The sex trap

Dressed to excess: She may have been the Virgin Queen but Elizabeth I had no qualms about displaying her womanly charms in this allegorical “Rainbow Portrait,” 1600-02, oil on canvas. Hatfield House.

Dressed to excess: She may have been the Virgin Queen but Elizabeth I had no qualms about displaying her womanly charms in this allegorical “Rainbow Portrait,” 1600-02, oil on canvas. Hatfield House.

One of the great illusions that some feminists and more than a few sentimental men hold is that women offer a different leadership model than men – that they’re more collaborative and compassionate, building consensus rather than creating chaos.

I’m here to say, You think that if it makes you happy. In a 33-year career, I’ve worked for men and women, and I have to say I prefer working for men. 

For one thing, they don’t take everything personally. For another, they have the advantage of millennia of leadership DNA. Women are relatively new to the leadership game, and they often ape men instead of developing their own styles. They think they have to be tough when they really should be strong and so they wind up merely being shrill.

But women have also had the disadvantage of their sex, which they in turn tend to use. And I’m not just talking about their sex appeal and curves – their very femaleness – but their maternity.  Look at the trouble that Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis has gotten into by overstating her early struggles as single working mom in her bid to become the Lone Star State’s next governor. It seems that she was able to go to Harvard Law School and be the mother of two daughters in part because she had a husband who paid for her education and took care of the kids. If there’s a great woman behind every great man, the reverse seems to be true as well.

Mama’s boy: Agrippina crowns son Nero emperor, the year 54. Museum in Aphrodisias, Turkey.

Mama’s boy: Agrippina crowns son Nero emperor, the year 54. Museum in Aphrodisias, Turkey.

Similarly, in an unflattering albeit fascinating Vanity Fair profile of Rupert Murdock’s ex, Wendi Deng – a piece made all the more disingenuous by an editor’s letter that states the magazine is not in the business of slamming celebs – VF paints a portrait of a ruthless woman who slept her way to the top.

Women, of course, have been using their sexuality – either as sirens or madonnas – ever since Eve handed Adam an apple and said, “Try it, honey.  It’s delicious.” Indeed two new books – James Romm’s absorbing “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” (Alfred A. Knopf) and Anna Whitelock’s addictive-as-potato-chips “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) offer two different models for female leadership and the female use of power.

Romm’s book is ostensibly about nut-job emperor Nero and his tutor, the philosopher Seneca, who, depending on your sources, either tried to curb his charge’s excesses or capitulated to them. But perhaps the book’s most fascinating figure is Agrippina. Daughter of the heroic Germanicus (who really was very noble and thus had to die young); sister of another nut-job emperor, Caligula; and niece and wife to Caligula’s successor, Claudius – the beautiful “Pina” pulled out all the stops. She manipulated Nero into killing Claudius’ son and heir, Britannicus; married Claudius’ daughter Octavia off to Nero; and then befriended her when both women were on the outs with the mercurial emperor. Agrippina wasn’t above using sex and her sex when it came to men, including her son.  When she was fatally stabbed in the womb at the behest of her son, it was a fitting end because it was so metaphoric.

You have to ask yourself, though, if Agrippina would’ve been so manipulative had she been able to wield real power on her own like a man.  Certainly, Elizabeth I, the subject of “The Queen’s Bed,” had real, singular power. By the time she ascended the throne, she was it, having lost a father who murdered her mother and then rode roughshod over a succession of stepmothers; a longed-for brother, Edward VI, who did not live to adulthood; and a sister, Mary, who made a disastrous marriage to Philip II of Spain. Yet despite her real power – or maybe because of it –Elizabeth wasn’t above manipulating others to keep her favorite, the rakish Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, close and to keep her England safe by playing her suitors, the crown princes of Europe, off against one another. 

A woman can play the flirt only so long, though. Ultimately, the devotion Elizabeth bestowed on the state was considered a liability as some criticized her failure to find a suitable mate and raise an heir. It made her vulnerable to the supporters of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she reluctantly had to have killed. In the end, Elizabeth’s long-protected throne went to Mary’s son, James (irony of ironies), who had no love for either of them.

What’s the answer? Reign alone, keeping sex, lovers and spouses at a distance, or try to wield power through men? In the modern world, women can try to stay on professional message, looking polished (the IMF’s Christine Lagarde) or pretty much sexless (German Chancellor Angela Merkel). But how well and long does that work? I think of Elizabeth II and onetime Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, two women who’ve never been associated with sex appeal and who kept their roles as heads of state separate from those of wife, mother and grandmother. Yet the movie “The Queen” felt the need to include a scene in which Elizabeth, although the sovereign, has to worry about whether she’ll serve the leftover lamb stew at the family barbecue. Meanwhile, “Munich” depicts Golda Meir serving coffee to her generals as they plot to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games.

Hey, you may be the head of a country, but let’s not forget those all-important hostessing duties.

Women, it seems, will always be defined by their sex. Of course, there are those who point out that men are often trapped by sex scandals. Yes men are trapped by doing sexual things.  Women are trapped by being a particular sex.

Doing and being – the difference between men and women, Simone de Beauvoir said.

And nothing’s changed before or since.