Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Young Girls and Seductive Older Men

An Education, About Male and Female Psychology

An Education is based on the real-life story of a romance between a 16-year-old girl and an older man. It deals in depth with several of the classical romantic themes -- relationships between older men and younger women, men's proclivities toward seduction, infidelity, and the occasional betrayal of trust in romantic relationships. These are the facets of human nature that evolutionary psychologists have explored too deeply for some tastes, but that continue to fascinate and bemuse most of us. Relationships between older men and older women, for example, are universal across human societies, but almost completely misunderstood by social scientists for most of the 20th century (see Kenrick & Keefe, 1992). (see my earlier posts on The Mind as a Coloring Book for a description of the problems with the social science account).

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An Education is also concerned with Getting Ahead, and with the trade-offs between different fundamental motives. The heroine has to choose between pursuing her goal of getting into Oxford, and her relationship with a boyfriend who may derail her from this goal. The central character in is Jenny Miller (played by Carey Mulligan). Jenny provides a stark contrast with the central character in Precious. Whereas Precious was a poor obese girl living in Harlem who had almost nothing going for her, Jenny is a middle-class schoolgirl who has everything going for her - she is cute, charming, brilliant, loved by her parents and her teachers. Her dilemma is a choice between a staid conservative university education and a flashier life, traveling to Paris and going to exciting jazz clubs. Despite the fact that Jenny Miller has so much going for her, she is easy to relate to, especially if you are an intellectual nerd with a wise mouthed inclination toward sarcastic humor.

An Education also contrasts with Blind Side, which also tells the story of a teenager who is striving for higher things. The difference is that the players in An Education were not depicted as unidimensional Hallmark characters, but as authentically sincere and multifaceted.

An Education also touches on gender differences, but not in a simplistic way. Jenny wants to wait till she is 17 to have sex, but she is hardly reticent about getting involved. The real life character on whom she is based went on to work for Penthouse magazine, and to brag about sleeping with dozens of other undergraduates at Oxford - hence representing what psychologists Steve Gangestad and Jeff Simpson would characterize as an "unrestricted" mating style (although she did eventually settle down, get married, and have children).

An Education was tightly edited, both visually and verbally. The script builds increasing tension over the questionable romance, leading up to a surprising revelation, and finally to a satisfying resolution. The dialog alone is worth the price of admission. And An Education capitalizes on the anthropological power of cinema -- transporting the viewer into another time and place and making you feel as if you are there.

On the overall rating, we split: DTK gives it a strong A, experiencing it as a near perfect movie. DLK gave it a B, finding some of the plot twists less than perfectly executed, and experiencing the main male character as creepier than perhaps intended (but all his cinema friends loved it, so he'll watch it again).

References

Gangestad, S.W., & Simpson, J.A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 573-587

Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 75–133. 

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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