Monday, August 15, 2011

It's just that men are visual creatures

First off, let me be clear: what I'm judging is not the happiness of - or anything else about - this particular couple, about whom we can of course know little, aside from that they decided to put their story out there for all in a NYT wedding announcement-with-background. What I'm looking at is the fact that a narrative like this gets featured, that it qualifies as meet-cute.

Summary: the woman - now bride - was not attracted to the man - now groom. On multiple occasions, she made her lack of interest known, including - and this is a bit above and beyond - moving her seat away from his on a flight because sitting next to him for that long would be ick. But he kept asking her out, again and again and again and a few more times too, and eventually she got past the ick, realized (maybe?) that this was the path of least resistance to marriage pre-35, or that a woman has no right to expect more from a man than calling her quickly after getting her number.

Normally, a story like this gets torn apart from a feminist angle because when men - especially "nice guys" - persist ala romantic comedy protagonists, it's creepy. Which it is - in cases where the woman doesn't come around in the end, which are I'd suspect the vast majority of cases, being asked out many times by the same dude is irritating at best. And not even all that flattering - women get that men with this approach tend to be directing it at many women at a time. Although it's precisely when they're only directing it at one woman that the creepy sets in.

But what's also interesting here, from a feminist angle, is that this is the story of a woman who not only did not experience lust at first sight, which for people who meet past the age of 14 isn't so odd, but who looked at the guy she has decided to marry when first meeting him, when once again meeting him, etc., and felt like steering clear. It's not merely that she did not tell her friends she needed to get him to her place, and quick. It's that he did not meet her possible-romantic-interest standards. It's not that this woman isn't a visual person, this guy just didn't do it for her. "'We all have our thoughts and our dreams,'" is her explanation for why she initially didn't succumb to the man's charms. Other men, theoretical or real, it's unclear, were more what she was after. And how nice of her to point that out to NYT readers!

So. Could we imagine a man marrying a woman he'd moved away from on a flight? It's unlikely enough, but unlikelier still: Could we imagine this being a meet-cute story a couple would wish to share? That the now-husband first saw the now-wife and thought, nah, doesn't do it for me, no thanks?

Ah, but in this case, she did it for him, which is why he persisted prior to actually knowing her, and even once he knew she didn't reciprocate, because what's a little problem like that? "She declined his many invitations that week, but [dude] didn’t give up. 'She was an enigma, but below that shiny, pristine surface, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by what I found[.]'" An "enigma"? How enigmatic - swap the genders, and the woman would find her friends breaking it to her that he's just not that interested. But see, she had the potential to be interested, if only because women can be assumed not to know what they really want. "As [woman] changed seats for the remainder of the flight, [man] wondered how he’d get her phone number." Gar! But it's OK, it's just that he saw something he liked, and went after it: "'I saw a woman whose beautiful exterior only hinted at the fascinating, eclectic, independent, fiercely intelligent and actually very funny woman underneath,' he said." Of course, how the "underneath" was apparent when all he'd been allowed was a look at the exterior is... look, she met whichever physical requirements he had in a mate.

In terms of this particular couple, fair enough. They both got what they wanted in a spouse, presumably, thus the marriage, thus the announcing. What bothers me is that this is presented by a newspaper - one progressive enough to feature many gay couples - as romance. As in, look, how lovely, she was able to look past the exterior and get to appreciate this man for who he is inside. How sensible and adult, getting past pickiness and superficiality. Meanwhile, the possibility that a man might have to look past an exterior that doesn't do it for him is... no one ever thinks of suggesting this. Sure, men are expected to marry for reasons other than just a woman's looks, but no one would ask that a man go from ick to promising lifetime sexual fidelity.

24 comments:

Flavia said...

I had a similarly negative reaction to that announcement, though it was bound up with my usual negative reaction to those lengthy meet-cute NYT announcements that are actually incredibly dull to everyone who doesn't already know the couple. (Some of the long, featured announcements I do enjoy, but a lot are narrated as if the minutiae of the couple's first meeting--e.g., "but they couldn't find time to go out that week, or the next week; at long last, they were able to schedule a date for 22 days after they first met on that subway platform"--were thrillingly suspenseful or unusual.)

So partly I think it's just a serious misjudgment on the part of the couple about what makes their getting together special and interesting. (I mean. . . does he enjoy hearing her say, over and over, what a toad she first thought he was? Surely she's told this story A LOT.)

