Wednesday, December 05, 2012


I've read through Autumn Whitefield-Madrano's series on beauty and infidelity, and was struck by one thing that just about never came up: male beauty. I've written before (see the tag) about the importance of male beauty in regular ol' heterosexual relationships - i.e. the importance of women drawing a line based entirely on looks (which are largely subjective) between men they'd consider for romantic purposes and those they would not, and only then looking at personality, character, etc. No one for a millisecond doubts that men do this, but women of course do it as well, despite being under social pressure not to. A 15-year-old girl can care about male appearance, but past the fainting-at-boy-bands age, no more.

But it would seem the same principles could be applied to cheating. Whether it's the woman who's married/partnered, or the man, or both, male appearance no doubt enters into it. ("Anna Karenina," people! Not that this Vronsky was so great, esp. when the Karenin he was up against was Jude friggin' Law, who granted has never been my favorite but still.) What happens in these cases, I'd imagine, is that women follow certain scripts, and conform to a narrative about wanting to be found beautiful themselves. Well, perhaps so, but why by whichever man in particular? Might it have something to do with his looks? This is, at least, what women do - I believe - in regular, non-illicit relationships. There's this script of, eww, gross, men, which must be followed even if the man in question isn't remotely gross (to the woman in question), quite the contrary. That heterosexual means a woman likes men, this we kind of ignore, as if a heterosexual woman is merely not enlightened enough to be a lesbian.

Anyway, I'm now not remembering if this was in one of Autumn's posts or in an NPR podcast I listened to on the train post-Affaire Petraeus, but it would seem likely that if women claim to only cheat (or, more broadly, notice other men) when their relationships are going badly, whereas men are just kinda admitting to turning their heads whenever a female mammal crosses their path, this is because women are following a script that says that female sexuality is about being desired, not desiring. So if a woman desires, it's can't be that. It must be that she desires to be desired. If said woman is already in a relationship, it must be that she's not getting the you-are-beautiful affirmation she requires from the first dude.

So, rather than articulating a relationship between male beauty and infidelity, I'm going to offer one between male beauty and fidelity. If men and women alike recognized that women are human beings really not all that different from men, committed hetero relationships would benefit tremendously. There'd no longer be this ridiculous narrative about the sad-sack wife or girlfriend who simply can't believe her dude could experience even the most fleeting attraction to another woman. Nor would women try to convince themselves that their relationships were on the rocks when something happens like Keanu Reeves walks by (and this can happen!) and they, you know, look. It holds for both sexes that if you're noticing other people all the time, if you're not so much appreciating beauty in your preferred sex as plotting to run off ala Anna Karenina, your relationship is probably not 100%. But if both partners get that the other person has the potential to be attracted to others, that this isn't something unique to men-who-are-pigs, then there'd be a more even playing field, and, I suspect, a certain amount of drama spared.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

There's also the question of familiarity. You don't see persons/things that you see all the time in the same way as you see novel persons /things. So while one's beloved may be very physicially attractive, after a while it doesn't hit you in quite the same way, and if an equally attractive person happens by then it's hard not to notice more. On the base of the one person sample that I myself am, I'd guess that goes for all manner of genders and sexual preferences. What you then decide to do about the noticing more is another day's work of course.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Perhaps, but if we're talking scripts, women are not supposed to have ever been physically attracted to their partners. The narrative is always, boy likes girl, girl just wants to be friends (because ick, sex), and only comes to be attracted to boy when she gets to know him as a person. I can't find where I wrote about this here before, but in the NYT weddings pages, there are always these stories about how when he first saw her, magic, but he, on the other hand, made no impression.

PG said...

You don't see persons/things that you see all the time in the same way as you see novel persons /things.

Favorite quote: "And studies show that in long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex, and to lose it sooner. Why? Because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s."

A 15-year-old girl can care about male appearance, but past the fainting-at-boy-bands age, no more.

