Tuesday, April 20, 2010

You Belong with . . . Who Again?

Taylor Swift: the gift that keeps on giving.

Consider, for a moment, a clarinet player in the high school band.

Our clarinetist isn't much interested in football. He would like to play the clarinet in an orchestra, where people could come to listen to him play the clarinet. But alas, the school is only interested in having a band insofar as it provides background noise during football games. So his talent is subordinated to someone else's stardom.

Our clarinetist isn't happy about this, but he's reasonably phlegmatic: after all, the school has to sort people by status somehow. Yeah, it sucks being a musician at a football school, but on the other hand, it's not like music has some inherently superior claim to admiration over athleticism. That's just the luck of the draw. So when he sees the gridiron hero in the company of the captain of the cheerleader squad, he says to himself, well, that kinda figures.

But when he then turns to his fellow clarinetist, a skinny girl with dorky glasses and a slight overbite, he discovers that not only is she also pining after the football player, but she is literally rolling her eyes at the indignity of having to sit next to him in the bleachers. It doesn't matter that he's "in a relationship" (or the high school facsimile thereof); she plots and schemes and waits her turn, meanwhile ignoring (when not actively hating on) the clarinetist playing in the same band that she is.

Ironically, the football player himself could be as pure as the driven snow. He might even double as the FCA chapter president. It is rather the black little hearts of women that cause him to emotionally monopolize goodness-knows-what percentage of his school's females.

This is what we mean when we talk about modern polygamy.

[This post was inspired by the conversation here.]


Anonymous said...

Common theme in teen movies. Nerdy guy gets the hot chick. Nerdy girl, cleans up nice and gets the football team captain. It is instructive that High School does a very good job teaching kids one of life's most important lessons: Life isn't fair. A small group of people always get what they want and everyone else does not.

trumwill said...

The primary objection I have with your characterization is that it rests on the notion that it's women that are primarily dissatisfied with their station and guys would otherwise take their place in order.

Now, if you're the guy who is willing to take your place in the order, it can be frustrated that others won't play along. But that's a frustration that comes from both ends. In equal parts? Maybe or maybe not. There's no measuring stick.

The secondary objection I have is that, stereotypes and the examples we all use aside, relatively few guys or girls spend inordinate amounts of time pining for the real cream of the crop, in my experience. Using my Stations Scale, it's threes holding out for twos, not ones.

The second objection is not incompatible with the point you're making. It's just something that we should keep in mind.

trumwill said...

Unrelatedly, your video is spilling over. If you want to prevent that from happening, you can modify the HTML to make the video smaller to fit. Just change the "width=640" and "height=???" whatever to fit your template. Note that you have to change each in two places for it to work.

Jehu said...

I draw a bit of a different take on this video. To me, it seems like a reasonably cute geek girl is making an argument to the object of her attraction (the football player she's known forever).
Your girlfriend is sexier than I am (she wears short skirts...et al)
You don't have sufficient game to keep that drama queen in check (lots of lines about him not smiling anymore, her having 'got him down' etc, Ms. Cheer Captain is an archetypical 'bad girl').
If you date me, I won't 'shit test' you constantly and will give you a minimum of drama.
I'm not as hot as her, but I'm not chopped liver either, and I'm the kind of girl that a sane man could imagine marrying.
So if one accepts Thursday's 3 way taxonomy of women, this is the nerd girl anthem.

Erik said...

...she plots and schemes and waits her turn, meanwhile ignoring (when not actively hating on) the clarinetist playing in the same band that she is.

Band geeks will always reside below the jocks, BUT...our clarinetist also occupies possibly the lowest level within the band that he could. I mean, maybe if he played something "cool" - like drums or trumpet - he would have a chance of standing out. But clarinet? Not only is he on the wrong team, he's also just the water boy. ;)

Why is it her fault for not desiring to move "down"?

Φ said...

