When I was 12, I had a wicked crush on John Hurt in the role of Caligula in Masterpiece Theatre’s I Claudius. This was in 1977 and my parents still owned the boxy, black-and-white Zenith with the plastic knobs that they’d bought second-hand when I was five. We didn’t get many clear channels on that beast, which might be one reason why I fell for John Hurt rather than someone normal like Travolta, who was making girls weak-kneed as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter at the time. But it doesn’t explain why I was drawn in particular to the emperor Caligula, scourge of Rome, whose name is synonymous with cruelty and depravity and who did things in that series like declaring himself a god and impregnating his sister and then cutting the fetus out of her body and eating it. The show was heavily censored and one didn’t see anything too disgusting, but I knew perfectly well what was going on. Still I found him seductive — his insanity and fragility, how he cradled his white-blonde head in his hands and complained of headache, tortured by his own evil. He was my first celebrity crush — John Hurt, or John Hurt in that particular role. I’m still trying to figure out how weird that is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how physical desire develops in adolescent girls. It’s kind of a taboo subject. We tend to think of girls in early adolescence as more interested in romance than sex — their sexual responses are subtler than boys’ so it’s easy to pretend they don’t exist. Maybe it’s true that girls aren’t quite as turned on by visual stimuli as boys are. Then again, I recently had the pleasure of chaperoning four dozen girls ages 11 to 17 at a Broadway show; all of them started screaming when one of the actors walked onstage shirtless, so I’m pretty sure girls respond just fine to visual stimuli. I do know that they also love a good story. I would venture to say that their erotic lives develop narratively, in response to certain dramatic tensions in books and on screen. Those narratives can sometimes be troubling — full of violence and moral ambiguity and occasionally really unsavory guys. It’s easy to get worried about this, though having been there myself, I am inclined to take a more philosophical approach.
A few years ago, my daughter became one of legions of little girls to fall in love with Draco Malfoy. Not with Harry Potter – no one really seems to love Harry. Harry is brave in an uncomplicated way, facing his destiny like a good little stoic, but somehow he isn’t crush material. Draco, on the other hand, is a conniving bully, the devil spawn of racist parents. Rowling apparently found his popularity troubling, insisting that girls were confusing him with the actor Tom Felton, whom they found attractive. I think she’s wrong. Certainly Felton became the public face of Draco, but his angular good looks are most interesting in the context of a particular narrative. Girls love the actor in that role, as a deeply resentful boy made vulnerable by his own attraction to power. I honestly don’t think it’s about wickedness — girls don’t really want a bad guy; they sure as hell don’t want to be treated cruelly by some miscreant. I think it’s the pitch and intensity of Malfoy’s story that appeals to them. He was born on the losing side, and it’s obvious he’ll be ruined by the end of the series, killed outright or at least completely humiliated. Meanwhile he struggles to man up in a world where everyone he admires is cold and twisted and capable of hurting him. Girls identify with Malfoy’s plight — plenty of us feel we weren’t born to roll with the winners. And even very young girls catch the whiff of erotic possibility in the murky darkness of Draco’s world.
It would be easy to say that girls who romanticize characters like Malfoy become women who make bad choices, drawn to damaged men who no amount of love or patience will fix. Frankly I think that’s too easy. Being drawn to Caligula at age 12 didn’t mean that I would fall for paranoid, power-hungry men a few years later. I’ll admit it was a small step toward certain adult proclivities, but that journey is complicated and subtle. Nothing about the woman I am today would make Caligula a logical starting point.
Before I could develop actual preferences, I had to start recognizing flesh-and-blood boys as complex human beings. This was out of the question for me in junior high school. There were fewer than two dozen in my eighth grade class and not one appealed to me in the least. They were total nonentities, floating the halls in their Izods and Levis, talking about God knows what — hockey and pop rocks most likely. In the cafeteria they stomped on mustard packets or took up the background beat to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in unison on the Formica tables. I was already extremely bitter on matters of popular music — all those syrupy disco tunes left me depressed, and that tedious “slap-slap-clap” thing the guys loved just got on my nerves. To me it was the essence of boy-ness, a pathetic homage to brute force. Of course I had no idea how subversive Queen’s operatic glam truly was, how complicated its read on masculinity. To me it was just pumped-up arena rock, one more reason to detest sporting events and find boys repulsive.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t see one day loving a boy, but my imagination failed me. Just as I felt I had no alternative to the popular music of the day, boys my own age with enticing qualities simply didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t even have said what those qualities might have been. I knew what repelled me but not what I liked.
