'How can a girl like that get a guy like this?"
Lumpy Hannah Horvath landed a chiseled doctor for two days of wining, dining and nude ping-pong playing in a luxe brownstone and the Internet exploded.
Following the latest episode of Lena Dunham's cultural pot-stirrer Girls, critics couldn't seem to digest that a girl like Hannah, dimpled and ghost-pale, would ever score a good-looking, high-status male like Dr. Joshua. Never mind that it's comedy – Slate's David Haglund accused Dunham of piling "implausibility upon implausibility," while his colleague Daniel Engber complained: "The whole thing left me baffled and uncomfortable. Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched?"
Even women weren't buying it: Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, mused that the entire episode was little-girl fantasy. Dunham herself revealed that she wrote the episode about her protagonist's "fantasy life" in a "fever dream." Fantasy or not, the subsequent online furor peeled back an ugly layer around "interfacial" relationships: jokingly dubbed, these are unions that involve people having sex, dating or marrying outside, or above, their looks. For all the bleating about Dunham's thighs, recent sociological research suggests there are reasons why her "implausible" union perturbs – findings that depressingly confirm the episode's conclusion, which sees Hannah alone in the brownstone, her doctor gone, scared off by her existential moaning.
"Poor Hannah would be attractive enough for a fling, but the handsome doctor would probably marry a beautiful and successful woman when he does settle down. Most men want to marry eventually, and spouses generally match on beauty, and on occupational status, income and education," says Elizabeth McClintock, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who looks at attractiveness and mate choice.
The disheartening suggestion that Hannah was attractive enough to bonk on a ping-pong table, but not hot enough to turn into wifey, is echoed by McClintock's recently published findings, which found very physically attractive young women were more likely to commandeer committed relationships than engage in sexual flings. The findings, which looked at 21-year-olds from a longitudinal survey of 20,000 American respondents, also found that very attractive women were also more likely to postpone sex until after the first week of meeting a partner. Just as good looks can help secure status and money, female attractiveness apparently allows more control within romantic liaisons.
In the "young adult premarital dating market," the math is ugly. "It's not the most happy-feeling paper I've ever written but human nature isn't always that noble," McClintock said.
So what explains the routine dips into "interfacial" romances? "The idea that an unattractive woman could be getting laid is shocking on a media level, but we all know that all kinds of people get laid in all kinds of ways, all the time. And we still go, 'Why is this person with that person?' " said Phoebe Baker Hyde, author of The Beauty Experiment.
In her own marriage, Hyde said 'interfacialness' has run both ways: An ex-boyfriend snidely remarked that her husband was "lucky" to have scored her, but sometimes she feels another gaze. Though they're close in age, "I'm not going to age as well as he does. I probably look older than he does at this point."
As for the high-school jeering when we perceive beauty disparity in a couple, judging is as natural as breathing for most people. And even though men have historically had more leeway in the looks department – think Woody Allen, Salman Rushdie, Donald Trump – non-celebrity males dating out of their league get taunted too.
Gillian Waxer experienced running commentary when she dated a short, beer-gut-bearing guy, who is now an ex. "He wasn't physically my normal type," said Waxer, a 27-year-old Toronto student. "I generally go for tall, handsome and underweight."
Although the two hit it off, friends and family kept making disparaging remarks: "They thought that they were saving me from something, that since I was technically the 'pretty one' in the relationship, that they were complimenting me – while insulting my partner."
Ultimately, she got turned off by her ex's tendency to flaunt her as a trophy; they broke up after five months. "I've hooked up with dorks and Adonises. There's chemistry, energy and it's situational," says Waxer, pointing out that in reality, Dunham is dating "the hot guy from .fun" – indie rock band guitarist Jack Antonoff.
Belinda Luscombe, editor at large at Time magazine, thinks the debates have been overblown. In 2007, Luscombe penned a humorous essay on marrying outside her looks, this after people kept swooning over her husband's. While insisting that the piece was parody, Luscombe did write about a persistent double standard.
"There does seem to be a taboo in talking about looks, and it does seem to be that if a man marries a woman who is worse looking than him, people comment," Luscombe said in an interview. She cites Hugh Jackman, 44, and his 57-year-old wife Deborra-Lee Furness: "People can't believe that pairing." Jackman told The Hollywood Reporter it "bugs" his wife when people assume he must be gay. He also spoke about their meeting: "She was unbelievably fun – this energy, this spirit – irrepressible. And she had a confidence in herself. I had a massive crush on her instantly."
Ultimately, what's missing from both online snark and serious research is the possibility of earnestly happy "mismatches." Said Luscombe: "People who are not good-looking are just more interesting and more fun to be with. They have to work harder to get human attention."