Thursday, October 29, 2009

The pretty-man debate continues

Let me get this straight. A woman married to a man who is both physically attractive and president of the United States is advising single women as follows: "Cute’s good. But cute only lasts for so long, and then it’s, Who are you as a person? Don’t look at the bankbook or the title. Look at the heart. Look at the soul..."

Now I know nothing firsthand about Barack Obama's heart and soul - no doubt both are lovely - but if any man is up for awards in both cuteness and title-holding-ness, he'd be the one. Granted he was not president when they met - at most he seemed like someone destined for great things - but as she said herself, cuteness fades, and as photos show, cute as he is now, he was a whole lot cuter then.

Setting aside the question of why Michelle Obama is offering dating tips in Glamour, I find it interesting that she assumes women today overvalue men's looks. I can't remember the last time I've read Glamour, so maybe that is something of a trope in that magazine, but I was under the impression that stock advice to women was to care about what's on the inside, yes, but in terms of loving men without much professional drive (see: "Knocked Up"), not in terms of accepting Seth Rogan looks over James Franco ones.

However, because Michelle Obama knows what she's doing, she's chosen her words well. Yes, "cute" fades in men - the cuter the 18-year-old, the less ruggedly handsome he'll look by 40, not saying which Beatle comes to mind... - but sexy, good-looking, etc. don't have to. Which is why I almost think the cuteness advice is meant not for grown women but for teenage girls - the only set of females commonly known to pick inappropriate male partners on the basis of looks alone - while the comments about male status are directed at women 22 and up. This would, I'd imagine, cover a broader set of Glamour readers than dealing with just girls or just women.


David Schraub said...

as photos show, cute as he is now, he was a whole lot cuter then.

Really? Every old picture of Obama I've seen, he looks pretty goofy -- including the one we have up of him at UChi Law School.

PG said...

Now I'm curious as to the basis of your belief that women over 22 don't weigh looks heavily in picking a partner. In my consumption of media directed specifically toward women (and romance novels weigh heavily in this, since I read few "women's magazines" and don't watch stuff like Oprah or The View), finding a man physically attractive upon first sight is always treated as important. And in some ways I consider romance novels one of the "purer" forms of women-directed media because they are overwhelmingly written, edited and read by women, and are one of the few women-directed venues to hold a majority share of a medium (over 50% of new mass market paperbacks are romance novels).

Is there a book or TV program or something else out there that was really formative in your getting a different message?

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, every involuntary bachelor I know who cannot attract a woman cannot do so because of his looks. I know very successful, homely men who are involuntary bachelors, but no matter how unsuccessful professionally, physically attractive men attract women.

This doesn't show that looks matter to women more than success, but it does show that looks are the bigger trump issue. There are women who are willing to overlook the fact that a man doesn't have two coins to rub together, is unemployed, and just got out of prison for the third time in his life, but there are virtually no women willing to overlook visual hideousness.

Phoebe said...

David Schraub,

Goofy and cute often go together!

PG and Andrew Stevens,

I think the issue here is that we're looking at a few different but overlapping issues. One is how much women care about how men look. Another is how much women allow this to impact their choices in partners. A third is how willing women are to openly express concerns regarding male appearance.

In other words, my sense is that most women care plenty about how men look, but that social pressures have some (but not, as Andrew Stevens notes, infinite) capacity in making women at least consider men they don't find ravishingly beautiful... and significantly more power in preventing women from vocalizing the fact that they value male looks to whatever extent they do.

Anonymous said...

"This doesn't show that looks matter to women more than success, but it does show that looks are the bigger trump issue."

Trump? Hmm. You could be proving Phoebe's point here.


Daniel Goldberg said...

I have to strongly disagree with your assertion that teenage girls are the only set of females commonly known to pick inappropriate male partners on the basis of looks alone.

Phoebe said...


Perhaps so!

Daniel Goldberg,

Which other set of women - if not all women - would you include in this group?

Amber said...

I agree that the advice is not targeted at mature women. In fact, can we read Michelle's advice as a secularized version of True Love Waits? Cute teen/college boys rarely have beautiful souls (or well-developed character in general---this is something that comes with time). By discouraging girls from acting on cuteness/hormones, is this not supporting the dowdy if statistically beneficial project of delaying marriage and childbearing?

