Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Prejudice Against Pride

A review of Pride and Prejudice.

There is no writer of whom I am aware whose appeal is so specifically gender-specific as Jane Austen. Austen's work is enduringly popular among women to a surprising extent: in the past few years, we have seen a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice become a big box-office hit, as have The Jane Austen Book Club and Becoming Jane. Two genre mash-ups of Austen's work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, have sold quite nicely. Austen's pop cultural cache has never been greater. But the cliche about Austen, of course, is that women adore her and men are indifferent at best. As a man, I decided to crack open Pride and Prejudice (minus the zombies) to see what all the fuss is about.

My expectations for the experience were average. Austen is definitely part of The Canon, but I am somewhat familiar with her oeuvre and didn't expect to be dazzled. My expectations were about correct. I concluded that the gender split in Austen's readership makes sense, and that the book doesn't really have much to say to men, aside from men who are interested in understanding women better. I don't feel that the book was a waste of time, but I would like to go over a few things that P&P is not.

For one thing, it's not social criticism. This is often claimed in conjunction with Austen's works, but my impression was that Austen isn't even remotely critical of her society, and certainly isn't interested in changing it. It's true that certain characters are pointed out as being windbags, idiots and hypocrites, but none of these types is specific to any particular society and pointing such things out is not criticism on its own. It's observation. Indeed, P&P is well-observed, in that it does a pretty good job in setting the scene and in its characterization, but nothing about Georgian English society is challenged. Austen's female characters go on to lives of (presumed) marital bliss without ever seeming to consider any alternatives. Such was no doubt the extent of the political and social constraints on women of the time, but it doesn't earn her credit as a forward thinker. And while Austen clearly posits that women should be treated with more respect, Austen's imagination is not very expansive on this count. She doesn't seem to realize that women who have no legal standing or identity apart from their eventual husbands aren't going to simply earn respect, because respect in this context is synonymous with power, which is a theme in which Austen has little interest. Ultimately, her books studiously avoid politics, which is advantageous in some ways (as I'll get to in a while) but a book like P&P, that avoids politics, can't help but leave its most significant point of social criticism undefined. Austen's writing contains a suggestion of social criticism, not the real thing. Contrast this with another woman writer from the next century, Edith Wharton, who wrote a book about similar subject matter with The House of Mirth. Lily Bart, like Lizzie Bennet, is a smart and independent young woman who wants to get married, and preferably to a handsome and wealthy man. Both women are alluring and witty in a way that most of their male suitors don't appreciate. But where Bennet's story is one of success, Lily's is one of failure. Both more or less play by the rules of their societies, but Lily's careful observance of said rules makes her downfall inevitable. That's because the rules aren't impartial guideposts to how to operate in society so much as they are malevolent guard stations to keep people like her out. What's more, Lily has other choices and realizes she can settle for a man she loves and appreciates her (but is penniless), as well as a man who has wealth and loves her, but whose status as a potential divorcee makes him off-limits according to The Code. Wharton's criticism of Old New York society is harsher but also more nuanced, and she depicts her Gilded Era world of ballrooms and houses in the Hamptons as a dark and brutal shadowland, one where reputations and lives are always on the line, unless you're One Of Them.

Needless to say, Austen isn't on the same level as a social critic. But when you get down to it, P&P isn't particularly interesting as a piece of literature in general. Her dialogue--often praised--comes off as self-conscious and forced. Thematically, there simply isn't much going on here. Austen's interests are in love, social conventions, and interfamily dynamics, and P&P doesn't really go very deep into those themes. What is love? Austen might know or she might not know, but it's not in the book. And Austen's book (and the films I've seen based on her books) are remarkably incurious about the world outside of her English hamlets. She seems uninterested in, say, the problem of evil, or man's war with nature. There is little desire here to understand why things are the way they are, or even to understand how they are outside of her world. I usually don't think it's fair to penalize art for what it doesn't try to do, but for someone with as lofty a reputation as Austen, it seems a fair question to ask what it is that she does that's worthwhile.

And, indeed, I think there's definitely something to these books, though I don't know how much of it was intended by Austen herself. I think a lot of it has to do with the state of gender politics at this point in our history, and that also accounts for Austen's recent resurgence onto the American scene. In essence, I see Austen as offering something different from the decades-long gender politics slugfest between feminism and femininity. This is something of which most men are not really aware, but gender politics are pervasive for women to such an absurd extent that even the most basic acts of humanhood (such as eating) essentially become political acts. Thanks to society and the media, women are continually bombarded by contradictory messages about nearly everything. Indeed, MSM magazines often point out that women are less happy now than they were in the 1960s, and right-wingers will sometimes blame feminism for the problem. In reality, though, I suspect that this decline in happiness is due to being in the middle of an unending battle for the Eternal Soul for Womanhood, one in which people can accidentally fight for both sides at once. In some ways, just going back to the '60s might seem appealing for some. But to take one of the more egregious examples from recent years, let's discuss weight. Many of the media's messages toward women--such as the commercials for Dove soap and the not-entirely-benign guidance of Oprah--insist that women should feel comfortable with their weight. But right after the Dove commercial might come another commercial about soap that stars a Calista Flockhart type. And right after Oprah might come a syndicated rerun of "The King of Queens". One doesn't have to look far to see the contradictions and, if one happens to be a woman, it isn't hard to be confused starting at an early age. Indeed, one wonders if all this body image stuff helps at all. Why is it necessary that everyone feel good about their appearance in the first place? After all, there is nobody in the world that is so ugly that they cannot find a single person in the rest of the world to date. Attractiveness runs on a scale, and pairings usually involve lateral evenness on that scale. In other words, we live in a world where ones hook up with ones and tens hook up with tens, for the most part. That leaves the ones with fewer options but it doesn't leave them without options, necessarily. But for Oprah to say that would be inconceivable--like most of society, she is wholly on board with self-esteem nonsense whose sole goal seems to be to keep people from forming a realistic self-conception and therefore to continually lie to themselves, because the lie makes them think they feel better than the truth. In actuality, though, the truth isn't ever really submerged, and what Oprah and her ilk do is to give her followers false hope that prevents them from being able to enjoy what they have fully. Ultimately, one is either attractive or not, but whether one determines that they need to feel good about it or not is wholly controllable. Oprah and her pals desperately do not want women to feel good about who they really are, but rather that they feel good about who they want to be. And this is where the problem begins.

