Scrubs dissects the myth that flirting gets women everywhere

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There’s a pervasive cultural myth that all a woman has to do is flirt, and men will give her everything she wants. Angry Men’s Rights Activists kvetch about it in forums all the livelong day. Spice Girls Feminists brag about it and think it’s great for women. And some of us don’t think it’s the big solution to women’s problems it’s cracked up to be.

Of all the sources for deep thought, a Scrubs re-run really got me thinking about this issue today.

Carla and Jordan were teaching Elliot to flirt so she could get her lab results faster, get chocolate cake in the cafeteria, etc. She was getting pretty good at it when she used her newfound powers of flirtation to cut in line and get the last orange soda… which should have gone to another man in line. A man who was about to interview Elliot for something. Whoops. The moral of the story? Some light-hearted flirting to get your lab results back on time is okay. Relying on flirting for everything makes you obnoxious.

Forget the moral for a minute; here’s what’s interesting.

When Jordan was explaining how flirting works, she told Elliot that only when something goes wrong will you maybe have to sleep with somebody, but the goal is to make him feel like you might have sex with him even though you wouldn’t. It was one of those throwaway lines Scrubs often works into an avalanche of dialog, which leave you thinking, “Ha! Yet not so far from the truth.” Because, you know, if the promise of sex really did make men do whatever you want, and you overused it, then eventually you’d have to follow through on the promise or find a new tactic. That’s one of the fundamental absurdities of the idea that women can run the world by manipulating men with their vaginas. (The other fundamental absurdity is the idea that this isn’t a power men grant – of course it is. Would they react the same way to women they don’t want to have sex with? Women of all shapes, sizes, colors? Not quite. So it’s still a power men grant, not an inherent power all women have. And they can take it away any time they’re motivated to.)

The other thing that interested me – even more than the first – was when Turk was criticizing Carla for corrupting Elliot, and Carla pointed out that the only reason Turk got his lab results back so fast was that he always told the guy he’d play basketball with him sometime.

Whoa. For the first time, I could at least see where the Spice Girl Feminists were coming from. If you’re an attractive that men want to screw, and you suddenly find yourself in an environment where men offer each other theoretical favors right and left to fasttrack themselves, it might make sense that you should offer theoretical favors too, and what favor could you offer a guy? In theory, there’s certainly nothing more wrong about suggesting sex than suggesting basketball. In fact, there’s nothing more wrong with having sex than playing a game of basketball as a shortcut to getting what you want. (Personally, I hate schmoozing in all forms and can’t understand why we can’t all just do our jobs whether someone flirts with us or not, but maybe that’s just me.)

The problem is that guys can offer each other basketball, video games, fine wine… anything on earth. The man doing the offering doesn’t have to be appealing; he just needs to find what appeals to the other guy and offer that. But when you are the offering, you have to make sure you’re appealing to the guy. You have to look right, talk right, move right, say the right thing, etc. If you’re a woman who’s not good at that stuff, or you’re the wrong race/size/whatever to appeal to the men you need favors from, you’re usually just out of luck. (I think this is actually changing, particularly among twenty-somethings, so that women can offer men stuff other than sex, but we’ve still got a ways to go.)

The other observation I found myself making was that the lab guy and the cafeteria guy were both men who had no authority over Elliot, nor she over them. So here we have relatively menial male laborers withholding chocolate cake and lab results from female doctors who don’t flirt with them. Who has the real power in this situation?

Comments

  1. says

    Because, you know, if the promise of sex really did make men do whatever you want, and you overused it, then eventually you’d have to follow through on the promise or find a new tactic. That’s one of the fundamental absurdities of the idea that women can run the world by manipulating men with their vaginas.

    Not exactly…because the option to follow through is still there. Even if woman couldn’t manipulate men through implied sex, they could still do so through explicit sex.
    That’s like saying men can’t wield power through money, because sooner or later they’d actually have to pay all the money-hungry jackals that lick their boots. Yeah, eventually they would…but they could, if they wanted to.
    (The above statement is a devil’s advocate stance; I am personally opposed to the idea that women should be able to–or be forced to–manipulate men through sex.)

