oz demography

News from Australia (story here):

A plea for lovelorn female “ugly ducklings” to move to a remote Australian mining town [Mt Isa] to reverse a shortage of eligible women has landed the local mayor in hot water.

Is it just me, or is this one of these stories that causes a visceral offense reaction, but then it is harder to articulate exactly what the grounds for offense are. In the story, a woman from Mt Isa is quoted as saying, “It paints the women here as second rate and suggests the men will settle for anything. I think it’s quite disgusting.” As for her first claim, it doesn’t seem to me like it doesn’t present the women already there as second rate, just not polyandrous. And, if the issue is that it is unflattering to the men, well that seems more offensive than the original comment: Yo, ugly duckling women, don’t think that if you move here you’ll have any better luck finding a man who’ll see anything redeemible in you. Our men are better than that. So, then, is it offensive because it implies that unattractiveness is a cause of being single? Or, that single people might be motivated to move somewhere to have better mating prospects? Or, that men seem to place a high value on physical attractiveness? Or, that it should be the single women who are moving instead of the single men (but, wait, he’s the mayor, so presumably he wants to bring people to his down)?

Granted, it’s easier for me to explain why the statement can be taken as offending the mayor’s town. You can imagine seeing the sign as you drive into the town: Mt Isa: Whatever Else, It Beats Dying Alone.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

20 thoughts on “oz demography”

  1. You don’t think calling women “ugly ducklings” (or, what did he say? Beauty-challenged or some such thing?) is somehow insulting? He’s making all sorts of assumptions about so-called ugly women, what they want out of life, what’s best for them, etc.

    And why is he only telling the women to move? Because women’s careers and home lives and families aren’t as important as men’s? Feh. It’s not difficult for me to pin down why this is all kinds of foul.

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  2. It’s weird. I mean, yes, my gut reaction is “all kinds of foul.” I’m having a harder time figure out what’s the grounds for that reaction, though.

    With the women vs. men moving, he’s the mayor of the town and so he wants people moving in rather than moving out. Unattractive men probably wouldn’t be a swayed by a we-have-five-men-to-every-woman, so-move-here-and-you-will-really-never-have-any-chance-of-finding-love argument.

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  3. Oh c’mon, Ang…we all know that it’s perfectly right and natural for women to be judged only on the basis of looks. Men have so many OTHER things going for them–opinions, careers, personalities, skills. Women, well, we’re basically just for looking at. It’s biologically determined to be that way, see? Back in the prehistoric era, men had to go outside the cave and hunt meat and they needed giant brains for that. The ladies just waited back at home, fluffing their hair, ovulating, and doing abdominal crunches.

    See, even if a GUY is ugly, society really never totally reduces him to just that, because he might have other things going for him. He might be kind or smart or funny and that would sort of (or even totally) make up for it. But NOBODY could EVER like an ugly girl….unless he was sooooo sex starved he’d basically try having sex with a toaster, or something, because, you know….Women: We’re just for looking at.

    If that WEREN’T the case, though, such an article MAY be construed as offensive, simply because it never even QUESTIONED the idea that women’s worth in the interpersonal marketplace (and possibly in general) is defined by our appearance while MEN’s appearance (as in the case of the demographically disadvantaged “testosterone cowboys” mentioned the article) is so TOTALLY irrelevant not. a. single. person. ever. thought. to. comment. on. it.

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  4. If my pretty little head were for thinking….and not for just being pretty….I’d also point out that this article is an excellent example of what gender scholars term “The male gaze” (men=subjects, women=objects) or perhaps, the naturalization thereof. Come down to it, it’s also a pretty good example of “heteronormativity,” as well.

    Luckily, my head isn’t for thinking…because if it was, I’d be using it to yell at the computer, which probably causes wrinkles.

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  5. See, even if a GUY is ugly, society really never totally reduces him to just that, because he might have other things going for him. He might be kind or smart or funny and that would sort of (or even totally) make up for it.

    Yeah, but what if he’s short? (I mean, short and not rich?)

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  6. Yes, Jeremy, even if he’s short. Even if he’s fat, or has bad skin, or is bald, or poor, or dresses badly, society as a whole will generally not so easily or completely reduce him to his looks (even though these characteristics may be judged as less than ideal, he will still manage to come out as more than the sum of his physical traits.)

    Other men might be more successful on the dating market than him, but no mayor will blithely suggest that he and several hundred of his short friends quit their jobs, abandon their lives, and up and move to, say, the former Yugoslavia where years of brutal war have decimated the male population and the women are so horny and desperate they’ll screw ANYTHING….even a bunch of *gag* SHORT MEN (wink, nudge, yuk yuk)…and no newspaper would print a story like that as a hilarious puff piece….and female academics wouldn’t sit around scratching their heads for hours and trying to figure out why it was offensive in the first place.

    I would also point out (for those of your readers living off the grid) that ugly/short/fat/bumbling dudes are also constantly portrayed as romantically successful (quite often with tall, willowy, knockout women) in TV and movies (and not all of those characters are supposed to be rich-see “Drew Carey,” “Fraiser,” “The King of Queens,” “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and any move starring Jack Nicholson.) The reverse is almost never the case.

