He May Be An Asshole…But He's *My* Asshole

(x-posted @ my blog)

Don Draper has to beat women off with a stick – both on screen and off. Message boards are full of women swooning over the Mad Men protagonist despite his character being emotionally unavailable, unfaithful and secretive. Even feminists.

You heard right. Feminists.

The women in question offer fairly standard responses. He’s unabashedly masculine – he’s got swagger. Confidence is always in style even if you’re a bastard. There’s a stability that he exudes as part of his stoicism.

Over at Jezebel they try to disentangle this strange phenomenon and offer a more interesting hypothesis to explain the enduring attractiveness of assholes to women who should know better, specifically those in the NYO article who are career women with stay at home husbands. They posit that these women see themselves in Don Draper – that part of the attraction is the parallels they see between his life and theirs, his marriage with Betty and the ones they have with their husbands. The argument is compelling, calling into question ideas about gender roles and equality. This is thought provoking stuff:

When anyone’s career takes total precedence over another’s, doesn’t that automatically create a, well, 1950s dynamic? If all these women are identifying so powerfully with a philandering 1960s businessman whose work life feels unconnected to home, might they consider that their dynamic is just as binary? Not merely that a man is “not being a man” but that they are with a person who has voluntarily put himself second which is, ironically, not erotic?

But I want to consider something else. Something way more basic that may be at work here, that was hinted at in the NYO piece and over at Jezebel: “He may be an asshole, but he’s *my* asshole.”

Or rather, “I am the one person who truly understands this distant, tortured, misunderstood soul and that makes me special.”

Paula Bernstein in the NYO:

The fact that he is so emotionally withholding and mysterious is frustrating, but women are intrigued by men like that, and as much as they say they want a sensitive guy who’s going to let it all hang out, there is an appeal to a man with secrets.”

Yes. A man with secrets is initially intriguing but at some point you’re going to want to know them, at least some of them. You’re going to ferret them out and find your way into his confidences. Why? Because you’re special and uniquely qualified to do so.

To wit, over at Jezebel:

There’s a sense on the show that his wife can’t keep his interest purely because she’s so docile and subservient; we could, we think.

We will succeed where other women have failed! And in so doing will solidify our place of importance in his life. He may be an asshole with everyone else, but once he realizes how well you know him, how much you understand him, surely he’ll be different with you!

There’s nothing some women like better than a project, and an asshole can be just that. I know I can’t be the only one who could have earned a Ph.D. with the sheer volume of information I collected, analyzed an interpreted trying to “crack the code” of some of the less forthcoming objects of my affection. Talking about/digging/taking special note of minutiae that wouldn’t interest anyone else/crying/phoning friends/trying to rationalize every shitty thing he does as part of some psychological profile all in the effort to know him better, and more importantly for him to *see* how well I knew him and realize how indispensable I was, how observant, how absolutely in tune with his personality. Once he sees that he’ll be different with me. Sure, he’s an asshole with everyone else, but I know him and he’s mine…he’s different with me.

After one such encounter I thought of part of a poem by Connie Bensley called “Trespass”:

We always want more than we bargain for –
The particular tone of voice,
The special intimacy
The exclusive offer.

To appear in your mind’s eye
Couched in glowing terms
And under your hand in dreams
Was my desire.

Maybe that’s what makes assholes so attractive – the promise of a front row seat. The hope that we will be the one he will change for.

  • Great post. I think this is right on the mark.

  • Barbara B.

    “We will succeed where other women have failed! And in so doing will solidify our place of importance in his life. He may be an asshole with everyone else, but once he realizes how well you know him, how much you understand him, surely he’ll be different with you!”

    You just described half the romance novels I’ve read. This is a very important trope in romance fiction, particularly historical romance. It’s called taming the beast.

  • Really good post, UE. Almost makes me want to watch this show. 😉

  • Shani: Give in. You know you wanna. The power of Don Draper compels you.
    I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I do, but it’s completely engrossing – as good as reading a book IMO, and that’s *high* praise coming from me.

  • WestIndianArchie

    Any person who falls for this, deserves what they get.

  • This isn’t purely a woman thing. I know more than a few men (self included) who have spent a ton of time and energy on the ‘intriguing’ woman. I think its one of those phases most people go through.

  • WIA: How incisive! Bravo!

  • sarah

    Insightful and cringe worthy (as someone who has done this very thing.)

    HOWEVER – I would add that an important aspect of this is the intermittent reinforcement. These men start off as wooers… they talk you into a drink… a date… into sex… they flatter you and make you feel special (and who doesn’t want to feel special). But then little by little the asshole takes hold. If it happened all at once, we would all run away – far far away – and they know it. Like children, these men push the limits and like love=-blind mothers, we let them.

    But part of the reason we spend the time going over minutiae is that intermittent reinforcement creates a stress reaction – we don’t know what’s going to happen next – so we look for clues… in tone of voice, in action, in ANYTHING – and keep throwing energy into the relationship so we can get the positive reaction that engaged our interest in the first place.

