Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
This genre has obvious appeal for explaining phenomena that are too enduring to be classified as trends. But it has downsides. The likelihood that someone is going to send you a press release that accurately describes the agonizing mystery of human emotions, the ineffable cravings of the human heart, or the way an intimate relationship evolves and deepens over time, is slim indeed.
These generic difficulties explain some of the more anomalous features of the Styles section. The writers and editors don’t want to give up on romance writing, because everyone knows it’s a girly subject, and they’ve got the whole ten pages to fill up with girly shit. So they’re left with a quandary. They have two round holes, and one large, irregularly shaped peg that doesn’t fit in either of them. The unwieldy peg demands satisfaction! Like many an inept lover, the eager writers resort to trying to jam it in somewhere — anywhere — using gratuitous cultural references as lube. The results of such a clumsy maneuver are always painful — in this case, to the reader.
For an example, let’s look at the “trend” approach. Since “the pair bond between male and female” (as one heterosexist jerk calls it) has been going like gangbusters since the Paleolithic, it would hardly do to claim it was getting more popular. No, the only way for this trend to go is down. And that’s just what Jean Meyer says it is doing. Jean Meyer is a French business student, and and has founded a site called Datemyschool.com for graduate students and undergrads at prestigious institutions. But as Hannah Miet’s recent profile makes clear, Meyer is much more than a soulless capitalist; he’s a sort of Gallic Renaissance man, stimulating his intellect by working pro bono as philosopher of contemporary mores.
For instance, he “believes modern ambition is the death of love.” It seems “his generation was bred to attend the best schools, maximize revenues and grab the most gilded opportunities, even in matters of the heart.” With the Datemyschool site, he hopes to solve this problem, or possibly make it much worse. It’s not clear which. Meyer’s theories on the twenty-first century love drought encourage this ambiguity, by suggesting that attending prestigious schools and joining websites are the very actions that got us into this mess in the first place. “He blames a common suspect — technology — saying that the most wired people in history seem to lack emotional connection.”
No emotional connection? Doesn’t he read the Times wedding pages? If he did, he’d learn that romantic connection is not just surviving, but thriving — overcoming such mammoth obstacles as the fact that one person is a huge foodie, while the other enjoys baseball. In any case, he offers no proof for these wild assertions. But Hannah Miet, lulled by his sultry French accent and angsty talk, doesn’t call him on it.
“People in the 21st century,” he continues, “are alone.” He clasps her hand and gazes off moodily the distance, his limpid caramel eyes clouding with painful memories (I infer). “We have so many new ways of communicating, yet we are so alone.” Can’t say I’ve noticed. The loneliness must have seeped deep down into my soul, until I forgot there was anything else… forgot even the possibility of meaningful human emotion. Hey, fellow lonely 21st century people, I just had an idea. What if… we used e-mail, telephones, and social networking to stay in touch with our friends and relations! We could even use our ways of communicating to plan real-life gatherings and social events! People could send their friends electronic invitations asking to get together… a sort of “e-vite,” if you will… now that sounds like a million-dollar idea! Jean Meyer should get on it!
But Meyer’s customers wouldn’t know what to do with a friend, relation or emotional connection if it bit them on the ass, if his claims are to be believed. He says that “63 percent of users answering a question module on the site said that they’d prefer ‘having the most amazing career’ to ‘meeting the love of your life.'” His alluringly cynical tone must be catching, because it has now spread to his enthralled interlocutor, who lights a Gauloise and gazes blankly at the horizon through heavy-lidded eyes (I infer) while adding an editorializing comment of her own: “If that’s even possible, these days.”
“If that’s even possible”? These people are so jaded! Or maybe I’m the jaded one, and they’re just seeing through my veneer of detachment and sophistication. Modern ambition strikes again! Hey wait a minute, what exactly is “modern ambition”? Haven’t people been celebrated and admired for “ambition” throughout all of human history? But almost all of them were men? and they had women to clean the house for them, so no one ever objected to it? NO TIME FOR THAT NOW! Meyer has another insight!
