The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Fifty Shades of Mr. D.: The Unwritten Rules of Romance Fiction

    Hollywood is making some big Valentine's Day cash off Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adapted from the first book of E. L. James's mommy-porn trilogy. Let me say right up front that I have not read these books, because life is too short for that. But, like every living human in the industrialized world, I've been bludgeoned with so much unrelenting chatter about these books that I can recap the general plot: buff young billionaire punishes and dominates sweet young virgin in his sex dungeon, but also everywhere else. Which part of that plot bothers you most probably depends on who you usually roll with. In most of my social circles, the sex-dungeon part is not at all the problem because, hey, consenting adults. On the other hand, the punishing/dominating/stalking/abusing outside the dungeon part is very, very much the problem because Which part of "consenting" did you not understand, fool? 

    The idea that a bondage-and-domination couple act out the same exaggerated roles outside the bedroom is shaky as psychology and lousy as storytelling. (My understanding is that domineering Masters-of-the-Universe types who are into BDSM are more likely to be the ones getting tied up; that dissonance between someone's behavior in bed and his behavior outside it is a potentially interesting story hook.) But that domination outside the bedroom is downright ugly as politics. Kinky sex may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the person doing the "submitting" is actually making some of the decisions and has a safe word so that she or he can bail out. (If that's not the case, as in the ugly story of disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, it's not BDSM. It's just beating people up.) So in Fifty Shades of Grey, the hijinks with whips and restraints may disgust or bore you, but it's the rest of the story -- the boyfriend chasing the heroine around in helicopters and hacking her cell phone and so on -- that's really morally unacceptable. That's not a romantic guy; that's a stalker who might kill you.

    I can't help comparing Fifty Shades to that perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice. The comparison is obviously lopsided, because Jane Austen is one of the best novelists who's ever written in English and E. L. James is nowhere close. Austen is basically putting on a master-class in writing on the sentence-by-sentence level; reviewers have fun with James by picking out some of her clumsy, amateur-hour sentences for quotation. But Pride and Prejudice is one of the distant models on which Fifty Shades is built, because its influence (like the Bronte sisters' influence) is shot through all of romance fiction. Even if E. L. James has never read any Austen, all of the writers she imitates (such as the writer of the Twilight series) imitate Pride and Prejudice in various ways. And Christian Grey has distant but obvious resemblances to Austen's Mr. Darcy; both are aloof, emotionally-stunted but fabulously-wealthy guys deeply invested in their alpha-male status. (Grey also owes debts to characters like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, of course.) Darcy is part of romance fiction's DNA.

    Every genre of storytelling has its own unwritten rules, which might never get articulated and which storytellers and listeners are sometimes not even consciously aware of, but which they stick to carefully. Even if no one has ever explained a rule, even if no one can explain a rule, the story will "feel wrong" to audiences if you break it. (The pioneering work on this was done long ago by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.) This applies both to high and low art, including to self-consciously high art. And sometimes it's those underlying unwritten rules that are most interesting.

    Now, if a central element of the Fifty Shades plot is "heroine tries to get away from love interest, who follows her around," it looks like Pride and Prejudice works in exactly the opposite way. It is Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who ends up more or less following Mr. Darcy around England, eventually showing up in his actual house. Although people will tell you Pride and Prejudice is about manners, Lizzy's actual behavior is totally outrageous: after turning down the D-man's proposal of marriage, and taking his inventory at fairly insulting length, she then turns up uninvited in his home -- one of the classic "Oh, hi!" moments in world literature.

    Austen gets away with this, and lets her protagonist off the hook, by contriving to make it seem that none of this is Elizabeth's idea. Although the main structure of Austen's plot is "Elizabeth goes to places where Darcy is," Austen crafts the story so that it always appears that Elizabeth is going to those places for some non-Darcy-related reason, often without knowing that Darcy will be there. "Oh, hi" is actually a fundamental narrative principle of Austen's novel. It is crucial that Elizabeth always be thrown together with Darcy "by chance." But "accidents" in a novel are never actually accidents. They are always the result of deliberate design, and Austen, especially, is a meticulous designer.