Jehu: you are absolutely correct in your assessment of the upper-level message of "You Belong With Me". This is one of Swift's meta-themes, showing up particularly in "Stephen". (As you can see, I'm more of a Taylor Swift groupie than a man my age has any business being.)

The hallmark of great art, as opposed to propaganda, is its multi-layered messaging. In this case, the second-level story is the one from the perspective of nerd-girl's fellow band members. What you said is true, but nerd-girl is not, after all, singing this song to just anybody. She's singing it to the gridiron hero.

This song, its reception, and its cultural context, neatly captures my response to Trumwill's guys-do-it-too objection. Try to imagine, for a moment, a male singer making this video.

You. Can't. Do. It. A guy, asking a high-status girl to leave her high-status boyfriend? Because the boyfriend doesn't get her humor? Because the singer is the one who understands her?


The video would be a laughingstock! If it was lucky it would be taken for a Weird Al parody. At worst, the artist would have the word LOSER permenantly attached to his career.

You may object that there ARE such songs, but the ones I can think of are self-consciously dark and depressive.

This is the social context: nerd-girl's ambitions are culturally celebrated in a way that nerd-guy's ambitions would be ridiculed. Gridiron hero is urged to wake up and notice nerd-girl in a way that the cheer captain is never expected to date "down".

Yeah, I know, Judd Apatow, blah, blah, blah. It's not the same thing. Apatow creates a magical world where all girls are hotties, the female target is at the same status level as the aspiring suitor, or there is otherwise no competition. And before him, John Hughes' underdog heroes like Anthony Michael Hall and "Ducky" only succeeded with women as a comic-relief side-story to the main story of nerd girl getting the high-status guy. That's not what is being depicted in this video.

trumwill said...


The "sense of humor" is particular to that song, but are you really prepared to say that popular culture would not put forth a plot wherein a lesser guy makes a play for a greater woman with better options? And in this play he wants extra credit for being a "good person" who cares for her more deeply than said other options?

I can't speak for music and music videos because I don't listen to nearly the music as I used to, but TV and movies? Not unimaginable. The plots won't replicate the song precisely, but the main thrust of underdog guy trying to capture heart of supreme woman (wherein we are supposed to sympathize with the underdog guy) is hardly novel.

Jehu said...

Guys aren't generally allowed to make such arguments explicitly (my group should have higher status than this other group), but nearly everything we do is about status. Game is basically a way to spoof the status estimators used by the opposite sex, and it works because it's no longer considered acceptable to deal with a social threat with overt physical violence.
On the status point, since I'm basically anonymous, I can be basically honest.
An important reason why I'm vehemently against the welfare state is because it lowers the relative status of the beta provider archetype with respect to the cad/player/PUA archetype. That status distortion has major follow-on implications that are very negative for the society I live in. Women have always wanted to 'date/marry up'. This is such a constant that fighting it is futile. The best that can be done there is to remove the social and governmental support for irresponsible choices on her part. What does appear to be tractable though is defining what, precisely, is 'up'. The weighting of various male traits is sensitive to economics and culture, far more so than the reverse.

trumwill said...

After thinking it over, here are some of the examples that I have come up with. None are Judd Apatow films. If pressed, I could probably come up with more.

The first example I would use is The Wonder Years, which is basically a show about middling-popular Kevin Arnold's pining over and efforts to win over the popular Winnie Cooper. It even goes a step further insofar as we can speculate what Taylor would do if an earnest bandmember asked her out, we know what Kev does to Becky Slater the second that an opening appears with Winnie. We the audience don't necessarily likes how he goes about it, but we are meant understand. That she has boyfriends throughout is not meant to deter.

The Big Bang Theory is another great example. The nerdy and socially inept Leonard falls for the would-be actress across the hall. Unlike with Taylor, there is very little to suggest that Leonard's attraction to Penny is on anything but a superficial basis. They have nothing in common and inhabit different worlds. Since Penny is a lowly waitress, you can say that she is low status, but not in the LA dating world. Her boyfriends are the enemy.

