An extremely poorly kept secret in today’s America is the straight man’s questionable practice of rating women on a scale of 1 to 10. Far from being the product of the current fetishistic quantification of practically everything, I assume the practice either antedates or originated with the movie 10, which, in 1979, made an icon of Bo Derek (and misled white women into thinking that corn rows were a good idea.) Such was the impact of the “10” concept at the time that my father capitalized on it with a TV special called Women Who Rate a 10. Eric Estrada – who literally played a figurative pig on TV – was one of the hosts, Victoria Principal was among the headliners, and an entire act was devoted to “real 10s,” of which I believe Leontyne Price and (at my teenage and very unstraight urging) ballerina Suzanne Farrell were examples. (What’s more humiliating than being a 2? Being a “real 10”.)
The 1 to 10 practice has been railed against for decades (Disney Channel recently did an episode of Liv & Maddie that climaxed with the girls in the cast standing with bags over their heads as a means of somehow embarrassing the boys and their rating system), but it persists, perhaps only as a means of creating a communal experience of watching all the girls go by. (In defense of the practice, I’m sure that, if they had a numbering system in their bird brains, lady house finches would have exactly the same sort of system for evaluating their male counterparts, based on their monomaniacal fixation on potential mates’ red markings.)
Yes, fine, it’s male chauvinist, it’s Neanderthal, it’s troglodytic, men are pigs, women shouldn’t be objectified (male answer to that: you wouldn’t object to the rating system if you were a 10), this is the 21st century, there’s a woman running for president, and it’s probably all the Disney Princesses’ fault – but guys still do it. Perhaps it’s simply the human male turning the tables on the lady house finch: you gotta mate with someone, so an organized system of evaluating candidates has its uses. I will admit that the practice was more easily defensible when women were rated on their apparent ability to produce sons, rather than on their measuring up to Scarlett Johansson. (Or was the bearing sons thing less defensible?)
That said, there is a group of males of the species who do not use the 1 to 10 scale to evaluate women: gay men. Moreover (this is the interesting part), they don’t’ even use the 1 to 10 scale when evaluating other men. I’ve been around for a while; even in my foolish and carefree twenties, I don’t recall sitting in Uncle Charlie’s with friends and saying things like, “girrrl, he’s a 9!” and “that’s a 10?! – are your contacts in backwards, Mary?”.
Thus, when asked recently by straight friends how I’d rate a passing gentleman, I was at an honest loss for an answer. I kept coming up with adjectives and sentence-fragment anecdotes (“he’s nice-looking, but those tight pants were a serious mistake”), but no number sprang to mind. Even after giving the matter quite a bit of conscious thought, I couldn’t assign a grade to the guy, and could do no better than to fall back on the pass/fail system employed by every gay man I have unscientifically polled during the writing of this essay. In this context, “pass” means the guy is hot, and that, given the opportunity, I probably would kanoodle with him. As for “fail,” it simply means that the guy isn’t worth any further processing.
When pressed for that number rating, my biggest difficulty was that, having had no experience using the system, my mental 1 to 10 scale hadn’t even been calibrated. The most I could figure out was that Chris Hemsworth was a 10 (straight buddy: “Even I can see that”), but, according to the buddy I just quoted, there are Norse God 10s and there are walking down the street 10s. I toyed with suggesting that Mr. Hemsworth might be an 11, but I quickly realized that it would add nothing useful to the discussion.
Even having established that Thor is a 10, the system remained bewildering. Looking for a 5 would probably be more practical than compiling a list of other 10s, but on what basis, statistical or aesthetic, was I to set a midpoint?
I was given an answer: a 5 is the lowest co-kanoodler to which I would sink when sober. I could thus reconcile the straight and gay systems by positing that 5 would be the lower end of pass. While a rating of 4 might be useful when alcohol and/or desperation enter the equation, I still don’t see the point of establishing a hierarchy amongst men who don’t interest me. It seems both unnecessary and mean-spirited.
With regard to the upper half of the scale, I was posed an interesting hypothetical case by another straight friend. Seeking to find a flaw in the pass/fail system, he asked how I’d manage to sort through a situation in which I were confronted with four dudes, all of whom rated a pass, and all of whom were equally interested in me (thus eliminating expediency as a factor.) How would I decide which of the four gentlemen to take home for the purposes of kanoodling? My first answer was that I should be so lucky to find myself in such a situation. Disqualified. My second was simply to take all four home. That was disqualified as well. (There are apparently more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this particular Horatio’s philosophy.)
I would therefore, Horatio argued, have to establish a hierarchy amongst my four pretenders.
My brain still resisted the impulse. Why would I need to decide that my four suitors were, say, a 9, an 8, a 7 and a 5, when I could rate them as “excellent”, “very good”, “good” and “fair”? Or as win, place, show and also ran? Or, simpler still, one as best, and the other three as also rans?
