Image by John Kazior

Scenes from a Crisis | Selfishness Switches Genders

Oscar Schwartz

Midway through Joachim Trier’s film The Worst Person in the World, Julie, the main character, finds herself lost and unsure how to move forward on life’s path. She recently turned 30, works in a bookshop, and lives with her boyfriend, Aksel, in a tastefully furnished apartment in downtown Oslo. He is in his 40s, a successful comic book illustrator whose gentle, nerdishly charming demeanor belies a moderately deviant imagination. Aksel is committed to life with Julie. He wants to have children with her. She wants to be with him, too, but first she needs to figure some things out. Does she want kids? Is working in a bookshop enough? She has creative ambitions, and sometimes takes photos and writes personal essays in her spare time, but she hasn’t been able to devote herself to either, unlike Aksel, who is forever at his easel. There’s something about his commitment that feels stifling to Julie. When she meets Eivind, a younger, simpler man, at a wedding she crashes, he offers an alluring alternative — a glimpse beyond her current life. They don’t hook up. Instead, they urinate in front of one another, to release the tension.

One morning, after another chance encounter with Eivind at the bookshop where she works, Julie is standing in the kitchen with Aksel. He offers her coffee and, just as he is about to pour it, she flicks a light switch and the world pauses — an inexplicably fantastical moment in an otherwise naturalistic film (what Trier refers to as his trademark “messy, jazzy formalism”). Everyone and everything is frozen, except for Julie, who goes looking for Eivind, and finds him also immune to the glitch. They spend a day together talking and kissing in a park while the rest of the city remains suspended. When Julie returns to her apartment and flicks the switch again, the action resumes, and she is changed. She tells Aksel that she is leaving him. “I can see you’re in a crisis,” he says, tearfully. “I can understand that. But if you love me, we’ll sort it out.” Julie says that love is not enough. To answer the questions she has, she needs total freedom, an agency and self-possession that their relationship prohibits. “I feel like a spectator in my own life,” she says. “Like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life.”

Julie is a familiar character in contemporary film and TV — the woman who, in internet parlance, wants to become the main character of her own life. This woman is probably white, living in a city or a suburb near a city. She is in a secure yet stultifying relationship, usually with a man who is kind and maybe even good-looking but, for some reason, no longer attractive. She loves him but is not in love with him, if you know what she means. And in a similarly vague way, her professional or creative life is dissatisfying, not what it might have been if she had made different choices. In short, life is good, but it is not enough. So, she leaves, cuts ties, abandoning comfort and stability for the new and unknown.

Of course, there have been stories of women abandoning male partners for centuries — the ur-text in modern literature could be Henrik Ibsen’s controversial 1879 masterpiece, A Doll’s House, in which the cloistered housewife Nora walks out on her husband and children. But it was only in the twentieth century that this kind of narrative began to be understood as a normal if not inevitable part of adult life. 

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that adulthood progresses through three defined stages — young, middle, mature — and that passing from one to the next triggers a moment of re-evaluation often experienced as a crisis. This theory was developed further by Elliott Jaques, who coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1957, and Daniel Levinson, who in the 1970s systematized Erikson’s insights into a theory of adult development that he called the “stage-crisis view.” Research undertaken to help facilitate the transition through these crises was conducted almost exclusively by male psychologists and psychiatrists who almost exclusively studied the lives of adult men. Unsurprisingly, their theories tended to emphasize the need for a man to have periods when he could stray, assert independence, or, as Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant put it, let his inner “Brazilian jungle emerge into his conscious life.” Even if the man was acting out, having affairs, seeking distance, “those who care about him should recognize that he is in a normal developmental period,” Levinson wrote. 

This paradigm was recapitulated in much of the film and literature of the second half of the twentieth century. The leading men in the movies of Woody Allen and the novels of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Tom Wolfe, and Martin Amis often conformed to the midlife crisis trope: they were urban, wealthy, white men dissatisfied with their relationships and careers, always trying to flee one life for another, and leaving their female partners behind. Indeed, this plot was so prevalent that a Michiko Kakutani review of Amis’s 1995 novel The Information was headlined “Raging Midlife Crisis as Contemporary Ethos.”

