A bit on sexism, courtship, and compatibility


A few weeks ago, I discussed Aristotle’s rhetorical situation with my basic composition class and gave the students a writing exercise. I divided them into pairs and had them construct a rhetorical situation for their partner by defining the writing purpose, profiling the audience, and describing the social/historical context of the participants or the aesthetic context of the text. Each student then wrote an essay according to the given constraints. A couple of essays were read in class, their effectiveness evaluated by the audience.

One (male) student wrote an advertising copy for striptease classes targeted at women ages 21-45. The selling point: learning sexy moves would not only help women achieve bodies like that of a Victoria’s Secret model (actual example) but also let them find or keep a man. It would also allow them to socialize with other women so they could tell each other about their sexy stories. Alas, he was not able to convince a single female student to invest in such classes.

Another (female) student wrote a speech encouraging women to play hard-to-get—like, avoid him even if you enjoy his company, say no even if you mean yes, to make him work harder for you. This, she said, would prove that he values you enough to chase you. She added that in relationships, it was “natural” for men to be the pursuers, and the women to be pursued. More than half of the class was convinced.

In evaluating the essays, the students and I interrogated the assumptions about gender underlying the rhetoric they used. From that exercise and others* like it, I realized again that though some people maintain that we live in a post-feminist world (and though I sometimes personally feel tedium upon reading feminist tracts), and though overt forms of sexism are often readily shot down, in many ways we remain blind to subtle, soft forms of sexist discrimination. In many ways women remain complicit in their own oppression by failing to interrogate gender stereotypes and patriarchal assumptions. How can a man realize that a “no” means NO, that hesitation is not invitation, when we encourage each other to effectively lie in the spirit of play?


I was surfing the web about literature and game theory when I stumbled upon an article titled “Gaming Mr. Darcy” about Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist. “Economics and the psychology of courtship can strategically intersect in interesting ways,” states the article, explaining how courtship is essentially a matter of cost-benefit analysis and showing how this kind of strategic thinking manifests in the novels of Jane Austen.

I do not think of courtship merely as a game to be won, a scheme of moves and countermoves and subterfuge executed to “possess” another. I think of it as an occasion for meaningful conversation, a space for two persons to paint their inner worlds and express what is usually hidden—beliefs, fantasies, fears, memories, desires—and see whether the other may find something worthy of exploring or sharing there. Even so, I recognize that romantic love—and the desire for commitment it often entails—is evaluative (and therefore must involve some form of cost-benefit analysis), though it is not always meritocratic, if by “merit” we mean the usual standards for excellence, such as intelligence and skill, wealth, social influence, and so on, removed from considerations of compatibility—one does not, for instance, typically ask to see a potential lover’s CV and decide whether to love him or not on that account. Rather, one fosters experiential, intellectual, emotional, and physical intimacy with another in the process of courtship or even friendship to find out whether shared values, worldviews, or dreams might exist to fuel (that is, to sustain, not merely kindle) a mutually fulfilling relationship that could help both parties to self-actualize. Hence, the importance of sincerity and process toward mutual knowledge in courtship—one would not want to waste time on another, who, despite his pretensions to the contrary, may not have or want to offer anything of value (like concern or pleasant company) to add to one’s life.

It is interesting to note that in Jane Austen novels, the guy who gets the girl is the one who has no game; the girl who gets the most decent guy is the one who makes no play. We play with each other in myriad ways and for myriad ends, but I don’t think we should play with feelings. It is difficult enough to be human without realizing the pitfalls of tenderness.


One evening, over dinner, a friend told me that she was reluctant to seek commitment because she was afraid that rejection would deal a grave blow to her self-esteem, that is, she was afraid of being deemed “not good enough” by someone she loved. I told her that it does not make sense to say, “We didn’t work out because I’m not good enough,” because relationships aren’t a one-way street. If it doesn’t work out, it’s probably because the persons involved do not make a good enough match. Even a relationship between two excellent characters could turn insipid or torturous if they do not “click.”

Of course, “clicking together” doesn’t mean that a couple has to enjoy the same kinds of music and movies and books, or subscribe to the same ideologies, only that they should be mature enough to acknowledge and engage with opinions different from their own, though they may not be swayed to abandon or even revise their own convictions. A bit of foot-stamping or teeth-gnashing may even be welcome, as long as such behavior doesn’t devolve to further violence or the desire to crush the other party’s arguments past all reason. I, for one, wouldn’t like to be in the sort of relationship in which my partner and I agreed on everything. I imagine it would be very boring. Though I seek harmony in my daily life and my interactions with other people, I admit I have a competitive streak and enjoy healthy debate about topics of interest. Disagreement, I think, does not sever good relations so much as willful ignorance or dismissiveness. Is there anything more insulting than being made to feel that your opinions have no value at all to merit consideration?

* Upon reading student essays universally damning men as dickheads, or viewing women as pretty trophies for well-executed wooing, I had the same class read an excerpt from “Sexism” by Marilyn Frye for the session on Compare and Contrast. I then divided them into groups and had the boys profile the “ideal (feminine) woman” in terms of personal characteristics, behavior, and values. Had the girls do the same for the “ideal (masculine) man.” According to their (unfortunately quite predictable) responses, the ideal man makes the woman feel secure (physically, economically, relationship-wise, e.g. he does not flirt with other women) and protected, while the ideal woman makes the man feel esteemed and cared for emotionally (she is sweet, cheerful, compassionate, etc.). Then we interrogated where these values came from, and drew distinctions between sex, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity.


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