The scene: the "Bookworm" episode of The Cosby Show, circa 1988. It's the first time men have been invited to Clair's very deep "book discussion group." Cliff, whose wife (and the audience) doesn't believe he has read the book, ends up being the only guy with the courage to show up.
"I'd like to know how a man feels about the book," asks a book-club member.
Soon an overconfident Cliff, who has the living room full of women turning pages at his every observation, trips over his own literary bravado. "I felt that what the author seemed to be saying was that a woman can be equal to a man but at the same time can fulfill a subconscious need to be rescued." And the crowd of women — two of whom are played by Angela Bassett and S. Epatha Merkerson — goes silent. Clair tries to rescue her husband with a subtle pinch to the arm. But he's lost.
"Ah, did I hear you say that a woman has a subconscious need to be rescued?" accuses a flame-haired book clubber, genuinely flabbergasted. "I definitely heard you say that," challenges another member (played by Bassett).
"Rescued. I said rescued," emphasizes Cliff, totally oblivious to the gaping hole he's dug for himself. He grasps at a few other adjectives: "attended," "liberated" and "equal." None of them work as lifeboats.
Now, this is the late '80s. The episode aired two years after the Supreme Court ruled sexual harassment a form of illegal job discrimination, and three years before Anita Hill testified about soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' penchant for pornography and pubic hair in his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings.
Like a lot of girls in my generation, raised in equal parts by a liberated woman and marathon viewings of The Cosby Show, 7-year-old me was determined never to need to be rescued, subconsciously or otherwise. If Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett and S. Epatha Merkerson didn't need to be saved, attended, liberated or equal, then those adjectives didn't apply to my life, either.
This in no way explains my — and scores of other women's — obsession with Liam Neeson in Taken. Or the fact that, just a month ago, I explained said obsession (I've seen the movie at least four times and refer to Neeson as my imaginary dad) this way: " 'Cause in the end, every woman secretly wants to be rescued."
For anyone unfamiliar, Taken is the story of what would happen if a retired Jason Bourne had to save his teenage daughter from sexual slavery using several different languages and knives and stuff.
True, almost all the women need bailing out in the film because they are, in a word, stupid. What kind of mother lets a naive 17-year-old go to Europe to follow a rock band around with nothing but a credit card and an idiot friend? And what kind of fool tells a stranger that she's staying in the house all alone? But the spotlight is supposed to be on Neeson's masculinity; he's given to grave announcements along the lines of, "I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you."
Taken, which cost about $25 million to make, has grossed more than $226 million worldwide since its 2009 release, according to boxofficemojo.com. Neeson himself has said he thought the film was "a good little B-movie" that would probably go straight to video. Critics were equally unenthused. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called it "shamelessly lazy filmmaking." Time magazine wrote that the movie meant "to be a critique of a man as fascinated by his daughter's endangered purity as her predators are."
I'd venture to guess that a lot of women — who, according to Hollywood, don't do action movies starring 50-something-year-olds — went to see Taken because they either want Neeson to father their kids or want him to be their father. And what's wrong with that? Since when did daydreaming about doing nothing but waiting for someone else to handle things for a change permanently damage the female ego? The damsel in distress and Superwoman coexist in the same psyche. Which is why so many women (and men, obviously) showed up to Neeson's latest film, Unknown, released last month. But unlike its predecessor, Unknown has Neeson playing the clueless professor instead of the fatherly assassin.
Taken 2 is being written now, and I'm looking forward to my "subconscious need to be rescued" being fulfilled for a good two hours. After that, I can go back to reality.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.