Friday, April 15, 2011

On Dating Tall Men: Rationality and romantic/sexual selection

Okay, so Kay Steiger wrote a blog post called "Dating Tall Men", arguing that when women relentlessly select tall men over short ones, they're actually exhibiting a form of old-school bigotry.

Naturally, a lot of people don't like this. After all, it's a widespread method of selection among women, and nobody likes having their romantic and sexual criteria questioned. We're pretty protective of that particular liberty! And here's this Kay Steiger woman, calling a very common sexual requirement "irrational." Among the responses is this one by Andrew Sullivan, who says that sexual selection isn't a rational process, and shouldn't be – that it needs to be discriminatory – so Kay needs to put her PC pitchfork away.

But here's the thing -- this blog post makes perfect sense, as long as you look at it with a little subtlety. Granted, the Internet is bad for that kind of thing, but that's why you've got Benefit of the Doubt here to give you some perspective. Miss Steiger's argument is entirely justified from a pragmatic perspective, and it's even credible from a theoretical perspective, if slightly overstated.

Among the commentors, and even in Sullivan's response, there's a general claim that sexual preferences are in-born (one of the commentors calls it "hard-wired"), so we can't change them any more than we can change our height. But a couple things here. First, even if our preferences themselves were genetically determined (yay evo psych![/sarcasm]), our behavior isn't pre-determined, and self-control can do amazing things. But also, as Kay says toward the end of her post, our preferences – our ways of perceiving and judging the opposite sex – aren't just hard-wired, built into our neurons from birth. They're also conditioned by what we're told is acceptable, whether for health reasons, or simply as a nod to convention. You can try to write off all the nuance here, but it's all of these things at once.

So, in short: contrary to Andrew Sullivan's flippant dismissal, sexual selection is not "irrational." It's not done entirely by conscious calculation, but it is relentlessly rational, built on a whole massive algorithm of biological, evolutionary, and cultural "reasons." Kay Steiger: 0, Andrew Sullivan: -1. Having made this fairly banal observation, let us continue!

And I've got no data to back this shit up (lol! Do I ever?!?), but I'd guess that the "height" bias among women is one of the more socially-conditioned preferences. I'm sure there are evolutionary reasons for it, but as Kay said, these reasons aren't terribly important in the modern age, when we don't need to be protected from predators and we don't need to inherit the most physically dominant genes. On a behavioral level, I'm guessing the bias against short men is kind of like many mens' bias against muscular women, or mens' bias for small waists and big boobs. I mean, it's plausible that there's a natural component to it, but it's mostly the result of a constant bombardment of underwear ads and Bond girls in the media. It's something that's worth looking at critically.

It's a little bizarre to me that people like Andrew Sullivan seem to be suggesting that we totally abandon any critical thinking about our own romantic and sexual preferences. After all, that's the process that's allowed people to start dating across, for instance, racial lines, and the process that's created new spaces for homosexual couples. Call it PC if you want, but it's really a genuinely positive cultural thing that's been happening to human society over time.

Now, don't get defensive... I'm not in the business of blaming people for following their gut instinct. Our reasons will always be somewhat opaque, even to ourselves, and some people won't be able to get over their lack of attraction for short men, or for women who are over a size 2, or for Caucasians with freckles. Or their preference for men with beards who sweat a lot. Or their preference for people with visible scars. Or whatever. I mean, you've still gotta have your criteria, for whatever reasons you have them, and a woman who likes tall guys isn't de facto immoral (which is where I can see that Miss Steiger may have overreached a little). But there's no reason we shouldn't ask where our preferences are coming from, and try to work through them a little.We've been achieving positive outcomes in the face of natural tendencies for a long time!

I know I shouldn't take it for granted that you're a progressive or a rationalist, dear reader, but I know my expected audience... and I think the logical, progressive, rationalist position is that if we can recognize our socially-conditioned, convention-driven reasons for something, we can often get over them. This will create a stronger, more adaptable, more tolerant society, and it will also broaden our own individual pool of potential mates. So it's not just navel-gazing here... there's a real pragmatic reason to consider the issue that Kay Steiger is addressing.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - A defense of the bittersweet ending

With Cinematical's recent Shelf Life column on the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I thought this would be a good time to articulate my own thoughts on this film, which I believe is vastly underrated... partly because nobody's given it the analysis it deserves. Commentators uniformly appreciate its daring visuals and its quietly sinister atmosphere, but many (Tolcrist of Cinematical included) seemed to hate a few things about it.

Some hated its general tonal unevenness, blamed on the fact that it's a hybrid of Stanley Kubrick's starkness and Steven Spielberg's love of spectacle. This, in itself, isn't a sin, but because of this unevenness, the film requires total commitment and immersion from the viewer. As with other towering, ambitious stylistic films (Snyder's 300 being an example), any detachment will destroy the engagement, causing the film to alienate the viewer instead of involving them.

