After a string of rejections, Andy Bodle searches through everything from books, to women’s magazines, to dating profiles to find out what women really want in a man.
We were in a cab on the way home from a party when she dropped the bombshell. “Andy, I don’t think this is working.” “Huh? Why?” “I … I’m just not very comfortable going out with someone who earns less than me.”
It wasn’t the first time my dealings with the opposite sex had left me nonplussed. In 25 years of dating, I had been dumped or rejected for being too short, for being too nice, for not being homophobic enough, for not being assertive enough with a waiter and, on one especially bewildering occasion, for not being sadistic enough. But getting my P45 from a sweet-natured, Oxford- educated feminist for earning £2,000 a year less than her took the biscuit.
I’m not stupid. I’m not, to borrow a female friend’s delicate phrasing, a “complete paper-bag job.” At 5 ft 9 in, I’m not even particularly short (although I am now incontestably bald). Yet I’d never been married or engaged and, unless you counted an ill-advised fling with a mad French flatmate in 1993, I hadn’t even lived with anyone. The inescapable truth was that women were as alien to me at 38 as they had been at 13.
After this latest kick in the teeth, I was ready to give up. Clearly, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t boyfriend material. But before I resigned myself to a life of meals for one and single-room supplements, of being Uncle Andy instead of Dad, there were some questions I wanted answered. Had I been unlucky? Or was there something fundamentally wrong with me? What, as Sigmund Freud asked in 1925, do women want?
(Before I go any further, I’d like to pre-empt some objections. It’s nonsensical, some of you are thinking, to ask, “What do women want?”, as if all women want the same thing. Of course it is. People are individuals, different strokes for different folks, blah di blah. But some qualities are more prized than others. Any Indian restaurateur, for example, will tell you that spicier curries sell better than bland ones. What I wanted to know was: was there anything I could have done to make myself a little less balti and a little more jalfrezi?)
My first port of call was the feminism section of the local library. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published seven years before I was born; Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch six months after. Who had done more to shape the attitudes and aspirations of the women I’d grown up with than these fearless, radical thinkers?
I found, to my surprise, that these feminist chaps were not only eminently reasonable, but also quite likeable (apart from Andrea Dworkin). But while they had passionate opinions about how the role and status of women should change, none of them proposed what this would entail for men (apart from Andrea Dworkin). Presumably, if the system of patriarchy were to end, men would have to become less dominant, less aggressive — like the New Men and metrosexuals that emerged in the 1990s. But nowhere was this explicitly spelled out.
I needed a more contemporary source. Women’s magazines are read in their millions and are revered as style bibles. Were they also setting the trends in men?
At my local supermarket, I picked up one copy of everything on the rack — Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Glamour, Grazia, Reveal, Heat, Good Housekeeping, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own, The Lady, and Sugar (I wanted to cover every demographic) — and sheepishly mumbled something to the cashier about needing them for a sick friend.
The first thing that struck me was the unrelentingly breathless tone: everything was “hot”, or “cool”, and peppered with more exclamation marks than a Justin Bieber lyric. The second thing was how few men there were. Sure, there were a few male-model types in the ads — tousled dark hair, smarmy grin, expensive watch — and the odd interview with the likes of Daniel Craig. And every few issues, there would be a hyperventilating feature on the undying appeal of bad boys: Colin Farrell, Shia LeBeouf, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Of the few men depicted, incidentally, not one was losing his hair.) But for all the lurid boasts of SEX! on the cover, the glossies’ main concerns seemed to be female celebs with relationship problems, and stuff: clothes, accessories, jewellery, beauty products. It would have been more honest if they’d daubed plaster the cover with the words MOISTURISER! and HANDBAGS!.
What about women’s fiction? I had no idea what was going on between those funkily typeset day-glo covers. Perhaps “chick lit” held the key to the female mindset. So I went to my local bookshop and chose 10 titles at random, deflecting the sideways glances of my fellow browsers with a mumble about my sister starting up a book club.
