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June 16, 2003

The Evo-Bio of Kate Hudson Movies


Thanks for holding down the fort while I was away vacationing last week in Hawaii. You cranked out some masterful postings. I spent most of a very enjoyable week painting—in part, to mollify my wife, who after five years of living in our current home has been getting justifiably impatient with having so little in the way of paintings on the walls. I also read Steven Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate,” and part of a book by Matt Ridley, “Genome” which is a sort of prequel to another book I recently finished, “Nature via Nurture.”

So picture me living in a bizarre world comprised of gorgeous natural scenery, sipping tropical drinks, mixing colors under a hot sun and chewing over evo-bio notions of warfare between “selfish” male and female genes.

In the midst of this rather blurry mental state, we went to see a movie as part of the Maui Film Fesival. Billed as a “Celestial Cinema” presentation, I ended up watching a commercial Hollywood flick, “Alex and Emma,” while sitting on a lawn chair on a golf course under a full moon. And the next day, while back again hard at work in my hotel room (a drink ready to hand, naturally), I listened to—but did not literally see—another Kate Hudson romantic comedy, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” All of this got me thinking about the evo-bio implications of the two films.

First, I have to warn you off of “Alex and Emma,” even when viewed under a full moon with your soul mate by your side. It fails for the fairly obvious reason that it utterly lacks dramatic (or even comedic) conflict. In it the hero, played by the always likeable Owen Wilson, wants to spend a month dictating his second novel and collect his $125,000 advance. Kate Hudson, playing his long-suffering and strangely frumpy stenographer, also wants him to dictate his second novel, collect his $125,000 advance, and pay her a month’s wages. The hero’s publisher is eager for the hero to finish up this second novel, as are two loan sharks who are eager to collect $100,000 from the novelist. Everyone, in short, wants to see the damn novel finished, and no one more so than the poor member of the audience who has to endure to its utterly pedestrian language and its clichéd plot presented in voice-overs with enactments. The only tension the movie can gin up is whether the hero should go for the plain-jane stenographer (or her stand-in within the novel, a maid or a cook or something) or for the flashy, untrustworthy but really hot-looking French seductress played by Sophie Marceau (also playing duel roles in real life and in the book). Since the movie clearly bills Kate Hudson as the co-star, who do you think gets the guy?

Dubious Choices: Alex and His Women

“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” was a better effort, particularly for Kate Hudson, who at least gets to be the hot number in her own movie this time. She and her male counterpart, Matthew McConaughey, play manipulative “romance” games with each other, designed to pay off in terms of their respective careers (hers in journalism, his in advertising). The twist here is she is trying to act horribly neurotic to see how quickly it takes to get rid of him so she can write up the experience for a magazine, while he is forced to endure her nut-job behavior because he needs to present her to his boss at a party ten days hence to get a promotion. Along the way, naturally, both realize that their opposite number is really a terrific human being, and they hook up romantically after the obligatory scene—which should have wrecked both their careers but mysteriously doesn’t—in which the dual scams are brought to light.

Now, looking at evo-bio notions of sexual relations, men are supposed to value female partners for (1) their youth and health, which are proxies for their ability to produce healthy offspring, (2) for their sex appeal, which promises that the resulting offspring will also be sexually attractive and thus likely to successfully reproduce as well, and (3) for their disinclination to fool around, since they don’t want to end up raising another man’s child. Obviously items #2 and #3 are in potential conflict, which will be resolved depending on the man’s ambition and self-confidence regarding holding on to his mate.

Women, on the other hand, are looking for men who are (1) healthy and presumably fertile, (2) sexy, and (3) who have seized high social status, so that her offspring won’t lack for resources.

This suggests that “Alex and Emma” fails, and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” succeeds, not only for reasons of dramatic structure, but because the first violates the norms of evo-bio and the second doesn’t. The drama, if that’s the word, of “Alex and Emma” surrounds the hero’s choice between two women. On the fertility front, both women are young and in good health, but Sophie Marceau has demonstrated her fertility by giving birth to two children (albeit fathered by someone other than the hero.) On the sex appeal front Sophie Marceau is not only presented as hotter than Kate Hudson, but she has also already produced attractive children, showing that her genes will breed true, so to speak. Only on the unlikeliness-to-fool-around front does lackluster Kate edge out the more volatile Sophie, who has obviously strayed from our hero’s embrace before. Score: 2 for Sophie to 1 for Kate. Moreover, choosing Kate implies that our swashbuckling hero doesn’t feel up to the challenge of keeping a woman true to him and wimps out with the “safe” alternative. No wonder Owen Wilson looks so damn glum at the end of the movie.

