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Discovered: New Yorker Beauty Article

A First-Rate Girl: The Problem of Female Beauty, from The New Yorker magazine

No city is filled with more beautiful women than New York. It’s the modeling capital of the world, and there are tens of thousands of models (working and not) walking the streets every day. This promise is also, in part, what attracts successful men to the city — and what keeps them working so hard.

The article is an interesting look at why some men put such a high value on having what they consider to be a “first-rate” girlfriend (which basically boils down to what they view as the “out of your league” woman / the woman everyone else wants and they’re not sure would date them). The author goes into detail about the portrayal of these men, and the women they become obsessed with, in literature.


We see the force of Jenna’s looks when Joey notices how men respond to her in public. It’s of a different order from what he experiences with Connie, his more ordinarily pretty girlfriend. With Jenna at an airport, Joey realizes, men were checking him out resentfully. He forced himself to stare down each of them in turn, to mark Jenna as claimed. It was going to be tiring, he realized, to have to do this everywhere they went in public. Men sometimes stared at Connie, too, but they usually seemed to accept, without undue regret, that she was his. With Jenna, already, he had the sense that other men’s interest was not deterred by his presence but continued to seek ways around him.

Soon after, Franzen has fun with the disconnect between beauty and desire, even when desire has been stoked by beauty. When Joey finally gets together with Jenna, he finds his attention drifting away at the very moment he should be most fully engaged (in bed). Joey notes that Jenna fooled around more brutally, less pliantly than Connie did—that was part of it. But he also couldn’t see her face in the dark, and when he couldn’t see it he had only the memory, the idea, of its beauty. He kept telling himself that he was finally getting Jenna, that this was JennaJennaJenna. But in the absence of visual confirmation all he had in his arms was a random sweaty attacking female.

“Can we turn a light on?” he said.

Eventually Joey and Jenna go to sleep, mutually dissatisfied.

As it happens, Jenna is a vacuous, spoiled drip, with little to recommend her other than her good looks. But Franzen is too fair a novelist to blame Jenna for not being the woman of Joey’s dreams. It is, rather, Joey’s obsession that is shown to be foolish. Aware of his youth, readers are likely to sympathize with his silly fixation on a good-looking woman he doesn’t even like, but we also hope that he will grow out of it.

The article goes on to come to this conclusion:

Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it. The implication is that this may be unfortunate—not exactly ideal morally—but it can’t be helped, because it’s natural, biological. This seems more than a little ironic. Women are not only subject to a constant and exhausting and sometimes humiliating scrutiny—they are also belittled for caring about their beauty, mocked for seeking to enhance or to hold onto their good looks, while men are just, well, being men.

It definitely is a tricky subject. Our media — books, magazines, TV, advertisements and even news — pushing us to value beauty and desire above all else, in an attempt to make us watch or buy whatever they’re peddling. But when men are taught that beauty is paramount, and then they are confronted with the reality that beauty alone can not keep them happy, will they (un)learn their lesson and look beneath the surface from then on, or keep on the sad treadmill of obsession?

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