implicit editorial comment via juxtaposition. Just prior to the divine disagreement, Jupiter had been having an affair with a mortal woman named Semele. Tricked by Juno, who visits her in disguise, Semele makes Jupiter swear to grant her a wish:

Rejoicing in her misfortune, too powerful, about to die

Because of her lover’s obedience, Semele said

“Give yourself to me thus, the way Juno gets you

When you play Venus’ game.” The god wanted to close her mouth

In mid-speech, but her voice had already hastened upon the breeze.

He groaned: she could not take back her wish,

Nor he, his oath. And so he most gloomily

Climbed to high heaven and with a nod

Gathered the trailing clouds, to which he added

Thunderheads and lightning mixed with squalls

And rattling booms and the inescapable bolt.

Nevertheless, he tries to limit his strength any way he can,

And does not choose the arms with which he laid low

Hundred-handed Typhoeus: their fire is too fierce.

There are other, lesser weapons,

To which the Cyclopes’ right hand had added

Less cruelty and flame, less rage.

The gods call these “lighter-ning”[12] bolts. Jove seizes them

And enters the house of Agenor’s granddaughter. Her mortal body

Could not withstand the heavenly assault, and blazed up at his quid-pro-quo. (3.292-309)

The entire passage is shot through with irony. Sorrowful though he be, Jupiter has promised, and divine words, like divine deeds, may never be undone. Though he opts for “lighter-ning” bolts, it makes no difference: her mortal body cannot handle even these, and blazes up at the courtship “gifts” of her partner. As Ovid might have put it in English, Semele goes out with a bang, and our very next glimpse is of Jupiter “diffusum nectare” (3.318), drunk on nectar: we might be forgiven for imagining him sipping a post-coital drink on the patio while teasing his wife about her jealousy. When Jupiter advances his claim that female voluptas is maior, we need only look to Semele’s remains smouldering on the textual horizon to know the truth. It is difficult to imagine a more convincing repudiation of Jupiter, Tiresias, and their androcentric verdict.

If Ovid uses irony to hold his protagonists at arm’s length, Meyers embraces hers wholeheartedly, banalities and all. And while some may find her approach winsome, I think it tedious and cloying. But it is perhaps unfair to belabor a stylistic point. After all, Ovid is a literary genius of the first order: who among us could bear such comparison? A further defense of Meyers might be that she and Ovid are working in decidedly different genres and idioms. Ovid’s irony is so breathtakingly original that it has caused one scholar to style his entire epic an “anti-Aeneid.”[13] By contrast, Meyers’ film is the modern equivalent of run-of-the-mill New Comedy. Yet even when compared with the popular stereotypes present in, for instance, Menander and Terence, What Women Want seems lacking in wit and charm. The relationship it finally celebrates, that between the newly enlightened Nick and his reinstated boss Darcy, is equal parts farce and fantasy: as such it does not break the mold, but rather reinscribes for the rest of us ordinary types the regular rules about gender and romance. As in the Nike spot, the promise of something new yields to more of the same-old same-old.

The greatest reason the film falls short is its failure to set gender considerations within the broader matrix of questions about power. For all of his antiquity, Ovid is acutely sensitive to the link between the two sets of issues. In Book 12 of Metamorphoses, for instance, he provides another crucial story of gender change: Caenis, a woman, becomes Caeneus, a man:

. . . Caenis did not enter

any wedding bed, but walking desolate shores

felt the force of Ocean’s ruler (so the rumor went).

After Neptune had seized the favors of his new sweetheart,

He said “Name your price without fear—

Choose what your heart desires.’ (This too the rumor said.)

Caenis said ‘This wound prompts my fervent prayer:

may I never be able to suffer so again. Make me

no more a woman, and you will have given me all.”

The last words were spoken in a deeper voice

That sounded like a man’s—and so it was.

For the god of the deep had granted the prayer

And added a bonus: that (s)he could not be injured

By any wounds, nor felled by iron.