I'm not sure if there isn't social pressure for women to not care about male beauty from both sides: conservatives who deny the existence of female desire and liberals who have high-minded goals for young women. What would Linda Hirshman say if we all opted out in favor of a life of pleasure with gorgeous dudes?

Phoebe said...


I don't know if Hirshman would object to the Cult of the Pretty Man. After all, men have not had to make professional sacrifices so as to attract pretty women - quite the contrary.

But then again... Appreciation of male beauty is, in women, in cliché, associated with an inability to get anything else done. The high-school girl who pretends to be bad at math to get the pretty-but-dumb guy's attention, or the girl who simply can't concentrate in math class because the boy sitting next to her is so cute, we associate these with women finding men attractive. Whereas the guy will if anything exaggerate his academic/professional achievements to get the pretty girl.

This is my long-winded way of saying I agree that focus-on-your-studies feminists and don't-be-horny-you're-a-lady anti-feminists have some common ground on this issue.

Daniel Goldberg said...

My objection is to the use of the term "only." I am not even sure I would know where to begin to look for evidence that would support either of our positions on this, but my impressions -- not worth much, admittedly -- of women my own age (mid-30s) is that whatever increase in maturity, understanding, insight that comes with age, they are certainly susceptible to making inappropriate decisions about partnership based on nothing other than physical attractiveness.

I guess I cannot see, prima facie, any real reason for thinking that all identifiable groups of women past adolescence would not be susceptible to the very human and very real flaw of gratifying lust qua lust to the exclusion of all other concerns (if I interpret your claim correctly).

If you had said that 'women past adolescence' are less likely to make inappropriate partnering choices on the basis of looks alone, I would have no real disagreement. But I don't think it is particularly plausible to claim that "only" adolescent women are so susceptible.

Phoebe said...

Daniel Goldberg,

By 'only' I meant that the only group of female heteros expected to be super-susceptible to male attractiveness to the point of loss of rational capacity are teen girls. It's not that this never happens with adult women - of course it does! that's part of my point here! - but that when it does, it's seen as an aberration, or a sign that a woman has not grown up. A man going after an inappropriate-but-hot woman will, on the contrary, receive a knowing nod from society.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Thanks for the clarification. I'm still not certain I agree that an older women making an inappropriate partnership choice based on lust is generally perceived as an aberration -- given how common it seems to be -- but I absolutely agree that there is a pervasive inequity with the standards by which men and women are judged for the analogous choice.

Phoebe said...

OK, think of it like this: If we stick with the adult-woman-in-bar scenario, a poor choice will, I think, be chalked up to alcohol, poor self-esteem, loneliness, a sense of adventure, or even undifferentiated lust far sooner than it will to the beauty (subjective, objective, whatever) of the man she went home with.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, anyone really interested in this topic should certainly read this article or some similar article about the study.

David Schraub said...

Goofy and cute often go together!

I can only hope, but still....

Britta said...

With involuntary bachelors (or the opposite, I suppose), how much does that have to do as well with men consistently pursuing women who are, as one might say, "out of their league?" In grad school, especially certain hyper-nerdy midwestern institutions, there's a collection of brilliant and talented men who are short in the looks and/or charisma department. The friends of mine who fit in this category tend to bemoan their inability to find a girlfriend, but then don't seem to want to pursue a relationship with any of the girls who would probably be interested, but instead go after one of the "objectively" best looking girls in their wider social networks (who in turn are forced to beat off dozens of unattractive if intelligent men who vie for their attention).
I wonder if it's not so much women don't care about looks, but that we're socialized to have a more objective view of our what our ability to attract a partner based on our looks is? (I mean, are there similar articles in men's magazines where Obama tells men not to value a woman's looks and instead focus on their "soul.")
Or, could it be, men who are successful in one area have been primped up to think they are a more attractive catch all around than similarly qualified/high powered women are? Obviously, these are speculations based on gross generalizations, but I wonder how the mismatch between how men and women search for suitable partners influences how much relative weight looks have.

PG said...

