Sexual Exclusivity Means We Overvalue Physical Beauty


If I had one critique to level at Nathaniel P., I wouldn’t waste it on the obvious stuff. I’m relatively indifferent to his propensity not to call, for as Nate rightly asserts, such an attack presupposes that the women in his life have nothing better to do than sit by the phone. (Or, worse, that they’re incapable of or unwilling to dial a number themselves.) Nor am I particularly bothered by his empathetic views of “humanity in the abstract,” but scoffing and arrogant judgments of people as individuals. And not only do I not begrudge Nate his occasional desire to shut in, away from the expectant eyes of others, behind the pages of a difficult book, I’ve come to sympathize quite deeply with it.

No, I’d say that, when it comes to Nathaniel P. and his many love affairs, what bothers me most is not his deep-seated aversion to monogamy but that, when it comes to defending this position, he makes an unbelievably shitty case.

I suppose I can’t place the blame entirely on Nate’s shoulders, for Adelle Waldman has constructed his fictional environment as one where “women” and “men” have strikingly homogeneous views on the matter. But why must the seemingly forward-thinking Nate and his seemingly progressive group of friends rely entirely upon highly-gendered arguments about the fundamentally opposing romantic interests of the two combatting sexes? Why must these arguments be so deeply rooted in personal preferences and self-interest and crude, reductive stereotypes? Why can’t Nate devote his considerable intellect to a more high-minded critique of the institution of marriage as we have come to define it?

It wouldn’t be particularly difficult to formulate a compelling philosophical argument. Sex, for example, for all its supposed unimportance in the grand scheme of things, is the only realm in which we define commitment as exclusivity. Sleeping with another person is considered a fundamental betrayal of the highest order. But turning to another person to, say, discuss literature because your partner, in that regard, just doesn’t do it for you? No problem at all. Obviously, cheating is a betrayal, a failure on the part of the cheater to stand by a promise, but only because we choose to define our relationships in such an unimaginative way.

When I raised these points to a friend recently, he unwittingly offered what is, perhaps, the most biting critique of monogamy I’ve ever heard. (Certainly more so than Nate’s feeble attempts.) “That’s why sexual attraction is so important when selecting a partner.” He shrugged, “You can always join a book club.”

Waldman’s “’A First-Rate Girl’: The Problem of Female Beauty,” published on the web site of the New Yorker before her novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. became fodder for some decidedly ugly social commentary, left me dissatisfied and confused.

The premise is unobjectionable enough: smart and successful men are often drawn to attractive women, whose beauty is a signal to others of their smartness and success and, in turn, their desirability and masculinity. But from there her points become increasingly muddled. Waldman endorses an essay by novelist Lionel Shriver, who criticizes fiction writers for their tendency to “create so many characters who are casually beautiful.”

But the literary relationships which Waldman cites as counterexamples are between characters who are precisely that. Rather than lauding Richard Yates for skillfully and movingly inhabiting the mind of the homely Helen Givings, she points instead to handsome Frank and April Wheeler. Here she quotes Yates at length:

It nagged him, in particular, that none of the girls he’d known so far had given him a sense of unalloyed triumph. One had been very pretty except for unpardonably thick ankles, and one had been intelligent, though possessed of an annoying tendency to mother him, but he had to admit that none had been first-rate. Nor was he ever in doubt about what he meant by a first-rate girl, though he’d never yet come close enough to one to touch her hand.

Enter April, “an exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Frank, “bolstered by four straight gulps of whiskey … followed the counsel of victory.” He approached her, and “within five minutes, he found he could make April Johnson laugh, that he could not only hold the steady attention of her wide gray eyes but could make their pupils dart up and down and around in little arcs while he talked to her.

Her second counterexample, Jonathan Franzen, seems an even more baffling selection. She discusses Walter Berglund of Freedom and his draw to the lithe, blond, and infuriating Patty Emerson. She conveniently neglects to mention the novel’s Lalita, an intellectual and career-minded beauty and a transparent, embarrassing projection of Franzen’s fantasy that pretty, young, ambitious minorities spend their days lusting after nerdy, cerebral, married men with children practically their age.

Still, Waldman seems enamored of the supposedly fresh take which Franzen brings to the problem of men and their self-conscious superficiality, which continued to confound me until I read Nate’s own reflections on ex-girlfriend Elisa.

She was clearly first-rate, top-shelf…she was the thing that was clearly, indisputably desirable.

Her demeanor was smooth and preoccupied, even slightly sullen, and she spoke at times with an unnerving, almost anhedonic lack of affect. She often seemed bored. This edge of perpetual dissatisfaction made it all the more thrilling for Nate when he cajoled her into laughter and good humor: to impress her, one felt- he felt- was really something.

“Men…are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with [beauty]…they are drawn to it,” Waldman writes in the New Yorker, “The reality is, of course, far more complicated, as our best novelists show us…it’s refreshing to encounter male characters whose superficial thoughts are at least acknowledged by their creators.” Refreshing, at least. Our very best novelists. Ah, I see what’s happening here.