Rejoicing in the gift, he departs and spends his days

In manly pursuits, wandering the fields of Peneus. (12.195-209)

Like Semele, Caenis is given the opportunity to ask for anything she wishes, and the god must oblige. But what she chooses is not amped-up congress with the divine; instead, she asks that she cease to be a woman at all (da femina ne sim, 12.202). As she knows too well, female sexuality and female identity are predicated upon a tremendous vulnerability: to be a woman is to run a heightened risk of being treated as an object (tale pati 12.202) rather than a subject. Transformed into the man Caeneus, she becomes a mighty warrior who is finally smothered while attempting to keep centaurs from ravishing other women (12.507-521). By contrast, Meyers makes no discernible attempt to examine gender in light of power relations more broadly. In particular, she fails to ask two important questions. First, are even the most powerful of women more vulnerable than men in comparable positions? And second, to what extent can women exercise power without being gendered in some sense “male?”

When it comes to authority in general, the contrast between Ovid and Meyers could not be more pronounced. In Metamorphoses, one senses everywhere an intelligent narrator whose stance towards power is above all ironic and sarcastic. The epic is filled with the sufferings of mortals in response to the lusts and angers of the gods. Despite the fulsome praise of Caesar at the end of the epic (15.745-761), Ovid’s relationship to the temporal power of the Roman state was tenuous at best. Even before being exiled to Tomis for carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”) his political irreverence won him no friends in high places.[14] Recall, if you will, the way the Ars Amatoria makes Roman triumphal processions excellent venues for picking up chicks (1.213-228), or the sarcastic remarks in Metamorphoses (1.168-176) about those lofty eminences who inhabit the Palatine. By contrast, Nancy Meyers has no trouble with the exercise of power per se. Like Darcy, she embraces a corporate, capitalist ethos, pretending to overturn gender stereotypes while cynically reinforcing them. The only real difference between character and filmmaker is that one wants to sell us sneakers, the other movie tickets.[15] Meyers would undoubtedly have made a far more interesting film if she, like Ovid, had grappled more seriously with the profound moral and ethical dimensions of power relationships in general, and of gender relationships in particular. But that would have meant bucking Hollywood’s generic formulae that reproduce the status quo stripped of its rougher edges.

One final note: if What Women Want is ultimately a pedestrian work, why should we screen and discuss it? For me, the answer is threefold. First of all, the film’s very ordinariness offers support for the claim that the classics continue to surround and influence us today, and not just in a high-brow way. Culturally speaking, the Greeks and Romans are like oxygen: they are a vital yet invisible part of the air we breathe. Even if Meyers has never heard of Ovid, Nick Marshall walks in Tiresias’ footsteps. (And while the Theban is blind, Nick is, well, lame.) Second, the film can serve as an exemplum negativum, a negative example. The Roman poet Horace says his father brought him up right, by showing him not only the men he should emulate, but also those he should not (Satire 1.4.105-6). The film may thus prompt us to embrace its central question even as we reject its answers. What do women want? And is this the same as what men want? The happiness of our own lives, in the fullest Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia (human flourishing), depends in considerable measure on the answers we make here. Finally, critical attention to the film can remind us to keep our eyes on the prize. Nick and Darcy’s world is bounded by ephemeral, largely selfish concerns: climbing the corporate ladder, buying a pretty house, finding the personal partner of one’s dreams. Judging from the film, Meyers’ universe is not significantly larger. It is otherwise with Ovid, who concludes the entire Metamorphoses with this striking claim:

Now I have completed my work, which neither Jove’s anger

Nor fire nor sword nor ravenous time will be able to destroy.

That day will come which has no claim to anything

But my body, and put an end to whatever days remain to me.

Nevertheless I will be carried aloft beyond the distant stars,

Eternal, by what is better in me, and my name will endure.

Wherever Roman might holds sway in lands subdued,

My words will be on people’s lips: throughout the ages

I shall be read, and through all the centuries,

If prophets know aught of truth, my fame and I shall live. (15.871-879)

Ovid closes by urging us to consider his opus, his life’s work. Although wildly prolific, he focuses on its quality rather than quantity: it is the better part of him that will survive to carry him aloft. Pace the squabbling Jupiter and Juno, the right question to ask is not what is maior, but what is melior. What gifts do we possess? What do we hope to accomplish? What part of us has the potential to outlast divine anger, fire and sword, ravenous time? For as Ovid says, “that day will come.” And when it does, our devout wish should be to be able to stand with him, saying “my work is done.” If we adopt his subversive stance towards power, and his sympathy for the vulnerable, with luck we, too, may have accomplishments whose dimensions transcend our gender. In the meantime, let us bend our efforts in that direction, towards what women and men both want.



