Why do men always think they can save us? That may be the wrong question, because there are plenty of people with all different kinds of answers to that. Some might say it’s a result of our entire patriarchal society where women are viewed as the weaker sex and need the strong men to protect us. Some others might think it doesn’t go that far and will say it’s because of pop culture, with icons like Superman or John Wayne teaching men that being strong and saving the womenfolk is the only way to truly be a man. Maybe it’s a combination of the two of those, maybe it’s something else entirely that goes even further and deeper.
Perhaps the better question would be, why don’t men ever learn that they can’t save us? Whether it’s physical threats, emotional turmoil, financial struggles, or even just a bad boss, there are always going to be men that think they can ride in on their white horse and save women from every problem that comes their way. But most men aren’t Superman, and most problems can’t be fixed by having a male swoop in and whisk you away.
Before I go any further, I think it’s important to clarify something. I’m not talking about good deeds, or helping your friends and loved ones in any and every way that you can. Goodness and kindness are an infinite resource that we all have to give, and offering a helping hand to others, even strangers, is so important to our society. No, what I’m talking about here is the noble savior, the knight in shining armor, who thinks that all they have to do is ride in, sweep the girl up onto their white horse, and ride off into the sunset where they can live happily ever after. It’s this fantasy that it seems men can never let go of, it’s this fantasy that women find it so tiring to tiptoe around or cater to, and it’s this fantasy that can cause so many rifts in relationships.
It’s not just boys that grow up learning this. Little girls are often raised on stories about being rescued from a tower by a knight in shining armor, that all they have to do is be patient and their Prince Charming will save them from their lives. Most of the time, however, girls learn. It never seems to take very long for women to abandon their girlhood fantasies of being rescued and realize they’ll have to fend for themselves. But then again, when one of the major threats to your safety and well-being is the one that’s supposed to save you, it’s pretty easy to see through the fantasy.
Cecilia was the first of the Lisbon sisters to be told that men would fix her problems, when Dr. Horniker suggests inviting boys over as a way to help with her depression. Cecilia was also the first to try and show the boys that nothing they did could save her by jumping out the window right under their noses.
The boys didn’t learn the lesson she was trying to teach them, although I guess that makes sense. One freak occurrence is not going to change everything you’ve grown up believing. We never heard from Dr. Horniker again, so we’ll never know if he learned anything. I certainly hope so, even though experience has taught us that the chances are slim.
It took the rest of the Lisbon girls a little while longer to learn, but not much longer. Lux mostly got the lesson from Trip. Waking up to find you’ve been abandoned in the middle of a football field is a harsh way to wake up, in more ways than one, but her excursions to the roof solidified the knowledge. In the iconic shot of her with her cigarette, staring into nothing, there’s a coldness in her eyes that we hadn’t seen before, that only shows up in a girl’s face after she’s learned that she’s on her own.
It’s not as clear when Therese, Mary, and Bonnie learned, but I’d wager it was somewhere in those phone calls with the boys, when they were reaching out for help in the only way they could and in return received records played over the phone. Don’t get me wrong, they were good songs, and the messages in them spoke loud and clear, but it wasn’t the most practical rescue of all time. And I’m not blaming the boys for that. They were only teenagers, after all, in a sticky situation with no real answers. But how many of us can relate to reaching out to someone you think can help you, only to realize there’s nothing they can do and you’re on your own in this. But while the Lisbon sisters were facing this realization trapped in their house, the boys across the street still thought their rescue mission was chugging along.
Maybe it’s the adult narrator that makes this so frustrating. Teenage boys not being able to figure out what they were missing is understandable; they’re still learning about the world and growing. But now those boys are grown men with careers and children of their own, and they’re still gathering all of the evidence and scanning through the pictures and diaries, looking for the gaps in the story, never realizing that the biggest gaps of all are their own misunderstandings, never understanding that they couldn’t be the heroes for those girls.
In the final words of the film, the narrator states, “They hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time,” but that’s not true. The Lisbon sisters heard you loud and clear, but they knew then what you have still not managed to figure out. They knew that you couldn’t save them, you couldn’t ride in, swoop them up onto your white horse, and ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after.