Perhaps my difficulties stem from the fact that the 1 to 10 system is ingrained in straight guys’ brains (the last word can be viewed as a metaphor) from an early age. My completely unscientific poll suggests that girls start to be rated as soon as boys notice them, and, therefore, before any other classification system had been established. Thus there never was a classification system other than 1 to 10 downloaded into the straight male brain (again, the word may be a metaphor), and that it was installed at a point when far more looking than kanoodling was involved. I’d suggest that, as a result, teenage boys reason that, if you’re not gonna get any, you might at least process what you’re not gonna get (if only for future reference.) You and your friends thus have something to talk about during the hockey off-season.
This suggests one hypothesis about why gay men do not use the 1 to 10 system. Those years of violently fluctuating hormones may spell girl-oriented monomania to straight young men, but their gay counterparts must needs go through a complex process of figuring out what the heck it is they’re feeling. It’s confusing, and it’s alienating, nowhere more so than when you find yourself surrounded by friends arguing about whether the head cheerleader is a 9 or a 10. (As I was of that age when the movie came out, I took Bo Derek’s 10ness on faith…and then went back to watching Wild Wild West reruns.) Whether you’ve figured out that the football team interests you more than the cheerleaders, or whether you’re still confused by why the cheerleaders aren’t as interesting to you as they apparently should be, you feel left out of the 1 to 10 loop. Perhaps that experience of exclusion is the reason for the development of a parallel rating system as gay adolescents – let’s say “get a clue” rather than “mature.”
Two further explanations spring to mind. The first, perhaps the most tenuous, is based on the rabbit-like tendencies of the gay male, and the resulting lack of selectivity with regard to co-kanoodlers. Perhaps because you can get a man to kanoodle without the investment in time, dinner, flowers (and the eventual morning after iPad) I understand women require, the gay male has less of a need to employ a sophisticated rating system. Whereas a straight guy needs to concentrate an entire evening’s efforts of seduction on a single objective and, thus, the choice of targeting the 9 versus targeting the 7 is tactically important, the gay man probably just sees “now” and “later.” Put otherwise, where the straight guy has to order à la carte, the gay man finds himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
My third hypothesis, which I believe provides the biggest piece to the puzzle, is rooted in the unpopular but [frequently] true belief that [most] straight guys aren’t exactly brimming over with respect for members of the opposite sex. One can perhaps temper this strain of misogyny by considering the impact of the fundamental Otherness of the lady to the gentleman. For a man, women are radically different creatures, in whom he rarely sees anything of himself. Because the woman is so Other, she is easily objectified. Selecting a woman, therefore, employs the same mental processes as selecting any other Other from others of that same other (for example, and with apologies to the ladies in the audience, a tomato at the farmer’s market.)
The exact opposite applies to the gay human male: that to which he is attracted, and with which he contemplates kanoodling, is anything but Other: “homo-“ (as a prefix, that is) means “same.” While some objectification of potential co-kanoodlers is inescapable, equally inescapable is the fact that you will see some of yourself in that object. (Whence homosexuality’s auto-erotic trap, which is a topic for another time.) I think we can accept the feminist criticism that the 1 to 10 scale is demeaning to women (even if all men do it), and find in that criticism the reason why gay men don’t do it. If I say the guy coming towards me on the street is a 7, I am also opening myself to being rated on the same scale. And not only by the 7 who just passed me. The auto-erotic trap I just mentioned means that, even when looking for a sexual object, the gay male is holding a mirror up to himself. If that guy who just got into his car is a 7, what does that make me?
This isn’t to say that straight men don’t imagine how they themselves might be rated from 1 to 10, but that presumptive rating is always made through a presumptive woman’s eyes…and what do chicks know? They’re probably looking at my car and my watch as much as at my face. When the 7 pulling away from the curb is a dude, he can rate me using exactly the same – and by definition valid – parameters I just used to classify him. Continuing with our assumption that being rated is demeaning, calling that guy who forgot to take the parking ticket off his windshield a 7 is actually demeaning myself.
A straight guy rating a woman puts the straight guy in a position of power (or, at least, in an imagined position of power.) A gay guy rating a man in such a manner puts himself into a position of vulnerability. In those terms, the use of a pass/fail rating system exposes the fragile male ego to far less risk.
I will confess that, mostly in order to see how the other 90% lives, I am attempting to adapt my pass/fail standards to the numerical ones of my straight buddies. Think of it as an antidote to those uncomfortable years when I was unable to assess cheerleaders – and as an attempt at improving communication across the gay/straight gulf. If a gentleman should walk by, and a straight friend, making an enlightened effort to understand what makes the gay (possibly metaphoric) brain tick looks inquiringly at me, I will be giving him a far more satisfying answer when I say “7” than if I say “he’ll do.” (I must also admit that I am currently awash in a world of 7s: it seems the safest number to answer.) What is for them an instantaneous response still doesn’t come easily to me.
I’m not too sure it comes naturally, either.