Warning: 45 minutes read
Do men really love a bitch? Do they find smart women intimidating? Performance artist Millicent Binks takes dating advice to the extreme and road-tests five alter egos.
The idea for my experiment came to me when a friend got exasperated that I’d been single for four years. “Perhaps you’re… just too nice? Men love bitches, you know. I have just the book for you.” I was forcibly lent a silly paperback called Men Adore a Bitch.
I laughed as I turned the pages. What if I actually took this advice to the extreme? Would men really respond to being treated like pond scum by an adversarial amour?
Other friends had their own ideas as to why I was “still” single. “You need to tone it down a bit; you might come across as a bit… loose. They won’t take you seriously,” one remarked, flaring her nostrils and peering down at my buttock-skimming play-suit. Other unsolicited comments included: “They might be intimidated with how feminine you are”, and “They don’t like you because you’re smarter than them.” I thought it would be amusing to test out their theories in a creative way.
Having previously written a sex column, completed a degree in costume interpretation at Wimbledon College of Art and with a background in performance, I thought I could combine all of these skills to good effect. The idea was to go out dressed up as extreme female characters and document how men react to them. A piece of performance art as journalism. Think Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman meets the comedy TV show Psychobitches.
First I had to choose the personae. I’d start with five so I didn’t have to shell out too much money on wigs. These wigs had to be made of real human hair — I had to look real. I bought a long black one and started with a “Bitch” character, inspired by Ava Gardner in the 1946 film The Killers. She was cruel and the men loved it.
All my alter egos came from stock characters from 20th-century cinema: “gold digger”, “femme fatale”, “Jezebel” … They would be good cookie cutters for my own characters.
Once I’d chosen my new identity and had sourced a costume, I got ready in my bedroom. This part I documented with self-portraits of me posing in the final look. Then I’d decide where to go, usually somewhere that was out of my own comfort zone, but fun for my character. I’d take a friend with me, down a few drinks for courage, switch on my mobile’s voice recorder and slip it back into my bag.
Once I’d scanned the scene and selected a bloke to chat to, my performance began. I had dozens of conversations with random men in each of my five characters. Here I recount some of the most intriguing exchanges.
The Jezebel goes to the Royal Opera House
My first venture out was as Tira West, a “Jezebel” character I created. I took inspiration for her persona from Mae West in the film I’m No Angel. My Tira contorts everything into a naughty innuendo and dresses like a semi-shaven poodle; lots of skin and frou-frou. The dogmatic dating world asserts that men won’t take a promiscuous woman as a partner. I was investigating this code through the guise of the brazen hussy at the Royal Opera House.
The establishment has no dress code so, as Tira, I could wear as little as I liked. My bustier as outerwear burst through the pink fur lining of my jacket. My miniskirt pinched the top of my thighs as I shimmied into the bar during the interval. I knocked back some champagne to socially lubricate myself.
In front of me was a man’s nice posterior. I delved, in full Tira West style, and pinched the bum as an ice-breaker. The bottom owner’s vertebrae seemed to ripple with a shock and his chin snapped around. I winked. He engulfed himself into the crush of the bar queue to get away from me. Hmmm, perhaps Tira was being too forward.
I clocked another man. He sat on a stool, his limbs resting in angles in a corduroy suit. He had a youthful face with a diagonal slanting mouth that made him look a little naive. I thought of something outrageous that Tira West might say and floated over.
“God, my nipples are so, so hard after that ballet. All the sex in it was just such a turn-on. The steam coming off my areolas is practically melting the opera house ceiling… I’m Tira by the way.”
“Um, Rob. OK? Sex? Was there sex in this ballet?”
“Ofcourse. The pas de deux was filthy! A fierce, erotic reconciliation. Dance is the vertical expression of the horizontal. Someone famous said that, I can’t remember who.”
“I’d always thought of ballerinas as demure and innocent.”
“Well, I guess I would see it that way because my mind isn’t demure or innocent.”
“I can tell.”
“How? What are your first impressions of me?”
“Oh, well, you look lovely. Very, um… pink. Flamboyant, confident.”
“Sum me up in one word.”
“A floozy. No, I’m only joking.”
“The word floozy is fine. Do you think it’s a bad word? For instance, do you think men would see a floozy as wife material?”
“Well, there’s the ‘Sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive’ theory that causes this bad attitude towards floozies. You know a man can conceive thousands of babies in his lifetime and women can only have up to, possibly, 20. So if she was easy-going and non-selective about who she mated with, it would cheapen her … And it gets deeper than that. It would make her irresponsible in choosing the correct father, so, ultimately, a bad mother.”
“Gosh. That is deep. But women can use contraception so is that attitude still relevant?”
“Oh, it’s just a primal attitude we subconsciously have. But I think it explains the unfair attitude towards ‘loose’ women.”
“That reminds me of Onan in the Old Testament, the man who wasted his seed. Why do we not disrespect men who waste seed?”
“Because sperm is far cheaper than eggs.”
