Oct 312010

I’ve been thinking more about this idea of beta heroes in romance novels (comments regarding which inspired the parental investment posts).

I’m inclined to think that non-beta heroes are attractive largely from a narrative point of view – if the heroine doesn’t have good reason not to LIKE the hero, whence comes the story’s conflict?

And conflict is the heart of a story. Right?

Once (if) I get into book-writing mode, I’m going to write a book for romance novel readers, correcting some of the basic errors romance novels make about women’s sexuality. In my view, this is something they get wrong: when a woman actively dislikes someone, she’s not simultaneously drawn to him sexually. That’s a common conflict in novels, and it doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny in real life.

Example: About a year and a half ago I went on some dates with this cardiologist (I’ve mentioned him before) who was attractive to me in a lot of ways – he was plenty smart, plenty articulate, not unattractive physically, not American, and enjoyed a spirited debate. These are good things. But apart from disagreeing with me about my area of expertise, he showed not interest in or respect for my opinion. He was kind of a jerk. I was QUITE DISAPPOINTED by this.

After a date with him, I would go into the office and people would ask me how it went and I would tell them just what I’ve told you. He’d be very attractive to me if he weren’t such an arrogant, egotistical, self-involved bad listener.

And they’d go, “Oh this is how it starts!”

And I was like, “No dude. This is not how it starts.”

Because conflict may be the heart of a story, but if it’s the heart of an actual relationship, then there’s something wrong.

It’s what drove me crazy about the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice – in that moment after Darcy asks Lizzy to marry him and she’s all like, “Hell no, you’re the reason my sister is heartbroken AND you’re an arrogant, egotistical, self-involved bad listener,” they lock eyes and almost kiss.

Almost KISS!?!?

Almost kiss the dude who ruined her sister’s happiness? Whom she has found to be a jerk the whole time?

Dude. If someone ruined my sister’s happiness AND was an arrogant jerk-face, there is nothing on earth that would make him seem sexually appealing to me, no matter how pretty or smart or rich he was, and my sense is that that’s true for lots and lots of women, and mostly only not true if a woman has some Issues. And that’s why that movie is bullshit. Ya don’t have to like or even respect someone to be willing to have sex with them, but from what I’ve seen you’re not likely to be hot for someone you actively dislike.

It could be that I’m missing something. I don’t understand the concept of “frenemies” or “hate sex” and I’ve always been a social weirdo, so maybe there’s a whole phenomenon that I’ve never been aware of, even in the research, about women being sexually interested in legit assholes – not the “bad boy” phenomenon, that’s different; that seems to have a lot to do with caretaking and helping and stuff. No, I mean women aren’t, as a rule, sexually compelled by a man’s body in spite of the fact that he’s a dickhead. The fact that he’s a dickhead takes whatever sexual attraction she might feel and twists its neck like a chicken.

Am I wrong about this? Female types out there, have you had the experience of seriously wanting to fuck a boy you really didn’t like? Am I wrong in thinking that actually disliking someone – and I mean genuinely disliking him, as Lizzy dislikes Darcy in the first half of the novel – stops you from wanting sex with him?

Anyway. I know: dating someone who’s smart and articulate and not unattractive and not American AND not a jerk would make for a less interesting movie/novel/blog post/workplace anecdote.

But it would make for a more interesting date. And it would make it more likely that that someone would get laid.

Emily Nagoski

  32 Responses to “beta… revisited”

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  1. So, I will disclaim I haven’t read the non-zombie version of the book, but I thought the idea is that Liz is dealing with her feelings, since she likes Darcy despite the things he has done to mess with her sister and family. That is what I thought was neat about it, since the conflict is internal, she is dealing with her desire versus supporting her community.

    That being said, I personally feel the same about liking a person, and how attraction works. Often times I will meet someone that I am really into, and something happens (they say something, react a certain way, or smoke), and I internally downgrade them to interesting person to get to know. If they repulse me in any way, I just move along, wishing them the best (in my head), because there are plenty of interesting people that won’t generate an adverse reaction in me.

    I know that a pattern for me is that I will sometimes act like I don’t like them, almost dislike them, when I actually really like them, because that is my hang up, and I need to get over it, yadda yadda. But I try my best to not let that show, usually by avoiding them like a fifth-grader.

    • I don’t flat out act like I hate them, but I will act like I don’t know they are there/ignore them. Mostly because I’m well known for having crap taste in men and these days I’d rather observe the guy in the wild for awhile and decide if he’s worthy of the attention before I try to GET his attention. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially since it’s saved me from trolling on an engaged guy and things like that.

