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To Be Real

April 15, 2010

To be real!

Do you have an accurate picture of the way you’re read in the world? That is the question posed by Sex and the City’s season 4 episode “The Real Me”. This is my favorite episode, in a season that overall I tend to regard as mixed to meh.

Now I realize Sex and the City tends to be a polarizing topic and for good reason That said I’m not particularly interested in having that conversation here or ever again. You don’t need to lecture the chubby black girl about the level of privilege fail surrounding this show. Read the tagline, folks.

Say it with me, “Trust me, I’ve done the legwork.” Then take a deep breath and let that balloon go.

What I find most charming about this episode is the level of self reflection demonstrated by Carrie – a quality generally lacking in all the characters with the exception of Big, Steve and Samantha. You don’t have to like what you find when you self reflect. Hell, you don’t have to even change it. It still puts you ahead of decepticons in my book.

The episode finds Carrie out at a gay bar and running into the only other fruit fly in the building – played by queen of the fruit flies herself, Margaret Cho – who asks her to model in a charity fashion show. Carrie scoffs, but reluctantly agrees, only later confessing to her pal Stanford (the wonderful Willie Garrison!) that she’s not model quality. Stanford, who is often portrayed refreshingly free of misogynistic tendencies, says, “well then you can’t see what I see.” The look in his eyes and the confidence in his voice suggest to me his statement comes from a place of true friendship and love. It’s a great moment, played effectively by both actors.

Don't hate Paulette cause she's cute like her hubby.

Samantha’s story makes me smile too. She spends the episode getting nudie snaps taken and while others might frame Samantha as a vapid privileged such and such, I choose to see her as a wonderfully present, self actualized chick who gets that she’s got the societal accepted hotness and hey why not get it on film. I like this about her. I like this about the show. I find nothing particularly noble in privileged folks pretending they lack privilege or actively trying to devalue it as though THAT would make the world a less problematic place for others. Beating your privilege with faux batons of condemnation is not activism; it’s lip service. Or worse it’s the opposite. It’s another means of maintaining the status quo, while both giving the appearance of action and also suggesting to marginalized folks are overreacting to that which doesn’t really matter. Look you’re not going to rid the world of privilege by picking apart the concept or acting as though its existence undermines your ability to assist in unraveling the entire system.

Lately, I seem to find myself talking about mating from a sociological perspective. In fact, I’m doing a talk later in the month on a paper I wrote entitled: “In The Bingo Parlor of Life the Old Ladies Want to Go Home with James Cromwell not Sean Connery”. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s little about attractiveness Hollywood ever gets right. In Hollywood men like James Cromwell, Danny Glover, John Cho, Ruben Blades, Jeff Goldblum, Jimmy Smits, James Gandolfini, Ed Harris, Russell Wong, Don Cheadle, John Malkovich or The X-file’s Mitch Pileggi (Skinner) play roles, which largely under emphasize their staggering attractiveness. These are very good looking men, each in their own way and I do not mean this in a patronizing way. Yet, on film they are often showcased in vaguely de-sexualized roles, which run counter to what I believe is their currency in real life.

In real life I do not see men looking like Ed Harris hurting for loving, yet why is he a lonely widow lucky to date a hooker? (who is framed in the movie “Milk Money” as scraping the bottom of the dating barrel) When in real life, he’d be up to his sweet bald head in casseroles and phone numbers before his movie wife’s casket was lowered into the ground.

Hollywood expertly skews attractiveness so that legitimately handsome men are framed as “average” or even “unattractive” and the bar for “unattractive” for women is still far hotter than the “hottest” of attractive women in real life. Beyond merely opting to narrowly define “hotness” which is not up for debate or not the focus here, it’s no wonder that folks can’t find anyone, despite being surrounded by tons of somebodies on a daily basis.

I once dated a guy who looked not unlike Adam Arkin. Like EXACTLY like him. On TV, Arkin the son gets some play, but man, I cannot tell you how tired my arm got beating off the ladies who wanted a piece of my fakey Adam Arkin. It was stunning. And interesting, but mostly annoying.