This “contemporary ethos,” to be clear, existed only for men. “The banal drama of a man of fifty who leaves a wife of forty-five for a girlfriend of twenty-eight contains no strictly sexual outrage,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1972. “A woman of forty-five who leaves a husband of fifty for a lover of twenty-eight is the makings of a social and sexual scandal at a deep level of feeling.” But political tastes shifted, and by the first decades of this century, the male in midlife crisis had become a tired cliché. The culture didn’t want to see another commitment-phobic, selfish, egotistic white man leaving one life for another. Such behavior, from a man, was no longer seen as a rite of passage, but as an “excuse for human misbehavior,” as psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman wrote in a 2008 New York Times op-ed entitled “Crisis? Maybe He’s a Narcissistic Jerk.” 

Now we seem to be in a kind of gender-flipped renaissance of the crisis plot. The past year has seen a series of women characters on screen leave partners, family, and jobs in order to achieve some form of personal renewal. In addition to Trier’s Julie, there’s Mira in Scenes from a Marriage, Miranda Hobbes in the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That…, and Leda Caruso in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation The Lost Daughter. They have been lauded by some critics as complex women who correct an abiding double standard. And yet most of them come off as a new type of cliché. 

 

In 1973, at what was perhaps the high-water mark for the classic midlife crisis narrative, a Swedish television miniseries captivated global audiences. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, it chronicles the slow, painful dissolution of a marriage between Johan, a 42-year-old psychology professor, and Marianne, a 35-year-old divorce lawyer. At the outset, the two are apparently content in their bourgeois equilibrium, organized by the rhythms of family, work, and high-strung dinner parties. Johan, in particular, seems almost strangely satisfied. “It doesn’t bother you to never sleep with someone else?” Marianne asks him one night, when they are both a little tipsy. “I don’t fantasize like that,” he replies. Then, one evening not long after, he arrives home from work and tells Marianne, who is making him a sandwich, “I’ve gone and fallen in love.” The next morning, Marianne folds Johan’s clothes and packs his suitcase. He leaves to be with his 23-year-old lover in Paris, and the next five episodes of Scenes from a Marriage track the fallout. 

The series was a cultural event of the highest order. On Wednesday nights during its run, the streets of Stockholm emptied as couples watched TV together, and then got divorced at a much higher rate than ever before, a fact many attribute to the series’s release. Scenes’s influence ramified across generations and beyond Swedish borders. Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story all pay homage. But the most direct reproduction of Bergman’s classic was released last year in a series by the same name written and directed by the Israeli director Hagai Levi, who faithfully recreated the original, but for one crucial detail. This time it is the wife, Mira, who one evening tells her husband, Jonathan, as he gobbles pasta from a Tupperware container, that she is leaving him for a 29-year-old Israeli tech executive. The next morning, he folds her clothes and packs the suitcase she takes to Tel Aviv.

Levi conceived of Mira to resolve a problem he had with Johan. “I couldn’t identify with him,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t stand him, you know? I didn’t know what to do with this kind of character. And whenever I tried to make him nicer, it just didn’t work.” In the year 2021, who could identify with a man who tells his wife that he’s leaving her for one of his students while she’s making him a sandwich? The gender flip was his solution: “What happened for me is that immediately I identified with the woman who leaves,” Levi said. “I felt so many strong feelings about how she should liberate herself, how she repressed something for many years, and she cannot do that anymore.”

To be sure, Bergman’s Johan is frequently awful — grotesque, weak, and emotionally impoverished. He thinks with his dick. He doesn’t care about his children. He attempts to control Marianne and violently assaults her when he feels his dominion waning. But his awfulness is also, crucially, a foil for Marianne’s development. 

