Set It Up: A Rom-Com Where Women Talk About Something Other Than Men (Women & Men in the Movies No. 2)

This week I’ll look at how women characters are portrayed and how they interact in 2018 Netflix rom-com Set It Up.

(Find out more about the tests mentioned below in Women, Men, and Movies or just read on.)

The Story

Think Devil Wears Prada crossed with Parent Trap.

In Set It Up, two assistants, Harper and Charlie, work long hours for horrendous bosses. When Harper orders a midnight second dinner for her boss but has no cash to pay for it she meets Charlie.

Charlie has cash, so he swoops in, pays the delivery man for Harper’s takeout, and attempts to whisk it away to his boss. After arguing over who is more likely to get fired, Harper finds a creative way to split the food.

The two eventually decide to try to bring their bosses together. If the bosses become involved, they’ll necessarily work less, freeing Harper’s and Charlie’s time.

Chasing Bechdel

(Does a (named) female character talk to another named female character about anything other than a man?)

Who’s Talking To Whom

Women To Women:

Unlike in last week’s movie, The Invitation, where women spoke one-on-one to each other almost entirely in two-line conversations (such as, “So nice to meet you,” “You too”) in Set It Up Harper talks with other women in depth.

Harper and her boss, well-respected sports writer Kirsten, talk about:

  • careers
  • work habits
  • dinner (as in Harper getting Kirsten’s—repeatedly)
  • exercise (as in Harper wearing Kirsten’s exercise tracker to fool her trainer)
  • sleep
  • ideas for articles (particularly Harper’s about seniors who run their own Olympics)
  • pitching an idea
  • Rick (Charlie’s horrendous boss)
  • sex
  • parties, showers, weddings, events
  • fitting in with other women when you’re single and have no kids
  • advice on men and dating
  • bikini waxes
  • advice on succeeding at work
  • the set up
  • Kirsten’s and Rick’s planned marriage
  • challenges for women in sports writing
  • Harper’s potential
  • writing advice

Harper talks with her roommate (Becca) about:

  • Kirsten’s writing and how Harper admires it
  • dating
  • marriage
  • their sex lives (or lack thereof in Harper’s case)
  • their friendship
  • Mike (Becca’s fiancé)
  • Becca’s dress
  • Harper’s work
  • Harper getting fired
  • Writing advice

Harper and Kirsten separately talk to an unnamed woman alumnus of Kirsten’s college:

  • Kirsten gives the woman advice on her article (delete the adjectives)
  • the woman raves to Harper about how lucky she is to work with Kirsten
  • the woman says Kirsten agreed to be her mentor

Men To Men:

The interactions between Charlie and his horrible boss, venture capitalist Rick, mirror Harper’s and Kirsten’s, but with Rick portrayed in a worse light.

Kirsten snaps at Harper and makes unreasonable demands. Rick behaves similarly and also throws office equipment, stamps on Charlie’s laptop (he thinks it’s his own and can’t get it to accept his password), and fires an intern for delivering mail from Rick’s soon-to-be ex-wife.

Charlie and Rick talk about:

  • dinner (as in Charlie failing to get Rick dinner though Rick specifically said he didn’t want it)
  • Rick’s wife divorcing him
  • Rick’s son’s science project (which Charlie creates and Rick smashes, leaving Charlie, with Harper’s help, to come up with a new project in 24 hours)
  • Complaints from Rick about seats Charlie saves for him
  • Kirsten
  • complimenting women
  • Rick cheating on Kirsten with his soon-to-be ex-wife
  • an exclusive businessmen’s club
  • Charlie’s career (finally)
  • Charlie being promoted
  • Rick wanting to beat his ex to the altar by marrying Kirsten
  • a ring for Kirsten (which Charlie is to buy)
  • Rick wanting to know about his ex-wife’s likes and dislikes (he doesn’t know because Charlie kept track of all the details)

Charlie and his roommate (Duncan) talk about:

  • sex
  • Charlie’s girlfriend
  • Duncan’s hookups
  • careers

Charlie also talks with an intern (Beau) about:

  • how to deal with Rick
  • Rick’s ex-wife

Women And Men:

Harper and Charlie cover so many topics I can’t list them all, but here are the major ones:

  • who gets to take the carryout Harper ordered and who is more likely to get fired (their meet cute)
  • Defcon 1 and Defcon 5 (okay, not major but it was a fun part of their first conversation)
  • jobs, their awful bosses, and careers
  • sports
  • Kirsten’s interview skills
  • parties and dates (that they miss because of work)
  • Harper never having had a boyfriend
  • their ambitions
  • getting Rick and Kirsten together
  • the nature of love
  • the Yankees
  • their newfound free time once Kirsten and Rick are together
  • “Golf guy” (whom Harper starts seeing)
  • Charlie’s dating advice and Harper’s response
  • Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend
  • Rick cheating on Kirsten and Charlie’s willingness to cover it up
  • Harper’s writing and her fears about it
  • Charlie’s character