Phoebe acknowledges that young women, particularly teenage girls, are willing to put a high level of importance on men's physical attractiveness. But I wonder if that's partly because most teenagers have limited status signals? They're generally all at about the same level of education; whatever income they have is mostly from their parents; the larger world doesn't know who they are.

These limitations on status signals also affect women who are older than teenagers but whose perceived potential mate pool also is short on men who can be differentiated by the status signals of education and stable income. In particular, African American women who want to be dating within their race and are well-educated and financially successful may outnumber the available men in their social circle who are similarly accomplished. So some of them focus on other aspects, and you end up with Michelle Obama saying that "Ooh girl, he's cute" is not a sufficient reason to date someone.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, I have seen the behavior you speak of in academics, grad school or later. I think your "primped up" explanation is the correct one. Very intelligent men often believe that intelligence itself confers (or at least ought to confer) sexually attractive status on them, even though it doesn't. So these men often have an inflated view of their worth on the mating market. This view might be correct if they were actually able to parlay that intelligence into economic success, but they seem to believe that they should get the credit before the success comes, even though lots of intelligent men don't have the other traits required to be very successful in the modern economy. I believe there are fewer women with such inflated views because women's value in the mating market is based almost entirely on looks and women tend to be, if anything, too critical about their looks.

PG, excellent point about the limitation on status signals for teenage boys. The above point plays into that - intelligent teenage boys seem to believe they should get points for their intelligence, but teenage girls, probably correctly, refuse to give any such points. Sports success is one of the few status signals, and it actually does work to attract teenage girls.

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to PG's argument that women pay much more attention to looks than I had previously thought. Now that I think about it, I find that, with the possible exception of extremely high status men, 10s marry 10s, 7s marry 7s, and 3s marry 3s. If women paid as little attention to looks as we've been led to believe, then attractive women would be spread out all over the spectrum and attractive (but less successful) men would be forced to "settle" or go without because there wouldn't be enough women on their level to go around. But I do not find this to be the case. Attractive men, even unsuccessful ones, have no difficulty attracting attractive women as mates.

Paul Gowder said...

Andrew, I'm curious what you mean by suggesting that high school girls correctly perceive sports as a "status" symbol and do not perceive intelligence as one. I take it that someone who takes the "all that matters (empirically) for male attractiveness is looks" position would say that sport participation isn't attractive as some kind of status symbol, but because its correlated with things like having hard bodies. Intelligence is not. Is there such a thing as status separate from looks?

Put differently, in what sense can one of these high school girls' refusal to give "points" for intelligence be described as "correct?" Correct because there's some thing called status that they're trying to perceive, and they correctly realize that intelligence isn't it? (Why in a high school would "status" need to be "signaled" by something like sports play? My admittedly limited understanding of high school is that status is constituted by sports play...) Correct because they're not deluded by false consciousness into liking anything other than looks?

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder,

I won't speak for Andrew Stevens, but I don't think anyone is saying that the most important element of a romantic relationship should be/usually is physical appearance. Also, what seems to be getting lost in this thread - and this is my fault for how I wrote the post - is the subjectivity of beauty. So on one level, there are the oft-cited 'leagues.' On another, there's the fact that the vast majority of people in or even above your 'league' will do nothing for you personally.

In terms of intelligence... unlike beauty, status, money, or achievement in sports, it tends to be an attractive feature primarily to those also in possession of it. In that sense, being very intelligent is more like being a member of some tiny ethnic group whose members only romantically consider one another than it is like being a supermodel. But that seems right - what good would it do anyone if intelligence in and of itself had value on the dating market? The very smart could date people they couldn't have conversations with?

Paul Gowder said...

Phoebe, haven't you yourself repeatedly said that physical appearance is (absence propaganda-induced desire suppression) the only indispensable element? That seems like a pretty good pass at "most important."

Anyway, that's all beside the point of my question to Andrew, which was trying to make sense of this weird notion of sexually attractive "status," and particularly of the super-weird notion that status is something that is signaled by, rather than constituted by, the sorts of things one does/affiliations one has etc. (Like what is is then? Genetic?)

Phoebe said...