My partner looks like a mixture of a young Harold Ramis, Spielberg and has Gere’s profile, nose and pattern of speech. Women look. Oh do they look. And then they look at me. Oh do they stink eye. I’ll go ahead and toot my own clown horn (once again) but I think we’re well matched as far as looks go. Of course I’m a tad prettier, but that’s generally the pattern in successful relationships. Again, a fact worth noting, but not a useful exploration for the purposes of this discussion.

What started the whole shebang was a conversation I overheard recently at Barnes & Noble. Two average looking guys were looking at pictures of Heidi Klum and scoffing at her husband Seal. “If he can get her, ” one stated, then laughed, “there’s hope for all of us.”

maybe they just have the same surgeon, but their noses are practically the same!

It took all my restraint not to drop sci on him. What I spared him I will share with you.

Seal is in fact, very handsome. Moreover, Seal and Heidi are of commensurate levels of attractiveness. I’ll go you one better, they even appear to share similar values both in life goals (family is important) and professional interests (arts, commerce and culture). And I’m not even wearing “kiss from a rose” colored glasses. Seal is prototypically hot: Tall, strong features, warm smile and well proportioned body. And anyone who points to his scarred face – a result of a childhood illness – done missed the boat and has some serious issues. Without knowing much about the couple and just by examining pictures, they don’t seem at all ill matched. Not to me.

Another couple was Harrison Ford and his ex Melissa Mathison. I often saw people make snarky remarks about her level of attractiveness compared to his. Guess what. Again, I’m seeing two people of commensurate levels of attractiveness. Harrison Ford is hot because he is Harrison Ford (and has the height, great voice…) and not in spite of it. And yeah he traded her in for a younger model, but don’t kid yourselves, he didn’t change his order. Ally McBeal is still in that same vein of attractiveness as his ex.

What this demonstrates to me – beyond folks needing to get lives and quit look-snarking – is Hollywood has really warped our perceptions of what is “attractive” and what is not. Who deserves whom and what that means for our weekends.

Whenever I write or discuss dating with people I am amused my opinions are considered controversial. Provocative, sure. But controversial? I don’t see it. If people are uncomfortable with the language I use or the frankness in which I address the topic then I feel that says more about their unwillingness to examine the merits of my argument and less about the argument itself.

same new england style strong features

Conventional wisdom – careful with that loaded gun of a phrase, Snarky’s – suggests that women undervalue their own looks and men overvalue their looks. For every gal who doesn’t think she’s that cute, when in reality – no she doesn’t look like whatever new flavor of hotness is on the menu – she’s probably plenty cute. For every guy who thinks he’s “better looking than that guy.” Here’s your Snarky’s wake up call: you’re probably NOT. How one wishes to unpack this new shit coming to light has far reaching impact on the ability to find satisfying partnerships where folks are meshed not by some fantasy version of desirability but by a negotiation of shared values, life goals and areas of commonality. Oh yeah, you’d be real surprised at how attractive a person who is traveling a similar path to your own can be. Here’s a hint: it’s real hot.

But back to Carrie. The best line comes from Carrie, upon realizing she was selected as one of the “real” people. She says something to the effect, “Those are MODELS. I don’t want people to think I don’t realize the difference between me and them.”

Irony aside – to be fair, Parker herself has taken quite the public beating for her looks, particularly her face – I love this line. It does not denigrate her looks or the models, only seeking to say, “I am aware of the game, independent of my own interest in playing it.”

And I think that’s a great place to be if one really wishes to unravel this mess of desirability, beauty privilege and oppression as a whole.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. hsofia permalink
    April 15, 2010 10:07 pm

    A new favorite post! I think what you say about losing perspective on what is attractive among non celebrities is so true. And I agree that most couples are equivalent in terms of attractiveness. I know my SO and I are. He puts it this way, “If I were dating again, my looks aren’t something I’d have to get over, but they aren’t going to seal the deal.”

  2. April 15, 2010 10:37 pm

    @hsofia: Thank you! It really means a lot to me. As I’m trying to get more comfortable exploring things on my blog that are normally reserved for my semi-academic writing. It’s fun to write about these topics in a less academic way. I’m glad you’re getting something out of it.