In Bergman’s opening scene, Johan and Marianne are being interviewed for a magazine story about married couples. Johan describes himself as “bright, youthful, successful, and sexy.” A good friend, a good son, a good father, and a “fantastic lover.” Marianne, by contrast, describes herself as “married to Johan.” But then Johan leaves, and in the disarray Marianne must figure out who she is on her own. She begins therapy. She finds a new lover. She finally has the kind of sex she wants to have. She begins to see how much of her was stifled by Johan. For his part, Johan lurches from affair to affair. His career stalls. Once overconfident and ironic, he is now self-pitying and histrionic. “Viewed objectively, I’m dead weight,” he says to Marianne. “I’m an inexpensive, unproductive unit that ought to be eliminated.” By the end of their ordeal, Marianne emerges as the stronger and more developed character, while Johan is pathetic and diminished. “I can’t see how you’re going to cope without me,” she tells him.

In Levi’s updated version, the same pattern holds, but with the roles reversed. The irony of Levi’s rebooted Scenes is that in assigning the midlife crisis to Mira — making this cruel character “bearable” for a modern audience — Levi strips her of the chance to develop and gives it to her husband instead. At the beginning of the series, he is childish, submissive, obsessively generous, afraid of being alone. When Mira leaves, he is, like Bergman’s Marianne before him, forced to get to know himself. He starts therapy. His career takes off. He gets remarried and has another child. In sum, he continues to develop while Mira remains stuck, like Johan, in the context of their former relationship.

Tellingly, Levi has said that Jonathan was his surrogate in the show. “I made him Jewish and ex-religious and put a lot of biographical elements in his character,” he told Salon. Perhaps this explains the decision to switch the genders. Levi couldn’t figure out how to make the male character (read: himself) “nicer,” so he decided to transform him into the one that audiences prefer, while making Mira, the woman, a foil for his development. 

An oddly flat character, Mira is nearly inarticulate throughout the series. Jonathan implores her to explain her decision, and all she can manage in response is a tepid “I don’t know.” When she returns to their house after three months in Tel Aviv, Jonathan admits that, when she left, he fantasized about their daughter dying, “for that to be my revenge.” Mira responds, “It was a nightmare for me, too. I just…” She can’t finish the sentence. Even Johan changes in the original Scenes, becoming voluble and grotesque. In the updated version, Mira remains all defense, all veneer. Toward the end of the series, when she’s just been fired from her job, she tells Jonathan in a rare moment of self-reflection, “I’ve lost that power over everything. The power that comes from being desirous. I sat at the table, and I felt so disposable and old.” He responds, “I’m listening to everything you’re saying but… I don’t feel anything.” I didn’t either. 

 

In the early 1970s, around the same time that Bergman’s Scenes was unsettling Sweden’s married couples, Gail Sheehy, one of New York Magazine’s star reporters, found herself in the midst of what she described as a “breakdown of nerve.” She had recently been caught in the crossfire during the Bloody Sunday riots while on assignment in Northern Ireland. She saw a young boy get his face blown off, and this direct confrontation with death unmoored her. In its aftermath, she found herself, for the first time, uncertain of how to move forward. She made a series of rash and destructive decisions: she broke up with her partner, fired her secretary, alienated her housekeeper. She also developed a paralyzing fear of flying and wept uncontrollably at the site of her dead pet bird.

Looking for answers, Sheehy began reading the psychological literature about life stage development — Erikson, Jaques, Levinson. In their work, she found a useful name for her “breakdown of nerve” — she was having what they called a midlife crisis — but Sheehy was alarmed that practically all the research consisted of men studying other men. To remedy this imbalance, and better understand her own crisis, Sheehy interviewed 115 middle-class men and women. In the course of her reporting, she found that life crises were common to both genders and repeated themselves at regular intervals throughout adult life. She also observed that the subject in crisis, regardless of gender, often left a relationship, found a new job, made a long-distance move, took a new lover — only to find, as she had, that this didn’t necessarily resolve the deeper, existential problem of the self confronting itself.

Sheehy’s lively 1974 book Passages draws on her own experience and on the interviews to offer advice on how to transition through life stages. Throughout, she stresses that while it may be easy to blame these periods of existential disequilibrium on external variables — “the closest person or institution, our mother, our marriage, our work” — often the crisis is caused by an internal impasse which must be confronted. 

