Tuesday, January 28, 2014

All I Needed to Know About Men I Learned from Jane Austen, Part 6: Mr. Elton

"I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please, every feature works."
-Emma, Chapter 13

My Dear Reader,

In my continuing endeavor to read twelve classics in 2014, I decided to read one of the few Jane Austen novels I hadn't gotten to yet: Emma. And you know what? Jane is still right on the money when it comes to men. (And women, really.)

A while back, I wrote a series of posts outlining the male characters in Pride and Prejudice. Today, I'm going to add an Emma entry to that collection: Mr. Elton.

In Emma, Mr. Elton is the local vicar, a man of God who is well-liked by everyone. And while Emma is not interested in any romantic endeavors for herself, when she wants to find a match for her dear friend Harriet, she thinks that Mr. Elton perfectly fits the bill. After all, Mr. Elton is liberal with his time and attention. He knows when to give compliments. He provides service at the slightest hint of a need.

Indeed, Mr. Elton is quite gallant. At least, he is if he wants something from you.

The problem is that a Mr. Elton only uses kindness as a means to an end. If he wants to you like him, he will act nice when you are around him, or when he is around people who are close to you. It is only when he is safely alone that he reverts to his usual, selfish self.

So, you may be deceived by him. Lots of people may be deceived by him, actually. But really, this guy is going out of his way to deceive you, so I don't think you should beat yourself up about it.

An Elton is distinct from other masters of deception, such as Wickhams, because Eltons manage to deceive themselves. If they had to describe themselves in one word, that word would be "gallant," or "selfless," or something like that. They might even label themselves as "heroic." Man, those Eltons put themselves on a pedestal. And when they see that you have something they want, they put you on a pedestal, too.

They praise you. They help you. They do daring deeds in order to impress you. They even do these things to your friends, because they know that you will never like someone who is mean to your friends. Everything is about getting you to like them. Everything they do is about building up an image that you will not be able to refuse.

But this can be confusing, because if he's being excessively nice to everyone, including your friends, it can be hard to tell where his true desire lies. But if you have any misconceptions about him, they will not hold for long. Eventually, he will come to claim his desire, and he will not allow you to misunderstand exactly what it is that he wants. He will do everything in his power to convince you that he deserves the object of his desire. After all, you owe him, because he's been so nice.

And if you do refuse to give him what he wants, you will be surprised at how quickly your world changes. This kind, chivalrous, pleasant person is gone. Maybe even literally. Maybe he goes somewhere else to find someone who will feed his desires. But either way, you will see a dramatic change in him. You will see, finally, the person that he really is. You will see how he despises people that can't benefit him. You will see how he views himself as better than anyone else, and how he truly believes that he can treat people badly because of how superior he thinks he is to them. And really, the worst thing that you will discover is how much he despises you. You will see that he blames you for refusing him. Because you did not give him what he wants, he has taken you off of that pedestal, and he is even now trying to crush you under his foot in any way that he can. He is only sorry that your own personal dignity is preventing him from doing more damage to you.

But if he can damage you, he will. If he can hurt your friends, he'll do that, too. But he won't do anything that will hurt his image, because after all, he still has things that he needs. So his damage to your and your friends will be limited. The real sting comes in the lack of warmth, and the realization that any previous warmth was fake. The real blow is realizing how wrong you were to trust him.

In the end, I find Mr. Elton to be a very fascinating character. I feel lucky that to date, I have never been the object of one. But I have been the friend of someone an Elton objectifies, and that is no fun at all. Lots and lots of ice cream is requisite for healing from the damage an Elton does. I'd advise you to keep your distance.

In my opinion, and in my experience, it is much better to be around someone who is honest with you, even if that honesty is not always flattering. And if you can find an honest person who also respects you, don't you ever let that person go. I think that's what Jane Austen would say, if she were still around today. That's what she was saying when she wrote Emma. Flattery is nice, but honesty and respect are far more valuable.

Regards, best wishes, and maybe a Mr. Knightly,

-Cecily Jane

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

C. S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and Love

My Dear Reader,

I think about love a lot.

Not romantic love, necessarily. Just love in general.

If you've never read C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves, I'd highly recommend it. The four loves he talks about are: brotherly/familial love, friendship, romantic love, and unconditional love. Each kind of love has its own parameters, but they are all love.

And when we talk about love, we talk a lot about selflessness. We talk about sacrifice, duty, and honor. But the more I think about it, the more I think that these might be bad descriptors of love.

And, in a weird way, some of these thoughts were inspired by the ideas in Atlas Shrugged. Not that I really like any of the romantic relationships in the novel. The way that Ayn Rand depicts all versions of love in the novel is one of the things I hate the most about the book.* But I really like the things she has to say about selflessness. It's really odd, the way Rand can do that.

