Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Perfect Match

Barring big news (shockingly, I once had a column on the Miss America pageant bumped by 9/11...) I should have a column in USA Today tomorrow about the new Bravo reality show Millionaire Matchmaker. This show features the antics of a California matchmaker, Patti Stanger, who sets up rich men with gorgeous women.

Yes, the show is silly and offensive. But I think it offers some interesting points for discussion. In the column, I criticize the fact that most of the women have "unthreatening" jobs. But, though the primary screen -- by a long shot -- is looks, Patti does like to set her clients up with reasonably bright women.

We've come a long way on this front in the past 100 years. One study of women born in the 1920's found that more intelligent women were less likely to marry. These days that's not true -- women with college degrees, and indeed graduate degrees, are just as likely to marry as women who are less educated. They just tend to marry a little later in life. A Columbia Business School study of speed-dating (in which men and women meet lots of dates for a few minutes apiece) found that men do exhibit a preference for intelligence in women -- to a point. That point turns out to be exactly the perception the man has of his own intelligence. In other words, these days, men seem to want their wives to be a perfect match on the brains front. That's Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.

I find this all fascinating. Growing up, girls get a lot of messages about brains, beauty, ambition, and love. As we discussed in the Nerds post here on Gifted Exchange, young children seldom hear the message that beauty, brains, and love can go together. One of the reasons many gifted advocates stress that identification and accommodation need to happen before third grade is that by this time, many gifted girls have already fully absorbed the message that to be smart is to be unlovable. Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses. In a group of other gifted girls and boys, however, intelligence recedes as a primary identifier. You can suddenly be the soccer player, the girl with the cute smile, the singer, the actress. One of the most jarring moments of my life was when I found out that, during a game of Truth or Dare at one of the summer "nerd" camps I attended, a group of guys had named me as the most attractive girl on the hall. This did not even remotely fit with my self-concept. I was first and foremost the "smart girl." Who knew I could be anything else?

I now find myself in an entirely different situation. My husband and I are well-matched in terms of intelligence and ambition. To an outsider, though, here's the situation: I married a successful businessman who's ten years my senior. I've had to deal with first impressions from new acquaintances that "oh, this is the trophy wife." To put it mildly, this does not fit with my self-concept either. It stinks to be pre-judged as stupid as much as it stinks to be pre-judged as the smart girl and nothing else.

There are a lot of things changing in society right now. It is hard to put a finger on exactly where things stand. A woman is running seriously for president, but she was launched onto the national stage by her husband. Women now run four of the Ivy League schools (including Harvard and Princeton), but lead just one of the largest 50 companies in the US. In the Columbia speed dating experiments, men were a lot less likely to follow up with women they perceived as more intelligent or ambitious than themselves. But they did prefer smart women to less intelligent women, right up to the tipping point of their own level of intelligence. Who knows where things will stand 50 years from now? It's hard to predict, but I believe -- here on Valentine's Day 2008 -- that we're moving in the right direction. Even if Millionaire Matchmaker is getting there a little slower than the rest of us.


Animal Farm said...

Just ran across your blog. I'll be back. :)

I'm wondering...did they look at who the women in the speed dating followed up with? Did the intelligent women also tend to follow up with someone either as intelligent or less intelligent as them? Or did they go for as intelligent or more intelligent?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I do not consider myself a TV watcher at all. But, I have become captivated by this show, though I've only seen it twice. I admitted watching to a group of girl friends who were miffed at my interest. I think it is the psychological under-current of it all. I will share your post with my friends who rolled their eyes when I said "No really, there was something entertaining about it." Too bad you are married Laura. They'd cast you for the show in a New York minute! LOL.

Evan Adams said...

I totally get the "trophy wife" thing. My fiancé and I are both profoundly gifted (and he swears I'm smarter than him despite the fact that my IQ tests 8 points lower), and both very, very good at what we do, but despite me actually being slightly more credentialed, in professional contexts I'm still first and foremost the woman he brought with him.