“‘Young people today have the impression that dating is like buying consumer goods,’ said Mr. Meyer, his brown eyes reflecting some sadness about that.” See?! I told you his limpid brown eyes were clouding over and reflecting emotions and feelings! He is one emotional motherfucker. The End… or is it? For a beautiful young American journalist and a soulful Gallic entrepreneur, it could be just the beginning! (Of wild, jaded European-style ass-ballin’.)
If the trend-piece format would have it that love is constantly being buffeted about by the winds of cultural change — up 8 percent one year thanks to Michelle Obama’s toned arms, down 12 percent the next due to mass grieving about Sammi and Ronny’s latest breakup — the “science press release” format is just the opposite. Love, these summaries of press releases tell us, is biologically hard-wired into the human brain, and any observable trends or patterns have existed forever. Facebook and Jersey Shore need not even be mentioned, although they will be, many times, because that is what makes writing relateable.
Pamela Paul shows us the way in “Men Are Less Upset if a Partner Cheats With Another Woman.” She starts off with this opening zing:
“Dude! Finally, research to explain many a male fantasy and Judd Apatow movie. According to a new study by Jaime C. Confer, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and her father, Mark D. Cloud, a psychology professor at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, a man is more than twice as likely to continue dating a woman if she has cheated on him with another woman than if she has cheated on him with another man.”
So the study was, they asked a bunch of college students what they’d do if their partner cheated. The results showed that straight men find lesbian sex to be nonthreatening. And this “explains” why… straight men find lesbian sex nonthreatening? Something’s missing. It’s almost as if you need some… other type of argument or analysis to account for this phenomenon. An “explanation,” if you will. From what you’re telling me about this study, it’s basically as if you asked a bunch of dudes how big their dicks were, and they all said their dicks were huge, and then you were like “what up, girlfriend! Finally, research to explain why guys have such big dicks!” (Also, have there been any Judd Apatow movies about a woman cheating on a guy with a woman? I feel like Paul is thinking of Girls Gone Wild or something.)
“The daughter-father duo asked 700 college students to imagine that they were in a committed romantic and sexual relationship with someone for three months, then asked how they would respond to infidelity on the part of the hypothetical partner.” That must be a nice job, just asking college students to imagine “how they would respond” to things. I could do that. I’d probably ask them whether they were going to stop partying so much, quit procrastinating, and get at least an A minus in all their classes this semester. I’m really good at science, you know… okay, I’m done with my research! All my research subjects said Yes. An additional 31 percent said they were totally going to start dressing cuter for their morning classes and stop eating so much Pinkberry.
“Men’s likelihood of continuing to date a girlfriend if she had been unfaithful with a woman was 50 percent, on average. But if she had cheated on him with another man, that likelihood plummeted to 22 percent.” I can just imagine these young scholars, their minds whirling with images from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and its many lyrical evocations of lesbian eroticism. “Two chicks, why that’s double the chicks!” they said to themselves, stroking their beards pensively. And, after some moments of intense introspection: “This gives me a boner.” By the way, have you guys ever actually known a dude who got cheated on with a woman? I have, and that shit is intense! “My penis was so inadequate, it made her gay! I have the worst penis in human history! WAAAAAAAHHH! Time to go on a week-long bender!” Scientists should be glad they don’t have to observe actual human behavior. It’s crazy!
“Meanwhile, a woman was slightly more likely to stick with a man if he’d cheated on her with another woman…. Ms. Confer said that because men’s paternity is threatened by a heterosexual affair, they’re more likely to object to such transgressions.” These are college guys. They’re not interested in “paternity” except insofar as they want to avoid it for as long as possible. Isn’t it more likely that young straight men think this way because they have seen hundreds of porn clips where lesbian sex is a titillating show performed for the benefit of young straight men, whereas straight sex is perceived as “real” sex and a potential threat to their masculinity?
