There’s a reason I don’t read the Wall Street Journal, and it’s pretty much the same reason I don’t watch Fox News: I’m not particularly interested in antediluvian op-eds. This recent article from WSJ is a great example.
The article describes a recent study in which researchers found that women from countries with better healthcare systems preferred less masculine men, which they measured by showing (white) women from different countries two “subtly different” pictures of a man, and asking which they found more attractive. Okay, right off the bat, those two faces are about “subtly different” as Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore (fair! balanced!) are “subtly opinionated.” Moving on to the the text of the article, we find some well-worn ideas about what it means to be masculine, and it’s no great shocker that this entails “fitness, fertility, and dominance,” which are all the by-products of elevated testosterone levels. I’m certainly not trying to argue that hormones don’t influence behavior, but it seems that a study like this (not to mention the article) reduces an incredibly complex process (like attraction) to a single variable. That this variable is biological only serves to reiterate and reify old stereotypes about virile primitive masculinity versus decadent overcivilized Western manhood. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such pervasive cultural tropes served as the basis for denying political rights to people of color and justified the imperial reach of America and Western Europe across the globe. With in mind, perhaps it should be no surprise that here a marker of global class (healthcare, although the U.S. is… well, that’s a different story) is fused with and masked by biology and heredity.
The author keeps the late Victorian gender anxieties relatively at bay until near the end of the article, when she unleashes them with full force:
The big question that comes of the study is this: Is it possible that modern medicine—and by extension modern life—inadvertently devalues masculinity? Possibly. Is the Marlboro Man, that smoking-hot icon of American manhood, under threat of being extinguished? Given American women’s apparently strong masculinity preferences, the answer is no. We are not ready to get rid of our macho men. (Then again, we also have yet to improve our health index ratings.) Yet there are some smoke signals that suggest change is just over the horizon.
Sounds like somebody’s been reading The Strenuous Life. But the really astounding thing here is just how fabulously the author misrepresents evolutionary process in the very next paragraph:
As the social environment shifts, so may women’s mate preferences. While Stone Age forces once wired women to associate strong cues of masculinity with their children’s chance of survival, times are changing. The promise of improved health care in America could be one example of a shift.
Let’s first just take notice of the implied parallel between “Stone Age” women (were they also tracked through their IP addresses?) and women in the developing world. That aside, evolution is a slow process–public policy does not have a measurable effect on hereditary traits, at least not in the way the author suggests. That is to say, healthcare reform is not going to spark an instantaneous shift in American women’s dating and mating patterns such that testosterone and “manifest masculinity” (no relation?) will go into decline.
Or maybe my good friend and sometime-commenter Catherine said it best: “I feel pretty confident we can provide humane medical care to the citizens of this nation without threatening my almost pathological attraction to large burly men.”