Though I heartily reject Waldman’s proposed methodology, there remains a need to address the problem she identifies. For there is something deeply insidious about the outsize influence which physical appearance holds when we select a party with whom to “settle down,” and something particularly insidious about otherwise discerning men using this selection as proving grounds for their masculinity.

Surely, relationships can be cues to others about not just the characteristics you value, but your ability to snag a person who possesses said traits. But relationships are so much more. They are about  sharing a life and a home and potentially a child with a person, not to mention hours upon waking hours. The qualities which I like to think I find most important in all of my relationships, including the platonic ones, have practical value. It behooves me to have a social circle consisting of individuals who are funny and smart and sharp and interesting and interested and feminist and kind.

Beauty, however, only has value insofar as others perceive it. To the extent that physical attractiveness is important to me, it is important for precisely the wrong reasons. It is driven by the same pathetic hunger for validation which makes a person drop $100 grand on a Steinway he can’t play.

It is, of course, awfully convenient for men that the qualities which, for them, are considered the most valued in romantic relationships are ones that are independently fulfilling outside of them. One’s intellect or education, one’s ambition and accomplishments, needn’t withstand the gaze and scrutiny of others to offer their own reward. And they have the added bonus of maintaining their luster over time. Those same qualities, quite inconveniently, while equally independently fulfilling for women, are not just neutral in the search for a spouse, but can be actively detrimental, and are often perceived as undesirable by their male counterparts.

When I, in college, first began expressing my qualms about the way we structure our love for and devotion to one another, I was frequently met with knowing cries of, “You’re just like Summer!” They were referring to Zooey Deschanel’s titular role as manic pixie dream girl, long before she became better known for a different role as a slightly more manic pixie dream girl, in the indie film (500) Days of Summer. While Summer begins the movie a skeptic, gently jeering at naïve Tom while he waxes poetic about the power of love, she ends it a convert. “I was sitting in a deli and reading Dorian Gray and a guy comes up to me and asks me about it and now he’s my husband…it was meant to be. And I just kept thinking, ‘Tom was right.’”

The scene is what led many an astute observer to claim all that was needed to lay my perceived cynicism to rest was to meet “the right person.” They never point out, however, that Tom has meanwhile undergone a transformation of his own. He no longer writes cliché sayings on greeting cards for a living, and is now pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming an architect. The implication is that Tom was spurred into action by the rejection of a beautiful woman. When he first meets Summer, who has been hired as his boss’s assistant, she asks how long he’s wanted to write greetings. When he responds that it isn’t his calling she seems surprised that not every twenty-something in the big city is living out his creative aspirations. “Well, you should do something else then,” she glibly replies. Neither Tom nor my detractors ever thought to ask whether Summer always wanted to be someone’s secretary, or what fulfillment of her deepest professional desires funded lunch breaks spent in delis with Dorian Gray.

If this seems like a weak case, think forward (or back) to your high school reunion. Imagine the rich, successful former outcast who’s now struck it big and is at the height of his career. Imagine the triumphant expression on his face; think of the descriptors onlookers might use. “Eligible bachelor” springs immediately to mind. Now imagine a woman in a comparable position, and think of the sympathetic looks she will no doubt have to undergo if she shows up without a ring on her finger. Or, worse still, the whispers of the feminist-minded, who might comment in hushed and rueful tones, “Wow. I guess women really can’t have it all.”

I’ve always thought that Franzen and Aaron Sorkin seemed long lost artistic brothers of sorts. They display similarly knee-jerk tendencies to reject technology they have limited to no comprehension of. They are both opposites of Nate: possessing limitless compassion and empathy for their characters as individuals but treating humanity in the abstract with distrust and scorn. And they both have equally problematic relationships with their female characters.

In the case of Franzen, his pairing of first-rate Patty with Walt seems less a critique of such mismatches than evidence that he is limited by the dominant cultural image. Sorkin is an even more irritating author, who clearly sees himself and his male characters as feminist crusaders: nagged into submission to take on “women’s issues,” or inspired to greatness by the women who play the role of their collective conscience.

Never mind that the female subordinates of his workplaces find the flirtatious overtures of their male superiors charming. Sorkin has given us Sloan Sabbith and Ainsley Hayes, who are initially underestimated by those same male superiors solely on the basis of their above-average appearances, but wind up actually being smart! That’s right, ladies, Sorkin is determined to right the wrongs of sexism as he exhaustively defines it. Pretty women: they sometimes have trouble being taken seriously at first.

(Which, while problematic, is the least problematic of all the problems.)

A little over a year ago, when a 14-year-old girl received a $40,000 grant for plastic surgery, blogger Jessica Valenti implored us to de-emphasize beauty in the self-esteem building mantras we repeat to young girls. “I’m glad I was considered unattractive as a kid,” she writes, “there’s an upside to ugly. I developed a sharp sense of humor, a defense against the taunts. I thought more deeply about how good and bad people can be. I started writing. I found feminism.”

