The Narrative of Heartbreak and “Big” (1988)

In a flash Fake Winehouse was able to transform the height of our hetero-normative experience back into something she was more comfortable with, her own safe space of gender neutrality, with the magic words: “get this shit off me.” Tossing her the tissue box, big girl can clean herself up, I chastised her for breaking the narrative, something usually reserved for slightly longer than fifteen seconds after sex.

Winehouse may have rolled her eyes, but the fact of the matter remains: sex is the narrative of attraction. For the red-hot 20 minutes I spent with Amy, she behaved like the ideal submissive, adhering to my direction and following my lead. This was what she wanted in the moment, appealing to her basic female nature. After, when her big girl brain came back into focus, the feminist was suddenly disgusted with herself, and, “get this shit off me,” was her way of re-framing the horrifying mess she’d made by treating me like an Alpha male- the real truth of which may be up for minor debate.

Sex is like editing together a documentary film. Everything is based in reality, but it’s up to you to put together the story. Initial attraction may be there, but if you don’t string things together the right way, you’re not getting laid.

Both sexes have their role in building this narrative. It’s too easy to reduce the female’s role to that of a movie goer or theater attendee; “just start the damn show and hope I don’t walk out.” Although there is truth to that dynamic, the woman has her part in showing up fit for the performance.

If she’s had the bad luck of being out with a beta-doofus, only minimal effort is required. The slightest exertion of feminine prowess will allow her absolute control over the situation. These aesthetic stakes will rise along-side the value of the man interested. By the time she shows up to the date, he’ll already know if he wants to fuck her or not- from there, as long as she doesn’t commit an egregious, narrative disrupting crime of anti-sexuality, her job is mostly done- any further action on her part is for sport.

As a man falls under the aesthetic spell of a woman, he’ll construct the rest of the narrative on his own with very little input from her. Did she try to make a joke? It’s hysterical! Did she make a rather obvious observation? She’s so smart! Is there any kind of minor nuance to her behavior that can be focused on and doted over? She’s adorable!

His misguided interpretation of her qualities will remain until his attraction for her has been extinguished, which may be accompanied by feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, or even disgust, depending on the particulars of the situation.

Since anything beyond her aesthetic may be his narrative imposing on reality, there isn’t a lingering question of authenticity. Ironically, the authenticity of her beauty is actually debatable- women have an entire arsenal of weapons to deceive the gullible- however, most men are only looking for surface level approval.

Conversely, authenticity is a central question for her- an on-going issue to which her attraction to him is contingent upon.

She will also see what she wants and lie to herself, but rather than constructing a false narrative based on his aesthetic, she magnifies the fragments of his personality that she finds attractive and comes to the conclusion that he “must always be like that.”

This is as much a naive fantasy as his personifying her beauty into the idealized girlfriend. While he’s putting his best foot forward on their date in an attempt to have a sex worthy Alpha male performance, she’s going along for the ride believing that he’s being himself and this decisive, assertive, cool and confident guy is just who he is.

Only it isn’t so easy- women are savvier in this department than men. She’ll subconsciously match his behavior to what he looks like while trying to determine if he should be entitled to acting so decisive, assertive, cool and confident. And if this scan turns up negative, she’ll think he’s faking his swagger and aggressively test the depth of his authenticity.

And if he’s able to hold this frame together for long-enough, he’ll get laid.

All human relationships contain a degree of narrative, requiring effort and social pruning, because we’re really just animals on a dirty rock floating in space. But, yes, we have the capacity of forming intimate relationships with one another, and that can be a great experience… or a devastatingly disappointing experience… or something so torturous that it becomes mentally crippling. Even the bonds of family are held together by narrative- and if this seems inaccurate to you, you likely don’t know the pain of a distant mother or an absent father… or, even a murderous mother.

There is no greater emotional pain than of a narrative dissolving. Death, of course, is the ultimate narrative dissolution… but short of an ending so dramatic, there is an element of innocence lost for good when a relationship falls into disrepair. When you can take a step back and recognize the true peak, the trust and good feelings that went with it, and even if you’re not conscious of the narrative elements that engendered the connection, you’re highly aware of your new status as strangers.