    Austen carefully arranges all of these "accidents" because she is following a major unwritten rule of "romance" narratives: the heroine may not get the male character's affection by deliberately pursuing him. This rule is not officially articulated anywhere. But everyone follows it. If you downloaded twenty new romance e-books tonight, I am willing to bet you that none of those twenty involve our heroine seeing a man she likes, deciding to go after him, going after him, and getting him. That plot is excluded from the list of possibilities. This rule is most absolute in fiction aimed primarily at female readers.

    This is not because it is impossible for a woman to attract a man's romantic attention deliberately. In the actual world, a heterosexual woman has ways to get a heterosexual man to notice her, and most straight adolescent girls have already mastered a list of these techniques: laugh at his jokes (especially the bad ones), hold extra eye contact, wear a nice dress, etc., etc., etc. While you can't win 'em all, you can bat a pretty good average. But if you are the heroine in a romance narrative, none of that will work.  It cannot work. The core rule is deliberate attempts to get the man will fail.

    There are stories about women going after the man, but in those stories the women are villains (see: Gone Girl) or cautionary tales. And this seems connected to a wider set of cultural ideas about romantic relationships; as Phoebe wrote in a recent blog post: "For whatever reason, it's seen as insulting to a woman to speak of her relationship as having emerged from mutual attraction." It's likely even more insulting to imply that she did the chasing. Women who aren't imagined as having been pursued by men are imagined as being less valued.

    There is an entire subset of narratives (Austen's Emma/Clueless; Gone with the Wind; Legally Blonde; etc.) where the heroine sets out on a deliberate campaign to win the wrong man, inevitably 1. failing to get the boy and 2. realizing that she is actually in love with another boy. (In Scarlett O'Hara's case, this ending is punitive: she spends the whole damn novel/movie chasing the unsexy one before realizing she'll never get him and that she's already blown it with the sexy one she does love. I'd feel bad for Scarlett, but she's a Confederate, so tough cookies.) Not only can you not get the one you want on your own, you can't even figure out which one you want on your own. The only narrative I can think of that comes close to breaking this rule is Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan spends the whole movie trying to get to the oh-so-romantically-bereft man she heard once on the radio, but even that film actually sticks to the rule; as soon as the Tom Hanks character sees her, he falls in love at first sight, so that the Ryan character never has to try to get him to like her, which never works in a story.

    On the other hand, a straight male hero pursuing a female character (even, or especially, a reluctant female character) and getting her is clearly not against our rules of narrative. We tell that story All. The. Time. But a straight female heroine pursuing a male character and getting him is effectively impossible. No one is officially forbidden to tell that story, but we may as well be. Try it and you will hear that something is "wrong" with the story, that it doesn't "work."

    Obviously, this unwritten rule forbids women from going after what they want, but it is strongly present in romantic fantasies aimed at women, even (especially) romantic narratives written by women for other women. These stories are about women's desires on a very basic level, but the rules require that those desires be officially disowned. You can get what you want. You just can't get it yourself. You have to get someone else to give it to you, and you have to do that unwittingly.

    Both Pride and Prejudice and Fifty Shades follow this basic rule, as do the whole vast number of similar romantic narratives. Fifty Shades does it using the crudest and most obvious narrative solution possible: since she can't take the initiative, he will take it all. He'll follow her around, etc., etc., etc. One explanation for Fifty Shades's retrograde politics may simply be that E. L. James couldn't think of a less obvious way to move her story forward.

    Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, is cunningly designed so that neither Elizabeth nor Darcy seem to be doing the pursuing. The heroine-cannot-pursue rule is rigorously observed; indeed, there are a number of female characters, most glaringly Elizabeth's mother, who function to discredit outright or obvious pursuit of a husband. But Darcy is also usually not pursuing. The narrative logic of Pride and Prejudice is that once Darcy shows up at Elizabeth's house, the story is over; they're engaged. If Darcy approaches Elizabeth on any neutral ground, there is always a complicated advance and retreat; although each of these encounters is superficially different, the structure is always Darcy advances, a major plot revelation occurs, and Darcy scrams. (The given reason for retreat is always different; the structural effect on the narrative is always the same.) Austen is dedicated to creating the illusion that neither main character is seeking out the other.

    Austen, of course, is not the only one who does this. Virtually every Hollywood romantic comedy is built on the "meet cute," whereby the male and female leads are introduced to one another by chance. He's not trying to meet her; she's not trying to meet him. It's always just, Oops! Just must be their lucky day. Disowning deliberate intentions turns out to be an essential part of the romance narrative.

    What allows Austen to get away with this so smoothly is that she is enormously inventive in disguising her narrative moves and in creating plausible excuses for them. Austen is a great architect, and her novel is laid out in regular, symmetrical patterns. Readers respond to the book's soothing structural repetition, but if you consciously noticed how repetitive it was it would feel artificial and boring. Austen is wonderful at disguising those repetitions so that it seems like something new and different is happening; she camouflages the artfully-plotted symmetries and creates the illusion that a bunch of semi-random events are unfolding.

    The novel has three parts, and in each of those three parts, right on schedule, Elizabeth visits a grand country house where Darcy happens to be. (Each of those houses is progressively more Darcy's own turf, until it's actually his own house.) The real reason Elizabeth goes to these places, the novel's reason, is that she has to be put in the same place as Darcy. But Elizabeth cannot be presented as deliberately doing that. So Austen contrives different narrative excuses; interestingly, they always involve Elizabeth going to whichever house for another woman, a close female friend or relative. This is dressed up in different guises:

    1. Elizabeth's sister Jane falls dangerously ill at the country house where Mr. D. is staying with friends; Lizzy rushes to nurse her, and has to stay for several days
    2. Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte has left home to marry the parson attached to a distant country house owned by D's aunt; Charlotte, homesick, invites Lizzy to visit, and Mr. D. turns out to be visiting his aunt
    3. Elizabeth is touring Derbyshire with her own aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who really wants to visit Darcy's house (which is on the Stately Homes of Derbyshire tour), so Elizabeth goes along, having heard that D. was away on business, and so ...

    And so on. These are all superficially different. They are all the same move at the bottom. And Elizabeth is always nominally showing up near Darcy is in order to please a woman she already has a relationship with, rather than to start a relationship with Mr. D. The character has to have motivations that are not about Darcy. But these are just excuses for the the narrative to put her together with Darcy.

    (All of these narrative excuses have their own excuses; Jane allegedly got sick because she walked to Netherfield Hall in the rain. But actually, it rained so that Jane would get sick, and Jane got sick so Elizabeth could go to Netherfield, where the novel needed her to be. And Charlotte's husband works for Darcy's aunt because Austen needs a second act here.)

    The novel also needs to repeat the "third party gives Elizabeth information about Darcy" move over and over again, but Austen is always finding new ways to disguise it. Someone who dislikes Elizabeth tells her some news in order to hurt her; someone who loves Elizabeth writes a gossipy letter, assuming that Elizabeth already knows some news that she doesn't; someone randomly mentions some news without understanding its relevance to Elizabeth; it keeps on going. But it's always the same transaction: Elizabeth gets some information about Mr. D without Elizabeth asking or D. telling.

