'What Women Want': A Brief History

Whether you blame it on Alex Trebek or on Mel Gibson, it's a silly idea with deep roots.

It is rare that Jeopardy! earns the exclamation point in its name. This week, however, the soporific quiz show found itself the subject of controversy after it aired a collection of answers grouped, blithely, under the category of "What Women Want." This included answers like "A PAIR OF JEANS THAT FIT WELL, LIKE THE 525S FROM THIS BRAND" ("what is Levi's?") and "TIME TO EXERCISE; PERHAPS A CLASS IN THIS DISCIPLINE NAMED FOR FOUNDER JOSEPH, WHO INITIALLY CALLED IT CONTROLOGY" ("what is Pilates?") and "SOME HELP AROUND THE HOUSE; WOULD IT KILL YOU TO GET OUT THE BISSELL BAGLESS CANISTER ONE OF THESE EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE?" ("what is vacuum"?).
Yeah. I'll take "Eeesh" for $800, please, Alex.
The whole thing was bad. As in, you-want-to-assume-it-was-some-kind-of-publicity-stunt bad, because the less generous assumption is that the whole thing was simply Jeopardy!'s-writers-and-producers-actually-just-being-that-terribly-tone-deaf bad. As a Jeopardy! category, "What Women Want" was glib. It was facile. It was an affront to the #notallwomen hashtag, not to mention the "not all women" reality of life. It ignored the fact that, if there is one thing women as a singular group actually do want, it is probably, you know, not to be treated as a singular group in the first place.
It's also worth noting, however, that while the idea of the feminine monolith was made manifest this week in a particularly Trebeksplainy way ... it's certainly not a novel concept. Nor is "what women want" a novel term. It's based on the old-in-every-sense notion that women, as a kind of species unto themselves, think and act and want in a certain—and therefore predictable—way. It is a sales pitch, essentially: a promise that the manifold mysteries of human desire can be explained with one multi-angled acronym: W(hat) W(omen) W(ant).
You can trace the WWW term itself, in its widespread cultural adoption, to the early 1970s—around the same time, appropriately and also ironically, that second-wave feminism and the Women's Movement were coming to popularity in the U.S. Here is its emergence and rise, tracked year over year, in Google's enormous corpus of books and periodicals:
Google (click to enlarge)
And here, for comparison, is the rise of references to "all women" during the same period:
Google (click to enlarge)
Oh, and also on general desire (What Women Want: Evidence from British Social Attitudes). And also on commercial desire (What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping). And also religious desire (What Women Want: The Life You Crave and How God Satisfies). And also on fictionalized desire (What Women Want: A Novel).
But it's not just books, of course, that have made use of the WWW framework. Or, for that matter, poems. Or, for that matter, personality quizzes. Digital media outlets have also capitalized on the WWW, in the form of listicles ("Top 10: Things Women Want"), record-corrections ("Myths About What Women Want"), and Facebook groups. So have marketers (see the third annual "What Women Want Expo," coming to the Charleston Area Convention Center this November).
But if you want to place blame for the most recent Jeopardy! catastrophe on one singular source ... that source would probably be Mel Gibson. Or, more specifically, the 2000 rom-com he starred in with Helen Hunt, which was even more wretched than its title—What Women Want—would suggest. The ostensible idea of the movie—which stars Gibson as Nick Marshall, a chauvinistic ad executive who, after an accident leaves him electrocuted(!), finds himself able to hear women's thoughts(!)—was that women are much more complicated than most media portrayals give them credit for. The actual idea of the movie, of course, is that the question of "what women want" can be fairly answered with two words: "Mel" and "Gibson." ("If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and you can speak Venutian," Marshall's therapist—Bette Midler—tells him, "the world can be yours.")
Marshall is meant to be redeemed by the insight that weeks' worth of LadyThought-reading have afforded him: "Women worry all the time," he concludes, "about everything."
Later: "Believe it or not, I know what it's like to be a woman," Gibson-as-Marshall announces. "It's not as easy as it looks."
You know what makes it harder, though? The idea that "being a woman"—wanting things as a woman—means anything definitive at all. Not to mention the idea that women's desires are meaningfully different from that less-remarked-upon thing: what men want.