Becca Rothfeld,  January 28

A Gender Study

On the aesthetic sins of manipulative men

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The man was a college senior slated to start his PhD in gender studies, of all things, in the fall. He was smart and badly shaven, and his voice drooped with the weight of his slight southern accent. He wore leather jackets like masculine armor, even in the heat.

The man was my debate coach, an employee of my high school, and he came to campus a few nights a week to prepare me for the national championships. He pressed pens between my lips and made me read aloud until I gagged on the gorged syllables. Or I’d recite tongue twisters, stumbling downhill over my teeth until I tumbled flat into incoherence. The drills were supposed to help me speak clearly, but as I fumbled through them, I wondered if the rest of my mouth’s machinations were equally idiotic. The man had what I thought was a pleasantly humiliating effect.

Male self-importance is as generic as any Marriott.

The man took periodic smoke breaks, and he let me tag along. He smoked, of course, American Spirits, which he’d light for me like an afterthought, as if it were normal or it didn’t matter. But it wasn’t, so it did. I often suspect that if the light that summer had been uglier, then everything else would have been different, too. The light lent things a gravity and charm that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Sunset cracked the clouds. And beneath it we stood blowing our blue billows. Who can tell whether it was him I liked, or just the dimming brilliance of what felt to me like such portentous days? I was too raw to realize that American Spirits were a given. All I knew was that it was unfair that I sweat so much when he didn’t, even in the jacket, and I had to keep wiping mine off with the back of my hand.

The man talked to me about his thesis and recommended books I hadn’t read, and I told him about my final assignment of high school, my “senior paper,” on an author of my choosing. I’d picked Barthes, whom I’d just discovered, whom I thought I was first to discover, at least like this, each page an exuberance. We talked until the klieg lights in the parking lot blazed on and filled with gnats and floating motes.

The man had a girlfriend, but my heart trilled up into my temples when I heard the pings of his Gchats arriving late at night. Barthes wrote, and I underlined, “Why is it better to last than to burn?

It didn’t last, and it barely burned. It ended more or less as these things always do, with neither a bang nor a burn but a flaccid fizzle. The final act is staged in a stuffy room that reeks like an antique shop. There are stacked books and scattered pens. The mismatched glasses are sticky with residual whiskey. You are supposed to be impressed—and maybe you are, if you are eighteen—by the man’s disregard for material objects, which could be charitably interpreted as evidence of his spiritual sophistication. The banter is boring, and the scene-setting is even worse. The inevitable room, greasy with the inevitable grime, is as standard as the furnishings of a chain hotel. The man growls clipped replies that gesture at his depth. Male self-importance is as generic as any Marriott.

But on the occasion of my first seduction, even the banality of my jilting was furiously new: it was new to detect the first shard of sobbing lodged in my throat as I slid into the homeward cab that he’d paid for, pre-Venmo, and new to sit small in the enormous back seat balling up the twenty he’d given me, watching the landscape well up past the windows. What was interesting about my initiation into the grand tradition of female diffidence and male indifference was only my own inexperience. That’s why it’s better to last than to burn: because at least the lasting isn’t so quick to become etiolated and expected.


“It is amazing,” wrote Tolstoy in his passionately misogynistic novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, “how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Roughly a hundred years later, the philosopher Mary Mothersill (one of eight women in America to receive a doctorate in philosophy in 1954) observed in her opus, Beauty Restored, “we expect people who are beautiful in one way or the other to be good in every way.” Maybe it’s superstitious of me to trust in these cosmic convergences, but I’m convinced by the commonality of the intuition. Even now—even after the reliefs and revelations of #MeToo—bad men command a certain, tired glamor. Their ostensible beauty is the last bastion of their tyranny.

Because after all, the man had mastered a culturally accredited aesthetic. He did a convincing impression of a hardboiled detective: he deepened his silences into something suggestive, hinting at a subterranean sensitivity. (Subterranean both because it was enticing and because it was expedient; subterranean, that is, so that he’d never have to exercise a capacity he turned out to lack.) And then, he had that knack for lighting: the parking lot sonorous beneath a day gone molten, the lamplight dappled amber through the whiskey in the glass. And there is artistry, too, in the delicate cultivation of girlish insecurities. The object of seduction must be made to feel both that she is inferior and that she is almost equal: that she is proving herself on the edge of a precipice.