Drew Carey had three main love interests on his show. The primary one was Kate, who is depicted as... romantically active... and is of course much more attractive than Drew. But we're supposed to root for his efforts regardless of her status and we are not meant to condemn him for aiming too high. The fat girl on the show, who on a physical basis would be a better match for him than Kate, is instead his nemesis. He's obviously meant to be with Kate. He also dated a girl named Nikki who was, at the outset, more attractive than he and this is established within the show. She doesn't have a boyfriend when he makes his original move. She does have a fiance when makes a play as she's about to get married. We're not exactly supposed to condone that (besides, he's supposed to be with Kate), but we forgive him. The third major love interest is Kellie, who is somewhat less relevant because, while established to being more attractive than Drew (notice a pattern here) he doesn't have to do much to win her over and she is down on her luck.

trumwill said...

In Two Guys and a Girl, we have everyday Pete who developes a crush for his friend Sharon. Their difference in status is less clear, but she has no trouble making boyfriends. She's about to be proposed to by her studly boyfriend Johnny when Pete subtlely makes his move. We are supposed to like Johnny okay, but Pete is the main good guy (the more honorable and sensible of the Two Guys).

Chuck is another example, and a particularly interesting one because it's been mentioned on this blog. Chuck is an $11/hr schlub who falls in love with the hot world-class spy. She's romantically entangled with a couple of peers (Bryce and Shaw), but we know that Chuck loves Sarah and that, like Winnie and Kate, she should choose him on the basis of what a really good guy he is and that his feelings for her are more genuine (though I guess it's a closer call with Shaw... but Shaw is mostly seen as an interloper on this front).

Spiderman, like Chuck, is not exactly realistic, but you have the same dynamic. Nerdy Peter Parker with Mary Jane the model. Of course, he's Spiderman with that mask, but from a social-status standpoint, that doesn't matter because if she chooses him she can't go around telling people that she's marrying Spiderman. She's marrying a photographer for the Daily Bugle.

There are other examples. Some of these fit the video more closely than others. The message, however, is clear. The romantic feelings that these lesser guys have for these greater women are valid and we hope it works out. We're not supposed to be sitting around hoping that Kevin makes do with Becky or Leonard with that girl whose name I can't even remember. They're supposed to go for the gold. She's supposed to accept the fact that he is lesser because he is so much more sincere.

This is a plot that you even see in some movies directed at a more female audience. Sweet Home Alabama has a girl making a choice between a wealthy and powerful (and, in a rare twist, pretty nice and decent) guy that is the son of the Mayor of New York City. She chooses her ex-boyfriend, a carpenter or somesuch, leaving the rich guy jilted on their wedding day. In Can't Hardly Wait, Jennifer Love Hewitt is dating a jerkly football king. A move is made by Ethan Embry, who has carried a torch for her forever, and they end up together.

Not every aspect of the Swift video applies to any specific example, but every aspect from the really nerdy protagonist to the girl with more romantic options is touched on here and there.

Novaseeker said...

The message to the beta male in the video seems clear enough: you had better drop the clarinet and learn some game, boy, because even the nerd girl next to you in the band is after the football player.

That's not a pretty message, but it isn't a negative one. Guys like the clarinet player in the video *do* need to wake up and realize how girls/women really are, and dispelling those illusions at 16 is not the worst thing in the world that can happen. At that age he has plenty of time to learn Game, drop the beta male hobbies, and increase his attractiveness level to peer level women.

It's Game or Warcraft, really. Your choice.

bobvis said...

Rewrite your story, except now the protagonist is the girl clarinet player. She is interested in the male clarinet player next to her, but he is obviously pining away for the head of the cheerleading squad even though she is with the quarterback of the football team.

In your experience is this altered story more or less realistic? In my view, it is more likely.

trumwill said...

At that age he has plenty of time to learn Game, drop the beta male hobbies, and increase his attractiveness level to peer level women.