I agree that this is a narrative that only works where it's the woman who found the man unattractive, but I'm not sure whether that means that the NYT is tacitly agreeing that it finds such a narrative charming. As I was investigating the NYT announcement submission module last week, I finally realized why so many announcements aren't just factual announcements, but also contain a cutesy narrative: this is how the "Vows" column gets picked. All couples are told, on the site, to "tell us how you met," and the more the couple tells the more likely they are to be considered for the column.

This doesn't mean that the Times publishes all of them, and you may be right that someone other than the couple themselves actually thought this was sweet, rather than ick. But though I blame the NYT for inflicting a whole bunch of boring stories on me, I'm not sure I blame them for the retrograde gender politics involved.

Flavia said...

There was a really awful one earlier this summer with a similar situation in which the genders were reversed--as I recall, she was older, wealthier, more educated, and was throwing herself at someone whom I remember to be a ranch hand or something like that, who seemingly had no interest until he did. Let me see if I can find it.

Flavia said...

Found it.

There are obvious differences between the two, some of which possibly prove your point that the NYT is invested in narratives that conform to normative gender scripts (she's pretending to need/want help from the manly man, etc.), but the two announcements strike me as parallel insofar as both suggest that one party just wasn't into the other, while the other somewhat obsessively pursued him or her.

Also, both couples display a stunning lack of awareness about how awful their stories sound and how badly they come off.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Even in that announcement, it's presented as, he did eventually notice her for her looks, but it took her getting dressed up. This fits squarely into the friends-first, glasses-off-then-wow narrative, which is one that does permit a man not to have immediately noticed a woman's looks, as long as he a) wasn't ever repulsed, and b) does eventually like her for that reason.

Anyway, I'd thought there was a way to announce without also shooting for Vows, but maybe not? In any case, both of these announcements fall into the broader context of stories that make the couple look bad or on shaky ground. Both also help show that the paper doesn't like to feature the story of couples who met, promptly had sex, and the rest is history - a scenario Dan Savage celebrates, and that's the basis for many fine relationships gay and straight alike, but that isn't "meet cute." I mean, my guess is, no one with that story writes it in, because it's neither unusual nor family-friendly. But this does mean we hear a disproportionate amount from couples where a long friendship, or period of asymmetric interest level, or apathy, preceded the romance. This, in turn, tilts things in the direction of stories that make the reader wonder what exactly led these two people to date, let alone marry, each other.

But aside from all that, what's striking to me is that in the Vows and beyond, we're supposed to find it reasonable - if not worthy of celebration - when a woman gets past her initial lack of attraction to a man, and goes on to marry him. This alone tells us that women, like men, are visual creatures, but that there's a social script asking women to set that aside, telling women it's wrong to feel entitled to a partner who made that cut. Visual in a different way, perhaps - context-free anatomy probably does appeal more to men than women - but (those with vision of) both sexes are totally visual in terms of sizing up those of their preferred sex into categories of possible-romantic-interest and no-thanks. We expect tween/teenage girls to notice hot guys, but this is something women are supposed to have grown out of. And not just women who have the option of marrying billionaires - all women. Men are also supposed to grow out of teen-crushdom, but it's looked upon as absurd for a man to marry a woman whose looks do nothing for him.

Doctor Cleveland said...

That's one of those "wedding announcements" that I really think of as a pre-divorce announcement. There are one or two every week.

Not only does the bride not find the groom attractive, and tell the entire NYT readership that he's a frog. She has also married said amphibian SEVEN FREAKING MONTHS after he got her number. Seven!

Phoebe said...

Doctor Cleveland,

Seven months. Good close reading there! It's also his second marriage, but without knowing more, we don't know if his marriage that ended in divorce means that a rejected ex-wife sitting at home with their twelve kids has to read about dude chasing skirts, or if she left him and gets to laugh as she reads about him making the same mistake again.

What I read between the lines of this one, though, wasn't so much that there would be a divorce, as that there was a touch of singledom-panic going on, of the OMG-woman-past-30 variety. Thus being on a singles vacation to begin with, and thus considering the guy's ability to operate a phone reason enough to promise lifelong devotion to him. That plus the seven months suggests not-getting-any-younger anxieties, ones that of course set in (if at all) at different ages for different women depending on subculture. 31 strikes me as a bit young, but for all I know all this woman's friends were married and having kids at 21. (The bit about preferring European men was surprising, but I suspect was thrown in there to show how she'd had to abandon silly and clichéd desires in order to accept that her fate was with a boy-next-door.) I don't think all marriages based on a woman's desire for the social role of wife, or on biological-clock concerns, end in divorce. Some, not all.

Anonymous said...