If we can crystallize heartbreak to a single moment, it would be the intersection between confidant and stranger.

I find this moment to be the most pivotal scene in Penny Marshall’s masterpiece “Big” (1988), where the adolescent-in-an-adult-body Josh is with girlfriend Susan at Sea Point Park after having just crossed the metaphorical point-of-no-return, using the magical Zoltar machine to wish away his adult life.

Upon watching “Big” for the first time in years, this scene carried  a tremendous emotional weight which I hadn’t remembered, nor prepared for, to the point where I found myself re-watching the scene so many times consecutively that I had to turn the whole thing off and compose myself.

This silly 1980’s Tom Hanks comedy had hit a raw nerve, unexpectedly, and I needed distance from it.

The moment, perfectly composed, between Hanks and Perkins manages to use the fantasy elements of “Big” as a means to convey an accurate portrayal of the most heartbreaking moment of a break-up; the moment where it’s finally acknowledged out-loud that the point-of-no-return has been crossed; the narrative has been destroyed.

When the normalcy of yesterday becomes the reality of today.

We were in her car getting pizza. Her car, because mine was in the shop. Things didn’t feel strained as we waited for our pie to be made, but the ride home got heavy. After three years, the days blend together and it’s easy to get too comfortable. Although it wasn’t spoken of explicitly, we knew what was coming, but like a terminally ill patient hoping for just another day, it was easy to put off the inevitable… But something happened on the way home. I can’t recall exactly what was said, but something triggered a long conversation, with a hot pizza box on my lap, in the passenger seat of her car. And after saying our goodbyes, I tossed the cold pizza in the garbage on the way into my apartment and went to bed.

The fantasy element of “Big” allows for a rarely seen big-screen adaptation of the terminally ill break-up scenario- which is usually a bit too low action for Hollywood, but provides the opportunity for tremendous emotional depth.

Josh and Susan were forced by powers greater than themselves to end their relationship in a manner entirely irrevocable- Josh was living in a world that he didn’t belong in and was unsuited for; a thirteen year old can only fake his way through the corporate world for so long… and while this moment was sad for Josh, he liked dating Susan and screwing Elizabeth Perkins, there was certainly the tremendous upside of returning to his family and his comfortable adolescent life, more likely the better man for his brief glimpse into adulthood.

But like all good literature and cinema, the experience of watching “Big” will vary according to the age of the viewer… a child watching “Big” will understand the story as Josh’s journey into the esoteric adult world, with all adult characters in this journey acting as elaborate props, or accessories to aid Josh in his experience. With this framework, Susan serves as the “girlfriend accessory” for Josh to have a truly thorough experience.

However, an adult watching “Big” will understand the story as equally owned by Susan as a fully-realized character, and by the end of the film may be more in-tune with her character arc as Josh walks back home in his over-sized suit.

While their break-up may have been sad for Josh, it’s absolutely devastating for Susan.

To fully appreciate this, it feels important to understand exactly who Susan is. Susan is an unmarried woman in her early thirties who begrudgingly works in corporate America, a job which, like Josh, she isn’t well-suited for. Susan has had a string of failed relationships with co-workers, and is currently involved with a man whom she doesn’t particularly seem to like, but it’s alluded that Susan is drawn to the most successful men at MacMillan Toys… ideals that Susan was raised to believe: become the strong independent woman and date the most successful Alpha male. If Susan wasn’t raised in Manhattan- something impossible to know- she certainly came to the big city with these goals in mind.

And with these goals in-mind, Susan meets Josh- first as an invisible data entry clerk making less than two-hundred dollars weekly. No matter how quirky and charming Josh could have been in this capacity, Susan would have never noticed nor cared. It’s only when Josh raises his profile at MacMillan, becoming Vice President in name-only, that Susan takes notice, and throws herself at him solely due to his corporate success.