    The other fundamental absurdity is the idea that this isn’t a power men grant – of course it is. Would they react the same way to women they don’t want to have sex with? Women of all shapes, sizes, colors? Not quite. So it’s still a power men grant, not an inherent power all women have. And they can take it away any time they’re motivated to.

    Again, slight disagreement…because men are not a monolithic block that all want the same shape, size, color, etc of woman, or the same variety of sex for that matter. So even if a woman does not appeal to a certain man, she is likely to appeal to other men…the fact that one man does not find her offer (of sex appeal) compelling does not mean he takes away her power; only that her power does not work on him, any more than a rich man’s money works on someone who doesn’t want/need it.
    Granted, money (and other forms of traditionally “male” power) are generally more universally applicable than sex appeal. But I still see it as something that is not “male granted”…since if a woman IS appealing, men don’t generally choose whether or not to be attracted to that woman.

    The other observation I found myself making was that the lab guy and the cafeteria guy were both men who had no authority over Elliot, nor she over them. So here we have relatively menial male laborers withholding chocolate cake and lab results from female doctors who don’t flirt with them. Who has the real power in this situation?

    Hmmm…in cases where neither side has authority over the other, power goes to the one who has what the other one wants…and that’s fairly true, regardless of gender. If Elliot were a male doctor, the (maybe female) caf worker might have withheld cake from him as a form of blackmail for some other social compensation. Hell, I used to see plenty of petty bureaucrats whose main desire is to see other people grovel.

    The fact that this happens more often to women, and that the compensations blackmailed out of them usually revolve around sex (implied or explicit) is not disputed, and it is despicable. I was merely arguing with the assumption that this is automatically a case of “male workers have power over Elliot because she’s a girl and they’re guys”, when that might not necessarily be the case…it is the case that a.) they have what she wants, and b.) she does not have the authority to compel it from them.

    Last point: I only recently started watching Scrubs, and I’ve been really, really enjoying it.

  2. says

    Even if woman couldn’t manipulate men through implied sex, they could still do so through explicit sex.

    Yeah, but then what do you do when the bribery through explicit sex has been going on so long that men figure everything they do for women comes with Free! Booty!? Tactics like this have to keep escalating until inevitably the system breaks down. To use your money example, if they gave the money away once, they’d have to to it again, and again, and eventually the boot-lickers would be in charge.

    So even if a woman does not appeal to a certain man, she is likely to appeal to other men..

    Sure, but what are the odds there’s a man in your office who will lust after you if you weigh 300 pounds, have facial hair and/or have a locally loathed skin color?

    But I still see it as something that is not “male granted”…since if a woman IS appealing, men don’t generally choose whether or not to be attracted to that woman.

    Ah, but you absolutely choose whether to be manipulated by that attraction or not. This is why women who sleep around hoping to get promoted usually don’t (that’s from one of the links in the post) – because even explicit sex really doesn’t make men do whatever women say.

    I think men like to imagine themselves as hopeless captives of their libido, but while we can all be stupid about someone we have feelings for, I don’t think anyone actually gives up anything of value over a simple bit of flirtation.

    Remember, the idea I’m debunking is the one that says women have “all” the power or “the real power” because of our ability to tease men with sex. There are serious, serious limits to that power, and they are set by men who get to choose how gullible they feel like being. If they feel like being extremely gullible, that’s still their choice, their power, not hers.

  3. says

    To use your money example, if they gave the money away once, they’d have to to it again, and again, and eventually the boot-lickers would be in charge.

    I might disagree…would you say bootlickers are in charge now? Who has more power, the millionaire who waves money in my face, or me the poor schmoe, just because he might actually have to pay me some of it?