Sophie: A Loser?

Moreover, in “Alex and Emma” Kate Hudson is not exactly winning the lottery by snaring Owen Wilson. Her mate is good looking and presumably fertile, granted, but has many defects: he is a slob, he faints at moments of high tension (potential health problem), he’s a big enough idiot to gamble away money borrowed from loan sharks (potential intelligence problem), and despite his successful artistic labors ends up with hardly a dollar to his name (major social status problem). I’d say her children’s future is kinda iffy relying on this guy.

Kate as a Sexual Winner

Meanwhile, the sexual dilemma of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” basically lies in whether Kate Hudson will act on her newfound feelings towards Matthew McConaughey in New York or will instead advance her career in journalism (and in sexual manipulation) by moving to Washington D.C. When she decides to stick around and to accept him as a reproductive partner, Matthew ends up with (1) a healthy, young and presumably fertile mate, (2) a wife whose sex appeal and talent for sexual conniving will presumably be inherited by his children, maximizing their chances of successful reproduction, and (3) someone who has chosen him over what appears to be a promising career as a female player. While he may have some anxieties on the faithfulness score, those will undoubtedly serve to make life interesting. And Kate Hudson in this movie is getting a handsome, healthy, financially successful and even shrewd guy to father her children.

Hey, when will Hollywood stop fooling around with mere screenwriters and start consulting evo-bio experts instead?



P.S. As commenter Xhenxhefil has pointed out, the star of Alex and Emma is Luke Wilson, not his brother Owen. My apologies for this error.

posted by Friedrich at June 16, 2003


"youth and health, which are proxies for their ability to produce healthy offspring" This isn't really the case. Youthful females tend to lack the experience required for raising offspring. They build their nests on a flood plain, or lead the chimplings too near a lion. On the other hand, youthful females also tend to lack the skills required for fending off eager males...

Evo-bio experts have a bad habit of not looking closely at behavior and genetic records, at least when they want to sell books.

Posted by: j.c. on June 16, 2003 9:59 PM

That movie has Luke Wilson in it, not Owen Wilson.

Posted by: Xhenxhefil on June 17, 2003 3:14 AM

There's some evidence (that is, I've read an article about this in the NYTimes) that having a living maternal grandparent does a *lot* for the survival rate of grandchildren in non-modern societies. Darwinian success is better measured by number of grandchildren than by number of children.

To the extent that frumpiness is a stand-in for being sensible/not breaking up the marriage/accumulating wealth in the family/taking care of the children, choosing the frump may have some evolutionary advantages. Of course, none of those may be true, but symmetry and youth don't guarantee health and fertility, either.

What's the evolutionary advantage of the social pressure to choose the frump/not acquire a trophy
(fertile) new wife?

Also, considering the number of apparently evolutionarily good-enough strategies shown among various species, yea, even among our fellow primates, just having an explanation that something might contribute to evolutionary success isn't enough.

See sapolsky_index.html for somewhat on why being the conspicuous alpha male isn't the route to reproductive success for baboons. That doesn't keep a lot of baboons from doing it--though a few eventually realize that the way to success with females is by doing things that females actually like. (It's a cool article, with plenty about forebrains, stress, and status amoung primalogists--the folks who study the bigger primates have more status.)

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on June 17, 2003 6:41 AM

You may very well be right about evo-bio, I don't presume to really understand the mysteries of romance and sex, But...screenwriters have learned for generations that there is a visceral joy for the audience in seeing the underdog win. Seeing a man/woman discover the hidden gifts and intrigues of what at first appears to be the Plain Jane, or Plain Jim. It's a secret fantasy of many---like the song says: "It's incredible that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am unforgettable, too." Why did audiences cheer when Robert Redford discovered Barbra Streisand as the plain, but admirable and interesting, Katie in "The Way We Were"? It was also the genius behind "My Best Friend's Wedding"---the "star", Julia Roberts, did NOT get the guy, and is not rewarded for deviousness. Although it is understandable why a guy would go for Cameron Diaz, the nature of Cameron's character in the movie was sweet, unmanipulative, and actually a bit threatened by Julia, making her the underdog. And, let's face it, any guy choosing between Julia and Cameron is doing OK. Is it true that men choose women for "fertility"? Maybe---I don't claim to understand how men choose women! But it sure seems there are many examples where that isn't true, unless they are literally responsible for generating heirs to the throne. On the other hand, maybe I just find the premise that a woman in this day and age would meet Matthew McConaughy and actually TRY to lose him for her career. I mean, you might view Ed Norton that way. You might even WANT to screw Tom Cruise over after the way he's behaved in real life...But you'd want to get laid by McConaughy.

