Friday, July 07, 2006

Computers answer Freud's famous question

What do women want? As a sometime browser of online personals, I often see "sense of humor" listed as a prerequisite for an ideal mate, alongside universally desireable and obviously alpha traits such as being "fit", "solvent" or "good-looking". "Sense of humor" somehow does not belong in that list, and its presence in the personals has probably drawn many overweight, insolvent and ugly people to misunderstand their prospects. In general, I assume that the desire to be amused is symptomatic of an entire generation of women that has gotten their conception of romance from sitcoms rather than novels, but there is also a deeper significance.

But what exactly do women want when they ask for a sense of humor? Remember the Lenny Bruce schtick about comedians who destroy their careers by trying to make the band laugh? What passes for a "sense of humor" in the general public is a set of reflexes, funny voices, and intellectual sleight-of-hand which deep students of comedy only find engaging on the third or fourth convolution. Measured technically rather than by audience response, the "funniest" comedians have a sense of humor pitched outside the range of normal human hearing.

Women may want comedy, but their taste is limited to very specific subgenres. The recieved opinion is that "knowing calculus never got anybody laid", and that "being funny is key to women's hearts", but my experience is that there are few things funnier than trying to use calculus to get yourself laid, and the first proverb powerfully refutes the second, every time. Further, for pure laughs, I don't know of a single comedian who can hold their own against the Congressional record, but mention the Proceedings of the House of Representatives on a date, and the woman will mistake you for a "wonk" or a "bore". It gets worse: as you convulse with tearful laughter while recounting elements from the choicest monologues, she will probably conclude that you are crazy, and inch towards the exit.

Superficially, the feminine desire for laughter promises respite from the tedious evolutionary protocols for breeding, but closer examination shows that it is tied into the whole boring matrix. The Jester gets to sleep with the Queen because, in the carnivalesque comic space, he has established himself as an alpha male over the king. Conversely, in beta-boys, humor is a necessary criterion because its absence is deadly, a beta who is not ironic about his own lack of alpha is usually a miserable and insufferable bore headed to a premature death. Most of those poor women in the personals are really saying that they are willing to fish in gamma waters as long as they can hope to catch something with a level self-confidence, an absence of rigidity, and a willingness to simultaneously engage and respect repression.

So maybe this is the secret of a site like eHarmony: people are unwilling to ask for what they need or are likely to get, and the exclusivity essential to the romantic narrative is antithetical to satisficing. By trusting an algorithm, both parties happily allow a black-box computer to put them together. Each can believe that the other is "the one", while the sad fact is that their position on most bell curves firmly places them among "the many".

{As a side note, just as many writers should never perform their own material, C-Span is insufferably boring, while the transcripts are hilarious. Further, if a person advertises for "someone who can make me laugh", they are acknowledging that they are an individual with a set of neuroses who is looking for compatible individual; if they say, "someone with a sense of humor" they are representing themselves as an existential ideal in quest of absolute diversion or as a gamma looking for a gamma. }


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Chaucer's Wife of Bath had answered long before Freud asked it actually. One of the unfortunate effects of german grammar is that the question can mean- and Freud may have thought and some of his followers certainly did think it did mean- "What does Woman want?" You can't ask a fanciful abstraction questions.

12:20 AM  

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