Thomas Jefferson? He’s Batman.
I teach a course on the American presidency in which we read top-notch biographies about some of our best presidents. Recently our class read Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power and my love of Thomas Jefferson must have come through, because the students asked if I had a crush on our third president. In trying to explain my attraction to a dead historical figure whose decades long affair with a slave casts a pall on his “all men are created equal” legacy I embarrassingly blurted out “He’s Batman!” Before you call me crazy, allow me to explain. Both men fall neatly into a version of the Byronic hero, a trope that I refer to as “Smart, Hot and Damaged.”
Numerous connections exist between Mr. Jefferson and Bruce Wayne, specifically the broody Chris Nolan version. Let’s start with Jefferson’s “S” (smart). Jefferson loved all intellectual pursuits from salon culture to the written word, to architectural design (Ever been to Monticello?). His beautiful prose led John Adams to ask him to write the Declaration of Independence, a document that went over rather well with the locals. As for Bruce Wayne, his S is more closely related to technological and athletic skill rather than to talents with a fountain pen, though I am sure he could kill you with one if pressed. Wayne is good with all things gadgety, has mastered various martial arts, and knows how to think fast under pressure such as during car chases and the like.
Now for the “H” (hot). Jefferson has been described as a man of tall stature with hazel eyes and “sandy red” hair. Pretty ladies flustered him and according to historian Joseph Ellis, at parties he folded his arms standoffishly in an effort to “define his own private space and ward off intruders.” Hmm, this sounds mysteriously sexy to me, though not to Ellis who left that out of his analysis. For his part, Bruce Wayne has dark hair, blue eyes, wears lots of black, carries a few dollars in his pocket, and works out once in a while. If these descriptions don’t do it for you, consider that both men’s Hs are magnified by lots of angsty D, damage.
Bruce Wayne’s “D” hardly needs explaining to anyone even marginally aware of American popular culture. Here is a short list– Wayne has a tendency to fall into pits filled with bats and/or criminals, witnesses his parents murder at a tender age, loses Rachel – the love of his life at the hands of a madman, heroically takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes thus temporarily losing his hero credentials. Jefferson’s D comes with that of any life lived at the turn of the nineteenth century which as times go was better than the plague years, but had its fair share of problems. Specifically for Jefferson, he made a rare love match with Patty (Martha Wayles), only to lose her ten years into their marriage after the birth of one of their daughters. As she lay dying he pledged to her that he would never marry again. He fell into a grief approaching “madness” after her death, yet he kept his promise to Patty and never remarried. This romantic promise comes with an ick factor since his slave Sally (also his beloved wife’s half-sister) fills Patty’s side of the bed for the rest of Jefferson’s life. (For a great telling of this story and a thorough examination of Sally’s family check out Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello).
Thomas Jefferson and Bruce Wayne embody the SHD trope, but Jason Bourne is my favorite SHD. Bourne is played by Matt Damon who also brought Will Hunting to life. In both characters we see two versions of the most important of the SHD’s qualities: the S. S exists most often in one of two forms, street smarts, and intellect. Bourne represents street smarts, sometimes literally as seen in Ultimatum’s famous chase through the streets and then rooftops of Tangiers. He can also turn common household appliances like toasters into weapons at a moment’s notice. Will Hunting, who is all about the math (and much-appreciated references to American historiography), represents the intellectual type of S. For a full understanding of Bourne and Hunting’s H and D see the films. You will not be disappointed.
S is the most important of the trio in part because the other two, “hot and damaged” are commonly found in male characters. For example, entire male casts of soap operas are made up of hot damaged guys, since hot is a prerequisite for any soap role and damaged comes soon after the male character’s first appearance either at birth when he needs his coma-stricken brother’s kidney to survive a rare disease or perhaps as a newcomer with “abandoned by an alcoholic prostitute mother/con-artist since elementary school” roots. Most importantly, intellect has the power to make an average or odd-looking fellow hot, thus expanding the number of SHDs in pop culture. Why do you think women and men are swooning world-wide over Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes or for that matter Martin Freeman’s John Watson?
Need another illustration? See Snape comma Severus. Rowling might think she is describing Snape in odious terms by applying phrases like “greasy git” to the potions master, but those terms are quickly lost on the reader given some serious points in Snape’s S and D columns. His knowledge of potions, occlumency and the dark arts are unsurpassed. Rowling then saddles Snape with a deep unrequited love for his arch enemy’s bride thereby cancelling out the grease. Even if you aren’t convinced, the casting gods over at Warner Brothers certainly were seeing that they chose Alan Rickman for the role thereby launching the career of a thousand fanfic writers.
There are plenty of fictional males who meet two out of three SHD qualities. Heathcliff – plenty of damage, not enough smarts; Peter Parker – too happy-go-lucky and boyish; Castle – too positive, Cap – too true, Thor – plenty hot, not enough brain, Angel – too much brood and not enough S. He is a half-step above Spike, however, whose S most often stands for “stupidity.” Some men who overflow with H and D find their S in a female counterpart; think Mulder and Scully, Oliver and Felicity, Han and Leia. Lacking one of the three SHD qualities does not mean that these men are unattractive, far from it. They just don’t hit the fantasy man mark the way Aragorn does.
“Fantasy man,” by the way, is a key phrase, since a real life connection to an SHD can only result in pain, heartache, and pricey divorce attorneys. Fictional SHD’s are often loners and the victims of unrequited love for a reason. Suitcases full of damage (did you catch that Mad Men reference?) often come with alcohol problems, while intellect of epic proportions results in stilted conversation, and hot lasts only so long. Fantasies involving these men revolve around mortal peril, chasing and rescuing – all of which are thankfully lacking in suburban life. The closest you want to come to your own SHD is the boy you lusted after in high school whose cheerleader girlfriend callously dumped him before prom, the one you thought was smart because he understood algebraic equations, but really was just an idiot in a football jersey.
Hopefully by this point you, like my students, you can see that Batman and Thomas Jefferson have more than a few things in common. As a rule, professors should maintain strict boundaries between themselves and their students. Revealing too much about one’s crushes makes for awkward classroom conversations. Professors are not supposed to think anyone is hot, especially not tragically widowed, ginger-haired Founding Fathers who also happened to be brilliant.