Dispatches | July 02, 2007

Flying to Durham, North Carolina, a couple of weeks ago for a summer seminar on Italian cinema (see last week’s blog), I was seated in the back of the plane, among a cluster of husky, garden-variety twenty-something boys. Not sufficiently engaged by my Mina Loy biography, I eavesdropped on their conversation as they passed around a copy of Maxim magazine’s “Hottest 100 Celebrities.”

The aficionado among them offered his disquisition on feminine beauty. I paraphrase: pretty blondes are common, while attractive brunettes are rare. According to this aesthete, blondes are often considered pretty just by virtue of their hair color, as evidenced by Maria Sharapova (number 17), Ashlee Simpson (number 16), and Scarlett Johansson (number 3). They all had great bodies, he said, but only so-so faces. In his estimation, Jessica Biel, not Lindsay Lohan, deserved to top the chart. After all, a brown-haired, blue-eyed beauty was rarest of them all.

The aesthete’s less eloquent friend said through a mouthful of airline peanuts that Beyoncé didn’t belong among the top twenty at all. “Butt’s too big. You have to think about the future. Big today; huge tomorrow.” As if Miss Big Butt would ever consider going out with a doughy Midwestern boy.

At the seminar, in a bid for small talk, I told a few of the male attendees about my seatmates. I asked them if they remembered analyzing pictures of movie stars and models in such detail when they were in college. Not one of them recalled doing so. When I raised an eyebrow, they said that they had been good, bookish boys.

A few nights later, I was invited to a dinner party hosted by a woman who obviously prefers the company of men—six guys, two gals.

After a few bottles of Coppola Blue Label, the polite, get-to-know-you conversation about spouses, work and children took a memorable turn. This group of forty-something, heterosexual academics started talking about their seminar leader, who was so handsome, so funny, and so frighteningly smart on top of being warm and thoughtful, that they had a “man crush” on him.

“The perfect guy,” one of them said.

“Pretty impressive,” another added.

“Do you have these crushes often?” I asked, genuinely curious.

They all shrugged, looked at each other and nodded “yes.”

That night it occurred to me that somewhere between the ages of thirty and forty men become much more interested in each other. They return—emotionally, at least–to age eight. Perhaps even the twenty-something boys on the plane weren’t really thinking so much about women. Weren’t the women they were rating unobtainable fantasies? Their interaction was more about bonding with each other: this is who I am; this is what I like.

My husband recently returned from sailing in Pensacola, Florida. Rather than carry on about all the tan babes in g-strings, he raved about the guys he’d met and the boats they sailed with impeccable skill. Being good, extremely good, at something seems to be the real turn on.