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What is You Hurt My Feelings about?
You Hurt My Feelings looks at the relationship between profession and self-worth. Beth as a novelist. Don as a therapist. Sarah as a designer. Mark as an actor. It also explores the impact of praise and criticism. How one isn’t necessarily always better than the other. Criticism can be helpful. Praise can be harmful. These two themes combine with discussions on aging to create a rich and thoughtful narrative that digs into aspects of life and the human condition that a lot of modern movies do not. In that way, it can be incredibly refreshing and hit on a personal level that blockbusters often can’t access.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Beth – Julia Louis-Dreyfus
- Don – Tobias Menzies
- Elliot – Owen Teague
- Sarah – Michaela Watkins
- Mark – Arian Moayed
- Georgia – Jeannie Berlin
- Written by – Nicole Holocener
- Directed by – Nicole Holocener
The themes and meaning of You Hurt My Feelings
The things we say to others: lies and white lies
The closest thing You Hurt My Feelings has to a major confrontation is when Beth overhears Don talking about her novel. Even though he’s spent years telling her how good it is, he hates it. But won’t tell her because he doesn’t believe she handles criticism well. Overhearing such harsh words from a husband who has been nothing but supportive sends Beth reeling. She loses her breath, feels sick, cries a lot, and spends hours obsessing over it in conversation with her sister. For days, she’s distant from Don, treating him coldly but without explanation.
This leads to a series of conversations between the main characters about lies and white lies. Does Sarah ever hate Mark’s acting? Yes. Does she tell him that? Absolutely no. When they ask Mark if he ever dislikes Sarah’s designs, Mark gives a very neutral “I love her style”. The implication is he probably doesn’t like or get everything but he wants to be supportive. The full-circle moment for Beth is how she interacts with her son, Elliot.
Even though Beth hasn’t read a word of the play Elliot’s working on, she keeps telling him that it’s great and will be great and he’s great. This makes Elliot extremely uncomfortable. He’s already self-conscious but also because he sees through the formality of it. It’s a white lie that’s pernicious. Despite Beth meaning well, it’s not helping. Which is at the crux of what’s going on between her and Don. Don believes that, by telling the white lie, he’s being supportive and encouraging and giving Beth the positive reinforcement she needs to keep working. But she believes she wanted honest feedback. Maybe if Don had told her how he really felt, the book would be better. Right? Except as Don says: what does he know? He’s not a writer. He’s not her target audience.
This also extends to Don and his work as a therapist. Every one of his clients is a bit disappointed because Don has been so passive with them. Instead of being honest about what he thinks and attempting to help them solve their issues, he’s only been listening and offering comforting platitudes that are essentially white lies. While it probably doesn’t rise to the level of malpractice and justify the discontent of Jonathan (David Cross) and Carolyn (Amber Tamblyn), it does create a sense of stagnancy.
As Beth, Don, Sarah, Mark have breakthroughs regarding the lies they’ve told themselves and others, they all make progress in their lives and careers. Beth has a new agent and her new novel gets good reviews. Plus, her relationship with Elliot improves. Don begins engaging with his clients in a way that makes them feel like they’re paying for something worthwhile. Sarah finally finds the right light fixture for her picky client. And Mark finds a new path forward when it comes to acting now that his relationship with it has been reset.
The things we say to others: negative and positive reinforcement
The background information we get on Beth is that she had a verbally abusive father. He called her names, ridiculed her, broke her spirit. It was the subject of her memoir. It seems likely that Don was so positive towards Beth no matter what in order to not be like her father. He fears giving her criticism because it probably triggers those bad memories.
But by only ever being supportive, he’s not treating her with respect. It’s infantilizing and calls into question how much of what Don says is ever genuine. With that said, it’s not like he should throw her novel in the trash and tell her to retire. There’s a middle ground between the white lie and the brutal truth. And that middle ground is where good partnerships flourish.
That also gets into Beth and Elliot. She’s always positive towards him because she doesn’t want to be her father. But Elliot reveals her positivity has been destructive in an entirely different way as it’s given him unrealistic expectations for himself. Which has caused a lot of doubt. Beth thought in being the opposite of her father she was a better parent than him, when, in reality, she was damaging in a completely different way.
This resonates with her situation with Don. She gets the dual perspectives of being both the aggriever and the aggrieved. If it was only the situation with Don, Beth may have never understood where he was coming from. Same with Elliot. But because she had both experiences, she is able to forgive Don and improve in her interactions with Elliot.