    That suggests that, culturally, women are reduced to their looks far more than men (which is not to say that, on an interpersonal level, men aren’t sometimes harshly judged for their appearance in the same way that women are). Men are, in a broader sense, still far more likely to be portrayed as subjects (as “choosers” on the sexual marketplace and as people with more to offer than just their height or hair or waistline) and women to be portrayed as passive objects (with little will or desire of our own except that we be “chosen” by someone.) That is the idea behind the subject/object distinction. It doesn’t necessarily say anything about any one person’s ability to “get a date for the weekend,” it’s about power relations on a grander scale.

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  7. This is a fascinating discussion, not least because it has Jeremy conceding so quickly (and copping to not having noticed the ugly guys bagging the knockout women before).

    What I wonder about though is whether one can sustain such a radical constructionist view, as seems to be expressed by VV– i.e, the “male gaze” is purely a contingent product of (western?) culture. Such a view requires that that there be other human societies, in different times and places, that were not dominated by the male gaze. Do such societies exist?

    One could put this question in a slightly different form: What does the “gaze space” look like, and what determines how a culture ends up in one part of the space (e.g., our culture, which is dominated by the “male gaze”) or in another part of the space (e.g., with the “female gaze” or some other kind of gaze)?

    To be clear, I have no problem with VV’s characterization of our culture’s aesthetic. And I also share VV’s antipathy towards simplistic, evolutionary psych reasoning. But if it is to be replaced with a constructionist alternative, that alternative needs to be… well-constructed.

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  8. I second everything Violet Vulgara said and raise another potential reason for offense:

    The implication that finding love is merely a numbers game. We like to think that love is more magical and linked to fate, with soul mates and romance and whatnot. Insinuating that it’s just about numbers and odds makes it sound like finding love is more of an economic decision.

    So there’s two potential reasons to bristle at the mayor’s statement: (1) its insinuation that women’s – but not men’s – market value is determined by their looks, and (2) that love can be reduced to a person’s market value.

    In my social psych class, we were told that evidence consistently shows that people tend to gravitate toward others who are at their own level of attractiveness, but that there is a slight tendency for men with higher occupational prestige to get wives that are slightly more attractive than they are.

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  9. Such a view requires that that there be other human societies, in different times and places, that were not dominated by the male gaze. Do such societies exist?

    An anthropological take on this is Eleanor Burke Leacock’s _Myths of Male Dominance_. She does not think that there are any societies free of male domination today, but argues that not only were there in the past, but that it’s probable that much of human history had nothing like the male dominance that seems universal today.

    Leacock doesn’t describe the early societies she studies as “equal” between men and women because part of her argument is that concepts like equality require a more formal conception of rights and powers than are appropriate to these stages of history. But loosely, we might describe them as societies of far greater equality between men and women, despite strongly sex-defined roles.

    Re: the movie discussion, SIDEWAYS is the epitome of this phenomenon if you ask me. An astute comic strip making a related point about how women in movies are vehicles for the male characters’ development:
    http://alisonbechdel.blogspot.com/2005/08/rule.html

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  10. Alas, I was being sarcastic. I did do my dissertation on evolutionary psychology, after all. I don’t normally go for one line sarcasm, but I was several surly sub-basements below my normal buoyant mood for whatever reason last night.

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  11. (Sorry if this is posted twice; I think it failed the first time.)

    Such a view requires that that there be other human societies, in different times and places, that were not dominated by the male gaze. Do such societies exist?

    An anthropological take on this is Eleanor Burke Leacock’s _Myths of Male Dominance_. She does not think that there are any societies free of male domination today, but argues that not only were there in the past, but that it’s probable that much of human history had nothing like the male dominance that seems universal today.

    Leacock doesn’t describe the early societies she studies as “equal” between men and women because part of her argument is that concepts like equality require a more formal conception of rights and powers than are appropriate to these stages of history. But loosely, we might describe them as societies of far greater equality between men and women, despite strongly sex-defined roles.

    Re: the movie discussion, SIDEWAYS is the epitome of this phenomenon if you ask me. An astute comic strip making a related point about how women in movies are vehicles for the male characters’ development, via a “conversation rule” I had (non-sarcastically) never noticed before:
    http://alisonbechdel.blogspot.com/2005/08/rule.html

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  12. Well, one sarcastic comment deserves another, I suppose. Still, the point of this is that when abarian (and subsequent posters, including myself) commented that one very good reason why the article/statement might seem to be “all kinds of foul” was that it was actually extremely sexist, you seemed to brush off that interpretation as if it were ludicrous. Perhaps you do find that interpretation ludicrous. If so, laying out the “gender studies” explanation seemed/seems like a reasonable way of arguing the point.

    (ps-ezrazuckerman: that is a really interesting question. I personally wasn’t arguing that it was merely a Western phenomenon, just laying out a few Western examples since they seemed the most relevant to this situation. In terms of where it “ends,” though-if anywhere- I don’t know.)

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  13. Just so we have the chronology right, I replied to Angela in a way that was apparently unacceptable, and my replies at @6 were @8 were intended as sarcastic and extra-double-sarcastic, respectively. Precious, I know.

    I apologize if I have offended with my seeming obtuseness earlier in this exchange.

    As an aside, Violet is one of my absolute favorite female names.

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  14. Virtually every comment that gets accidentally snagged by the spam filter has a link in it. I can’t find any setting that would cause the filter to be more permissive than it is. I should check it more regularly but it’s an easy thing to forget.

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