Whatever Happened to Male Charm?

Bummerino metropolis: Apparently there was a time in U.S. history where men were actually charming. They charmed the pants off the ladies left and right with their witty remarks and suave gestures. But that's all dead now, so most of us have lived lives grateful for the mouth-breathing demonstrations of today's charmless American man, never even aware of How it Used to Be.

At least, so implies this intriguing diatribe over at The Atlantic called "The Rise and Fall of the Charm in American Men." One Benjamin Schwarz laments that male charm — which he describes as a kind of offhand wit, playful knowingness, and a simultaneous coolness and warmth, a la Cary Grant — no longer exists, on screen or in real life. And what's more, the men of today hold charm in "vague suspicion," don't respond to it, and hardly even know what it is in the first place:

Women commonly complain about the difficulty in gaining any conversational purchase when, say, trying to engage the fathers of their children’s classmates or the husbands of their tennis partners. The woman will grab from her bag of conversational gambits—she’ll allude to some quotidian absurdity or try to form a mock alliance in defiance of some teacher’s or soccer coach’s irksome requirement. But the man doesn’t enter into the give-and-take. The next time they meet, it’s as though they’ve never talked before; the man invariably fails to pick up the ball, and any reference the woman might make to a prior remark or observation falls to the ground. Men don’t indulge in the easy shared confidences and nonsexual flirtations that lubricate social exchange among women. Even in the most casual conversation, men are too often self-absorbed or mono-focused or—more commonly—guarded, distracted, and disengaged to an almost Aspergerian degree. … Men consistently fail to meet the sort of obvious standards set by guides to etiquette and to the art of conversation common 50 years ago.

Although it would do anyone well to not pine for cultural depictions of trends that go back 50 years unless they involve something easier to get your hands on, like raw denim, Shwarz may have a point here. If all men were Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, well, I'd be in trouble. But the good news is: They aren't. And they never were. I doubt there's any woman alive who hasn't run across her fair share of men who simply don't seem schooled in the art of making witty banter. They put no premium on being funny or interesting for the sake of it. I have long lamented the lack of good conversationalists in the world — people who listen to what you say, then say something back that's actually relevant and enjoy the back and forth of it.

But I have to say that I find women just as egregious offenders of this as men, and have no such inkling that women are innately more charming. Who among us does not know an utterly self-absorbed woman impossible of talking about anything but her workout routine?

So when you broadly gift women with the attribute of innate (old-fashioned) charm waiting to be activated, and bring men to task for failing to measure up, you put us all back in a screwball comedy from the 40s where men were men and women were women and we both jockeyed for position as if winning the argument could win us the war.

But it wasn't charm that got women anywhere; it was tedious, motivated pressure and plenty of shouting. And part of making women equal agents in every aspect of their lives, including romantic overtures, is seeing us for what we are: people, not a monolithic group. Just like men, some of whom are charming and many of whom are not.

Schwarz tracks the Fall of Charm throughout our history — namechecking the youth-obsessed cultural shift of the 1960s, our political history, the male obsession with sports (surely not only true in America) and good old-fashioned associations between charm and being gay.

And sure, the truth is, we swoon differently now. No matter how charming the old ways were, there's no real evidence that we aren't getting by just fine with our modern hybrid, whether it's a well-timed abbreviation in a text message, or a well-placed pop culture reference. We're making do just fine animated-giffing our way into each other's hearts. Perhaps Schwarz has been unlucky enough to ever be on the receiving end of today's romantic red carpet — it has its charms.

Besides, as Schwarz points out, there's something inherently manipulative about charm anyway. It is a surface slickness that rides a fine line between being paid attention to and being played. It sets out to woo, which means that it's polished up on purpose.

Our American love affair with the plain-spoken stoicism of cowboys and underdogs — a movement away from the witty foppishness of our British forebears — is still in our blood. And though I'm as susceptible as the next gal to the charming man, today's charmer is so often more smarm than charm — the Bill Mahers or James Bonds who are well packaged but perhaps up to something. That's fun for a night, but we all eventually want someone with whom to just be ourselves.