Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The good men of high school

Remember "game"? I haven't checked to see if those blogs still exist - no doubt they do - but as I recall, the premise was that men should give women the impression that they - however plain-looking, low-earning, and dull - are hot commodities, to be fought over. That men should manipulate women into feeling grateful for every shred of attention they receive, leaving supermodels distraught when a paunchy guy who lives in his parents' basement hasn't called them back.

Hugo Schwyzer (via) tells us, in effect, that young women have bought into this notion, convinced that they need to have won some kind of beauty pageant to get a decent boyfriend. Depressing if true, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. Schwyzer's right that girls and women often imagine that being thinner would solve a whole heap of problems unrelated to their weight - this, of course, because wouldn't life be so much simpler if that were the case! But are relationships really so dire for the female youth of today? A disjointed attempt to assess below:

-It seems odd to place the "scarcity" issue as one particularly affecting teenagers and college students. I'd always assumed the 'men are scarce' narrative was being hurled primarily at women 25 and up. I thought it went, first girls and boys are in one big horde, then with each passing year, men have more options, women fewer.

-Which brings up the question of how this meshes with that other popular narrative, about how the youngest women (age of consent-to-25, so same demographic as Schwyzer is talking about) are this hot commodity for older men, stealing "good guys" away from women their own age, and otherwise feeling great about their wrinkle-free selves. Frankly, I've never bought that - who cares that 18-year-old women have the theoretical option of high-earning 40-year-old men, when real-life 18-year-old women are worried about whether their 18-year-old love interests will text them back, comparing themselves not with older women, but with their peers? It's not necessarily that 18-year-old women believe 18-year-old men are scarce, but more that they do not see themselves as the ooh la la barely legals that society-at-large imagines them to be. The guys they're interested in are themselves close enough to 18 that this trait is not the draw.

-But maybe it's a thing. Maybe young girls have such low self-esteem ("Arrested Development"!) that they're willing to put up with anything. Who knows. With the usual caveat that I went to geeky schools and don't know a thing about how it goes at a Real American one, I remember exactly one instance of an acquaintance thinking the best she could hope for with a guy she liked was an asymmetrical and definitively-not-going-anywhere hookup. And this, because re: an acquaintance, I'm not even 100% sure ever happened. But in general, it was just so obvious that the guys at my high school and college (and in this, the ones I attended were most typical) did not have porn stars or Victoria's Secret models or whatever as options, that a girl would have had to have been awfully neurotic to think this was what they were holding out for. I remember male classmates over the years pining over girls whose resemblance to Hollywood ideals was minimal even by geek-school standards.

-All of which is making me think that the issue for this cohort is less a competition for boys/men than one about attractiveness that plays itself out via the question of who gets the most male attention. It just seems too clear that being supermodel-hot does not guarantee happiness, and clearer still that the girls in good relationships do not typically look all that different from those who are not.

-The number of positive adjectives describing young girls/women in the post was, I found, distracting. Schwyzer tells us of "smart and amazing young women," "bright and beautiful girls," then of how "amazing and wonderful," "'pretty and smart,'" girls correctly assess that their friends are, and if only they saw themselves in the same light. Distracting, that is, because people - male and female alike - are not all above average. Also counterproductive, because it reinforces the idea that there are all these beautiful-brilliant girls forced to compete over mediocre guys. If we'd just accept that most people are gorgeous and fascinating only subjectively, and that subjective attraction is what attraction's largely about, we could make strides against a problem that, again, I'm not 100% convinced actually exists.


Jeff said...

That article has one validation after another of the game way of looking at the world, perhaps unintentionally.

“If I were fifteen pounds thinner, I think my boyfriend would stop looking at other girls.” She didn’t feel like she had the right to ask her guy to stop checking out other women in public.

GAME says: She is with this guy precisely because he looks at other women and presumably gets looks in return. If he didn't - if he gazed lovingly into her eyes all day - she'd lose respect for and interest in him post haste.

“Sometimes he’ll just forget to call or text because he’s gaming”, she says. “I’m lucky to get a few minutes alone with him a week when we’re not doing something sexual. But this is the way boys are....

GAME says: Again, this guy knows what he's doing. (He's "gaming" in more ways than one, wink wink.) If he doted upon her, the way she's claiming she wants here, she'd ditch him, or totally lose sexual interest.

These smart and amazing young women have somehow gotten the idea that in order to be treated with respect and love, they have to be damn near perfect.
This perfectionism dovetails dangerously with another theme in young women’s lives: the “good guys are hard to find” narrative
“It’s so sad”, Jessica will say, “Amy doesn’t see what we all see. She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers."

GAME says: There's an army of men out there who'd gladly be loving and respectful, but women aren't turned on by men being loving and respectful, they're turned on by cads, and so they keep gravitating to the cads.

