At a time when Black women make 63 cents for every dollar a white man earns, a story about a Black woman at the top of her career successfully navigating a predominantly white male space, even with an added make-believe psychological advantage, is the comedy we all need right now. Though admittedly faced with hurdles in the initial approach, writer Tina Gordon Chism delivers a relevant, timely remake of the Nancy Meyers rom-com in the story of What Men Want.
With past projects including Drumline, Peeples, and ATL Gordon Chism has been telling stories displaying Black people in diverse ways for years. In this film, she displays the protagonist Ali, played by Taraji P. Henson, in a light that makes her relatable to all women in corporate spaces mainly occupied by men.
Gordon Chism was tapped by James Lopez, President of Will Packer Productions, while prepping for their upcoming film Little, to help remake What Women Want. In preparation, she realized that learning about men’s inner thoughts was not be as simple as she thought it would be and unlike the research she did for any of her past films.
The men she knew, were not necessarily open to sharing. Chism said, “I received blank stares and no answers from men about these things, which should not have been surprising because the men, in my life at least, are not the most, ‘I would like to sit down and talk about my feelings,’ type of people.”
Realizing that asking men what they want was a trap, Gordon Chism observed specific men in her life and got the insight she needed. A man in her life was raising his children on his own after his wife left. The way he expressed his feelings showed Gordon Chism a side she had not seen often in men and knew would be great for the film. “It was the beginnings of me looking at a man in my life who expanded an emotional side of him in a way that for me—as a woman who's not married, a career woman, who doesn't have kids—it presented a good chemistry,” Gordon Chism explained, and it did the same for the main character. Ali’s dad and love interest were both single dads.
As for exploring Ali’s career, Gordon Chism went to sport and entertainment industries, but made sure to make Ali relatable to any women who were breaking barriers and often found themselves being the only woman at the table. “It's not so much that all the men are just these chest-thumping alphas, but just the visual of seeing a woman have to navigate a whole conference table of men and that energy, I thought said it all,” Chism said. “You know, about additional hurdle that women have to face breaking ground in new territories like that.”
As a single woman with no children who navigates spaces with several ‘family men,’ there is a subtle pressure Gordon Chism faces that is also highlighted in the film, as Ali looks to impress a client she’s pursuing. She says, “It’s always this moment in business where a man will be like, ‘Well that's unusual or something's wrong. Something's odd here.’ It's specific to my experiences, but sometimes it can be relatable to other women. So, I put it there just to point out that her pressure also is conforming into this expectation that [Ali’s] a family woman.”
As with any of the films she writes, Gordon Chism was able to share an underlying theme in What Women Want. She said, “Studios are always making their movie. Then, there's an interior life to a movie that I do believe sends messages.” In this film Gordon Chism wanted to expose people to what happened to her as she was writing the film. She had to rely less on her assumptions and judgements about what men want. “I had to do what Ali did, which was just take that breath and take a step to put [my] guard down, which is probably the toughest thing that Ali had to do,” Chism said. “It's an emotional story about a woman who has to trust someone and put her guard down. Sounds simple, but is very tough to do.”
Working with Will Packer and James Lopez on What Men Want and Little was “a gift” from Gordon Chism’s perspective. “They are definitely of the school that women can get it done. They left me the keys and showed up when I needed a brother to back me up,” she explained. Though challenging, she felt like Will Packer Productions provided the brother and sisterhood necessary to challenge her and push her to new levels.
Gordon Chism also shared advice for up and coming writers, stating “We need your voices as writers. I have found when I talk with writers that I hear more than not, "I want to write." Or, "I'm trying to write." I want to always encourage writers to just push past the wanting to and start putting things down.” She continued, “ Start writing, whether it's in your journal, whether it's in your computer, whether it's perfect or not perfect. I feel like many times because of people judging writing as a career because we're not typically in those spaces, we have to accept that we have to have an extra dose of audacity and courage to push through into these new lanes. I just want writers to know, don't let the voices of others doubting you stop you when you write something that is not perfect, that's a part of writing. You're going to get better the more you write. The trick is to keep writing. Don't let the voices and the naysayers in your head and outside of your head stop you from getting better.”