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Looking for Mr. Goodbar

June 21, 2021

It’s a strange thing to read and write about a book like Julie Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 2021. It had a far different political and social context when it was published in 1975. What’s more, I’m sure that some will find my perspective as a man–a view I will be leaning into quite a bit–to be less relevant than others. But I’m working with what I’ve got, here.

Mr. Goodbar takes us back to the early 70s, which is practically the 60s, except that by then the sexual revolution wasn’t quite as avant-garde anymore. More and more regular people were joining in by then.

We discover first thing that Theresa, the book’s protagonist, has been murdered. That revelation is clearly meant to hang over everything we learn about Theresa’s childhood, her first fling, and her subsequent romantic and sexual adventures. How do they lead to her murder, we are invited to wonder?

Theresa’s first real sexual relationship is with a (married!) college professor of hers, Martin. It seems so scandalous today. It’s hard for me to know what it might have seemed like in the 70s to read about it. An older man with a young mistress he’s in a position of authority over feels like a very plausible scenario, in terms of what would both participants might find attractive. It’s a very #metoo situation in this day and age, however. It’s probably a bad idea for all concerned, but that doesn’t make the intrinsic appeal go away. A lot of things that are kind of hot are . . . a very bad idea.

She has complicated reactions to sex after that. She learns her sister Katherine and her brother-in-law are swingers, and that Katherine has had an abortion. She does not approve of either discovery. As her hookups increase, however, she reveals to the reader that she is certain she will never get pregnant, and so doesn’t worry about birth control. That might also be a reason she says she’ll never get married.

Certain she’ll never get pregnant. There’s something about that line. We never get an explanation, but it turns out to hold true. Is there a medical explanation, or is this a fairy tale of some sort? An allegory? It reminds me of gay relationships, which are different from straight ones, due in no small part to that very impossibility of becoming pregnant. It certainly makes a young woman’s casual encounters less complicated.

I didn’t count, but Theresa’s total number of sexual partners seems to be around a dozen, maybe, and possibly less. Nothing earth-shattering by today’s standards. And after the numerous early pages devoted to her time with Professor Martin, the main two men in her life during the second half of the book are Tony and James. Tony is appealing for sex but not for much more. James is a very nice, stable man who doesn’t turn Theresa on.

I will cop to being made uneasy, especially when she played James and Tony against each other. I felt it deep down. I know it’s not cool these days to say a woman’s behavior makes me feel uncomfortable as a man, but Theresa’s did. The idea that a woman might think about choosing me for security without having sexual attraction to me–we call that “settling” for someone, right? And we do not mean it flatteringly. And then, the idea that a woman might give in to her carnal desires with me but not take me seriously as a potential husband has some animal appeal, but it’s similarly emasculating in its own way. I’m not supposed to admit–and I’m not trying to control Theresa or anyone else–but if I’m honest it makes me feel a certain kind of way. Which I mean as a high compliment to Rossner’s writing.

And if I–a reasonably (I think!) open minded man, writing this nearly 50 years after the book is set, feel uncomfortable, how much more of disruptive would men have reacted back then! It would be easier to go through a dating career imagining former lover just has some vague, subjective, idiosyncratic points-total rubric and that it just didn’t add up to a high enough score. Theresa’s evaluative processes are terrifying in their pronouncements of masculine worth. Even though they seem fairly casual. Of course, she did manage to provoke the animal nature of one man to anger and murder. So maybe Rossner didn’t think I’d be alone in my reaction. Am I being called out, or people like me? It’s hard to say entirely. I mean, I relate to the reactions of James and Tony far more than I do Gary’s murderous rage. (Her murder is obviously horrible and in no way condoned.) Maybe I just need therapy. But I think there is something deeper going on.

Theresa flat out admits that she’s often terrible to the men she’s dating. Sometimes she act that way hoping it will provoke some kind of anger. One time, Tony even strikes her and knocks her down, and Theresa doesn’t think of it as the worst thing in the world. She even fantasizes about being hit in the same way later in the book. She’s looking to be murdered, but she seems to know what she’s doing in her attempts to tap into men’s anger, aggression, and even violence.

Is Mr. Goodbar a morality tale? Theresa does have some pull towards danger and maybe even self-destruction. Maybe she brings her fate upon herself according to the book’s inner logic. Something like period of personal disappointment or maybe a biological clock that winds down before she realizes it would seem a more appropriate and realistic end for someone like Theresa, at least in real life. But not so fast. As we learned in the introductory section, she’s murdered by a one night stand gone wrong. That is obviously dramatic–few women are actually murdered by a hookup, though other violence is not unheard of.

Still, what I find unsettling and hard to dismiss is the ugly side of human nature Rossner taps into. Theresa’s murder can’t be justified, but neither can her behavior be fully dismissed as harmless and innocent, either. And by that I’m not talking about having multiple casual sex partners–I mean her nastiness towards the men in her life. I can confidently say I’d never murder a woman if I found myself in Gary’s shoes. But glimpsing Theresa’s actions–and even more, her mind–stirs something dark in me that I can’t explain and that I don’t like. It reminds us that our natures do have murky, unexplainable facets to them. That, as Norman Mailer is quoted to have said, “there is nothing safe about sex.” Reading Mr. Goodbar as a literal cautionary tale that casual sex will get a young woman murdered is a silly distraction from a deeper commentary: that we fool ourselves by pretending sex is devoid of deep emotional meaning, or even in some ways of danger. Sex is and always has been something that can bring out the worst in us.

From → Movies

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