Posted by: annette on June 17, 2003 6:45 AM

The point about evo-bio and sexual selection is not that men consciously choose women based on their fertility - its that men are "programmed" to look for traits that "signal" fertility. (because, over evolutionary time, those that do will have more offspring, and even a small reproductive advantage has huge consequences over many generations) "Beauty" is just the collection of traits that our programming responds to (and it can vary according to our own evolutionary histories). For a great book on this and other subjects, check out "The Mating Mind" by Geoffrey Miller.

Posted by: jimbo on June 17, 2003 9:54 AM

Crank alert. I spent some time trying to figure out how to sugarcoat my opinion which follows, but I ultimately could not think of anything. So, most humble apologies for the following snarkiness...
Since the behaviors the evo-bio folks attempt to explain are essentially unmeasurable, the majority of what's written concerning evo-bio notions of mate selection is largely someone's opinion. They may be opinions based on some observed behavior, but nonetheless they are just opinions. Further, they attempt to downplay the complexities of our societal structure, which is not even remotely paralleled in other observable species - we're it. Humans are the only things who act like humans, and who have the social structures we do. So, when I read about these kinds of explorations, evo-bio and other like pockets of study, I enjoy them for the occasional possible insight, but they typically are so myopic that they really don't offer much value in really understanding our mate selection behavior. I think the mystery of someone else's relationship with their significant other remains a mystery.

However, Friedrich, I did really enjoy your observations on those movies. I was gonna see "Alex and Emma" because Rob Reiner seems to do his best when he sticks to romantic comedies, but now I think I'll wait for the DVD. And we will see "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" because my wife has a thing for Matthew McConaughey, so we see all of his flicks. (If only Kimberly Williams' career would take off - she's my current can't-miss actor.)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 17, 2003 12:24 PM

Why should we think that evo-bio is anything more than a shoddy justification for reprehensible social behaviors? Men--who most often advance these views--want to justify their attraction to beautiful young women and their wish that these young women stay monogomous. Women perhaps want to justify their attraction to big earners or men with social status. Evo-bio proposes that these attractions are natural and just can't be helped. But how then does evo-bio explain same-sex sexual attraction; or attraction based on intellect; or attraction to a body that doesn't fit current norms of beauty; and so on?

Posted by: Cleis on June 17, 2003 1:44 PM

Excellent subject for a study: the relationship between the laws of dramaturgy and what we're learning about evo-bio. I'm voting for you to write this.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2003 5:31 PM

I'd go one step further, and claim that the cultural work of the "chick flick" is to shame men for thinking along evo-bio lines, and convince women that they all deserve their ideal mate, regardless of whether that ideal mate desires them.

Thus the hero must be "taught a lesson," so that he'll realize he must accede to the woman's desire rather than to his own.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 18, 2003 9:18 PM

Yahmdallah - why do you think these sorts of things can't be measured? It may be a "mystery" why women prefer one tall, handsome, successful guy to another, but it's no mystery that a tall, handsome, successful guy can attract more women than one who is poor and ugly. And, exceptions notwithstanding, it's easily quantifiable.

Cleis - ev-bio is either true or not true, regardless of the (alleged) motivations of its evangelists. Attempts to understand the source of commonly observed human behaviors can't all be dismissed as attempts at justifications for one's own preferences. (Why would anyone feel the need to "justify" their desire for a faithful mate? It is, objectively, a widespread human desire, requiring an explanation. ) But my hat is off to anyone who can tell their desire (feeling, not action) where to direct itself. I sure as hell can't.

Tom - you write, "the cultural work of the 'chick flick' is to shame men for thinking along evo-bio lines, and convince women that they all deserve their ideal mate, regardless of whether that ideal mate desires them." Heh. Cuts both ways, though. There can't be many attractive young women who haven't had the experience of being castigated as "shallow" for not recognizing the sterling bed-worthy virtues of the evolutionarily unattractive castigator.

Posted by: Moira on June 20, 2003 3:28 PM

Moira---"tall, handsome and successful." Hmmm. I grant you---tall can be measured. But "handsome" and "successful"?? It seems that there could be many different preferences and definitions for that. To some women, a man who is not career obsessed and is an attentive co-parent may appear more successful than a doctor who is never home. For others, the opposite is true. I certainly have plugged into the sex appeal of some men who others might not see as "handsome", and have been left cold by some men that would probably generally be defined by the world as good looking. Like...Brad Pitt just does nothing for me. Saying it can be "measured"---hmmm not sure.

Posted by: annette on June 23, 2003 11:23 AM

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