Taraji P. Henson's 'What Men Want' Combines Humor With Serious Gender Issues – EXCLUSIVE
Since the first time a boy rejected your Valentine's Day card or ran away from you on the playground in elementary school, you've probably turned to big sisters, Seventeen issues, or the internet for advice on how to decipher the male species. The amount of online resources may have doubled in the last decade, but women's understanding of how men work is a hit-or-miss concept. In recent years, the discrepancy between men's behavior in both relationships and the workplace has also caused an international discussion about gender equality. The internet is a fathomless source, but if you want relatable insight into this conflict, Taraji P. Henson's What Men Want aims to make you laugh while considering how your workplace fits into the worldwide focus on gender issues.
Based on the Nancy Meyers hit What Women Want, What Men Want flips the 2000 movie's premise. Instead of a man hearing women's inner thoughts, the film features sports agent Ali (Henson) as the bearer of men's most private musings. What Men Want explores a fantastical side when Ali can read men's minds after drinking a psychic's questionable tea and hitting her head, but the intent behind the project was to capture women's uncertainty about what men are really thinking.
Henson, known for her work in big-screen dramas and TV's Empire, leads a cast that also includes Tracy Morgan, Max Greenfield, and Pete Davidson. What Men Want screenwriter Tina Gordon tackled the script's elements of magic in addition to writing and directing the upcoming, similarly-mystical Little. While Ali's insights into the male mind may resonate strongly with audiences, Gordon initially faced the challenge of understanding men's greatest concerns and wants.
"If you had to line us all up, I’m positive I’m the one who knows the least about what men think or want," Gordon tells Elite Daily. "I signed on thinking that I could just ask the men in my life... about their inner thoughts, their vulnerabilities, their hidden desires, and I got blank stares and shut down. I started to feel like, 'What is going on?' and it occurred to me [that] in my personal life, the men that I know don’t really address direct emotional questions that well."
The confident Ali grows to understand her new ability after being denied a promotion at her male-dominated agency because her boss doesn't believe she connects well with men. She then uses her gift to win over clients and take a more well-rounded approach to her budding relationship with single dad Will (Aldis Hodge). In between reading his mind to please both of them in the bedroom and discovering alarming details about her friends' husbands, Ali learns just how uneven the power balance at her job is. This balance between serious workplace conversations and lighthearted comedy was a key detail for Henson.
"Comedians like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, they're funny, but you will leave there talking and thinking," the actress says in a conversation with Elite Daily. "And I think that's the best form of teaching. It's through laughter, through comedy. People are laughing but they’re like, 'Oh yeah, that is an interesting point.'"
The single, childless Ali also becomes torn between presenting herself as a professional woman to her colleagues and appearing family-oriented to the father of a strong NBA draft prospect.
Gordon, also single and childless by choice, is all too familiar with this double standard for professional women. "I’ve noticed that in a lot of rooms with men... there’s this preambled business meeting where a room full of men will talk about the family and kids," she explains. "I never fit into this conversation. I’m literally just eating a doughnut, waiting for the rest of the meeting to go... It’s sort of like you’re a unicorn or something and they just can’t put their finger on what the problem is."
In reference to the split demands Ali faces, Gordon says, "That’s basically about men not feeling safe sometimes if a woman is not in that [family] category in a certain time in her life."
While Henson admits to not being "wired" to follow what people may want of her, she's clear about the message she wishes moviegoers take from Ali. "I hope that women see that you don’t need a man to validate who you are," she says. "Now is not the time to drop the torch, we've got to continue to fight so that one day our daughters and great-granddaughters — this [gender imbalance] won’t be their narrative."
As for what men want, neither woman owns up to being an expert after working on the film. Henson jokes that she'd use Ali's mind-reading to change the world because "men got the upper hand," while Gordon wants both genders to look past the norms, saying, "I just wanted to play with that expectation that you could possibly go to a man and be challenged to be more vulnerable or share. You could possibly be in a relationship with a woman and be very energized by her conquering alpha energy and admire it and not be threatened by it. That’s basically my version of presenting modern romance."
What Men Want is in theaters on Friday, Feb. 8.