The mix-up of money and beauty
In the discussion at Alas, a Blog about these ridiculous studies about how men cannot tolerate a spouse who is equal to them, Jake Squid made a comment that really struck me as simple and astute.
Studies have shown that people tend to wind up with partners who are roughly equal in intelligence and roughly equal in attractiveness (as determined by the society in which they live). How come none of these articles ever mentions that?
Hear hear! It's such a simple truth and one that gets overlooked, probably willfully, in the quest to find evidence of the comforting stereotype that men trade on their money and women trade on their looks. But as Jake says, both men and women end up with people who are roughly "equal" to them in these categories, and especially in socioeconomic class.
Why is the belief that women attract mostly with looks and men mostly with money (and in some cases, personality) so appealing? The first thought that popped into my head was the John Berger quote, "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."
This is one of the cases where the simple frame of men-active/women-passive is spinning out stereotypes and cultural beliefs in complex ways. In this case, money is active and active is masculine, therefore we ascribe the money motivation to men. And of course, the same with women, beauty and passivity. And we love to reinforce this stereotype--talk to true believers and they will point to all sorts of celebrity marriages from Donald Trump/Marla Maples to Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson. Ugly, wealthy men married to beautiful, useless women.
Money is a symbol of activity in our culture. In films and tv shows, the flurry of activity on Wall Street is a favorite cliche. Money as a masculine-active symbol is always Earned Through Hard Work. This is such a given that you can convey the idea that someone is a hard worker simply by showing that person in masculine attire. Even though the hard worker of the two candidates was clearly John Kerry, the right's noise machine managed to make him look "lazy" and Bush look "hard-working" by simply tossing a cowboy hat on Bush and showing Kerry wind-surfing. Money, work, and man.
I don't really need to elaborate, I think, on why beauty is a passive attribute.
The thing that interests me is that our conception of money as masculine-active and of beauty as feminine-passive is how captialism destabilizes these categories. For instance, showy displays of money are considered the best way to let others know you have it, and if a man wants to attract women with his money, that's what he's going to do. But that means that he's going to be putting himself on display as a passive creature surrounded by his things to be judged by women. (A bit of role-playing that can be really uncomfortable. I remember when a young man I knew tried wooing a young woman I knew by dragging her outside at a party to see his BMW. It didn't go well.)
On the flip side, beauty is also considered a sign of money. It always has been of course, thus the rebellious nature of images of pure beauties born to the lower classes, like Tess Durbeyfield. But in the past, it could be assumed that the money was a man's money, so the categories of men as owners and women as objects held firm. Now we have women who have their own money and the market is trying to commodify beauty to sell it to women directly. In this sense, I can see why women contextualize things like plastic surgery in terms of empowerment, because, dammit, they bought their own damn breasts.
Anyway, plenty of smarter people than me have done great analysis on how beauty is being reimagined as an active pursuit for women, much like the pursuit of money, all to make more money for the beauty companies. But my point is that it has destabilized the stereotypical understanding of the idea that men have money and buy women who have beauty to trade. Of course, now that men are embracing the idea of buying products that make them beautiful to advertise both their money and their beauty to women, who have their own money now and can be pickier on looks, people are getting even more confused.