The observation that average-seeming men date attractive, accomplished women but average-seeming women never date attractive, accomplished men is the premise of the millennial book of the moment, Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. The protagonist Sally Milz creates a TV sketch in which a couple is arrested because the boyfriend is more attractive than the girlfriend, thus breaking the “rule”. On the eve of the novel’s release, a trailer for the new Barbie film aired with the tagline, “She’s everything, he’s just Ken” – prompting social media users to post the phrase alongside photos of famous couples such as the actress Megan Fox and the rapper-cum-walking-advertisement-for-tattoo-removal Machine Gun Kelly. The suggestion being that the woman is far more beautiful, charming and successful than the man, who is “punching above his weight”.
The concept of men punching above their weight is nothing new, women have expressed it through memes for years. A photo of the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street poking his head out of a literal bin next to Nicole Kidman was once labelled an exemplar of straight couples. In my mid-twenties, the principal dating insight on the girl group chat was: “men always punch”. Perhaps it was cruel to think in such terms, but given men’s higher self-regard, we figured the male species would survive such anthropological observations. We spoke in the general sense, rather than being specific about anyone we knew – except, of course, when a man treated one of us poorly. “How dare he cheat on you?!” we’d say. “You’re miles out of his league.” A man’s moral deficiencies seemed to allow us to draw attention to his other deficiencies.
Others might not put it so crudely, but I do think the consensus among women is that straight men often date women who are “better” than them. Even men will openly talk of how they are punching above their weight with their girlfriends, or write columns about having lots of dateable single female friends, but few male friends to set them up with.
[See also: How dating a couple set me free]
Why does this “rule” exist? I can think of a few reasons. Women tend to be more desiring of relationships, so surely more prone to keep dating someone even if they know they “could do better”, as female friends might tell them. Studies show that women are more likely to underestimate their IQ and attractiveness, unlike men, who, as it has been noted with pay rises and promotions, are more likely to go for something others don’t think them “good enough” for. Of course, there is a higher social expectation that women should make themselves more attractive, more pleasant to be around, more competent, to attract men. And so, on a given day, we’re more likely than men to be epilated, moisturised and dressed in a colour that doesn’t wash out our skin tone. It is suggested that a lot of men, meanwhile, haven’t caught up with women’s expectations around equal division of emotional and household labour. Perhaps that’s why statistics indicate that men seem to benefit more from marriage and that women tend to pursue divorce more than men.
But then, there is something slightly depressing about the idea that straight men “punch above their weight”. Does it matter if other people think your boyfriend is a dud, if he treats you well and makes you happy? And do we want to agree with Sally Milz’s initial hypothesis in Romantic Comedy, that it is impossible that a good-looking pop star her age would date her, plain old Sally, rather than a twenty-something model? The reality is that, as her friend Viv explains to her: “People are way freakier than we acknowledge. Attraction has to do with so many things besides appearance.” The beauty of attraction is its unpredictability; different qualities do it for different people. And indeed, when we observe that men “punch”, we’re usually referring to looks. Isn’t it possible this is due to us being primed by the media to prize women’s looks specifically – the kind of thing that’s not just shallow, but awkwardly kind of sexist, too?
When I discussed the hypothesis that men date superior women, it tended to be male friends who disputed it. It made me question whether women see men as “punching” because we’re more likely to value traits we see in ourselves – perhaps emotional intelligence or diligence. I also wonder whether we only notice men punching above their weight because it’s not socially acceptable to talk about the opposite situation: at a wedding, the best man can joke about the groom doing well for himself, but a maid of honour making the same joke would get kicked out.
My fear with accepting the idea that men punch above their weight is that we become heteropessimists – resigning ourselves to the idea that straight men can never be good enough for straight women. Given that women are largely stuck with fancying men (because, as the gay rights movement has spent quite a few decades trying to teach us, sexuality isn’t a choice), wouldn’t the best thing be to improve the status quo? Educate and call out the men who behave poorly, and reduce the pressure on women to live up to higher standards than men. The goal is, surely, for women to be seen in the same way as men: to be celebrated for their mum bods, for living like slobs, and of course for dating guys who are “out of our league”.