Thinking pop culture

Thinking pop culture

The Intern and Rethinking Intimate Friendships

Paternalism is a loaded, buttock-clenching, devil of a notion. For feminists, it’s up there with all the worst of the P-words. Like panties and pussy and phlegm.

Paternalism was certainly the word on my mind when I saw the trailer for The Intern a month ago, and it’s evidently also the one Rebecca Beirne was thinking about when she saw the film.

So confident I was that I’d find it egregious, that I embarrassedly whispered my ticket order on Saturday. Whispering, equivocating, having to choke out a second go at the title. The same shame that others might harbour when buying tampons/condoms/12-inch heavily-veined dildos I, apparently, reserve for Anne Hathaway films.

While it’s only October and the pickings in 2015 have been substantially slim, I’ve now slotted The Intern into my year’s top ten. It cleverly shattered all my preconceptions about what another film from Nancy It’s Complicated Meyers would be like, and it touched upon a range of issues - gender, friendship, technology - that I’ve held long-standing personal and academic interests in.

The film speaks of ageing, about what gets done with skills, with time, with energy, discipline and intellect, when the workforce sees you only as a caricature of a doddering 70-year-old.

The film speaks about gender roles, dares to prod both the “crisis of masculinity” and the kiddult phenomena, and takes up a question I tackle in a forthcoming book, about whether computers have - in reality or merely in our cultural imaginary - made men soft and feminised, if not infantalised them.

The film speaks about feminism - with actual use of the F word! - of having it all, of women’s internal saboteurs, of paranoia and of both the real and imagined costs of success.

And, most interesting, the film speaks about friendships between men and women. About how these come in an array of configurations but that branding newly-minted net mogul Jules’ (Hathaway) relationship with her much older intern Ben (Robert De Niro) as one of paternalism is but one interpretation. And, after spending two hours with the duo, it’s certainly not mine.

There’s a scene early on when Ben spots Jules’ driver taking a sly swig of grog moments before he’s to get behind the wheel. Gentle Ben intervenes, a fizzer of an altercation ensues and the titular intern takes over driving Ms. Hathaway.

So was Ben being paternalistic? Should he have let Jules get in the car with that no-good boozer as a way to suitably demonstrate respect for her intellect and independence? Would letting her come to a TAC-commercial ends have been a better demonstration of cinematic feminism than him stepping in and doing the decent thing?

Not to be mixed up with The Intern.

Alone in the cinema, my thoughts immediately went to being in my best friend’s kitchen, about a year ago now. For the purposes of this story, it’s relevant I mention that he’s 17 years my senior.

So I’d been cooking, I was cleaning up, and I had lifted the still-plugged-in toaster and placed it perhaps-precariously (this bit remains contentious in our individual recollections) onto the corner of the filled sink to wipe underneath. Seemingly he’d been watching my efforts, eyeing my apparent lack of concentration, and in one of those slow-mo WorkSafe “Noooooooo!” screams, he dashed over from the other side of the room.

As it was happening, and certainly in my recollections, this episode has always been a little fuzzy - and, truth be told, my brushes with death happen so frequently that they tend to all blur anyway - but in his mind at least, my friend was stopping me from knocking the toaster into the sink and, in his words, causing him to waste his afternoon dealing with my corpse.

So was my friend being paternalistic? Did he intervene to assert his strapping masculine authority while heavy-handedly curtailing my bench-cleaning freedoms? Should he have just have let it all happen? Would that have somehow proved that he considered me an equal?

Sometimes, De Niro, you gotta say no.

There is not a single moment in The Intern when Ben is not in awe of Jules’ achievements, nor is there a single moment when he patronises her. On the contrary. He is a figure of support, of calm and an extra set of hands. He happens to be older, sure, and he happens to be quite literally paternal given that he has kids - and grandkids - of his own, but to apply the word with all its baggage and disregard for his individuality is flawed.

There is a tendency - particularly when an age difference exists - to construe caring as being about mothering or fathering, each term laden with a deluge of gendered baggage. Liberal use of the terms overlook that love, that caring, is not only done across the genders, but that the very same people doing the caring at one moment get cared for the very next; that such roles are constantly in flux.

The Intern isn’t without flaw - an adultery subplot for example, is terribly awkward - but for me the film felt both real-enough and subtly trangressive.

And most happily, it helped me to forget both the similarly titled The Internship and the 2013 De Niro abomination The Family.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.