Monday, June 21, 2004

Conspirator Eugene Volokh has been hosting a discussion of the controversial topic of what makes a man sexy, and whether modern men are up to snuff in that department. It all began with a comment from a friend of his to the effect that "most men can learn to be sexy", but that "most men don't really want to be sexy; they want sexy to be them". That is, they "behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting. The idea of growth and change don't make the radar." [sic]

There followed claims that men do try to be sexy, but in the wrong ways (i.e., by being financially successful, instead of elegant or charming); that male sexiness is a matter of confidence--which specifically includes comfort with one's natural self; and that women create the problem by being forgiving of poor presentation in men, while the latter are far more exacting in their standards regarding women.

What puzzles me about the whole discussion is that it takes for granted Prof. Volokh's friend's original assertion that modern men are unwilling to pursue sexiness to please women. Yet, within my lifetime, I've witnessed a veritable revolution in men's fashion, in which it has become perfectly acceptable (for some, positively mandatory) for a man to spend hours per week at the gym, building his muscles, large amounts of money on exotic hair and skin care products (and considerable time each day applying these products), and even larger amounts of money on conspicuously labeled designer clothes that at one time were seen, when worn by men, as the very symbol of risible superficiality.

In fact, the real novelty of the complaint that began the discussion is that it was phrased, not as a romantic wish for an idealized Prince Charming, but rather as a mildly petulant scolding of the not-up-to-snuff male. Of course, revulsion at slovenly, charmless men is hardly new--these were the heroines' dreaded matches in countless traditional romances of past eras. Today, though, women are not bound by the need to secure their material futures through such unappealing marriages--they can fend for themselves in the job market quite nicely, thank you. As a result, they are free to demand more from men--the same things, in fact, that men have always demanded from them: conformity to their own ideal of attractiveness and charm in the opposite sex.

And men are complying in droves, toning their muscles and highlighting their hair as demanded by the new, independent woman. No wonder Prof. Volokh's friend feels free to ridicule the blindly self-satisfied male as hopelessly uncompetitive--for in today's market, that's what he is.

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