Episode 04 - Two Girls And A Guy
Two Girls And A Guy (1997)
With Robert Downey, Jr., Heather Grahm, and Natasha Gregson Wagner
I had low expectations for this one. It was recommended to me by Netflix after I added a bunch of other movies from so-called "poly movie lists" around the web. It has big names in it. It's American. It's within the last couple decades. These points usually mean the movie will either suck, or not be poly, or both. After watching it, I'm not sure what to think of it.
Netflix calls it
"a contemporary love triangle ... [w]hen two girls find themselves waiting outside an apartment building, they come to realize they're there to meet the same guy -- who's been sleeping with them both! Armed with this knowledge, the girls break into the guy's apartment and prepare for the ambush."
So you can see why I'd expect this to be terrible.
This movie was ... painful. It was dramatic. It was brutal and abusive. It was stereotypical and cliche. It came across as so fucking honest, but it kinda wasn't. I thought at first that it sounded like the writer had actually tried to open a relationship before and used the movie to cram in an entire relationship's worth of conversation about it into a single afternoon confrontation, but not only did it have a few lines here and there that tweaked my spidey-poly sense, I also listened to the director's commentary and discovered that, no, the director has no idea about open and honest relationships, nor really about accountability. The director is a narcissist who wrote what he thought sounded like an honest dialog, and he got really, really close with it too. Close enough that I actually like the movie for it's painful, dramatic, brutality.
I have this problem. See, I've been openly poly for, at the time of this review, 17 years now and I decided to engage in only open relationships when I was single so I never had to "open up" a relationship that was formerly monogamous. When I cheated before that point, I never got caught, or if I did, I wasn't confronted about it. Nor have I ever caught a monogamous partner cheating on me. So I never had to have these specific conversations. I've had just about every other difficult poly conversation, though, in all my years of dating different kinds of people and trying out different kinds of poly relationships. I've even had the "why the fuck did you lie about dating other women when you were in an open relationship that gave you permission?!" argument. But I also stopped dating poly newbies or trying to "convert" monos ages ago. This doesn't remove the drama or conflict from relationships, it just gives us different kinds of drama and conflict. So I kind of live in this bubble now where watching other people make certain mistakes that we as a community collectively know how to avoid or how to solve is ... torturous for me. But in spite of never having had the "what do we do about us now that we've discovered infidelity" talk, this movie put me right back at the beginning, as if nearly two decades of successful open relating hadn't already passed by.
For the first half of the movie, I had decided that this "love triangle" fell into my "do not add" category, because it was clearly dysfunctional and clearly not open. Cheating doesn't make it onto the Poly-ish Movie List without some exceptional poly elements, and two women shouting at a man who keeps trying to lie his way out of trouble certainly doesn't count as "poly elements". But by the halfway mark, I was actually kind of rooting for the characters to find a way to work things out because the confrontations had such valuable, painfully true exchanges. This wouldn't have been an example to show to monos to explain polyamory, but it might have been a good movie for in-group solidarity - y'know, something that those of us on the inside of polyamory could watch and relate to, maybe learn from.
Unfortunately, I'm still not going to include this on the Poly-ish Movie List because of the cheating and the ending. The ending is actually ambiguous enough that I think some people can and will make a case for it, but the director / writer and actors clearly do not think that some kind of open relationship is in these people's future. None of them are even aware that multi-partner relationships, of any sort, exist ... anywhere. Seriously. It seemed to me that there was one character who could have, even likely would have, been open to a group sort of thing, but the other two were more ... "conservative" was the word the director used to describe them. Their relationship was all kinds of fucked up and there was actually no hope of ever moving past the betrayal as discovered throughout the course of the film (the director says), but they couldn't stay apart anyway. In the end, this movie reinforced the cultural narrative that dysfunctionally monogamish was the inevitable path to take. Their love would carry them through, even though they, and the relationship, were obviously broken. The director seems to think that this is just how fucked up people are in relationships and he was congratulating himself on having the personal bravery and honesty to admit it (he sees himself as the cheating guy in this story, only he was good enough never to have been caught).