  2. No, Lizzy genuinely dislikes Darcy, and he really is kind of a dick in the first half of the book.

    BTW, you should read it. Most popular book in the English language, I’ve heard. Certainly one of my faves.

    But yeah, you’ll eventually want to overcome the avoiding-and- acting-like-you-don’t-like-someone-when-really-you-do thing. It’s a barrier to, you know, actually going out with the person. However it’s a highly effective strategy to prevent rejection. Some day that might be less important, though, than trying out the relationship.

    • I’ll have to pick it up. I’ll admit, I enjoy the period pieces most of all, which is why I like them remixed.

      As for my avoidance issues, I am okay with singular intimate relationships. It is when it becomes actively poly that I tend to shy away from. As soon as someone seems like they are serious beyond flirting, my default settings are to think of reasons why it wouldn’t work out.

      I am not going to get into that here, I am well aware of the reasons and trauma I am dealing with. However, I wanted to point out that I am never mean to anyone. Really, ever. If for some reason I feel that I can’t treat a person with dignity, then I get away from them; there is obvious something about them or me that is making it unhealthy.

      I don’t know anyone who is attracted to people like that, either. I do how promiscuous friends who don’t use as much discretion I would wish for them to use, but even then everyone knows what is going on, and are enjoying themselves and treating each other like decent folks should.

      If someone said, “Oh this is how it starts!”, well, I don’t know what I would say to that. That is like claiming someone “has a case of the Mondays”, it is a poorly written movie line.

      My partner and I were best of friends before we became romantically involved, and from my experience, I should probably only date from my pool of best friends, since those are the romantic relationships that last.

      Huh, there is food for thought (for me). ^_^

  3. I never understood the reason for their hookups in P&P and attributed my confusion to the difference in culture at the various time periods. I never went back for further clarification as an adult as I have for so many other stories just because the first experiences were that awful.

    To the heart of the original post – The greatest aphrodisiacs in our home are simple courtesies. “Hey while you were out I finished those items on your to-do list” makes me far more enthusiastic than “have some flowers” which I will admit is much higher on the list than “hey I wrecked your sister’s life.”

    If a guy is a jerk – he’s a jerk. Nothing else matters. I’d rather have someone who is truly decent and interested and engaged in our relationship than someone who is superficially what society deems perfect yet all of the substance is black and ugly.

  4. The personality definitely makes the person, even if society deems them unworthy in the appearance department. I’ve dated guys who my friends say “eww” too physically, but whose personality did it for me. I’ve also dated guys who were mega-hot in the looks department but who were total dicks, like Darcy. Nope, ain’t happenin.’ It’s the personality that makes a man sexually attractive to me; funny, smart, courteous, witty, great conversationalist, well read, etc. It matters not what container that type of person comes in.

  5. Of course you’re right, and this love/hate theory is bullshit.

    This is just a generalization of the idea, that what women want, doesn’t matter – do you know the cliche in old films, where a woman strongly disliking someone is found kind of exciting for the guy (because the faster the animal runs, the bigger the hunter’s glory will be)? (Like in one of the Star Wars’, where Leila hates someone, and he says something like “I like passionate women”, which implies, that the meaning of her words don’t matter).

    So they don’t take a no for an answer, and then rationalize, that “she was asking for it”/”women are ACTUALLY attracted to jerkfaces, even if they say, that they aren’t” [so it wasn't rape, oh no!].

    What a convenient theory! >:(

    And if a woman says yes, then she’s called a slut, and the romance can’t be extended to hundreds of pages.

    • I agree with Emily on not liking people I genuinely think are assholes. I do not get the hate sex thing either.

      I’m currently reading The Iron Duke right now, and while it’s a very good book otherwise (awesome worldbuilding and lead character), I seriously dislike the alpha male hero’s attitude of “You WILL BE MAH WOMAN” to the heroine by the second time they meet. Yes, it’s lovely that you admire her because she’s as strong willed as you are, but it gives me the total creeps that he acts like it’s a fait accompli. He isn’t an asshole the rest of the time, JUST when he is coming on to her, and man, I don’t even know how to feel about that. Other than it reminds me of why I hate alpha males in the first place. If anyone acted like that on me in real life I’d probably want to call the cops or get a giant man to protect me or SOMETHING.

      • Hah. And just after I said that, it occurred to me that (a) the heroine IS a cop, and (b) literally DOES have a giant man cop around to protect her, and it still gets her nowhere with this guy because he’s the most beloved (and probably richest) guy in the country.