You don't have to drop your beta male hobbies. You just have to supplement them with things that people outside your circle will care about. I lot of it is just about becoming a more interesting person in general.

Φ said...

Trumwill: you provide a lot of potential counter-examples, and I may have to moderate my generalization. But here are my thoughts:

The salient feature of all of them, to the extent that I am familiar with the shows, is that in none of them is the male protagonist shown spurning the company of like-status girls while he pursues a relationship with the high-status girl. Taylor Swift is nothing if not candid, and her willingness to portray this aspect of the dynamic is what makes that video so powerful.

The one exception to this may be the Wonder Years; that said, I never got the impression that Winnie was meant be cast as categorically out of Kevin's League. But I didn't watch more than a few episodes, so I could be wrong about that.

Otherwise, let's take them one at a time.

When I abandoned Chuck mid-second season, super hot super spy wasn't having sh!t to do with him romantically, although the writers teased us endlessly about that. And the other women Chuck encounters are all hot too, with the exception of Morgan's girlfriend who was never in that kind of position with Chuck.

That Drew Carey is heavy-set is obviously a strike against him, but his status on the show doesn't reduce to just that. And again, all the women major female characters are hot, and all guys kind of dorky. The fat girl you mentioned is there only to be his nemesis.

I've never seen Two Guys and a Girl, but the status differentials are the key to this dynamic. Ditto for Sweet Home Alabama. First, while Reese Witherspoon's character made good in the big city, she has roots and a previous marriage back in Alabama. Second, Josh Lucas is good looking and has achievements of his own. So while he is certainly lower status than Patrick Demsey's character, he is not lower status than Reese Witherspoon. This distinction is relevant to several of your examples: underdog guy may try to usurp overdog guy, but in pursuit of a girl with underdog status or background, and is often being treated badly for that reason.

Of course, all this may be quibbling over details. I'm essentially arguing that the Taylor Swift video represents a significant cultural meme, while these others are male fantasies served up for entertainment purposes only, not to be tried at home so-to-speak. I can't prove that, and I know that Sheila has argued the entertainment reinforces the fantasies to our social detriment (or something).

Φ said...

Bobvis! Welome back! I hope all is well?

To answer your question, I can't prove the relative frequency between men and women of the punching-above-your-weight-class fantasy. But the reason I cite the video is not that I think the female aspiration is un-realistic: far from it! Our football player may actually rotate his affections around, thereby reinforcing the female fantasy. The male fantasy, in contrast and popular entertainment to the contrary, is almost never reinforced by men's real-world experience.

bobvis said...

All is well. I have basically given up blogging, but I will sort of remember it every once in a while.
Take care!

Novaseeker said...

That's exactly it, really.

For women, it isn't a fantasy that a high average woman (say 6 and over) can get the most desirable guy, even for a 'boyfriend' for a while (soft commitment for him, mostly hoodwinking, but some guys will do that for a while), and certainly for lots shy of actually becoming an even temporary 'girlfriend'. That's just reality because of the male tendency to desire variety and play the field to the extent he can do so -- and the most desired guys can do so with abandon. The "fantasy" bit for women is that the high average (cute 6) girl can actually get the super-high-status guy to commit to her anything more than short to short-med term -- that's very uncommon, and that's where the real fantasy lies for women. But I think you're quite right that the cultural meme of women in that category pining for the top status men and blowing off peer value men is quite accurate and well-established and happens all the time.

For men, the fantasy of the 6 equivalent guy getting the 9-10 girl is not based on reality -- it's pure fantasy. Most guys don't even bother hitting on 9s and 10s and go straight to the 6s and 7s peer value women ... only to find they are blowing them off and throwing themselves at the male 9s and 10s. That's the current reality.

trumwill said...

Dude, you left out The Big Bang Theory. That was one where sexual status (and Leonard's complete lack of it) is pretty central. Likewise Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can't Hardly Wait was the unattainable beauty chained to the quarterback.

