Why Do Mistresses Fascinate Us?

Let me lay out a little scenario for you called “my worst nightmare”:

Some overworked woman with substandard social skills wearing an ill fitting tank top picks up a dude at a bar. She desperately convinces him to go home with her. Afterwards, he’s clearly uninterested in her as she begs him “talk to me.” She asks him to come see her again Saturday, he demurs, she promises to cook him a beautiful dinner. He kind of nods, says “okay, okay, whatever.” She spends all of Saturday making a filet mignon. Dude never shows.

Admittedly, I stole this plot from an HBO movie called Hysterical Blindness whose title I couldn’t remember it so I had to Google it using words like “that HBO movie where women are sad” and “filet mingnon sad HBO movie.” The term that actually worked was “cringe inducing,” in case you were wondering.

Here’s a scenario that does not make me cringe:

This beautiful woman – she’s your age – wearing a Chanel dress strides into Per Se as her older, bespoke suited lover follows almost doggishly behind her. She doesn’t need to introduce herself to the maitre d’, he already has her usual table. After the waiter lays her glass of scotch on the table she almost imperceptibly checks him out. She and her gentleman friend make sparkling conversation, she’s witty, though maybe a tiny bit bored. After they finish their meal, he lays a box of chocolates on the table. “How sweet,” she says, she drawls it a little bit, she thinks this is sophomoric. “Open it!” He encourages her.  She does. It contains a masive perfectly cut diamond necklace. “But Wilhelm,” she says, dangling the necklace in front of her, “where are the chocolates?”

This is from a movie that runs in my head entitled “being a mistress seems glamorous.” Sometimes it plays while I’m wearing my Snuggie. I’d never be able to do it, but I want to be that woman.

In any event, whatever your feelings about dating older German men, Per Se, possibly accepting blood diamonds, immorality in general, the second scenario seems more fun than the first, yes?

Yes.

Part of the difference between the two scenarios is the difference between being pursued or pursuing. Being pursued is obviously more flattering.  But I think it goes beyond that.

For me, the appeal of the idea of being a mistress is all about power. It’s about being someone who has power over men, but also over your own emotions. There are – in the vague fantasies that people have of being a mistress – situations where the wife might come to you crying, freaking out, but none where you do. The mistress in the second scenario is not going to freak out if Wilhelm decides to go back to his wife (he doesn’t know it yet, but he has prostate cancer!) She’s not going to show up at Wilhelm’s house at 2:00 in the morning crying. She’s not going to care. She’s going to move on completely effortlessly, enjoying herself along the way, but never getting too attached. And when she’s old, she’s going to have accumulated a lifetime of experience, jewelry, happy memories, a butler who loves her.

That fantasy is what makes it seem dreamy. It seems like an escape from all the mucky emotions that we go through in normal, day to day relationships.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in real life, which seems evident in Catherine Goldstein’s article in the New York Post about being a mistress. Because human beings have emotions. The idea of living a life pleasantly detached from them is always just a fantasy. And honestly? It doesn’t really sound like she got to do that much that was glamorous. Well, she did get some nice meals, handbags, clothing. For free. Okay, that sounds glamorous. But it also sounds like she was lying about her age at 25, and trying to figure out how to get money to pay her rent, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t go along with the empowered, carefree fantasy.

But a lot of that fantasy also had to do with living in an age where being a mistress was one of the only ways a woman could enjoy wealth and still have some measure of independence. Now that we live in an age where the mistress in the scenario could just be doing whatever Wilhelm does (he works in private equity) maybe that’s something to consider instead. Because business can be kind of like a boyfriend who gives you money for being witty, and you won’t have to have awkward sex with someone 20 years older than you.

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    • Ellen W.

      So true. I would love to be the aunt in Gigi- with her yellow diamonds and living in the past (And what a past it was!). I also like that Gigi points out how much work it takes to seem effortlessly chic. But being sexy and cynical is exhausting.

    • Sivan

      I really enjoyed this article Jennifer. Witty and funny and smart.

    • Eileen

      Of course the power is a motivator. But I’d like to offer that I think that part of the attraction of being a mistress is the idea that you are some man’s fantasy. He’s married, so it’s not as if he just can’t get a girl – he wants you. Even if this is not the absolute reality, it’s nice to feel that you are the object of someone’s fantasy, at least for awhile.

    • Lauren

      Against my better judgement, I was a mistress. He was 12 years older than me. I wish it were that glamorous, but really all the self loathing and realizing you were in love with a man who was really just in love with your 12 years younger vagina is much worse than being alone.