Dangerous Sons

Some time back I blogged on Hotness in Hollywood. In it I gave Angeline Jolie props for making a game effort at acting in a a movie with a script so execrable that her best effort was doomed, the original Tomb Raider movie. I also praised Liv Tyler playing Arwen, who became my personal all-time favorite example of screen sexiness in the Lord Of The Rings movies. And yes, I know this means I’m a geek; that’s not news to anybody.

My wife Cathy and I saw Wanted last night. Avoid it if you can’t stand the sight of people being shot through the head; otherwise it’s a fun popcorn movie with lots of implausible but extremely well-choreographed ultraviolence. (Well, OK, I started to giggle during the last knife fight a few minutes before the ending, because with the Marine knife-fighting technique my swordmaster taught my wife and I last year either of us could have filleted those two pirouetting idiots in short order.)

There was a moment in this movie at which Liv Tyler got toppled off her perch as my ultimate icon of cinematic sexiness. It was Angelina Jolie playing Fox the assassin, in tight clothing, standing alert and challenging, with a pistol slung low on her hip, looking like she damn well knew how to use it.

That went straight to my hypothalamus — bells ringing, lights flashing, rrrowwwrrr!. And, you know, the pistol was important. It trumped Arwen’s sword.

For me, at least, sexy women are sexier when they are obviously lethally dangerous. But Lara Croft didn’t affect me as strongly as Fox, despite being twice as heavily armed. I think it’s because Lara Croft was more of a cartoon, obviously bust-padded and stuck in a premise and script I had much more trouble believing. I got the stronger charge from a woman who seemed sexy, and lethal, and (at that moment) real.

OK, so why am I going on about my sexual quirks? Because I think there’s some sort of more general point here, and I think the politics and sociobiology of it is kind of interesting. The filmmakers were obviously working hard at maximizing the joint sexiness and dangerousness of Jolie’s character, and it is doubtful they’d have bothered without a pretty clear notion that a lot of men would respond to it the same way I did. At the very least they had to believe it’s a majority preference, otherwise Jolie getting seriously jiggy with firearms would repel more men than it attracted and depress their audience share.

This is implicitly a rebuke to a certain kind of feminist — the kind that believes in a vast male conspiracy to keep women disempowered. If a man of quality is defined by his not feeling threatened by a woman’s equality ability to blow his fucking head off, the filmmakers were clearly betting money on the proposition that more than 50% of their male audience would likely fit that bill.

And this actually makes evolutionary sense, I think. I’m reminded of what sociobiologists call the Sexy Son hypothesis. According to this one, women are attracted to handsome sexy men because they believe those men will give them handsome sexy sons with an above-average ability to pass on mama’s genes.

Contemplating Angeline Jolie as Fox in this movie, I propose the Dangerous Sons hypothesis. That is: more than 50% of men want to jump lethally dangerous women because they think those women will give them dangerous sons with an above-average ability to pass on papa’s genes.

“But wait…” I hear you say. “Why not a Dangerous Daughters hypothesis? Could our instincts be aimed at making women better fighters and hunters too?”

Er, probably not. In the ancestral environment, female reproductive capacity was way too scarce a resource to be hazarded in combat. Short lifespans, the minimum of nine months between pregnancies, and a high rate of death in childbirth made sure of that. Furthermore, womens’ lighter build and lesser upper body strength meant that (with very rare exceptions at the top end of the female bell curve) women could simply never expect to win a serious fight against a male of even average strength.

(Pre-gunpowder weapons like swords could reduce the disparity some but not eliminate it. Gunpowder weapons eliminate it almost entirely. But in the ancestral environment that shaped human mating instincts, we had neither.)

So the sexiest possible presentation for a woman is to appear capable of bearing dangerous sons while also being smart and cautious enough that her daughters are unlikely to habitually take the sorts of stupid chances that more expendable males can.

I think this explains why Fox is sexier than Lara Croft. A dangerous man can take the kind of crazy, cartoony chances Lara Croft did without his genetic predispositions tipping over into being a net liability for his genetic line (close kin), but a dangerous woman has to be cooler. More measured. More competent. More real.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go kiss my wife…


  1. I saw Wanted too — and Angelina Jolie still doesn’t do it for me, especially now that she borders on skeletal. Beyond that there’s something contrived about her on-screen presence these days that detracts from her appeal; she was easily at her sexiest in Hackers.

    But I think you’ve nicely elucidated my mysterious fascination with women at the top end of that female bell curve.