  3. April 16, 2010 7:02 am

    For a long time, what I thought I wanted in a partner has long been at odds with the characteristics that I’ve actually found attractive… like I wanted to date someone not for my own sake, but for the way it would “play” in public. I suppose the skewed images we get from Hollywood and the fashion world are only part of the problem… there’s also the peer and family pressure to marry the “right” kind of person, whether or not you’re the “right” kind of person yourself.

  4. Hank permalink
    April 16, 2010 9:53 am

    I feel like I tend to date women who are much more conventionally attractive than I am. To the point that sometimes I’ve been the target of very pointed looks and even questions when out with my sweetie at the time (“No, really – you two are together?” from gas station attendants and the like). For all that, I know I see myself as more attractive than your average person on the street considers me.

    I am a short, fat trans guy with bad skin and sketchy fashion sense. I honestly can’t say if it is because I know that and have made peace with it or if I have just rewritten my story to frame all those traits as working for me that allows me to consider myself physically worthy of the people I am attracted to.

  5. April 16, 2010 11:01 am

    there’s also the peer and family pressure to marry the “right” kind of person, whether or not you’re the “right” kind of person yourself.

    I am amused when people – particularly women – demand partners possess qualities they themselves lack. “Oh my perfect man has to have a PhD!!!”

    Oh really? Do you have one? No? Well then what makes you think a person who has one would want you?

    I feel like I tend to date women who are much more conventionally attractive than I am. To the point that sometimes I’ve been the target of very pointed looks and even questions when out with my sweetie at the time (“No, really – you two are together?” from gas station attendants and the like). For all that, I know I see myself as more attractive than your average person on the street considers me.

    Odd, I have such a different perspective on this. From pictures I’ve seen of partners you’ve had I didn’t see a dramatic see saw in terms of looks. In fact, I would say you’re probably not taking into account other dating currencies you have!

  6. Hank permalink
    April 16, 2010 11:11 am

    Oh, I know I’ve got other things going for me. As I sometimes tell my sister – Lord help me if I was a pretty man!

  7. April 16, 2010 11:27 am

    Oh, I know I’ve got other things going for me. As I sometimes tell my sister – Lord help me if I was a pretty man!

    Ha!!!

  8. April 16, 2010 12:15 pm

    Something I’ve always found confounding is that while it is almost ‘the norm’ to see less-attractive guys with hotter women, it’s extremely rare to observe the reverse. I think your theory here may shed some light on why that is. I find this especially egregious on our modern Tribal Storyteller, the television — male characters have so much more leeway in their appearance, as it relates to their social status and relative importance to storyline, and your bald, fat, middle-aged dude is almost always paired up with, at the very least, a ‘tv-ugly’ (i.e., hottie with glasses) female love interest. The other way, not so much. In fact, I can’t think of a single TV instance of a less-attractive female paired with a very attractive man. I dunno what it means, but it bugs the shit out of me.

  9. April 16, 2010 1:07 pm

    In fact, I can’t think of a single TV instance of a less-attractive female paired with a very attractive man. I dunno what it means, but it bugs the shit out of me.

    I think if it is shown it’s as a trope as a means of allowing the male to cheat on or ditch the “ugly” partner to get the pretty, pure of heart other chick. Usually the “ugly” is accompanied by qualities like slovenliness, cheapness and other general fish wifery traits.

    Like in She Devil.

    Actually in Mrs. Doubtfire the whole idea that a man like James Bond 4.o could like someone like Gidget was played for laffs! When honestly, they looked okay together to me. It seemed a better fit than her and Mork (in or out of Doubtfire drag).

  10. Hank permalink
    April 16, 2010 1:11 pm

    I call that the Honeymooners effect.

  11. hsofia permalink
    April 16, 2010 1:59 pm

    So funny, I instantly thought of She Devil when I read minervaK’s comment.

    Maybe Ugly Betty? But I haven’t seen that show since the first season, so I don’t know what happened with that. The only other possibility I can think of is True Lies, where Jamie Lee was supposed to be rather hapless and homely (though it’s debatable how good looking Arnold is). In Dr. Horrible, Felicia Day (I don’t think she’s good looking) is paired with Nathan Fillion. But I am really wracking my brain here and not coming up with much.