Which is all another way of describing the phenomenon (by real, live scientific research, in The New York Times for crying out loud, which was much discussed at the time quite a bit on the web) of women having a fundamental disconnect between what they claim to find attractive and what they are actually, biologically, attracted to.

"Game" is just acknowledging the disconnect, and appealing to the deep dark buried truth of what actually pushes a woman's buttons.

Phoebe said...


The only "deep dark buried truth" is that no one wants desperate. Someone who seems just a bit unavailable is more intriguing. What I'm getting at is, Groucho Marxism is gender-neutral. In the actual world inhabited by people, as opposed to gameland, some women want "cads," just as some men want aloof flakes, but most women are simply turned off by men who propose on the first date, both because that kind of behavior suggests a "league" mismatch, and because it implies the guy would be equally ready to settle down with any of his dates.

The way things generally go, once sensibly-expressed levels of mutual interest have been established, a relationship can proceed. This truth, the fact that desperation is a turn-off, is why "game" appears to be telling it like it is. As in, look, this woman who claims she wants marriage and kids rejected the guy who offered both upon ten minutes of meeting her! When the reality is not that women want men who treat them like crap, but rather that desperation is ick.

PG said...

Agreed both that desperation is ick and that describing everyone as "bright and beautiful" does not help in working out whether there's a real situation of young women's feeling inadequate. I think my single female friends are just as awesome (and on average, about as physically attractive) as my coupled female friends, but I can't say I'd expect them to be getting married to movie stars and pop idols -- after all, my coupled female friends haven't.

Personally, I'd say that lack of experience can lead to misjudging (and often underestimating) one's ability to attract. I definitely had a much better gauge of that after dating a few guys than I did when I was in high school and not allowed to date. While this is not true for most Real Americans, even the relatively lower level of experience that the typical college freshwoman has had might affect her sense of what her "league" is.

The whole question of what kind of *behavior* one ought to be able to expect from a mate shouldn't be too much conflated with that about "leagues." I'd always understood "league" to refer to what Indian people call "biodata": job status, income, education, age, appearance (including fairness of skin). What to expect of a mate -- specifically here, what women can/should expect of men -- also seems like it will be affected by experience, but in an even broader way: by what a woman sees of her father, other adult male relatives, teachers, et al., before she ever kisses a boy. So I might expect that my "league" for a guy is better than a cousin's, because I think I'm prettier, better educated, higher status generally. But that doesn't mean I expect my mate to treat me as well or better than hers does.

No doubt some people who think they're dating above their league will accept worse behavior from a mate than they would from a same- or lower-league partner, but on the whole I would think that an individual will regard some behaviors as beyond the pale regardless of how gorgeous and wealthy the person committing them is (e.g. physical abuse, sexual infidelity) and some as tolerable (e.g. lack of attention).

And even the decent ones, so the culture tells us, will make relationship decisions based on women’s appearance.

Considering that decent women make decisions about with whom to start a relationship based in part on appearance, I don't think that's just "the culture" making a claim.

Isabel Archer said...

Co-sign what PG said about lack of experience leading women to misjudge what their "league" is. I say this coming from a small, private religious school in a part of the country that was I suppose fairly Real American. We were somewhat unusual, though, in that most of our families were more socially conservative than average and thus stricter about dating. Second, many of my classmates had been part of the same 65-person class since kindergarten. I think some kind of weird Westermarck-ish effect set in that most of us couldn't find members of the opposite sex from our tiny peer group attractive. Most of the girls who did date in high school wound up meeting their boyfriends at summer programs or someone from other local high schools.

A lot of my female classmates tried to get information about the forbidden fruits from film and television. This... tends to lead people astray, though, in the directions that Schwyzer's talking about. One, stories about women who are struggling to find a good man make for gripping drama a la Sex and the City; stories about the happily coupled up are pretty boring. Two, even the homely characters in movies and television are played by actresses who are fairly attractive in real life -- see, e.g., Allyson Hannigan as Willow Rosenberg, or, later, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger -- which can also give reason for panic to the inexperienced.

Part of the problem may be that movies and television may be actively unhelpful here. Stories about characters with chaotic love lives make for fantastic drama, whereas television about characters who have a few long-term, stable relationships are not that interesting. So it can be easy to get the misimpression from pop culture that relationships are more turbulent and difficult than they really are, and that therefore mediocre relationships are more worth clinging to than they really should be. Two, the actresses who are supposed to be portraying plain women in drama are often of above-average attractiveness in real life.

Agree also with both "desperation is ick" comments above.

Britta said...

