(Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Fair Play,” in addition to spoilers for “The Devil Wears Prada,” “A Star Is Born,” “Working Girl,” “Don’t Worry Darling,” and “Sanctuary.”)
In the gendered zero-sum game of love, money, and professional success, Chloe Domont‘s “Fair Play” is a rallying cry for women in uneven — and downright competitive — romantic relationships with men.
The Sundance breakout film, which Netflix landed in a $20 million deal this January, stars Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich as would-be finance world power couple Emily and Luke. The only issue: They’re both analysts at the same investment firm, and there’s just one project manager job up for the taking. While Luke is rumored to be the replacement, Emily actually lands the promotion, prompting Luke to question his role at the firm and in their bed.
Emily weathers Luke’s undermining, changing into an Elizabeth Holmes-esque black turtleneck after Luke sneers that she dresses “like a cupcake” in their corporate office; and she even tries to position Luke, who now reports to her, into a promotion of his own by urging him to take bigger risks with stock purchases. Yet Luke continually messes up and is overlooked by their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan), leading Luke to seek out affirmation from a quasi-men’s rights wellness guru, played (solely in photos) by David Dastmalchian.
The radicalization of men in response to the success of women is not a new concept, and yet, “Fair Play” straddles the power dynamics of perceived femininity. The film opens with lovesick Luke performing oral sex on Emily with menstrual blood smeared on both their lips; “Fair Play” ends with Emily making Luke once again get on his knees in front of her, this time as she slashes his shoulder with a knife to make him the one who bleeds as penance for attempting to rape her.
“It was really about the questions that drove me to write this — like, how can we dismantle this toxic link between female empowerment and male fragility?” writer-director Domont told Esquire. “How can women learn to embrace their successes without fearing that it’ll hurt (their partner)?”
Domont spoke to the personal depths of “Fair Play,” particularly with Emily’s initial “fear” of receiving the promotion over Luke. If one partner wins, the other inevitably loses. Domont described the film as a “thriller,” but really, the true terror is watching Luke lose his mind over Emily being smarter than him.
“I got to a place where I was just normalizing these dynamics within the relationships that I was having,” Domont said. “I was undermining my success and undermining my excitement for my professional career while dating different men,” adding, “The normalization of what was happening became upsetting and untenable.”
Lead actress Dynevor echoed Domont in an interview with Elle, adding, “Every woman I know, it’s their experience in this world. Emily is really trying to make herself small to make him feel masculine, … really going above and beyond to protect his fragile ego. The thing that was really interesting to me is how modern feminism is clashing with traditional masculinity.”
However, it’s not just modern feminism that is at risk over the fight for “masculinity”: It’s always been feminism pitted against masculinism, with one being a movement and the other being a reactionary justification for patriarchy. “For the most part, we raise boys to believe that masculinity is an identity when it’s not. It’s an energy,” Domont told Esquire.
And the work culture depicted in “Fair Play” argues that corporate feminism is distinctly on the terms of, well, men. In this world, women can climb the ranks but still be called a “dumb bitch” if they miss a step along the way. Feminist scholar and critic Tania Modleski wrote in her 1991 book “Feminism Without Women: Criticism in a ‘Postfeminist’ Age” that people are often confusing “feminism with feminization.”
“Male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution,” Modleski wrote, “whereby men ultimately deal with the threat of female power by incorporating it.”
In “Fair Play,” the VC firm incorporates Emily’s talent by promoting her into the “boy’s club” of PMs, inviting her out to strip clubs and making lewd comments in front of her. On paper, it’s “feminist” to have a female PM. In reality, it’s more toxicity that Emily cannot escape, where her gender is spotlit and blamed for her mistakes, and it’s cynical tokenism for surface-level “equality” on the corporate scale.
Luke sneers that Emily will always more closely resemble the sex workers the male executives hire than actually be a part of the boys’ club herself; the insult isn’t so much hyperbole than it is fact. When Emily goes home to Luke, who tells her how proud he is of her accomplishments, he later slowly suffocates her sense of self-worth, leading her to doubt her professional capabilities. It’s not impostor syndrome if it’s imposed on you: That’s just Stockholm syndrome.
“Fair Play” follows in the wake of other work-centric feminist films where male characters are subtly floundering on the sidelines; Domont’s feature is just the one that gives a darker voice to the inner workings of an insecure male mind.
An enduring rom-com example, in which the romance is between a female protagonist and her job rather than her partner, is “The Devil Wears Prada.” The 2006 film’s long-simmering debate over its actual relationship dynamics went viral again in 2022, after TikTok users declared so-called “nice guy” Nate (Adrian Grenier) the real villain or “devil” of the movie set in the cutthroat high fashion world. Nate constantly nags his ambitious girlfriend Andy (Anne Hathaway) about her dedicated work ethic, and ultimately accuses her of sleeping with a male colleague.
