Today there are internet quizzes, as there always will be, to help clarify things. “How High Maintenance Are You Really?” one test offers. “What % High and Low-Maintenance Are You?” invites another. The tests are testaments, in their promises to apply scientific rigor to a question that doesn’t deserve it, to movies’ power as engines of language. (The verb gaslight, for one, which is currently enjoying a tragic renaissance, comes most directly from the 1944 film of the same name.)
But high-maintenance is one of a particular subgroup of pop-cultured insults that are applied, most commonly, to women—a category that whiffs of feminist backlash. There’s MILF, popularized by American Pie; and cougar, popularized by the 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men; and cool girl, introduced by Gone Girl; and gold digger, an insult of long standing recently revived by Kanye West. There’s butterface, derived over time from movies and music. There’s Monet (Cher in Clueless: “From far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big ol’ mess”). There’s cankle—whose coinage added one more entry to the ever-expanding list of body parts women might feel insecure about—popularized by the allegedly romantic comedy Shallow Hal. (“She’s got no ankles,” Jason Alexander’s character, Mauricio, says. “It’s like the calf merged with the foot—cut out the middleman.”)
The designations are often unfalsifiable, because they live in the eyes of their beholders. And they are often popularized in the context of comedy, which gives them another kind of impunity: Calm down, we’re just telling jokes. As it happens, the 30th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally falls around the time of the 30th anniversary of Seinfeld, the first episode of which aired on NBC in July 1989. The comedies were deeply similar in their contours. Both were propelled not so much by plot as by snappy dialogue; both were, in their ways, shows about nothing that reveled in their reductions of the world and its workings.
Seinfeld did the reveling so giddily that before long it created its own lexicon: Close talkers. Low talkers. Regifters. Mimbos. Man hands. Et cetera. It wasn’t always people whom Jerry & Co. would sort in this manner (see also the double-dip and the big salad and the vault). But Seinfeld walked a fine line. Its classifications, while often deliciously funny, also hinted at something darker, and colder. The show was animated by the idea that people are often more interesting as caricatures than they are as fuller characters and, especially in light of current events, that makes for an uncomfortable proposition.
When Harry Met Sally’s comedy was softer and kinder, but through Harry, it navigated similar tensions. Its solution was to treat its lead’s misanthropy not primarily as a flaw, but rather as a source of charm—and as a vehicle of extreme honesty. (“The only way the movie would work,” the director Rob Reiner has said, “was if we really exposed what men and women really felt and really thought about.”) The film’s writing, courtesy of the brilliant mind of Nora Ephron, insisted that Harry’s assessments of things were not callous, but simply reflections of how things were. When Harry Met Sally is ultimately the story of Harry’s arc: The question it asks, in the end, is not whether women and men can be friends, but whether a guy who hates almost everyone can open himself up to a single someone. That he proves able to evolve suggests an absolution. Sally, at one point, frustrated with Harry’s antics, calls him “a human affront to all women.” She concludes, though, with this: “You make it impossible for me to hate you.”