Vicki Larson and I have been having a fairly heated conversation about what ugly has to do, or not do, with a man being marrying material. Her Huffington Post column got huge attention for claiming that women should choose ugly husbands, lest they be subject to the Weiner/Tiger/Arnold syndrome–appealing and powerful men who crash and burn.
I am not sure we will ever agree completely, but in my direct conversations with Vicki I get the sense that we actually agree, perhaps more than we disagree. Vicki and I thought it might be informative to engage in a spirited question and answer about her original piece and my sense of what manhood really is all about.
Tom: Vicki, everywhere I look, there are articles that attempt to summarize manhood (ironically most often written by women). Don’t you think making sweeping stereotype-driven judgments about men is the same thing as making those judgments about women, or blacks or gays?
Vicki: You’re surprised? Women love analyzing men! Sweeping stereotypes are horrible — I hate being seen as a high-maintenance gold-digger living off my ex’s hard-earned money just because I’m a divorced blonde. Intelligent people understand that the world doesn’t work in absolutes — “never” and “always.”
What saddens me reading the comments here and elsewhere is that we still focus on how “bad” the other sex is. The studies I cite are old, they’ve been written about many times before, but because of social media, many people knee-jerk react and spread it faster, farther and wider than before. So much for thoughtful commentary.
Tom: I heard an interesting interview with Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on “Mad Men,” in which he talked about how difficult it is for him to be objectified. He was serious about it and appeared to be an honest and sweet man despite his good looks. Should we be feeling sorry for him?
Vicki: We all want to feel attractive, not objectified. Still, Hamm chose a career that feeds off of good looks and he’s being paid well and has many opportunities because of it. But it’s great he’s talking about it because women don’t know how men feel about being lust objects. Most women, however, do; even women who aren’t “beautiful” are drooled over because they might have great breasts or a butt. We need to be empathetic to how the other sex experiences things; Louanne Brizendine’s books on male and female brains are great.
Tom: Do you really believe the studies you cite that men with higher testosterone, presumably the most macho guys around, are not to be trusted?
Vicki: I didn’t write that. Studies indicate men with higher testosterone levels have a tendency to lie and cheat more than men with lower levels. They’re also incredibly exciting. That doesn’t mean all of them will lie and cheat, and any woman who decides to marry a guy or not based on that alone is foolish. Of course, people get married for lots of foolish reasons.
Tom: In the course of my work with “The Good Men Project,” I’ve spoken to thousands of men about what it means to be good–from inmates to celebrities–and one of the things I have come to is that goodness is a self-defined concept. For one man it might be taking care of his autistic child and for another it’s risking his life to take pictures of the truth of the war in Iraq. How do you define “good” as it relates to manhood?
Vicki: Not to diss the name of your project, which as the mom of two young men and a woman who loves men I’m a fan of, but good is a meaningless word. Mildred Baena called Arnold Schwarzenegger a good man. Good to her, perhaps, but not to his family. And, you aren’t good because you’re taking care of your autistic child; that’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.
Good isn’t a male or female thing. So I’d rather define what it is to be human — kind; loving; compassionate; empathetic; self-aware; honest; respects him/herself and others; generous of spirit; realizes he/she is part of a much bigger picture; takes responsibility for his/her actions, and has a moral compass. That’s so incredibly sexy it’s beyond “good.” Bonus points if it comes with a great face and bod.
Tom: In picking a spouse, we grapple with different levels of attraction. There’s the animalistic, “Wow that person is hot,” kind. The, “I am just in awe of that person.” And finally, “I can’t imagine walking this planet without that person in my life,” kind. When you advised women to go ugly what were you really saying about attraction?
Vicki: I was tongue-in-cheek about going ugly! I am not telling women — or men — to settle for anyone less than the person who rocks their world. But we need to reexamine what attractive means.
Anthony Weiner was once named a Cosmo eligible bachelor. Yet clearly from the comments here, few found him handsome and many called him ugly. I don’t think he’s ugly but he’s not hot enough to send me nude pics of himself! So, what makes him an eligible bachelor if it’s not his looks? Many commentors said he only attracted models and women because of his power and status. Well, if that’s what we consider attractive, if that’s what Cosmo’s selling to women as good hubby material, no wonder men call us gold-diggers. Plus, since those guys are the high testosterone guys, we’re right back to the beginning.
I’d hope he was an eligible bachelor because of the whole package; he’s a smart (until he proved himself incredibly dumb), fit, passionate, funny man with a (once) promising future. If you’re just going for the pretty and other things that don’t really matter in a fulfilling relationship — and I include power, status and money among those — you’re not looking at the right things. When considering someone “attractive,” we should include character, too.
Tom: In a world filled with porn and superficial images of female beauty what do you tell your sons, 17 and 20, about what to look for in a woman?
Vicki: You think I can tell my sons anything? Girls are an off-limits topic. I have been delightfully pleased at the girls they consider attractive, real girls with real bodies, no makeup, sweet and smart.
I hope I’ve modeled for them what to look for by my priorities — family and friends over material things and status — and how I respect my body; I’d never inject poison or plastic into or overload it with crappy food.
Tom: Do you think that we are guilty of spending too much time on celebrity men behaving badly or it is important to nail these guys in order to make sure women see what is not acceptable?
Vicki: We spend too much time on celebrities, period, and increasingly it’s becoming “news.” We don’t want to just nail the guys; we seem to enjoy any celebrity falling. There have been plenty of women who fall, but women tend to self-destruct. It seems more high-profile men often behave badly with women, and that, unfortunately, reflects poorly for men in general for some women. It’s those stereotypes again. But I sure hope we aren’t looking to celebrities for guidance. Who cares what they do? Politicians, however, must be held accountable.
Tom: Do you really think marriage works better when the wife is hotter than the husband?
Vicki: It’s obvious it doesn’t since mine ended in divorce! Okay, I’m joking. I think guys would love to have a hot wife. But there’s no one formula that leads to a happy marriage. A marriage works best when the couple is committed to each other, similar in the ways that matter, and forgiving and accepting in the ways in which they differ. Having a hot husband or wife does not create that.
Tom: Do you think Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin will, as you suggest, dump Weiner while there is still time so she can use her beauty to snag another man–only this time “go ugly”?
Vicki: I did not suggest Abedin dump Weiner, and I was, again, tongue-in-cheek about splitting before the baby will have memories of the divorce. It’s an option. But she’s about to be a mom, and deciding to divorce when you have kids is tough as it should be given how divorce impacts kids. Ask any 40-something woman what it’s like to find love and you’ll hear that it’s harder than when she was in her 20s or 30s, even if she’s beautiful, smart and accomplished.
Tom: We talk a lot about defining moments as men. It could be the loss of a child or a job, the slow erosion of addiction, or a divorce. But that moment when you look in the mirror and have no idea who is looking back. When for the first time you have to get radically honest with yourself about something excruciatingly hard. And that goodness often comes from devastating failure rather than success. Do you think it’s possible Weiner will end up a better man?
Vicki: I’d love to believe that we could get that self-awareness, have that epiphany, without hitting bottom. But hitting bottom and being “radically honest” don’t automatically give us that epiphany — we need ways to think and act differently, and we need support. Will Weiner become a better man? I hope so, for his child’s sake. And if he’s lucky, Abedin will be right there by his side.