By Pallavi Yetur
How often is it that you meet someone you truly detest? Someone who despite their redeeming qualities proves to be awful again and again. As a practicing psychotherapist, I can say I’ve met more than a few. But those people who stay on for treatment, who show curiosity and commitment, are never in danger of my thinking “this person is a complete monster.” Yes, that is largely because it is my job to empathize with them, but it is relatively easy to do so when they care. After work, I get shoved by aggressive city sidewalkers on their phones, squished by manspreaders on the train. When I get home and I turn on the TV, I see monsters everywhere. As much as I try to keep my therapist hat off, I can never really remove the lens of the psychological in trying to understand these monsters, and our current reality of misogynism and self-centeredness that keeps them on our screens.
This past fall, Showtime’s The Affair aired its final season. In anticipation, I went tits-deep into a re-watch binge. At some point, I found the episode in which our male protagonist has a one-on-one session with a therapist. YES. When TV characters go to a therapist, it makes me feel like I’m sneaking ice cream out of the freezer at midnight, or opening something from a trove of gifts before Christmas morning. An actual guilty pleasure. It not only gives me the self-indulgent chance to pick apart everything the therapist does (i.e., JUDGE), it also provides a window into the internal world of the character through how he deals with being in the therapy room.
In The Affair, Noah Solloway is a seemingly happily married father of four who loves his job teaching English at a New York City public school, albeit begrudgingly accepting financial support from his wife’s very wealthy parents. As the show’s title would suggest, “seemingly” is the operative word. Noah’s true aspiration is to become a successful author, which is incidentally the reason why his wife’s parents are so wealthy—her father is a famous writer. Because of this dynamic, we can imagine that though he seems well-adjusted, Noah feels constantly cut down and inadequate. He is reminded incessantly by his father-in-law and sometimes his wife of his failings, particularly that their Brooklyn brownstone was bought by his in-laws and that he doesn’t earn enough at his job to support four children and a wife; he then has to attend grand parties at his in-laws’ beach town estate where he must schmooze with people who revere his father-in-law’s commercial success. The episodes show Noah unraveling slowly as his discontent emerges. It is no wonder that it is at one of these grand Montauk parties that his affair starts to take shape—Noah has been so emasculated by being made to feel he is a poor provider that in his choice to sexually pursue an alluring young woman, he is attempting to assert his masculine power. In his solo session with his marital therapist, we get verbal confirmation of this analysis as to why a man like this is driven to throw away what he has for a girl he barely knows, enticing as she may be.
Noah asks a choice question that clearly defines his exact breed of narcissism: “Is it possible to be a good man and a great man?” Noah’s conundrum is that he faces the societal/superego pressures to be a righteous man—a good husband and father, and someone who perhaps should be happy to have what he has, including his modest teaching career—while he battles his own inner desire to become renowned, revered, and powerful…er, should I say, potent. It is safe to say the financial dynamic in Noah’s family has served to castrate him and it might be inevitable for him to seek a cure to his feelings of impotence. He notices, “there’s a certain type of man that history reveres…it’s like they have this bald desire, this willingness to take whatever they want that ends up making them remarkable.” What he’s really saying is that he believes a man’s greatness is measured by his ability to take what he wants (like another man’s wife) without being beholden to what is expected of him, and even if it’s at the expense of the love of those who hold social institutions dear (like his own wife).
It seems to be the classic, predictable conundrum of the narcissistic philandering man (a type of man who had his big media moment in late 2017 and continues to make news): I am a family man who demands the respect of my wife and children and the community, but those are also the very things that prevent me from living as a true powerful man should, untethered from the chains of convention and mores. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do anything and everything that I want?
Noah continues to his therapist, “What if what separates me from Hemingway (OH CHRIST) is that he never had to choose?” It’s so cute that Noah thinks the one thing that separates his very average self from a self-important American icon is a freedom from familial restraints. It would be more accurate to say that the only thing he shares with Hemingway is a certain grandiosity and obnoxious hyper-masculine prerogatives. It seems ironic (or probably very deliberate casting) that his therapist is played by badass Sex and the City power attorney, real-life feminist and LGBT advocate, and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. She replies “…and [Hemingway] blew out his brains at 65” (THANK YOU). Sure, maybe Noah believes that the single fact that separates him from a chauvinistic literary legend is that he never got to “go to France and fuck whoever and feel alive and write a great novel,” but he is also glorifying that masculine ideal while glossing over the realities of why the very institutions he wishes to reject exist. Noah’s therapist tries to make him face the idea that Hemingway’s pursuit of what he perceived to be his masculine duty to himself had the side-effects of leaving him isolated and unloved. I can only imagine Noah’s therapist’s internal struggle with having to sit in this room filled with such quintessential narcissistic entitlement. Perhaps in response to her frustration, she says “What about the average guys who cheat on their wives?” Exactly. Here, Noah’s therapist is bringing Noah back down to Earth from his grandiosity with the notion that a man can be flawed and tempted without having to be a prominent and important figure. Noah is comparing himself to Hemingway because of his wish to be Hemingway—the therapist is reminding him that he has plenty of people on his level to draw from for comparison.
