When I was a young adult, a mediocre film was released with the provocative title What Women Want. In the film the hapless main character played by Mel Gibson–a man who does not seem to know well what women want–finds his life turned upside down by the gift/curse of knowing what it is that women are thinking. The film plays with the concern that mankind has always has about the problems that people have in understanding each other and in the way that our own behavior would change if we were able to understand what it is the other person was thinking and/or wanting. There are, of course, considerable privacy concerns when one thinks about the gift of reading minds. It is an act of violence to try to pry into someone’s head while retaining one’s own privacy, and by and large human beings tend to like at least the illusion that we have a private life with private behavior and thinking and beliefs that are not readily accessible to the world at large. Having boundaries while also seeking intimacy with others has long been a struggle faced by humanity.
I would like to turn some attention, though, to the central conceit of the film itself, which is that it is possible to understand what it is that women want. This question is not one that is limited to gender studies alone, certainly not to women. What do men want, women may ask in their own frustration at the ambivalence and timidity and complexity of the men around them. What do blacks want, or what do gays want, politicians may ask, seeking to pander to certain important groups that are often embroiled in identity politics. Nations engaged in diplomacy ponder what the United States wants, or what Russia wants, or what the European Union or Germany want, or what Israel wants. And on and on it goes. Embedded within these questions is that there is indeed something that is wanted by virtue of this identity, whether a national identity or a gender identity or a sexual identity or some other recognizable group. If there is not a sort of group solidarity assumed, then the answer merely becomes what each individual in that group wants, and that is something that can get quickly out of hand very rapidly, since we often want contradictory things as individuals and certainly want contradictory things when taken as individuals within a group to an even greater extent.
Let us step back from this chaos and incoherence and wonder what it is that women want from a variety of different approaches. Why would we care about this question in the first place? It is easy for a husband to wonder what his wife wants, or for a father to wonder what his daughter wants or for a son to wonder what his mother wants or for a brother to wonder what his sister wants as individuals who are bound together in relationships. Someone seeking intimacy with others will wonder what they want, to see if there is a commonality or at least a compatibility there. An institution may want to know what people within it want as a way of making sure to appease particularly important special interests. As mentioned earlier, politicians seeking power will often pander to the wants of their constituency to the extent that they understand them, as a way of gaining support from enough people to obtain and maintain political power. Whether we look cynically or honestly at such matters, there are plenty of reasons why we would want to know what people want, so that we can gather whether they are the sort of people we want to spend our time with and build relationships with, or whether we can take advantage of what they want to obtain what we want from them.
It will become readily apparent if we examine this sort of question for any length of time that it is by no means simple to understand what is wanted by any group of people. But it is also by no means simple to understand what is wanted over the dimension of time either. What we want, or what we think we want, changes over time based on the circumstances of our life and our degree or absence of self-knowledge. We may think that something will solve our problems and make us happy, only to find out that it only gave us different problems to deal with than the ones we had been working on and struggling with before. Even where something is a genuine solution to a problem we are facing, what we want, if we really do in fact want it, will often require of us change and growth that will be uncomfortable and unpleasant. But if we choose what we want on mere convenience and ease, we will likely find our life to be far more lonely than we want it to be when we are looking back on it. Often too, what we want is contradictory, in that being one thing will make it more difficult or even impossible to be something else because of the commitment of time and effort that is required to be or do something. Opportunity costs are something we must keep in mind when we are examining what it is in fact that we want.
All of this assumes that we know what we want and are able to articulate it. This is not necessarily the case. We may know what we do not want in a negative sense because of our experiences, but we may not always know what it is in fact that we do want or how it is to achieve it. We may grow up in a broken and dysfunctional family, but not know what it is how good families behave, unless we take the time to study them and become familiar with them and how they operate. We may lament our poor communication with other people but struggle with what to say and how to say it when and to whom. None of these are easy or straightforward problems to solve. On top of that, there is often a wide gulf between what we want, or think we want, and what is right, and what we want may have repercussions that we do not want at all but cannot separate from what it is that we think we want. How it is to deal with reality and with our understanding of it, and with our internal longings as well as with the external societal and moral standards that judge us for our behavior are not easy matters either. We may want all of it to disappear so that we can simply do what we want without any negative externalities or consequences, but that is simply to want to be the gods of our own private worlds, separate from everyone else, and that will not do either. And while we may not want to deal with the realities of our existence, those realities do not answer according to our wants or preferences. We just have to deal with them as best as we are able.