My last column on what makes people desirable mates pissed off a lot of women. While trying to explain the idea of social capital and how it affects the dating market, I apparently implied that physical beauty is all women have going for them.
That ain’t so, of course. Some studies suggest a woman’s physical attractiveness is the most important factor for many men, but as Benjamin Disraeli said, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. The truth is a little harder to tease out. While beauty is a form of social capital, what’s beautiful is also culturally determined. For instance, as I explained in an earlier column, we think thin is beautiful is because we’ve been programmed since the days of Cimabue’s medieval madonnas to associate a long, thin figure with transcendent spirituality, while tits and ass equal earthy sex appeal. Accordingly, Audrey Hepburn comes off looking classy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, while Jenna Jameson comes off looking like a sexpot in, well, anything.
Judging by the many ads that portray a woman’s sex appeal as her greatest attribute, you’d think not much has changed since Betty Friedan helped launch the feminist movement in 1963 with The Feminine Mystique, which criticized women’s magazines for running articles like "Do Women Have to Talk So Much?" and "Don’t Be Afraid to Marry Young."
Yet for the past few decades we’ve told girls that to be fully realized people, they must do well in school, get into the right college, get the right job and have the right books on their living-room tables. No wonder women are irritated by all the social "scientists" (not to mention the commercials and advertisements) that tell them that a pretty face is all that they have going for them. What we have here is a bad case of cognitive dissonance.
If we look at the history of middle-class American women in the twentieth century, Friedan’s ripple effect was nothing compared to the waves made by Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 Sex and the Single Girl.
Upon first glancing at the hot-pink cover, you knew immediately what Single Girl was selling:
I married for the first time at thirty-seven. I got the man I wanted. It could be construed as something of a miracle considering how old I was and how eligible he was.
David is a motion picture producer, forty-four, brainy, charming, and sexy. He was sought after by many a Hollywood starlet as well as some less flamboyant but more deadly types. And I got him! We have two Mercedes-Benzes, a Mediterranean house overlooking the Pacific, a full-time maid and a good life . . .
But I don’t think it’s a miracle. I think I deserved him! For seventeen years I worked hard to become the kind of woman who might interest him. And when he finally walked into my life I was just worldly enough, relaxed enough, financially secure enough (for I also worked hard at my job) and adorned with enough glitter to attract him. He wouldn’t have looked at me when I was twenty, and I wouldn’t have known what to do with him.
What Gurley Brown was saying is simple but powerful. She espoused the same virtues of independence as Friedan did, but for the purposes of landing a better man and gaining the cars, the house, the maid, the "good life." Gurley Brown herself was the first to admit that she wasn’t a bombshell and hadn’t been to college. She’d started as a secretary at a West Coast ad agency and scrambled her way up the ladder. Sex and the Single Girl not only valorized the American virtues of hard work and social climbing, but took it a step further by implying that these are the things that beget true love. Such ideas weren’t new to postwar society — Rona Jafee’s The Best of Everything was a hit in the late ’50s — but Gurley Brown made the concept positive and hip.
Sex and the Single Girl was just the beginning of Gurley Brown’s influence. Three years after it was published, she became editor of Cosmopolitan and transformed the struggling magazine from the professional journal of suburban housewives into the bible for urban career women. Whatever she was selling, American women were buying it: Friedan’s Feminine Mystique sold three million copies in its first three years of publication; Cosmo under Gurley Brown was putting out two-and-a-half million copies a month. It became the female equivalent of Playboy — from the other side of the gender divide, it encouraged its readers to live independently of their families, support themselves financially, buy the latest consumer goods and have guilt-free sex.
Television was quick to join the party. "That Girl will be your girl!" promised an ad promoting ABC’s new 1966 programming hit, in which Marlo Thomas — who was also the show’s executive producer — played Ann Marie, an aspiring actress who gets her own apartment in New York (with her father and fiancé close by, of course, to reassure viewers that she wasn’t a total strumpet).
That Girl provided a schema for a generation of women, as well as a generation of TV shows, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. These shows portrayed independent women as strong, sexy and funny, while at the same time selling them Coca-Cola and Ajax.
Thus, our current idea of what single life should be for women: If you do well in school, live in an interesting place, pursue glamorous hobbies, have a career, surround yourself with a loving circle of friends — but, most importantly, make the most of your physical beauty and get in touch with your sexuality (that is, put out) — then happiness will follow. The question, then, is why so many women who pursue this dream are not happy.
I can offer a few guesses. First, it seems to me that the modern educated, talented, ambitious woman finds herself trapped between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand, she’s been told that professional achievement will make her loved and accepted. On the other hand, the forces of marketing and media imply that what men really want is a piece of arm candy who turns into Blowjob Queen of the Universe upon demand. Women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We say they should be able to compete with men on a level playing field, but the ones who do so risk being painted as some sort of virago. The problem, in short, is male hypocrisy.
The second answer is economic. More women graduate college these days than do men, and more are likely to pursue the sorts of sexy careers Gurley Brown recommends. It’s been branded the plight of the high-status woman. In Manhattan, for instance, women outnumber men and earn more, leaving them with a smaller pool of men to choose from and more competition from their successful sisters. In addition, with more women to select from, desirable men have less motivation to commit.
I can’t really say that either of these answers explains the whole situation, however. What I really believe is that the Sex and the Fill in the Blank dream is just another marketing scheme designed to sell mascara, not all that different from Gurley Brown’s Cosmo (or Hefner’s Playboy, for that matter). Perhaps the real path to happiness is to do what a truly independent person might do: put the Sex and the City DVDs in the microwave. n°
©2008 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|