    I’ll grant that actually granting favors DOES degenerate the power of “dangling favors in front of people” (which can apply to flirting or money, either)…since eventually, in both situations, you reach put-up or shut-up stage. That said, I still think sex and money are both things which can be used to coerce people, whether by implied or explicit offer.
    Musing thought: is sex, moreso than money, something which is more quickly degenerated…I mean, does the power of flirting lessen more rapidly (after you actually give sex) than the power of “richness” (sorry, lack of a better term) after you start paying people? Part of it could be that while there is a firm rate of exchange for money, there is not one for sex…and anything that someone has an infinite supply of is likely to be devalued rapidly (especially by someone who wants to get more of it).

    Sure, but what are the odds there’s a man in your office who will lust after you if you weigh 300 pounds, have facial hair and/or have a locally loathed skin color?

    Point taken…but there are degrees in all aspects of power. The amount of power that money gives you depends upon how much you have AND how much that is relative to the people you wish to influence. The amount of power sex appeal gives you depends, likewise, on how much you have relative to the person you wish to influence. In both cases, your power is dependent on the perceived value of what you’re offering relative to the person you’re offering it to (and, usually, what that person has to do or thinks he has to do to get what you’re offering).
    I will grant the major difference here is the one I stated above: fixed rate of exchange. A dollar is a dollar. Flirting is much more relative.

    Ah, but you absolutely choose whether to be manipulated by that attraction or not. This is why women who sleep around hoping to get promoted usually don’t (that’s from one of the links in the post) – because even explicit sex really doesn’t make men do whatever women say.

    Granted.
    But then, offering a guy at a restaurant/bar a $20 tip doesn’t “make” him give you a table; it just makes it much more likely he will. And the same is generally true of flirting/sex.
    The difference is between legitimate enforceable transactions (“I give you $20, you give me something”) and the craziness of “vague transactions” (things like flirting, bribery, or other means of playing people).
    Yes, men choose whether or not to be manipulated…but someone always chooses when to take a bribe (or not). Do we therefore say that money is of no value? Or that it’s value is in the hands of the person the bribe is offered to (that’s actually probably very true).

    Remember, the idea I’m debunking is the one that says women have “all” the power or “the real power” because of our ability to tease men with sex. There are serious, serious limits to that power, and they are set by men who get to choose how gullible they feel like being. If they feel like being extremely gullible, that’s still their choice, their power, not hers.

    If that’s all, you’re preaching to the choir…only fools think women have “all the power” because of the almighty vagina. :)

    I’m trying to solidify the point I was trying to make, to make it more clear, but I’m running out of time. I’ll be back if I can firm it up. More or less, I was saying that I don’t think “sexual power” is nonexistent, trivial, or totally at the whim of men. I likewise don’t think it’s as meaningful as, say, the power of wealth (because of universality, common rate of exchange, and versatility).

  4. says

    The big difference between your money example and my sex example is: money is for survival. It’s the only thing standing between you and starving on the street. Sex, you can live without. No matter how people like to joke that they can’t, they can. Especially when it stands between them and their money. ;)

    Also, what you’re saying about the fixed rate of exchange applies. The value of the money I dangle to manipulate you is set by an independent third party. The value of the sex I dangle is set by YOU. So, again, how much power do I have here? Only what you grant me. It doesn’t even matter if you find me mind-numbingly attractive because you have the option of saying no anyway.

    (And if anyone argues that men can’t possibly refuse hot babes… I think you know where I’m going to go with that.) ;)

    More or less, I was saying that I don’t think “sexual power” is nonexistent, trivial, or totally at the whim of men.

    I think I effectively countered this above: men can always ignore flirtation, turn down offers of sex… whatever it takes to prevent the woman from using that “power” over you. If they fail and get used, that’s them being stupid, not them being powerless.