  6. Emily: have you ever read “The Game” by Neil Strauss?

  7. I don’t know how to link something in a non obnoxious way but I came across this today and thought it related to this idea- it’s a scientific study that has concluded that anger makes people want the object more.


    There’s no evidence that the results can be generalized to human relationships, but perhaps there is some small aspect of that when you’ve already found someone to be suitable, and they do something small that pisses you off. When I’m angry with my boyfriend, I’d rather be with him to talk it through/yell at him/what have you than not. If he’s not available I get very frustrated – maybe there’s some connection to being angry with him and “wanting” him at the same time?

    • Your experience with your own partner is very likely attributable to attachment, and the study doesn’t show that angry people want things more;- it shows that being exposed to angry faces is motivating and that persistence is rewarding. It seems more likely to me that the angry face was excitatory, engaging a stress response, which activated greater attention and focus. A fear face is not threatening. That’s my interpretation.

  8. I’m totally with you in general — if I dislike someone, I have zero attraction to them, no matter how pretty they are — but there’s a similar-looking yet very different case that I think might be the source of that “you hate him, therefore you want to fuck him” trope. I think sometimes attraction, especially for people who aren’t comfortable with their sexuality, can manifest as irritation or dislike. Some of the symptoms are similar — physical arousal, disproportionate emotional investment — and if for some reason a person’s not comfortable with feeling attracted to another, it might be diverted to a feeling of antagonism. I’ve seen it happen a few times.

    This is very different from “I know you, I’ve seen the way you behave, and I think you’re an asshole.” This is a more irrational dislike, based on very limited acquaintance.

    And then there are those of us who are turned on by conflict, which is something else altogether. In any case, I think there are a couple of legitimate ways attraction and apparent dislike can go hand-in-hand. But if I really think someone’s a jerk, any attraction I might have had toward them will quickly evaporate.

  9. Ginny and Aaron are both have parts of the puzzle, I think.

    Why is it a cliche that women aren’t turned on by nice guys, and prefer jerks? Because a lot of the time it’s true. But why is it the case? I seem to recall reading some evo psych reasons why, but can’t remember what or where (on this very blog, maybe?). People in general are ignorant of their motivations (I include myself), and our motivations are often contradictory. Women more so — or so it appears, at least, to us men. Emily might be the exception.

    • I just have to object to the “women aren’t turned on by nice guys.” That cliché is mostly spread by self-labeled “nice guys,” who spin their inability to attract the kind of women they want as a character flaw in those women. Self-labeled “nice guys,” in my experience, tend to operate on the assumption that being polite and non-offensive, and occasionally bearing flowers, should be enough to earn them the affection of the woman they have their eyes on. Then, if she isn’t interested, instead of considering that they weren’t her type, or that perhaps “nice guy” wasn’t the beginning and end of her list of desirable qualities, they fall into a downward spiral of whiny self-pity, which (while still polite and non-offensive) is about the least sexy thing on earth. And then they embrace a worldview where women are pathetically misguided and the men they date are “jerks,” for no apparent reason other than they can’t possibly be as nice as the Rejected Nice Guy. It’s a twisted form of narcissism, and actually pretty insulting.

      End rant, end hijack.

  10. I think you’re absolutely right! You’ve captured it perfectly.

    But still, I think there is a dichotomy between the good mate and the good time. Both are attractive to women at different times, just as with men. Put aside the whiny “nice guys” for a sec…isn’t the attraction to “bad boys” true? Not in every time and place, but enough to explain the cliche. And there is enough of an overlap between bad boys and jerks to explain lots of what Emily is talking about.

    Re Pride and Prejudice, I agree with Maiki’s first sentence. If I can paraphrase, it’s not that you always like a jerk because he’s a jerk, it’s that sometimes you like a jerk despite his jerkosity, and that makes a better story.

    Somebody refresh my memory, what changes Elizabeth’s mind about Darcy? Besides her finding out that he loves her, I mean.

    • No, that’s the thing: you don’t like a jerk. There has to be something redeeming about him in order for you to like him, and the problem in the stories is when all that redeems him, in the heroine’s eyes, is his sexual attractiveness. Which is not how it works IRL.

      In the first half of the book, Lizzy genuinely dislikes Darcy, and with good reason. He’s arrogant and rude and thoughtless and insulting. What changes her mind? Well, he rectifies the three things she tells him are the reasons she dislikes him:

      1. He tells her the true story about Wickham.
      2. He treats her and her relatives with respect and cordiality
      3. He allows Bingley to pursue Jane.

