"They"


By Michael Crichton



I was having lunch with my agent in a restaurant when a woman walked
up, slapped her business card on the table, and said, "Call me."
Then she turned on her heel and walked off. She was an attractive
woman in her late twenties, wearing a business suit.

"Wow," I said, after she had gone. Nothing so brazen had ever
happened to me.

"It's a new world," my agent said, shaking his head.

The incident was exciting, but it was also a little unnerving, so I
didn't call this woman for a while. Eventually curiosity overcame
me, and I called and made a date.

We met for dinner at a sushi bar. Andrea was twenty-eight; she had
a degree in business administration and she worked for a commercial
real-estate company. She was ambitious and levelheaded about her
work; she had it all figured out, how long she would stay in this
company, when she would leave, what she would do next.

She didn't ask me much about myself, and in fact didn't seem very
interested in me, except to ask where I lived, and whether my house
was close to the restaurant. She was impatient during dinner,
restless. I couldn't figure out why.

Finally the meal was over and I asked if she wanted tea or coffee.
She shook her head. "Can't we have it at your house?" And then I
understood her impatience, her hurried indifference toward me. I
was being rushed to the bedroom. Amazing! Andrea was doing to me
what men supposedly did to women. I was being treated as a sex
object.

At my house she announced she didn't want coffee but wanted a tour
instead; she saw the bedroom and the Jacuzzi.

"Nice Jacuzzi," she said, starting to take off her clothes. "Want
to join me?"

Things were going very fast. I had the strangest sense of trying to
catch up, to accommodate this new pace of the eighties. It seemed
we had hardly gotten into the Jacuzzi before we were in the bedroom,
and it seemed that we had hardly gotten to the bedroom when she was
up and getting dressed, and I was still lying there on the bed, and
to my astonishment I heard myself say: "When will I see you again?"

"I'll give you a call," she said, buckling her belt.

It seemed to me she was dressing with undue haste. Did she have
another date after leaving me?

You have to go now?" I said.

"Yeah. I hate to fuck and run, but. . .big day tomorrow, I have
to get my rest."

So I lay there in the bed, feeling worse and worse, while she got
dressed, and pretty soon she waved goodbye, and then I heard the
door slam and her car back down the driveway, and I thought, I feel
used.

-----

Well, I had been out of the action for a decade. My friend David
had been single all during that time. The next time we played
racquetball, I told him about my experience, which still troubled
me.

"Yeah," he said, "I've had that too. Where you find yourself asking
her, 'When will I see you again?' You feel used after she's gone..."

"Yes," I said. "I really did. I felt used. Seduced and abandoned.
All of that."

"I know," David said, shaking his head. "It's a new world, Michael.
It's all changed."

It was David's theory that feminism and the sexual revolution had
actually had the effect of reversing traditional sex roles.

"Look," he said, "all my male friends want to get married and settle
down. But the women don't. The men want babies. The women don't.
The men want meaningful relationships. The women want quick sex and
then they want to get right back to their careers."

In keeping with this idea of reversal, David had a term for the
behavior of women like Andrea: "feminine macho." David's idea was
that women had seen the past years as an opportunity to behave like
men-but that, in taking up certain traditional forms of male
behavior, they had sometimes modified the form without understanding
its underlying purpose.

"See," David said, "women think that, when men behave romantically
on a one-night stand, that's hypocritical. So women won't do that.
When a woman intends to have a one-night stand, she lets you know
it. Bam! No illusions from her. But that doesn't feel like
honesty to a man, it feels like brutality. Because, let's face it,
men are the romantics. We're the ones who need the romance."

---

Here I am in the locker room with my friend David, who has been a
Hollywood bachelor for two decades, who has gone out with so many
models and actresses that he's good friends with the people who run
the model agencies-here's David, suave man of the world, telling me
that men are the romantics, not women.

"No, no, no, David," I protested. "Women are romantic. Women want
flowers and candy and all that stuff."

"No, they don't," David said. "Women want the respect and
admiration of a man, and they know flowers are a sign of respect
from a man. But they don't care about the flowers; they don't moon
and ooh and aah and sigh, except for our benefit. They don't have
any of those romantic feelings men think they do. Men have the
romantic feelings. Women're much colder and more practical."

I disagreed.

"Okay," David said. We're sitting in the locker room, right?

"Right."

"Have you ever had a locker-room conversation about women--you know,
the way women think we do, talking in explicit detail about we did
with our dates the night before?"

"No," I said. "I never have."

"Neither have I," David said. "But you've been accused of having
such conversations by a woman?"

"Yes, sure." I couldn't count the number of times a woman had said
she didn't want me talking about her to my male friends.