    There’s another issue here. The lab tech is PAID (money – the thing we can’t live without) to do tests. The cafeteria guy is paid to give people cake when they ask for it. They are the ones holding people’s lab results and cake hostage in hopes of getting an additional favor. They are creating the situation in which Elliot needs to flirt to get what she was entitled to get anyway. They are the ones with the power here because the people who pay them aren’t paying attention.

    Hmm, that would’ve made a better post, LOL. Damn.

  5. says

    I think this myth is partially inspired by wanting to believe that other people are getting unfair advantages. In the same way that a white person who sees a more successful black person might tell herself “Oh, she probably got promoted through affermative action,” a less successful guy might want to write off successful women by thinking they’re just sleeping (or flirting) their way to the top. In reality universe it doesn’t work that way. Flirting with your boss or colleagues will cause people to immediately dismiss you as incompetent, just a decoration, and not serious about your job, and an affair with the boss (or higher) is far more likely to get you fired than it is to get you promoted.

  6. says

    “But I still see it as something that is not “male granted”…since if a woman IS appealing, men don’t generally choose whether or not to be attracted to that woman.”

    Men aren’t granting attractiveness, they are granting other stuff based on attractiveness.

    Why men think that certain women are attractive while others are not is irrelevant to whether that phase is accurate. The issue is that there is an imbalance; women are always offering sex while men are always offering other stuff. If women were sometimes (and not just once in a blue moon sometimes) offering power, money, etc., and men were the ones sometimes offering sex (again, not just once in a blue moon) then male granted would no longer be accurate, because sex would be treated the way that basketball is treated.

    As it’s set up now, sex is treated as something that women have and that men want. Acting as if sex is something that women don’t want and that men don’t have makes women’s bodies – not sex – the thing that is being traded. It turns women into commodities rather than treating us individuals, making the dynamic less of equals trading favors and closer to powerful people trying to wheedle power from more powerful people, even when the man is of a lower socioeconomic status.

    Men (as a group, not necessarily as individuals) have more power because they are considered to be the ones with more stuff to trade. Hypothetically, women could trade the power and money that they have as well. Because of the cultural narratives, however, not only do women rarely learn to offer this, but even if they do men (for various reasons) often reject such offers and request sex instead, leaving with women with less to trade, and therefore with less power.

    As a possibly stupid example of how this works:

    I’ve had no less that three patrons try to ask me out while I was working the job I started a month and a half ago.

    Two of them began the their attempt by asking for help. It became quite obvious very quickly that they just kept asking stupid questions so that I’d have to spend more time with them, despite the fact that they both probably could have used some real help, and would have gotten at least a little help if they’d bothered to listen to my answers instead of looking for ways to interject comments about my appearance.

    I get paid nearly twenty dollars and hour (or will soon) to answer reference questions, but despite both of these two men being unemployed, they find the sex they think I might offer them to be more worth their time and effort than the $20 an hour research skills that they can’t afford.

    And the latest one, today, didn’t even have any questions. He just figured that my skills and job are so unimportant that I ought to not only not care that he is interrupting me to tell me I’m pretty, but be flattered by it. Let’s not consider the possibility that people with the power to further my career are coming and that I need to make sure everything looks good. No. What I was doing was so inconsequential that it didn’t even occur to him that he was interrupting actual work for no good reason.

    I would never argue that I have less power than these men, but I certainly have less power than men in my situation. Male librarians certainly have to deal with a lot of shit, but people availing themselves of their professional services rarely reduce their resume to “fuck hole.”

  7. says

    grrr…damn late night posting

    that should be “…less powerful people trying too…”

    And I should have made it clear that the third guy was not simply chatting while I checked out his books, or something else that didn’t require much thinking and meant that I was focused on him already. That would not have been nearly so rude; in fact, depending on the the actual timing and wording it might have been flattering in the way he thought it was.

    No, I was trying to hang posters up on the wall for the event (attended by several hundred people) that was going to start in about an hour at that point, and I was trying to concentrate on whether or not the posters were straight, professional looking, and placed in the best possible positions.

