What is the ‘particular fascination that certain young men seem to have with self-destructive, doomed, talented young women?’
As the news broke of singer Amy Winehouse’s tragic death on Saturday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with expressions of shock, sadness, and bewilderment. Mixed with the words of grief and simple “RIP”s were the inevitable signs that in her passing, Winehouse had now taken on an iconic status that had eluded her before. “She was the greatest singer of our time,” one of my former students posted in a gesture of familiar hyperbole. “RIP Amy,” another wrote, “like an angel, you were too fragile for this cold harsh world.”
I noted without surprise that, at least in my social network feeds, the greatest expressions of grief and post-mortem fandom came from young males. While Winehouse had devoted fans of both sexes, there’s a particular fascination that certain young men seem to have with self-destructive, doomed, talented young women. It’s part of the “white knight” phenomenon: the longing so many guys have to “rescue” troubled, depressed, sometimes suicidal “damsels in distress.”
I first noticed this in my Women in American Society course nearly 20 years ago. One of the requirements of the class is to do a research paper on the life of a dead American woman whom the student regards as particularly significant. When I first started teaching the course, there were no limits on whom the students could pick as long as the subjects were dead and had lived the bulk of their lives in the United States.
But what I noticed those first few semesters was that the most popular choices read like a Who’s Who of the beautiful, the talented, and the hopelessly self-destructive: Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Billie Holliday and so forth. Far more students seemed interested in writing about those who had lived short and tragic lives than in those who had had longer and happier careers. I was stunned.
Though the majority of my students were women, it was the male students who were especially likely to pick one of these doomed celebrities over a happier, longer-lived historical figure. It wasn’t just laziness either. For every paper on Eleanor Roosevelt, I got two on the suicidal Sylvia Plath, though in the pre-Google age, it was easier to find information on the former at the local library.
What was going on, I realized, was the academic equivalent of White Knight Syndrome. White Knight Syndrome (WKS) is the male heterosexual equivalent of Bad Boy Syndrome, and in my experience, it’s every bit as common – thought much less frequently discussed. “Nice guys” often complain, loudly, that women are attracted to self-destructive, self-obsessed “bad boys” who don’t treat them well. But the masculine corollary gets much less attention, even if it’s at least as common.
Guys with White Knight Syndrome don’t just fall in love with drug-addicted superstars (or self-absorbed and vulnerable femme fatales like Casey Anthony). WKS manifests itself most commonly in the romantic choices these men make, as they choose to pursue (and attempt to rescue) troubled and unhappy young women.
Many men in our culture find themselves drawn to the role of the White Knight. With almost military precision, they seek out young women who are emotionally vulnerable and wounded, frequently with backgrounds of sexual abuse. These rescuers are often eager to protect women whom they imagine are desperately in need of protection. They are outraged at what other men have done (and may still be doing) to the women they love. White Knights almost always imagine themselves to be different from every other man. While other men (fathers, brothers, exes, strangers) have neglected, betrayed, and taken advantage of “his girl,” the White Knight believes that he is radically different.
In his own mind, the guy with WKS doesn’t want to exploit the troubled young women he pursues (or in the case of celebrity obsessions, admires from afar). He wants to save them. They are his noble cause; loving them (despite their often erratic and self-destructive behavior) helps him to maintain a heroic self-image. Only a very valiant man would put up with what he puts up with! Only a truly rare guy could endure the heartache that he does, all for the sake of saving a young woman whom he imagines is incapable of saving herself.
Guys with WKS have a variety of motivations. Some grew up in families with self-destructive mothers, aunts or sisters whom they were unable to save from addiction. Now that they themselves are adults, White Knights hope that romantic devotion will be the “missing piece” that will turn them from ineffectual, heartbroken bystanders into heroes.
Other White Knights are guys who adopt rescuing as a kind of competition strategy. As one of my students once told me, “I knew I’d never be the best-looking or the most athletic. But I figured I could love harder and stronger than any other man out there.” This becomes less about the rescue of a flesh-and-blood woman and more about proving that the White Knight is “not like the other guys.” Men with WKS like to think of themselves as rare exceptions in a world filled with abusive or emotionally toxic men.
But the biggest emotional payoff of WKS isn’t the fantasy of being the one to rescue the self-destructive damsel. Rather, by devoting single-minded attention to those whom they imagine to be so much worse off than themselves, White Knights get to avoid taking a hard look inwards. Whether it’s focusing on a drunk and addicted pop star or a suicidal girlfriend, rescuers dodge the often painful and challenging inner work that they need to do so badly.
Many men tried to rescue Amy Winehouse from her disease; in the end, they failed. These guys – and the millions of men who imagine they would have done better in their place – need reminding that chemical dependency is often stronger than love. Without losing all compassion for the victims of addictions, White Knights need to stop falling in love with vulnerability and weakness. And they need to start falling in love with strength, stability, and the will to live.