By FROMA HARROP
My friend in Omaha, Nebraska, assures me that a disturbing phenomenon once focused on the coasts has invaded the heartland. He speaks of young couples where the woman is nicely dressed and her male date or mate is in slob mode. The women are neat and stylish, often wearing some (or a lot of) makeup, but their male partners are in soiled sweatshirts and baggy jeans, hems dragging on the floor.
This is a sign of gross inequality. It flashes a disparity of effort. The women are trying, and the men are not.
Some may regard this discourse on dress as superficial and frivolous. Feminists haven’t landed on the issue, perhaps for that reason — or perhaps out of an aversion to commenting on a woman’s appearance, whether shaming or acclaiming. But as one sensitive to female dignity, this reeks of women working so much harder than men to achieve, I assume, the same goals.
And it is never more glaring than on Valentine’s Day. That’s when nice restaurants sparkle with hearts and festivity. The women enter dressed for celebration. Their men are attired for casual Friday — if they’ve tried even that hard.
I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen young women in cocktail dresses, heels and dangly earrings sitting across from boys in athletic shoes, their shirttails flapping, and, of course, no jacket.
Excused from the discussion are most gay men of my acquaintance. They tend to dress carefully and often with style. And that is why so many women, gay or straight, enjoy going out to dinner with them. I recall meeting a beautifully groomed gay friend at a bar area and having to peel him away from the single ladies gushing at him. Made me smile and think, “If only the straight guys understood.”
The gay difference is the formula fueling the enduring “Queer Eye” series on Netflix. In each episode, five gay men try to rehabilitate a disheveled individual. My favorite makeovers are those performed on straight fellows who can’t get a job, a girl or their parents’ approval. Some must be taught how to shave. The end result is a guy who seems not just sophisticated but grown-up.
I sometimes wonder whether these boy-men even comprehend the benefits of making an effort. I know an elderly gentleman of average looks who dresses in a blazer and tie whenever he flies. When he stands at the rear of the plane waiting for a restroom, female flight attendants surround him to say how grateful they are to see a well-dressed passenger. That he’s in economy class matters not.
By the way, this isn’t necessarily about formality. I’ve seen male ranchers look spectacular on a Saturday night in pressed jeans and a spotless shirt.
What caused this inequality? Here’s one theory. Media in recent decades have feasted on storylines in which a sloppy male character, because of his other virtues, wins the affection of a foxy beauty. Note that the female prize, even if she’s in jeans, is always superbly groomed.
Nowadays, pictures of celebrity weddings show the groom’s shirttails hanging — a sign of conspicuous disrespect — while the bride is draped in a zillion-dollar white creation. Heaven knows how much time she spent on her hair.
In America, women have long been a civilizing influence. How did they let the gap in male vs. female effort grow so wide? Some may blame it on sexual discrimination, others on feminism. I believe the women’s tolerance plays a part.
Come Valentine’s Day, there’s one thing you surely will not see: a young elegantly attired man next to a young woman in dirty jeans, an old T-shirt and running shoes. Think about it.