      In other words, he listens to her and heeds her. A man who can take advice is a man to say yes to.

      (Uh, and also she visits his enormous and beautiful estate.)

      • I suspect the appeal of the bad boy (and why P&P is loved so much) is because with the Twue Wuv of a woman, he can be reformed. Darcy is beloved because he was a jerk and got over it. On his own recognizance after being called out. A lot of women would be really impressed if a guy loved them THAT MUCH that he stopped being a jerk.

        Of course in real life, “You make me want to be a better man” doesn’t actually happen very often. But I think that’s the appeal, that a guy loves you so much that he changes his personality for you.

        • No no, not his personality! That’s crucial! As Elizabeth says, “In essentials, he is very much as he ever was.” All that changes are his manners. Behavior change is not personality change. He is a good man at his core, as all heroes must be to be worthy of the heroine. He lacks only the APPEARANCE of goodness (as Lizzy puts it elsewhere); given that superficial change, he becomes “perfect amiable.”

          And it’s important, also, that Lizzy doesn’t ask him to change, doesn’t try to change him, doesn’t remotely expect him to change. He decides to do it on his own, without telling her, without asking her to give him a chance to prove himself, without even any particular hope that she’ll have him.

          These are what stop it from being a bullshit, ordinary story with bullshit ordinary characters.

      • Yeah, I think Jennifer is right, that’s a common trope. But based on real life, I think. Men DO rely on women for moral guidance, more than the other way round. Of course, merely saying you want to be a better person is more common that actually trying to do it, which is more common than succeeding. Men will do just about anything to get laid, including improving themselves if necessary.

  11. To answer your question, Emily, no, I’ve never seriously wanted to fuck a boy I really didn’t like.

    I have wanted to fuck “bad boys”, though, especially when I was going through a phase where I wanted sex more than a relationship. However, the two major examples that come to mind in that regard were both wild, rule-breaking types who had shown respect for me. One was a guy who had come onto me strongly at one point and who stopped as soon as I indicated I wasn’t interested — I kept a vague interest in him for a long time afterwards, even as I worried that I wasn’t really sexually experienced enough to take him on. The other was a man whose intellectual interest in sex had led him to listen to what a lot of women had to say on the subject, and he’d clearly learned from that. Both of them were unabashed about mainly wanting sex from women rather than any of that soft relationship stuff, and both of them occasionally voiced opinions about women and/or sex that made me wince, but the fact that I might be able to trust them anyway was essential to the attraction.

  12. Hmmm, a lot of interesting tangents. I have to pause, I don’t think I normally associate with any “nice guys” or “bad boys”. I don’t think I am exposed to anyone meeting those descriptions outside of them being depicted in various media.

    I think if someone claimed they couldn’t find a date/partner/whatever because they were a “nice guy” I would laugh, and then probably shuffle away politely. And I am not sure what a “bad boy” and I would be doing in the same room, though I imagine their self-proclaiming as much would elicit the same reaction from me.

  13. Ernie: Do men actually look to women for moral guidance in your experience? It’s common in fiction, with the female character usually being the moral center in sitcoms and adventure stories and whatnot, but in real life I can’t think of a single male friend or relative who habitually turns to a woman he knows for moral guidance. In fact, the men I know are far more likely to make private, independent decisions about what they should do than the women I know. Is my circle of friends exceptional in this?

    • Hmmm.

      Maybe I should have said that women have a civilizing influence on men. That gibes with Emily’s analysis that it’s merely Darcy’s behavior that changes, not his character.

      It’s true men are more solitary, and don’t overtly consult others as much as women do. The not-stopping-to-ask-for-directions-when-we’re-lost thing is true, for instance.

      But I think the moral influence is there. Men in general are driven very very strongly by what I can only call “the need for women.” Could be sex, companionship, conversation, attention. So men’s behavior is largely (and unconciously) shaped by what women expect. And what women expect of men, often, is for them to be more civilized than they would be otherwise.

      I want to stress that these are VERY broad generalizations, and I don’t want to hold up one sex as “naturally good” (possibly implying that they have more to live up to) and the other “naturally bad” (possibly implying they should be cut slack, morally). We all have to live up to the same standards.

      That said, what does it mean that the overwhelming majority of people in prison are men? I’m not sure it means that women are more moral than men, but it cries out for an explanation. Maybe it’s already been explained, and I’m not aware of it.

