Beware L’Homme Fatale!

A few years ago, Katherine, an actress in her mid-20s who lives in Park Slope, was cast in a play by a theater director several years her senior. He wasn’t particularly attractive. In fact, he was almost effeminate. But he was intelligent and not too forward, and he was always surrounded by beautiful women—which, Katherine admits, she found intriguing.

“He seemed like the antithesis of all the jocky guys I went to high school with,” she said. (The women in this story agreed to discuss their romantic pasts only if identified by their middle names.) “He was sensitive, funny, supersmart, not athletic at all and not physically imposing. But there was something that was so charismatic—a gentleness and gracefulness and a confidence.”

Katherine and the director began a weeks-long courtship. There were late-night rehearsals in a dark theater that turned into surprisingly intimate later-night conversations. But then summer came. They both left New York for a while. And every time Katherine tried to reach him, he never returned her phone calls and ultimately disappeared altogether. 

“People told me he was trouble, but I really thought he was too evolved and sensitive to hurt me the way he did,” Katherine said.

Katherine’s director was an Homme Fatale—a genre of man that New York women have come to know well. Often the creative type, he projects a deceptive vulnerability, while maintaining an appealing confidence. He’s usually not the best-looking guy in the room, but he is the smartest; he turns these traits to his advantage, playing up the contrast with the typical hot guy or womanizer (physical inferiority, emotional evolvement). His courtship begins with a rushed sense of intimacy and, yet, a disarming lack of forward physical advances; a first date might involve a game of Scrabble or perhaps a cup of tea; his target usually leaves wondering if in fact it was a date at all. And yet the story always has the same ending—he grows distant, stops calling and eventually disappears with little explanation, if any.

Dangerous femme fatale heroines, as portrayed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, are nearly extinct or have been reduced to tragic cougars while their male counterparts have only proliferated; now they can be found roaming the halls of magazines, publishing houses and the better English literature Ph.D. programs by day, and frequenting ironic dance parties in cramped Boerum Hill apartments by night. And unlike the typical womanizer, whose game is laughably easy to detect, the Homme Fatale’s modus operandi is more emotional and controlling than it is physical, leaving a wreckage that is, in the end, more disastrous.

(We pause here to note that the Homme Fatale, while related, is not the same as the oft-bemoaned indie rock or emo boy. While he may exhibit similarly sensitive qualities, an Homme’s emotional side is a learned part of his manipulation, not an authentic sentimentality.)

The Homme Fatale has also slyly insinuated (as is to be expected) his way into popular culture. Take, for instance, the Aaron Rose character played by John Patrick Amedori on the teen drama Gossip Girl, the young downtown artist and RISD grad with the unfortunate goatee. In the six episodes in which his relationship with the glamorous, blond Upper East Sider Serena van der Woodsen has progressed in fits and starts, he has yet to actually have sex with her. (Also, he doesn’t drink. Possible evidence of control issues!) But he sends her suggestive gifts, thoughtful texts and even asks her to be his muse. And for a somewhat nebbishy, shy person, he seems to have a suspicious number of beautiful female friends hanging around at all times. When Serena is justifiably confused by the other “muses” in his life, he simply says, “I could explain who Tamara is and why she was at my apartment last night, but the fact is, you feel something or you don’t. If you’re looking for an excuse to keep us apart, that’s fine.” It’s a classic Homme Fatale move: come on strong, then, when confronted with evidence that points to a lack of commitment or deception, turn it around so the woman feels like it’s her issue. (It’s a variation on the “I never said I wasn’t seeing anyone else” theme.)

“This guy, the Aaron Rose archetype, is not particularly attractive but he figures out somewhere along the line that he can get pretty girls by simply not acting as if they were that special, and girls are intrigued by that—because pretty girls find it fascinating to be treated as though they’re not pretty—and so many girls fall head over heels for this detached act,” said New York magazine Daily Intel senior editor Jessica Pressler, 31, who in her legendary Gossip Girl posts has referred to Aaron Rose as “the ultimate regrettable ex” and an “emosogynist.”

“Neil Strauss and the guys from The Pick Up Artist harnessed this behavior and turned it into the Game,” she continued. “Aaron Rose would never admit that he has a system, probably because he likes to think it’s his own personal mystique. But he is doing the same things—the mustache and the scarves are nothing less than what Gamers call Peacocking. But he is a lone operator, and therefore more dangerous.”

Beware L’Homme Fatale!