What Spawns the Eternal Question?

So, last week I talked about the debate about Ginger or Mary Ann and said that I’d talk more about it later.  I originally was thinking about talking more about the social aspects of this, but then in thinking about it decided that I actually had more to say about the aspects in the media that create these rather common debates, and so decided to just make it fit into my normal media analysis slot, and so that’s why you’re getting it today instead of, say, Wednesday.

But let me start with some of the social aspects.  What we get in most of these cases is a case where the TV execs and writers and various people doing analysis look at the shallow aspects and decide that the sexpot is going to be the one who gets all the male attention and the nice girl is going to be liked, but dominated by the sexpot.  The reason they think that is the common societal expectation that all men care about are looks, and are even shallow enough that all they really care about is the breast size of women (see the jokes about Caroline being less attractive than Max from “Two Broke Girls” based on Caroline being too “flat”, which she wasn’t).  And there is some truth to that.  But when we look at these debates, we can see that there is a difference between thinking about the women for simple fun and sex and thinking about them for a longer-term relationship.  Pretty much every defender of the plainer option says that while the sexier option would be fun, the plainer option is more grounded, more relatable, and/or better for a longer term relationship.  Yes, men’s eyes will be drawn to the sexy and fun option, and yes they might fantasize about having one perfect date with them that they would like to end in sex.  But when they think about a longer term relationship, then that sexy and fun one really doesn’t seem like someone that will actually work.  She’ll be too high maintenance.  They won’t be able to keep up.  She doesn’t really have anything to offer other than looks and so will get boring in a long-term relationship.  Whereas the plainer girl has more skills that are more useful in a long-term relationship.  She shares more of their interests.  She’d be happier with the sort of life that they could provide for her and so isn’t as high maintenance.  The sexier girl would make a good fling or trophy wife, but most men are looking for something else.

This is something that we’ve known for a while, at least back to the competing movies of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes”.

So if men are thinking about long-term relationships, then they find the women who are more suited for that role more interesting than women who would seem to be more fun, exciting and sexy but who wouldn’t work for that role.  And to tie this back to media analysis, it turns out that TV shows lend itself to thinking about longer-term relationships than a quick fling.  The reason is that we see these women every week for months and years.  We learn a lot about them.  We get to see into their daily lives and get to know them really, really well.  And that’s what men would be doing if they were trying to see if a woman was right for a longer-term relationship.  So we get to learn about them in a context that biases us towards considering how they’d be in a long-term relationship.  Small wonder, then, that many men end up evaluating their appeal based on how well their values map to what they’d want in such a relationship.

But I think that the reason these sorts of debates are so common is because of how these sorts of characters are built.  Despite not wanting to set it up this way and instead in general wanting us to find the “sexier” woman the more appealing to date of the pair, through their writing decisions they end up creating this precise situation, where the plainer but nicer woman ends up being better liked a lot of the time.  Note that here I’ll be talking about cases where in the cast you have a pair of women who are good friends — and not rivals — and don’t have a group of them.  If you have more than two, the characters end up each representing different types of women and so their appeal will be based on which of those is more your type.  Here, whether the two women are protagonists or part of the supporting cast, you will end up with one that is more shallow and more boy-crazy and more appealing to them and one that is plainer but less shallow.  When it comes to attracting men, we are supposed to think that the former will almost always win out over the latter, but over the lifetime of the show most of the time it’s the latter that the audience will like more.

So, let’s start with pure physical attractiveness.  And the first issue is that in TV land unless you are specifically looking for an unattractive woman you, well, aren’t going to find one to cast.  So just selecting from the best actresses available to you your supposedly “plainer” woman is going to be a pretty attractive woman, at least as attractive as and maybe more attractive than the supposedly “sexier” one.  So what they’re going to want to do is try to “dress her down”, adding glasses and more conservative clothing than the other one.  However, most of the audience will be able to look past that image to at least say “You know, if she dressed and did her hair better …” and for a significant part of the audience that very image itself will be more appealing that the more standard “sexy” image.  So pretty much all of the audience will see that she’s attractive, and some of the audience will think that she’s more attractive than the one that’s supposed to be the more attractive one, and some of that audience will think that because of the image that she conveys.  This is more commonly represented with the gripe of “I can’t believe that someone that attractive can’t get dates just because she puts on glasses and has an unflattering hairstyle!”.  It’s really hard to make a dateless woman in TV without making her incredibly unattractive.  “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” actually did this the best that I’ve seen, by having Sabrina’s dateless friends be quite attractive, but making their personalities such that guys didn’t want to approach them or didn’t want to go on a second date with them.  But that move isn’t easily available here.

And as it turns out, the writers don’t want to make them be completely unattractive.  They want the character to be likeable, and so want to use physical appeal to help with that.  Also, they’d like to be able to do dating-type plots, and that won’t work if the character is too unattractive.  They also might want to have the character get a boyfriend at some point to facilitate some plots, which again requires that she be attractive.  Also, there’s a huge benefit to at some point having her drop her plainer image and “reveal” that she’s really strikingly attractive.  So being attractive is actually a plus for the writers.

