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12 February 1999

Sex, the city and the Dona Juanas

Predatory males inspired great art. Their female counterparts don't

By Charles Glass

My friend Rupert confessed that the flame-haired American girl, who used to go out with a friend of his, scared him. The basement club in Soho was, as they all are, overcrowded, noisy and hot. The girl introduced herself, then said she wanted to leave. Rupe, a little slow on the clues that some women give, said: Goodbye then. No, she said, I want you to walk me out. I can’t go by myself. Without asking why a grown woman was incapable of finding a taxi, he politely walked her upstairs and flagged the first passing cab.

Well, Rupert? the Flamer asked him. Well what? Well, aren’t you going to see me home? Rupe, a kindly soul, did not particularly want to leave. Yet, because she prevailed on his chivalric sentiments, he got into the car with her. When they arrived, she insisted he walk her to her door. It got worse, but I shall now digress and return later to Rupert’s sorry saga.

For centuries, great art has come from the figure of the predatory male. The archetype is stamped on world myth, literature, art and music. Since the Enlightenment, he has most often taken the form of Don Juan, who recurs in books and on stage more often than any other fictional character. From the time of his debut in El Burlador de Sevilla by the monk Tirso de Molina in 1630, the heroic Don Juan has seduced women, duelled with their husbands and fathers and mocked the avenging stone statue that dragged him down to perdition. Moliere, Goldoni, Byron, Baudelaire, the elder Dumas, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Edmond de Rostand and Bernard Shaw, among others, have all wrestled with the Don.

His epic conquests made him an operatic hero. He had already appeared in seven operas, both seria and buffa, by the time Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte produced the immortal dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni. Richard Strauss, Eugene Gossens and other composers cast him as protagonist, as did more playwrights.

“Every age gets the Don Juan it deserves,” Marina Warner wrote, aptly, in 1990. This degraded age is giving us a new Don Juan, but the role of serial seducer has been taken by a Dona Juana – the kind of woman featured in Sex and the City, the American television series about single women in New York.

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Dona Juana can’t carry it off. The modern, urban female predator has achieved no art, but she’s generating some trash novels and mountains of journalism, some good, some pathetic. Many excellent women journalists, who might otherwise have become latter-day Martha Gellhorns or Marguerite Higginses, have turned away from covering the world to writing about their genitals. Zoe Heller, a sublime writer of profiles in the Lyn Barber mould, was one of the first women forced by a male editor to turn her gaze from the world around her to her own experience of love, for which read sex. Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Kate Morris of the Single Girl’s Diary in London and Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City in New York portray believable sex-hungry, lonely females.

Yet the real women on whom they accurately base these characters are not convincing, I suspect, because they don’t believe in themselves and their tawdry lives.

Don Juan with his effortless self- confidence congratulated himself on mounting castle walls in order to mount a recalcitrant female. Where is the challenge for a girl to get laid in New York? No stratagem, no story. Just repetition.

Who can take seriously a character saying, as one does in the televised version of Candace Bushnell’s column, “We’re not dating. It’s a fuck thing”? Or, “I’ve been fucked every way you can be fucked”? These characters are not serious, not even interesting, certainly not funny. With that type of woman, romance, with its necessary belief in an ideal, is impossible. Men cannot seduce women who knock them down and beat them to the floor. Don Juan today would try his luck in Afghanistan, risking a Taliban execution, to bed a rare beauty rather than wait to be picked up in the Bowery Bar by a PR girl.

It somehow devalues the currency, alas, when everyone is at it, the lower orders, women and, sadly these days, children. And worse, children with their teachers and uncles. Guiltless sex no longer challenges convention; it is convention.

Bushnell seems to understand the limits of her social observation, that the subject matter cannot of its nature become art. She writes, in the collection of her New York Observer pieces, “No one has breakfast at Tiffany’s, and no one has affairs to remember – instead, we have breakfast at 7 am and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How did we get into this mess?”

Better to ask how we get out of it. The mess is dull. Bushnell’s women cavort aimlessly in New York, trying different sex games to see which they can win. When they lose, they move on. There is no reflection, no despair, no consequence of any action. The tragedy is that nothing in their lives is tragic.

When Don Giovanni seduced a woman, the gates of hell opened to receive him. Casanova, the great lover whom Lorenzo da Ponte consulted in Venice when he wrote the libretto of Don Giovanni, knew and expressed beautifully in his memoirs the consequences of his many seductions: illegitimate children, the dreaded pox, broken hearts, the passionate fear of being abandoned by the women he loved and the joy of achieving love.

Back to Rupert on that night from which he may never recover. When the taxi reached the woman’s flat, she led him upstairs and gave him a drink. He gulped it and made to leave. No, you can’t leave yet. There’s something in the bedroom I want you to see. Ever the gentleman, he made an unconvincing excuse and went for the door. She followed. He ran down the stairs. She ran after. On the pavement outside, he thought he was free. Yet she was there, holding open her front door and calling to him: Won’t you just come up and fuck me? Then you can go.

Is this the state to which these women have reduced the art of seduction?