Optimizing for Einstein and other homo-erotic theories
Jointly posted with Naked Capitalism.
At 41, I’m a grown woman. I’ve had enough weird and bad experiences as a woman in the mathematics part of “STEM,” inside and outside of academia, that my skin is relatively thick, a fact I’m proud of. Most of the time I let stuff roll off of me.
Even so, there are certain things that really get under my skin. Examples include terrible advice to young anxious women, and anything having to do with Princeton, New Jersey.
The recent appearance of the “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton (more about her below) has created a perfect storm inside me and I feel I have to comment, at the risk of giving her book more buzz. Note this post is not at all quantitative or even nerdy, except for some free market chit-chat which doesn’t really count. Instead it is much more straight-up ranting that I allow myself from time to time on mathbabe. If you want a more scientific and polite takedown, please see this Huffington Post article.
Princeton, New Jersey
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who hate Princeton, New Jersey, and people who are über successful white men (and sometimes Asian men). And I guess there’s a third kind, the people who have never visited Princeton.
I know that sounds histrionic, and I’ll make some caveats later on, but bear with me, it’s coming from personal experience.
I spent one horrific year (the academic year 1997-1998) as a visiting graduate student in the Princeton math department. Coming from the Harvard math department, I’d been socialized to think that spending all night in the library reading musty old French mathematical manuscripts was cool, and the very least one could do to impress one’s advisor.
In other words, I knew from male-dominated macho nerd culture. I girded myself for more of the same when I got to Princeton. But Princeton turned that up quite a few notches, and it wasn’t pretty. And it might have had something to do with being newly married, but that kind of makes my point stronger, not weaker, as you will see.
The first thing I noticed was that there were no other women in the math department. Well, that’s not quite true, since there were secretaries, and there was one female professor, who I never once spotted, and there was one other female graduate student, at least in theory, but it took me weeks and weeks to run into her.
But even so, I was kind used to that, being an experienced math nerd. I would normally just make do with hanging out with the social nerd boys. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any. It seemed like a department that either selected for anti-social people or efficiently turned them into anti-social people after they arrived.
As an illustration, let me tell you about the most social experience among graduate students I ever witnessed. It started out as a joyous scene: an enthusiastic young man bounded into the common room (which was almost always empty and didn’t really deserve the name “common room” at all) holding a book. He was showing off his newly bound thesis to an unusually large crowd of fellow graduate students – maybe 7 other men.
Instead of congratulating him, someone from the crowd grabbed the thesis and immediately and loudly proclaimed he’d found a typo. Everyone laughed. Long pause. The guy took his thesis and walked out of the room.
As you might imagine, I didn’t spend too much time in the math department. Instead, naïf that I was, I gave myself the task of finding friendly people I could truly connect with in the cultural wasteland that was Princeton Township.
The problem was, it felt like a village frozen in time. Of the perhaps 7 people I got to the point of trusting enough to share my desire for connection, no fewer than 3 of them suggested I join a church (that always made me wonder, what do Jewish people do in Princeton?), and the other 4 suggested I have a child in order to have company and something to do with myself. No shit. Human being as hobby.
I could go on – I could describe the pathetic attempt to attend a female graduate student mixer (“canceled for lack of attendants”) or the desperate time I sought counseling from the sole campus Mental Health Professional. Her exact words: “If it helps, I think I eventually see every female graduate student at Princeton.” Me: “Yes, it helps! I’m getting the FUCK out of here.” And I did.
I’ve been back once or twice, mostly to see the one person I became fond of in my year-long visit, and I am always amazed to see how little has changed. The last time I went, I attended a conference at the Institute for Advanced Study, and after lunch one afternoon I was in the cafeteria there, looking for coffee, when someone (a man! an oldish white man!) asked me to “find more plates, please” because there were no more clean ones. I looked down at my clothes: was I wearing a kitchen staff uniform like other people working the kitchen? Not at all, but I did suspiciously have my boobs with me. I must be kitchen staff.
Hey, I might be wrong
Other people have been to Princeton in the past 15 years, and some of them tell me it’s gotten somewhat better, and there are sightings of more than one woman at a time in the math department, and so on. I mean, the standards are super low, so “better” doesn’t necessarily mean much, but then again I don’t want to make it seem impossibly fixed. I’m glad the President of Princeton
is was a woman.
On the other hand, another friend of mine had this to say about a very recent visit (less than 3 months ago):
I was a job candidate there. Put up at that Inn. Eating by myself, and there was a long table in the center of the room - all white men, many in bow ties, I swear. They were talking loudly about curriculum changes in the humanities over time, and what a shame it was that they couldn’t teach the classics anymore, laughing about having to teach world literature, etc. And everyone serving them was black. It was disgusting.
My theory of Princeton
I have a kind of fun theory of why Princeton is like this. The short version is that the culture has optimized to producing “geniuses,” which started with Einstein. In fact, Einstein’s success story also pinpoints the moment that time froze there. It was like the lesson learned for the town was that, if they could only keep the place exactly like it was the moment Einstein entered Princeton, then maybe it would be a breeding ground for many many more geniuses to make the town proud.
So that’s what’s happened: everything that is done there is done in the hope that more Einsteins will pop up among the population. Would-be geniuses are worshipped in weird ways, and anyone who is not themselves a genius candidate has to tailor themselves to those who are.
And since by definition geniuses are not women – and nor are minority men – we know what their roles turn out to be. Women, at least white women, are seen as useful in as much as they can have man-children who may grow up to be geniuses. Everyone else is even less crucial.