What repelled me became increasingly clear and took on a distinctly political cast in the spring of eighth grade when we began studying the Holocaust. My social studies teacher was piloting her new textbook on fascism and human behavior; we spent weeks and weeks on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the psychology of the Hitler Youth. This was not a problem for me. I’d hit that phase that Jewish girls often do around 12 or 13 — or did in the 70’s at least — when I began to own the Holocaust, to see its epic atrocity as central to my sense of self. I read every memoir I could get my hands on, saw every excruciating bit of camp footage. I was perpetually sickened, a sensation that extended outward to encompass the present, making my vague counterculture notion that much more real. If jackboots and swastika armbands disgusted me, so did uniforms of all sorts, so did sports teams and cheering crowds and muscular torsos, so did crew cuts and blond boys. What’s truly bizarre in retrospect is how even as we were being taught to critique Nazi ideals of racial purity, I internalized them. Not that I valued or embraced them — quite the opposite — but I accepted the binary, aligned myself against Aryan beauty and by extension with a different kind of beauty — dark and slight instead of blonde and jacked. Perverse as it might sound, the Holocaust taught me what to desire.
Television helped. That spring the miniseries Holocaust aired on NBC. Our teacher didn’t recommend it, told us it was sappy and melodramatic, but my friends and I watched anyway, huddled together in front of someone’s TV for moral support. The show chronicled the destruction of one fictional Berlin family, various members deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and shot in the uprising or gassed at Auschwitz or sent to a sanitarium and killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. My favorite character was Karl Weiss, the Thereseinstadt artist whose dissident artwork led to his imprisonment and torture. Played by a young James Woods, Karl had one of those impossibly gaunt faces, visual shorthand for a certain type of romantic hero. I loved that dark, hollow-cheeked thing he had going on, but it was his story that really got me. Karl’s tale had everything: a brutal empire with uniformed hoodlums marching in lockstep, a moody intellectual who could have been a coward but ends up being profoundly brave, subversive artwork, defiance in the face of certain death. That this particular story would sow the seeds of erotic engagement may seem strange. There were, after all, real artists at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp who were arrested and charged with creating “horror propaganda,” imprisoned and beaten and killed, and none of that is the least bit sexy to me. But this wasn’t real life. This was Hollywood providing a storyline designed to move me, which is exactly what it did.
Understand too that I was not literally aroused. I was horrified and my stomach hurt. I didn’t hang around to see Karl tortured — I went and hid in my friends’ bathroom until it was all over. The torture was important though — the fact that it happened, and the image of Weiss afterwards, hunched in the corner of his cell and cradling his broken hands against his body. He was a love object in a way I didn’t recognize but which told a truth to me all the same — that those who struggle and suffer are more desirable, more endearing and empathetic and beautiful, than those who dominate. Perhaps such feelings are at the heart of BDSM, the dom admiring the sub as a brave vessel of endurance, the sub feeling exquisitely desired as the hero in a tale of pain and love. It never went that way for me, but I can’t say I don’t understand it.
By the time high school rolled around I was clearly drawn to skinny boys with lots of dark hair, but it was a long time before I understood that shows like Holocaust had actually left me hungering for guys who engaged the world in specific power relationships. I wanted to see boys brushing with authority, butting heads with the state, sometimes prevailing but just as often wrestling in vain. Political activists who weren’t afraid of getting hauled off to lockup, or who, better yet, braved it even if they were afraid. Guys who smoked hash and didn’t get along with their dads. The wounded man is attractive to so many of us, not as a project, not as a soul to rehabilitate, but in and of himself — as someone struggling to reconcile his life to an unjust world, to live in his own skin, bruises and all.
In adulthood I craved the physical embodiment of those ideals — men who were scruffy and a little self-effacing, who looked hungry and marginal even if they were really decent, generous guys. I assumed (sometimes correctly and sometimes not) that such men would make better lovers — that their resistance to dominant culture, their refusal to go to the gym or shave very often, would mean they would be more sensitive to my own feelings of alienation. It’s not just about what I wanted emotionally, though. It’s about actual physical desire, about preferring a sinewy arm to a brawny one, a flat abdomen with plenty of hair to a waxed six pack. Now, after decades of media exposure to overdeveloped torsos, I can still honestly say they do less than nothing for me. It’s body armor, practically paramilitary, the stuff of Freikorps units and schoolyard thugs — that’s how I feel about it. For other women it’s exactly what primes the pump, but I guarantee you there’s some story there as well, some narrative about power relations that developed when they were young, something political to its very core.