“I guess it’s like comparing grains of sand and diamonds. Men are giving out sand. Women are giving out diamonds.”
“Yes, the more she gives out, the lower the value or carats.”
“In that case, I’d be giving out plastic diamonds.”
He managed to persuade me that there may be a biological rationale for the Jezebel stigma. It made me a tad more forgiving of it. Could it be more about biology than patriarchy? I flirted with him for a few more minutes before moving on to Phase 2 of the experiment. I gave him a business card with Tira West and a mobile number on it (I had a second phone for these operations). I wanted to see if the texts she got were “potential relationship” texts or “potential one-night stand” texts. I then left him, enjoyed the rest of the ballet and went home.
Tira received a text message the next morning. “Hi, it’s Rob. Have your nipples recovered?”
The Bitch goes to the snooker club
Ava Collins is a “Bitch” character, inspired by femme fatale Ava Gardner in The Killers. My Ava is flame-tongued, dresses in fierce red tones and has long black hair. Some women’s dating advice books have asserted that men “love bitches”. But how mean can you be before a man is actually put off?
As I walked into the snooker club, I twisted my face into a look of distaste; my lips were pursed into a prune, my eyes were slitted. I crossed my arms and indented my skin with sharp nails. I was a little out of place in a vampish red dress among the cue wielders.
I leant on the wall and watched an avid player with my eyebrow high and unimpressed. He concentrated so hard on the ball that his eyes almost overlapped. He seemed about 30; his skin tone was an attractive olive brown. I asked him what his name was. It was Fabiano.
“That shot was horrifically bad, Fabiano. You should be mortified,” I said in a tone that was not flirtatious but cutting. I had to be careful because sometimes insults can come across as frolicsome.
“Thanks for that,” he replied shirtily.
“How homoerotic is this place? Just men, playing with balls and wooden poles!” He didn’t reply.
“Oh, don’t pot the black — blue balls!”
“You’re actually putting me off.”
“Don’t blame me that you’re cock-cued and can’t aim!”
He told me to eff off, so I thought I’d better oblige and instead picked on his friend, who was playing with him. His name was Patrick.
“Can I ask you a question, Patrick? What’s the meanest thing a woman’s ever done to you but you still fancied her?”
“I had an ex who stole my mum’s designer clothes and my Playstation and sold them on eBay. I found out but kept on going out with her for ages.”
“Goodness. You must be a complete walkover.”
“I don’t know. She was really fit. And was kind of exciting.”
I spent the next half-hour picking at Patrick’s snooker skills and clothes, anything I could think of. He seemed to take it as flirting, though I tried hard to make it sound sincere. I then got a conniving idea. In front of Patrick’s confused face, my bitchy claws handed the business card to friend Fabiano. I told him to text me before swanning out of the building.
I got a text a couple of days later: “Fabi gave me ur no. Y did u giv it to him not me?”
The Academic goes to Regent’s Park
I went on a sunny lunchtime to Regent’s Park disguised as Nora Marshall, an “academic”. I took inspiration for her persona from Brenda Marshall in the 1946 film Strange Impersonation, one of the first films in which a female plays a brilliant scientist.
My Nora was a nuclear physicist. Seeing as my own father is one, I had a vague gist of what they did and could wing it quite easily. I made her president of a fictitious organisation and printed off a fake habit survey she could use to approach men. I wore a grey turtleneck and a string of pearls. For some reason, pearls are shorthand for maturity and power. Pearl power. The finishing touch was a pair of glasses, the telltale accessory of a heavy reader.
I spotted a man on a park bench who was entranced by his mobile screen. He made absent-minded circles in the air with his polished brogue. I perched next to him, brandishing my clipboard.
“Good afternoon. I’m Nora.”
“I’m the president of the Society of Plutonium Protection and I’m conducting a habit survey with the public. Would you care to answer a short question?”
“Um, why not.”
“Wonderful. What’s your average seafood consumption per month and what species do you consume?”
“Um, I’m partial to a prawn bhuna at the Indian once a month. That’s about it.”
We giggled at his answer and I went on about the dangers of plutonium in molluscan shellfish. Then I said: “You know, I have a personal question also. Do you think men find highly intelligent women intimidating?”
“I don’t. But I think some men’s minds are quite phallic. They want to be the informers. The probers. They like to give information. They like women who have receptive minds, like empty vessels. It’s like brain intercourse.”
“Oh! So an intelligent woman would have a phallic mind. A mental strap-on, like a rhino charging towards the men, scaring them off?”
“That’s a good metaphor. But I find stupid women intimidating. People with no imagination are the scary ones.”
I told him how much I had found the conversation intellectually stimulating and slipped him my business card saying I’d like to stay in touch. Alas, Nora got no texts from Christophe. She had been hoping for an offer of a prawn bhuna date at least.
The Androgyne goes to the pub
Marlo Jolly was an androgynous character I created. I took inspiration from Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco. My Marlo took on the role of the man in classic dating etiquette — buying the drinks, holding open the doors. In contemporary language, Marlo would most identify with the term gender-neutral. But this language was not invented in the time of Dietrich so I wanted to simply call her the straight “Androgyne”.
