No Money, No Honey
The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox
In a typically razor-sharp exchange of dialogue which establishes – yet again – that The Simpsons provides the most coruscating illumination of contemporary mores, Lisa says to her grade school teacher that “Good looks don’t really matter”, to which Ms Hoover replies: “Nonsense, that’s just something ugly people tell their children.” Stripping away the layers of irony from this statement we can reveal the central premise of Catherine Hakim’s book, which is that not only do looks matter, but that they should matter a great deal more. Furthermore, the people who tell young people – and in particular young women – that their beauty and sex appeal are of little importance are themselves ugly, if not physically then at least morally. For, as Hakim sees it, it is an “unholy alliance” of wannabe patriarchs, religious fundamentalists and radical feminists who have – in Anglo-Saxon countries especially – acted to devalue what she terms “erotic capital”. In Hakim’s estimation, for all young women, and in particular those who are without other benefits – financial, intellectual, situational – an entirely legitimate form of self-advancement should consist in their getting the best out of – if you’ll forgive the pun – their assets.
Hakim, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, is no tub-thumping provocateur, but a well-established sociologist with a string of publications to her name. And Honey Money, despite its somewhat racy title – which comes, apparently, from an expression employed by Jakarta prostitutes: “No money, no honey” – is configured as a serious academic exercise, complete with rather leaden prose, extensive annotation, reams of statistical evidence, appendices and tedious repetitions. Nevertheless, I envisage a blizzard of opprobrium enveloping Hakim, for she has set out here a thesis seemingly purpose-built to inflame the passions of a wide swathe of the opinionated. Taking as her starting point Pierre Bourdieu’s well-established analysis of forms of individual capital – monetary capital itself, human capital (intelligence potentiated by education) and social capital (patronage, nepotism and other network benefits) – Hakim proposes another form: “erotic capital”. She acknowledges that this term has been used by sociologists in the US to refer to physical appearance and sex appeal, but claims that her definition – widened to encompass other skills such as charm, sociability and actual sexual expertise – is both original and powerfully explicatory.
In some ways I think she’s right. There’s something altogether refreshing about Hakim’s spade-calling, which recalls to mind Schopenhauer’s infamous remarks in his essay “On Women“: “With girls, Nature has had in view what is called in a dramatic sense a ‘striking effect’, for she endows them for a few years with a richness of beauty and a fullness of charm at the expense of the rest of their lives; so that they may during these years ensnare the fantasy of a man to such a degree as to make him rush into taking the honourable care of them, in some kind of form, for a lifetime – a step which would not seem sufficiently justified if he only considered the matter.” Certainly the pessimistic philosopher’s own dealings with women conformed to this view: a lifelong bachelor, he was not so much an enthusiastic as a dutiful customer of prostitutes – attending the brothel as regularly as other haute-bourgeois men visit their club.