I don't see where you're getting "most important" from. All I've been saying is that physical attraction is what makes romantic interest different from yay-a-new-friend interest, something I don't think ought to be all that controversial. That doesn't mean that people don't value other qualities over looks, such that if having to choose between two partners, one especially (to go with the intelligence example) smart and acceptably subjectively attractive and the other highly subjectively attractive but an idiot, the better-looking person would have much of a shot. Or, to put it another way, it's not that we're all looking to find that person who most fits our subjective ideal of physical beauty, all other qualities being secondary, so much as that an inability to meet standards in this regard means someone will not - absent social coercion - consider that person as a romantic partner.

And... I'll let Andrew Stevens answer the rest.

Andrew Stevens said...

Paul, sorry it took me so long to respond. I believe they are correct not to assign any status to intelligence. I believe they are wrong to assign status to sports success - I was merely pointing out that they do. Sorry if I seemed to imply that both were correct; this was not my intent.

Assuming that what high school (and lower level) females are attempting to get at is future status (economic, etc.), then neither intelligence nor sports ability is sufficient evidence for future status. They ought to be looking at more difficult to measure attributes such as character and determination if they really wish to get at future status. Very intelligent people seem to believe that intelligence could (or at least should) be a marker of future status, but it's a very unreliable one (as is high school sports success).

By the by, I should also say that I'm not necessarily arguing that women should care about status at all rather than say moral character, just that, if they do value future status, they are correct to ignore status points for intelligence, but incorrect to assign them for sports success.

By the way, Phoebe, I do take some issue with this:

All I've been saying is that physical attraction is what makes romantic interest different from yay-a-new-friend interest, something I don't think ought to be all that controversial.

This is controversial to me, but it depends on what you're looking for. If all you mean by "romantic interest" is someone you'd like to have sex with for a limited period of time (say, a few years at most with no cohabitation), then I agree that physical attraction may be the only important criterion separating that from friendship (actually sexual ability should be in there as well, but I suppose that's very hard to figure out without actually test driving). However, if one means by "romantic interest," a prospect for spending the rest of one's life with, there are many, many factors I'm looking for which I would not require in someone who was just going to be a new friend.

Andrew Stevens said...

Paul, also a quick mention. While I assumed that they'd be looking for indicators of future status, you're quite correct that they may just be judging status as it exists within the high school hierarchy and not trying to get at future status at all. In which case the selection of sports success as a status marker is just arbitrary. I do think, though, that unattractive successful athletes tend to do quite well for themselves for whatever reason.

Paul Gowder said...

Is status any different from wealth, then?

Andrew Stevens said...

It is. Dennis Kucinich has status regardless of how much money he has. He has power instead and with that power comes a lot of people who want to know him and rub elbows with him. People with fame also have status. So most politicians and actors have more status than, say, the Walton family, even though the Walton family members have far, far more wealth. But the Waltons have status too, even though none of them earned the family fortune.

For run-of-the-mill people, status and wealth are not entirely identical, but it's closer to identical. I can think of people who have local status, but may not make much money - local politicians, "pillars of the community," etc. Some jobs tend to have more status than others that pay more. Doctors often have more status than businessmen (unless that businessman is a CEO). College professors have more status than other jobs that pay more.

PG said...

Andrew, I think the interest in high school athletes is based on current status, not on future status. At my school, it was quite dependent on the particular sport in which one played; I think the hierarchy was football, basketball, baseball as status sports; then soccer and swimming as the substantially lower status sports ... and then golf and tennis were devoid of status and may even have been detractors from status. This seems clearly to be based on current status, since at best only a dozen guys each year, in all the sports put together, might go on to play seriously at college, and of those perhaps one might play even semi-professionally (e.g. in a baseball farm league, or a year in Europe playing basketball). The guys with the top 10 GPAs were -- I feel comfortable saying now, many years later -- much more likely to end up with status as adults, whether due to sheer amount of money or to their becoming lawyers, doctors etc.

But I think it's perfectly reasonable in high school to date a guy based on his high school status. Either you're just dating for fun and will politely go your separate ways to college or the military at graduation, or you're on a track to stay in the same area for the rest of your life, in which case high school status has a lingering effect ("remember when we won the district championship in '96?") and a lack of transferrable, universally-recognized status is of less concern.

