Of JFK, Don Draper, and “desperate, tragic” attractions to dangerous men

Posted by Sappho on August 24th, 2012 filed in Sexuality


My mother-in-law loved the Kennedys. They hit so many hooks in her particular psyche: the fascination with royalty that led my generally politically liberal mother-in-law to devour everything she could about the last czars, the working class Catholic sensibility that delighted in the Irish-American who broke the WASP stranglehold on the presidency, and the union friendly left of center political and economic views that made her a lifelong Democrat. When we visited her just after John-John died, I remember her relating just how Teddy had survived each family tragedy, from the first to the latest.

For me, JFK’s death shadowed my childhood in the way that I imagine 9/11 now shadows the childhood of my young nephews and niece of middle school age: the horror related to you by adults, that happened in your own lifetime, but just long enough ago that you are too young to actually remember the event itself. But you can see the aftermath. In the case of JFK’s death, that aftermath was mixed up with the fact that his death was actually one of a whole series of assassinations in the ’60s, some of which happened when I was too young to remember, but two of which (the twin, close in time assassinations of JFK’s younger brother Robert and of Martin Luther King) happened just in time for them to be the earliest public events I remember.

But I’ve always seen myself as too young to really feel the romance of Camelot. Kennedy? I appreciate that he started the Peace Corps. I enjoyed reading Profiles in Courage. I like the occasional story of his wit. And I’m certainly sorry he died so young and violently. But I don’t feel the emotional resonance with him that my mother-in-law did. Teddy Kennedy, sure, the lion of the Senate who fought for health care reform, among other things, for approximately my whole life. His scandals and his triumphs have been part of most of my politically aware life, and I’ve cared about all of them. JFK, not so much.

For Caitlin Flanagan, it’s another story. Though she’s just about exactly my age, JFK and his many mistresses mean so much more to her than they ever have to me. I learned of the article through Ta-Nehisi Coates, who remarks of it

I’ve been meaning to dig into this Caitlin Flanagan piece on America’s love affair with Kennedy, if only because I don’t quite understand it. I split with a lot of liberals in the sense that I recoil at sexual recklessness in liberal politicians. I get the concern about infantalizing grown women, and pretending as if they don’t have a sexual will of their own.

But when you are politician, what derails you also derails the people who worked for you….

At any rate, Flanagan’s essay actually helped me understand a bit….

I suppose that part of the difference between me and Flanagan, here, may be the Irish Catholic thing. I don’t know much about Flanagan’s childhood (those things of her that I’ve read have told me more about her adulthood), but Flanagan is an Irish name, and I’d be surprised if the Irish Catholic finally makes it thing didn’t have some impact on how she learned of our martyred President. But Flanagan’s a writer who speaks more to gender than to ethnicity, and so she writes, not about what JFK may mean to her as an Irish Catholic, and only barely about what she thinks of his policies. Instead, she writes of JFK the celebrity, and the ways in which she both loves and hates what she has learned of his family life.

Inevitably, some people show up in the comments of Caitlin Flanagan’s piece to make the “anyone who gives a damn who anyone else fucks is a judgmental prude” case.

The interest people have in the gossip of people’s lives in the U.S. is a measure of how puritanical we still are. Pay attention to your own morals, if you’re so hot on being monogamous. Jeesh, what a bunch of 7th grade girls (and boys) the country has become. People like commenter SALLYFARRAR below… who are you to go calling anyone immoral? You never “sinned?” All of you – if you’re not “without sin” don’t cast the first stone. Hypocrisy is the first and worst of all the sins. To me, those who are interested in whose pecker went where, or what woman spread her legs for whom are disgusting pigs. Get a sex life of your own.