  • Grump

    For women, they fall for the “asshole”
    For men, they fall for the “loose woman” that is always at the bar.

  • Sarah: You hit the nail on the head. It’s a game of expectations, where each move is a clue that frustrates one to no end. It’s an act of deception these people play, and deception is no different to lies. Just because it hasn’t been said, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. People know their threshold of pain, and when the time arrives to walk away, they always do. I might have to check out this show now.

  • Sarah: Definitely feeling you on the intermittent reinforcement thing…even more so because I’m a psychologist by trade. The most vigorous responding is achieved on a variable interval and ratio schedules – you don’t know how long you will have to wait for reward or how many responses will be required so as a result you redouble your efforts. And you’re right, falling for an asshole seldom occurs in a vacuum that is devoid of encouraging responses from him, at least in the beginning.

  • Grump: What’s the appeal of the “loose woman” though? I’d assume there’s the expectation of easy access sexually, but that speaks more to physical desire than emotion. Capt. Save-A-Ho syndrome perhaps? (NB. I’m not comfy with that term but can’t come up with anything more PC that’s just as apt)

  • Grump

    Cap’n Save-a-Hoe is pretty much it, but she doesn’t neccesarily have to be a ho…She could be a beligerent drunk or a manipulative woman(in the vein of a cinematic femme fatale) that in any number of ways forces a male to bend to her will while simultaneously thinking that he can change her wayward decisions.

  • sarah

    Well, I just left an intermittent reinforcement experience… who he was and who he claimed to be were very different things, and it took a while for the actions to add up into something that required flight.

    You hate to admit that you fell for the stuff that didn’t materialize and think, “If I only provide a comfortable enough environment…” As though it’s you not him who’s got the problem.

    I think it’s easy to accuse women of taking on these men as projects when you see the relationship start to fail. Most women I know don’t look for project, but end up with men who don’t know how to be men today and in light of that ignorance become… (wait for it) PROJECTS. We dance around their insecurities, try not to set off hair-trigger anxieties and work to make them feel necessary. Most of us don’t need a man to put a roof over our heads, give us voices in the world or validate us as people. I think it would take a very secure man to be comfortable with being WANTED not NEEDED… and there aren’t that many out there who can handle that – so they find someone who needs them – and she is probably younger, dumber and less capable than you.

  • Meh. Men find attractive, aggressive, unavailable women hot as hell too. The only reason this question even comes *up* is that people aren’t comfortable with the idea that women can want to fuck someone that they might not want to marry.

  • sarah

    Bless, bitchphd, bless.

  • ladyfresshh

    i’ll chime in with the ‘ but men do this too’
    but complain less? i doubt they are allowed to complain in the same manner in society
    i dunno a male chasing after a ‘loose’ woman is supposedly emasculating while the inverse is ‘nature’

    we do seem to have two different topics here,
    Don is a fascinating character i think people find him mesmerizing because the show is also mesmerizing i think the theory posited is a very small factor of what makes Don and the show interesting.

    as for the second element i do think that is a separate factor replayed throughout the ages in relationships for some reason
    two of which i think are laziness and insecurity…ok and sheer stubbornness which compounds the last two
    laziness – once you find some one who’s outter and inner qualities you deem acceptable most people are too lazy to reject and essentially start from scratch in locating another (which truly is simpler sounds than it is
    insecurity – many feel they can’t and this is the best it gets – and they really really really do not want to be alone

  • verdeluz

    I absolutely agree with bitchphd that the allure of the unavailable (and in many cases, unattainable) applies across the board, but I don’t think this is as much about acknowledging women’s sexual desire outside of the context of marriage so much as the idea that for whatever reason- validation seeking, the pleasure of a challenge, competitiveness, a warped sense of devotion- there are a lot of women who try to marry or have a serious relationship with the guy that they should probably just be fucking. A Don/na Draper is good for an orgasm or 20, but knowing well in advance the kind of person s/he is, what is it that makes people bother trying to ‘crack the code’? It’s hard to see how the payoff could possibly be worth the effort.

    That said, I’m currently in a relationship with a supportive, caring, emotionally sound, essentially baggage-free man.. and damned if that doesn’t come with its own challenges. Easy and available frequently seems less exciting, less sexy (which is probably a key factor in the overeager/unavailable pairings this post talks about). The popular notion that ‘nice guys finish last’* is, I think, a testament to how difficult it can be to separate what you know is good for you from what your baser desires would have you do.

    *Here, of course, we’d have to control for the myriad interpretations of the ever-so-problematic word ‘nice’ (hi, G.D.); obviously, there are other reasons why a man who is ‘nice’ as in ‘not a dick, but has poor hygiene and lacks social skills’ is not having a lot of success.

  • Pingback: * cheeses * « Entropy Inc.()

  • drush76

    Why do I feel nothing but revulsion whenever someone goes off about how wonderful Don Draper is . . . despite his faults? It makes me sick.