Men and women are different. There's no getting around that fact. But when we try to avoid it, and try we do, the outcome is downright comical.
Have you ever met anyone who launched a dating service? Chances are, it’s because they couldn’t get a date on their own. Such, at any rate, was my conclusion after hearing about the entrepreneurial endeavors of a onetime classmate of mine who recently dropped out of the History program at UC Berkeley. He formed a website devoted to setting up Jewish men like himself with gentile women. Now, without getting too nasty about it, let’s just say that this fellow ... was not exactly famous around these parts as a ladies’ man. Clearly his "dotcom" venture is aimed at more than attracting investment capital.
If you scour the Internet these days, you will find literally hundreds of similar companies, a fact which, to my mind, reflects not just unrealistic "dotcom" start-up euphoria, but also a disturbing degree of romantic desperation in our society. And if you actually read the bizarre mission statements on these sites, the underlying cause behind this desperation is not hard to fathom: millions and millions of Americans have simply become romantic illiterates.
What does my former colleague, for example, propose to accomplish with his match-making service, aside from helping himself meet women? "While most other dating websites either ignore cultural and ethnic differences or exist exclusively for one particular group of people," he writes in the latest idiom of politically correct "diversity" speak, the website "embraces these differences. Our goal is to create an engaging, stimulating environment for all to enjoy." Are you melting with desire yet?
To be fair to the Internet’s legions of romantic hopefuls, they are not the only ones who are clueless these days in matters of the heart. Take this ad for a conventional Chicago-based national dating service, called "It’s Just Lunch!", which I recently came across while visiting Washington, DC. Launched by a frustrated feminist named Ms. Andrea McGinty, "It’s Just Lunch" takes a clinical approach to matching up romantically frustrated yuppies.
Not men and women, mind you — in fact, these words scarcely appear in the entire full-page ad. No, Ms. McGinty’s business tries to fix up "‘normal,’ well-educated professionals," also known as "busy and successful individual[s]" who choose to become "clients" of "the service." So pained is Ms. McGinty to avoid using the dreaded terminology of sexual differentiation that she resorts frequently to indeterminate third-person pronouns, as in the following watered down come-on which, I presume, is meant to sound appealing to singles looking for dates:
While both people will know a lot about each other, last names and phone numbers are not given. It’s up to the clients to do so after they have met — and most of them do exchange phone numbers and make plans to get together again. Then, they each check in with the company and give feedback on the date.
Anyone paying the slightest attention, incidentally, will already be somewhat suspicious about the efficacy of such a bland approach to dating. Company founder Ms. McGinty, after all, is apparently still single — all we learn about her in the ad (aside from her attachment to the "Ms." title) is that she was jilted "weeks before [her wedding]," tried a bunch of blind dates and personal ads, and then launched her lunchtime dating service. Which apparently hasn’t done the job.
When exactly was the moment in American history when men stopped being men and women stopped being women? In one form or another, this question has been vexing me ever since I started spending time in Europe in the early 1990s. As any American woman who has traveled abroad knows only all too well, men are different elsewhere, especially in southern European or Latin American countries — they are more chivalrous and "manly" but also more lewd, in every way more aggressive. And women, too, are different elsewhere: more blatant in displaying their sexuality, more submissive to authority, more coy and manipulative, less independent.
Now I’d be the first to admit that there are numerous advantages to the more egalitarian way of doing things in America. Long before contemporary feminists declared war on men, American women displayed an independent streak visible to any European visiting the New World. On the nineteenth century frontier, Tocqueville noted an admirable strength in American women, a selfless work ethic without which this vast country would never have been settled and civilized. The brash, outspoken American city woman, too, has always been a great fixture in English literature. A recent example of this is Charlie, the sexy New York-based journalist in Robert Harris’ Fatherland, whose refusal to back down to all manner of male intimidation ultimately saves the world from Nazi tyranny.
Lately, though, I have begun to wonder how far this all can go. Feminism, greater economic equality, and the creeping legal regulation of male-female interaction in the schools and the workplace that ostensibly helps "level the playing field" — all these developments were perhaps inevitable in a country that so prizes the individual’s right to enrich himself or herself, at the expense of family or communal values. Because such trends are so rooted in fundamental political values that all Americans share, it seems there is no end to the disruption they will cause to our social fabric, from traditional family structure (already all but obliterated in much of the country) to dating patterns and the most elemental human interactions between the sexes.
Take, for another illustrative example, the late swing-dancing craze. When I first got wind of this retro revival a few years ago, I was intrigued. Not only have I always loved big band swing music, but I loved the clothes too. Any period movie from the 1940s drives me wild with this incomprehensible nostalgia, as if in some prior life I had lived through the drama of wartime and got out my frustrations with the evils of the world on the dance floor. And it all looked so hot! The men were manly, the women were alluring, and there wasn’t a feminist or socialist bureaucrat in sight. Surely, I thought, this Lindy hop thing would serve as a remedy to the romantically-deadened aspects of contemporary American society that depress me.
But then I actually signed up for a swing-dancing class. And well, it was a little disappointing. It’s not merely that any retro phenomenon must inevitably fail to live up to the "real thing," because the social energies which gave rise to it in the first place no longer exist. Swing dancing, so far as I can guess, must have drawn its erotic charge in the 1940s largely from being rebellious or "forbidden" by parents — it was as close to sex as many teenagers and even twentysomethings would get, short of marriage. And as anyone who has churned through a contemporary high school knows, for most young Americans these days, nothing is forbidden.