Passages offers a framework for understanding precisely why Levi’s gender-flipped Scenes fails. He seems to have believed that merely putting Mira through the motions of a midlife crisis would be enough to make her compelling. But, as Sheehy notes, external circumstances are never on their own sufficient to define a character. Mira’s midlife crisis does not seem to act on her in any meaningful way, nor to deepen our understanding of who she is. Levi woefully neglects her inner stakes, rendering her decision to leave meaningless. 

Something similar seems to have happened to the once-dynamic Miranda Hobbes in And Just Like That…. Now in her early 50s, Miranda is dissatisfied. She has been married to Steve for two decades, and they haven’t had sex in years. She wonders whether they’re still lovers or “just roommates with ice cream and a kid.” She has also recently left corporate law to undertake a master’s in human rights at Columbia, where she betrays how out of touch she is by misgendering another student and commenting on her black professor’s braids. 

Then Miranda meets Che, a self-identified “queer, non-binary, Mexican-Irish diva” and Carrie’s cohost on a sex and relationships podcast entitled “X, Y, and Me.” Miranda follows Carrie and Charlotte to Che’s perplexing “comedy concert” and is awoken from her post-pandemic slump by their on-stage exhortation that “if you are unhappy with your life, you can change it.” The two share a charged moment at the afterparty, and a little while later, when Miranda is looking after Carrie following a surgery, Che drops by with some tequila. While Carrie sleeps, Miranda and Che get drunk and have sex in the kitchen. When Carrie angrily confronts her friend, Miranda confesses that she is unhappy with Steve, unhappy in her life. “I don’t want to be this person anymore,” she says. “I want to be something more.” Eventually she breaks the news to Steve as he watches basketball on the couch, a picture of libido-draining domestic comfort. She tells him to put in his hearing aid, and then she asks for a divorce, calls a cab, and heads to the airport to follow Che to Cleveland. She calls Carrie from the road. “Oh my God, I’m in a rom-com, Carrie!”

Miranda’s arc confused and angered many critics, who referred to her variously as “awful,” “terrible,” “baffling,” and “frustrating.” Some of the vitriolic online reaction to the new Miranda seemed motivated by knee-jerk homophobia. But for the most part, Sex and the City fans found midlife crisis Miranda unrecognizable. What distinguished her in the original series was a sharp critical consciousness. She wore black at her wedding. She refused to be sex-shamed by her housekeeper. When Charlotte announced that she was quitting her gallery job after getting married, Miranda was outraged. She was a particular character, at once confident and sensitive, strident and empathetic.

It’s certainly plausible that the original Miranda would have eventually left Steve (she once complained he was “not a core-shaker”). Also convincing is the proposition that she may have harbored queer desire and sought it out in middle age. What is unbelievable is that she would blow up her life by following such a predictable script. “It was the Trump years that changed her, the Muslim ban, the George Floyd protest,” Cynthia Nixon, who portrays Miranda, explained on The View. Miranda, in other words, became an entirely new cliché — a cardboard cutout of the liberal white woman who took Trump’s election primarily as a charge to improve herself. Nixon elaborated on The Drew Barrymore Show: “When you put a negative spin on it, you call it a midlife crisis…. But out of crises come really productive things.” It is telling that Nixon, who helped write the new Miranda into being, defends the character on the grounds that her midlife crisis is productive. Miranda has realized the political uselessness of the corporate career that was once essential to her character, and decided to study human rights instead. She is reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. And she falls in love with Che. In this light, Miranda’s queer awakening is just another example of her doing [clap] the [clap] work [clap], and Che is no more than a tool for her own political improvement. Both femaleness and queerness are supposed to make her midlife crisis more palatable. Miranda is not just leaving Steve for another man; she has an updated identity that is marketable to liberal HBO streamers.

 

Miranda and Mira both have a change of heart in their middle years, leaving lives already well-established — husbands, children, jobs — for new ones. But Julie, in The Worst Person in the World, is experiencing what is often referred to as a quarter-life crisis. The period after adolescence, when we try to figure out who we want to be and what type of relationships beyond the family of origin we want to forge, is the first of Erikson’s three stages of adulthood. We make new friends and lovers, and lose them, too. Successful completion of this stage, Erikson said, will result in lasting intimacies. Avoiding or continuously swapping out relationships during this period, however, may lead to perpetual loneliness. Trier imposes this condition on Julie, as if ongoing isolation, for women, is in some way a sign of freedom. 