  2. Modern gunpowder weapons reduce the physical-power discrepancy between the sexes, but do not eliminate it. In general, men can carry and wield larger and more powerful firearms than women. Firearms makers produce weapons designed for women that are lighter and have less recoil.

    With early firearms this was even more true: a 16th-century musket or caliver was a massive thing.

    Having said that – a gun is still an equalizer. Even the smallest women can handle a gun capable of killing the biggest man.

  3. > Modern gunpowder weapons reduce the physical-power discrepancy between the sexes, but do not eliminate it.

    I suspect that ESR is referring to something other than physical ability.

    It’s not an especially odd hypothesis – it’s a stereotype wrt other species. (The “mother bear” is more dangerous than males, etc.)

    After all, the ability to carry a gun is not the only relevant characteristic. Typical females are able to carry/wield “adequate for most purposes” guns, which gets us to “then what?”

  4. >I suspect that ESR is referring to something other than physical ability.

    Total combat effectiveness. The difference between ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ firearms doesn’t really signify that much unless you’re talking massed fire on a battlefield and fighters using cover or body armor; in individual fights, it’s really all about shot placement, not the weight or velocity of the bullet.

  5. Wheras I see the instance as somethng different.

    I think Hollywood has found a temporary solution to their problem of “We need ass kicking heroes who can finish a movie story arc in 100 minutes or less.” and “We can’t show men doing anything aggressive unless they’re Bad Guys or Comic Relief.”

    Eventually, there will come a break when “male hero” isn’t “self referential parody”. I might even still be watching movies then.

    However, notice that even in LoTR, which is about as gender equal in its source material as the Old Testament:

    1) The competent one of the Big Three is Lego-my-ass. And the only way to describe him is “pretty”.
    2) The most overtly masculine character of the Big Three is Gimli. Who is relegated to comic relief.
    3) Aragorn is mostly upstaged by his girlfriend (Arwen, who has two emotions – pouty and angst) and the woman who has a crush on him (Eowyn). And they pretty much had to merge three characters to get enough stuff for Arwen to do between “Angst! Elven Angst!” moments. (Calling down the waves is Caleborn’s one scene in Fellowship…).

    In terms of Jolie: I find her to be too much plastic, too little person to find her attractive. Her roles have gotten increasingly “masculine” as she’s had more surgeries and lost some of the mobility in her face as a result. It’s easier to do a smirk with collagen-enhanced smirk and Botox to hide the lines than it is to do the subtler transitions of actual emotion.

    At some point, the Butt Kickin’ Femme Star is going to become as self referentially parodic as Rambo is. Then Hollywood will have a problem.

  6. Heh. If you showed me this picture and didn’t tell me who it was, I never would’ve guessed it’s Angelina Jolie.

    She looks good there. More natural, less Wendy O. Koopa. Which makes me wonder if it’s a shoop’d publicity still.

  7. On a weakly (very weak) related note, I recall a scene in “I am Legend”.

    Will Smith has just been rescued by the traveling woman and her son(?), and taken back to his house.

    What you may not notice in this scene, and it was fleeting, was that she had one of the small Glocks (19 or 23 most likely) in a holster.

    But at the same time, she had one of those “cell phone charms” hanging off the lanyard hole in the base. Like a decorative keychain.

    Here is someone who has, most likely grudgingly, adopted this side arm for her use, yet has now embraced it and was comfortable enough with it to personalize it for herself.

    Just an interesting detail for the character I thought.

  8. Are you guys kidding me? Jolie was hot in Wanted. And what about Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Anothg great film. I wonder if they are going to do another Tomb Raider.

  9. I think tough women are attractive – fundamentally, gut-level attractive – because it does make a difference. A male wants the female to be able to defend their kids. Note:

    (1) Even if she’s fighting a human male, tougher is better than weaker. Victory isn’t deterministic; there’s an element of luck in a fight. Tougher => better odds.

    (2) She doesn’t have to be able to win; she just has to be tough enough to make it not worth his while to mess with her. Say he wins but sustains a significant injury. Not worth it.

    (3) Even if she can’t win against the average male, it’s better to be able to fight off 43% of males than, say, 31% of them. So again, tougher is better.

    (4) There were dangerous animals other than humans in the ancestral environment. Fighting off human males isn’t the only desiderstum.

    I suppose all of this is why I get so damned turned on when Patricia Arquette kills the mob assassin in True Romabnce My genes scream at me, “She’d be really good at protecting your offspring!”

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