How gratifying can it really be to win not on the strength of your arguments but on the brute force of your authority?

The man, it turned out, was a template. Debate was a microcosm of the literary and academic communities I’d later come to occupy: debate, too, was so tightly circumscribed that we couldn’t keep its contents in context. The parochial successes of its participants swelled and swaggered until they took on an outsized importance. Men who were good at debate could parlay their local fame into something globally nefarious: into the right to Gchat their teenaged students late at night. Their power was limp and limited until they began to wield it like a weapon against the women they’d been hired to coach or judge, at which point it became genuinely sinister. And of course, there weren’t many women. That’s why men like the one I knew could fool the few there were.

None of my rebuttals had any cachet in such a male community. The man’s calculations, I speculated in private, had closed over him like a cataract. The man would write badly and think callously. The man’s gender studies scholarship would suffer! He would grow old without anyone to worry that he was smoking too much, and eventually he would die, clutching a withered cigarette and hacking up green globules! The man would not even be satisfied by his own conquests—sensing, as he must, the cheapness of his victory over so vulnerable an opponent. How gratifying can it really be to win not on the strength of your arguments but on the brute force of your authority?

But even if all of what I recited like a malediction came true, even if his writing or thinking were warped in some ineffable way, a more salient truth at the moment of rupture is that you can’t make a dent in the charisma of the men who use you. No amount of yelling or crazy-emailing will do it. No one will even blame them. While you’re crying what are called “ugly tears,” which chap your cheeks to redness, the man will retreat into the invincibility of his rugged affect—all because there exists no genre in which the weeping woman is a profound figure and Don Juan is a fop. A woman so tritely spurned can’t even suffer seriously. Grief has gravitas, but the slighting of a stupid girl is only silly and provincial. We’ve exiled it to remotest outpost of experience, the blinkered backwaters that are so tediously and so trivially female.

Aesthetic Anemia

This summer, I stopped sleeping. While the sky paled, I sat on the sofa reading The Portrait of a Lady, which is, for my money, a close-to-perfect book. James favors of-constructions: an “ecstasy of contemplation,” a “complication of fears.” His characters call things “picturesque” and collect bibelots. They host weekly “evenings” and appraise lace and damask, with muted pride, as “rather good.” James might be taken to suffer from an excess of civilization, but his prose has a complex moral weight. There is a rich reality beneath the surface.

The lady whose portrait James is painting is named Isabel Archer, and she’s fresh with undiluted youth. “A woman,” she reflects at first, “might suffice to herself.” A woman, that is, might have some meaning beyond the bounds of her marriage. Isabel rebuffs her string of suitors and spends her fortune touring Europe’s cultural capitals, honing her tastes and developing her considerable talents. But it isn’t long (just a few hundred pages of gallery-going and garden-party repartee) before Isabel succumbs to the glib charms of Gilbert Osmond, a middle-aged idler with a vocation for social-climbing.

Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I realized that it would be radical if we could learn to see male self-involvement as actively unattractive.

Gilbert has little to recommend him, besides a chicly (if cheaply) furnished house and a half-hearted penchant for numismatics. He’s average in all respects save one: he’s distinguished by his truly monumental self-importance. “He took himself so seriously,” writes James, “it was something appalling.” Gilbert harbors “contempt for everyone but some three or four very exalted people whom he envie[s], and for everything in the world but a half a dozen ideas of his own.” His strident certainty is so unassailable Isabel doesn’t think to doubt him, at least until she’s trapped in a marriage gone terribly sour.

Gilbert musters some grudging admiration for his wife—but not because he values her in her own right. Rather, he regards her accomplishments as affirmations and augmentations of his own:

He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favor, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank, he had flattered himself that it would be richly receptive.

Isabel has been relegated from interlocutor to mirror: the whole of her brilliance is to be directed at flashing Gilbert’s image back at him. “Any expression of respect on [Osmond’s] part,” writes James, “could only be a refinement of egotism.”

Isabel is cruelly subjugated by her misguided marriage, though it’s not because her husband is anything approaching a Mephistopheles. If Gilbert is evil, it’s only because he’s pathetic. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt is at pains to show that the Nazi war criminal she’s describing is “not a ‘monster’” but “a clown.” To marvel at his wickedness is, in some sense, to revere him, and his demotion from an Iago to an ordinary bungler is a revelation. Gilbert’s monstrosity likewise consists in his abject mediocrity: to scoff at his narcissism is to sap him of the last vestige of his power.

Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I realized that it would be radical if we could learn to see male self-involvement as actively unattractive. Such a shift would require a revolution of perception. Gilbert Osmond is neither stupid nor tasteless: he’s precisely the sort of person who’s been glorified as rakish in endless rom coms. Yet his temperamental faults in fact soil what might otherwise amount to an immaculate beauty, and not simply by outweighing or overwhelming it. Gilbert is so rotten that his appeal is wholly vitiated. And as soon as I realized that his cruelty, snobbery, and emotional anemia made him not just evil but ugly—I was free.

Syphilitic Parasitic

The truth is that college-aged men who date women in high school, to say nothing of middle-aged men who date women in their early twenties, to say nothing of men who makes passes at the captive audience of their employees, are losers. They live in predictable rooms and write predictable books. They even smoke predictable cigarettes. Men like that don’t even have the minor merit of originality.

As long as their brand of effete evil is seen as significant, it will continue to incite our awe: a man so indifferent to the women he ruins asserts his importance and their corresponding irrelevance. A man like that has assimilated substance to semiotics. Trying to access him, to cut through the glossy impenetrability of his supreme selfishness, is like scaling a hill of ice.

But in fact a man like Gilbert Osmond (or my creepy debate coach) depends on the women he bullies as much as they, in their innocence, come to depend on him. In fact there is nothing impressive or even impassive about an older man’s compulsion to seduce younger women as a means of survival: to live off their praise as vampires live off blood. A man who can only convince himself of his value by manipulating someone defenseless into mistaking his brutality for force of personality is shrunken, sordid, and sad.

The aesthetic appeal that the Gilberts of the world retain is wholly parasitic on the woman they wound. As Elizabeth Hardwick notes in her landmark essay, “Seduction and Betrayal,” the male seducers of classical literature become sinister only by dint of the courageous woman they compromise. Elvira’s passion for Don Juan “makes him a more seductive and profound lover because she is interesting and complicated herself”: she’s the only thing that rescues him from his otherwise “inane buffoonery.”

Men in seduction narratives are, as a rule, untouchable. They escape unscathed because they emerge from the ordeals they occasion with their dignity intact—while their victims, left to bear the child and clean up the mess, have become laughable. Men in seduction narratives, writes Hardwick,  

do not really believe in consequence for themselves. Consequence proposes to them a worldly loss and diminishment they will not suffer. They will not marry the barmaid or the farm girl or the unvirginal. They will not confess to adultery when their success or their comfort hangs in the balance. They will not live with the mistakes of youth, or of any other period, if it is not practical to do so. Sex is a completed action, not a strange, fleeting coming together that mortgages the future. For this reason perhaps, the heroic woman had to be created in fiction.

I have a crazy theory that a sort of aesthetic justice is already efficacious.

If it is “usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment,” it is because the woman has always been the locus of morality. She has always served as the conscience of her male abusers and the conscience of a culture that has done all it can to discredit her.  

Borrowed Beauty

I have a crazy theory—too unfalsifiable to amount to an argument, too naïve to qualify as much more than a mystic’s analgesic—that a sort of aesthetic justice is already efficacious. That bad men are already punished for their transgressions by the foolish failures of their art: and that goodness erupts, sometimes despite its authors, into a richness of reality. A great book involves the assertion of a world. Authors loath to betray the dictates of a fiction must submit to its characters. The best women in books take on the ballast of life. Irrepressible Isabel Archer must have bettered her creator. Long-suffering Tess d’Urberville, savagely raped by a man masquerading as her cousin, stars in by far the best of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Sometimes a writer’s genius qua writer amounts to moral salvation. His own inability to betray the demands of his work secures his compassionate treatment of his female characters, thus his deliverance.

But then, I am not convinced that it is not the woman’s doing: that it was not Isabel Archer and Tess d’Urberville themselves who endowed their male creators with so much immensity. The woman with their totemic, transformative suffering. The women who can redeem even the most loathsome lothario by weeping over him—or writing about him. Whatever appeal he ever appeared to have was no more than a trick of the lighting. Men have only ever borrowed their beauty from the women they hurt.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.

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