"You know why women think we have these explicit conversations?
Because they do, that's why. Women talk about everything."

I knew this was true. I had long ago learned of the frankness of
women among themselves, and of their tendency to assume that men
were equally frank, when, as far as I could tell, men were actually
quite discreet.

"You see," David said, "each sex assumes the opposite sex is just
the way they are. So women think men are explicit, and men think
women are romantic. Eventually that becomes a stereotype that
nobody questions. But it's not accurate at all."

David insisted on his view: women were stronger, tougher, more
pragmatic, more interested in money and security, more focused on
the underlying realities of any situation. Men were weaker, more
romantic, more interested in the symbols than the reality--in short,
living out a fantasy.

"I'm telling you," David said.

"What about the idea of the nurturing female?" I said.

"Only for children," he said. "Not for men." He shook his head
sadly, "Did you ever wish a woman would send you flowers?"

The question caught me off guard. A woman send me flowers?

"Sure. Send you flowers, a nice note, thanks for a lovely evening,
the whole bit."

It seemed such a strange idea. But as I considered it, it seemed as
if it would be terrific.

"I'm telling you," David said, "we're the romantics. Work it out."

----

Working it out seemed to be the story of my life in the mid-1980s.
In my private life, all the women I saw worked; often they were
preoccupied with their work. During this period I went out with a
reporter, a computer salesperson, a choreographer, and a composer's
agent. Dinner with these women tended to be a litany of their
problems at work. They assumed that the details of their jobs were
as interesting to me as to them.

I was reminded of the times in the past when I had gone to dinner
and monopolized the conversation with my own work problems. And, as
David had said, the sex roles were now reversed. But whatever the
explanation, there wasn't much romance in those dinners. On the
contrary, this new quality had some decidedly dreary aspects. I
used to listen to these women and think, The only time you give your
full attention is when you are talking. When I was talking, they
would glance at their watches. They were all vaguely preoccupied;
they were all pressed for time; they were all playing An Important
Person of Affairs. Which was fine, but it wasn't sexy "Hey it's
nine o'clock now, I have to hit the road at ten. Do we have time to
do it, or what?"

Practical, but not what I would've called a hot date.

-----

One night I was sitting in the corner of a woman's kitchen when her
roommate stormed in from a date, banging doors, shouting: "Jesus,
what does a girl have to do to get laid these days?"

This roommate was embarrassed when she saw me sitting in the
kitchen, but it led to an interesting discussion. And the most
interesting thing about the discussion was that the attitudes, the
frustrations, the disappointments expressed, were exactly the same
as for men. In exactly the same terms. There was no difference at
all.

By now I had adopted David's view of the inherent differences
between the sexes, that men were the romantics and women were the
pragmatists. His view that each sex saw the other as a projection
of itself. I talked about this idea all the time, particularly with
women.

I noticed that it always made women angry. They didn't like to hear
it.

At first I thought it was because women were experiencing so much
discrimination in the workplace. Women felt they were always being
told they couldn't do this, or they weren't suited for that. Or
else they were just subtly bypassed in corporate hierarchies. So
women were a little raw about any notion of inherent differences
between the sexes, because it sounded like the setup for justifying
discrimination.

But then, as I continued to listen to their complaints, I heard
something else. I began to hear about "the way men are," about "the
way men stick together," about "the way men are threatened by a
competent woman," about "the way men are threatened by sex." About
the way they are. About the problems they make for women because of
the problems they have with intimacy or feelings of power. I heard
a lot about how they act this way, and how they act that way. I
wasn't hearing about a particular man, or a particular job. Nothing
was individualized. It was all abstract, all explained by a general
theory of the way they were.

One night I was at a dinner party. The conversation was lively and
far-ranging, and not at all concerned with the sexes. It was
broadly social and political. But as I listened I noticed a
tendency to talk about how they don't protect the environment, how
they don't run the government responsibly, how they don't build
quality products, how they never report the news accurately.

The basic message was that they were ruining the world, and there
was nothing we could do about it.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Who is this they that you keep talking
about?"

I got a lot of confused looks. Everyone else at the table knew who
they were.

"Look," I said, "I don't think anything is served by imagining a
world of faceless villains. There isn't any 'they.' They're only
people like us. If a corporation is polluting and the CEO sounds
uninformed on TV, the chances are he's some guy who's in the middle
of a divorce and whose kids are on drugs and he's got a lot on his
mind, a big corporation to run, stockholders and board meetings and
everybody pushing at him, and he's tired and pressured, this
pollution issue is just one of many problems, and the government
changes the regulations so often nobody can be sure whether he's
breaking the law or not, and his aides aren't as smart as he'd like
them to be, and they don't keep him as informed as he'd like to be,
and maybe they even lie to him. This CEO doesn't want to appear
like a jerk on TV. He's not happy he came off that way. But it
happens, because he's just a guy trying to do his best and his best
isn't always so hot. Who's any different?'

