December 2000: A Fine Romance

So there I was at the movie theater the other week, preparing to enjoy a second viewing of Charlie's Angels, a film that makes up in sheer fun what it lacks in plot or, in fact, internal consistency. Naturally there were previews, and one was for a new Mel Gibson comedy (and about time he did comedy again, I mean as other than a Claymation rooster) called What Women Want.

This is, evidently, a mystery.

And one which occupies a lot of straight men's time (gay men being caught up meanwhile in pondering what men want, which you think they'd have an easier time of, but available evidence suggests that this is not the case), if recent barroom conversation with a number of single male friends is any basis for judgment.

What do women want? I'll tell you what women want. We want Han Solo.

Yes, that is a sweeping generalization, and one which I'm sure merits any volume of mail explaining in detail why it isn't so, but this is a column, not a book. I've only got room for sweeping generalizations. (Men in search of more information are advised to pick up the fall 2000 issue of the utterly fabulous Bust magazine, the one with John Cusack on the cover.) But there's got to be a reason Harrison Ford got so much fan mail in the late 70s and early 80s, and since hardly anyone knew who he was before then, the character of Han Solo is surely at least part of it. So what is it that makes Han Solo so appealing?

Well, to begin with, he's got attitude. Yes, fellas, superficial though this is, it's important. They say you shouldn't judge by appearance, but what should be isn't what is; as William Goldman so astutely observed in The Princess Bride, life isn't fair. These days, romances are usually not begun by party A being introduced to party B via party C, who knows them both well (often by dint of being a blood relative to at least one) and is capable of determining that they'll get along just smashingly. Instead, it happens more or less at random, and usually dim lighting and alcohol are involved. These are not ideal circumstances under which to determine if someone is a good mate, which is probably why personals ads are so popular these days. (They're perfect for one-night stands, however.) Like it or not, attitude is frequently mistaken for confidence; it's because he has both in spades that Han Solo is so attractive. Attitude without confidence usually means a jerk; confidence without attitude is lovely but too often overlooked, and is in any case rare, since confidence tends to beget its own attitude.

Han also doesn't believe in pretense. He gives lofty ideals and noble goals a grin and a wink, and when it turns out that he possesses the capacity for both he's at least as surprised as anyone else. Lofty ideals have their place, of course; without vision nothing would ever get done. But don't go around as if the weight of the world rests on your shoulders unless it actually does. Embracing idealism for the sake of appearing deep or intense often backfires, and Han never resorts to this. He isn't Luke Skywalker, and probably relieved that this is so. His cause when we first meet him in the Star Wars trilogy is utterly mercenary; later on he stays for love, which is much more pleasant but no more grounded in idealism. When everyone around him is determined to save the galaxy, he injects a much-needed realistic note.

He's the guy who gets things done. Were he absent at any number of critical points throughout the trilogy, the story of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would have come to an unhappy end: Leia would never have been rescued; Luke would've been toasted at the Battle of Yavin, or else frozen to death on Hoth; Leia would likely have been captured or killed during the snow battle; and the ground battle on Endor would have ended quite differently. True, Han presents nearly as many problems as he solves: his ship's unreliable and half of Return of the Jedi is spent getting him away from Jabba the Hutt (though he wouldn't be there if not for Vader's determination to capture Luke). But people like Han are needed just as much as heroes are, and maybe more; there are certainly more of him to go around, if you just look.

Han Solo, you see, is a nice man. He doesn't start out that way, but it turns out that he's a decent guy at heart. And despite what you may hear, women want nice men. What we don't want are wimps, and unfortunately in modern parlance the two terms tend to be equated. Now, not being a wimp doesn't mean starting a bar fight at the least provocation, or taking a stand on principle every single time one of yours seems threatened, or, especially, ever making a woman do something she doesn't want to do. What it does mean is standing up for yourself and doing what has to be done. True, Han tries to weasel out of trouble nearly as often as he stands up to it, but when he does decide to take action he sees it all the way through to the end. He's the polar opposite of Dante in the Kevin Smith film Clerks who, as his best friend Randal observes, "buckles like a belt." Nice doesn't mean holding the door open or spreading your cloak over a mud puddle to keep your lady's feet dry, though such gestures are appreciated by anyone who values civility. It means being forthright and honest, and not trying to be something you're not. Han is Han, warts and all, and stands in definite contrast to Luke, who spends the entire trilogy trying to figure out who he is. (It's probably for this reason that Mark Hamill's fans were usually younger people in the middle of identity crises themselves, while older fans found Harrison Ford's world-wise performance more appealing.) You'll notice that Han never apologizes for being who he is, though he does apologize when he's in the wrong about something. The difference is important because it says something about his sense of identity; there's a fine but clear line between changing for the sake of becoming a better person and doing a personality about face because you think it'll attract chicks.

Fine, you're thinking. That argument's marginally acceptable. How is it applicable in the real world? After all, Leia initially doesn't like Han at all, so how is it that they end up madly in love at the end of Jedi? It's a question not so much of fate-a romantic notion if ever there was one, but one which more realistic love stories, such as Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing(*), Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, and the song which inspired the title of this month's installment, disown-but of compatibility. Throughout the trilogy, Han and Leia don't really change so much as get to know each other, and discover parts of themselves that had lain dormant until their meeting.

Does this mean you should go out and deliberately emulate Han Solo? Well, no. For one thing, not all of Han's personality is especially worthy of imitation--you go around insisting that things aren't your fault and see how far you get, and too much cynicism is as irritating as too much idealism. For another, pretending to be something you're not-see earlier discussion of this point-is the quickest way to ensure romantic failure, or at the very least awkward explanations later down the line, as anyone who's seen any recent Disney film could tell you. It all comes back to that cliched truism that is no less true for being a cliché: being loved, or even liked, involves being yourself, so truly and so strongly that it becomes evident in how you approach the world. Yes, Han's a liar and a cheat, but not when the chips are down and never in matters of the heart.

Remember Sense and Sensibility? In this story, the romantic and ultimately flaky Willoughby is passed up in favor of the apparently staid, but ultimately honest, Colonel Brandon. Jane Austen was no fool when it came to such things; she knew, as Miss Manners does, that it's not charm, flattery, or prettiness that win out in the end. It was all very well for Shakespeare to court Viola de Lesseps with poetry in Shakespeare in Love (which is, by the way, one of my favorite films of recent years), but I think you'll find that most women realize that most men aren't Shakespeare. I always wondered how Viola and Lord Wessex managed in later years; I like to think that Wessex turned out to be not such a bad guy. After all, if Rob in High Fidelity can learn how not to be jerk, anyone can.

So consider, if you will, the differences between Luke and Han, remembering all the while that while Luke may be the hero, it's Han who gets the girl. This has significance beyond Leia turning out to be Luke's sister (not that this was necessarily a barrier in the heroic mythology on which Star Wars was based; check out the Norse Saga of the Volsungs, upon which Wagner's Ring cycle and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings were both partially based), which in any case was probably introduced in order to resolve the incipient love triangle and address the question of Yoda's "other" in The Empire Strikes Back.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, and maybe there are fewer lovable scoundrels lurking out there than I surmise. If you disagree, tell me so, and why. If I get enough responses, we'll continue on this theme next month.

(*) I have linked most literary titles in this article to film versions. This is because, in my experience, people are more willing to see films than to read books.