Now we were talking. Chick lit was chock-a-block with blokes. In fact, the male characters were often more fleshed out than the female protagonists, who all seemed to be self-deprecating, ditzy 20-somethings on the lower rungs of the publishing industry. From a male perspective, though, it made for depressing reading. The love interests, all called Jackson, Quinn and Sebastian, were rock stars, movie stars, surgeons, bosses; and they were all impossibly rich. If there were any nice, normal guys, they tended to be wimpy best friends who came out as gay in the final chapter. (And the few chrome-domes I found were all lecherous losers.) Clearly, these books were not aimed at the modern, liberated woman.
Sex and the City, on the other hand, was a byword for modernity and liberation. Six seasons, two successful films, worshipped by women the world over. I borrowed the boxed set from my friend and strapped myself in for 47 hours of mojitos, Manolos, and New York dating no-nos.
It was bold. It was brassy. It was sassy. But for a heterosexual British male, it was an experience on a par with flossing your teeth with barbed wire. The girls — short-sighted, selfish and shallow — never had the faintest idea what they wanted, but usually ended up going for looks and unspeakable wealth. It was just about permissible to date a nice, ordinary guy (Miranda’s Steve), but only if you treated him like dirt. (On the plus side, the cute one, Charlotte, ended up with a cue-ball.)
But as a female friend pointed out, magazines, chick lit and Sex and the City are the female equivalent of pornography: the stuff of fantasy rather than reality.
Next, I tried sex surveys. In just a few days, I dug up dozens of polls in magazines, newspapers, and online that asked questions along the lines of, “What do you look for in a man?” The trouble was, they all contradicted each other. Some gave confidence as the top answer, some height, others money. Three surveys in particular stood out. One said what women want is a sense of humour; another said manners; another, good teeth. The first poll was commissioned for a book called How To Be Funny, the second by Debrett’s, and the third by an electric toothbrush manufacturer. Surveys, obviously, were not the objective source of information I had hoped for. (I did also carry out an audit of my own, the results of which you can see here.)
At this point, I had a brainwave. Most dating websites work by asking you to describe yourself and to describe your ideal partner. So I stumped up the £70 fee, and started working my way through more than 1,000 personal profiles.
In some ways, it was a revelation. For the first time, I was hearing real women’s voices: “Waiting for my Mr Darcy”; “Someone who can save me from spiders!”; “Must have own hair and teeth”. However, the usual suspects – money, height, chemistry – cropped up a lot, and I could count the occurrences of the words “nice” or “kind” on the fingers of one hand.
But as my friend pointed out, this, too, was an artificial realm. In the public domain, people don’t always say what they think; moreover, they’re not always honest with themselves about what they want. There was only one way to get to the cold, hard truth of the matter: science.
Obviously, Freud wasn’t going to be much use. But as luck would have it, there had recently been a surge of interest in exactly the right area: there were hundreds of brand-new studies on the evolutionary origins of mating behaviour, and what influences our choice of partner.
Over the next year, I collected enough fascinating sex trivia to last a lifetime. Did you know, for example, that you have twice as many female ancestors as male ones? Or that women prefer different types of men at different times of the month?
On the whole, the science seemed to back up what I’d learned from the magazines, books, TV shows and surveys: that while women’s position in society has changed beyond recognition over the past 40 years, their tastes haven’t changed much at all. The New Man and the metrosexual seem to have been failed experiments. For all the cries of “I’ve had it with bastards”, most women are still gaga for swagger.
At last, I had my answer. But by this point, I’d stopped asking the question, because in the course of my research, I met someone. (Yes, it was through the dating site. And she approached me!)
No, reader, I didn’t marry her. Sadly, we split up, very amicably, last year. But the wonderful three and a half years we had together taught me more about women than the 5 million-plus words I read. They taught me that I wasn’t a hopeless case after all; that it is possible to find a beautiful, intelligent woman who you fancy and you fancies you back, even if you’re not a chest-thumping, wallet-waving alpha male.
And if you can find love once, you can find it again. Right?
Read more of Andy’s findings at www.womanology.co.uk.
Photo credit: Flickr / Julie Rashelle.