I know that none of this explains Caligula. My husband had a friend in college with the same obsession, someone who actually nicknamed herself Drucilla after the emperor’s doomed sister, the one he impregnated and killed, in fiction if not in real life. This woman would doodle “Drucilla” on her notebooks, even signed her letters that way. Half way through sophomore year she married a much older man — a manager at the diner where she waitressed — dropped out of school and had children very quickly. It’s tempting to make some connection there, though probably not fair. Still, I’m glad that I’d all but forgotten about Caligula by college. It was a crude first attempt, a mode of masculinity that moved me back in the days before my moral code had fully developed. I suppose Caligula was an over-the-top version of the wounded man — brittle and terribly dangerous, driven to madness in a mad world, furious and pitiable. I watched him behead his cousin for coughing too much. I watched him appoint his horse to the senate and rail at his advisors and get assassinated by the officers of his own praetorian guard. He may have been on the side of absolute authority, but you knew he was really its victim — literally driven crazy by power.
In childhood I was conditioned early to empathize with suffering, and Caligula certainly suffered, but he was also dangerous; I suppose that combination was the real source of his seductive power over me. Volatility without pathos wouldn’t have moved me. A man who dominated without showing some vulnerability would have been repulsive, and a gentle soul who got crushed to a pulp would have been pathetic. It was the wounded man simmering with barely-contained energy that fascinated me — passion or violence, it all felt the same. This is the same quality, I imagine, that draws some women to incarcerated killers — that they smolder, chastened by the system and in need of sympathy. Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez both had flocks of groupies. As of this writing, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has thousands of fans on social media sites, many of them young women, many thoroughly smitten. Behind bars these men are immobile love objects, captives suffering bravely under the weight of justice. Perhaps their fans imagine them wrongly accused, or remorseful, or working through the trauma of childhood. Perhaps, in some strange way, they believe them to be empathetic. These are men who know suffering intimately and would relate to our own. They hate the power structures that hurt them but could share a deep bond with an insightful woman if only they had the chance. News outlets provide plenty of images to feed this fantasy. That aerial shot of nineteen-year-old Tsarnaev shortly after his capture, the one where he’s on the ground face up with his arms locked behind and his abdomen exposed, that’s wounded man porn right there, grist for all those girls who confuse pity with love and violence with passion.
Love for wounded men runs deep in our culture. You don’t have to be obsessed with criminals or villains to know this — the guys we’re supposed to desire are wounded too. There’s Mad Men’s Don Draper, whose bleak, loveless childhood justifies his serial philandering. There’s Peeta and Gale of the dystopian Hunger Games series, both oppressed in various ways by a sadistic totalitarian state; heroine Katniss can’t choose between the two but seems to care more for whichever guy is in terrible pain at any given moment. And let’s not forget Jesus, always there to remind us that pain and love go hand in hand. I was confronted with the image of Jesus many times in my girlhood — at the Catholic college where my father taught art history, and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where we visited almost every weekend. The Medieval rooms held some particularly gruesome crucifixes, all thorns and ribs and rivulets of blood. If you don’t think you’re looking at God, you’re left with a skinny, scruffy, mostly-naked Jewish revolutionary in agony, a guy everyone says would understand your sadness and make it better. Long before I studied the Holocaust or knew what a scapegoat was, long before I started reading novels or watching TV, Jesus was there to provide graphic proof that wounds make men precious.
This notion is so deeply entrenched that we rarely think about it, but it is written on the body in very clear ways. Scars on a man’s face are compelling — audiences love Joachim Phoenix’s cleft lip and Ray Liotta’s pock marks, though God knows a female actor would never get away with these things. Harrison Ford’s chin scar has been highlighted on screen for decades while Tina Fey’s has to be covered up before the cameras roll. Emotional scars are even better, drawing men closer to us in a special bond of healing and empathy. The trouble is that most of this is myth, a set of stories we tell ourselves in which men are exalted for their suffering — made heroic or sexy, infinitely tender, even divine. That our daughters buy into this at a young age is hardly surprising. Festering wounds actually tend to damage love relationships, and we hope our girls understand this, but the stories they find most provocative send a very different message — that such relationships are more vital, more meaningful, and way way hotter. If Caligula thrilled and horrified me at age 12, if that horror morphed into eros somewhere down the road, it only means I got the message loud and clear. A few years later I would watch that hideous thing bust its way out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien and feel something similar — a pounding in the heart, a churning in the gut, almost like love. • 1 August 2013