What do men want? Almost a hundred years after Freud launched his inquiry on Was will das Weib, Western culture seems to be embroiled in a distinctly different and vexing problematic. In a sprawling trade press literature and gamut of op-eds, the crucible of human sexuality is no longer that of the enigmatic, insatiable woman, the belle dame sans merci found in Nabokov’s Lolita and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but of the resentful and boundlessly aggressive male—the “bro” superfluous to society and prone to spasmodic fits of omnidirectional violence.
Nina Power’s What Do Men Want? (2020) tries to explain the change in question. From incels to school shooters to pick-up artists, Power wonders what exactly is ‘up’ with men today. The results are rather disappointing. While her question is a good one, her attempt to answer it is so imbricated in online “discourse” that no light shines through the polemics. A psychotic shouts “Men Are Trash” into the void. Ezra Klein defends the statement with a “Yeah, but that’s not what they really mean.” Power jumps in to challenge the paranoid hermeneutic frame, and all of a sudden a triangulated space has blossomed from a statement that 99% of human beings find somewhere between unintelligible and stupid. Whatever men want, it is certainly not this.
The dead giveaway that What Do Men Want? is a bout with strawmen is the banality of her conclusions. Men are pretty good (like my dad!), and maybe it’s time for a reconciliation between men and women? “Not all men?” Fine, as far as it goes, but we’ve only gotten so far as to dissipate the pseudo-problems with which she begins. At the end of the book, one can’t help but wonder: wait, but what is the problem here?
Bruno Bettelheim often pointed at the Bluebeard fairy tale as the best example of a regulatory gender myth—a story about “the most monstrous and beastly of all fairy-tale husbands”, yet also “a bogey who fascinates”, stirring “associations with sex, virility, male readiness and desire”, as Marina Warner adds. In the popular folk tale from Brittany, Bluebeard was rumored to be a nobleman who was married six times to beautiful women who all mysteriously disappeared. When he visits his neighbor to betrothe one of his daughters, the man is terrified. After a magnificent banquet, the youngest decides to become his wife and goes to live with him in his castle in the countryside, far removed from her family.
The story has a predictable sequel. Bluebeard announces that he must leave for the countryside. He hands the palatial keys to his wife. She may use them to open any room in the castle, each containing a portion of his wealth. There is only one room, an underground chamber, that she is strictly forbidden from entering. He departs (for war, not for business), leaving the palace and its keys in her hands. The spouse invites her sister Anne and her friends and cousins for a party. Eventually, the desire to enter the secret room overwhelms her, and she sneaks away and ventures inside. Upon entering she immediately discovers that the room is covered in bloodstains. The murdered corpses of Bluebeard’s previous six wives hang from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she drops the key in the blood and flees the room. She tries to wipe the blood stain off the key, but the key proves a magical artifact – the stain cannot be removed. Bluebeard returns unexpectedly and notices the bloody key. In a blind rage, he intends to kill her on the spot, yet she requests a last prayer with Anne, which he grants. Then, as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, Anne and the woman’s brothers arrive and slay him. The spouse inherits the fortune and castle and has his six dead wives buried. She remarries.
Symbolically the myth proves grimly legible. In the tale, Bluebeard gives his wife the key and asks her to never visit the room in question. The modern rendition of this message is “Never ask me about my wildest fantasy”—amongst other reasons, because that fantasy involves death. Once the wife enters the room in the castle, she is confronted with the bodies of all his previous wives: self-consciousness. Clearly, Bluebeard’s myth serves as a straightforward disquisition on sexual desire, with references ranging from the wife’s period blood to the jus primae noctis indulged in by the lord. More than the story of an Adamic apple, however, the tale places us in a world in which patriarchal power is a fait accompli. The Father has left the scene. His sentry is seeking to assert his brute authority. Daddy is now in charge.
The tale’s genesis can prove rather counterintuitive, however. Bluebeard was based on the life of the French nobleman Gilles de Rais, who fought with Joan of Arc in the 14th century and was later condemned by a Church court. Even more notoriously, de Rais did not kill his wives. Rather, he owed his reputation to his serial murder of an estimated 200 peasant children, whom he tortured and assaulted before driving them to their deaths. In many ways, de Rais prefigured the only part of feudal society in which sexuality was available as a segmented domain of human experience. This required an amount of liberty for non-reproductive sex and severance from the duty to labor. As a member of the only class freed from necessity, de Rais’ preferences offer a suggestive yet grim object for any study of male sexuality.
