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Men Take Revenge On `First Wives'

Pickets Denounce Film as `Sexist'

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 11 1996; Page D01
The Washington Post

The jolly new American chick revenge flick "The First Wives Club" has soared to surprising box office success -- $58.3 million in its first three weeks -- on the hoots and guffaws of the nation's women.

The nation's guys have tended to be a tad less enthused.

In fact, some of said guys have picketed the movie in 32 cities from San Francisco to Des Moines, including Washington. (And, the organizers proudly note, in three foreign countries -- Canada, New Zealand and South Korea. Go figure.)

"It's one of the most blatant examples of sexism we've ever seen," says Stuart A. Miller, legislative analyst for the Arlington-based American Fathers Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of 250 men's organizations across the nation. "Is sexism funny? After all, racism isn't."

Miller organized a picket line last Friday -- 10 or 15 men manned it -- at the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue, where "Wives" is out of the gate almost hourly on two screens. He says he thinks it's "based on a hyper-stereotype that men are louts, which subsequently justifies terrorism of them by three ex-wives who are anything but marriage material themselves."

These would be Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, who play women in their forties dumped by their hubbies in favor of brimming-with-sex youngsters (one none-too-brilliant chippy is played by Sarah Jessica Parker) or, in one case, a middle-aged therapist who fancies herself brimming with sex.

The wives band together to get revenge. And they do.

"They seek revenge by both legal and illegal means," says Albert Whale, a Pennsylvania member of the National Congress for Fathers and Children, who picketed the movie in Pittsburgh. "Revenge on anybody's part is uncalled for. Divorce is supposed to be a two-way street."

Actually, Whale admits, he hasn't seen the film: "Any time you have a movie that has a suicide, four divorces, parental alienation, blackmail, alcoholism and kidnapping, and you want to pass it off as funny, I fail to see where it's funny. Being divorced, I've been through that."

Some of it, anyway.

David R. Usher, of St. Louis, has seen it. He is national secretary of the 10,000-member NCFC, an outfit that seeks to "grant to fathers the same rights in the family as we have granted to women in the workplace." He's the man who pulled together the worldwide protest just two weeks after the movie opened, using the Internet.

"The thing is . . . `First Wives Club' just crossed the line," Usher says. "The day the movie came out, the Internet went off like a cannon. I just got tons of e-mail saying it was awful, people couldn't believe it."

Usher says that "just below the surface of the film is the story of divorce, as we commonly know it in America. And that is, we arbitrarily revoke the social standing of men in family and society after divorce, and we take their children from them, and then we expect them to pay for it all!"

The movie's theory, on the other hand, is that women are the ones who are always getting the short end, and need to be empowered.

Usher's organization, for its part, is "not trying to close down the theaters; we're very friendly. We're just trying to open America's eyes to the fact that we're a sexist nation. I view `The First Wives Club' as being a documentary of that."

In a press release earlier, Usher pointed to what he sees as the deeper problem: that while "we once valued men and women for how they cared for their families, now we see men as a child support problem and women as helpless baby makers. . . . Sexism has destroyed the relationship between the average man and woman."

Well, not entirely.

"What about the solid, trustworthy, There Every Time You Need Them kind of guys in our lives?" writes Washington public relations woman Beverly Wyckoff Jackson in a fax she's sent around town in the wake of the "First Wives" phenomenon. "Take my own husband [Brooks Jackson], for instance. God willing, we'll have our 24th wedding anniversary in November. I like to say that I'm his `first wife' and he's my `last husband.' "

God willing!

(It must also be noted that the nation's men have not been entirely alone in noticing certain character flaws in the movie's female characters, who are often at one another's throats. On Wednesday, Oprah Winfrey brought up the need for second-wives clubs. "We're barely getting by," said one second wife, voicing a concern about husbands who pay alimony and child support to their first wives. "We face stress every day with everything that goes on -- finances. We can't afford to buy the kids, you know, little things for school.")

Miller, the American Fathers Coalition honcho, says he even feels sympathy for the female characters in the movie.

"All kinds of criminal acts are being perpetrated by these women whose whole lives are obsessed with hate and revenge," he reasons. "Yet we know that in the major religions, these are negative human qualities that only hurt the people who harbor them, rather than the targets of the hate."

Yesterday, Miller attended the federal Conference on Father Involvement sponsored by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda. It is part of a government-wide effort to implement President Clinton's June 16, 1995, order that federal programs "explicitly include fathers and strengthen their involvement with their children."

None of the distinguished academic panelists in the morning session -- all men -- had seen the movie. All said they planned to.

"I saw the previews," said one top federal official -- a guy who begged not to be identified. "It seems to make fun of getting even after divorce, which is a very unhealthy kind of attitude.

"My wife wants to see it real bad."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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