Monday, April 14, 2014

Mapping the Mystique

Sometime around 2005 the New York Times seems to have discovered that any article about Iran - its nuclear program, relations with Israel, whatever - could be illustrated with pictures of attractive Iranian women, headscarves pulled back as far as possible, reacting to the news of the day on the streets of Tehran. Foreign Policy recently took this trend to its logical extreme with a photo essay that looks behind the veil, and under the shirt, challenging our preconceived ideas about Iranian women by showing that they too are topless when you photograph them in dressing rooms. This latest example of our ongoing collective obsession with Iranian women finally inspired me to finish up the map above, based on almost a decade of anecdotal data about what nationalities random people I've talked to over the past ten years seem to be into. It is by no means scientific, and is limited to white, upper middle class straight Americans simply because they represent the vast majority of my sample size. I have no real evidence for how different things would be for other  groups. Are gay guys more into Germans? Is that just an offensive stereotype? Or is Joseph Massad right in claiming gay Westerners are actually all into Arab guys? I just don't know.

From "Iranian Mystique," a foto essay by Hossein Fatemi 
Still, I think this map does reveal something more generalizable than just the idiosyncrasies of people I happen to have talked to (though lots of readers will no doubt disagree for legitimate and ridiculous reasons alike. I'm sure everyone you know just started dating a Welsh guy, but in some normative sense that is just not normal). Seriously though, if nothing else many of these privately expressed preferences, taken in total, reveal the extent to which long-standing, well-document and obviously culturally-constructed stereotypes have an impact that is inescapable, if sometimes inexplicable (I really can't emphasize enough that this is my attempt to be objective, not just map my own feelings. I know plenty of hot Albanians, but apparently no one else does).  These stereotypes have a weird impact on people's romantic and sexual interests, whether in the form of men who hit on Iranian women by saying they want to "help liberate them" or Norwegian women who claim they are learning Turkish because they want to meet "real men who get jealous instead of just make documentary films about their emotions." In the Middle Eastern context, of course, Lawrence Durrell is our trusted authority on this subject, but we would be curious to hear from readers about the writers who articulate these cliches for other regions.