Gayle recently spoke with Paul Hollander, author of Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America. Hollander was born in Budapest. He studied at the London School of Economics, the University of Illinois, and Princeton before teaching at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on political sociology and cultural-intellectual history.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter, and today I’m speaking with Paul Hollander, author of Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mr. Hollander.
Paul Hollander: You are very welcome.
GT: Could you tell us what sparked your interest in love in the American style?
PH: I begin with the fact that I live here, and I am not a native-born American. Therefore the customs of my not-so-new country seem to be different than the prevailing customs of Europe or Central Europe, where I grew up in Hungary. But, in addition, there was a more specific point of departure for this interest and that was my reading the so-called “personals” in the New York Review of Books which I have been doing for many years, and I was always astonished by them by their apparent implausibility, or the apparent misrepresentation.
So I wrote an article about that five or six years ago — just one article about the personals in the New York Review of Books and that led to the book. Because then I mentioned the topic to my publisher at the time and he thought that was a good idea but, of course, I should also write something about the Internet and then I added the so-called self-help or relationship books as a third source.
So I suppose there was another interest, a more general interest, which had something to do with this topic. I have been writing books on totally different topics in my entire professional life — more political topics about communism and intellectuals and anti-Americanism. I have also always been interested in things like political propaganda and commercial advertising and the connections between theory and practice or apparent and real and various types of misrepresentations. Yet another avenue or a path of interest in romanticism had to do with my literary interests. I have been teaching courses on the sociology of literature, and I used some of the classics which dealt with romantic love. So I was rather interested in comparing old-fashioned notions of romantic love with contemporary American versions of it.
GT: What were traditional ways of finding a marriage partner?
PH: The traditional ways were obviously not based on individual choice or to a much lesser extent, and they involved mate selection by the family or the community. So that was a crucial difference.
GT: You write that loneliness is a modern idea and state of mind. How so?
PH: First of all, the family has shrunk. People used to live in extended families. They used to live in small communities or villages or small towns where people knew one another, knew their neighbors. And they lived in much smaller units. In modern society, of course, people live in urban settings that results in a great deal of mobility, social and geographic, all of which undermines the community or undermines close, personal relationships. So these are factors in the growth of loneliness.
GT: You cite a 2003 longitudinal study that concluded both young men and women today place a much higher value on physical attractiveness and sexiness in a mate than in years past. Why is this the case?
PH: This is especially the case in American society, but I think that the influence of American culture and society has spread to many parts of the world. And I think that this is part of the rise of individualism, the focus on the self. And both on the bodily or the physical and the mental or psychological attributes of the self. So people consider it important to be good-looking and attractive and that’s another major way of attracting mates.
Again, in the past, mate selection was carried out by the family or the extended family and they were considering more substantial or serious factors in mate selection – you know, whether or not a man was able-bodied and could make a good living and likewise the wife had the proper physical attributes to bring children to the world and also look after the household and so forth. Or whether or not there were good connections between the families involved. But now it’s much more a matter of personal choice.
I suppose physical attractiveness was always important to some degree but now it really has become more important, especially for women, notwithstanding feminism, it’s still a very important matter for women, physical attractiveness, and I suppose this is a way of personal or individual self-assertion. It’s an attention-getting device. Or perhaps to go with another way to explain the importance of personal attractiveness is the importance of sex, separated from procreation. This is part of modernity, that people are interested in sex not only to have children or to a large degree without any interest in having children so there again opens the door to physical attractiveness as a major factor.
GT: Do you agree with Maureen Dowd that narcissism has defeated feminism?
PH: This is a bit of an overstatement, but you could say that narcissism or the emphasis on the self has become or has remained a very important factor and that this has to do also with the emphasis put on attractiveness. And that is, of course, feminism or maybe radical feminism considers the emphasis on female attractiveness as part of sexism and the objectification of women. I don’t think that radical feminism got very far in making this message popular or accepted by women.
GT: What makes Americans hesitant about making a final choice in a mate?
PH: I don’t know actually again if they are more hesitant today than they used to be — that is difficult to know, difficult to measure. But I suppose it is the fear of commitment, et cetera. First, Americans are aware of the divorce statistics that almost every other marriage ends in divorce. I think this is fairly widely known, and this calls for caution. Also, again, individualism has something to do with it because people are more hesitant to make a commitment when they think that they can play the field forever or for a very long time. And they think there is a potential of a very large selection of super good partners out there which can be found through a proper method and research and that also makes it very difficult to decide on a final commitment.
GT: You mentioned you’re interested in the contrast between illusion and reality. How does the current marriage and dating market pique your curiosity about this issue?
PH: Because obviously again the way people “sell themselves” has a lot to do with creating certain illusions, creating positive impressions and that is what interested me first, in reading those personals in the New York Review of Books which sounded completely implausible and unbelievable. My response to those personals was that if such people exist, why would they have to advertise? So also they were extremely — as I wrote in the book — these personals were extremely standardized as to the kind of illusions or attractions they seem to promise.
GT: What are the most common qualities that were advertised in the New York Review of Books?