[1] All translations are my own, and based on the Latin text of Anderson. I thank Kirsten Day, Max Gray, Ben Haller, and Mills McArthur for their helpful comments on various drafts of the piece.

[2] Gibson is perfectly type-cast for the role: see e.g. Grigorieva, Oksana.

[3] In her discussion of cross-dressing Sumerian gala priests, Bachvarova (36) notes the existence of “a multifarious eastern Mediterranean tradition expressing a deep structure of associations among sexuality, death, transgressing boundaries, lamentation, and propitiation that organized how humans understood their world.”

[4] Darcy emphasizes Nick’s feminine side when insisting that he must make the ad pitch; as she aptly puts it, “it’s your baby.”

[5] Among Cadmus’ descendants, Oedipus and Antigone are most closely linked to endogamy.

[6] The terminology and concept are often credited to Mulvey.

[7] Fifth Hymn, lines 75-82 (in the text of Hopkinson.)

[8] See e.g. Salzmann-Mitchell.

[9] Barkan 41.

[10] Like Actaeon and Pentheus, Tiresias is punished for his trangressive gaze with the loss of his own bodily integrity.

[11] As she made What Women Want, Meyers was almost certainly aware of Nike’s reputation: the publication of, for example, Bigelow’s piece demonstrates that criticism of the company on this score was widespread well before the film came out.

[12] The phrase is my attempt to acknowledge Ovid’s brilliant pun at line 307: secunda tela are weapons that are not just inferior, but “favorable” or “propitious” as well.

[13] According to Hardie (224), Metamorphoses’ overall “neglect of the city makes a striking, and deliberate, contrast with the Aeneid, a ktistic epic whose meaning is governed by constant reference forward to the ‘altae moenia Romae.’”

[14] Ingleheart (65) notes that “despite never directly revealing what the mistake was, Ovid does reveal certain things about the nature of the error, the most tantalizing of which is that it was something he saw.”

[15] According to the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0583600/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 ), Meyers has now “surpassed Penny Marshall as the highest grossing female director.” (Accessed June 10, 2013.)


Works Cited

Anderson, William. Ovid’s Metamorphoses Books 1-5. Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. Print.

Bachvarova, Mary. “Sumerian Gala Priests and Eastern Mediterranean Returning Gods:  Tragic Lamentation in Cross-Cultural Perspective.”  Lament:  Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Ed. Ann Suter. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2008. 18-52. Print.

Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh:  Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. Print.

Bigelow, Bill. “The Human Lives Behind the Labels:  the Global Sweatshop, Nike, and the Race to the Bottom.”  The Phi Delta Kappan 79.2 (1997):  112-119. Print.

Hardie, Philip. “Ovid’s Theban History: The First ‘Anti-Aeneid’?”  Classical Quarterly 40 (1999): 224-235. Print.

Hopkinson, Neil. A Hellenistic Anthology. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.

Ingleheart, Jennifer. “What the Poet Saw: Ovid, the Error, and the Theme of Sight in Tristia 2. Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici 56 (2006):  63-86. Print.

Meyers, Nancy, dir. What Women Want. Perf. Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, and Marisa Tomei. Paramount Pictures, 2000. Film.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Print.

Salzmann-Mitchell, Patricia. A Web of Fantasies:  Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Columbus:  Ohio State UP, 2005. Print.


Author Bio:

Geoff Bakewell is Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Rhodes College, where he also directs a “great books” program, the Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion.  He has published widely on Greek tragedy, Athenian democracy, and classical myth in contemporary film and literature.  His latest work is Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration (Wisconsin 2013).


Reference Citation:

Bakewell, Geoff. “Ovid and Mel Gibson: Power, Vulnerability, and What Women Want. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 1.1 (2014). Web.


Bakewell, G. (2014). Ovid and Mel Gibson: Power, vulnerability, and What Women Want. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 1(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/issue-1/ovid-and-mel-gibson-power-vulnerability-and-what-women-want/