It’s a trope as old as remembered time: The relatable protagonist sees a woman, assesses her based on some criteria that we the audience are presumed to intrinsically understand, and sighs some version of “She’s too good for me.” This is intended to relay a fear of inadequacy on the part of the protagonist (one that he is probably going to overcome with her help, natch).
Despite its transmission of insecure feelings, saying “She’s too good for me” is paternalistic, patronizing, and rather patriarchal.
Reason 4: You’re putting her on a pedestal.
So-called “benevolent sexism” hurts in many ways. At its core, it presumes that men are people and women are Other, which isn’t helpful in eradicating gender bias from the world. Inverting the patriarchy isn’t feminism.
Reason 3: You’re allowing the halo effect to cloud your better judgment.
Just because someone is attractive doesn’t mean that they are a good person. We human beings are more likely to attribute non-physical positive traits to physically pretty people, so you’re likely noticing her good traits more than you would the good traits of someone to whom you aren’t attracted.
Reason 2: You’re likely reinforcing gendered societal norms in some way.
What makes her “too good”? She’s “too” conventionally attractive by 21st-century Western standards? She’s more polite than you are in social situations? She gives more money to charity? All of these traits are at least somewhat influenced by gender. All genders are trained by society to see women as objects and women are expected to adhere to a more stringent beauty standard than men, which, at the very least, influences the notion that women are more attractive on the whole than men are. As for politeness and charity, women are assumed and expected to be “nicer”.
Reason 1: You’re making all kinds of decisions for her.
Unless you know exactly what she wants and expects from a partner, you can’t know if she’s too good for you. You’re also making incredibly broad assumptions about what she wants in a partner and deciding your worth relative to hers without her input. Doesn’t her opinion on the issue of your potential compatibility matter?
You can still be perpetuating sexism even if you feel like a scared child, not a big powerful oppressor. It can still be sexist if you intend to say nice things about someone. It can still be sexist if you’re feeling insecure.
And yes, it can still be sexist if you’re a woman. There is a reason I used gender-neutral language to describe the person thinking that a woman is better than them: More than once, I myself have fallen for the “She’s too good for me” trap in my assessment of women. With men, my reasons for not attempting amorous overtures are usually far more nuanced than “She’s too good for me”. I give them a chance to indirectly communicate what they want and I take those signals into consideration when deciding whether or not to tell them I like-like them. With women, I usually decide for both of us that we aren’t to be. I base my decision on factors that may or may not have been meaningful to to other woman and often before I get to know her enough for her to communicate anything in the way of her preferences.
What if you have taken her desires into consideration and still decided that you’re not going to try anything? You can avoid perpetuating sexism by saying what you mean and being specific about it. Say that you’re incompatible, that you don’t believe she’d be interested in you, or even that you’re simply too chickenshit to ask out someone you find to be very attractive. There is really no need to turn it into yet another way to depict women as less than human.
Many thanks to my Facebook friends who, in the discussion that carried the seeds of this post, helped me to refine a rant into an argument.