SCOUNDRELS ruled the news last week, rising to public view like so much scum on a pond.
Bad boys, whether or not they’re as aged as the two who surfaced lately, are rarely described as “scoundrels” any more. International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged by New York City police with sexually assaulting a hotel maid, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who admitted to fathering a child with a household staff member a decade ago, now get the fairly neutral designation “womanizer.”
But how often do you see these terms trotted out: bounder, rotter, rascal, or rogue? They sound positively archaic. (Google “cads” and the first definition off the pike is “Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing.”) In a world where high profile cheaters are routinely uncovered by the tabloids, it’s uncool for us, as spectators, to do more than sniff at a deception like Schwarzenegger’s. If we’re in a generous frame of mind, we might also feel a little chilly sympathy for his wife, Maria Shriver, and their four kids.
Meanwhile, Strauss-Kahn faces criminal proceedings, which is clearly a more serious issue than Schwarzenegger’s infidelity. “DSK” may be innocent of the sex assault charges; in his own country, however, the thrice-married presidential hopeful is apparently a well-known swordsman.
People can chortle all they want about this stuff, and call it “womanizing” as if boys’ll be boys, but these actually aren’t boys. They’re both well over 60 and sought out positions of authority. Yet apparently they’re not just naughty fellows, they’re downright cads.
A cad, for those who’ve never heard the word, is defined (by Dictionary.com) as “an ill-bred man, especially one who behaves in a dishonorable or irresponsible way toward women.” Time was, being labeled a cad was bad news for a guy -- though it was never as bad as the women’s label, “tramp” -- but sleaziness doesn’t seem to mean much to a man’s reputation any more.
Take a look at Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Clinton, who was married and the U.S. president at the time of their seedy dalliance in 1995, tried to lie his way through the scandal but was forced to take his lumps. He has since catapulted back to the status of respected elder statesman. Lewinsky, who was not married or president at the time, is still regarded by many as a vulgar villainess.
Rotters rule. They get their hands slapped occasionally, but they can always come back from the brink. Serial cheater Tiger Woods’ career is in steep decline right now, but if he finally wins a tournament or two, all will be forgiven. Even Mel Gibson, whose offenses include anti-Semitism as well as verbal and physical abuse of the young woman for whom he left his longtime wife, has shown up recently on film. He may be a total heel, but director Jodi Foster says he and she “get” each other, and that’s good enough for her.
There are countless examples of bounders in popular culture. They’re the classic foil for the good guys. Jon Hamm, who brilliantly portrays the 1960s skirt-chaser Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men, plays an equally insensitive booty-hound in the hilarious new movie, Bridesmaids. Utterly believable, Hamm’s character is only interested in having female friends with benefits, and only for as long as those benefits last. He’s the latest version of Hugh Grant’s reprehensible Daniel Cleaver, a highlight of the film versions of Bridget Jones’s Diary, I and II.
The rake, of course, has jazzed up fiction since fiction began. Moll Flanders, the 1722 novel by Daniel Defoe, has plenty of amoral seducers tempt its ill-fated protagonist. Later that century, in Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, an obsessed rogue called Robert Lovelace laboriously schemes his way into the virtuous Clarissa’s bed. She’s so appalled, she dies. (This strategy is not recommended by the North Shore News.)
We women love to read about fictional cads. They stir our blood and our ire, and show us how our ideal partners should not behave -- for all the good that does many of us. Some women, evidently, remain titillated by the challenge inherent in bad boy management.
Others are more old-fashioned; I’m one of them. We expect men and women equally to keep their word, be truthful, stay honest, uphold the law, and dance with the one who brung ’em, or bow out gracefully before taking another model for a spin.
When somebody doesn’t meet those basic expectations, we bystanders can certainly choose to look the other way, not bothering to empathize with their victims. “It has nothing to do with me,” we can always say, relieved.
It’s more satisfying, however, to mentally, and even verbally, tag the bounder. I’d try to resuscitate the word “rapscallion,” except it sounds like a delicious herb you could mash into potatoes. Alternatively, “scamp” suggests that such a man is a mere prankster, whose behaviour hasn’t shattered the lives of others, often his own children.
No, “cad” the word has long been, and “cad” it ought to stay. And while we’re at it, let’s bring back duels at dawn.