No, a more fundamental problem is that, in many "enlightened" cities in the U.S. today, the entire premise of single dancing between eligible men and women, excited by and yet also wary of one another, has simply vanished.
Take the gender-neutral terminology of your average swing-dancing class. The participants are not "men" and "women," but rather "leaders" and "followers." And men can be followers as well as leaders, just as women can. Of course most men choose to be leaders, and most women choose to be followers, but merely by allowing everyone to choose their "role," these classes force a "progressive" feminist agenda down everyone’s throat that punctures the erotic allure of the dancing.
In one class I entered recently in Berkeley, Calif., the male-female ratio was so lopsided (about 12 to 7) that there were nearly as many men "following" as women. This raised several questions, aside from the obvious problem of whether I wanted to partner-dance with guys ... First of all, why were there so many more men than women taking the class? Since there were, so far as I could see, no actual couples present, my first guess was that these men were all looking to meet women. If so, they were to be sorely disappointed — not only was the ratio stacked against them, but most of the women didn’t seem particularly interested in the men.
I can’t say I blame them. Aside from the rather un-masculine behavior of those men who agreed, incomprehensibly to me, to be "followers," there was the fact that few of the men (I won’t speak for myself) were even recognizably "men." Most were swing-dancing regulars, and they bantered casually with everyone in the room in that gender-neutral way which is hard to describe if you’ve never encountered it, meaning their voices were not recognizably deeper than the womens’, and most of them laughed and giggled in the way girls usually do when they flirt with men. For the most part, the women laughed loudly and giggled back, but then they didn’t seem to be flirting when they did this, rather they were just responding neutrally to the men, who were behaving almost identically.
So far as I could determine, none of these people was homosexual. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that, since not a single one of them appeared to have a boyfriend or girlfriend (why would they be taking a dance class alone if they did?), most, if not all of them, had entered the swing dancing scene precisely in the hope of meeting an opposite number. But after observing these men and women interacting together for weeks, I feel confident in saying that this is not likely to happen anytime soon.
ow did it become possible that a co-ed dance class, devoted to the Lindy — one of the most sexually charged partner dances ever invented — could be entirely devoid of erotic energy? I mean, not even a spark. Dead. Not like a morgue, but rather like a trip to the dentist’s office, where you get sprayed with laughing gas to distract you from the root canal. How, exactly, did American men and women morph into harmless clones of one another, with no recognizable difference between them?
Now I know this de-sexing has not happened everywhere in America. It just often seems that way, especially in the kind of "progressive" environments — university campus towns like Berkeley, or urban coastal centers like New York, Washington and L.A. — I always seem to get stuck in. I won’t speak for the mid-West or Rocky Mountain regions, where I have spent comparatively little time.
Every time I return stateside from abroad, though, I notice this phenomenon. And there are infinite variations: the dress down casualness of corporate America, where men’s and women’s fashions are no longer easily distinguishable; the timidity of educated men in the liberal Northeast (where I come from), trained to be maestros in the arts of sensitivity but rather lacking in either ruggedness or chivalry; and the brashness of many women in the Southwest, whose assertiveness often puts those liberal men to shame.
There seems to be no end to the de-sexing of America. Check out the latest TV shows aimed at "young America" on Fox and MTV, and you will be bombarded with loud, sexually aggressive women, who invariably upstage the bland, sensitive leading men who inexplicably seem to win their affections. With Hollywood teaming up with the Northeastern liberal establishment media and the universities to promote such counter-intuitive gender-neutral behavior and fashions, to mock traditional family values, and to erode every last vestige of traditional notions of manliness and womanliness, I worry that all Americans will soon resemble the de-sexed clones of my progressive Berkeley swing-dancing class, desperately in search of romantic companionship but clueless as to why they can’t find it. Pretty soon, we’ll all have our own dating services like that launched by my former Berkeley classmate — which will inevitably go bottom-up just like the internet economy, since everyone will be too busy selling their own defective products to buy anyone else’s.
There simply must be a better way. The best advice I can think of for young singles hoping to reverse the ubiquitous gender-neutral momentum is to tune out as much contemporary cultural junk as possible, listen more to parents and grandparents than to pundits and celebrities, and seek out college mentors who emphasize discipline, character and hard work over those who put a premium on gender-neutral politics and feminist-friendly feelings.
Take a swing-dancing class if you like, but make sure also to watch plenty of old movies actually made in the swing-dancing era, back when men still aspired to be strong, chivalrous and worldly (and would never be caught dead giggling, or letting a women lead them on the dance floor), and women knew that elegant modesty, teased with a coy hint of erotic suggestion, is far more alluring to men than either feminist androgyny or brazen sexual aggression. And by all means, avoid internet dating services!
It takes time to sort through the mixed messages of American pop culture and figure out what men, and women, really want and desire in the other. And romance, as the Kasses’ helpful compilation Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar suggests, is hard work. But I think it’s worth the effort to try to reverse the tide, to learn from our ancestors what it means to be worthy and desirable men, and women, to climb out of the morass of romantic confusion that currently seems to plague so many of us.
Copyright 2001 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.