Do you think I’m being too harsh? Perhaps. To be honest, there is a space for white men to be tagged as successful without being full-blown geniuses, especially if they’re undergraduates. Namely, if they are potentially super rich, preferably by working in finance. In any case it’s all about the successful male narrative. There is no room for any other narrative.
Why am I talking shit about Princeton?
Here’s the thing. I have come to appreciate Princeton, in a wry way (“If you’re suicidal,” one character says, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’ ”), and only as long as I’m not actually there. It is such a perfect example of old-fashioned, fucked up shit. You can’t make that stuff up.
But you can point to it and say, I will never live like that. It’s become a convenient counterfactual for me personally.
But not everyone has my perspective. My biggest fear nowadays about Princeton is that people are not sufficiently up front about how awful it is, and because of that people are sometimes tricked into visiting or even moving there.
It is this fear that I’m writing this essay, that I might be able to warn people away from that place, and possibly other places like it, although I don’t know of any. I’m a one-person anti-PR machine, but there’s only so much I can do.
Susan Patton to the rescue
It turns out my job is getting easier, thanks to Susan Patton, self-proclaimed “Princeton Mom”.
As if to amplify my complaints about Princeton, Patton has come out with yet more advice for girls who are aspiring to be Princeton wives. Her new advice to young women is to get fake boobs and whatever other plastic surgery deemed necessary in high school so you can attract a man in college.
Let’s back up for just a moment, though. Who is this woman?
You have heard of Susan Patton. She’s the confused bitch that wrote a now-famous letter to undergraduate women telling them to stop thinking about careers and start getting engaged whilst in college.
Oh, and she also suggested in a recent Valentine’s Day column (subtitle: “Young women in college need to smarten up and start husband-hunting.”) in the Wall Street Journal (where else!?) that, if you want men to marry you, you shouldn’t fuck them too soon, because, in her words, “men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”
Yes, she said that. I’ve got two responses to that tidbit. First, this:
mooooooo, motherfucker, moooooooooooo!!
She’s doing the same when she tells young women to get boob jobs in high school. That’s in fact the name of her game. She is insisting that women abandon any hope of intellectual curiosity, goals or ambitions while they are still teenagers and start in on a desperate competition to be a Princeton wife.
Why is Patton so nuts?
By her own account, Susan Patton married the wrong guy – a non-Princeton guy – and later got divorced. She’s bitter about her lack of foresight. In some sense this is just a pathetic story about one sad person.
But in another way it’s not. I’ve been reading a super interesting book called Why Love Hurts: a Sociological Explanation that explains why Susan Patton has some things right. In fact she’s kind of brilliant, but for obviously weird reasons, and her plan to deal with the issues she rightly raises is completely fucked up.
Here’s what she’s understood: there has been a revolution in mating rituals and partnering, and it has become a competition, and it has become increasingly important to be sexually attractive to win this competition. And although it’s not the only competition young women are enduring in college, it’s the one she’s fixated on.
In fact to a large extent we’ve gone from a social contract partnering society to a kind of pseudo-free market partnering society. The results of that transition include various things like how men and women see themselves, and specifically how they (women, not men) blame themselves for failed relationships, and moreover how they are incentivized (or not) to get married, or have kids, or importantly, to keep their word.
One of the most interesting points, at least as it pertains to Susan Patton, is that whereas men used to need to get married and have children to assert their masculinity, this is no longer true.
Nowadays, according to this theory, men in question increasingly assert their masculinity to each other through the sexual attractiveness of their girlfriends, and they don’t care very much whether they get married and have kids, or at least they don’t feel any urgency (which gives rise to both “the noncommittal man” and “the woman who loves too much”).
So when Patton tells women to get boob jobs, she’s essentially telling them to improve their odds in that existing free market. It’s not about sexual gratification, or even “self confidence” for the women. It’s really a homo-erotic, all-male issue: be something that other men will be jealous of. And what is the measure of their jealousy? That other men are responding sexually to “my” woman. So this means men are focusing on signs of sexual responses in other men and deriving gratification from them.
Here’s what Patton has tragically wrong, though. Given that you’re willing to toss out your personal and intellectual growth for the sake of winning this competition, even given that, which is a sad way to approach life, it still doesn’t have a chance of working.
Because, once we’ve acknowledged and entered this free market for sexual and romantic partnership, it’s simply not going to work in this day and age to expect the men to want to get married when they’re 20 years old, and it’s also certainly not going to work to withhold sex from 20-year-old men and expect them to marry you. It’s just not where 20-year-old men are at in this system. In fact by doing those things a woman is signaling desperation, which – as is explained in this book – works against a given woman, not for them.
Patton and my theory
I’d like to square her advice with my optimized-for-geniuses theory of Princeton.
The main point of my theory is that it’s all about the men, and specifically, it’s all about the successful male narrative. Whereas before it was enough for women to subjugate their personality, personal ambitions, and long-term goals for the purpose of potential geniuses and/or rich finance guys, Patton is now calling for women to also mutilate their bodies for the cause.
As a signaling device, it indicates real hunger for the role. As some guy said:
Fake boobs say, ‘I objectify myself, therefore I have no problem with you doing the same.’
But as I mentioned above, it is a failed signaling device. It’s an indication that the cultural worship of men has gone too far in Princeton, New Jersey. I’m hopeful that the smell of desperation will be so obvious that people will have to take a closer look and scrutinize the culture.
I’d also like to start a petition to demand that the Wall Street Journal make up for the publishing Patton’s column by also printing this excellent essay on getting laid really well when you’re a divorced fat woman. We need an antidote.