"How can a 10 go for a 5?," asks the trailer for the just-released movie She's Out of My League. How, in other words, does a skinny, pasty airport metal detector-operator end up with a hot blonde who wears tight white dresses and no underwear?
Well, if you believe the movies, it happens quite a lot. From Annie Hall to American Pie to Knocked Up, the romantic comedy genre is filled with examples of movies where average-looking men date stunning women.
These films can be seen as fairy tales for men, with the promise, "Hey, neurotic comedian/sexually inexperienced high school kid/unemployed porker, you, too can score a stylish singer/exotic foreign exchange student/gorgeous entertainment newscaster." But the movies are just as much fantasies for women, only for them the message is, "Stop pining away for Prince Charming and find happiness with the nice guy you already know."
This line is simply an echo of the lesson that's been trumpeted to women since the cradle. First came the stories of Belle—who turned down the handsome, dashing Gaston for the ugly, gruff-but-ultimately-gentle beast—and the Grimms' unnamed princess, who finds something so lovable in an unsightly frog that she kisses it—and is rewarded for her lack of superficiality by the frog's transformation into a marriageable prince. Then there was Sex and the City's Charlotte York, who thought she'd arrived when she married handsome, blue-blooded Trey MacDougal, only to later find bliss with the short, hairy, balding lawyer who handled her inevitable divorce from Trey. And earlier this year, the message moved from the realm of fairy tale and fiction to the world of cold, hard, fact. "Marry him," Lori Gottlieb urges in her new non-fiction book—"him" being the frog, not the prince:
Further compounding this moral are the cautionary tales of what happens when the woman is the one dating out of her league—when a homely female becomes attached to a handsome male. On Sex and the City, brainy career gal Miranda goes out on a date with a hunky detective and is so insecure about the difference in their appearances that she drinks three double martinis at dinner and ends up too drunk to make a night of it with him afterwards. In last year's Oscar-nominated film An Education, mousy high schooler Jenny spurns her starry-eyed classmate for a charming older man, who then turns out to be not only a thief but married—which Jenny does not realize until she's already dropped out of school to be with him. The fate of women who dare to date out of their leagues is even worse in real life—look what happened after the pretty-if-pudgy Elizabeth Edwards walked down the aisle with her Ken-doll-doppleganger John.
The question, though, is whether this story is anything more than a fantasy in the long run. Does settling for the schlub really make a woman happy ever after, and will marrying an impossibly handsome man really doom her to a lifetime of insecurity and infidelity? Our pop culture touchstones don't offer a clear answer. Being fairy tales, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Frog Princess" by definition don't tell us what happens after "happily ever after," so no clues there. Thanks to the Sex and the City movie, we get a glimpse into Charlotte's life after the credits roll, and it looks good, if a little boring—the worst thing to happen to Charlotte in the SATC film is a brush with food poisoning on a trip to Mexico. As usual, non-fiction is thornier than fiction—for all her cheerleading of settling for imperfection, Lori Gottleib, as she freely admits, is still single. (Though, most would agree, better off than a woman whose husband jilts her for a frizzy blonde.)
Perhaps the answer lies in another modern romantic fantasy, Bridget Jones's Diary. At first, the this book/movie looks like it disproves the women-are-happiest-when-they marry-plain-but-nice-men theory. The fleshy, not-quite-beautiful protagonist wins the handsome heart of "top barrister" Mark Darcy—and, as we see in the sequel, remains happy with him, despite a few bumps along the way.
But the message of Bridget Jones isn't, "See girls? You can find happiness by dating out of your league, too!" Dreamy though he may be, Darcy is proud, preachy, and a little boring—plus he has a dubious fashion sense. And she may be carrying a few extra pounds, but Bridget is funny and clever and warm—all qualities any man would be lucky to have in a partner. When the pair finally decides to be together, Bridget is settling as much as Darcy is, just in a different way. So maybe the key to happiness isn't for all the beautiful women of the world to go out and find themselves TSA agents to love. Maybe the answer is that all of us, men and women both, should find someone who makes us settle—but lets us feel like we're dating out of our league.