28 April 2014

Romance Stories Under Scrutiny: The Gentleman Complex - From "Twilight" to "Pride & Prejudice"

I was watching "Twilight Eclipse" the other day (just to see how bad it really is) and though I laughed and cringed my way all the way through, the most awful moment in movie was perhaps when Edward is refusing to have sex with Bella merely because he's 'old school'; holding on to the 'ancient' notion that pre-marital sex is a sin. A 'rule' which he claims has something to do with the fact that he's from a different era where "things were less complicated" - apparently. He tells her that if he'd met her back then he would have courted her at home, taken chaperoned strolls with her and might even have stolen a kiss or two from her. All the innocent things that eventually lead to a marriage proposal, several years of a just-as-innocent engagement before finally being able to seal the deal and make it to the marriage bed. Hmm, okay, Edward, you seem to suggest that this notion is a general moral rule that is directly connected to the fact that you were born hundred of years before Bella. But this notion has nothing to do with morality, not even back then as you so romantically make it out to be. It was a convention set by the standard of society and disguised as a moral sin if broken. There's a big difference, although cleverly disguised. Believe you me, men certainly did break this rule before marriage, often with *hush-hush* ladies of the night, whereas women were left in 'blissful' ignorance - not knowing a thing or two about sex nor that their soon-to-be-husbands often weren't as innocent as claimed to be - until their presumably shocking wedding nights. Society - which notably was patriarchal - secretly accepted this because "they were men, after all, it's different when it's women" yet, publicly denounced it which basically made the society extremely hypocritical. However, dear Edward makes it out as if all men from that era were born with some sort of special moral code that made them different from all the ones to come; that they were somehow more decent or innocent back then - real gents... Gee, everybody basically just repressed or denied those carnal urges until they got all screwed up inside. Things were less complicated back then, you say..? And talk about repressing all kinds of basic desires, you certainly should know, though you might personally claim to have a decent set of moral codes. 
In the end, the movie basically just demonstrates the exact same hypocritical, mind, not-so-ancient notion of a conservative society and film industry that tries to pull certain strings when it comes to 'the chastity of these young people who seem to worship these God-forsaken creatures of the night' and whose fangs basically scream of penetration in more than one way. Rather brilliantly done actually. Ugh, I hate how movies like Twilight twists everything around, like basic historical facts that kids growing up watching these wretched movies should be aware of, rather than be lied to! But I guess it's too much to ask from a movie like this that practically brainwashes young people into some sort of weird ideal for their present and future romantic life.

However, I get the whole nostalgia thing. I of all should! The romanticization of another time where men seemed more decent and behaved more gentlemanlike. Believe me, I’ve had that major crush on the mysterious, brooding Mr. Darcy; wishing he could come and whisk me away, but I also knew that Mr. Darcy was a unique case back then; as unique as he would be today. But that is exactly the point: he could just as well exist today! 
The dangerous thing about girls fantasizing about Jane Austen’s heroes, I think, is the way many, more or less, make Mr. Darcy exemplary for the male race of the 19th century. Hellooo! Have you girls totally forgotten about Wickham - or for that matter Willoughby, Mr. Elliot, Henry Crawford and all the other shady guys ever so present in Austen's novels?!
It’s rather obvious that the stories Austen wrote were fiction; ‘fantasies coming true’ as implied in the film “Becoming Jane” (2007); the dream of finding true love AND wealth for young unmarried girls. The chance of that happening back then was likely one in a million as it is today (a realistic rather than cynical thought). And I bet that Jane met more than her fair share of Wickham-like scumbags (not that all men back then were like Wickham either, but in the end no one can see him/herself as entirely innocent). My point is that once again ONE specific male character becomes representative for a whole generation of men that were far from all that Darcy-like. Young girls today cry out that they want the era of Mr. Darcy, back where men were gentlemen, clinging to 'the idea of a simpler world, where love was straightforward and lasting'; a notion no one apparently find problematic and brush it off as the usual fictional crush. However, I sure find it problematic when these young people seemingly apply these fictive notions to real life prospects and expectations and thus alter a lot of historic and factual context surrounding the era and fiction of Austen. And not just young people, but people of all ages and classes, apparently hold on to this notion, even - or especially after having met disappointments dealing with love in real life. But I ask:  Why do you think it was more likely to find 'a Mr. Darcy' back then than today? Why don’t you think Mr. Darcy couldn’t exist today? (Isn't that what "Bridget Jones's Diary" is all about?) And is it really so much more important to have a Mr. Darcy in your life than to acquire the qualities from some of Austen's leading ladies - like this Someecard apparently depicts? (and it starts out so well, ugh): 

'Mostly'? Really!? Is this what feminism has come to..?! I
don't think Austen would be very pleased with this.

Once again, the 19th century was a time of conventions rather than a certain morality when it came to how to act and behave. Remember, you could hardly talk to a person before you had been introduced to them by another person that you knew beforehand! The English society perhaps more than any other is engulfed in an immanent politeness to this day, so imagine how it was back then. Sure, one could argue that the immediate politeness and good manners back then certainly couldn’t hurt to bring back to this day – most of all the impressive eloquence – but I still think I’d prefer to live today, since it’s somewhat easier to distinguish good people from bad people, broadly speaking, from their ways of acting and behaving, as we aren’t expected to act all polite and mannered all the time in all of life’s aspects today. It’s like that layer of formal façade has been put down in favor of a more informal approach to people – albeit with debatable equal amounts of advantages and disadvantages to the language. Not that people today cannot act devilishly smooth on the outside and then prove to be total scumbags on the inside, but back then you just should act polite all the time. An upfront that made it perhaps all the more tense and exciting during the courtship itself but also equally hindering, frustrating and easily led to misunderstandings as Jane Austen demonstrates so well in her stories. And I believe that made it only the more harder to tell 'the goodies' from 'the baddies', since everybody put up that nice front of gentlemanly façade. Of course, Jane Austen - being the amazing judge of character that she was - could see through them, yet made it clear through her female leads that even the best can be deceived. This said, it also gives way to an universal truth that only makes her books all the more better.

But I’m afraid that Jane Austen’s other ‘intent’ of writing these stories has become a bit obscured. The fantasies were lived out, true, and the bad guys put to shame, while demonstrating great wit and intellect through her writing and human perception of her own society and era of living. Yet, paradoxically, time can be praising and cruel at the same time: Her works became classics but - as it so often happens - were not freed of romanticized interpretations and now many fans tend to see past certain aspects of her ironic writing and self-conscious position. One should always be critical – even though it’s hard to be so in a devoted fandom (oh do I know!). Yet, in my belief, you can be critical in a constructive way without ruining your fandom. Actually, it can become all the more better when you go deeper into the layers of a literary work, a film, a TV series etc.. (Well, alright, "Twilight" might be an exception to this, but that’s simply because it’s not a fandom of mine, obviously, since I find it horrifically bad).

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