Tim Newman has some fun with Slate’s
Penthouse Forum “sex advice” column, in which we’re asked to believe that an attractive, single woman in her early 30s is desperately seeking no-strings-attached sex, but just can’t find any. Sadly there is no picture of the lady, but in the course of cheerfully skewering both advisee and adviser, Newman and his commenters nail the two reasons I wouldn’t wish modern “dating” on anyone. They’re the same reasons Western Civilization is doomed:
- denial of reality.
- false advertising.
Regarding 1), there are few things more obvious than The Wall. A knockout in her early 30s can triumph head-to-head against a plain jane in her early 20s, but that really is the disparity of forces. An attractive woman at 25 is attractive, full stop. An attractive woman at 35 is attractive.*
*for her age.
And that’s just for one-night stands — the Wall-Adjacent Knockout beats Plain Jane if and only if they’re the last two women in the bar at closing time, competing for the same guy, who doesn’t have any better options on-call in his phone at the time. When it comes to committed relationships — which, as Newman points out, is the obvious goal of the “no-strings-attached” lady — fughettaboudit. A guy with options will go younger every time (nobody, least of all the kind of woman who would write to / for the amateur Leftist webzine Slate, cares what the guy without options does).
Which leads directly to 2). Back in the days — meaning, as recently as when I was a wee lad — it was still understood by most people that humans have a life cycle. Adjusting accordingly was called “growing up,” and it was considered a desirable — nay, essential — thing to do. In that world, “being sexually attractive” pretty much dropped off the priorities list after age 30, because by that time one’s sexual attractiveness had already been leveraged into a committed relationship (the ancient Sumerian word for this was “mar-riage”), a few kids had been born, etc.
No, really, you can check. Novels are great for this. There’s a long tradition of what the Eng Lit crowd calls “domestic fiction.” They confine it to the 19th century, of course, but that’s mostly for administrative convenience. Pretty much any “lit fic” that isn’t conspicuously Postmodern would qualify. Basically, if it was published before 1985 and doesn’t involve spies, space aliens, or horrors from beyond the grave, it’s domestic fiction. But feel free to read the old classics, too, like Pride and Prejudice.
It’ll probably bore your socks off — domestic fiction is not, by definition, a gripping read — but it’s all there. If you don’t want to bother, here’s a quick summary. Note that while we’re supposed to see this as “romantic” — Elizabeth would never lower herself to marry the tall, handsome, filthy-rich Mr. Darcy if she weren’t in love with him — on his part, at least, it’s an all but cash-on-the-nail transaction. He prefers Elizabeth Bennett over Jane, even though the latter is pretty and the former is plain, because Elizabeth would make him the better wife.
In other words, it’s advertising. All effective advertising is aspirational. Edward Bernays figured this out in the early 20th century. The ad which convinces you that Product X is better than Product Y at solving Problem Z will move units, yes… but the ad which convinces you that Product X makes you a better person than Product Y will dominate the market. Remember the Pepsi Challenge? More Americans prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coca-Cola in a blind taste test, it’s scientifically proven… and yet, Coke’s market share got ever greater. Why? Because Coke’s concurrent ad campaign was Max Headroom. Watch some of those videos. Yeah, it’ll make your brain hurt — the 1980s were a very different time — but you’ll see what I mean before the migraine sets in.
Now flip the channel back to Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy is, as we’ve already noted, tall, handsome, and loaded. He could issue a 463 bullet point checklist of what he wants in a mate, and have every girl in England falling all over themselves to meet it. As he is a red-blooded heterosexual male, the first item on said checklist would, of course, be “she must be hot.” Since Elizabeth knows she isn’t, she focuses on the other 462, and she sells the everloving fuck out of it. She convinces Darcy that’s she’s not only better at solving his problem (being a good wife, i.e. the Pepsi Challenge), but that by marrying her, Darcy is showing the world he’s a better person. Sure, there are lots of tall, handsome, rich guys in England, but only you have the intelligence, the perception, the strength of character, to look past superficial beauty standards….
It’s a brilliant sales job, and that’s why Pride and Prejudice is a classic of English literature.
The Ed Biz, obviously, disagrees. And they’re going to get really upset at the next part, because the standard take on P&P is that it’s the original Grrrl Power novel — Elizabeth stays true to herself, and wins over the cad who finally sees the error of his ways. You go girl! But, like all feminist productions, the standard take is not only ludicrously wrong, it’s backassward. Because, of course, it’s not Elizabeth who has the power; it’s Mr. Darcy.