    It would have been one thing if he’d needed help. My primary job is to help the public, no matter what else was going on, and I did stop what I was doing to answer several patron’s questions. But no, he was interrupting me to not only make comments on my appearance, but make sure that I heard and properly thanked him for such comments.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Um, I’m gonna say What CL Said and What Mickle Said because they really both are saying it better than I do. :D

    Re: the type of inconsiderate men Mickle describes. That is so much more common in customer service – no matter how highly-skilled and $$$ the job is – than in office jobs where you answer to your superiors and not the customer/client. There’s something about that brief but potentially intense interaction, because the customer service worker has the burden of communicating with someone who often doesn’t really know what s/he is talking about. It’s like these men (not all men) interpret “May I help you?” as a signal of willful submission to them, rather than a compensated facade you’re going through at the behest of the third party (your employer) you have the REAL relationship with.

  9. sbg says

    It’s like these men (not all men) interpret “May I help you?” as a signal of willful submission to them, rather than a compensated facade you’re going through at the behest of the third party (your employer) you have the REAL relationship with.

    When I was working front desk of a hotel, I cannot tell you the number of times I was trapped back there, being hit on, cajoled, etc. by patrons for dates and, more basely, plain ol’ casual sex.

    I never once saw the same kind of thing happen to my male coworkers.

  10. says

    It’s like these men (not all men) interpret “May I help you?” as a signal of willful submission to them..

    Ha! So true. To the point that I’d actually replace “May I help you?” with simply a polite smile. Or even just walking by. One of the men actually began the conversation by whistling at me as I was passing by on my way to the restroom. As I kinda needed to go, “the reference desk is right over there” was my initial response…once he finally deigned to use words.

  11. scarlett says

    I used to work in one of the few 24h restsraunts in Perth, so when American sailors would dock in Fremantle, we’d get three times our usual business during the overnight shift. We females got hit on routinely to a point the manager gave those of us who didn’t want to deal with it the option of being in the kitchen, scullery etc. Not a particularly fair alternative (especially when a lot of the sailors would leave tips in US currency – if you were lucky, you could get more in tips than your wage) but I suppose it was nice of her to take notice of the situation.

    Mind you, this same manager tricked quite a few of them into paying with US currency, dollar for dollar… when the Australian dollar was worth about $US.52 I hope they eventually figure out they got fleeced :p

  12. firebird says

    Just the other day I found a pleasant conversation with a customer turning bizarre. I work in a call center and along with knowing what I’m talking about and taking care of the issue in a timely fashion, I’m supposed to build rapport and give empathy. So when this particular customer called in about international roaming, naturally I asked him where he was going and commented vaguely that I’d heard Istanbul was beautiful (I was improvising, a part of customer service that is often overlooked – I think I meant that it sounds like a place where one could feel immersed in aeons of history, and find it beautiful, but that would have taken too long to say).

    Like many such conversations, the customer immediately asked me to go with him. Most people say things like that as a joke, a common ritual of communication, something one gets used to in the public arena of customer service. You learn to laugh when asked for a date or marriage (or room service, another bizarre call). You learn to put the creepos (like the Pink Guy with his pink pen and his pink RAZR and his fetish for having girls say “do it”) on hold because they’ll hang up. But this guy really didn’t want to take no for an answer. He brought it up multiple times in the call and I found myself saying, “well, I would but I don’t have any vacation – maybe next time,” just to get him off the phone.

    You’ll notice it all started because I said I wanted to go where the customer was going, implying that I might want to go with him. Why did I do that? Because, as Beta said, of my REAL relationship with my employer. Nobody actually told me to flirt, and actually I say the same thing to women as to men, because it’s a cheap and easy form of rapport that almost always works. But in this case, the favors I want are the customer’s involvement in the conversation. I want him to think I really want to know him. I want him to sound like I have totally made his day. Why? Because that earns me points with my employer, which translates into cold, hard cash in the form of bonuses, raises, and continued employment.