Now I ain't sayin' she a gold digger (When I'm in need)

But she ain't messin' wit no broke, broke (She steal me money)

Now I ain't sayin' she a gold digger

Andrew Stevens said...

I know I read a biography once of a man (a U.S. President maybe?) who initially rejected his future wife because he didn't care for her looks, but eventually came around. Sadly, I cannot recall who it was.

Phoebe said...

Anon,

But her job sounds kind of lucrative. If there were this massive wealth imbalance, presumably she'd have been faking interest in his charm from the get-go.

Andrew,

In eras/cultures of arranged marriage, it happened all the time that men and women alike would marry and reproduce with people they were not attracted to - physically or in any other sense. The issue is that today, we expect choice in spouse to include assessment of mutual physical attraction, except that it's really only the man who's presumed to have that right.

Flavia said...

What I read between the lines of this one. . . [was] that there was a touch of singledom-panic going on, of the OMG-woman-past-30 variety. Thus being on a singles vacation to begin with, and thus considering the guy's ability to operate a phone reason enough to promise lifelong devotion to him.

Heh. Totally.

And yeah, I basically agree with everything you say, including that the cultural scripts for the genders are not only different, but generally conservative. I've definitely read announcements where the couple is described as having met at a bar, after which they "stayed out all night, talking," or something like that, which I've always suspected is code for "they jumped in the sack." But even those are precious few in number. Much more common are the long, drawn out stories of exchanging looks in the library, not being sure if the other was really interested, and so on. The problem is, most successful relationships aren't dramatic. (All of my good longish-term relationships can be summed up, basically, as "I realized he was pretty cool.")

I presume if one submits a wedding announcement that just supplies the factual info, one is not in the running for a Vows column. But the Times does seem to be encouraging ordinary people with pretty ordinary stories to narrate them as if they're something special. Personally, I'm fond of the terse formalism of the announcement proper (minus the narrative), and I'd like to see a return to that for most announcements. I'd rather imagine the narrative and be spared the gooey banalities.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

a tad off topic but what possesses people, these people or any other people, to permit this kind of article to be written about them. Don't their toes curl right back and break off?

Anonymous said...

"But her job sounds kind of lucrative. If there were this massive wealth imbalance, presumably she'd have been faking interest in his charm from the get-go."

I don't think her job is very lucrative. "Freelance" is often code for underemployed. I don't think non-profits are particuarly well paying clients to have in any case. Shes's probably on
$60-80000.

He's probably on at least $300,000She may well have concluded after further consideration that his $$$$ made up for his other flaws.

Britta said...

I have to agree with anonymous. Her job sounds like a fancy title to cover up something not that great, and he has a legitimately impressive career. My guess is once she realized that he actually was pretty successful, she began to view him in a more favorable light (this could be partly unconscious) and partly instrumental on her part. I wouldn't call it gold digging, because I don't think she's after his money, but just that it might have been a perk. It's very possible she could have complained to one of her friends about the guy who kept hitting on her, and then one of them said, "oh him, you know, he's the xx at xx hospital, he's really successful! Give him a chance" or something like that.

It could also be if her goal is to settle down and have babies and live a comfortable bourgeois life, she sees him as an ok means to that end. She might have judged him as good father material, or unlikely to cheat on her, or dependable in many other ways, and figured she wasn't getting any younger, and here was her chance to have her 2 kids and a 6-bedroom Neo-Colonial in Connecticut.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, it definitely wasn't an arranged marriage. It's not like he was persuaded by his family; he just changed his mind. Unfortunately, I still can't remember who it is I'm thinking of.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

Yes and yes. Why not just an announcement? The more words the couple's allowed to get in there, the more third parties unnecessarily insulted, the more the romance between the new couple is itself suspect once we know how uninterested one of the two had long been, etc. Not only is the story rarely a one-night-stand-turned-relationship, but it's rarely that the two became romantically involved (w/o sleeping together) immediately. There's always some courtship dance that involves other relationships fizzling (no doubt nice for those exes to read about), and one or both members of the now-marrying couple getting past their determination that this new relationship could never happen.

Eamonn,

The announcement itself I understand, even if I never sent one in anywhere myself. But I don't know what leads anyone to provide more info than that. I guess if you think your 'how we met' story was truly that amazing?

Britta,

"She might have judged him as good father material, or unlikely to cheat on her, or dependable in many other ways, and figured she wasn't getting any younger, and here was her chance to have her 2 kids and a 6-bedroom Neo-Colonial in Connecticut."