The only reason Elizabeth’s innovative, truly brilliant ad campaign works is because Mr. Darcy is at the very top of a culture that values the other 462 bullet points, all of which can be summarized with the word “domesticity.” Before the ad campaign, Darcy assumed that bullet point #1 was the rare commodity. After all, every girl in England knows how to iron a shirt and pump out a kid; very few girls are hot. Elizabeth flips that on its head — there are lots of hot girls, she tells Darcy, but very few who are really wife material. In either case, though, the underlying presumption is the same: Since we’re going to be together for the long haul, and since no human female stays hot much past age 30, you’d better focus on the rest of the package.
It works because they’re both realists. If you’re going to be with one person for the rest of your life — the bedrock cultural assumption that underlies the other 462 — it’d better be the right person, because “til death do us part” is a looooong time, and neither of you will be very sexually attractive for the vast majority of it.
Which brings us back to the no-strings-attached lady and, at long last, to the point. NSA lady laments that despite her best efforts, she keeps getting “entangled” with her booty calls. The Slate advice columnette advises her to — and I swear I’m not making this up — put little “reminder” tags next to their numbers in her phone.
Make the guys have names like “Chris Nothing Serious Johnson” or “Joe This Is Just Sex Beatty.”
Newman’s comment is classic:
Yes, your innate biological desire to pair-bond can be outwitted by putting reminders in your phone next to men’s names.
NSA lady is a modern woman, and all modern women have been bamboozled by advertising. It’s a campaign even more brilliant, and far more insidious, than Elizabeth Bennett’s. At least we can figure out what it is that Elizabeth is trying to sell. Moreover, Elizabeth was right — if Mr. Darcy thought it through with his big head instead of his small one, he’d realize that the other 462 bullet points really are the key to long-term happiness.
Modern women have all been sold on this idea that “your innate biological desire to pair-bond,” like Mr. Darcy’s innate biological desire for younger-hotter-tighter, isn’t just wrong, it’s actively harmful…. and they have no idea why. Worse, modern technology makes it all but impossible for them — hell, for anyone — to take a step back to figure it out. We take almost everything we read literally, almost all the time. I’ll prove it: I guarantee you that anyone who challenges my interpretation of Pride and Prejudice will start by yelling “But Elizabeth isn’t attracted to Mr. Darcy!”
And how do they know this? Because Elizabeth said so. Which is why P&P was considered a great novel back in its day, too — unlike modern readers, who only see Grrrl Power, Jane Austen’s original readers knew what girls are like. They knew that girls are just people and, being people, lie to themselves constantly. “Mr. Darcy would never go for a plain girl like me… which is good, because I’m certainly not attracted to tall, handsome, arrogant, rich bad boys.” Sour grapes, anyone?
So they end up reading this exquisitely stupid advice, and it never occurs to them that it is, in fact, full retard. Worse, they never stop to think why such a letter would be written in the first place. As Newman’s readers point out, this is the chick equivalent of those old “Penthouse Forum” letters (for younger readers: Penthouse was a nudie mag back in the pre-Internet days. The first few pages — I’ve heard — were devoted to the “Penthouse Forum,” in which supposedly real guys out in the real world wrote in to tell about their bizarre sexual experiences. These letters generally started with “I never thought it could happen to me, but…”).
Like the letters to Penthouse Forum, the emails to Slate’s “How to Do It” column are ads. The guys in the marketing department cook them up, and like all good ads, they’re aspirational. The Penthouse Forum ad men knew that none of their readers would ever run into a horny housewife with a fantasy about plumbers (or whatever), just as the ad men at Slate know that for women, “no-strings-attached” sex can be had for the low low price of showing up at a hotel bar. The point of the ad, the product it’s selling, is the magazine itself. If you want to be the kind of guy horny housewives proposition after a hard day unclogging toilets, read Penthouse. If you want to be the kind of gal who is so desirable, even in her 30s, that her only problem is caring too much about all the many, many, many guys who want to bone her, read Slate.
That the rest of Slate contains nothing but goodthink, of the kind that landed our totally-a-rea-person NSA lady in her pickle in the first place, is a feature not a bug.Loading Likes...