BY coincidence, two movies about infidelity are showing at the cinema — The Invisible Woman and The Other Woman — and you don’t want to get them confused or you’ll end up seeing lots of boobs and bikinis when you were expecting a bonnets-and-bustles experience.
Such a coincidence begs a moment of cultural observation. Here’s the gist — infidelity is no longer a cause of shame and secrecy; it’s now an excuse for girly sessions of drinking cosmopolitans and braiding each other’s hair.
In fact, if you view these movies together, you might feel embarrassed on behalf of Charles Dickens and his secret squeeze, Nelly Ternan. Their tryst was so discreet they not only kept it secret from London society but it remained hidden from history for another 150 years. Why, you may ask, the secrecy?
At least that’s what Cameron Diaz might ask as she takes audiences through what happens when a modern girl discovers that her boyfriend is a husband and then gets to know the wife, the other mistress and … is that another mistress canoodling by the pool?
Sure, the women are miffed that they are all only shifts in the night but the real momentum comes from their friendship. This is a buddy movie for women, a chick-fest that gets its drama from all the silly things that girls do when they’re angry. Revenge served up light.
It sort of destroys the drama that’s going on in the cinema next door. In the life of England’s famous writer, infidelity is grave. It’s shameful. It would have him written out of public life if it emerged. It’s a darkly lit drama, shaded by bonnets and expressed in sonnets.
But we’ve moved on — a while ago, if the movies are any indication. It was almost 20 years ago that The First Wives Club had fun with low-life husbands. It also ended up a bonding movie for middle-aged women and their revenge tactics of destroying husbands’ careers while making segues into lesbian bars became an example for first wives all around the world.
Episodes of wronged wives dobbing in husbands to tax officials, cutting expensive trousers off at the knees and turning shopaholic on joint credit cards routinely turn up in movies, sitcoms and real life. It’s all part of the separation process apparently. In real life, wronged women might not end up buddying up to mistresses, drinking cosmos and braiding each other’s hair but they are throwing parties to celebrate events that, in previous eras, would stain their reputations forever — or a good 150 years.
The absence of shame that has freed infi- delity from the Victorian era is also cropping up in stories about divorce. The latest craze for women who find themselves clicking on to RSVP.com after 20 years of marriage is the divorce party. Sometimes called freedom parties, these have as much theatre as a wedding but are more black humour than white icing.
Those who divorced in an era when it was whispered about in polite society and scorned from the pulpit will feel relief that women are now taking the shame from the event and finding something to celebrate. (Those who bought presents for engagement parties, hen’s parties, kitchen teas, bridesmaids’ high teas, pregnancy parties, baby wettings and the plethora of other events surrounding couplings might feel miffed at having to find yet another gift.)
If women are singing the chorus to the song, You Don’t Own Me, and celebrities are happy to talk about their “conscious uncoupling”, then they at least have moved beyond Ternan’s fate as the wind-blown figure on an empty beach with a secret past and an uncertain future.
The revenge-is-fun genre is firmly established. But why is revenge always a woman’s movie? Don’t men get cheated on? Well, if you scroll through the list of infidelity movies, you don’t find many buddy movies born of being cuckolded. There’s just one I can think of, The Dilemma, a Vince Vaughn film of a few years ago. You may have forgotten it. It didn’t do well. It wasn’t reviewed well. In fact, not much happened in the movie. It’s like they set out to make a buddy movie, then lacked commitment. Perhaps it didn’t seem so funny after all.