Agree on the desperate being icky. Related to that, of course, is that intangible qualities like charisma, confidence (if not translated into arrogance), style, etc. are all extremely important in attracting attention, but they're not things that one can easily quantify. (It's my feeling about beauty too, as I said in an earlier post. Wanting to be "more beautiful" is fairly nebulous, wanting to be 15 lbs thinner, or have bigger eyes, etc, is a concrete thing you can focus on (and possibly achieve)). Certainly people can make an attempt to be more stylish, or increase their confidence (I don't know if charisma can be trained, maybe it's purely an innate quality?) Maybe not at "stunningly beautiful" or "hideously ugly," but there's a whole range between "average" and "beautiful" where again, the amount of male attention you attract is as much based on how you present yourself as it is on your objective features.

Plus, there's the fact that most people don't date strangers, but rather people they know from their social circle (which can be limited in artificial ways which make one gender appear to have the upper hand, like Isabel Archer pointed out), and in those settings personality is also important. I know it's a cliche, but I've definitely found that people with great personalities become more physically attractive to me over time, and people who are assholes get uglier over time. In this sense, looks aren't objective, even beyond one person's personal aesthetic preferences. E.g. I didn't find my first boyfriend all that good looking the first time I met him, but his looks grew on me as I got to know him as a person better.

Conversely, being a supermodel doesn't prevent men from treating you like crap, as people should learn from celebrity gossip. You can be Eva Longoria, or Sandra Bullock, or Elin Nordgren, or really pretty much any celebrity, and chances are the person you date will cheat on you. Infidelity is about a lot of things, and almost never about looks (in fact, I read a statistic that a vast majority of men cheat on their partner with a women who is objectively less good looking than they are). Also, being very beautiful but painfully shy, or uncomfortable in your skin means you probably won't get half the attention you might get if you were confident.

Britta said...

Oh also, as to the specific article, I mean, I guess those are all actual experiences that guy has had, but if that is a widespread attitude, it is seriously depressing. I've also heard those statistics like "80% of nine year olds think they're too fat" or that like, 50% of women who can't orgasm during sex are because they're too hung up on what their partner thinks of their body, or whatever, and I'm wondering if that is actually true? I don't recall any sense of bodily awareness of myself or others beyond the most basic sense of size or shape until well into puberty. I don't know if that's because I was blissfully unaware from mainstream neurotic beauty culture (I remember my grandmothers making ridiculous fat hating comments from a very young age, but I only recognized how fat hating they were in retrospect, as a kid they just sailed over my head), or if things have gotten worse in the past several decades.

Phoebe said...


"Personally, I'd say that lack of experience can lead to misjudging (and often underestimating) one's ability to attract."

Oh, absolutely. I just wonder how long this intermediary phase is imagined to last. For example, I remember when I was really young, and this was after having spent the first nine years of my schooling in a single-sex environment, thinking that on account of being, well, a brunette, I was never going to appeal to guys at all. That said, all these concerns vanished when I was actually at the age at which people start to date - 16 or so - and the boring truth came out that sometimes guys would like me and not vice versa, sometimes vice versa. That I was, in other words, not vastly more or less attractive than other girls in my cohort, and that "subjective" was the word to describe how things would play out. Basically, I don't find it at all hard to believe that for a time, neither girls nor boys have a sense of, in crude terms, their value on the dating market. What I'm not convinced by is a) that only girls deal with this, and b) that this sense persists for more than a brief moment.

PG said...

I think total amount of experience is more important than age. One can be from a socially conservative family that restricts dating for quite a long time, or just be personally shy and unwilling to put oneself out on the dating scene, and thus be well into one's 20s before having a good clue about one's league. From what I've heard of Tina Fey's memoir, she was the kind of woman who didn't figure out until she was well into adulthood that she was attractive. But I agree that it would be a little odd for a woman who's gone on dates with over a dozen guys to still be underestimating her ability to attract.

BTW: Evidently weight is also relevant for however one says "biodata" in Hebrew.

Phoebe said...


I don't think it's age-specific, necessarily, just unlikely to persist long after one has been "out there." Whether "out there" begins at 14 or 34. If a woman truly isn't dating till 25, she might have misconceptions from 15-26 about her "value," but it's irrelevant because it's all theoretical; once it stops being theoretical, she gets a better sense.

Re: what would be called "orthorexia" if that term hadn't already been taken... I wonder how much of this is about a stereotypically Jewish appearance being considered unattractive for women in our society, and yes, even among the Orthodox. (How many curly/frizzy wigs does one see in those communities?) I've seen it discussed elsewhere (I want to say, Jezebel comments) that Jewish women generally are especially diet-concerned because this is something that can be controlled, whereas not looking like a WASP... Add to this the fact that observant Jews are already accustomed to following complicated dietary restrictions, I suppose not so shocking.

At any rate, though, given the specific part re: husbands demanding size extra-small or whatever, a) this is not what all young Orthodox women look like, yet they do seem to marry all the same, yet b) if the brides are very young, and they just have to be that size for a while to convince a matchmaker, that is probably attainable for a lot of young, single Orthodox women. I don't see why we're supposed to be shocked that religious men would care what their wives looked like, nor do I see where the fact that Jews of this milieu eat kugel enters into it. I wouldn't say that the culture in question values food more or in a different way than do any number of others.