Yes. But I'm not sure if this should be called "gold-digging," either, which is why I wasn't on board with Anonymous, why I think referring to the guy's "$$$$" in a case like this borders on offensive. These are two professionals (unless "freelance" really means long since unemployed), from families that sound comparable in wealth, if hers a bit wealthier than his. If what she wants is to have children with him, not to spend the money he earns on (insert stereotypically feminine shopping pursuit here), that is, if she wants to be a housewife (a big if, because we don't know, maybe she loves her job), and he'll allow that to happen... It's not the feminist choice of the century, but that's setting a low bar for "gold-digger."

That, and I find it almost inconceivable that she didn't know what his job was until late in the day. Friends had wanted to set her up with dude prior to her being with him on the single's trip and she'd said no. Had these friends omitted the small detail of his profession? Clearly dude plus dude's profession was not enough to outweigh dude not being attractive in her eyes. His career was no doubt adequate for him to fit the bill when 30-panic set in, which is what I suspect was the catalyst for this change of heart.

Andrew,

OK, so there exists one couple, whose identity we don't know, and thus whose kind of marriage (political, possibly) we don't know, where the man married the woman despite not being attracted to her physically.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually there are lots of them. But most of them are cases where neither partner is attracted to the other and both are settling (in that respect).

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

I was summarizing what we learned from your comment. Of course there are couples that are together for any number of reasons. Some men and women alike are not especially visually-oriented. But, assuming freely-chosen spouses, and that no one's immensely wealthy, it's generally assumed that men, but not women, only consider marrying those who make that cut. Do you disagree with this?

Andrew Stevens said...

I think both men and women consider physical attractiveness important, but men weight it more heavily. (Men rarely care how successful a woman is, while women tend to weight it quite heavily.) Attractive men with lots of options can afford to be choosy and have a minimum standard which must be met. Attractive women are often much more willing to abrogate that standard in exchange for wealth and success. Unattractive men (and unattractive women), particulary not very successful ones, can rarely afford to have such minimum standards and find themselves marrying spouses they are not attracted to all the time. In general, I find that 10s marry 10s and 6s marry 6s and 1s marry 1s, with only occasional exceptions.

Personally I believe the more flexible standards on physical attraction that women currently use are more rational than the current standards that men use, but perhaps the current equilibrium is the correct one. I know I've seen at least one study which purported to show that marriages in which the woman is the more attractive partner are much happier on average than the opposite. It's probably also true that marriages where the man is more successful are happier than the marriages where the woman is more successful. So perhaps it's for the best if men and women continue to be shallow in their own respective ways at about the present rate.

In any event, it's not like women are forbidden to use physical attractiveness as their only criterion if they so desire, so I've always been puzzled at how this is a feminist issue.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

"Men rarely care how successful a woman is, while women tend to weight it quite heavily."

I know this is the basis of a "Seinfeld" monologue, but it strikes me as incredibly outdated. Couples meet these days in college, professional school, at work, etc. Career is a proxy for class for both sexes these days. So even if what the woman does is impressive but low-paying, even if she ultimately leaves her job to stay home with the kids, successful men are looking for successful women as wives (as piece-on-the-side being another matter). I'd agree that men without much professional success aren't after professionally-successful women the way that you'll get some not-so-professionally-adept women going after professionally-successful men (the "golddiggers" Anon. refers to). But to say that success is something men are indifferent to... no.

Anyway, re: the scale from 1 to 10, maybe that has some relevance for supermodels on the one hand, the severely facially deformed on the other. But what I mean by choosing on the basis of looks is subjective assessment, in which of the pool of within-normal-limits people (in which I'd include this Vows couple), it's anyone's guess who'll prefer what. If that couple resulted from her finding him adorable and him not being so wild about her look, but coming around, that would have been just as plausible. Point being, having a physical-attraction bar set for romantic partners isn't the exclusive privilege of the stunning, with everyone who's left having to settle.

"I know I've seen at least one study which purported to show that marriages in which the woman is the more attractive partner are much happier on average than the opposite."

How strange that people would be happier if their lives fit social expectation! Nah, it must be biologically-determined.

"it's not like women are forbidden to use physical attractiveness as their only criterion if they so desire, so I've always been puzzled at how this is a feminist issue."

"always"? This is not something brought up often beyond this blog. Anyway, it's a feminist issue precisely because women are under social pressure a) not to discuss men's looks, because to do so is to seem like one is 14, b) not to care what men they might marry look like, not only in the entirely-reasonable not-everyone-gets-Brad-Pitt sense, but to be entirely prepared to commit with or without chemistry. If your feeling is that nothing's a feminist issue unless the law prevents women from doing X, then I'm not sure what I can tell you here.

