Adelle Waldman, in the New Yorker, suspiciously contemplates the power of female beauty in attracting male admiration and attention.
I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women arenâ€™t trophy-wife typesâ€”they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.
My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.
I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that heâ€™d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.
Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about oneâ€™s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliersâ€”uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.
To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women. …
It isnâ€™t, however, the case that men value beauty only from insecurity. If only. Then we could simply write off men who evaluate women by their looks as scheming social climbers. But the human response to beauty is also visceral.
Her credentials as a critical thinker, though, were undermined for me by her observations, unfavorably comparing the protagonist of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler’s rating as a ladies’ man with Papa Hemngway’s:
Frankâ€™s relationship to Aprilâ€™s beauty is hardly heroic, though he aspires to meet a Hemingway-esque ideal of masculinity (heâ€™s always clenching his jaw to look more commanding). We imagine that someone like Hemingway winds up with beautiful women as a matter of courseâ€”we donâ€™t picture him working at it consciously, wondering whether this oneâ€™s hair is too frizzy or her hips too wide for her to be a suitable complement to the image he seeks to project. It is one of the many strengths of â€œRevolutionary Roadâ€ that Yates so thoroughly sees through his charactersâ€™ pretensions.
It would be pretty to think so, but Hemingway’s real record, judging by his marriages, was not impressive. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, was young and only on that basis was a bit more than averagely attractive.
His second wife, Pauline Pfeifer, did not capture Ernest Hemingway with her beauty. Pauline bought Hemingway’s heart with family money, allowing him to go to Africa on Safari and live life in the grand International style. Pauline was decidedly plain.
Third wife, Martha Gellhorn, was doubtless a step up in the looks department from Pauline, but Martha had a rather mannish figure, and was frigid and a shrill bolshevik to boot. No wonder that marriage only lasted slightly over four years.
Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Welsh was even less attractive than Pauline. Accounts of their life together indicate that they fought like cats and dogs, but she could stand up to him and did seem to function successfully at least in serving as his keeper as Hemingway’s alcoholism worsened and his health problems increased.