I went to a pub and waited at the bar, my hands shoved into my men’s trouser pockets, the braces tugging on my shoulders. My hair is short, brown and “boyish”. To my right was a pleasant-looking bald man, moon-faced with knuckly hands splayed on the bar. I deepened my voice a semi-tone as I spoke to him. “I’m getting a pint of Guinness, do you want one?”
“Ugh. That’s kind. Nah, I’ll get you one, love.”
“No. I’ll get them. And I’m Marlo, not love.”
“Sorry. Keegan. If you insist, I’ll have a half.”
“You’ll have a pint. No silly girly half!”
I ordered the beers and attempted to spark up a conversation while we waited.
“I wonder why cocktails are more associated with women?”
“’Cause women are exotic and fruity and dainty.”
“Exotic? Elaborate, please.”
“Well, men are quite ordinary and women are sort of spruced-up versions of men.”
“Why are men the ‘ordinary’ ones? You know we all start out as female as embryos. Then, after three weeks, some embryos will release testosterone and become male. That’s why men have nipples. For three weeks you were female. You’re actually a genetically modified, spruced-up version of a woman.”
“I was female for three weeks? That’s weird.”
“Do you find femininity attractive?”
“Of course! I’m not gay.”
“Would you hate it if you had a girlfriend who dressed like me all the time?”
“Nah, it’s kind of all right, actually. I think it depends on how you carry yourself.”
We continued to chat in a platonic, buddy-like manner until I pulled out the old business card. He changed his tune after that and wanted to buy me more drinks. I declined and said I was going home and told him to text me. Marlo received a text message at 3am: “I’ve got a bottle of tequila. Want to come over? Keegan. (Three aubergine emojis.)”
The Gold Digger goes to Aldi
I went out disguised as Bethany Dempsey, a “Gold Digger” character I created. I took inspiration for her persona from Betty Grable in the 1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire. My Bethany is obsessed with money and is laden with large carbuncle jewellery. Through the guise of Bethany, I investigated the role of money in attraction between modern men and women.
There’s a famous scene in the film in which Grable comes home with huge bags of free groceries because she told some poor sap in the market queue she’d forgotten her purse. I did the same in the Aldi in Tottenham to see how a man reacted to my audacity.
I heaped a trolley full of booze, chocolate and rose bouquets. I stood in the queue behind a man with purplish, weather-beaten earlobes and a waxed jacket. His hands were flaked with a clay-like substance. A tradesman of some sort. I politely said hello and we exchanged names. His was Daryn. I then pulled a distraught face and pleaded: “I’ve stupidly left my purse at home. Could you possibly pay for my shopping for me?”
“Um … What, then you pay me back later?”
“Well, no. I thought you just might like to help a lady in distress.”
“You’re mad. That’s going to cost an arm and a leg, all that alcohol.”
“Oh, please. I urgently need these things for a party that’s starting in an hour! I don’t have time to run home and find my purse.”
“Sorry. But it’s not a bad trick, you know. You could try this in a really posh place and maybe get yourself some lovely things. Do it in Marks and Sparks, or Fortiscue and Masonry.”
The inspiration: Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)ALLSTAR
“You mean Fortnum & Mason?”
“Yeah, whatever that crap is.”
“That’s what a naughty gold digger would do. What do you think of women who are gold diggers?”
“Well you have to be pretty insecure to be a gold digger. Those women don’t really want gifts or money. They want a sort of physical manifestation of their worth. They have extremely low self-esteem.”
“What if she just can’t be arsed to work?”
“Well, that’s just lazy, and that’s unattractive too.”
“Well, I feel that if a man doesn’t spend at least £300 on my first date with him, then he’s clearly not interested in me.”
“What if he did spend that and you didn’t like him?”
“Oh, I would like him, simply by the fact he’d spent that much.”
“You’re a bit potty, aren’t you?”
“I’m just going to have to leave this trolley, aren’t I?”
“I guess so.”
With that, I gave him my business card. I said I found it delightful chatting with him and that he should buy me afternoon tea. But alas, the blatant scavenger Bethany got no texts or teas from Daryn.
And the winner is…
I couldn’t say which of my characters proved the most “popular”, but men did warm to Marlo the most. I think they enjoyed the fact she bought them a drink. Many seemed to take it as a big compliment. One had never had the first drink bought by a woman before. It set a positive, pally tone for the chat.
Perhaps the biggest insight was how the experiment helped me in my own life. I no longer felt awkward or needed a drink to chat to strangers. A constant smile definitely had a positive effect, even when I was only looking at the wine list. It releases endorphins, brings your mind into the present and gives out social signals that you are “safe” to talk to. I’m now in a relationship with a man I met, not incognito but as myself, at the William Morris Gallery. Even though I’m not single any more, my experiments will continue.
Follow more of Millicent’s adventures on Instagram: @Millicentbinks
By The Times