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Learning what “being seen” means after rewatching True Lies 1994

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I have struggled to really grasp what being seen really means to people. That is until I rewatched True Lies 1994. On the surface, the movie looks like another dumb action movie. But dig a little deeper and it’s really about a husband and wife who love each other, but don’t feel seen by their partner.

Scratching an Emotional Itch

The first scene establishes Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as a James Bond-like character. He is confident and completely in control, no matter the situation. Then in the next scene, when he transforms into Harry the husband he is timid about pulling the blanket from his sleeping wife.

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Throughout the early part of the movie Harry’s wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) says many times that her husband is just a salesman and it isn’t like he’s saving the world or anything. She even comments to a friend that when she can’t sleep she just asks him to tell her how his day went and she’s out cold in minutes. She loves him, but he doesn’t impress her anymore. I think that’s a situation many men and women can relate to.

If you’re married for a while then it’s likely that early in your relationship your partner was impressed by you in some fashion or another. It could have been something trivial, like your skill at a video game, or maybe you know how to cook a few really good dishes, whatever. At some time, your partner was impressed by you. But it’s human nature that over time impressive erodes down to status quo.

I think many men and women are left with this feeling, an itch, that we would like to really impress our partner. That can be a little tricky because the things that we think are are impressive isn’t necessarily what our partners will think is impressive.

True Lies gets at what I think most men believe is impressive. Harry can fly a fighter jet, fight hand to hand, and with any weapon. He doesn’t have a need to express his confidence and talents to his wife because he is a confident and capable man. Harry is oblivious to the fact that he’s losing a connection with his wife and daughter who see him as just a regular guy, as if that isn’t enough.

When Harry and Helen are captured Helen still thinks that she is the one they are after and tries to protect Harry. When Helen finally discovers the truth she is furious. Which creates even more distance and tension between the couple. This makes the emotional payoff for men all that more profound. Helen is ready to shoot him, but then Harry displays his talents in the most dramatic fashion possible, by saving both their lives.

Later, when Helen believes that Harry died in an explosion, she sees him hanging from a helicopter, coming to rescue her, again. The amazement she has is palpable. Finally, Harry amazes his daughter by saving her from falling off a sky crane while he flies a fighter jet.

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Ironically, Helen gets duped by a pickup artist playing the spy theme. What she gets out of it is feeling needed for something. While True Lies is completely unrealistic in everyday terms, it perfectly captures the psychological needs that men and women both need: to feel like they are seen

Relatable Role Models

There is a movement to be more inclusive and create role models for more than just a bunch of caucasian men. Which is a great thing. It isn’t like caucasian men are lacking for them; however many of the obvious characters that serve as role models aren’t relatable. Let’s take every super-powered superhero out of the mix. We can love them and want to be them, but it’s fantasy. James Bond, however, is a little more relatable because he’s just a guy who had the right amount of training. Any man can look at James Bond and think in a perfect that could be me. Most James Bond ripoffs take everyday men, such as The Kingsmen, and train them to be elite. Not every man is capable of that. But we know that we’re capable of much more than we achieve and we can fantasize about reaching our potential so that we can be amazing. Especially to the people we love the most.

Can we SEE each other?

Believe me, I get it that True Lies didn’t exactly age well. The trick that Harry plays on Helen in the hotel room is cringeworthy by today’s standards. You don’t have to remind me of that. But what I get out of this is that a lot of men don’t feel seen. It’s certainly not limited to menWomen and minorities have struggled mightily with this issue. But in today’s changing environment, I think there’s an undercurrent felt by many men that being seen is a zero-sum game, and the more attention women and minorities receive, the less attention and praise men get. This isn’t the case at all, but I believe it’s being interpreted that way, which is one reason for the pushback.

I read a female friend’s self-help book recently. The book is about her journey to becoming a fully integrated woman, in control of her own life and happiness. It’s a great story and I’m sure it will inspire many women. The impression I got from her is, by analogy, that women are like pinballs in a pinball machine, getting bounced around by men, rarely in control of their circumstances. That’s because in her life, most of the trauma that she endured came at the hand, oftentimes literally, of men.

But I don’t think men are the pinball machine. I think our society, culture, and systems of control around us are the pinball machine and that we’re all getting bounced around, sometimes off the machine, and oftentimes off each other, and we desperately want to take control of the situation.

Learning About Ourselves Through Characters

My wife has brought up the fact that she often doesn’t feel seen. I buy her gifts, but the gifts don’t reflect that I deeply consider her wants and desires. She feels a general lack of appreciation. Honestly, it left me scratching my head. I want to see and appreciate her, but I’ve felt unsure how to do that. My conscious attempts don’t seem to hit the mark.

I’ve recently become aware that I don’t want to share the things that I write with my wife until they are completely done. I’ve felt that, but not really understand why I felt that until I rewatched True Lies. Now I get it. I don’t want my wife to read the incremental improvements to the books. I would rather wait until it’s complete and ready to ship. I want her to see the finished product and hopefully be impressed. Personally, I feel that regardless of quality, anyone who can write a 1,200-page trilogy, no matter the quality, has done something impressive. If the book is good, then so much the better. What I want is to be seen and recognized for my efforts. If I give it to her in bits and drabs, then it’s not as impressive.

Now that I understand a little more about how I wish to be seen, I think I understand her desire to feel the same way. The hard work is for each of us to understand what being seen means to us individually. It is difficult for my wife to make me feel seen if I don’t know how to do it myself. And the same goes for her. If she understands what being seen means to her then she’ll have a better chance of communicating that to me so I can be more aware.

Writing Inspiring Characters

This brings me back to creating characters. We need more fictional role models who are relatable and who take control of their circumstances but not at the expense of others. We need role models who learn to understand themselves and what they need while simultaneously realizing they play a supporting role in someone else’s main story. We need characters who see each other and reflect the integrated society we need. No doubt, some will decry any attempt as woke, but that’s okay. They have their own trauma. We can’t heal society by giving the anti-woke what they think they want. The only lasting cure will be to give them what everyone else needs: the assurance that we see them and we’re not trying to take anything away from them.

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