It took me two years to watch the movie Revolutionary Road, and as many days to get the bad taste of the word "relationship" out of my mouth after I saw it. When the movie came out, I was in my late 20s and not at all convinced that the institution of marriage was admitting girls like me (quirky, annoyed, over it), but also completely convinced that thinking that way made me insane.
Because of that fact, a friend told me not to watch the story of the Wheelers — a Rockwellian couple living in Connecticut with two kids and seven years of commitment under their belts. April (played by Kate Winslet) is a housewife and a bad actress with dreams of being a star. Frank (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) commutes to New York every morning to sit at a desk. "You want to play nice house, very sweet house," says a friend, "you got to have a job you don't like." Despite their name, the Wheelers aren't going anywhere fast.
Revolutionary Road is set in the 1950s, so it's easy to see April's dilemma of being a woman who wants more but doesn't see any way of getting it as somehow outdated — a problem that women have somehow educated themselves out of. "Just because you've got me safe in this little trap," she screams, "you think you can bully me into feeling whatever you want me to feel!"
April wants nothing more than to be interesting again. To be hopeful. Sure, April has issues: She's depressed, she's bored and, in the end, she's selfish — but April feels very real. The realization that she isn't "special" or "different" or "superior" to her cookie-cutter neighbors knocks the wind out of her like a punch in the gut. Doubled over, she can't figure out how to breathe again. The only way I got over it was by tricking myself into thinking it was historical fiction.
Then came 2010's Blue Valentine, the much nominated reverse love story about a man and woman who can't figure out how to be together, despite being together. Dean (played by Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (played by Michelle Williams) could be any blue-collar couple raising a kid and a dog in a town with more trees than telephone poles. Told Pulp Fiction-style, with scenes that rewind to when Dean and Cindy first met spliced seamlessly with scenes depicting their relationship's demise, Blue Valentine is like a horror film for the brokenhearted.
"I didn't want to be somebody's husband, and I didn't want to be somebody's dad; that wasn't my goal in life. But somehow it was. I work so I can do that," explains balding Dean, who paints houses for a living. Cindy is a nurse, or something close. Before getting pregnant, she wanted to be a doctor. When they met, Dean was a professional furniture relocator. Five years later, Cindy wants her husband to want more for himself.
"They spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming, and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is gonna stick around," explains young Dean in the back of a moving truck. But Cindy, the audience soon learns, needs more than an extra paycheck to keep her warm at night. Dean doesn't know how to fix it: "Tell me how I should be. Just tell me. I'll do it." They're not gonna make it.
Both Blue Valentine and Revolutionary Road (and Eat Pray Love) have created a canon of female protagonists who are damsels in distress in their own minds. There's no train speeding down the tracks here. Our new heroines (if you consider them that — and I do) aren't trapped in the obvious metaphors of silent movies. Instead, they're caught in marriages they wanted but eventually have outgrown.
That kind of selfishness (because it is selfish — but not always sinister — to want out of a relationship) has previously been reserved in celluloid for male characters cast as cads. But as 21st-century coupling takes on new dynamics, so does its depiction in art.
Women aren't always the ones begging to be let in to the Mrs. Club. Even romantic comedies like Love and Other Drugs (starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal) and No Strings Attached (starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher) have caught on. The female leads in both movies are decidedly "anti" — until, of course, love wears them down.
The only problem I see with the new damsel is that she's too often damaged in some way. Portman in No Strings is a career-obsessed robot, whom I diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and Hathaway suffers from early-onset Parkinson's disease in Love and Other Drugs. Even with the more nuanced view of women in relationships, it's as if only women with some type of cellular dysfunction would see the downside of love.
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.