When I was younger, my brother and I would often stay up late into the night talking about girls and boys (respectively) and how we could get them to like us. It was an intriguing exercise to be sure, although I’m not sure why it was important to either of us, as neither of us intended to date for a good part of a decade later.
Still, it was. And I don’t think we were too unique as children. In fact, it has been suggested by some scholars that the mean age for first sexual attraction is much earlier than the previously supposed marker of completion of puberty, at ten years of age (McClintock & Herdt, 1996). It could be supposed, then, that children are thinking and talking about sexual attraction even earlier than that.
All of this suggests an important need to consider the messages that children are receiving and assimilating about boys and girls and their interactions, perhaps at even younger ages than we think.
One ad for the now popular Toy Story 3 is publicized through a Ken doll instructing children (and other members of the targeted audience) as to what will make them successful in dating and perhaps “liked” now.
In the above clip, Ken says, “It’s important to make a good first impression. Make sure you highlight your strengths.” Ken’s self attributed strengths are a solid ride, solid physique, and solid hair.
What could boys and girls (males and females) take from this ad? Do boys learn that the strengths that will attract girls to them are solid physical characteristics and solid vehicles? Do girls learn that they should find interest in “solid” males or go running to males that love themselves? Most importantly, how long do such subtlety-absorbed messages affect individuals personally and in their interactions with the opposite sex?
Data has repeatedly shown that the qualities most highly associated with a “solid” relationship (i.e. relationship satisfaction) are kindness and flexibility, capturing a willingness to acknowledge and work with another (Busby, 2001). Additional research has shown that sacrifice and forgiveness have a transformative affect upon relationships (Fincham, Stanley, & Beach, 1997). Yet despite the accumulating evidence in support of selfless attributes for the success of male-female relationships, individuals are continually absorbing subtle and outright messages that convey that a particular focus on solidifying self will lend to the other sex taking interest.
Ironically, the pursuit of these messages leads to a deterioration of solid relationships. Of course in one sense, Ken is completely right—guys that love themselves seem to attract a lot of women. This offers an easy answer to people entirely seeking how to get the attention of the opposite sex. But somewhere in the competitive nature of individualism there are ensuing consequences that even those who promote it end up personally suffering. Always at the mercy of each other’s interests, someone has to lose out in individualistically-approached relationships. Individuals are abandoned, burned, and broken-hearted when the other romantic party abruptly considers them disposable based on his or her own self-interest. This is especially evidenced in the hook-up culture, among an audience who grew up with less outright messages in their Toy Story movies.
Imagine the long term affect, then, on the next decade’s college students of the more outright messages of today’s Toy Story cartoon and other current popular media. It certainly gives rise to the need for messages that counter the current cultural tide. What could males and females take from the example of those who swim against this tide? Could males learn that the strengths that will attract women to them include a solid sense of dignity, as developed through other-oriented kindness? Could females learn that there is increased strength in romantic relationships by finding interest in a man who is willing to love and be flexible with them as much as himself?
Now in our twenties, my brother and I still talk about girls and boys, but the nature of our conversations has changed. We talk about kindness, forgiveness, and sacrifice and their affect upon lasting relationships. He will marry a kind, beautiful girl in August, and depart from a culture that emphasizes the importance of having the “ladies come running” to instead sacrifice for and stand by his fiancée. He will provide her with a solid confidence that, much more than how he can continually “get” her to be impressed with him, he is concerned with how he can love her. And that will sustain a solid romantic relationship.
Busby, D. M. (2001). RELATE: Relationship evaluation of the individual, family, cultural and couple contexts. Family Relations, 50(4), 308-316.
Fincham, F. D., Stanley, S. M., & Beach, S. R. H. (1997). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends, Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(2), 275-292.
McClintock, M. K., & Herdt, G. (1996). Rethinking puberty: The development of sexual attraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5(6), 178-183.