I can get fascinated by male characters who have issues with women based on something other than cultural sexism. For example, Nero Wolfe, the ingenious detective of the book series by Rex Stout from the 1930s to 1960s, who came to my attention a few years ago when A&E faithfully reproduced several of the books as a TV series.
Nero’s attitudes toward women become hard to label as misogyny when we learn he doesn’t like men much, either – he’s simply a misanthrope who finds men a bit more tolerable than women. Why?
It’s not sexism, either – Nero never condescends to women (his assistant, Archie Goodwin, notes that Wolfe is the only man he’s ever known who speaks to women in exactly the same tone as he speaks to men) and he always expects the same level of intelligence and common sense from women as he does from men.
And yet, throughout the series, we see Nero leave the room whenever a woman becomes too emotional (as opposed to yelling at them to calm down, as he would a man). We see him react almost violently to being forced to sit next to a perfumed woman in court. The very thought of having a woman lodge at his home, even to save her life, is beyond consideration.
Until he meets Julie Jacquette (real name Amy Jackson), a showgirl who has as little patience for men as Nero has for women. When we first meet her, Julie appears to be little more than a flippant pretty face. But even though her best friend has been murdered – by, she believes, one of Nero’s investigators – she doesn’t come onto the scene crying, indignant or hostile. She bargains her way into Nero’s home by agreeing to speak only to Nero himself, and only after he’s let her see his famous rooftop orchid garden. When she’s shown into Nero’s home, wearing sunglasses, she obfuscates any emotions she may be feeling by immediately launching into an absurd and hilarious bit of performance art.
(Spoilers follow “more” link.)
Wolfe quickly penetrates the facade as he questions her about the case. Julie proves to be undereducated but bright enough to keep up with Wolfe, which is no small feat even for Archie. And she says she knows “exactly what men are for, and what they’re not for”. Meaning: she enjoys dating and flirting with men, but refuses to get emotionally involved with or dependent upon them. By the end of their first encounter, Nero bestows on Julie a rare sign of respect when she invites him to see her perform at the nightclub:
‘I decline your invitation, Miss Jackson,’ he said, ‘but I wish you well. I have the impression that your opinion of our fellow beings and their qualities is somewhat similar to mine.’ He got to his feet. He almost never stands for comers or goers, male or female. And he actually repeated it. ‘I wish you well, madam.’
(The above is from the novel, but the scene is identical in the TV version, along with Archie’s narration to show just how unusual Wolfe’s reaction to Julie is.)
There is debate among fans as to the cause of Nero’s disdain of women. One book/episode hints at a disastrous youthful romance. No doubt his life experience plays a part, but what the encounter with Julie reveals is that it’s emotions that Nero cannot stand, his own included. He avoids women more stridently than he avoids men simply because his culture allows women to express their feelings, thus potentially stirring his empathy. If men get emotional, Nero can shame them or throw them out. He doesn’t feel entitled to treat an emotional woman in the same manner, and so only a woman like Julie, who keeps her emotions hidden in self-defense just like Nero, is tolerable to him.
But Julie doesn’t just reveal Nero to us. She’s a well-drawn character in her own right. She’s a financially independent woman in the 1960s and a quick-witted, vivacious flirt. It becomes obvious how much she cared for her murdered friend when Julie agrees without hesitation to be used as bait in a trap for her friend’s killer, and yet she never sheds a tear in front of us. She talks to one of Nero’s other investigators about renting one of his kids for the summer so she can find out if motherhood is right for her, and Archie just hopes neither of them think the other is serious. And when she’s almost shot a few minutes later, she seems more concerned about what the attempt on her life tells them about the killer’s identify than about her close call. She lives in the moment.
She’s also possessed of a curious but untrained mind which Nero challenges with topics like the difference between imagination and invention in literature. When he asks her what she’d do if someone gave her $50,000, Julie announces she’d go to college for “four straight years, maybe five. You give me the feeling there’s a lot I don’t know.”
Nero then arranges for the client to pay her $50,000 dollars for her assistance in solving the crime, and Julie does indeed go to college with the money. She’s not as impressed as she expected to be with what everyone there knows, especially after blowing their minds with Nero’s insights about imagination and invention, “But,” she says in a letter to Archie which serves as an epilogue, “I wish them well.”