To which I say,

  1. You’re surprised that Caitlin Flanagan thinks less of someone who was promiscuous? Who did you think you were reading, Amanda Marcotte?
  2. Even by “we shouldn’t judge people just because of the number of people they’ve slept with” standards, JFK’s sex life was pretty sleazy. There was, a) a wife who doesn’t seem to have intended an open marriage, but who got a husband who never saw a sexual opportunity he could pass up, b) a mistress who was unhappily pressured into giving a blowjob to JFK’s friend, which pressure seems gratuitously cruel. Yes, as TNC says, I get the concern about infantilizing adult women. Yes, JFK’s women also have agency. But if you do things that predictably make the people you’re having sex with miserable, it’s not being a Judgey McJudgerson to say that you’re not conducting your sex life in an ethical manner.
  3. Sharing a mistress with a Mafia leader? At a certain point, if you’re President, you should be willing and able to avoid the kinds of sexual recklessness that introduces risks like that into the political system. Yes, there’s a case to be made for not weighing a potential President’s sex life all that highly in your voting decisions. Yes, FDR and Eisenhower had one discrete mistress apiece, and the fact doesn’t seem to have hurt their Presidencies. Yes, you can make the case that sexually reckless Bill Clinton was a more effective President than lusting-only-in-his-heart Jimmy Carter. Yes, maybe being OK with that kind of thing, and not expecting Presidents to be actual family role models, is the more sensible political attitude. To a large degree, that’s even actually how I vote. But still, is sharing a mistress with a Mafia leader really something we don’t even get to criticize in a former President?
  4. To the extent that we might, in fact, be wise to take a leaf from the French, and adopt the kind of sophisticated understanding that’s OK with the fact that Mitterand’s wife and mistress stood together at his funeral, it’s because we conclude that voting that way is good for us, that politicians aren’t going to be family role models anyway, and that we’ll get better leaders if we just accept that and judge them by their public character and policies. It’s certainly not because politicians deserve our sympathy when they do sexually reckless things and get judged for it.

    Look, I have some sympathy for actors, when the tabloids follow them and people wag their fingers. Often, the object of the latest celebrity scandal became an actor as a kid and never really got to live out of the public eye. Even those who chose acting as adults generally chose it because they love to act, not because they actually expected fame and fortune. (How many actors become rich and famous? Really? How likely was it that you’d have been the one? Making a living as an actor at all was generally the prize you sought, not actual stardom.) But politicians chose to run for offices where the public has a legitimate right to care what sort of people they are.

    Say that we might be wise to temper that caring enough, on the private side, to leave FDR’s or Eisenhower’s discrete mistress to their respective wives, and I’ll understand. Get all indignant that anyone at all cares about any level of sexual recklessness at all, as if a President’s supporters had no business caring in the least if he jeopardizes their agenda with “whose pecker went where,” and you lose me.

So, yes, I’m on the side that says that, whether or not you think Caitlin Flanagan’s a prude in her sexual attitudes in general, she’s really not over the prude line for saying that JFK’s affairs were a bad thing rather than an indifferent thing. What’s more interesting to me is where she goes with this. Some of it (her discussion of JFK as father) feels to me like a window into aspects of the JFK glamour that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I was two when JFK was killed. And (maybe because I’m not Irish-American), I didn’t experience the images of things I can’t remember myself the same way Caitlin Flanagan (who’s my age) did. I have no sense of JFK as father, but I do have enough appreciation of fathers in general that I can understand when Flanagan writes this:

Pictures of two children playing in their father’s office: John crouching under the big desk, peeking out from the secret panel; Caroline and her brother dancing on the lush carpet. In the background, their delighted father looks on, clapping his hands, as though nothing on his agenda could be more pressing than these hijinks.

Suffer the little children to come unto me is the unwritten caption of all these saintly images. The Soviets can kiss off for five minutes; the blacks can hold their water. John-John has an adorable new hiding place, and the most powerful person in the world is fully absorbed by it. These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own. It’s the father as a person of great importance in some vaguely apprehended larger world where the grown-ups live, and where he takes care of essential and necessary matters but will gladly put all of that aside to spend an extra moment with his precious children.

And then we get to the part that occasioned a vigorous debate over at TNC’s blog, the part where, as TNC says, Flanagan goes darker:

As for John Kennedy–what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them. (“That administration,” said LBJ–painted birds long forgotten, the mists of Camelot beginning to clear–”had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.

But most of all, he made us feel good about ourselves; he inspired us. Toward what? Mostly toward him. All these years later–half the time hating ourselves for it–we’re still as thrilled by him as Mimi Alford was. He had a singular masculinity, and his very callousness and recklessness with women don’t blight his appeal; they enhance it. The typical progressive woman thinks she is drawn to him because of his groovy, feel-good work on behalf of civil rights, but that’s an assertion that doesn’t bear 15 minutes’ exploration. John Kennedy voted against Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act; he made lofty campaign promises that assured him the black vote but then sat on his hands for all of 1961; his nickname for James Baldwin was “Martin Luther Queen.” The reason so many women love him really has nothing to do with his actual accomplishments and everything to do with his being the kind of man whose every inclination runs counter to their best interests. If history–to say nothing of fictional characters, including the Dons, Draper and Juan–has taught us anything, it is that a significant number of women are desperately, often tragically, attracted to that very trait. Men recognize and respond to this in Kennedy, just as strongly as women do…

You can argue the particulars of the politics here. (How would Vietnam really have played out if JFK had lived? What about civil rights? Would JFK, as his fans would have it, have been more reluctant to escalate in Vietnam than LBJ? Would he, as his critics would have it, have been less likely to bring us effective civil rights legislation? And is JFK the cool hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or was Hitchens right that the crisis was largely of his own making?) Flanagan’s piece, though, is less about JFK’s actual policies than about the allure of dangerous men, and it’s that aspect on which I want to write.

