Romantic Hypergamy

Monogamy, polygamy, bigamy – these are all terms that have always been on my radar.  The -gamy suffix comes from the Greek for “marriage.”  I had never heard of hypergamy, though, until a month or so ago when I started to browse sites written by men about the modern dating scene.  Basically hypergamy is marrying up – in status, wealth, prestige.  Pick-up artists insist that women are innately hypergamous, that in terms of evolutionary psychology, many women will fight over one alpha male, often accepting fleeting or polygamous relationships rather than mate with men they deem less impressive.  Marriage as a social institution evolved in order to more fairly assign mates, increase population, and protect and raise progeny to adulthood – or so goes the theory.

My first reaction was to scoff.  After all, I know lots of married people and most [actually none of them] are not married to alphas.  So where is all the alpha scrambling?  The scuffles between women?

rockofloveThen I happened to catch a couple of episodes of Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, and realized this was hypergamy in the field.

20 young, nubile, reasonably attractive women all willing to completely debase themselves on camera for the opportunity to fuck an aging, presumably balding, diabetic, mid-tier rock star – that’s hypergamy.

What’s he got?  Not dignity, that’s for sure.  And money seems iffy if he’s willing to do this show, although perhaps he just can’t stand the spotlight moving somewhere else.  He does, however, have that special something women apparently gravitate to – that alpha quality, the ability to make women think he’s a hot commodity and come running.

What say you – hot or not?  Look at the picture and tell me, your panties feel just a bit looser, don’t they?

Okay, maybe not.  Mine sure don’t.  But there have been three seasons of Rock of Love, so what do I know?

The funny thing is, romance novels are all about hypergamy.  All about it. Dukes, billionaires, vampires, Navy SEALs – really, really alpha guys.  Hot commodities.  Powerful dudes.  The kinds of guys you could introduce your girlfriends to and they would all have aneurysms in envy.  And as we know, this is fantasy written by women for women.

Interestingly enough, all of the above types we as women would probably rank as 9′s or 10′s on a scale of 1 to 10.  In real life, these kinds of men date supermodels – young and sexy, very, very beautiful and polished women (not Bret Michaels, but he’s not romance novel material).  They date 10′s because they are themselves 10′s.  9′s date 9′s, 8′s date 8′s, etc.  There’s some leeway; a charismatic ugly guy might date a prettier girl, and a mean beauty might find it hard to get a gorgeous boyfriend, but it does sort itself out fairly efficiently.

In romance novels, though, the “10″ guys don’t date “10″ women.  They date women who are attractive or pretty with small breasts but who are very nice and kind to animals.   Or women who are successful in opening their small floral shops, yarns stores, or cafes.  Nerdy or bluestocking heroines pull in marquises or independently wealthy businessmen.  The women are a bit older too, maybe in their thirties.  And do you know why?  Because there is something very, very sexy about the idea of a regular woman nabbing an alpha and taming his roguish warrior heart, teaching it to love only her.  That’s power.  She doesn’t have to be powerful.  She doesn’t have to be anything special.  She just has to crook her little finger, and he will make it happen for her.  In a world where you have to jump through hoops just to make an old traffic ticket go away, that’s a very seductive thought.

On the flip side, you really don’t see very many “9″ or “10″ heroines in romance at all.  Want to know why?  Because a “10″ heroine has no option for hypergamy.  She can only marry equilaterally or down.  And that’s not sexy at all.  Think Prince Philip or every guy Madonna’s ever been with.  Nope.  Not sexy.

I find that interesting.

35 thoughts on “Romantic Hypergamy

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  10. well… you are saying that the romance novel heros are all 9-10 but heroines are not… I beg to disagree :-) The heroines do NOT THINK they are, and we are all aware of the small “flaws”, because we identify with the heroine, but, come on, I have yet to see a heroine who wouldn’t be 9-10 in everyone else’s eyes.
    So what that her hair is unruly? I bet it’s beautiful and sexy too. Probably long, thick and shiny. Just like my hair is in my fantasies. It is not the thin mud-colored substance covering my hair, with forked ends.
    And what if she needs eye glasses? Her eyes are still big and bright and lashes long and silky and eyebrows as if drawn by an artist. Her skin is perfect, she is not overweight, nor underweight, and if she is curvy, she has always tiny waist. And the same goes with the rest of her. Each and everyone is a perfect beauty, whose possible tiny flaws only enhance the beauty and make it personal.

    Alpha males don’t marry REAL “loosers”, not even in romance novels.

