“Don’t get mad, get everything!” says a blonde woman I don’t recognize. Yes, I think to my nine-year-old self, get everything. I click off the TV in my living room and go about doing whatever I did at that age when I wasn’t watching The First Wives Club over and over again (steal granola bars? Log onto AOL to send an email in Comic Sans?). Coming of age in the 90s made me obsessed with a few things: Leonardo DiCaprio, TLC, pizza Lunchables, and most importantly, divorce.
For the record, my parents were together for the entirety of my childhood. I was neither married nor divorced at that time, and there was no stepmother lurking on the sidelines of my life. And yet, I was ready: I knew the exact tricks I would play on my stepmom (thanks, The Parent Trap) or stepdad (thanks, Man of the House). I was down to pack my bags to go to my dad’s every weekend, and I was ready to make my mom fall in love with George Clooney a la One Fine Day. But what I was really training for, from about third grade onward, was my divorce.
While the 90s were peak years for divorce-as-a-plot-point-movies, they were also the golden age of fictional women setting shit on fire, and I was ready to participate. Waiting to Exhale, the one true divorce film to end all divorce films, set the bar so high for women lighting things on fire that I think filmmakers just decided to call it quits and let Angela Bassett walking away from a car aflame loom large in our cultural imagination. And let us not forget the IRL example of Lisa Left Eye Lopes’ I’ll-burn-your-sneakers-in-a-bathtub-oops-I-set-your-whole-house-on-fire masterpiece. I still can’t listen to “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay (dance remix)” without feeling the need to take a man’s belongings and just destroy them.
I should probably pause and say here that as an adult I do not recommend arson, nor do I mean to be flippant about the emotional toll of actually getting divorced. I’ve just always been enamored with the specific and simplistic way it was portrayed by Hollywood in the 90s. It is an interest that has quietly hummed along and accompanied me throughout my life. Though my aspirations have changed significantly — I no longer want to be a Broadway star or host 20/20 — my fascination with the Divorced Woman (capital d, capital w) lives large. Amelia jokes that I am always on the Nancy Meyers beat, and while I love menocore, it largely has to do with the prominence of the “woman rebuilding or rediscovering her life after her marriage has ended” narrative at which my girl Nancy excels.
Much like classic rom-coms where everyone ends up together and is happy and fulfilled and SNOOZE, a major source of the appeal of these divorce stories is affluence. Revenge looks so much more appealing when it’s cultivated from the inside of a walk-in closet as opposed to, I don’t know, waiting in line at Trader Joe’s. When you’re battling it out for a gorgeous brownstone or art you purchased together on that trip to Italy, divorce only gets messy in the most glamorously superficial sense. Mourning the end of a relationship from the comfort of your friend’s Restoration Hardware couch as you curl up in Eileen Fisher pants, while sad, still paints a certain aspirational lifestyle, no? Who wouldn’t love a life where you can somehow balance having three kids with dating Pierce Brosnan, per Mrs. Doubtfire, or fall in love in at a gorgeous Jamaican resort post-midlife crisis, per Stella Got Her Groove Back? According to the movies, being rich and heartbroken looks significantly better than being sort of happy but broke and stressed all the time.
Buried within the ridiculous hyperbole though, is something poignant: To hate someone so much, to be so wounded as to want to set his stuff on fire, you have to have loved that person a whole lot. It’s the depth of feeling, the turning of oneself over fully to emotions that, as I get older, becomes increasingly appealing. The double-edged sword of my obsession with The End is that it’s made beginnings hard for me. I don’t think I’ve ever fully turned myself over to someone without an eye as to how that person will walk out the door. When my relationships do end, it’s all very reasonable and all slightly sad; a small fizzling out, a move for a job, wanting different things.
Sometimes I wonder if my lifelong goal of being a divorcee is rooted in the fact that I don’t want to be married at all, which I find slightly less funny. With a flashy movie divorce, I get the things out of marriage I think I do want — a wedding, kids, a sprawling cottage in northern California in which to bake croissants, the attention of a mysterious new man who wants to nurse my emotional wounds and make me believe in love again. But do I really want the drudgery of twenty-ish years with the same person?
My parents did eventually get divorced, but by then I was 18. No major blowouts, no evil step-parents ready to ship me off to boarding school, no double-present holidays. It was sad and it was hard, but in a way, it ended up serving as the gunshot that set off my sprint into adulthood. The first of many moments where the things and institutions I was told would profoundly change me (college, grad school, first job) somehow ended up a little dingier and more normal than expected. Where the things in life were hard not in a flash and fury, but in a slow slog. In that sense, my parents’ divorce turned out to be less about pranks and drama and more about getting on with my life during a fundamental shift.
I still unabashedly love divorce films, but now, instead of setting my sights on one day being both litigious and vengeful, I am focusing on summoning the emotional resilience of these women when I need it, and fostering the kind of bonds that extend beyond romance — or the death of it. Because that’s what The First Wives Club and Waiting to Exhale are really about: living a life of passion without fear of the end and knowing that there are good things waiting for you on the other side.
That being said, I’d make a pretty good stepmom.
Photo via Everett Collection.