So what’s the take-home message from Nancy Meyers’ new A-list comedy The Intern? Every young female entrepreneur needs an old man to tell her how to do business and run her life.
The film is set up as a narrative about older people in the workforce, with Robert De Niro playing Ben, a retiree who participates in an internship program. Despite his junior status, Ben quickly becomes an advisor to everyone in the office, most significantly his much younger female boss Jules (Anne Hathaway).
With an ageing population, there is a strong market for films that reflect the experiences of seniors and appeal to older audiences. The Intern, at the outset, seems to be one such film, with Ben suffering ageist slights and insults in a much younger world.
The foolishness of the young is also a key source of humour, including a sardonic take on office-space-2.0. From its full-time masseuse to the earnest indoor bicycle riding, the e-commerce workplace in which Ben finds himself is designed to seem indulgently millennial.
In casting experience and expertise as a wise old man, paired with a trying-hard-while-falling-apart younger woman, however, the film sets up a paternalistic dynamic that overrides everything else.
The Intern is a film ostensibly about gendered and generational role reversal that quickly turns into a treatise about how much even successful young women still have to learn (from old men).
Ben’s Yoda-like wisdom
Described as “too observant”, Ben can seemingly see what no one else can see, and even do everything better than anyone else. His vast experience, from both the phone book business and a longer life, imbues him with a Yoda-like wisdom for everything from business to romance, from fashion to tidying desks. It is Ben who must teach Jules how to be a good boss, even as he teaches his young male co-workers how to be men.
Jules openly acknowledges the superiority of Ben’s generation when she goes on a drunken monologue about the “dying breed” of real men. She even laments initiatives such as Take Your Daughter to Work Day for presiding over a generational shift where “women went from girls to women” but “men went from men to boys”. Where do “guys fit in” to this brave new world, she asks.
The depiction of women in The Intern would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. It’s 2015, and yet for a female character to be a strong businesswoman in contemporary Hollywood she must both feel guilty for displacing men, and be incapable of being a good parent or maintaining her romantic relationship.
As with so many narratives about women in the workforce, in The Intern career success equals home “failure”. As well as being portrayed as a neglectful mother to Paige, Jules is also portrayed as failing to be a good wife to her straying husband, Matt.
Matt’s infidelity is cast as a natural progression within a relationship when traditional gender roles are reversed. Despite expressing devastation, Jules sadly asserts that such things occur in cases where “the husband feels like his manhood is threatened” by a “successful wife”. Career women are clearly transforming previously honourable men into Ashley Madison customers.
Jules’ solution to the problem of her stay-at-home-husband’s affair is to stop threatening his manhood by relinquishing control of her company. She is, of course, stopped from doing so by the wisdom of “real man” Ben.
Once having acted on Ben’s advice, her narrative reward arrives in the form of Matt’s new-found desire to make their marriage work. His motivation? Jules’ demonstration of her willingness to sacrifice her company to save their marriage. Matt needs to know that she is capable of this kind of feminine self-abnegation in order to find his self within the relationship.
Upon their reunion Jules requests that Matt carries a handkerchief, that is, be more like Ben and the old school masculinity he represents, in order to regain the masculinity that he has “lost”. With that taken care of, Ben can officially pass over the reigns of old-man-power to Jules and go back to into retirement, as he has had the chance to shape and influence the next generation first.
Even in the context of the gender conservatism seen in Hollywood films, The Intern is surprisingly retrograde. Born of baby boomer anxieties about becoming archaic, it reaffirms the superiority of times gone by, and the need for millennials to learn from the past, and not reinvent business or social worlds.
Rebecca Beirne is Senior Lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies, University of Newcastle.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.