In essence, Oprah--like those Dove ads--wants something from women. She wants women to consume her show and its accoutrements, to start with. But doing that requires her to manipulate natural anxieties about, among other things, how one looks. Oprah is a salesperson whose pitch is some sort of murky self-development. But it's not really an exploration of self so much as an exploration of an idealized self. She sells a lifestyle, which is fine. But saying that you should love your weight is a truly expert manipulation of the feminist-vs-feminine battle, one which is "feminist" in that it says that women shouldn't just accept their lot and other peoples' preconceptions, but which is also feminine in insisting that women need to be cute, all the while blaming the victim who happens to feel bad about her weight. Neatly done.

So much for Oprah/Dove. Criticism of Oprah is pretty tiresome at this time, and the truth is that I don't think she's evil or even necessarily a malign influence on women all the time. She gets large numbers of people to read great books, which is assuredly a good thing. And I don't think she's really a cynical manipulator deep down. But she is, like most women, confounded and confused by these complex demands that society places on women, and is trying to sort them out in her own way. I don't find this reprehensible, though she should take more care in her advice generally. My point, though, is that the feminist/feminism thing is real and unresolved. A lot of people like to think that feminism's battles are over, and indeed the legal ones are. But the social ones are not, and I think a great deal of the problem here is mass media and television in particular, which presents a world in which every woman is hot (or completely pathetic). It is interesting to note that the West isn't completely following us on this--just compare the attractiveness of the leads of the US Office TV series with its predecessor from the UK. Doughy romantic leads on a primetime sitcom is hard to imagine on these shores (though I do believe, despite his weight, that Ricky Gervais is much more classically handsome than Steve Carell. Go figure.) Watching lots of TV, as David Foster Wallace noted in his essay on the subject some years ago, invariably scrambles your social expectations, especially in terms of your patience, relationships with others, and physical expectations of other people. But this grand struggle isn't just confined to the superficial--attitudes toward dating and sex (How soon? How far? etc.); emotional vulnerability and transparency in general (and in particular instances, such as in the workplace); and marriage and family versus a career are all areas in which the conflict is manifested in fairly obvious ways. And, usually, the end result is a no-win scenario.

So, getting back to the damn point of this essay, what does Jane Austen offer women in our present social context? Quite a bit, actually. Austen doesn't want anything from her readers. She wasn't steeped in our current politics and her political naivete is essential to her continued success. Her stories involve smart and strong young women who are actors, not objects, in their respective stories, and more often than not they wind up saving the day and ending up with a handsome dude. In her universe, feminism (well, protofeminism) and femininity are not opposed qualities--they're complementary and, what's more, they are holistically coupled in a coherent worldview. The current media wants women to think a certain way in order to sell them stuff, basically, but Austen isn't interested in doing that. She presents a view of womanhood that isn't either-or but both-and with respect to the feminist/feminine conflict, a worldview that includes elements of both. Her appeal is, therefore, necessarily gendered, because the problem she solves for her modern female readers is not one that modern men have, though it is worth noting that men might soon have their own gender politics crises to deal with, if the "Men's Health" culture continues to grow in influence. As with the portion of the media that deals with women, much of their conception of maleness is built around conspicuous consumption--gym memberships, cigars, Beamers and watches, basically--and if it recalls any older literature as a balancing tactic, it will undoubtedly be something entirely different from Jane Austen. But one only hopes that future men and women will at some point be able to bond over shared impossible expectations and maybe, perhaps, finally agree to confound them.

All this being said, while I think that Austen presents serious deficiencies as a writer, I think that what she provides is helpful. The idea that women (or anyone, for that matter) can spend hours with someone (via a book) who doesn't want to sell them something--i.e. someone who would flatter, scare, or brainwash them to that effect--is rare enough in today's culture, and terribly valuable. Austen provides a space for women to drop the endless gender politics and delivers the goods, both in terms of storytelling and moral/ethical instruction--to them in an efficient and unbiased manner. Austen understood women, and this is ultimately why her work is still around despite its sloppiness. She's not unlike someone like Ernest Hemingway in this regard, whose work is uneven even at its best (A Farewell To Arms oscillates between brilliant and awful fairly rapidly) but fundamentally gets men and will be around forever because of it. And while I have serious problems with both authors' points of view, it's nice to know that their books won't be going anywhere.