    There are lots of go-betweens passing this plot information along. If Elizabeth can't go after Darcy, and if Darcy can almost never go after Elizabeth, there needs to be at least one go-between to relay information and also to move the plot forward. Austen manages this by having lots of go-betweens, in varied guises, almost none of whom are intending to move the Elizabeth-and-Darcy plot along but all of whom function to do so. Austen is ingenious enough to disguise many of these go-betweens as people trying to oppose the match. Heroine about to give up hope? Need to give her the news that she still stands a chance? Have someone show up and try to warn the heroine off. ("Why is this person suddenly so worried that Darcy is going to propose? What?") Then have that character double as the messenger who tells the D Man that he's still in the running. ("You told her not to marry me, and she said what? Huh.") It would look cheesy if a helpful friend did those tasks at the end of the story: too obviously convenient. But if an alleged "enemy" performs those tasks, it feels earned. That character is only opposed to the marriage inside the imaginary world of the story. In the deep machinery that makes the story run, that character is a crucial enabler of the marriage.

    None of this makes Austen a feminist. I mean, she was writing in Regency England. And I would really, really love a great 21st-century storyteller to find a way to defeat the women-can't-pursue rule. But the differences between Austen at the dawn of the 19th century and James at the outset of the 21st are enormous, in ways that aren't to James's credit. Both Austen and James are stuck with the unwritten rule, bigger than either of them, that women can't just go out and get the men. James deals with that by having the man chase the woman even when the woman says no and isn't it all so sex-ay? Austen, on the other hand, deploys her nearly inexhaustible storytelling cunning in order to create the illusion that neither character is the main pursuer. And Austen, with artful indirection, lays out a subtle strategy that intertwines a prescription for playing the "good girl" with a prescription for playing a member of the upper classes. What permits Elizabeth to become Mrs. Darcy, i.e. to get the boy, is appearing never to strive for what she wants. But what qualifies Elizabeth to be a good Mrs. Darcy, i.e., a successful aristocrat, is also the ability to disown any striving or ambition, to get exactly what you want without appearing to try. That's a limited and equivocal kind of liberty, to be sure. But it's centuries ahead of Fifty Shades.


    Really interesting piece, Doc. I've been scratching my brain to come up with a cinematic exception to the passive ro-co heroine and finally got one--Silver Linings Playbook. Admittedly, it's a little far from usual ro-co fare. Also, John Hughes's films were more coming-of-age than romantic-comedy, but in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald picks her target and gets him in the end, though her methods are much less direct than Jennifer Lawrence's in Silver Linings.

    Thanks, Michael. Silver Linings Playbook is an exception. But what seems very "direct" for a woman in a work of fiction are still pretty indirect: arranging to bump into him, asking him to do a Platonic thing as a way to spend time with him. But in most romantic fiction, even those moves are "too direct" ... The heroines don't make sure to bump into the boy when he's out on the street.

    The John Hughes/Molly Ringwald vehicles ... I don't know. Yes, she wants the boy right from the opening, and she gets him, but I don't think she actually takes any steps to make that happen. As with other romance heroines it happens to her.

    (And while I can't recall the plot of Pretty in Pink 30 years later, I know that its ending was famously changed, allegedly at Ringwald's demand. She was originally supposed not to get the boy she'd been chasing, but to end up with her platonic male sidekick, who had Really Been the One All Along; a classic chased-the-wrong-boy plot.)

    Now, there's no rule against an assertive female love interest in a story with a *male* protagonist.  If the guy gets the girl without trying, that's perfectly acceptable. If you want to get in James Bond's pants, don't bother being indirect. It's his story, after all, not yours.

    Let me ask this: what if Silver Linings Playbook were told from the Jennifer Lawrence character's viewpoint, and it were all about her trying to get that hot emotionally-damaged guy, instead of being told from his viewpoint? We don't get to see her scheming; we don't get to see her at all except when he does.


    But to be honest about exceptions: I think screwball comedy is the exception. Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Barbara Streisand in What's Up, Doc? 

    Those characters are still indirect, but they can be *active* - they can play various tricks to get the man's attention, keep him from saying goodbye, and so forth. The price they pay is that they have to come off as outrageously kooky, maybe "nuts."