Andrew Stevens said...

I did mean "always" entirely in reference to this blog. I do think the hobbyhorse is almost unique to you. I can perhaps sympathize with A, but personally I would opt for more pressure on men not to discuss women's looks (I can't remember the last time I ever did so) rather than less pressure on women. And B I just don't regard as a problem. While such pressure may exist, women are already plenty good at ignoring it, even if they tend to do so less vocally than you do.

"How strange that people would be happier if their lives fit social expectation! Nah, it must be biologically-determined."

I'm not denying that this may very well be due to cultural factors. Changing the culture is a tall order and, in the meantime, we are where we are. Even if we did change the culture, there's no particular reason to believe that this the new world order will actually work other than ideological, untested beliefs.

I do largely disagree with your "outdated" argument, though certainly it could be that I'm behind the times, though I work in a young field and talk with young men and women with a fair amount of frequency. The fact that men marry women in places they are likely to meet them (school, work, etc.) is unsurprising and doesn't really tell us very much. I guess I would say that it's always been true that, given otherwise-equal alternatives, men will prefer the more successful to the less successful, just as women do. The difference is that men will, in general, put very little weight on this. A successful 6 will usually lose to a not-as-successful 7. This is what leads the Maureen Dowds of the world to bemoan the fact that men don't care about her success as much as she cares about theirs. I actually believe that there do exist would-be male gold-diggers and the real reason why you don't hear about them is because women aren't willing to marry them (with occasional exceptions - didn't Elizabeth Taylor marry one?), no matter how good-looking they are. I doubt that women should emulate men in this regard.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

"The difference is that men will, in general, put very little weight on this. A successful 6 will usually lose to a not-as-successful 7."

OK. Let me repeat what I just said, which is that in the within-normal-limits range, these things are subjective. People have subculture preferences, racial/ethnic/coloring preferences, build preferences, preferences that they themselves can't quite articulate but that make person A seem far more attractive than the objectively equivalent (as in most others would see no difference) person B. Even outside the within-normal-limits range, this is true - a supermodel won't be the first choice of a guy who prefers short, curvy women. All of this is important because if we must keep returning to this "golddigger" scenario, what I mean by "looks" isn't arm-candy, but a partner sufficiently easy on the eye, subjectively, as to be someone it's a sensible idea to commit to - both intimately and in terms of sharing meals, etc. - for life.

Of course, none of that means that assuming we're talking "6" and "7" subjectively, a man wouldn't do what you say a man would in that situation. I suppose the issue, then, is that my own anecdotal evidence points to, a man will be swayed by the fact that a woman has power-couple potential, will choose the Harvard grad over the not-name-brand grad if he himself went to Yale. This has not "always been true," but is a new development. It used to be that if a woman said she'd refuse to be a housewife, men might reject her, and success would read as evidence she might have professional aspirations into her 30s and beyond. Now a woman who says that's her plan gets cast as a golddigger (see upthread!). Now, it may be another story if what's being discussed is who men have affairs with, who they go for mid-midlife-crisis. But if we're talking late-20s-ish men choosing spouses? If they're professional successes, they want women who are, too.

Withywindle said...

Steve Sailer would say that men's parents try to get them into Harvard, Yale, etc., so that their entire environment is full of successful spouse possibilities, and so their sons' indiscriminate preference for beauty doesn't deep-six them in the marriage game. I.e., class is about choosing your future in-laws.

Andrew Stevens said...

In my own anecdotal experience, it is true that the twenty something female professionals I meet are married to other professionals, with only one exception I can think of. This is true of some of the twenty something male professionals I meet, but only about half of them.

This is distinct from intellectual self-segregation. The non-professional women who are married to the professional men are usually just as sharp as the professional women and on the same general intellectual level as their husbands. But many of them don't have college degrees.

It is certainly possible, as Withywindle alludes to, that in certain cultural subsets, a successful spouse is more important for social cachet than a beautiful one. In such a culture, I have no doubt that men, with an eye to their status, would select a successful spouse.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

"In such a culture, I have no doubt that men, with an eye to their status, would select a successful spouse."

Which is all I was getting at. It's not that having gone to Harvard is the thing that makes a woman most appealing to the most men. It's that male elites Now, but not male elites Then, tend to seek professionally-successful women as wives. There is no shame in their doing so. Whereas a woman who cares about both professional success and looks in a mate will be expected to care only about the former.