But Josh, as a thirteen year old, doesn’t get it. Josh inadvertently rejects Susan’s sexual advances, while tapping into something much greater. For Susan, Josh has proven his Alpha male credibility by falling ass-backwards into corporate success. But unlike what Susan has become used to with the typical corporate sharks she dates, Josh has an easy presence and an obvious sincerity; Josh is genuine because that’s all Josh knows.

Susan falls in love with Josh because he meets her minimum standard for a man whom she’d consider dating- career success- while not coming attached with all the baggage that career success usually brings: a boring, stressed out, alcoholic asshole. This was likely something Susan hadn’t considered as possible as she’s gotten older and more romantically jaded, and Josh manages to be so refreshingly different- while also necessarily the same- that Susan is able to take the qualities she likes about Josh and impose her own narrative to fill-in the gaps… almost as if aging Susan is intentionally ignoring the more childlike behavior which Josh exhibits, something comically obvious to the audience, in a desperate attempt to hold the whole thing together.

A similar dynamic exists between Josh and corporate boss MacMillan, a toy company veteran who is sick of working with joyless and ineffective corporate drones. MacMillan appreciates Josh’s childlike sincerity and enthusiasm, promoting him to the top of the company, while willfully ignoring the rather obvious red flags of Josh’s immaturity… imposing his own narrative on Josh.

The moment Susan acknowledges the impossible, that Josh is actually a thirteen year old body-switched into an adult,  the “point-of-no-return” for a break-up has been crossed, and in this case, it feels like a strange combination of Josh’s death, and the idea that Josh never actually existed.

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When Susan reaches out to hug Josh one last time- the kind of hug where you don’t want to let go- it serves as the transition point between the romanticized yesterday and the reality of today. Susan realizes that Josh only existed as her narrative, that she magnified the fragments of his personality which she found attractive, while willfully ignoring what she didn’t want to see…but the strength of reality intervened, destroying her narrative entirely.

And “Big” feels like Susan’s story when she laments how Josh won’t remember her, revealing the sad truth of the matter. While Josh’s experience with Susan was significant, it wasn’t significant in the same way as the experience was to Susan.

Like a child watching “Big,” Susan existed as an accessory for Josh- a gateway into a different world; the esoteric experiences of adulthood. For Susan, the narrative of Josh represented relief and salvation from that very same world; a world which couldn’t deliver on the promises it made to a younger, more innocent Susan. For Susan, Josh felt like her last chance to make good.

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7 comments

  1. neovictorian23 · September 4

    Just another beautiful wonderful deep dive…thanks for this insightful piece.

  2. Pingback: The Narrative of Heartbreak and “Big” (1988) | Reaction Times
  3. Leiff · September 5

    Great post! I never much cared for the Susan character as she is exactly what you say, a career woman looking to be rescued from her boring life as corporate drone.

    Wonder what you think of Splash, my other favorite Tom Hanks movie.

  4. Pingback: The Very Best of Last Week in Reaction (2016/09/04) – The Reactivity Place
  5. CEO Nikolic · September 8

    The movie “Big” is an example of a type of film which has been disappearing from the multiplexes for some time now in favor of superhero flicks and umpteenth-sequels.

    If it “touched a raw nerve” for you, then, in modern times, it tends to end up on the cutting floor. Does anyone go to McDonald’s and rave over the gourmet food? It’s adequate and cheap. That’s what a movie is today.

    Anyway, Bad Billy, I’d like to come visit my site and read my article on Hollywood. And then add your thoughts to it. My Hollywood article is a broader-themed attack against the industry, a broadside intended to hit them where it hurts, the studio execs in charge of things. Read, and comment on it.

    Or — comment on anything I write.

    Click on my name or remember qedbook.wordpress.com . . . I will be back to your site for more wide-angle shots into the dark, labored world of the Hollywood cinematic landscape.

  6. Matthew Hurwitz · September 11

    Great article. There’s another tragic aspect to the fairytale when viewed through the modern lens: the relationship ends because Hanks was literally a boy at heart, not a truly emotionally mature adult man. A modern remake of “Big” from Susan’s POV would be painfully relevant today.

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