    You cannot just deliberately forget your purse in the man's car. You can unleash a leopard in a public place. Because chasing after a man is crazy, so you can only make it work by doing crazy things.

    Wow! Excellent.

    My intention never to read the book or see the movie has just been squared.

    Thanks, Oxy.

    You don't have to read the book or see the movie to know most of what's going on. Fifty Shades on my all-media boycott list with things like The Da Vinci Code and Titanic. You can easily pick up almost the entire plot of those without trying. (The Grail is under the church in Scotland! I'm King of the World!) Meh.

    Artistic failings aside, there might be some value here, though, for people (especially women) who are a bit more buttoned up than the "anything goes between consenting adults" crowd that you and I tend to socialize with.  Obviously, James touched a nerve and she arguably had to do it with bad but accessible and unapologetic prose.  The Marquis de Sade takes things too far for casual fantasy and is hard to read.  This is like that hotel in Las Vegas that advertises "The right amount of naughty," and it's easy to get a room.  

    Now I wonder why I make extraneous comments which I delete later when I should have just listened in the first place.  

    I liked your comment, oxy.

    Why, thanks, Doc. Some days I think I just don't get things at all.

    Yes, that's a good point and I've seen versions of it. The not-fancy prose is part of the mainstreaming of BDSM for a broad audience, and I don't have any special problem with that. (I do expect pushback in 3-5 years from the hardcore BDSM crowd about mainstream types diluting their experience, because that's how these things go, but I'm not bothered about that either.) And I'm not willing to read enough of E. L. James's prose to talk about what's wrong with it.

    And to be completely honest, I'm in the "anything goes between consenting adults but please please please don't tell me about it" crowd.

    What bothers me is the conflation between playing the submissive in BDSM role-playing and accepting controlling and abusive behavior outside those games. BDSM is not served well by refusing to make that crucial distinction between being dominated in the bedroom and being mistreated in a relationship.

    If a woman is into bondage, that's her choice. If a woman is in bondage, that's a crime.

    Hard to disagree with the distinction between bedroom games and life.  But, I guess that's why it's fiction, even if it's bad fiction.  This might be an okay way for people to indulge a stalkery fantasy without ever having to experience it in all its ugly glory.

    Sure. And now we get into the slippery line between fiction as an escape from reality and fiction as a set of claims about how reality is or ought to be. And it's always straddled that line. People can tell the difference between fiction and reality. And people do let fiction shape their viw of reality. Both of these things are true.

    Real women, including extremely intelligent women, have made bad mistakes while looking for Mr. Darcy in the real world. But if you go out there looking for Christian Grey ... oy.

    If you're looking for Christian Grey, you're more likely to meet Patrick Bateman.

    I'm still struck by your comment that " people do let fiction shape their view of reality" and I wonder if you  would delve into this more at some point. My understanding is that we extract the myth and integrate it in some way---individually,intentionally, societally, I'm not sure. Seems awfully important to understand this process better when. e.g., movies like Sniper create a reality that we invaded IRAQ because of 9/11, the myth already having been created that there were  WMD there---not to mention what a fine strategist Bush was. Or in just dealing with the effects of this movie---which continues to disturb my latent Baptist upbringing concerning its ill effects on society.  

    Here is a timely comment regarding your interest. It is obviously not all that can be said about the subject.


    Peter Van Buren, Watching the Same Movie About American War for 75 Years.

    War Porn 
    Hollywood and War from World War II to American Sniper

    Thanks, Lulu. Good article. Great reference on War Porn.

    The part about Ron Kovic (on some days he elected to think of himself as---John Wayne in a movie--when he went on patrol) gets at what I thought Doc's direction was---that is, the elective part of acceptance of fiction as reality. (Not that the rest of the article wasn't)

    (And it was interesting in light of this tangent to think about Brian Williams. Now he created his own myth and I'm not ready yet to say that it was entirely a conscious act to gild his own lily---so to speak. In any case he's was in his own movie, and that movie is now in a movie. )

    Perhaps the "election" is as simple as saying one is predisposed to the fiction, but it seems like there are other electives involved---and wheels within wheels, including the strength of the fiction itself.