As several of TNC’s commenters remark, Flanagan’s a master of writing that beautifully explores her own psyche, and then offers up a “we” that often doesn’t include all that many other women. I actually think this is less of a problem in this piece than in some of her others. In the context of her article on JFK, the most natural referent for her “we” feels to me to be “we who find JFK both greatly appealing and greatly disappointing” rather than “every woman.” (The “we” gets weirder in other things she writes, where she sometimes talks about domestic arrangements only available to people who have a fair amount of money as if they said things about women as a whole.) But there’s a reason that her remark that “a significant number of women are desperately, often tragically, attracted” to men who are very bad for them draws both defense and angry rebuttal. It is, in one sense (depending on how you define “significant number”) obviously true to many people’s observation (including my own). As TNC writes in the comments to his post

I think the only problem with this statement is the context which implies that “many men” or a “significant number of men” don’t often do the same thing.

And it is, in another sense (depending on how you interpret the words “significant number” and what you think “the kind of man whose every inclination runs counter to their best interests” means, wildly wrong.

So, let me talk again about the ways in which I think women are, and aren’t, attracted to “bad boys.”

First, the ways in which the “women keep falling for bad boys” meme often goes wildly wrong. Anyone who’s followed the comment sections of big feminist blogs for any significant length of time has seen it; the arrival of the “women love jerks” team. Here is how the arguments tend to go:

  1. What? You object to something that some men do? Why don’t you turn your attention to the women who date them? Because, until every single woman in the world refuses to date any man who does whatever rotten thing you’re complaining about, you don’t have any business calling men to account.
  2. And, by the way, that refusal to ever date jerks? Must also be consistently carried out by teenage girls. If there’s a kind of jerk that gets dates in high school, and women eventually grow up to see through him, the fact that anyone dated him in high school is good enough reason for men to ignore women’s mature adult assessment.
  3. What kind of men do women love, even if they say they don’t? Exactly this kind: the kind of man who knows that a woman doesn’t really mean her “no” seriously. If I had a nickel for every time the “women love bad boys” argument got dragged into threads where women were talking about genuinely dangerous and threatening behavior by men (stalking, harrassment, rape), well, I don’t want to think about how many nickels I’d have.

At this point (and here I’ll take a leaf from Flanagan and use my own editorial “we”), we’re bristling at the suggestion, because, no matter how many women we’ve seen fall for men who are horribly wrong for them, we know darn well that women in general aren’t completely unserious about everything we say we don’t want. The fact that, as TNC says, the business of falling for the wrong person is a human foible, shared by women and men alike, is part of it. But the other part is that, after singling women out for criticism for that shared human foible, that shared human foible is being used to discredit only women’s complaints. Including some that are pretty darn serious.

While I haven’t seen Flanagan do the “women really want a man who knows enough to ignore them when they say no” thing, I suspect that that fact that she is, at times, an anti-feminist writer means that she inherits the resentment of pretty much all the anti-feminist use of the “women love bad boys” meme.

Second, the way in which “women keep falling for bad boys” is, in some sense, true: Look, what kind of food do most of us like to eat? Exclusively food that’s good for us? Do we all save as much as we’re supposed to for retirement. Are you surprised that the four-year-olds in the Stanford marshmallow experiment often couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow? Evolution doesn’t guarantee that we’ve been selected to do things that make us happy in the long term. Often it means that we’ve been selected to eat as much sugar and fat as we can today, because tomorrow our ancestors might have starved. That we’ll sleep with the hot guy who doesn’t have our best interest at heart, because our great-great-great-great-grandmother may have been made similarly unhappy by our similarly hot great-great-great-great-grandfather, but her unhappy love life allowed her genes to continue on to us. Reality is that most of have known people of both sexes who repeatedly picked lovers who were absolutely awful for them, and that even the majority who eventually figure it out often do so by way of making a few huge mistakes along the way. By, in other words, at least some of the time (whether you’re male or female, gay or straight) falling for someone who really doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Maybe you’ve been that woman (or man), but if by chance you haven’t, you’ve certainly seen a good friend or family member be that woman (or man).

But what kinds of “bad boys” do women actually fall for? People talk about this phenomenon as if there were one single set of “bad” qualities to which women are “desperately, often tragically, attracted.” As far as I can see, though, that isn’t true. I can see at least three different kinds of “bad” to which people are attracted (and, though I’ll describe these in terms of heterosexual women, they all have heterosexual male, gay, and lesbian equivalent mistakes).