    There is though one exception… some men we see as 9-10 haven’t always been that… many handsome men have been over- or under-weighed as boys, being teased for this or that, and just because they look perfect, they don’t believe to be perfect, so would go after a 7, because that’s is how they see themselves…
    Or if their mother or mother-figure was not a 9-10. My cousin, a competition dancer, had an over-weighed mother-figure, and he married a woman who was her spitting image. :-) To him a fat woman IS 9-10…

  11. Rachel: Thank you for your post; and thank all of you who have replied.

    I realize that even in this day and age, the fantasy of marrying up is alive and well. I don’t underestimate its appeal to many romance readers and writers.

    Alas, I’m not one of them. What makes a man fantasy-worthy for me has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with his wealth, fame, or social status. It has to do with what he’s like on the inside.

    I simply don’t care for the idea that the role of romance hero is strictly confined to the rich and powerful. Men of modest means need not apply.

    But what if they could? What if there were some, a few at least, romances in which the hero ranks low on the social ladder and must work for a living? Think of all the plot possibilities, all the situations such a man might face. And all the types of interactions with other characters, especially the heroine, that are interesting but underused.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s fun. Romance readers who demand stories about Bob the Billionaire or the Duke of Whatever will still get their fix no matter what I or anyone else says. But how about some guys for the rest of us?

    Keep up the good work!

  12. the women on Rock of Love are not dating up. They are dating exactly who they deserve and he is dating exactly who he deserves. That is why they are all so excited to be together. Beauty in women is a very, very valuable commodity. Sometimes I think it’s the only one men care about. The particular type of beauty these women exemplify is prized by Bret Michaels and all the men like him. It is costly to maintain and costly to obtain. Everyone gets this. Men who say negative things about these women, how they are dating “up,” and how they only like men with money and nice cars, are simply saying this because they do not have the wherewithal to attract these types of women.

    Bret Michaels is a catch to these women and women like them because, unlike a lot of the men they are stuck with, he’s personable and has had an interesting life. But he is by no means beyond their grasp. Because, think about it: The only other qualities they could offer besides beauty is a higher degree of intelligence, a more well-rounded personality, more and more varied life experience, and a valuable skill or competency. What would Bret Michaels do with any of these things Seriously? A smart woman? With Bret Michaels? Please. And if any of these women had even one of these qualities? She could do far, far better.

  13. The prevalence of hypergamy in romance novels is entirely up to the reader I think. Personally I seek out those books that are about equals coming together as a couple and the problems that any ‘normal’ real couple might encounter. They are out there, it just takes some sifting to find them. I have no interest in reading about simpering ninnies who can’t make their own money or save the family business without prostituting themselves to an emotionally unavailable, uber brat billionaire who doesn’t respect them. Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fulfilling the fantasy many women apparently have of marrying ‘up’. There’s obviously a market for it and that’s cool. Different strokes for different folks.

  14. This is one of my pet peeves with romance. The hero has to be the aristocrat, the self-made Very Rich Man, or some sort of genius that is on the verge of becoming rich. Bleh. I get sad when I hear authors repeat their publishers’ opinions that people don’t want to read about lesser mortals. Well I do, for whatever that’s worth.

    When I read that some 36 year old is a multi-billionaire who’s spent his life thus far not cultivating any personal relationships, I think, “Wait. At some point he was a mere multi-millionaire, who decided that that he still didn’t have enough reason to develop a personal attachment to anyone and therefore cut back on his work. Why should I believe that he’s suddenly going to do that now?” When is enough, enough? I wish I could find more books that feature middle of the road people, maybe regular tradesmen or servants in historicals, and 9-5 types in contemporaries. Just people who earn enough to pay the bills, but not to buy the heroine out of whatever trouble she finds herself in with a simple telephone call or bank draft. Then again, maybe I’m just reading the wrong authors.

    I don’t know about this hypergamy thing. ‘Marrying up’ isn’t always about income or titles.

  15. First of all, reality TV isn’t always about “reality”. There are certain scripts to follow, etc. It’s just an extension of the Jerry Springer Show, right? Ratings are key, and that’s all you have to think about when watching these shows. Drama = ratings. :)

    What interests me is how all of these shows play to sex and gender stereotypes. You’ll never see ten hot guys fighting to marry the woman who’s only a 6 simply because she has money – because no one would believe it.

    In romances, things are similar but it still depends on which books you read. In the Harlequin Presents line, there are often women who are 9s and 10s. Of course, they’re also sweet to animals and small children, etc. but the fact remains that their “inner fire” or charisma catches the hero’s eye often from across a crowded room. But because the hero is a definite 10, we all see the sense in this and buy into the fantasy.

    The key here is to keep the heroine down to earth enough to still ensure that readers can identify with her. I’m not a 6′ tall model with sleek brown hair – but I could relate to the chaos of a faulty purse that can’t close, spilling the embarrassing contents right in front of the hero, for example (lame, but it’s off the cuff!).