Anyway, Atlas Shrugged preaches the idea that selflessness and sacrifice are amoral. But Rand also defines selflessness in a different way: as giving something up without receiving anything in return. Ever. In this context, a man who works tirelessly to achieve a goal is not sacrificing. He is paying the necessary dues in order to achieve a certain reward. A woman who goes hungry to feed her child is also not sacrificing, because she values the child more than she values herself, and is therefore giving something in exchange for a desired result.

I think that's it. I think it's that image of a woman going hungry to feed her child, and not calling it a sacrifice, that is making me think about how I define love.

True sacrifice, according to Rand, would be to let your own child starve so a stranger could live. That is what she defines as immoral, because you are giving away something you value, and getting nothing in return. Why? Because you don't value that stranger. You don't love that stranger. At least, you don't love the stranger as much as you love your child.

So if love means that you receive something when you give to someone, I guess you could say that love is inherently selfish.

Actually, you could probably say that love is selfish and selfless at the same time. But that's not a great way to say it. It's more accurate to say that love merges your well-being with the well-being of another. If you love someone, their happiness is your happiness, and their sorrow is your sorrow.

So, if you love someone, you help them in order to make them happy, because to you, it's the same as making yourself happy. Maybe it's better.

And that, to me, is what love is. Love is the merging of your self-interest with the self-interest of the person you love. They're the same to you. And the more you love a person, the more your needs and their needs share equal importance. All needs become one.

And that might be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.

Because we are born separate and distinct individuals. But we don't want to stay that way. We want to connect with each other. We want to merge on one level or another, through our experiences, through our thoughts, and through our emotions. That's why art exists: to help us connect. That's why we're born in families and bred in communities. We hunger and thirst for this connection.

And when we find that connection, we call it love. But no two connections are really the same. You don't love your brother the way you love a friend. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a connection, a merging in both of those relationships.

So my theory is that the closer we get to the highest form of love, what C. S. Lewis calls "agape," or unconditional love, the stronger this connection gets. To the point where there is no difference between their pain and your pain; their joy and your joy. You truly pursue the happiness of the person you love, just as you would pursue that happiness for yourself. Because it's the same. Because you find equal value in both.

Maybe that's what it means to love someone as you love yourself. And maybe we shouldn't just strive to find that love with our spouses our our children. Maybe we can even have that kind of love for our neighbor. Or a stranger.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on love, for the moment. I'm sure I'll have some more thoughts another day.

But for now, I am thinking that Christ is even smarter than I ever realized.

Regards, best wishes, and agape,

-Cecily Jane

*Ayn Rand argues that a business associate should be more important to you than your family (if your family is a bunch of loafers), because a person's value is based on their ability to produce. I think that all people should be producers of some kind or another, each contributing to society in the way they can, but I detest the idea that this is the only way to determine worth. Honestly, I love a lot of the things she says, but some of her ideas are absolutely repulsive to me.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Modesty in Space

My Dear Reader,

Growing up in a very religious family, I was taught the importance of modesty at almost every turn. And I always thought that it was a great idea.

I'm weird, I know.

I have this theory. You know how most people have a favorite vice? I think everyone also has a favorite virtue. Modesty is mine. So when people start talking about modesty and how the very idea is shaming and degrading to young girls, well, that wasn't my experience. But, like I said, I'm weird.

A lot of my weirdness, I think, comes from the fact that along with God, Star Trek also had a big place in my life growing up. On Sundays, my family went to church together. On Mondays, we watched Star Trek together. And something the both church and Star Trek has in common? Both are very heavy on ideas. Ideas like universal equality and unconditional compassion. Concepts like agency, kindness, and honor. I got one kind of lesson from the pulpit, and another from the TV, but to me, it all seemed to be two different perspectives into one great, eternal truth. And both church and Star Trek encouraged me to find truth.

So, that was quite an education.

Of course, there was occasionally a disconnect in the message. And as much as I learned the importance of modesty on Sunday, Monday's lesson went somewhat in reverse. Star Trek is almost infamous for its basement-dwelling teenage fanbase, and though it's not very accurate, you wouldn't know it by the way the characters were dressed. Star Trek is as show about people in uniforms, and yet in almost every incarnation of the franchise, they manage to have at least one woman wearing a skin-tight body suit. Sometimes for no real reason. It's just for those basement-dwellers who supposedly will never have a relationship with a real girl, so this fictional one has been provided. Fantasize away, pimply fanboys!*

