True feminism is really a form of humanitarianism which concerns itself with the status of all people in our society, men as well as women. Often, in the past, well-meaning but too-strident feminism has antagonized would-be anti-sexists. Now commercial television, of all places, has come up with perhaps the quintessential feminist film, a superb portrayal of the complex relationship of the sexes in our society: Her Life as a Man (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m.).
Written with subtlety, intelligence, and humor by Joanna Crawford and Diane English, this excellent drama (an Emmy-award winner to be sure), is based on a Village Voice article by a woman reporter, Carol Lynn Mithers, who actually disguised herself as a man to get a job on a sports magazine and then discovered the pros and cons of masculinity in America. Director Robert Ellis Miller has handled this incredible voyage of discovery so skillfully that I found myself believing every seemingly unbelievable moment of the farfetched (but basically true) drama.
Robyn Douglass, as the spirited writer, manages to make her-himself totally credible as she reverses roles, discovers stereotypes, sees both sides of the sexist fence, learns that the grass is not as green on the other side as one imagines, whichever side one is on. Her personal life style in the film may not be the life style of Middle America, but it is obviously the life style of her own milieu.
Carly/Carl, in her role as a man, learns that men are expected to withhold emotions, submit to constant rejections from women, accept total responsibily as the breadwinner. At times, as a man, she yearns to be a woman again, even as she enjoys the ''privileges'' she gains by assuming masculinity.
Naturally, her relationship with her boyfriend suffers as he objects to her new male-oriented attitudes which affect her relationship with him. One especially difficult aspect of the switchover is the fact that the male-female roles in our society are in a state of flux, making ''proper'' sex roles difficult to discern. ''There used to be rules,'' says Carly's boyfriend, ''but somebody lost the book.''
''Her Life'' has a surprisingly mature script, offering plenty of revealing action with only minimal simplistic explanation; viewers are expected to figure out certain attitudes for themselves. But it is exciting to witness the growth of Carly from the helpless stereotypical male-oriented girlfriend to an independent, self-confident, self-aware woman. ''I was having an identity crisis,'' Carly/Carl explains. ''The woman in me was constantly trying to get out.''
Gradually, Carly becomes a more complete woman as, in masquerade, she becomes a more complete man. It is a startling but, upon reflection, inevitable consequence of the whole charade.
''Her Life as a Man'' is an entertaining, informative piece of social propaganda, unique in its startling rediscovery of basic truths about the sexes. Nobody who watches it can fail to learn its important feminist - or, rather - humanitarian lesson.