It is reputed that Sigmund Freud died asking this question: What do women want? Everything, I suppose. This week, I discovered one surprisingly specific answer.
If I could take a pill that achieved the effects of daily exercise, I would. But my desire for a hale and limber golden age easily trumps my indolence, so with superstitious regularity, I do my exercises. To avoid dying of boredom while trying to extend my life, I watch television. My usual habit is to tape halfway decent movies and fast-forward through the commercials between sit-ups. But from time to time, I discover a new TV series with a large enough backlog of reruns that after a few viewings, its characters become my exercise buddies.
My current favorite is a Canadian series, “DaVinci’s Inquest,” about the adventures of a coroner in Vancouver, B.C. It runs every day on WGN. The themes are refreshing, like a turnabout USA: Native rights, positive cultural diversity, campaigns for safe injection sites for drug addicts and a red-light district where sex workers have recourse to protection. The main character displays keen curiosity, concentrated attention and a willingness to speak truth to power that I find irresistible, so after viewing a few weeks’ worth of episodes, I have a major crush.
The last episode I watched was one of several that turned on the story of a house fire. A man survives the early-morning conflagration that killed his wife and child. It turns out lightning has struck twice—a few years earlier he lost another family in a similar fire ruled accidental by DaVinci (the coroner) and the fire inspector. The parents of the first wife confront DaVinci. He tries to reassure them that the first investigation was thorough. Even while maintaining confidence in his earlier ruling, his integrity requires him to reopen issues that could call it into question. Eventually, evidence is discovered at the second fire that leads to the man’s arrest for arson.
DaVinci informs the first wife’s parents. As he turns to go, the mother asks if he thinks he could have made a mistake in ruling on the fire that took her daughter’s life. “I might have made a mistake,” is what he says, looking her in the eye, “I might very well have done that.” The episode ends as he marches off to do his duty, bloody but unbowed. But viewers know the story will continue.
I responded to this scene exactly as one might respond to the long-postponed moment in a romantic film when the main characters finally kiss. In fact, I responded so strongly that I put the tape on hold to think about why. It didn’t take long to figure out. The sight of a grown-up man taking responsibility for his mistakes without denials or excuses and without sinking into despair at having messed up was as erotic an image as any screen kiss I could recall.
You could write a book about why. It would have to take in the whole history of male conditioning to hide whatever might be perceived as weakness, as well as the whole history of female conditioning to perceive and prefer a deeper more flexible strength over the ironclad kind. When I told this story to a group of women friends, they responded with amazed tales of times they had felt honor-bound to admit their own mistakes while some men they knew, if pressed beyond denying responsibility or blaming others, would go no further than the disembodied admission: “It broke,” not “I broke it.” None of us believes these generalizations are absolute truth; no doubt irresponsible women and forthright men are equally thick on the ground. But the opposite is common enough that no one had the slightest difficulty understanding my reaction to my TV heartthrob’s clean gesture of responsibility.
Eros is personal and individual, but the chord it plucks reverberates in larger realms. One friend recalled her own reaction on June 26th. She’d tuned in midway into a story about the federal government monitoring Americans’ private banking transactions, just in time to hear a snippet of comment by President Bush. My friend heard Bush say “disgraceful.” She found herself thinking, “At last! He’s owning up.” She had a moment of pure happiness before she understood that in the President’s mind, the disgrace adhered to the New York Times for printing the story.
(If you want to read an interesting story about how the paper has been attacked by Bush supporters ever since, check out this piece and the links that follow it.)
Some straight women may want a romantic suitor and some may want a superhero, but judging from an informal survey of my friends, there’s no fantasy that can compete with watching the man of the hour face his mistakes and remain standing.