Other critics thought it was simply too emotionally manipulative, which, in a film like this, is something that may simply have to be forgiven... both Kubrick and Spielberg are dramatic stylists, melodramaticians, in a certain way, and the film itself is a tortured exploration of desperate childhood longing and the core of the human condition.

The most common specific complaint, though -- and the one that's most vulnerable to an actual analytical response -- is the hatred for the film's ending. Many viewers, including very open-minded ones, and including ones who saw it in the theater, felt that the ending was truly unnecessary and excessive, like a coda that somebody attached to the end of the film to make it more family-friendly. Many say it should have ended when David was at the bottom of the ocean, gazing at the Blue Fairy, wishing to become human.

I'm going to argue that the far-future ending wasn't just appropriate -- it was essential to the structure of the film, turning it from a tortured drama of frustrated longing into what it was truly meant to be: a dystopian fairy-tale in which every act is answered and every movement is integrated into the whole. The ending, though it may have been unexpected, unfamiliar, and incongruous with the preceding events, was also what elevated the film into something that will stand the test of long-term critical scrutiny.

(WARNING: Spoilers for Brothers' Grimm stories, in case you missed out on them for the last 150 years)

David's passage through the collapsing modern world in search of the key to humanity is famously analagous to Pinocchio's journey through the hazardous world of adults to eventually become a real boy. Now, Pinocchio was originally written by Carlo Collodi, was an Italian scribe who learned his craft with the translation of fairy tales, and the feeling of these fairy tales is impressed upon his work. This includes the sense that the world outside the home is dangerous and unpredictable, with no real place for heroism and personal glory. Indeed, the lack of a hero might be one of the strangest aspects of traditional fairy tales, like those of the Brothers Grimm -- the protagonist is always a commoner whose humble virtues are honesty and a sense of duty. These protagonists never discover that they're exceptional, and they never find some kind of inner strength to save the world.

This is a starting point for understanding where A.I. is coming from. David may indeed be exceptional in a scientific sense, but he isn't a hero. In fact, one of his greatest challenges is facing the fact that he's a manufactured creation, no more worthy of love than any of his boxed-up brethren.

Most of the Brothers' Grimm protagonists DO overcome some sort of personal challenge. Hansel and Gretel defeat the witch by taking advantage of a golden opportunity to push her into her oven; in The Robber Bridegroom, the bride arrives at the groom's house when he's not there, and she finds sympathy in the old woman whose head always shakes (damn, what a troubling image...); the prince, through wit and observation, finds a way into Rapunzel's room to win her love; the queen convinces Rumpelstiltskin to wager her child, instead of simply taking it from her.

Each of these represents some willfulness on the part of the protagonist to oppose their fate, and it is the same with David: his search for the Blue Fairy, though it means everything to him, is ultimately a token gesture of agency in the midst of an impossible situation. And yet, none of the above moments of triumph is really a solution, because each of these characters is stuck in a greater bind: Hansel and Gretel are lost in the forest, the bride is caught in a marriage to a criminal, Rapunzel is still in the thrall of an evil sorceress, and the queen is still caught in a promise to a tiny, evil man who's great with a loom.

But the thing is, each of these characters DOES find a happy ending, and it's not because they're heroic -- it's because of the grace of nature, of forces larger than themselves. It's because, when they remain true to themselves, they are rewarded with an escape from the impossible situations they're part of. Hansel and Gretel somehow find their way home (there are no breadcrumbs to guide them), and they discover their mother is dead; the bridegroom, by pure luck, acquires proof of her groom's evil deeds, and once she finds her way home, she is protected by her community; the blind prince stumbles across Rapunzel, and in what seems to be a miracle, her tears of sadness cure him; and after the queen is given Rumplestiltskin's name by a messenger, who was in the right place at the right time, and once she has defeated the little monster, she simply stands by and watches him destroy himself.

This moment of grace is essential to fairy tale structure. It's a message that's both hopeful and frightening: when you've done all you can to solve your quandry, you just have to hope that the fates smile down and solve it for you.

And this is what happens in the bittersweet ending to A.I. Humanity might have collapsed, but through their creations, these strange machines that exist beyond the singularity, their spiritual nature has been preserved by the universe, and they finally give David the happiness that he deserves because he so kindly and whole-heartedly desires it. There's also a mythical point here, too: the point that David is the Adam to these robots, that his first glimmer of human emotion is what has allowed them to evolve in the way that they have. However, this wasn't particularly an accomplishment on his part -- he never asked to be the beginning of a new cybernetic species. He's granted mercy simply because he's a thinking, feeling creature, filled with infinite longing, and that entitles him to whatever happy ending the universe can provide.

If he really had been stuck at the bottom of the ocean, which no broader, more transcendental resolution, wouldn't the tale have felt incomplete? Wouldn't the film then be saying that emotion, desire, and human frailty are anchors? That our longing, desperate hands reach for nothing, because there is no grace in the universe that we occupy? Wouldn't the frozen bottom of the ocean have been a truly chilling final image in this vast, cyclical film?

Personally, I would never have asked for any ending but the one I got.