Maybe I’m coming off like a one-sided man-hater with a grudge, but I am an equal opportunity hater of narcissistic entitlement. The problem with its TV portrayal, however, is that it is deeply skewed. The men get to exercise their agency, choice, free will, and power. Sure, there are consequences, but it seems the bad behavior is just accepted as a norm or as something to be expected. They are men—that’s what they do. Females in a similar situation are looked upon with and socially forced to endure shame and disrespect. A woman in these stories is judged by the belief that because she might be willing to cheat on her husband, she’ll probably sleep with anyone.
To illustrate the male/female dichotomy, The Affair utilizes the tool of perspective. We get to see the story unfold from the eyes of Noah and also from the eyes of Alison, the young married woman with whom Noah strikes up a sexual and emotional extra-marital relationship. What the show runners have done with this device is create an opportunity to further showcase Noah’s narcissism and the discrepancy of the lens through which female infidelity and identity is seen. Noah’s perspective always involves Alison coming onto him and being sexually open and inviting, while he is portrayed (in his own mind) as reasonable and restrained. Conversely, Alison’s perspective showcases her vulnerability and distrust in the face of Noah’s advances. It is a contrast that sometimes feels a little rape-y, making Noah seem off-putting and even predatory (or was it that insufferable therapy session), and had me yelling at the TV, “you’re leaving Pacey Whitter for THIS???”
Alison’s husband Cole serves as the righteous, reliable foil to Noah’s character. The strategic casting of Joshua Jackson, who to the viewer evokes residues of the innocence and sincerity of his Mighty Ducks character Charlie and the smoldering devoted partner of Dawson Creek’s Pacey Whitter, plays a part in making Noah look menacing by comparison. Cole respects women, is faithful to a fault, and embodies the solidity and trustworthiness that one might hope for in an ideal husband. Framing the two infidels within the context of this obvious “good guy” not only makes both Noah and Alison look like assholes, it also serves as a commentary on what a man idealizes in a male (powerful, defiant, untethered ladies’ man) versus a woman’s idealized image of a man (faithful, loving, dedicated, protective).
The philandering narcissist seems a tried and true go-to for compelling television (See Tony Soprano, Don Draper, etc.). Obviously, he appeals to men’s fantasies of virility. I mean, there is even a whole show about a world in which philandering is accepted, prevalent, and unabashed. I’m referring, of course, to none other than the wet dream of all fair-weather nerds, HBO’s Game of Thrones, in which part of the socially accepted norm is the unfaithfulness of men by way of whorehouse, and that a woman’s sexual freedom in this world is still unacceptable (particularly if she is only allowed that sexual freedom through incest—SHAME!). The narrative in these cases foremost serves to outline that what’s good for the goose is certainly not good for the gander.
Given the trope’s pervasiveness, it is likely true that women also find this trope appealing. Because of fantasies of being dominated by a virile man? Maybe—I’m sure a lot of men would like to think so. But perhaps women’s pleasure in watching a philandering narcissist on TV is less about her attraction to him and more about her anger toward him. Maybe there’s a satisfaction in watching someone like this undo himself. Or maybe in a philandering male character, a woman sees a vessel to hold all her rage and resentment toward male privilege and power at large. Since all these shows first aired, there has been a gradual shift in popular storytelling toward empowering a woman’s point of view. Then the emergence of the #MeToo movement in the aftermath of several sexual abuse scandals in Hollywood has surged this shift forward tremendously, which then begs the question: is there room for this kind of man on TV anymore?
It may not have come as much of a surprise that the final season of The Affair gave Noah Solloway his own #MeToo scandal. It seems only fitting that someone who has been this oblivious in his self-sanctioned exploitation of those around him would wind up in a precarious legal situation from having offended and violated the boundaries of multiple women, all the while having conveniently convinced himself that everything was a misunderstanding on the women’s parts. Given Helen’s constant excusing of Noah’s destructive actions, it is inevitable that their now grown troubled and always outspoken daughter Whitney is the only one who can hold a mirror to Noah, after having been abused and taken advantage of by an older artist herself. As much as Noah’s ex-wife Helen tries to set boundaries and make her anger clear to him, she falls short. Ultimately the show’s writers resurrect a sympathy from her, and by extension from the audience for a complicated man whose very presence manages to erase the complexities of the women he touches. By the end, Noah’s #MeToo scandal is forgotten.
The torturous reality about the lopsided representation of perspectives on television and in film is that as long as one group is perceived to be holding power, another group will feel disenfranchised. We’re far from that potential reality for men, but if we were to imagine women taking over the storytelling rights in film and TV, then we might also have to consider that some disgruntled men in entertainment would create even more of an emergence of a pathological emasculated male as a response. The danger in the appeal of the philandering narcissist trope is that though he presents a cautionary tale, many will only see the glorification of an ideal, as Noah did with Hemingway. Even in the commentary, the idea is perpetuated. This glorification of problematic male behavior of course also happens in film, with a notable example being the portrayal of the reckless financial criminals of the 1980s in The Wolf of Wall Street, or in the emboldening of white male rage and violence in last year’s Joker. People fantasize about that life or that catharsis even though the risks are evident. Even if it looks as though women are sick of being subjugated by men with penis envy, on screen and off, those men will be there in the wings waiting for their moment to start subjugating again. Thinking one deserves power, success, or accolades, feeling entitled to them, is what makes a narcissist. Enacting with one’s entitlement—acting on it by expecting a certain type of treatment, rather than challenging oneself—is what makes a monster.