Rick and Kirsten talk about:

  • the disturbing package delivery guy they’re stuck in the elevator with
  • whether it’s better to hit the elevator Help button or call emergency services
  • stress
  • the Yankees
  • sex
  • restaurants and food
  • whether Rick really knows Kirsten

Charlie talks to his girlfriend (Suze) about:

  • working late (Charlie)
  • missing dates (Charlie)
  • sex
  • Suze’s modeling career
  • the type of man Suze wants to date
  • Charlie’s hopes for a promotion
  • Charlie not wanting to be like Rick

Charlie and Kirsten talk about:

  • Rick not really knowing Kirsten
  • what an amazing woman Charlie knows (through Harper) that Kirsten is
  • Kirsten deserving someone better than Rick

Set It Up includes many other conversations between women and men one-on-one as well as in groups of three or four.

Some of the topics:

  • Charlie and Harper talk to “Creepy Tim” (who it turns out doesn’t mind when he learns people call him that) about trapping Kirsten and Rick in an elevator
  • Harper’s admiration for Kirsten
  • Kirsten and Rick getting married
  • Harper’s article idea
  • Charlie’s promotion
  • Charlie’s roommate and Harper feeling as if they are already friends on first meeting


Set It Up passes the Bechdel Test and then some.

The first conversations in the movie occur between two named women characters (Harper and Kirsten) and they talk about work. The topics of men in general, romance, or any specific man don’t come up. The first time a man is the subject of a conversation between two women is over eleven minutes into the movie.

The women in this movie talk about all kinds of things, as do the men. They all talk about work, careers, what they do for fun, sex, love, and friendships.

Women v. Sexy Lamps

(can the main female character be replaced by a sexy lamp without affecting the plot?)

Harper drives the story with her desire for a happier work life and more free time. She also evolves as a person and a writer.

Kirsten, who could have been merely a prop or caricature given that the real story is about Harper and Charlie, also is a real person. She’s extreme in her demands on Harper, but Lucy Liu does it so well that it provides some of the funniest parts of the movie.


Set It Up passes the Sexy Lamp Test.

Mako Mori

(does a female character have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story line?)

Harper has her own story arc separate from Charlie and from the Kirsten/Rick set up. She wants to be a sports writer. She loves sports, she loves to write, and she puts up with Kirsten’s challenges because she hopes to learn from her and follow in her footsteps.

Yet Harper hasn’t finished a single article.

In one of my favorite scenes Harper’s roommate, Becca, congratulates her on being fired because now she can do what she wants to do. When Harper says what she’s writing is bad and so she can’t finish it, Becca gives her the best advice I ever got as a new writer—write something bad and finish it because you can’t make it better until it’s done.

Harper finally gets past her fears and does this. Later scenes show us she’s finally pursuing her real goal.

Normally I don’t like writers writing about writing, but here it really works.


Set It Up passes the Mako Mori Test.

Quick Results

Bechdel: Strong Pass

Sexy Lamp: Pass

Mako Mori: Pass

Did I Like It

I really liked Set It Up with a few caveats.

I especially enjoyed that Kirsten ultimately tells Harper she is hard on her to prepare her for a tough business and because she sees great potential in Harper.

As an example of this, Harper mentions a story idea but says she hasn’t really thought it out yet.

Kirsten snaps at her for saying the idea is bad before she’s shared what it is. But Kirsten listens, and her point is a solid one—don’t undercut your work before your pitch even starts. (As when a junior lawyer handed me a legal brief and said, “I took a stab at it,” making me biased toward finding it poorly done, but I digress.)

I also loved Harper’s roommate, Becca. She’s a young woman who has had a lot of sex with different men and enjoyed it, and her fiancé is untroubled by that. As a woman who falls into the Kirsten character’s age range rather than Harper’s, that’s almost unheard of in movies and television I watched as a young adult and for most of my adult life.

In the first one-quarter of the movie, though, I almost stopped watching.

The tone was a bit too goofy for me, including a scene where the package delivery guy pees in the elevator due to his claustrophobia. But the film hits its stride as far as humor goes later.

Also, early on the movie plays a bit on the trope of a woman boss being so demanding because she opted not to marry and have children (as Kirsten says, “I could have been thrice divorced by now”). But the movie speeds past it, and for the most part avoids that cliché.

While there’s a little bit of stereotyping in that Rick is portrayed as more into sex than love and Kirsten is somewhat more interested in love than sex, both desire both, and the differences are grounded in their characters as a whole, not simply their genders.

In the end, Charlie and Harper provide the real story and balance off the Kirsten/Rick arc. Their relationship is based on honesty, friendship, kindness, and humor, and it’s great fun to watch.

Next Week’s Film

Ex Machina. It’s one of my favorite movies of the last couple years, a suspense film about a computer company founder who flies a young programmer to an isolated mountain estate to evaluate the human qualities of a newly-created A.I.