In What Men Want, a gender-swap redo of 2000’s What Women Want, Taraji P. Henson plays Ali Davis, a sports agent who bonks her head while dancing and can suddenly hear what men are thinking. (There’s also some drug-laced tea that may be partially responsible for her mind-reading ability.) It’s a troublesome new skill at first, but then it becomes helpful in her job. Then it becomes the reason everyone hates her, and then it goes away and everything good snaps into place. And that’s the movie.
Much like the original version, it’s not a very good movie, but the premise is fun, and it offers up an interesting conversation: Is it unethical to use mind-reading powers to get what you want? That’s what this article is going to be about. It’s going to be a Good Cop–Bad Cop argument about it. The Good Cop is going to be arguing the point that it is unethical to use mind-reading powers to get ahead, and the Bad Cop is going to be arguing that it is not.
Good Cop: Yes. Let me answer this very quickly: Yes, it is unethical to use mind-reading powers to get what you want. This conversation should be over. This should be the end of it right here. There shouldn’t be any question about it.
Bad Cop: I disagree.
Good Cop: Of course you do. Because you are the worst.
Bad Cop: I mean, what’s really the harm there?
Good Cop: The harm is you’re accessing thoughts that aren’t meant for you. And what’s more than that, you’re not only accessing the thoughts, you’re weaponizing them. Why is it hard you for to see that that’s bad? It’s a bad, not nice, wrong thing to do.
Bad Cop: It’s not, though. Because, really, what are we talking about here? We’re basically talking about a very high level of advanced intuition.
Good Cop: It’s not advanced intuition. Advanced intuition is if you’re taking a bunch of context clues and using them to form the approximation of a potential thought. That’s not what you’re doing if you’re using some special mind-reading ability or whatever. Calling reading someone’s mind “advanced intuition” is like calling reading someone’s emails “advanced intuition.” You weren’t being intuitive to be smart. You were looking at the answers to the test to be smart. There’s a big difference.
Bad Cop: There’s not a difference. Both of them are ending the exact same way: with you knowing a thing. Who cares how you get there?
Good Cop: You sound so dumb right now.
Bad Cop: Well, I mean, OK, consider it this way then: Being able to read someone’s mind—either because you got bonked on the head and suddenly you could like in What Men Want or because you mildly electrocuted yourself and suddenly you could like in 2000’s What Women Want—is a special gift. It’s a power, almost. Or a trait. It’s like being very tall. You go to sleep one night and you’re 5-foot-9, and then you wake up the next morning and you’re 6-foot-2. What are you supposed to do with that? Are you supposed to just slouch back down to your normal height? No. You’re just tall now. That’s what you are. That’s a new thing that you have. You can see over people and reach high things and change light bulbs easier and on and on and on. Same with the mind-reading. If you wake up one morning and you can read minds, then cool. Go for it. You don’t slouch your new super-brain. You let it stand tall.
Good Cop: Slouch your brain? What the fuck are you talking about right now?
Bad Cop: You know exactly what I’m saying.
Good Cop: I don’t.
Bad Cop: You’re like one of those people in the X-Men movies who hate the mutants because they have cool powers and you’re just all extra-regular and shit.
Good Cop: Let me ask you a separate question, one that doesn’t really have anything to do with what we’re talking about right now.
Bad Cop: OK.
Good Cop: Did you rewatch What Women Want before you went to go see What Men Want?
Bad Cop: Yes—right before, as a matter of fact. There a bunch of hat tips in What Men Want to the original, the most surprising of which is that there’s a scene in What Women Want where Mel Gibson’s character is having sex with a woman and he’s being very rough with her breasts, and she thinks to herself something like, “Careful, those are attached to me.” They do the same thing in What Men Want, except Taraji is having sex with a guy and she’s being very rough with his balls, and he thinks to himself something like, “Careful, they’re attached to me.”
Good Cop: Beyond that kind of stuff, what did you think? Like, was What Women Want a hard movie to watch? Because What Men Want is pretty easy to watch.
Bad Cop: Well, Mel Gibson is in it, which is obviously a Nah, Fuck This start to things. And in the first two or three minutes of it, we see him slap a woman on the butt and then bump into a woman in a coffee shop on purpose so he can spill coffee on her so he can fondle her breasts, so … you know … not great.
Good Cop: I’m always curious about the way movie characters or TV characters age as people get smarter and more sensitive and more tolerant. Like, with someone like Gibson’s character in What Women Want, us seeing him doing those things you mentioned is sort of the point. He’s supposed to be a scummy kind of guy. He’s supposed to be bad. It’s different than, say, a part in a movie that most people just sort of glossed over or accepted as fine at the time, you know what I’m saying? Like, when you see Gibson’s character do those things, you’re supposed to go, “Well, that’s bad. He should not be doing that.” But when you saw, say, Back to the Future when you were a kid, you didn’t really think too much about Biff beyond him just kind of being a regular bully to the McFly family. Then you get rewatch it when you’re older and you’re like, “Wait. Hold on. Biff tried to rape Lorraine outside of the high school dance!”
Bad Cop: I get what you’re saying. But I think the issue with something like What Women Want is less about the things Gibson’s character is doing in the movie (which, of course, are bad, but, as you mention, are written in on purpose), and more about how he gets to be the centerpiece of the movie.
Good Cop: Hmm. Yeah, you’re probably right.
Bad Cop: I’m right about that, yes, same as I’m right about the mind-reading thing.
Good Cop: No, man. There’s no argument you can make that makes it OK to peek in on someone’s thoughts. If they wanted you to know the things they were thinking, then they’d say them.
Bad Cop: Well, we know that’s not always true. Just think about the part in the new movie where Taraji is in the elevator with the one guy and he’s thinking to himself about how beautiful she is and how he wishes that she’d push him up against the elevator doors and kiss him. He wanted that but he didn’t say that. And when she heard it, she did it, and they were both very happy about it. Or what about how she helped her assistant start dating that one guy because she overheard that guy saying in his head that he wanted to date him? Or what about the part in What Women Want when the one girl was probably going to kill herself but didn’t because Gibson’s character intervened after he kept hearing her make those comments to herself?
Good Cop: You’re picking out very specific things and ignoring EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s like you’ve got a basket full of fruit and 90 percent of it is spoiled, but you just keep digging through the basket and then every once in a while you find a good apple and you’re like, “See? Told you. This fruit basket is good.”
Bad Cop: Taraji used her mind-reading powers to help secure herself a job as a partner at her agency. And it was a job she had earned long before then but kept getting passed over for. That sounds like a good thing to me.
Good Cop: Sure, but what about how she lied to the guy she liked and also, as he later explained to her, used his son as a prop during her scams, all of which were set in place by her mind-reading? It’s just a bad thing, man. It’s fun to imagine yourself with that ability, but for only a few minutes. It’s bad. It’s why the movies end the way they do: with each of the mind-readers having very nearly ruined the lives of those around them and accepting that reading minds to get ahead is not the way to go. It’s a bad thing.
Bad Cop: It’s a good thing. And we should all be so lucky.