We meet Julie in her early 20s, at medical school, with her hair tied back in a low ponytail. She has just realized that she doesn’t actually want to be a surgeon: she is more interested in the soul than the body. She drops out, enrolls in a psychology program, breaks up with her boyfriend, gets a haircut, starts fucking her professor. But the restless feelings don’t go away. She still feels “trapped in the role of model student,” always wondering when real life is going to start. So, she drops out again, takes up photography, gets another haircut, fucks some models, and then she meets Aksel. 

Julie’s persistent but unexplained flakiness is representative of the psychological shallowness of her character. Like Levi’s Mira, Trier’s Julie is often unable to articulate her thoughts, a quality that seems intended to suggest some sort of compelling but hidden depth. For example, the first real hint we get that she is unhappy with Aksel comes when she leaves the launch party for his book to walk home by herself. Has his success triggered feelings of inadequacy? Maybe. But we never hear that from Julie. Instead, we see her walking along a road somewhere in the hills above Oslo, gazing silently out at the late summer’s setting sun. Later, when Aksel and Julie have broken up and he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he tells her that she was the love of his life, the most important relationship he ever had. “You don’t have to say anything,” he adds. Predictably, she doesn’t.

The result is a remarkable sense of flatness that was absent from the first two installments of Trier’s Oslo trilogy. In Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), Trier and his longtime co-writer, Eskil Vogt, see the Norwegian capital through the eyes of young men. The challenge in writing Worst Person, the third and final chapter, was inhabiting the city once again, but from the perspective of a younger woman. “I had to find the Julie in me,” Trier said in a conversation with Interview magazine. Part of discovering a character, surely, is learning or hearing how she speaks. When Julie does express herself, she comes across as a parody of the Complex Millennial Woman, spouting familiar phrases like “I want more” or “Sometimes, I just want to feel things” or “I feel like a spectator in my own life” without any apparent irony. 

Trier and Vogt don’t give Julie much of a life beyond the men she’s sleeping with. She has no friends. Her relationship with her mother is one-dimensional (her mother supports her unconditionally). She is estranged from her father. Her creative ambitions as a writer and photographer are signposted but never elaborated. The final scene of the movie finds her single, sitting alone in her apartment in Oslo, editing photographs for her new job. Trier may have imagined this to have been her great liberation — she is finally in the proverbial room of her own. But it is, literally, all she has. She is otherwise totally alone, and her life lurches from crisis to crisis, forever unfolding in an anxious, hazy present tense. Julie appears to have found some professional fulfillment, but we’ll never know whether she is satisfied. Trapped in a male fantasy, what matters is that she stays young, free, and hot forever.

 

A crisis presents a character with an opportunity to develop, and, when written well, draws out her compelling particularities. And yet Mira, Miranda, and Julie — women in the midst of major crises — remain empty outlines of some on-trend archetype. What is going on here? Is the woman-in-crisis character exhausted? Would it have been more transgressive and groundbreaking to see Jonathan leave Mira, or Julie as a commitment-phobic man fleeing a relationship with an older woman, or Steve abandoning Miranda for a “Mexican-Irish diva”? Maybe. Or perhaps the problem is with the crisis-and-abandonment narrative itself. Playing out most often among the same subset of people — privileged, white urban dwellers with seemingly no shortage of time and money — the midlife crisis narrative tends to suggest that what makes these people interesting is their capacity for destruction. It valorizes the crisis itself, rather than how it is resolved, as what gives the character depth.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter suggests there may still be room in the genre to create complex characters on screen. The film, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, begins with Leda, a 48-year-old comparative literature professor, arriving at a writer’s residency in a small beach town somewhere in Greece. She is all alone and seemingly very happy about it, until an obnoxious Greek-American family arrives and spoils her solitude. Leda, at once mortified and curious, is particularly taken by Nina, a beautiful young mother to a little girl. She watches them play together on the beach, which triggers a series of flashbacks. We see Leda living with her husband and two young daughters some twenty years earlier in a small apartment. Exhausted, suffocating, she occasionally lashes out: after she finds her daughter has drawn all over a doll her own mother gave her, she says, “This is my doll, you can’t treat her like shit,” and throws the toy out the window.