The table got silent.

"I don't know about you," I said, "but I think I'm pretty smart, and
I don't always run my life so well. I make mistakes and screw up.
I do things I regret. I say things I wish I hadn't said. A lot of
people you see interviewed on TV have impossible jobs. It's only a
question of how badly they'll do them. But I don't see any grand
conspiracy out there. I think people are doing the best they can."

Table stayed silent.

"And what's really wrong with making them the problem," I said, "is
that you abdicate your own responsibility. Once you say some
mysterious 'they' are in charge, then you're able to sit back
comfortably and complain about how 'they' are doing it. But maybe
'they' need help. Maybe 'they' need your ideas and your support and
your letters and your active participation. Because you're not
powerless, you are a participant in this world. It's your world,
too."

So there I was, preaching at the dinner table. I got embarrassed
and shut up. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking. There's
something else here. Some other way this is true. Something you
haven't considered.

-----

Back in the early 1970s, a girlfriend became exasperated with me and
said, "Listen: just assume men and women are the same."

"How do you mean?" I said.

"Anything you think as a man, I think as a woman. Anything you
feel, I feel."

"No, no." I said.

"Yes, yes," she said.

"Well, for example," I said, "men can just look at a woman and get
turned on. The visual stimulus is enough for a man. But women
aren't like that."

"Oh, really?"

"No. Women need more than a visual stimulus."

"I've certainly looked at a nice pair of buns in tight jeans and
thought, 'I wouldn't mind trying that.'"

I thought, This is a very masculine woman. "Maybe for you," I said,
"but for women in general, it doesn't work that way."

"All my girlfriends are the same," she said. "We're all bun
watchers."

She must have a lot of perverted friends, I thought. I gave another
argument. "Women aren't turned on by pornography and men are."

"Oh, really?"

We went on like this for a while. She insisted that men and women
were the same in their underlying behavior, and that I had a lot of
wrong ideas about differences. Back in the 1970s this was pretty
extreme stuff.

In subsequent years I forgot that conversation, but now, more than
ten years later, it came back to me. It seemed useful to reconsider
the whole business.

I still thought there were differences between men and women. It
was true I didn't conceive those differences in the simplistic way I
had so many years earlier. But I still thought there were
differences. I wanted to know what those differences were.

Then, slowly, I began to ask a different question. Not what the
differences were. Instead: What is the best way to think about men
and women?

And I came to a surprising conclusion.

My old girlfriend was right.

The best way to think about men and women is to assume there are no
differences between them.

-----

I had already concluded that the best way to think about disease was
to imagine that you caused it. Maybe that was literally true, and
maybe it wasn't. The point was that the best strategy in dealing
with your illness was to act as if you had control over it, and
could change its course. That enabled you to stay in charge of your
own life.

Similarly, I now thought the best way to think about the sexes was
to imagine there were no differences between them. Maybe that was
true and maybe it wasn't. But it was the best strategy. Because,
as I saw it, the biggest problem between the sexes was the tendency
to objectify the opposite sex and ultimately to become powerless
before them. Both men and women did this about the opposite sex.
They were this way or that way. They had this tendency. There was
nothing we could do about the way they behaved.

When I looked back, I realized that in many instances I had failed
to take action with a woman because I assumed there was nothing I
could do about her conduct.

For example, whenever I lived with a woman, I knew she talked in
intimate detail about our relationship with her girlfriends. I
always hated that. I hated running into one of her girlfriends and
thinking, "This woman knows all about me." It felt like a terrible
invasion of my privacy, of our privacy. But what could I do? Women
talked with one another. Women had these special relationships.

But if I had been in a close working relationship with a man, I
would have complained immediately if I found out he was talking
about me with another man.

So why couldn't I say to a woman, "It makes me feel terrible that
you talk to your girlfriend about us. I feel really betrayed, and I
feel dismissed, too. Why do you take the most intimate parts of our
relationship to a stranger? It makes me feel awful. You ask me to
open up to you, but I know you're going to get on the phone tomorrow
and tell all to some friend. Can't you see how that makes me feel?"

The answer, of course, was that I could say it, I just never had,
because I thought that women were inherently different from men.

And in formulating that difference, I had also objectified women.
They were different. They didn't have the same feelings I did.
They were 'they.'



Excerpted from 'Travels,' by Michael Crichton



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