As tempting as it is to quibble over the details, where I think you're wrong in numerous spots, I'll try to keep it limited to The Wonder Years.

Winnie wasn't necessarily cast as Kevin's better, but the status differential as the series progressed was a pretty key component to the show. In the sixth grade she was dating an 8th grader. In the 8th grade she was dating a star athlete. The barriers-to-access created by this differential is one of the two major barriers between Kevin and Winnie.

Back to the main topic, I don't know how you look at this video and honestly say that it's not fantasy-projection and think it's something more while dismissing counterexamples as obvious fantasy.

I agree that such fantasy-projection can indeed reinforce groundless optimism. I think it does so mostly on the margins, though. And I don't think that it's something that only happens to one gender or the other. Fortunately, I also think it's something that most people outgrow.

trumwill said...


What you describe as commonplace is simply not something that I regularly saw. Certainly not the 6/10 dynamic. The actual 10s at my high school did not need to reduce themselves to 6's even on a short term basis. Far more common is the 8 trying to get a 10 and the 6 trying to get an 8 and so on.

The most unrealistic expectations I saw with the widest gulfs was not 6-10, but rather 2-6. It's the people at the bottom, both male and female, with the most unrealistic expectations. Well, those that hadn't given up entirely.

Anonymous said...

As I noted at Trumwill's, I had a pleasant surprise this evening when working at a kisok in the local shopping mall (yes, kiosks work fairly well for soliciting sales of insurance and financial services). Mindful of this thread I was taking note of all the many young couples I saw. It was my reasoned conclusion that if you're an ordinary looking, 50th percentile young man in his teens or early 20's, you still have a decent chance of getting yourself an acceptable if not necessarily 8+ girlfriend. It is not necessary to be the star quarterback of the football team.


Novaseeker said...

What you describe as commonplace is simply not something that I regularly saw. Certainly not the 6/10 dynamic. The actual 10s at my high school did not need to reduce themselves to 6's even on a short term basis. Far more common is the 8 trying to get a 10 and the 6 trying to get an 8 and so on.

Okay, so let's put it this way -- 6-7 women aiming at 8-9 men with some success (again, not for the long-term commitment, but for more soft commitment few month long 'boyfriend' relationships). In college that shifts more decisively to hooking up. Hooking up was just getting started when I was in college in the 1980s, but as it was happening it was directionally hypergamous as I have described, which left many of the male 5-7 crew drinking beer with their buddies. Some of the 5-7 crew were getting laid with the *remainder* of the peer women who were not mating hypergamously up, but the competition for those was keen given the smaller number of them relative to peer level men at those levels, and it came down to whether you thought bending over backwards to compete for a peer level woman, or one 1-2 levels below, was worth the effort. So, okay, it wasn't 6+ girls often getting 10 guys, but rather 6s going for 8s and so on. Directionally, the same as what I was saying, just jigger the numbers slightly down -- still hypergamy, which generally floats women up the pole and leaves peer level men with a relative lack of peer level women, something which also serves to inflate the value of such peer level women as remain.

As for the phenomenon of low SMV people having standards that are "too high" for them, that isn't really hypergamy as much as it is the reality that there is an attractiveness "floor" for men and women alike, and that floor is independent of their own level of attractiveness. The man or woman in question may be a 2 or 3 themselves, but they can't make themselves be attracted to another 2 or 3, so they pine for someone who is at least at the attractiveness floor -- which, for many people, is probably at least a 5 of the opposite sex, sometimes a 6. It's true that these people would be better off if they could adjust and find peers attractive, but in reality they are human like everyone else -- and as a result they tend to find attractive the same ones everyone else does -- again, that seems to be independent of their own attractiveness value. This isn't ubiquitous, of course. Most of us will have come across happily paired couples of 3s and 4s -- people who have somehow been able to ratchet their attractiveness "floor" downward to a realistic level for what they themselves bring to the table. But that's probably the floor, as well. Male and female 2 and below are true omega category people and don't bring much to the table for anyone, and really can't have any reasonable expectation of relationships -- which is okay, socially, I think, because per the curve of attraction, there aren't all that many 2 and below of either sex (although more men there than women, as is the case for the curve in general).

