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Sleazy Men of Mystery

By Lauren Branchini Posted: 09/13/2007
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Just in case you felt reality TV shows weren’t gimmicky or strange enough, VH1 now brings you “The Pickup Artist.”

This reality competition takes eight self-described losers and aspires to turn them into smooth-talking Casanovas. The pupils are led by a “seduction coach” who goes by the name Mystery and dresses like a cross between Dave Navarro and Cher circa 1996.

The goal? By the end of this grueling eight-week tutorial, one lucky dude will go from awkward caterpillar to seductive butterfly. Oh, and he’ll win $50,000, the going rate these days for the overexposure and mild humiliation of reality TV.

The producers want you to believe this show is about personal improvement and increasing self-esteem, but it’s really not. “The Pickup Artist” is a look at modern dating culture that is equal parts fascinating, uncomfortable and appalling. The show is gripping because it breaks down the complex art of flirtation into simple strategies for attracting women.

Mystery’s method highlights some of the social cues people respond to in the dating game and how to use that kind of social psychology to your advantage. This should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Neil Strauss’ 2005 book “The Game”, which chronicled the tactics and conquests of Mystery as well as a number of other pick-up artists, exposing their hidden world. The Game, according to Mystery, is nothing more that a complex algorithm in which women are variables and men are students assigned to find the derivative.

Not surprisingly, there is a point in the show where this attitude becomes abrasive, usually about the time the guys hit the nightclubs and we watch hidden camera footage of them working the crowd. They throw out canned pickup lines (“Flossing: before or after you brush?” or “You blink a lot.”) and after a while it becomes clear that they are doing little more than reciting a script. The presence of a woman is practically optional, and her personality is of little importance.

I could complain that this show objectifies women (because it does), but it also objectifies men. Mystery’s method implies that regardless of who he is, any man can mask his true character if he follows a prescribed routine in order to attract a woman. Ah, codified seduction is so romantic.

The crux of Mystery’s “game” implies that attraction is not based on the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with a great smile.

Rather, attraction is cultivated when a person acts vaguely rude toward you. Mystery’s students employ scintillating verbal foreplay that includes back-handed compliments (“Nice nails, are they real?”) or ignoring a woman for an extended period of time, addressing her just as she becomes uncomfortable. It’s manipulation. But I’m not gonna lie, it can produce results.

What it does not do, however, is establish trust, personal compatibility, or affection in a budding relationship. It might seem old-fashioned, but I find it odd that the techniques used to attract women on the show are fundamentally different from the elements of a good relationship.

Traditional advice along the lines of being yourself and asking questions to show you’re interested has no place in Mystery’s realm of seduction. The show also seems to suggest that the appeal of being a “master pickup artist” is not entirely about getting laid.

When the men on the show succeed in their “challenges,” they are rewarded with women’s phone numbers or maybe a make-out session. In all the interview segments when they talk about how Mystery has changed their lives, the participants don’t express interest in the sexual element of their pickup success.

Maybe this is because of the medium. It’s possible that the restraints of a reality show trump the natural progression of these social interactions or that talk of sex would make the show too racy.

Then again, it could be because the emerging pickup artists want to learn seduction as a way of having their ego stroked more than anything else.
I don’t really have the answer. I guess it’s a Mystery.

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