Taken from Fay Weldon’s novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, She-Devil is a film that indicts both sexes, male and female, for transforming women into contorted puppets of male desire. The she-devil in question is Ruth Patchett, played by ex–TV queen Roseanne Barr, who is married to a strange and gangly lothario accountant named Bob (Ed Begley Jr). Bob dreams of moving up in the ranks of his profession by becoming an “accountant to the stars” (his dopey words); meanwhile, Ruth’s dreams are lived vicariously through her fascination with the beauty queens that pallidly exist around her. She, herself, is a homely—some might say garish—suburban housewife, with a core of identifiable human feelings: jealousy, madness, and her tendency to sometimes be just downright callously uncouth.
On the other side of the spectrum lies Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep), the writer of highly successful romance novels wherein all the heroines are white, pink-lipped, and virginal, and all the heroes are named Derrick or Brett or Kent. Mary’s leading men are dashing and pulsing with an unsatiated urge that they will lovingly temper until their feminine luminaries deem it appropriate to relent—basically, until they’re ready to be saved from that proverbial high tower, or their own boredom.
Mary tells an interviewer, amid well-timed pauses and mild whimpers, “I just try to think beautiful thoughts, so that the beauty will come out in what I write.” She, herself, is equipped with an abundance of beauty. Much like the heroines in her novels, she has blonde locks, perfect white skin, a pink palace beside the sea. She even has her own isomorphic companion of sorts—a hot Latino butler named Garcia, clad in cheap satin open-faced shirts. But she’s suffering from ennui, too, and needs a man to save her.
During an untimely interlude at a charity event that both women are decidedly both at, Ruth spills a drink onto Mary. One thing leads to another, and soon the sneer-eyed Bob is stolen by the romance novelist. In slow burning fashion, after months of purported “accounting work” and only under the guise of a dinner gone wrong, Bob decides to leave his less than idyllic home life and cruelly accuses Ruth of being a she-devil. As brutal as it is, we quickly learn how eager Ruth is to play the role.
Aligning herself with the genealogy of erased women, Ruth, with the help of a tight-lipped nurse, Turner (Linda Hunt), creates a recruiting agency called Vesta Rose for women who have been betrayed by society—whether they’ve been sidelined for their lack of beauty, brains, or business skills. There, she seems to find her purpose, and a way to continue her deliciously seditious reign of wrath over Bob. Everything is formulaic; she’s a woman with a plan—with a vindictive agenda to poetically ruin her ex-husband’s life—and she never once veers from it.
There’s a lot of shade in this movie. When Ruth dotingly looks into the face of a doe-eyed blonde named “Olivia Honey,” Bob’s newly positioned assistant (who Ruth herself has planted in his office with a plan in mind), she says, “Oh, now, you listen to me, Olivia! How could telling a man that you love him possibly scare him off?” That’s right, Olivia! How could it? Skip to when Olivia, spread out over the photocopy machine, with Bob between her legs as he gleefully nibbles at her ear and mimes sweet nothings, declares, “This isn’t just a fling for me, Bobby. I love you. I really, truly love you.” It calls to mind Britney from Daria, squealing her love mantras to Kevin with blithe and enduring charm. Bob’s face is as you could imagine: grotesquely and indignantly #overit. After the heartbreak of being yet another victim of Bob’s sexual desires, Olivia, a recent convert to the jilted-ex Bob-hating team, explains to Ruth that her late lover had been anything but ethical to his accounting business. So they do what any cunning person would do: they frame him, or rather expedite the process of his inevitable exposure.
What’s most interesting about the role of Ruth is that she doesn’t seem to want to change. Even the perfect housewife eventually cracks, and Ruth is far from it, a housewife struggling under the weight of responsibility that she is obviously not accustomed to nor fond of. Her anger and choreographed revenge is more a response to the belittling ways in which Bob has betrayed her and, perhaps, the extended feelings of frustration with being a victim of his lack of love. And, so, she forgoes humility and instead enacts her vengeful jeremiad to the backdrop of “I will survive.”
To be fair, there are times it seems as if she is truly mourning the end of her marriage. In a shot where she’s shopping with her kids and walking down a grocery aisle her daughter reads her tips from a women’s magazine: “Economical, Sexy Ways to Win Back Your Man.” The cheeky way Ruth navigates her freedom is endearing, to say the least. Former New York Times film critic Vincent Canby calls Ruth Patchett “a needy slob,” and although the film is not very kind about Ruth—she has a mole the size of an overdried prune lodged in between her lip and nose, and some god-awful ’80s outfits—I find her tender reluctance to better herself oddly, and yet frustratingly, charming.
Feminism only seems to be theoretically served for our heroine. Both Ruth and Mary are liberated: Ruth gets what she wants—Bob’s in jail serving a few years for his embezzlement issues—and Mary capitalizes on her new hatred of Bob by rebranding herself as a “serious writer,” penning a memoir entitled Trust and Betrayal. Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” plays over a final shot of Ruth walking in a crowd, forlorn and frumpily naive, as if to suggest Ruth remains the sole she-devil. But there’s something so pathetic about her; you hardly believe she could survive, let alone plot to ruin anyone. It’s as if her gusto for vengeance, in the end, has served no one, not even herself.
Mary, it turns out, is closer to being a she-devil. With her new intellectual get-up and latest book about her failed relationship, she’s entrancing—her severe cheekbones, her angular nose, her bitchy no-nonsense desire to be taken seriously. We see her jilted in love, ostensibly cold, and yet oddly hopeful. As she flirts with a hot French dude who comes to her book signing, it’s clear that it’s the real she-devils, with steely hearts, who have all the fun.