Thursday, January 13, 2011

the need for matched sets

In his review for The Dilemma in the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes:
Mr. Vaughn and Mr. James play bulky best buds romantically paired (because they’re Not Gay) with pretty, fine-boned women. Mr. James is Nick, married to Geneva (Winona Ryder), and Mr. Vaughn is Ronny, gathering the nerve and the money to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly). To ask if Mr. Vaughn and Ms. Connelly have any chemistry is to invoke the wrong science; extreme disparities of size and shape suggest, instead, a fascinating problem of zoology, as if a whippet had decided to cohabit with a yak.
A whippet and a yak! Goddamn. And here I thought they were Homo sapiens.

We don't know what to do--we think we don't--with mismatched couples, when the violated criteria is that of some presumably agreed-upon Hotness. How can it happen? What is the hot one getting out of it (seems to be the idea)--when it's not an obvious question of material gain? If body size is something we make and earn with every action we take, how can somebody who's done the "right" things "deserve" somebody whose done the "wrong"?

Sometimes you just need scare quotes.

Despite our confusion, we see a lot of examples in modern media of "regular guy with the hot wife" phenom that offends so many's sensibilities, such as The Dilemma:
They can offend me too, but not because it violates some sense of symmetry that I think is part of the natural order.

It certainly bothers me that it's considered so far out of the realm of possibility to show a large woman who is loved, partnered, perhaps even has a child. (Who knew the phenom of a fat mom would be so rare? I almost miss that stereotype). It bothers me that media execs are still so ready to build shows and movies around men who don't fit extremely stringent criteria for conventionally attractive, when the women must--they are pinned down in a very, very narrow range of acceptable. There is a reason these couples do look sort of clunky sometimes.

But what bothers me the most is that the "mismatching" is created because media folk get boxed in by beauty ideals, not from any real belief that that people can like qualities different than themselves in their partners. People really do like different things sometimes (heterosexuality being a good example). They're called preferences. Crazy. There really are smaller women who like bigger men.

There are tall people who like short people, short people who like tall people, fat people who like skinny people, skinny people who like fat people, black people who like white people, white people who like black people, older people who like younger people, younger people like older people...for however much time you have to match things up and however many columns A and B you can think of (or more), there are people out there mixing it up in low- to high-contrast ways. Nor does the fact that somebody likes something different necessarily make it a fetish, either. That seems to be the category that preferences get dumped in when they are too obvious to be borne or involve preferences of which people disapprove. Such as a fat partner. Some people actually prefer them. Just because they do.

The chunkier guy/thinner woman idea, while not approved (see above), does have some traction from just sheer force, maybe, or from a lurking suspicion that the average woman might indeed like a hug from a solid, money-earning guy at the end of the day (or however they might rationalize a physical preference). But the fat woman/skinny guy thing is rarely to be countenanced. It's hard to imagine a skinny Mike/fat Molly sitcom, when the idea of a skinny man preferring a fat woman still seems to be associated with a kind of emasculated delusion about what he's getting into. Two fat people, well--they just don't know any better. One fat, one thin...why are they putting up with it?

Unconventional female looks being a much bigger violation of social order than male ones, I'm not sure the media even knows how to approach it, given that it runs on steam-powered looksism most of the time. Look at all the vibrations that emanated from the marriage of Elizabeth and John Edwards; after her death people were still trying to make sense of what they felt had no real way to understand. Or of what needed examination to comprehend. Maybe he just thought she was attractive, you know? She was.

One of the things you hopefully learn as you get older is that you can't even know all the ways love--or lust--looks at an individual level, which is to say a million different ways, even without strong preferences in the fray, which mix it up a million times more. Surely we don't need one more astonished celebrity-rag article about men cheating on their "perfect" wives to prove this. If people really are free to love who they want, and do, let's show it. It we're still not really free to do so--all the more reason to show it and get people used to it. You like what you like. Even when it doesn't look exactly like you.