He’s Ugly. She’s Hot. The Perils of Up-Dating

How society judges people trying to mate "out of their league."

Do you know anyone who is up-dating? (Or updating?) Do you know what up-dating is? Because we just can’t help ourselves from making up new words and pretending that things are new trends or phenomena when they’ve actually been around forever, enter up-dating—when someone dates or marries someone “out of their league.”

In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, meets a handsome doctor, a decade older and worlds away in any American cultural caste system. They hook up and spend a magical weekend in his beautiful, well-decorated brownstone. He pleasures her sexually and calls her beautiful. The controversy: By most American conventions, he’s very attractive and she’s not.

The Internet, always ready to judge, has reached a hung jury. Daniel Engber at Slate says “ … the whole thing left me baffled and uncomfortable. Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched.” Esquire‘s Peter Martin was one of the many who read the episode as a dream, since surely, Hannah simply could never have landed Dr. Joshua. Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker applauds the episode’s bravery and craft. Maureen Ryan at HuffPo actually responds to the response, calling it nothing short of “idiotic.”

Just a few weeks ago, the now-infamous GoDaddy commercial with the ultimate model making out with the ultimate geek covered the same ground, though unlike the Girls episode, the disparity of the attractiveness was exactly the point. The reaction to that commercial? Mostly repulsion. I had asked my students in a persuasive writing class to watch this year’s Super Bowl commercials and to choose one to deconstruct. When we began to view some in class, and I started keying in “G – O … ” the class groaned and begged me to not make them watch it. One student said, “At least let’s keep the volume off.”

Look, we all know about the hotness gap; we have thoroughly and scientifically documented our human tendency to pair off with people of like attractiveness and economic and intellectual backgrounds. So part of our shock over mismatched couples must be innate. That said, should we question couples we find disparate as loudly as we do? I once saw a news magazine show that depicted incongruous couples who have actually been stopped on the street and asked about their physical disparity.

Most of us would not want to be labeled as either superficial or judgmental, but knee-jerk reactions are just that: immediate and irrepressible. I have two friends who are over 50 and are dating (or attempting to date) online. One of them said, “If it’s not bad enough that I said ‘no smokers’ and [the site] keeps matching up with smokers, people out of my mile range, not of the same education, but I keep having these guys contact me that are … ”

And I saw her struggle, afraid of my judgment of her for superficially judging them. She finally choked out, “They’re just not attractive at all, and I don’t think I’m that bad.”

My other friend says the same thing—that she doesn’t want to appear rude, but she can’t believe the emails she’s getting from guys who “aren’t maintaining.”

The world of online dating is a nightmare, (see Catfish, or talk to anyone who has tried it), though I just heard that almost 50 percent of marriages in 2012 came out of online relationships. I feel my friends’ pain and guilt over rejecting guys based on their photos. During my own short period of online dating, I had no problem tsk-tsking the height liars and age liars and finance/education/career hiders, but I found it much harder to accuse them of being “over-reachers.” Despite our desire to believe we’re more intellectual than superficial, we just can’t help ourselves from making snap judgements. I also wonder: If you date someone who is both better looking and wealthier than you, are you up-up-dating?