Professions and identity
All four main characters have arcs dealing with their professions. We see a back and forth dynamic between the quality of their work and the health of their life outside of work. This is most prominent with Beth, Don, Mark, and Elliot. It’s still present for Sarah but less developed. Because Don’s been so caught up in providing Beth with platitudes rather than meaningful discourse, he’s been doing the same for his clients. In turn, his work has suffered and caused him to feel less inspired and satisfied with his job. That’s caused him to be less inspired at home.
It’s the same with Elliot. He gives an example from his childhood. When he started swimming, Beth constantly told him how amazing he was at it. She even enrolled him in advanced swim classes. Except, Elliot wasn’t an amazing swimmer. The instructor told him so and that he shouldn’t even be in the class. But Beth refused to hear it. This dynamic occurred throughout Elliot’s childhood. When he finally got to college, he felt incredibly uncertain about himself. Was he really this special, incredible person his mother told him he was? Or someone much more average? With strengths, sure, but also flaws. Elliot didn’t know how to evaluate himself.
Which is why after college he’s working a pretty low-level job and doubtful about the quality of his writing. The self-doubt instilled by Beth has had a direct impact on Elliot’s professional life. Which then has a direct impact on Elliot’s normal life. We see that in the end of his relationship, as his ex-girlfriend didn’t find him ambitious enough.
You Hurt My Feelings makes sure that its commentary on the relationship between profession and identity is a two-way street, giving the conversation nuance and depth.
Honesty vs stagnancy
Ultimately, it seems that You Hurt My Feelings embraces the power of honesty. When we’re honest with ourselves and others, it allows us to move forward. When you start lying to yourself and hiding your feelings from others, you stagnate. The lie becomes a brick wall we can’t go over, through, under, or around.
With Mark, getting fired from an acting job causes him to have a very real conversation with himself about why he’s even an actor in the first place. For a time, he even thinks he’ll quit. Some viewers might think it’s silly that he goes right back to acting. But it’s no different than what transpires between Beth and Don.
Mark hadn’t been honest with himself about why he wanted to act and why it was important to him. Once he comes to terms with it, it changes the dynamic. He’s no longer doing it out of false pretenses. It’s not some great craft or passion. He simply wanted to be famous. Knowing that, the pressure is gone. The sense of “I need this to be whole” is gone. It becomes part of what Mark chooses to do rather than this thing he’s convinced himself is the lifeblood of who he is. Having cleared the air, he can resume acting in a much healthier, positive way. And, lo and behold, his performance improves.
Why is the movie called You Hurt My Feelings?
At the core of You Hurt My Feelings is the conflict between Beth and Don. Beth overhears Don telling Mark about her book, and how much he dislikes it and how impossible it is to tell her because she’s so sensitive to criticism and so he has to keep reading it and pretending to like it. Beth is understandably devastated by this. This is something she’s worked on for two years and the entire time Don has been nothing but supportive. To hear that he actually hates it? It’s brutal. She’s so upset that she almost throws up.
So a large part of the story revolves around Beth’s reaction to Don’s true feelings, Don’s reaction to finding out how much he’s hurt Beth, and them working through it.
But the title extends beyond this main conflict to most of the characters in the film. Elliot is upset that he always feels like the third wheel to his parents and that Beth is too supportive to the point it’s given him unrealistic expectations for himself. Don has his clients saying mean things to him. Don’s clients feel hurt by his lack of effort. Sarah is frustrated with her clients. Mark is hurt by the world of acting. Everyone has some kind of negative emotion they’re working through.
The ubiquity of hurt feelings makes You Hurt My Feelings less about a couple dealing with emotional betrayal and more about the human condition and recognizing the fact that most of us are living with some kind of hurt feelings and how do we address those feelings and make changes in our life in order to get some closure and catharsis in order to move forward.
Questions & answers about You Hurt My Feelings
Why did Mark get fired from the play?
It seems the director just didn’t think Mark understood the character and his performance wasn’t up to par. It wasn’t necessarily one thing.
Was Don a bad therapist?
On the one hand, talk therapy does often entail simply giving people a space to discuss how they’re feeling. That in and of itself can be helpful, regardless of the quality of the therapist’s response. On the other hand, it did seem Don wasn’t giving his all to his patients. He even admits as much to Mark. It’s possible this is just a minor funk over a brief period but the couple did say they’ve been going for years and haven’t felt any improvement in their relationship. However there was the older man who had been with Don for what seemed like a decade or more and that man was very thankful.
So if we’re giving the benefit of the doubt, Don’s capable but has been slipping and apathetic for a year or so. It seems that he’s at least ready to make more of an effort. That bodes well for everyone.
Now it’s your turn
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