I do want to talk about one part of the film in particular, though, and it's not about polyamory. I want to talk about it because our community is becoming more and more aware of abuse in these recent days, and this movie illustrated a distressingly common abuse tactic that I am seeing become revealed in relationships with the light being shined on them through this new awareness of abuse in our community.
As we know from the Netflix description, Blake has been cheating on Lou and Carla. Blake is in the wrong here, there is no ambiguity or grey area in this. The girls were flat-out told that they were each the only one. He outright lied. Period. Now Blake has been caught and is being confronted. Blake is very uncomfortable being confronted and he is unhappy that the girls are mad at him. Blake is hurt by their pain. So Blake turns around and accuses them of being abusive and manipulative and toxic. All his words.
One common tactic of an abuser is to cry "victim". It's one of the most effective tools that they have. An emotional abuser metaphorically strikes his victim and then when his metaphorical fist gets bloodied on her metaphorical teeth, he cries out "how could you hurt me like that?!" In some cases, the abuser actually, legitimately, believes that he is the one who was wronged. I'm using gendered pronouns because this is the arrangement that I am most familiar with and on which most research on abuse is done, but you could swap around pronouns and still have it apply. I think a lot of people really do see situations where one person has provoked another, and when the other returns fire or defends themselves, the first person gets to claim victimhood. This is what happened in the Treyvon Martin case - That Asshole* brought a gun to a situation where he and his gun shouldn't have been, Treyvon knew his life was in danger and reached for the gun, then That Asshole got to claim "self defense", when he set up the whole fucking situation in the first place. I think a lot of people will watch this film, see Blake get literally cornered by the two women, and feel that his accusations of "abuse" are reasonable because far too many people are unwilling to see how someone might have set himself up for a totally justified return attack, or how someone might get his own hands bruised up when it was his decision to throw the first punch.
I recommend reading the article The Community Response To Abuse by Emma Shea Fett on their blogspot.
""I was victimized by acts of control" is not the same as "I was victimized by the other person's resistance to my control." It seems simple, but it is not. And I feel that not being able to tell the difference between these things allows us to harbor abuse in our communities and abusive behaviors in ourselves. Being able to see the difference between these statements will allow you to really, truly and solidly hear the story of a survivor."
I also recommend reading the preceding article, What It Feels Like To Be Emotionally Abused.
"If you ever wondered why abusers don't seem to realize they are being abusive, it's because they honestly feel powerless and victimized by your autonomy."
I won't turn this review into a whole thing on abuse. I wanted to highlight this aspect because it's part of why I do recommend the movie, if you have the emotional resources for a film like this. It was a deeply uncomfortable movie where the actual victims in the scenario lash out and fight back because people who are being hurt are not always the epitome of compassion for the one causing them pain, and the manipulator tries every trick in the book to get control of the situation back into his hands. Every trick. Which means that some people, some of the time, might start to sympathize with him, poor guy, being berated and attacked like that. I'm not saying that he isn't deserving of empathy. As a former cheater myself, I totally get some of his rationalizations. No one is pure Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil. We all do things that are not our best selves and often we believe we are doing the right thing, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. But I do think it helps us to move in the direction of greater courage, and towards the better versions of ourselves, to be aware of when we are not - to be aware of what that looks like and how it hurts others. And I think this movie illustrates some of those times.
So, not poly, tense, uncomfortable, abusive, and nevertheless, I'm recommending watching it for the brutally honest-feeling dialog about infidelity, trust, and alternative options.
*I am refusing to use the names of various attention-seeking real-life villains like mass shooters and others who have made the news in the last several years because notoriety is partly what they are seeking with their crimes and violence. I prefer to remember their victims and reduce the assholes' power by simply calling them That Asshole. Yes, that makes it hard to tell one from another and context is needed to do so. That lack of distinction only further serves my goal.