So now we have two women, one being portrayed as sexier and one being portrayed as plainer.  Since they aren’t direct rivals, they need to be characters that can be friends.  But since this is TV they can’t be identical either, because that would be boring and would limit the plots that the show can use.  So you want them both to be likeable in some way, you want both to be friends so you want to be able to show what they each bring to the table, and you want them to be different enough to be distinct personalities.  So setting one up as the sexier, boy-crazy and fun-loving one with the more down-to-earth and plainer one works really well, since we can see what they each bring to the table but they don’t have to be that different to get the different reactions.  In fact, it’s a long-standing conflict between the more shallow and fun-loving sort of character and the more conservative and deeper character, usually resolved by both of them realizing that the mindset of the other has its advantages.  So the “sexier” one will be more shallow and the “plainer” one will be deeper, but they’ll like the fact that they can gain the advantages of the other mindset just by listening to each other even as the mindsets annoy them at times.

So they can be different without being rivals … most of the time.  But remember how the writers want to be able to do dating plots?  Well, one of the dating plots that they want to be able to do are plots where the two friends end up competing over the same guy.  And since the “sexier” woman has been getting more dates up to this point, the more interesting plot will be one where the “plainer” woman wins in the end (which is even more credible by how attractive she is when she dresses more sexy).  But in order for that to really work, what we want is to feel that the “plainer” woman doing this is actually a triumph.  So we need to feel happy that she managed to win out over her “sexier” friend.  And if they aren’t rivals, we can’t do that on the basis that the other woman is just a bad person, but we still need to find a way to feel that the “sexier” woman deserves to lose that contest and the “plainer” woman deserves to win it.  And since the entire structure is built on the “sexier” woman being the more attractive and more popular with guys, you can’t really do it on the basis that the “plainer” woman is really more attractive.  So we need to find another way to make that work out.

And there’s two ways that they do that.  The first is making the “plainer” woman nicer and less shallow than the “sexier” one.  This then triggers the idea, as noted above, that the “plainer” woman might not be as attractive as the “sexier” one, but she has a better personality, and so in that sort of contest — especially if it’s for someone who looks like a boyfriend rather than just a simple date — we think that personality should win out.  The other way is to make it clear that the “plainer” woman is an underdog in the contest, and so we want to see the underdog take the day.  And the way to do that is to have a set-up in that episode and ideally outside of that episode where it is clear that the “sexier” of the two is the more popular with the guys, and so the show will fairly constantly make comments about how the “sexier” woman is the one who should win those sorts of contests.  So in that episode no one — not even the “plainer” woman — will think that she can win, making her unexpected victory all the sweeter for the audience.

So let’s look at how all these elements combine.  We have a “plainer” woman who is nevertheless about as attractive if not more so than the “sexier” one, and is someone who has a better personality than the “sexier” one and so is nicer and more sympathetic than the “sexier” one, who the show constantly ribs about being less attractive than the “sexier” one.  But because the character is indeed actually attractive, we can see that those comments and scenes are undeserved.  She’s constantly made out to be and made to feel the less attractive of the two, and by a large margin at that, when that isn’t at all the case.  So we feel that she’s being treated unfairly, and so feel sorry for her.  And we feel that she’s being treated unfairly precisely over her not being attractive.  This, then, makes us view her sympathetically, and want to defend her against these unfair charges.  Which makes us insist that she isn’t less attractive than the other one.  And, in fact, she’s actually more attractive because she’s pretty close in looks but is a much nicer and down-to-earth and less shallow person.  So we like her so much better, and everyone should want to date her more than the sexier one.

Thus, we end up in this debate because the role depends on us being constantly reminded that she’s supposed to be the less attractive one, and we both don’t think of her that way and feel that she’s being treated unfairly when we do that.  So the debate ends up being so strong because we are defending someone that we like — and are supposed to like — from what we feel are grievously unfair charges.  I felt the same way about the “sexier” option in “What I Like About You”, where they treated Tina like someone that they didn’t like despite her being nicer and more of a friend than Val’s friend Lauren was, and so felt that she was being treated badly in a way that she didn’t deserve, which only made me like her more, and more than they probably intended.  We will try to defend characters against what we feel are undeserved charges, and the entire structure here makes “She’s the plainer one and the other one is the more attractive one!” an undeserved charge leveled constantly against a likeable character.

Note that this isn’t as much of a problem when the two are the protagonists, because there they tend to make the main protagonist the more likeable one to take advantage of the likeability of the nicer one to build a connection, and so if that plot is pursued it’s seen as a challenge for the main character instead of as a clash between the two.  The focus is more directly on the nicer character which means that we can avoid the direct challenge and, at times, can even have it so that the nicer one actually loses that competition.

So that’s the real issue here, I think:  they build a character that we are sympathetic to and constantly push the undeserved line that that character isn’t as attractive as the other character.  No wonder, then, that so many people spend so much time insisting that it’s just not true.

One Response to “What Spawns the Eternal Question?”

  1. About Eva | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Island” I found an episode that spawned a reaction in me that provides support for my theory that what spawns people strongly defending the “nice girl” over the […]

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