    We’re playing a game, these men and I. I pretend to be this perky, cheerful person no matter how I feel, and they pretend to think I am really interested in them and their problem to the exclusion of everything else. If I’m really good, they don’t have to pretend so hard. Then I pretend to like them, and to be on their side, and they pretend that they aren’t just trying to get what they want by complimenting my (supposedly) sexy voice (which sounds a bit like a chipmunk) or inviting me for dinner/vacation/travel. Then I pretend that I’m helping them because they are such a nice guy, natch, and that if we met in person I would so totally accept, and they don’t push too hard because that would upset the applecart and make things awkward. If we do it well, the customer gets what they want, and I get what I need to get my employer to give me what I want.

  13. scarlett says

    I don’t get what they think that will achieve? Are there really people out there who think you’re going to drop what you had planned for the next few months to spend several thou on a holiday?!?!?

    Mind you, I used to get male customers not only offering me their food, but getting quite put out when I said “I can’t, I’m working”, like I got paid by a third party to do whatever the hell they would want me to do – and if that meant sitting down and sharing a meal with them, then that was it.

  14. firebird says

    I know, right? It was uncomfortable because the first time was kind of…well, it was supposed to be charming and it’s easy to laugh and say thanks and move on. But after that you start wondering, what does he really think I’m going to do? I’ve had guys ask me to mail them my phone number or call them (since I have access to their account info) but I can’t because it’s against policy and I wouldn’t because it would be scary weird, but I can’t imagine that a sane person would think a stranger would drop their life to go on a trip with someone they don’t know.

    On the other hand, I can imagine that there are people in the world who would, so maybe there are people who think that it’s reasonable to think someone would do it.

  15. MaggieCat says

    But this guy really didn’t want to take no for an answer. He brought it up multiple times in the call and I found myself saying, “well, I would but I don’t have any vacation – maybe next time,” just to get him off the phone.

    You’ll notice it all started because I said I wanted to go where the customer was going, implying that I might want to go with him.

    I just cannot comprehend the thought process that makes this seem like an acceptable behavior. Which is sad, because I had similar conversations back when I was working in customer service so I’ve been wondering about it for years. I almost never got stuck with the dealing a situation where it was a repeated offer*, but it sounds all too likely and common. But I can hardly even imagine a situation where a woman would keep pushing away after the polite chit-chat joke moment had passed, which I find very unsettling for some reason.

    * (After the first invitation, for lack of a better word, my instinct was always to make a joke about how that wouldn’t be possible until they perfected that teleporting thing because while I like the places I hate the process of traveling to them. I’m not judging what you did, because my own response was actually a lie and I’m now wondering why my own instincts were always to shut down such a line of conversation in the fastest-but-still-polite manner available. I probably became overcautious in general because of an early experience where there wasn’t anything I could do to head off a harassing situation where a customer first informed me that I could be making more money working in a very different phone industry and then came up with one of the more disgusting versions of a spelling alphabet I’ve ever heard to confirm his VIN.)

  16. firebird says

    My goodness! I had a guy today that when I informed him of the payment processing fee and said “Do you want to go ahead and do it with me or use our automated system for free?” He paused theatrically and asked me to rephrase the question – he didn’t say anything obscene, the most explicit being saying his middle initial V was for Virtually Sexy – but he implied that I had. I finally said, “My! You’ve had an interesting day, haven’t you?” and he took a bit of a hint.

    It’s frustrating because my method of communicating with both male and female customers is open to being taken flirtatiously, mainly because everything a woman does can be taken that way (even pulling away, as someone recently pointed out), and I don’t want to risk my quality scores on calling customers on their behaviour, but that means I submit to it which I find just as demeaning as the behaviour was in the first place. And I actually like the job most of the time, I like fixing things and the acting skills it takes to improv it all the time and stuff. So? It’s a puzzle.

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