    All fantasies have their place, but I’d rather enjoy mine between the covers of a novel. :)

  16. Was going to say the same as Sandy. We’ve seen enough the past ten years to know that some people will do any stupid thing just to be on t.v. Some people will also do anything to associate themselves with celebrity.

  17. Interesting article! I think you’re mostly right and the seduction of many romances is the idea of the pauper catching the prince. But I think this scenario works best for me in historicals and maybe alternate reality (JR Ward can write some weak ass heroines) and less well in contemporary settings.

    I’m enjoying romances by authors like Nancy Warren and Julie James because their heroines don’t need to move “up” and are equally matched to their heroes. I voted for Nalini Singh’s Branded By Fire for Best Romance and Best Couple because this was two alpha’s coming together and both compromising to make it work. I find these stories empowering and sexy as hell.

    How does the popular wounded hero romance fit into the hypergamy scenario? Is it that the mismatch becomes more believable if the 10 hero is wounded in some way?

    • Lada: I voted for Nalini Singh’s Branded By Fire for Best Romance and Best Couple because this was two alpha’s coming together and both compromising to make it work.

      Ooops…”alpha’s” should just be alphas!

  18. Interesting. I was just bemoaning the fact that all the women in romance novels are 9′s or 10′s..at least in looks. And so many are uber-skillful (at least in contemps and suspense). They are cool, skilled military-types, or cool, skilled business women, or lawyers, or fashion models, etc. Many, many are fashion plates with blood red nails and perfect make-up and hair. And while many men in romance novels are successful, it’s not uncommon for the man to be a scruffy misfit. Anyway, I guess I’m saying the hypergamy isn’t as common in romances as you make it sound. Or at least it goes both ways. Personally, I don’t identify with either the uber-successful or small town innocent heroines. We get very little of the middle-class, decently educated, working females with some sexual savvy and a desire for a healthy relationship with a man who can actually make her happy, not one who will be hell to live with (alphas and tortured heroes). I guess that might be boring. :-)

    • carrie: Interesting. I was just bemoaning the fact that all the women in romance novels are 9’s or 10’s..at least in looks. And so many are uber-skillful (at least in contemps and suspense). They are cool, skilled military-types, or cool, skilled business women, or lawyers, or fashion models, etc. Many, many are fashion plates with blood red nails and perfect make-up and hair. And while many men in romance novels are successful, it’s not uncommon for the man to be a scruffy misfit. Anyway, I guess I’m saying the hypergamy isn’t as common in romances as you make it sound. Or at least it goes both ways.

      Totally agree. Many heroines are successful, beautiful, kickass etc. And many heroes are made less desirable by personality flaws or emotional scarring. I’m not saying that this fantasy isn’t there but I really don’t see it very often outside HPs – admittedly I like HPs and sometimes bemoan that they are becoming too PC. I think women have many fantasies that show up in the romance genre and hypergamy is just one of them.

  19. Sherri – it’s very hard to look away once you start watching Rock of Love, but overall I felt depressed after and embarrassed for my gender. I know these women are pre-selected for highest drama, but Oh. My. God. Frightening.

    • “Marrying up” is certainly not extinct in society or in romance novels, but I think your examples are equivocal and I disagree that the type of relationship you describe is really predominant in the genre.

      AAR Rachel: 20 young, nubile, reasonably attractive women all willing to completely debase themselves on camera for the opportunity to fuck an aging, presumably balding, diabetic, mid-tier rock star

      Like Sandy, I think that’s largely about a wish to be in the limelight. As is this:

      do you think Bret Michaels has a problem getting women in real life? I’m betting not.

      Some groupies’ memoirs indicate that being on a first-name basis with famous people gives them a sense of personal consequence.

      I also disagree with this:

      you really don’t see very many “9″ or “10″ heroines in romance at all.

      I think romance is full of “10s”. If such a large genre really had only one type of heroine, that would be striking, but that’s not been my experience.

  20. I have to admit that I watched Rock of Love. All three seasons. And I really want to see Rock of Love: Boat. It’s the whole train wreck/road kill effect. You don’t want to look, but you peek and then can’t look away. But I think it is about being on camera, as Sandy says, and not all about the man. Now, the Pick Up Artist with that Mystery guy? Have you seen that? That was an interesting study in human nature.

  21. Rachel, I think that the truly seductive monster on Rock of Love is not Brett Michaels, but instead is the lure of reality TV “stardom.”

  22. I definitely married up, but strangely, my husband would think he married up to. We’re just using different qualities to measure.

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