Screenwriter Aline Brock McKenna told Entertainment Weekly during the film’s 15th anniversary in 2021 that Nate’s character marks a gender switch of typical rom-coms, with the female lead usually being the one yearning for more domesticity. “His role, which is often a role played by women, is to remind the character of their moral intentions,” McKenna said at the time. “I think he isn’t unsupportive of her work; he’s happy for her, at the end. I don’t think it’s like he doesn’t want her to work.”
Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” which features a disturbing sequence onstage at the Grammys similar to Luke’s drunken office outburst in “Fair Play,” is all about a washed-up man being “happy” for his newfound love’s success in the same field as him. Of course, “A Star Is Born” ends with a suicide, with Cooper’s character Jackson Maine completely eliminating himself from the competition with his now-wife Ally (Lady Gaga) after relapsing into drugs and alcohol over his resentment of her success.
Cooper’s version continued the music industry setting of the 1976 iteration of the oft-adapted story, which starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and which also included the aforementioned cringe Grammys scene. However, the 1976 film also showed John (Kristofferson) cheating on Esther (Streisand) at the height of her fame to reclaim his masculinity; later, he dies in a drunk driving accident, not an intentional suicide.
The 1954 musical film, capitalizing on the 1937 original, has Esther (Judy Garland) endure physical abuse at the hands of love interest Norman (James Mason) after winning an Academy Award for a musical film. Cooper bridged the 1954 film with Norman, later named Jackson, killing himself by drowning in the ocean; both films also have the male lead’s last name as Maine.
Office rom-com “Working Girl,” which was also set in the finance world of “Fair Play” albeit four decades prior, followed lowly temp Tess (Melanie Griffith). She says she has a “head for business, and a bod for sin,” a distinction that maintained her femininity enough to make her attractive to an executive (Harrison Ford). As screenwriter Kevin Wade recalled to The Hollywood Reporter, the trick to writing the 1988 rom-com was to imagine Tess “exactly as I would write a guy. I didn’t change a thing.”
Wade said, “I thought to myself, ‘Maybe the secret to this is don’t make her a woman. Just make her a character.’” The genderless-ness required to tell the story of an empowered (albeit, lying) woman in the workplace who is competing not with a man but with another woman: her actual boss (Sigourney Weaver) who is recovering from a broken leg. But that’s where the “written by a woman” trope comes in.
More recently, “Don’t Worry Darling” attempted to embrace the “female gaze” while marketing itself as a “feminist film” based on the inclusion of a Jordan Peterson-inspired male cult. Director Olivia Wilde in an Interview magazine profile said that the incel culture, hinted at in “Fair Play,” is “basically disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women. And they believe that society has now robbed them — that the idea of feminism is working against nature, and that we must be put back into the correct place.”
While Luke in “Fair Play” dives further into a radical self-help seminar (spending thousands of dollars that he doesn’t have to enroll), the twist of “Don’t Worry Darling” is that jobless Jack (Harry Styles) volunteers to be part of an extreme science experiment led by a charismatic men’s rights leader (Chris Pine) that involves drugging a female significant other into ’50s-era complicity with the help of AI. Jack resents his fiancée Alice (Florence Pugh), a successful doctor, determining that the only way to regain his archaic understanding of masculinity is to fully neutralize her, i.e. make her braindead.
The legacy of #MeToo onscreen has helped redefine gender roles, even while emphasizing (and, at times, mocking) men reluctant to view women as their equals. These films even, to a certain extent, argue that the women are superior to the men in these settings, the male ego eclipsing any hope of progressive dynamics.
And yet, in real life, Hollywood has continued to forgive and seemingly forget accusations against alleged abusers. How meta is the portrayal of alarming men onscreen, and how much of a fantasy is watching women thrive in work settings?
The natural order of the finance world, as “Fair Play” captures, is tied to the fallacy of masculinity in a tribal setting that thrives on competitive chaos. “Sanctuary,” which centered on a sex worker (Margaret Qualley) and a hotel heir (Christopher Abbott), toyed with the abstraction of control. Abbott’s character employs Qualley’s, yet she outwits him in a BDSM setting, begging the question of who is following which script.
The concept is something that recent films like “Sanctuary” have sought to dismantle with a playful power imbalance prompting: Who really is feminized, a weak man, or a strong woman?
“Fair Play” is now in select theaters and will start streaming on Netflix on Friday, October 6.