I hope I’m not being a drag… sorry to sound like a boring nerd who observes the culturally conditioned ideas that circulate in a society, then thinks about how they effect people’s habitual assumptions. On to the rest of the article:
“The more obvious answer, according to Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology who studies same-sex sexuality at the University of Utah, is that men see a woman sleeping with another woman as ‘maybe a Katy Perry thing’ and not all that threatening, whereas women see a man’s having sex with another man as proof, in her mind, that ‘You’re gay.’…. This is a great example of the way in which it doesn’t make sense to test evolutionary psychology principles with contemporary college students…. The much more plausible explanation has to do with what contemporary men and women think of contemporary sexual orientation.”
WAIT A MINUTE, THAT’S WHAT I JUST SAID! I told you I was good at science. How’s Pamela Paul going to answer Diamond’s critique? Oh, that’s the end of the article. That’s a gutsy move, write a whole essay explaining a scientific claim, then ending by explaining why the premises are flawed and the generic modes and evidence-gathering procedures rest on false assumptions. it’s like you’ve deconstructed the very discursive conventions within which you are working! “Jacques Derrida in the house!”
Incidentally, Paul doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this unmasking of her ideology, since she’s back at it again the very next week. In “The Allure of Men Who Don’t Want to Be Caught,” she summarizes a press release about a bunch of college students who looked at fake Facebook profiles. “The authors believe psychologists have underestimated the effects of a woman’s obsessing: When a prospective beau’s feelings are unknown, a woman thinks about him incessantly, mulling over whether he will ask her for coffee or ask out her best friend instead.” Mightn’t that conclusion be premature? Last paragraph says: “The behavior of a bunch of college students in a controlled experiment may not hold true to life.” AAAAUUUUAUGGH! What is this strange game of intellectual chess you are playing, Pamela Paul? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?
Turning away from Paul, we find that intellectual sleight-of-hand and misuse of science are hardly confined to peppy science-lite reporting. We find it everywhere, even in sensitive personal essays. In the Modern Love piece “Perfect, With Childbearing Hips,” Andrea Askowitz’s tale of becoming a single lesbian mom takes a turn for the bizarre.
As her story begins, Askowitz’s love life is in disarray; no longer willing to postpone motherhood, she gets pregnant using “tall, athletic sperm” from a college basketball player that she buys from a sperm bank. After giving birth to an adorable tiny tot, whose name and gender you will have to read her forthcoming memoir to find out, she wants another. “But I hated pregnancy and delivery.”
Her brilliant idea is to find a wife to get knocked up for her, using the frozen basketball player sperm. She writes a Match.com ad that says “I’m looking for someone who loves children. I want her to have big breasts. A pretty face is nice too.” Okay, that’s a little weird. If a man wrote that ad, no women would respond, because they would conclude that their big boobs and afterthought face were going to end up stashed in pieces in his freezer. But that’s Askowitz! She’s edgy and risk-taking! And she’s going to explain why she’s completely biologically normal.
“Studies show that men (and perhaps people in possession of sperm) are more attracted to women with large breasts and wide hips.” I’ll just bet they do. Those studies, always showing that men are attracted to women who are widely considered attractive.
“Large breasts give the illusion of more milk to feed the young, and wide hips suggest greater ease in bearing children.” Yeah, but large-breasted women aren’t actually better at making milk. I read that in Our Bodies, Ourselves. Why would evolution make us believe an “illusion”? Evolution wouldn’t just fuck with us like that! Anyway, what about guys who like skinny chicks? Like Michael Leviton and his hunchbacked muse? They’re still around! If you believe this ridiculous evolutionary just-so story, Leviton’s caveman forebears should have died out 40,000 years ago, making conceptual rock paintings and ironic megalithic structures, siring sickly offspring upon emaciated cavewomen who would only cook them sustainable nettle foam and seed/berry compote. “What do you mean, elk reduction over acorn paté?”, their caveman friends would ask. “You’re not supposed to reduce it! We spent all week catching those!” They would have been banished from the tribe and forced to live as squatter/freegans in totally ungentrified cave neighborhoods, eventually being eaten by bears. WOULD THAT IT WERE SO.