      Sorry for rambling! Anything to avoid work…:)

      • hey hey
        do a search for “the myth of male weakness”, by example, at the site of Hugo Schwyzer. He says, that

        -this myth, that men are less moral by nature, and the only reason they pretend to be human is because of the sex they want from women, is relatively new – before the industrial revolution, women were considered the lesser moral beings, and men the ones who showed them hod to be virtuous

        -believing this myth offers a too-easy escape for everything feminism want to change in men’s behaviour: “honey, I can’t help it, I’m just a man” can be applied from not remembering to do the dishes to cheating and even rape (well, he saw a short skirt, so he had NO WAY of stopping himself, the poor thing).

        -so the myth of male weakness not just dehumanizes men, but makes life for women in this society a lot more difficult.

        Men should think of themselves as persons as capable to be moral or ethical or whatever as anybody else – and never excuse themselves for anything on the ground of being “just a man”.

  14. One personal observation…

    Many guys go into ‘seduction mode’ when meeting an attractive woman, or indeed on a date. They become smarmy, dishonest, over-accommodating and generally act like a fell hybrid of doormat and used-car salesman.

    Women pick up on this in a femtosecond and most find it so repellent that when they meet a guy who is a bit of a jerk, his lack of regard for their feelings seems downright refreshing.

    This has metastasized, in the popular imagination, into the Bad Boy Myth. Women do not hate polite men – What arrant nonsense! – but they don’t respect men who will not stand up for themselves because nobody can respect that…

  15. I don’t think it’s meant to be “girls are sexually attracted to guys they actively dislike or hate for being jerks” so much as “girls are (often) attracted to guys even though they know they shouldn’t be”. Or we’re attracted to guys for reasons which don’t make sense to us and may be socially inappropriate, although probably biologically very appropriate (a strong mate can protect you and your babies, and it’s kinda hard to see the difference sometimes between ‘strong’ and ‘arrogant jerk’, especially when it’s the instinct part of your brain that’s doing the deciding and the conscious part of your brain is going ok what just happened there??).


    Arrogance is attractive, in men and women, up to a point – because arrogance is the big brother of confidence. Manipulative behaviour can be attractive – as in when you’re on the receiving end of a good seduction, or you’re teased into being in a good mood when you’ve started the day out grumpy or sad. A little bit of recklessness in someone’s nature makes them exciting to be around. Traits that can make us dislike someone can also make that someone interesting to us. Sometimes at the same time.

    What I’m saying is, it isn’t all black and white. So much of what goes into turning a woman on is inside her head, and our heads are complicated places. If none of us had urges towards the starts-out-as-a-bad-guy anti-hero type, there wouldn’t be so many raunchy romance novels featuring that type of male lead.

  16. I can think of a couple different situations — though I’ve never been in them personally — that might push a woman to go out or make out with a man she apparently dislikes.

    The first is already mentioned by a few others, the bad boy scenario — and I think what’s going on there is that some socially constructed or logical layer of you or society disapproves of the bad boy, but another part of you, typically depicted as your truer, interior self, sees something strongly attractive in him. Maybe the warning flags even egg you on. If some gorgeous biker guy tried to pick me up, making my mother faint with horror would definitely be part of the thrill. It’d change how I thought about myself and what I would do, and maybe would change how I think period. And sometimes we want to redefine ourselves and try wild new experiences.

    The second is “I want to have sex with that person and that’s all I want.” I don’t know how often people actually DO this instead of just think about it, as my targets for it were fictional characters. Sufficiently hot fictional characters that even though I knew they were manipulative, even villainous, that it was hard NOT to want them. Relationship material they were not, but a partner for a round or several of truly amazing sex? That’d be hard to say no to. Much like I’ve never taken recreational drugs, but sometimes I wonder, what is it *like* to get high on heroin or similar.

  17. Twice in my life I have, and I must admit quite successfully, made myself believe that what I felt for a guy I actually desired / was in love with was nothing positive but instead hate / annoyance / creeped-out-ness, merely based on the intensity and obsessiveness that accompany both.

    The reason was, in both cases, something to do with social restrictions I believed were to rein in my feelings (case 1: me being unpopular and totally averse to having a relationship at all, him being the most popular guy in class and belonging to a group of kids that proceeded to bully me – yes, this was in 5th grade or something and it felt very tragic at the time; case 2: me being in another relationship at the time I started feeling attracted to him and believing, again for the sake of self-imposed social norms, that I had to uphold the other relationship at all costs).

    That might account for part of this narrative because, as we know, for much of history there have been severe social restrictions placed on female desire. If she feels strongly about him but she’s not allowed to call it love/desire, she’ll call it hate/disgust?

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