  1. The wounded bird: You can save this person. Really you can. Hugo Schwyzer, by his own account of his past, appears to have both loved such wounded birds (he has remarked on how his “type” used to be “brunettes with sex addictions, high IQs, eating disorders, and a bipolar diagnosis”), and been that wounded bird for the women who loved him. I think that the wounded bird is a minority taste, in both genders (you really do, on average, get more people pursuing you when you’re thriving than when you’re in your most broken place). I don’t even think it’s a majority taste among young teenage girls. But it’s a common enough minority taste that the sexiest of the wounded birds, the ones who also have looks and a certain skill in their approach, won’t lack for partners.
  2. The guy who will dare anything: He’ll take you riding behind him on his motorcycle, without a helmet. He knows just whose house is hosting a party while parents are out of town. He got you your first magic mushrooms. And oh, the sexual adventures you have together! This is the guy Billy Joel portrays himself as in “Only the Good Die Young,” the one who “might be laughing a bit too loud, but that never hurt no one.” There’s not a mean bone in his body, and to you, he’s not “bad” in any way you fear. He helps you dare to do things that you always wanted to dare to do anyway. To your parents, so much more conscious than you of how fragile your body can be, and how much you could lose by taking the wrong risk, he’s bad news indeed. If the two of you both survive the risks you take together, you may well remember this “bad boy” fondly, years later, when you Google him and learn that he’s now a professor somewhere or other.
  3. Don Draper: Well, Caitlin Flanagan brought him up. Don Draper is fantasy, of course. But it’s worth pointing out in what way this particular fantasy is sexy. Is he dark? Of course. Are we meant to disapprove of much of what he does? Naturally. Do we wish we had a husband anything like Don Draper? Hell, no. Do we lust after him anyway? Maybe, and maybe not. I’m not Everywoman, and I don’t really have a feel for how many straight women have Don Draper fantasies. The show works whether you, personally, find him hot or not. But there is one sense in which the show requires Don Draper to be sexy. It requires you to believe that the women in the show find him sexy, so sexy that he can pretty much get one woman after another to fall into his arms, and not stupid women, either, but rather women who are often as intelligent and accomplished as they are beautiful. How does it accomplish this? Partly, it’s so pointedly of a certain period that you believe that certain things that you wouldn’t tolerate from a man now would be tolerated in Don Draper in that time period. Partly, Don has foils. Roger is more racist than Don, and Pete has a mean streak that Don lacks. So, flawed though Don is, he gets, at least some of the time, to look good by comparison with someone else – a time honored way of building sympathy for an antihero. But partly, we believe that women fall into Don Draper’s arms because he’s played by handsome Jon Hamm, because he’s clearly rich, and because, at least in the early seasons, he’s portrayed as a brilliant guy who frequently saves his company’s ass with his creative ideas for ad campaigns. Pete, Peggy, and Joan are all more consistent in their work, while Don swerves wildly between slacking and overtime, but Don, the show suggests, has talent. Believe that women will fall for a man who isn’t good for them, but who is good looking, rich, and talented? Piece of cake. If the wounded bird is a minority taste in both sexes, people who are so hot that you forget their drawbacks are probably what the majority of men and women alike fall for, at least some of the time. That’s why, after all, the least surprising thing about the stories of JFK’s sex life is the fact that he kept finding women willing to play.

Perhaps, to a degree, that’s all of us. I’ve made choices that didn’t prove good for me, when young. And yet, to a degree, not so much. I’ve Googled all my old flames. They show up, now middle aged, supplied with good degrees, good jobs, and married, on average, for decades. The men, going by their jobs, average a higher income than mine (and I earn considerably more than the average woman). They’re either alleged to be good fathers or responsibly childless, in either case apparently on good terms with their wives. There’s nothing, in the life trajectories of my exes, to indicate that my “type” is “the kind of man whose every inclination runs counter to my best interests.” And yet, at the time, not all of these relationships ended well. They aren’t “bad boys” in any obvious long term sense. But in at least some cases, we were bad at the time, for each other. So it seems to me to be for most of us; one person’s cheap sugar high in romantic relationships proves, a few years down the road, to be another person’s trustworthy spouse.



2 Responses to “Of JFK, Don Draper, and “desperate, tragic” attractions to dangerous men”

  1. D. Says:

    This is an interesting analysis. (I think, using your categories, that JFK was all three.)

    A lot of my problem with the “bad boy” accusation is that it is generally made by people whose unspoken part of the indictment is “and not me.”

  2. Sappho Says:

    Yes, the “and not me” aspect of the whole “bad boy” accusation gets really annoying. No one is owed a relationship with the person they want.