Except boy bands have usually expressed themselves beyond the physical. They are presumptively romantic based on the lyrics of their songs. It's like lusting after Tom Cruise; you're assumed to have some idea or belief about what he's like, at least what his voice sounds like. Singers and actors are not like models, who are just plain hot bodies and faces.

This was the major redeeming feature of "Call Me Maybe," song and video: straight-up female gaze. Is he funny? Is he sweet? Does he have good taste in music? Who cares: "Your stare was holdin',
Ripped jeans, skin was showin'
Hot night, wind was blowin'"

That may have been the greatest male-objectification moment in American pop culture since the brief 1990s craze for posters of male models like Tyson.

("Anna Karenina," people! Not that this Vronsky was so great, esp. when the Karenin he was up against was Jude friggin' Law, who granted has never been my favorite but still.)

I felt this way about the remake of "Sabrina." Oh, yeah, between Greg Kinnear and even a middle-aged Harrison Ford, clearly you had to look deeply into the latter's soul before you could find him attractive. (Original "Sabrina," totally plausible that you're ignore Bogart's ugly mug for Holden's straightforward golden boy handsomeness.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In no particular order...

-The "novelty" quote is amazing, because what we usually hear is that (long-) married women lose interest in sex because they never liked it to begin with, and had only obliged in order to snag a mate and produce some kids. If this assertion is true, though, maybe it's because women feel pressure to marry men they weren't necessarily physically attracted to in the first place. I'd imagine women who do this would be noticing other men all the time, whereas women who marry men they desire have less of a wandering eye, and are more like men in that they notice others, sure, but can be happily monogamous.

-Re: boy bands, I kind of do think it's about looks. Lots of people sing about love, but the posters that go up are of cute 19-year-old guys only. I mean, male models aren't really there to appeal to girls/women, any more than well-known female models are to appeal to boys/men. It's probably true that any male heartthrob will have more of a 'story' than, I don't know, Megan Fox, Bar Refaeli, but this might also come down to scripts - it's less socially-acceptable for a girl or (esp.) a woman to find a man attractive as in the song/video you are entirely correct in bringing up in this context. Or maybe female sexuality is different, and there's a preference for looks-plus-story, with neither on its own being sufficient. How one would sort this out, I can't say.

But anyway, my point was less about boy-bands specifically than about being that age. At 15, girls speak with one another about "hot guys." Grown women, not so much, whereas grown men, as I understand it, have been known to discuss the physical appeal of women.

Joe said...

Agreed on your point that men and women aren't all that different. I think people take the easy and lazy route. I was reminded of this yesterday when a guy who was the epitome of a Nice Guy of OK Cupid (you've seen the Tumblr I'm guessing?) overheard me and my roommate talking and proceeded to spout a bunch of "girls only go for jerks not nice guys" nonsense. My roommate commented (correctly I think) that the guy sounded like he'd never had an original thought in his head before. At any rate it was (as it always is) boring engaging with a collection of talking points.

But that + your post got me thinking about scripts, and it seems to me one of the real problems with them is that they are transactional by their nature. As in, if I just say the following lines than I should get whatever I want (it's not always as arrogant as it sounds, sometimes people are simply scared to deviate from what they're used to). That's part of why many people (myself included) have such a distasteful reaction to the Nice Guys of OK. Embracing your humanity and engaging as a complex person with other people means you don't get to rely on a script.

To me that transaction mode of thinking is foreign, I don't understand/relate to it. But if you are stuck in that transaction (focus on the perceived value of an act vs. focus on interaction) I can see why strict fidelity (e.g. no looking) would be so important. That being said, I really haven't figured out whether I think that's just the mode of a different kind of person from me or a less evolved mode. I hesitate to say the latter, because it seems arrogant, but I simply can't relate to it.

Interested to hear your thoughts whenever you have a moment. Found my way here via Autumn's email newsletter, and glad I did.