A mechanism of social whispers mediated the transmission of de Rais’ deeds to a popular audience. In an attempt to adapt the story to the imperatives of the peasant economy, an aristocrat’s violent acts of pederasty are replaced by conjugal violence. In feudalism, the family unit was an existential unit of reproduction. Marriages between men and women were a matter of economic survival, not free inclination. One needed wives for labor, not love, and sexuality was something for the occasional feasts of fools as described by Mikhail Bakhtin. As Klaus Theleweit noted in his history of “love”, to the proposition that “All you need is love,” “a farmer of the last four centuries would have replied what he needs is a good working wife who will give him sturdy children, keeps an eye on the purse and doesn’t eat all the food”, while “a prince would have answered: he needs young daughters from another powerful principality.”
The story of de Rais was thus adapted for feudal exigency: suddenly we receive a story about a man killing his wives, not a narrative of unspeakable male perversion.
Yet there was always a deep ambiguity in the tale’s readings, and it was all the same in the reception history. Readers saw the story as a warning—men are violent, and one is to be wary of violence. But do not develop an awareness of this fact because the awareness will unleash the violence; subjectivity is an intrinsic liability.
For women, the story was also a sublimated call to obedience. “Let your husband have his go, survival is at stake.” The ambivalence of the reading reflected a material reality about the premodern economy. Peasant women were not allowed to leave their families because society would fall apart. The very same fears drove the genocidal witch hunts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Yet on the other hand they also had to realize that marriage was going to be exigent. The tale settled the ambiguity and made a virtue out of necessity. In a world born of necessity, this was enough.
One would think that the appeal of the Bluebeard myth would fade in a world without the feudal shackles that give it its meaning. As John D’Emilio has noted, capitalist labor markets burst open the household economy which tied sexuality to reproduction. Lord and peasant were rendered market-dependent. Bluebeard was driven out of the castle; the descendants of de Rais—if he ever had any, given his paraphilias—probably perished under Robespierre’s guillotine. De Sade might have seen the last remnants of that indeterminate sexuality. Proletarianization made possible new forms of sexual identity, contraception was democratized, and the scourge of death in childbirth was vanquished by medical science.
Nonetheless, the singer Joanna Newsom could still write songs about her ex-partner Bonnie Prince Billy, referencing the Bluebeard myth in the 2010s (it helps that he has the physical outlook of a “bluebeard”). As she narrates in her Go Long:
Last night, again
You were in my dreams
Several expendable limbs were at stake
You were a prince, spinning rims
All sentiments indian-given and half-baked
I was brought in on a palanquin
Made of the many bodies of beautiful women
Brought to this place to be examined
Here is feminism, but also a paean to heterosexuality:
We both want the very same thing
We are praying
I am the one to save you
But you don’t even own
Your own violence
Run away from home
Your beard is still blue
With the loneliness of you mighty men
With your jaws, and fists, and guitars
And pens, and your sugar lip
But I’ve never been to the firepits with you mighty men
Afterwards, ambiguity and anguish kicks in again, between sexuality and reproduction:
Who made you this way?
Who made you this way?
Who is going to bear your beautiful children?
Do you think you can just stop
When you’re ready for a change?
Who will take care of you
When you’re old and dying?
Finally, we receive the most explicit reference to the fifteenth-century myth:
When you leave me alone
In this old palace of yours
It starts to get to me
I take to walking
What a woman does is open doors
And it is not a question of locking or unlocking
Well, I have never seen
Such a terrible room
Gilded with the gold teeth
Of the women who loved you
Clearly the folk couple of Newsom and Billy was anything but a peasant family. But then why does his key have to be hidden? Why does she still need the myth?
I think we all know. In the fantasies of every man, one can be certain to find somewhere between six dead wives and 200 dead children. Male sexuality is quite literally a social impossibility. It cannot happen, and it was to Freud’s credit that he saw pleasure (by which, of course, he meant male pleasure) as demanding a radical reworking, repression, sublimation, denial, etc. before it could ever find expression in reality.
Any conversation about men that gets past the dismissal of half of the human population as “trash” is sorely needed. But reactionary bromides along the lines of “The Men Are Alright” are not going to cut it. If we want to know what men want, it’s necessary first to confront the enormity of the question. We need to start with that terrible room.
Dom King isn’t really sure what happened and would like some time to figure it out.