Paul Gowder said...

See, it's that "perfectly reasonable" that confuses me about this whole discussion. I take it that we can equate "perfectly reasonable" to "rational," and that we're all largely intuitive Humeans about rationality -- that is, we think that the content of what is "rational" or "perfectly reasonable" is limited to the means to the ends one has set for oneself.

But what is the end of dating for women (or men?)? Is it to optimize the number and intensity of orgasms? To dig gold? To find True Love (TM)? All kinds of different choices can be perfectly reasonable conditional on those ends.

And does it even make sense to think about criteria and rationality and reasonableness when, in reality, we find ourselves attracted to who we find ourselves attracted to thanks to some witches' brew of biological causes, psychological demons, and social influences, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations later?

PG said...

I distinguish between "rational" and "reasonable," and don't consider them synonymous, although they are very often overlapping. "Rational" is, as you say, the means that are (objectively and realistically) likely to achieve one's ends. "Reasonable," on the other hand, in my usage, has more to do with others' perception of one's actions being rational and acceptable. Thus refusing to vote on the basis that one's individual vote almost never has an actual effect on the election is rational, but generally isn't considered reasonable, in part because voting is seen as Good Civic Behavior.

With regard to romantic pairing, I have been using Rep. Dennis Kucinich and his current wife Elizabeth as an example in which her choice of husband is rational (it achieves her apparent ends of pairing with someone who is politically and behaviorally compatible) but strikes many if not most people as unreasonable (since vegan peaceniks are themselves a minority, a tall beautiful female one who chooses to pair with a short middle-aged male one with much more power than the average hippie is assumed to have "thrown herself away on him" -- her individual goals are inherently despised).

Andrew Stevens said...

PG, I likely agree with you that sports is based on current status, which probably blows holes in my theory that high school girls are looking for future status. (Some of them probably are, but not the majority.)

I take it that we can equate "perfectly reasonable" to "rational," and that we're all largely intuitive Humeans about rationality -- that is, we think that the content of what is "rational" or "perfectly reasonable" is limited to the means to the ends one has set for oneself.

Unlike PG, I do equate reasonable with rational, but I disagree with you and Hume here. I believe morality is rational, not emotional, and therefore the ends we choose can also be deemed either rational or irrational. It is irrational (as well as immoral) to go around murdering people with axes for the fun of it, even if you're perfectly rational about how you do it. Having said that, at no point in this thread have I attempted to evaluate the rationality of anyone's goals for dating.

As far as those goals go, different people select different things at different times of their lives. I have no doubt that every one of your examples is a genuine goal for someone. And, indeed, that's why earlier in the thread I was disputing Phoebe when she claimed that it should be uncontroversial that physical attractiveness is the only thing that separates romantic interests from friends. If one's goal is to optimize the number and intensity of orgasms, then indeed physical attractiveness and sexual ability are pretty much it and Phoebe's normative theory of how important physical attractiveness ought to be makes a lot of sense, but if one's goal is to find a life partner, then there are so many important criteria, that it's very hard for me to justify putting physical attractiveness very high on the list at all.

And does it even make sense to think about criteria and rationality and reasonableness when, in reality, we find ourselves attracted to who we find ourselves attracted to thanks to some witches' brew of biological causes, psychological demons, and social influences, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations later?

This is certainly true a lot of the time (virtually all of it?), but it is absolutely not universally true. One can approach dating rationally before the fact; it's just that people very seldom do. Whenever I counsel someone who is struggling with dating, I urge them to list all the qualities they want and don't want and their importance to them and think things through before they begin the process. This allows them to clarify what they're looking for before they're actually dating people, and allows them to gain some objectivity on the process. On the other hand, I have been accused of being anti-romantic and sucking all the fun out of dating. Interestingly, I have met many more women who approach dating in my unromantic way than men. Women actually are vastly more logical on this issue than men are, even those men who are normally ultra-logical. This may be due to the influence of Jane Austen.

And perhaps Jane Austen is the solution to why women care less about physical attractiveness than men. Until very recently, it was far, far more important to a woman that she make sound choices in dating and marriage than it was for men. Women couldn't afford to be misled by something as superficial as physical attractiveness.