“Scientists have discovered that the lower the body’s waist-hip ratio (medically known as the WHR), the more attractive the woman.” Sir Mix-a-Lot “discovered” this, too. Also, science isn’t Hotornot.com; it can’t “prove” that some people are objectively bangin’ and others are grenades.
Askowitz says this explains the popularity of Marilyn Monroe, who possessed the hip ration in question. Then we’re told, in a correction added at the end, that she “referred incorrectly to the waist-hip ratio (the ratio of the waist circumference to the hip circumference). A 0.7 ratio means that the waist is 30 percent smaller than the hips, not 70 percent smaller.”
Okay listen, I love people with liberal arts degrees. I love sensitive personal essays. If you want to try to write introspective, poetic-y prose, well I think that’s just great. But in that case, should you really be making pronouncements about science? When someone starts telling me what Studies Show about the very origins of the human race, and they can’t tell the difference between 30 percent and 70 percent, that does tend to make them appear less authoritative.
But it’s difficult to wean yourself from the science habit. Science isn’t just an objective truth-seeking apparatus; it’s a turn-on for some people, including (clearly) the author. “I would find myself walking along Lincoln Road on South Beach, where I’d notice a woman between the ages of 18 and 35 spilling out of the top of her dress. She’d pass by and I’d turn to leer at her behind. If it was big, I’d have an uncontrollable urge to club her over the head and drag her to my fertility cave.” Gross. Also, that’s an offensive stereotype of cavemen, who only clubbed women over the head in safe, sane and consensual environments, after establishing a mutually agreed-upon safeword. PROVE ME WRONG, EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGISTS.
“I wasn’t objectifying women. I was a woman of science.” Or… maybe you’re just into big butts? If you gaze into the annals of “science” and its long history of objectifying women, I think you’ll find it’s better to be a lesbian who’s into big butts.
After boasting to her potential future wives about her “virility,” she finally scores a hot date with a hot lady. “I don’t normally believe in love at first sight, but at the end of that first lunch, I wanted to offer Victoria my sperm.” Okay, time for some real talk. I suspect it was shocking-sounding sentences like the above that prompted the NYT to run this essay. If it’s weird, they’ll take it. But is all this talk about “offering sperm” really that impressive? Askowitz’ essay would have been better if she had just admitted that she got a kinky thrill out of playing a male role and impregnating a woman with her life-giving semen, instead of making coy sperm-based double entendres. I mean, sperm-havers act all kinds of different ways. Some of them are gay! You’re gay too! You need MedicalToys.com, not evolutionary psychology!
Instead, the author attempts to give her medical fetish free rein in the least appropriate possible setting: an actual medical facility. The two women have gotten married and decided to give the frozen basketball ubermensch sperm another go. Finally, the fateful day arrives when they find themselves at the sperm bank.
“We had been waiting an hour when Victoria put down her magazine and nudged me with her elbow. She said, ‘Please don’t scream when they call my name.’ I saw her point. This wasn’t bingo. But I had been waiting years for this. ‘Can I do the insemination?’ I asked. Before the nurse answered, Victoria said, ‘I don’t think you can do that.’ I felt clubbed in the head. My moment was now and the woman I loved — my woman with childbearing hips — was thwarting my destiny.” Again: MedicalToys.com. You can get your own syringe and reenact your fateful moment all you want in the privacy of your home. There’s no need to drag a medical professional into this.
But the nurse says it’s okay, and Victoria reluctantly agrees. “The nurse instructed me to stand between Victoria’s legs. I held the syringe steady with my first two fingers, like a cigarette. I looked into Victoria’s eyes again and mouthed, “Thank you.” DEAR PENTHOUSE FORUM, I NEVER THOUGHT IT COULD HAPPEN TO ME.
“Today, we have a 7-year-old daughter and a son approaching 2. They have the same almond-shaped eyes and pudgy feet, like little muffins.” Like muffins? That metaphor sucks. You’re bad at science and sensitive personal essays.