Phoebe said...

Isabel Archer,

Do you think the media depictions leave girls in a different spot than boys? I remember watching "Seinfeld" in middle school or so, and not quite getting that a new boyfriend/girlfriend every week was highly unusual behavior for anyone, let alone a 30-something living on the Upper West Side. SATC is certainly more gender-specific, but it's also so much about the question of female aging, which seems plenty distant to a girl still in high school. There are even references on the show to how easy it is for women in their 20s - this ought to make a 17-year-old girl think she has all the options in the world!

The thing with hot women playing homely, though... there are certainly more unattractive male actors playing unattractive male characters. What this all amounts to, I'm not sure. It still strikes me that the lack of experience/league miscalculation issue would impact boys as well as girls, and would fade quickly once dating begins in earnest.

Phoebe said...


I think there's on the one hand female concern about appearance, on the other female concern about getting boyfriends/husbands. According to Official WWPD Anecdata, the age at which girls are most concerned with such matters as OMG a zit, OMG thighs that are not stick-thin, tends to precede the age at which girls actually date. This, because once the wide world of reciprocation and rejection opens up, it becomes clear a) that the pimply and pear-shaped do plenty of rejecting, and b) that the smooth-skinned and swimsuit-model-built get rejected plenty. There's some overlap between physical near-perfection and romantic success, lots between being truly odd-looking and having more trouble in that area, but for the within-normal-limits majority, things are subjective. It's not necessarily about looking beyond looks or getting to know people for who they really are. It can be something as simple and visual as, Person A looks hot to person B but not to person C.

All of this is to say that I'm confused about this alleged life stage during which girls/women are simultaneously convinced that losing 15 pounds would change everything, and dating actual, living, breathing boys/men. I'd think that there's some overlap, but for such a brief moment that it's not worth losing sleep over. But anecdata, not foolproof.

Isabel Archer said...

What this all amounts to, I'm not sure. It still strikes me that the lack of experience/league miscalculation issue would impact boys as well as girls, and would fade quickly once dating begins in earnest.

I think you're probably right about this, but it's hard to say for sure since I'm not a guy and was around more females than males at the relevant age.

Phoebe said...

Isabel Archer,

One way to look at it is the pop-culture cliché of the nerd who ends up getting the girl, once his classmates have moved from football captain to gas-station attendent. Also, I think it's expected that among young adolescents, a very small percentage of girls and boys are deemed datable, as in, it would be an honor and not a source of mockery, to date them. Then you get older, and most everyone couples off.

PG said...

I think it's different for boys and girls because the prevailing cultural norm (still!) is that boys do the pursuing and have to expect a certain amount of rejection to come with that territory. If you're the active pursuer, I'd think you could suss out more quickly what your league is (model types say no, cheerleaders say no, a couple drill team girls say yes) than if you are passively waiting to be pursued.

I say this as the kind of bad feminist who has done nothing to correct this particular gender imbalance, despite being pretty equality-demanding in other areas of dating (e.g. refusing to have date pay for me except for special occasions, which I then reciprocate). There may be a lot of women out there who make the first overt move (as opposed to just smiling a lot), but I don't seem to know many of

Phoebe said...


Hmm. I can think offhand of some couples I know that formed after the girl/woman pursued the boy/man for a good while. (In addition to those, there's this.) But the general rule does seem to be male pursuit.

However! A couple things. One, "pursuit" tends to play out as, a boy waits until it's pretty clear the girl reciprocates. This is true from the first date to that most famously asymmetrical of events, the proposal. (Note, with the Mormon Vows couple, that she had already proposed long before he broached the subject.) There are certainly more men than women asking out heaps of people with the hopes that some will say yes, but this approach is typically frowned upon by female recipients of it. The more usual pattern is, mutual interest established, it is only when the male party makes his interest explicit in some way that a couple is considered to have formed.

Two, obviously somewhere along the line, even without asking out boys of various "leagues," girls figure out where they stand. This is from something as simple as the dynamics in conversations, to situations where it's just kind of known that a girl likes a guy, and then comes the answer of whether the guy will reciprocate by "pursuing" her.

Point being, I think you're right that males have more ways of sussing this out than do females, and thus that a guy might know at 16 what a woman only does at 20... but the difference isn't necessarily so great, because "pursuit" is often no more than a formality surrounding what are otherwise mutual interactions.

Phoebe said...

Oh, meant to add - it's more acceptable for boys than girls to experience explicit rejection, but that doesn't mean they're by and large OK with that actually happening. Thus the waiting to see what the girl's likely to say, thus the choosing only to "pursue" girls who've already, in more subtle ways, begun pursuing them, etc.