One of these catsuit-wearing female characters was Seven of Nine, a character from Star Trek: Voyager who was portrayed by Jeri Ryan, who described being "poured" into that suit, it was that tight. Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway (my personal hero) on the same show, said:
I found that that was hard, Jeri notwithstanding. Certainly, I could see with my own eyes that she was a va-va-va-voom and beautiful-beautiful bombshell of a girl. Sexuality was brought into Voyager, and that’s what I resented. I chose not to use sexuality. I thought that if Paramount and UPN and Rick (Berman) were being exceptionally prescient and brave, they would give a woman a shot at commanding without sex. “Can we do this without sex?” There are always other ways. So I resented that and I was hurt by the immediate, extraordinary attention given to this character. The numbers went up. And I thought, “Ah, you can’t argue with a business decision and you can’t argue with sex.” That’s just part of life, but all of that is very difficult for a woman, particularly an actress like me. But it had nothing to do with Jeri.
And yeah, it was pretty obvious that that's what they were going for. I mean, that costume was ridiculous. But it worked, because ratings went up 60%. And when this was on the air in 1997, I was a very, very annoyed teenage girl. I had always looked to Star Trek for powerful female role models, which were in short supply back then (some would argue they still are). At church, I was taught that women are divine beings, equal in the eyes of God and important instruments in His plan. Star Trek was one of the few places where I could actually see that in action. Well, kind of. Until they needed a boost in viewership. Then, they would take a woman and use her as eye candy. Then, her value didn't come from her choices or actions, but from what fans could fantasize doing with her. I guess women in the future are only equal when the ratings are good.

And though I still loved the show, I always rolled my eyes when Seven of Nine came on screen. I saw her as a pointless character. I knew she was being used and I felt used just watching her.

But a funny thing happened when a rewatched the series a few years later. I was in college then, and had a few more years of experience under my belt. I had taken courses on literature and had learned how to look at stories critically. And when I watched Voyager again, I saw Seven of Nine with brand new eyes. I saw past her apparel and into her storyline. I discovered, to my own amazement, that I had found one of the best characters I had ever seen in any show, book, or movie. Her story is one of healing from abuse and betrayal, of repentance, redemption, and love.

But no one ever talks about that.

No one ever talks about Seven of Nine, who was abducted as a child and indoctrinated into an oppressive culture where she was no longer an individual, but a cog in a great and terrible machine of destruction. No one talks about how she is rescued from this machine and offered a chance to reclaim her humanity. No one talks about the people who show her a love and devotion she has not deserved, patiently teaching her how to regain her agency even as she promises to betray them. And no one talks about Seven's eventual success, and how she casts off the shackles of oppression and pain and becomes her own person.

Well, I mean the show talks about it. A lot. It's just that people are too distracted by the catsuit to notice.

And that, I think, is what is missing from the argument for modesty. So many who oppose modesty say that a woman has a right to express herself, and that is true. They say that it is not a woman's burden to control the thoughts of others, and that is true. But what Seven of Nine taught me is that dressing in a way meant to display your sexuality does not express who you are.

It hides you.

It camouflages you.

It allows you to masquerade as an object instead of a person.

And while it doesn't change your worth, and it doesn't make it okay for people to mistreat you, it changes how people see you.

And maybe it changes how you see yourself.

Dressing without to respect for yourself is like strapping raw beef to your thighs and jumping into piranha-infested waters. I guess it's your choice, but it's not a smart choice. Human nature is human nature, choices have consequences, and you have to be careful. You have to protect yourself.

And there's another lesson I learned here: I was wrong. I was wrong to judge someone's value by what they wore. I was immature and shallow. Church and Star Trek taught me to respect people, to see beyond the surface and try to find a friend. I was taught not to look on the outward appearance, but to look on the heart. But I guess I didn't learn those lessons well enough. I guess that in a better world, it wouldn't matter what we wear, because it wouldn't distract people from who we are.

And maybe we need to start making that better world right now. Maybe the destructive parts of human nature need to be cast aside and forgotten.

Maybe we can teach children (not just girls) about modesty in a way that makes them feel empowered instead of ashamed. It is empowering to have the ability to choose how people see you. It is empowering to be able to see people as valuable, despite their appearance. We have to learn to use these powers wisely. We have to understand that people make bad choices sometimes, and you have to account for that. But we also have to be better in order to make the world better.

Because despite Jeri Ryan's success, despite her beautiful portrayal of a complicated character and the many roles she has taken since then, despite the fact that she is a genuine, caring person*, people still ask her about that darn catsuit. More than ten years later, people are still treating her like a cog in the machine of corporate sexuality. There is more than one thing wrong with that.

In the end, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to learn truth from more than one source. I'm grateful that I was given the chance to find my own lessons. Most of all, I treasure the ability I have to think for myself. To act for myself. Because that's the real goal of modesty, right? To be free from objectification? To be free to be your true self?

I think so.

Best wishes, regards, and kindness,

-Cecily Jane

P.S. This is really just one facet of modesty. Here's another post with a different perspective that I also agree with. It's pretty genius, actually.

P. P.S. I couldn't make this argument in the post because it's long enough as it is, but I tried to hint at it: this thinking is not only degrading to women. It's also degrading to the male viewer, because it not only is the female character being sold as an object, but the male viewer is being enticed to buy an object. Both parties are being manipulated and degraded. Both parties deserve better.

*I base this on her Twitter profile. She is awesome.