PH: To summarize, it’s a leftover sixties ideology or a leftover sixties outlook of the world. Self-realization; they are all into self-realization. Now these people who advertise in the New York Review of Books tend to be well-educated people, highly educated people, probably more so than academics who read it — or at least subscribe to it. You don’t know who reads what. One quality they were emphasizing was a kind of versatility, I call them the Renaissance men and women who are extremely active, public-spirited or civic-minded, very cultured, their interests range from jazz to classical music. The women tend to be great cooks but also involved with matters spiritual. So every conceivable positive virtue was piled on in this very implausible way.
GT: You also researched the Match.com profiles. What conclusions did you reach from reading these?
PH: Those were quite different. I don’t think that people misrepresented themselves to the same degree as they did in the New York Review of Books. You have to know that I was most interested in this study about learning something about the most appealing or most desirable human qualities. So I was looking at what people said about themselves, about their assets or attractions and what they were looking for in other people, and one of the most interesting findings was that on Match.com the most highly valued human quality was a fun orientation or sense of humor or good cheer. This was the most important, across the board, in different age groups and different parts of the country. I divided my sample into four regions of the country: New England, Midwest, the South, and California.
GT: And how did those areas vary?
PH: One interesting variation was that in California, people were the least interested in durable long-term romantic relationships. In Alabama they were the most interested. I had Alabama represent the South; and Nebraska represent the Midwest; and Massachusetts represent New England; and California, well that’s California. So that was one difference. So that was striking to me that this kind of entertainment orientation permeated these responses, this fun orientation and people said, “What I want is a person who makes me smile.” And this kept coming up repeatedly. Rather than saying that what they were most interested in is a person who was kind, and generous, and intelligent, and compassionate et cetera, as you would think are more important qualities than a sense of humor.
GT: And those traditional qualities like a good provider, a good housekeeper…
PH: No, they never came up.
GT: They never came up.
PH: No, hardly ever. I’m not saying that people were not interested in matters material, but it was played down. Social status was certainly played down and the emphasis was on certain qualities or shared interests.
GT: You also read a lot of books on dating and marriage by supposed experts. What did you learn when you read these books?
PH: The first thing to say about them was there was this overwhelming emphasis on methods: how to do it, how to present yourself. They were quite manipulative and as I said, oriented toward methodology. Where to meet people, and how to draw attention to myself, these kinds of things, which these sorts of self-help or relationship books were promising. The other thing was they were just frankly like a Sears manual: How to sell yourself. And really to claim that everybody has these kind of incredible potentials and everybody’s wonderful and you should not be shy in inflating your talents or your attractions. So it was very unappealing — how could they make any difference or how could people really be influenced by them? But evidently they have because many of them sell in the millions.
GT: And they’re a big market.
PH: Right, they are a big market, and the authors of the Love Course also appear on television. But again, it seems to me this has a lot to do with American culture, this kind of optimism and a certain kind of egalitarianism that everybody has these wonderful qualities, and it’s just a matter of bringing them to the surface.
GT: You quote Christopher Lasch, who observed that, “Americans demand from personal relations the richness and intensity of a religious experience.” Do you agree with him?
PH: This is a reference to a more old-fashioned idea of romanticism and I think this probably overstated. This richness of religious experience, this was more the case in the classical 19th century romantic authors. This kind of worship of an individual and this belief that there is only one person that can meet one’s emotional and all other needs. But at the present time most people seem to believe that there are a lot of people out there who could meet one’s personal needs and it’s just a matter of finding the proper methods to locate these people.
GT: Why do the standardized images of beauty in advertising and media lead men to sense that they are deprived in their romantic relationships?
PH: I think the very fact that we are surrounded by the standardized images of beauty and physical attractiveness — again, especially in women — in advertising and in popular culture, it just makes it very familiar. It’s something very familiar and also the message of advertising, like with everything else, that you could make yourself beautiful. That it’s just a matter of using the proper products or services, then everybody can be beautiful.
So again there is a kind of merging of the commercial and the egalitarian motives or themes in American culture and of course this is commercially very apt if these people can be convinced that if they purchase certain products they can be beautiful but it also confirms or has an affinity with this American idea or this egalitarian message that everybody can be beautiful and it’s just a matter of doing the right thing to make yourself beautiful. There are all these models and examples of beauty out there, as I said before, in advertising and the entertainments.
GT: What do you think the future holds for romantic relationships in America?
PH: I always find it very difficult to predict anything. But I think there are many, many factors in society which make it more difficult to create and maintain romantic relationships. But there are also certain basic human needs, which you could say, support the demand for romantic relationships. So it’s very difficult to say what the future holds.
I guess I don’t know how relevant this is for romantic relationships, but the divorce rate has somewhat diminished over the past decades. They are still very high, but of course they you could say that marriage is not definitely a romantic relationship, although I believe it is more so in American than in most other cultures, where marriages are thought to be a combination of a romantic relationship.
Americans more than most other people tend to believe that you can perpetuate or maintain the romantic disposition of the romantic relationship in the marriage itself. So I really don’t have a good answer to your question about the future of romantic relationships.
GT: I think that’s a great answer. Thank you so much Mr. Hollander, for talking with me about your excellent book, Extravagant Expectations.
PH: You’re very welcome. Thank you for talking to me.
First published in First Things in December 2011