Others responded with what I can only hope was faux-incomprehension. “Jessica Valenti’s argument that we shouldn’t encourage our children to feel beautiful regardless of…what they look like is crazy to me,” said Alison Benedikt of Slate.

Really? Because what seems crazy to me is that when our daughters look up at us, cock their heads ever so slightly and ask, “Am I ugly?” we don’t offer them reassurance by way of dismissiveness. “What could it possibly matter? Finish your homework,” is what we should shout when we instead kneel down, stare them straight in the eyes and state softly, slowly, and with certainty, “Of course you aren’t.” Of course.

Really, the most common side-effect of beauty coupled with intelligence is that, when someone in possession of both turns out not to be a moron, people are disproportionally impressed. “Elisa seemed different, unusually serious and well-informed. Especially for someone so young. And so attractive,” thinks Nate about his aforementioned first-rate find.

Similarly, desirable (though not necessarily attractive) men get far too much credit for deigning to overlook a woman’s less-than-perfect appearance and opting instead to select someone serious and well-informed. (And not just relatively so.) In reality, both partners have entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement, but men in such relationships might go so far as to see their role in it as an almost-political act of defiance. Nate certainly does when he goes on a date with a woman his assholish Harvard classmate would characterize as a mere seven. “Fuck Jason. Nate was having a good time.”

And here I will pause to address the men in the audience and the serious, well-informed women to their left, who’ve been told countless times by these men that they are, in no uncertain terms, “the most beautiful woman I know.” They do not, and I think they will back me up here, mean to say exactly that. What they mean to say is that you are serious and well-informed, and not just relatively so. What they mean to say is that for these reasons and more they are profoundly attracted to you, that you and your relationships with them are important, perhaps the most important things in their lives. That they can’t imagine what meager existences they might have to scrummage up if not for you, how fortunate they are to have you, etc., etc., etc. But what they say is that you are beautiful, the most beautiful women they know. As if it were a foregone conclusion that beautiful is something worth being.

This is, of course, the premise of monogamy. My friend’s unwitting criticism is so biting because it is true. When you marry you are, after all, consigned to sleep with one person and one person only for the rest of your life. Meanwhile, you can always join a book club. It’s outrageous to pretend that such rigid definitions don’t lend themselves to an outsize emphasis on sex appeal when we evaluate potential partners, and that such an emphasis wouldn’t have a subtle spillover when we evaluate people generally.

Still, it is women who bear the majority of this burden, for it is beauty which they, by and large, are perceived as bringing to the table. Exclusivity is the closest you can come to ownership these days, and monogamy is a means by which men can lay claim to the power a woman might otherwise be able to obtain via her beauty, and resultant sexuality. Simultaneously, men are left in complete control of their most valued commodities, and can deftly wield them to their advantage without fear of judgment or reprisal. It is a grand delusion, then, that men, and men alone, find this whole mess unsatisfying, when it is women who are so clearly getting the raw end of the deal.

I am certainly not suggesting that beauty and sexuality are what women bring to the table, or what they should be most valued for. But where Waldman and I agree is that society at large perceives a woman’s appearance as being central to her worth and that, where men are concerned, appearance takes a back seat to other, more telling qualities. It is, then, an unfairness that beauty and sexuality are the sole traits which our partners get to be possessive of. This unfairness may not be the result of a grand misogynistic conspiracy. This unfairness might be a mere coincidence. But it is an unfairness nonetheless.

Douthat, for all the heat he rightly took when he suggested that women withhold sex as a means of luring men into commitment, deserved it not because he poorly characterized Nate’s world, but because he took it as a serious rendering, lending it the credence of a documentary or sociological study. Men derive their power in romance from a foolish notion, on display more than ever in Waldman’s novel.

Unreliable narration notwithstanding, we as readers are told that for women, relationships and exclusivity and eventually marriage are the grand prize, the unquestioned goal of their sexual endeavors. And that, by contrast, it is all men who question this as an inevitable conclusion, but who might give in to the jealous and needy pleas of their female partners if faced with the right sort of option, one for whom it might be worth putting an end to their fun. This worldview isn’t just simplistic and damaging. It is, perhaps most damning of all for an artistic endeavor, trite.

While turning over these thoughts and others with a friend, he asked me whether I included myself in this critique. Whether I thought myself too superficial, felt that physical appearance was an overly important trait to me. “Yes,” I replied, without skipping a beat. Though I’d like to think that if I fit more of a bill- if I were less vulgar and aggressive, more dainty and demure, if I were more conventionally attractive in the archetypal sense, perhaps a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Patty Emerson type- I might be less eager to prove my desirability to judgmental onlookers.

Attempting to redirect the question, I began to ask what about him? Did he feel that he overvalued appearance or, before I abruptly cut myself off.

“What?” he asked.

“Well, I was going to ask whether you thought you might undervalue beauty. But how can you possibly undervalue something that doesn’t matter at all?”

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