Novaseeker said...

It's also the case, as I've discussed with my girlfriend, that the degree to which this continues to play itself out, post-college, very much depends on where you live. The most hypergamously "driven" women tend to self select and place themselves in a handful of big blue cities: NY, DC, SF, LA, Boston, to a lesser extent Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and so on. In these places you'll see that hyper-hypergamy that we see on many college campuses playing itself out for longer. It was certainly my experience in Manhattan in the early 1990s after I finished law school, and my law school buddies who were living in DC at the time had the same basic experience. I think, however, that if you are living in Pittsburgh or Des Moines or Cleveland or someplace like this, that the degree and intensity of the hypergamy is a lot less pronounced because the most hypergamously ambitious women from such places have often self selected themselves to move to Bright Lights/Big City type places. In my adult life, I've only lived in the latter type places (NYC, DC, London, Frankfurt) and so the behavior I've seen reflects the women (and men) who self-select for these types of environments. My girlfriend, who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, relates that her experience was much less direct hypergamy, although she is also very surprised by how she sees women behaving in the DC area, to be sure.

On the margins, it would appear that geographic location (and the cultural differences and self selection associated with those different locations) does have a significant impact on mating behaviors and patterns.

Φ said...

Trumwill: I will concede you The Big Bang Theory.

From what you describe, The Wonder Years tells the poignant story of childhood friends that play together as equals, yet grow in adolescence to occupy wilding different rungs. So tell me: does Kevin ever get with Winnie? Under what circumstances does that occur?

Likewise, does Drew Carey ever get with Kate? Does Jennifer Love Hewitt ever condescend to have a relationship with the lower-status guy?

The story of a lovestruck young man mooning after a girl is a long-standing one. But seldom is the status ambition as transparent as in the Swift video.

But you are absolutely correct that the 2-6 dynamic is the most common in real life. And the most heart-breaking.

Φ said...

Novaseeker: I wanted to remark on your earlier comment about HS clarinet players learning game. To the extent that by "game" you mean social skills in general, then yes, absolutely, I agree.

But to the extent that you mean "game" in the evo-psych way that Jehu describes it -- "a way to spoof the status estimators used by the opposite sex, [which] works because it's no longer considered acceptable to deal with a social threat with overt physical violence" -- is going to be very difficult to use in high school. For one thing, it is still acceptable, or at any rate and ongoing practice, to use violence against other males. And second, in the pressure-cooker environment of high school where everybody knows most everybody else, it would be almost impossible to spoof the estimators. For instance, you could never pretend to be a star athlete.

trumwill said...


Your description of Kevin and Winnie is very well put. I think that the argument can actually be made that there may be a similar dynamic in the music video (though not the song itself absent the video). Next door neighbors where one grows up to be a star and the other grows up to be weird.

Kev & Winnie have a few period of being together, but their human foibles and circumstances prevent them from ending up together. A product of two people without much of any foundation and the problems that *always* occur when one is in far deeper than the other.

Drew and Kate don't end up together, but mostly because the actress for Kate leaves the show. They replace her with a new character named Kellie, who kinda takes up where Kate left off (the characters are pretty different, but I wouldn't be surprised if the original storyboards were written for Kate). Drew and Kellie end up together.

Hewitt and Embry end up together in Can't Hardly Wait.

Novaseeker said...

Phi --

That's true, in terms of being able to use alpha projection Game in HS. As you say the more generalized social skills could still be put to good use. Game itself will be more useful in college (especially if he attends a large state school where there is a lot of practical anonymity) and post-college. But if he learns it earlier, he will at least (1) have a realistic view of women and (2) have more practice at it for when it becomes much more deployable as he ages into and beyond college.