    I used to work with a guy who was movie star handsome, and everyone at the office was kind of surprised to meet his wife, a very wan, wild haired woman. Everyone chalked it up to them having been high school sweethearts. I think it’s not that she was unattractive, but he was the suit and tie type (unusual!) and she was a tie-dye t-shirt and birkenstocks, no makeup type.

  12. April 16, 2010 8:16 pm

    I thought I commented on this but I guess I just linked it. Anyway, I love this post. The episode that inspired it is one of my favorite SATC eps. Your description of Samantha is spot on, that’s why she’s my favorite character. Really this post is as the kids say, full of win.

  13. lemonadeandlemoncake permalink
    April 17, 2010 10:47 pm

    this brought to mind one guy who i was friends with for several years. when i first met him i had a bit of a crush on him. along with most other girls. blond hair, blue eyes, always wearing headphones, stoned most of the time. You know, the whole nine. We became really, really close. I remember when I did sort of have a crush on him even though we’d grown up a bit, you know, for a brief lapse of time, someone said to me ‘you’d be the most ironic couple!’ him=skinny, me=fat. him=pretty, me=’ugly’. It’d be the typical Hairspray situation. I remember our college leader (we were in a sort of college ministry at the time) looking at me and saying ‘fine, like him. but you know you don’t have a chance, right?’ Right, because he’s going to pick about 300 other girls. And when, in this town, the fat girl does get the guy, people muse, like ‘hmmmmm well personality matters too, he loves her for who she is not what she looks like.’ I know that that’s because we’re told, in every possible media outlet, that thin girls are the only pretty ones. but maybe he IS attracted to her body?

    Anyhow. Sorry for the soapbox. Good post,

  14. April 18, 2010 11:26 pm

    I love this post. It makes me think about all of the guys I’ve crushed on, and how they were “too cute” for me, and all of the guys I dated, and how they were “too ugly” for me. Until my current SO, who is my match in attractiveness. Or, at least, that’s what we think, and eff anyone else.

    Well, technically, he thinks that I’m hotter than him (which… I mean…yeah, I am), but I think a large part of that has to do with the kind of people we’ve confessed to previously being attracted to. While I fit almost every aspect of his “ideal” woman, both physically and mentally, he’s not much like any guys I’ve dated or been attracted to. He’s smarter and funnier and random-er, and physically bears no resemblance to the herion-addict skatepunks that I’ve ever been with. He’s better. *takes off the Gloaty McGloaterson hat*

    It’s always bugged me that nerdy/geeky/fat/not-“attractive” guys can wind up with ethereally-yet-conventionally-attractive women, but the opposite can’t be true in any “realistic” setting. The only time I can think of the opposite existing, but being a good thing, is the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Granted, I think both Janeane Garafalo and Uma Thurman are gorgeous so the outcome of the movie doesn’t have the same *GASP!SHOCK!HE’SWITHAFATTIE!!!!!!!* effect on me, but it still makes me happy. Maybe that comes from growing up with a girl who identified with the Uma Thurman model character(except a shorter version) while I found myself to be a much-taller version of the snarky-smart-musician-catlover played by Janeane Garafalo.

  15. April 19, 2010 12:25 am

    Maybe that comes from growing up with a girl who identified with the Uma Thurman model character(except a shorter version) while I found myself to be a much-taller version of the snarky-smart-musician-catlover played by Janeane Garafalo.

    That movie always rang false for me too.

  16. Angie permalink
    April 19, 2010 8:14 am

    Hilarious post!

  17. April 26, 2010 6:38 pm

    The only other possibility I can think of is True Lies, where Jamie Lee was supposed to be rather hapless and homely (though it’s debatable how good looking Arnold is),

    In terms of “movie star hotness” I don’t find Arnold to present a particularly compelling case, but in terms of what I call “husband hot”, yeah he’s definitely that. Actually, Curtis in and out of dowdy drag looked fine as his wife. I didn’t even think she really needed the “makeover”, though I understand its importance to the story arc. Plus, that scene was adorable – if such can be said of a coerced strip tease, SURPRISE it’s just your secret agent hubby.

    Damn, I kind of want to watch that movie again.

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