    I'm on the fourth episode of Honorable Woman, a six part pretty good BBC fiction series aimed at the Palestinian/Israeli situation and I can feel myself resisting immersion in it---partly it's pretty graphic---pending the political messaging at the end which I may or may not want to agree with. 

    One of my favorite Theater History professors, a man named Brian Hansen, believed that theatrical storytelling (fiction obviously started as an oral tradition) was an evolutionary response to shaping people's views of reality in ways that would help them survive.  Early plays were, "How not to get eaten by a tiger."

    I wonder how that functions now.  We tell ourselves "it's only a story," but why are we getting involved in it?  One answer is "escape."  That's a good answer.  But it seems more compelling to me to believe that we indulge stories because we believe they are showing us life as it is.

    My problem has been that I think life is a 70s era Woody Allen comedy.

    So provocative, Doc!  But please, please never compare Mr. Grey to Mr. Darcy.  Ever.  Don't even put them in the same paragraph.  (I read Pride and Prejudice when I was a teen, but I never really appreciated it until Colin Firth came along.  Now THERE'S a Darcy.)

    I haven't read FSOG, either, but it turns out I don't have to.  Parts of it are all over the place, and, land's sakes, dearies, it's nothing new.  In the Sexy Sixties and Seventies we were reading the real stuff:  Anais Nin, the Marquis de Sade, all those naughty Victorian works like "the Pearl" and "Autobiography of a Flea".  The S-M fantasy world was alive and well, at least on paper, and, while it was fun to read about that kinky stuff, after a while all that spanking lost its charm.  It'll happen with this, too.

    I should throw in here that I'm a feminist who believes in consensual anything, so I'm not shocked or sickened or sad or sorry about this new book.  What bites me about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's not even written well.  All over the internet, there are counts of the number of times Anastasia says "Jeez", "Holy Crap" and "Oh, my".   Well, that's just unforgivable.

    This is a great piece, Doc.  Thanks for giving it this much thought.  I love your analysis of Austen's women.  Brilliant.


    Thanks, Mona. 

    You know how you create a character like Christian Grey?

    You start with an undead blood-sucking creep. Then you take away his good qualities.

    Lol, Doc.  I have a feeling the author is as silly as the female character.  She would have to have some depth in order to give Mr. Grey some depth. 

    I looked at it at the book store and it didn't grab my interest.  The big kids told me they could get a e-book copy if I wanted it.  I told them not to bother.  They gave me Elisabeth Warren's book instead. 

    My favorite Jane Austen novel is Persuasion. The story is based upon the fact Captain Wentworth's proposal to wed Anne Elliot was turned down by her, years before the events described in the novel took place. This does fit the model you put forward of a woman not being seen to pursue the man she wants. While satisfying the romantic requirement of them getting together despite Anne's initial rejection, the story has other agendas that argue with the item so nicely provided.

    There is the process of punishment. Anne did not reject the Captain because of her lack of feelings for him but out of respect for Lady Russell and the prospect of the marriage upon the fortunes of her family. This very unromantic criteria for rejection was misunderstood by the Captain to be a rejection of himself on the most personal of terms. The story plays out with both of the lovers hurting each other more and more as the initial misunderstanding is compounded by new ones. The element that saves both of them from the punishment consuming them altogether is that they started admiring the decisions the other person made without reference to each other. The social restrictions that conditioned their communications also provided a different perspective from their personal suffering. The model of the good marriage presented here is simple and yet quite difficult to bring about in life:

    Establish a place beyond hurting each other while also not pretending to be what you are not.

    It is hard for me to imagine an ideal located further from the ideas of role playing. It is ironic how the structure of this ideal is sketched out by an author so handy at describing people playing out their roles.

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