Early in Sleepwalk With Me, comedian Mike Birbiglia's new romantic comedy about his sleep disorder and reluctance to wed, Birbiglia's character Matt tells his younger sister Janet about a horrifying discovery he has made. One night, he finds his longtime girlfriend, Abbie, asleep on the couch with the T.V. still on. It's playing a cheesy weddings reality show, and a clean cut-looking couple is riding through a meadow in a horse-drawn carriage while the woman, in voice-over, refers to her fiancé as her "Prince Charming." Worse, Abbie has been recording the show: saved on the couple's DVR is episode, after episode, after episode. She is also recording the spinoff series. It's about babies.
Janet agrees that Abbie is hinting at something, but also asks, "Well, what if she just likes those shows?"
Matt replies, "Nobody just likes those shows!"
"I like those shows," says Janet.
In Sleepwalk With Me, the notion that women are all the same under the skin — that all women, deep down, see actualization in marriage and babies, that all women like those shows — is never so clearly expressed. All of the female characters have marriage on the mind: Janet is getting married. Abbie obviously wants to get married. And Matt's mother, played hilariously by Carol Kane, throws herself into wedding preparations when the couple finally does get engaged (which is only after Abbie kind of bullies Matt into it by threatening to leave him). Your girlfriend may seem normal, but she's just awaiting her opportunity to go ga-ga over invitation card stock.
The fact that these are otherwise well-rounded characters — Lauren Ambrose's Abbie, a singer and an instructor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is shown as capable and patient, and Mike, aside from his resistance to getting hitched, is considerate and loving — doesn't entirely excuse the stereotypically gendered view of marriage. How many times and in how many different forms of media is it really necessary to send the message that men naturally fear commitment, and that marriage is something women must dun men into with a combination of enticements, ultimatums, and plain old threats? It's a tired and stereotypical view of sex and relationships that's more befitting a 1950s sitcom than an otherwise formally creative and very sweet indie comedy from 2012.
Sleepwalk With Me is based on Birbiglia's own life, specifically, on incidents he described in a 2008 monologue for This American Life. (Ira Glass co-produces, and the radio host is also one of the film's four credited writers, all male). If Birbiglia happened to have a girlfriend whom he loved, but whose desire to marry he personally did not share, then that story is certainly his to tell. (And hers, should she have any desire to.) That's more or less what Birbiglia said at a screening last night, when — just after Glass had spoken eloquently about how the filmmakers strove to avoid "all those romantic-comedy clichés" — I asked a question about Sleepwalk With Me's representation of gender. This particular story just happened to be his life. "Is it sexist?" Birbiglia added. "Well, is life sexist?"
The problem is not that Birbiglia had a story to tell and told it. The problem is that it's the only story. We should have a multiplicity of narratives about marriage and couplehood in our movies and on T.V., but we don't. And when our dominant cultural narrative is one of marriage as something that women seek and men avoid, and that a big, expensive wedding is a central goal of every woman's life — well, in merely reiterating those messages, Sleepwalk With Me seems like a missed opportunity for a corrective. This isn't just a personal story anymore — it's a cultural product, a film that contributes to our understanding of men, women, and marriage. And it could be argued that a film has some responsibility to get all that right, or at least not to trade in stereotypes. What is the truth about marriage? Studies show that men and women desire marriage and children at about the same rates. There's good evidence that men benefit more from marriage than women do — physically, emotionally, and economically. Husbands make more money and have better health than single men; the same is not true of wives and single women. And men take very well to the institution: in 2005, marriage researcher Stephanie Coontz found that "women tend to grow more discontented with their marriages over time, while men grow more content." If anyone ought to look on marriage with a critical eye, it's straight women. Not straight men. And — trust — plenty of us do. It's a shame it's a viewpoint we never see articulated at the movies.