Back in the present, Leda has befriended the young mother. After Nina’s daughter goes missing one afternoon, Leda finds her and takes her back to Nina, but she steals her doll, which reminds her of the one she took from her own daughter. The two women share secrets. Nina is having an affair with Will, a worker on the island. Leda tells Nina that when her daughters were seven and five, she had an affair with another scholar, broke up with her husband, and then abandoned the family for three years. Nina asks what it felt like without them. “It felt amazing,” she says, crying. “It felt like I was trying not to explode and then I exploded.”

Leda’s narrative conforms to the trope in some ways — the woman in crisis who shatters her life and leaves. And yet she feels different from the others, fully formed in a way they aren’t. This may be in part thanks to Olivia Colman’s performance. But it also has to do with the narrative structure. The flashbacks put the same woman in dialogue with herself at different stages of her life: during and after the crisis. With this dual chronology, it’s not the explosion itself that animates the story, but rather how it echoes in Leda’s psyche. The moment of leaving was a temporary liberation for Leda, but it didn’t last forever. Her affair fizzled, she went back to her daughters, and then, over time, she had to grapple with her decisions. When Nina asks her why she returned home, she responds, “I went back because I missed them. I’m a very selfish person.” 

Such self-knowledge invests Leda with a power that Nina feels threatened by. When Leda finally returns the doll she stole from Nina’s daughter, Nina is appalled and asks her why she did it. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda says. Nina, perhaps seeing the same qualities in herself, lashes out, stabbing Leda with a hairpin. 

What distinguishes Leda from Nina, in the end, is the ability to confront this most difficult truth about herself. The awful insight, “I am an unnatural mother” (crucially, she doesn’t say, “I am a bad mother”), is the reward she gets in return for having acted out her crisis — not some easy and uncomplicated liberation, not the correction of a double standard, but a terrifying self-knowledge. This is precisely what Mira, Miranda, and Julie all go without, and what makes them unsatisfying. 

A successful crisis story requires an awareness — and depiction — of the kind of internal complexity conflict reveals. There is nothing essentially liberatory about blowing up a life, regardless of the gender of the person doing it. But watching a character get to know themselves is what’s compelling — the dark, frightening parts that remain constant regardless of lovers, jobs, and cities. This is partly about shedding internalized narratives and expectations, including gendered ones, about what kind of life is possible. Or, as Sheehy puts it, “with each passage some magic must be given up, some cherished illusion of safety and comfortably familiar sense of self must be cast off, to allow for the greater expansion of our own distinctiveness.”

To depict a character like Leda demands an empathic imagination developed enough to bring a whole new person into being, one whose inner life we can care enough about to ride out the crisis. This cannot be created by a simple gender flip, a literary device that, like a failed midlife crisis, does little more than perfunctorily scramble external circumstances. Indeed, developing a full character is precisely what Ibsen had in mind when writing Nora. It’s said that he became so obsessed with her, got so deep into her psyche, that he would sometimes imagine that he could actually summon her. On one such evening, Ibsen got up from his desk and went to find his wife. “I’ve just seen Nora,” he told her. “She came right over to me and put her hand on my shoulder.” (She responded, perhaps with some sarcasm, “What was she wearing?”)

​​When A Doll’s House was first performed, Nora divided audiences. Some critics saw her as an irrational and frivolous narcissist, a vain and unloving “hysteric” who seeks a false liberation. Others, and particularly those involved in the burgeoning feminist movement, saw her as a modern hero. Ibsen, though, was uncomfortable with both reactions, as they seemed, to him, equally reductive. In 1898, at a 70th birthday banquet given in his honor by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, Ibsen disclaimed his own feminist bona fides. “True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem… but that has not been the whole purpose,” he said. “My task has been the description of human beings.” 

Oscar Schwartz is a writer and journalist. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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