Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Mr Darcy and the inherent contradictions of female demands

One of the great revelations of reading Pride and Prejudice after seeing the many TV and film adaptations of the book, is realising how complex and sympathetic Mr Darcy is as a character. Even at his most belligerent and off-hand, his attitude is somewhat attractive to us from the very beginning. You could argue that the whole art of the book rests on the reader's falling in love with Darcy about two hundred pages before Lizzy does, or at least before she admits it to herself.

There's something extremely self-deprecating about Austen's creation of Lizzy. Clearly a dramatis personae, we both respect her, and laugh at her. We respect her because she is a strong and self-willed person, someone who sticks to her guns regardless of opinion. And she is the original 'independent woman', before that term became bastardised by MTV, and the Destiny's Child aberration of feminism that equated female liberation with a woman's ability to buy her own BMW. No, Lizzy is independent in similar ways that Jane Eyre is. This is a woman who is a human being first, and a woman second. Her femininity is defined by humanity, not the other way round, and she demands that all people, school mistresses and powerful men alike, treat her on her own terms, and not as an object, or a means to an end.

However, contrary to popular opinion, Pride and Prejudice is as much a critique and satire of feminine attraction, as it is a celebration of feminine authenticity. Lizzy's final attraction and love for Darcy is played out over an extended war with herself, and the competing narratives of her subconscious and her self-image. Jane Austen knew all too well that the initial repulsion women feel for men can quickly evolve into love, and can often mask a need for it. The woman who prizes her independence above everything else, like Lizzy, will often ridicule and condemn the very men she finds attractive before admitting that he may have some power over her. It is clear that Lizzy is attracted to Darcy from the get-go, and vice versa, but the prejudice involved in the title is one of social norms and cultural expectations, and how they merge with our egos. The result is a complex game of avoidance, of pushing away the very things we need in life – intimacy, passion and trust.

This issue of trust plays a large role in the book. Wickham symbolises the man who exhibits all the superficial features of masculinity that a woman might be forgiven for falling for. Even Lizzy has a thing for him – his charm, his uniform, his playful flirting, his apparent lightheartedness. However, he violates the trust of Lizzy as much as Darcy, plays with the innocence of others for his own gain, and his masculinity amounts to nothing but the strut of a peacock.

Lizzy's great quality is her independence, but it is not, unlike the post-feminist ideal, an independence for its own sake. It is independence based on trust. Lizzy doesn't trust anyone until they have demonstrated some kind of sacrifice for her, until they have proven that they have the decency to treat people with equal and generous respect. Lizzy's intelligence, her perceptiveness, marks her out from the other women in the book.

However, the very same perceptiveness and intelligence is often used by Lizzy to avoid contact with people, and she is very much attached to her superiority over others. Her love for Darcy develops over time, and her trust for him is only won by something incontrovertible, through a demonstration of genuine incontestable self-sacrifice and decency that she cannot do anything but love him.

Some things about Darcy, though,  must be said. He is entirely a female ideal of a man. Not only is he rich, he is the richest man in the country. Not only is he handsome, but women flock to him. So, two things are dealt with right way. Darcy is automatically desirable, and it is only Lizzy's stubborn distrust of him that ever stops her from falling for him in the same way.

What changes her mind is his the simple fact of things not being what they seem. The best part of the book is when Lizzy visits estate with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, and we are given a tour of the woodlands and the rugged beauty of the place. Austen describes a landscape of complex shadows and wild greenery, of sober colours and unkempt secrets.

'Elizaeth's mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of the valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; - and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. It's banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elisabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little contracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!'

And later, after meeting Darcy:

'They entered the woods and bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher grounds; whence in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream.'

Apart from their perfectly crafted, self-consciously masculine sentence structures, these passages represent a masculine authority in their careful, almost Hemingway-esque lyricism, that begins to take hold of Lizzy. The river's 'banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned.' There is a wild but moderate quality to Pemberley, not interfered with by a need to groom and over-cultivate nature, and yet safe, a beauty commanded from the centre where Pemberley House 'stands well on rising ground.'

So on top of the need for trust, and the need for authenticity, the strongest impact that Darcy has on Lizzy is in this moment (she admits it at the end of the book) where the elegance and sober primitiveness of the estate captivates her, a woman who values at once decency and rebellion.

The beauty of Pemberley sybolises the perfect contradictions that make up Darcy's attractiveness and, as a result, his masculinity. Abrupt, primeval, and with a disregard for absurd genteelisms. At the same time sober, tempered, elegant and in a strange, isolated sense, beautiful. Above all, though he shuns social role playing and keeps women at a distance by his rudeness and arrogance, he is a man whose compassion and love is encased in his natural authority, his tempered but authentic poise.

In the modern sense, masculinity is a confusion of primitive and post-industrial ideals. If you look at the 'masculine' qualities that are idealised in contemporary culture, many of them are contradictory, confused, and many are impossible to live up to. The goal posts, necessarily, are always changing.

A man must be deeply sensitive to the needs to women. But he must be able to dominate them when the time his right. He must be like Achilles in times of conflict, and like Odysseus in times of peace. He must be good with his hands, but capable of heightened levels of reflective thought. He must pay his way, but he must never be a slave. He must command respect, but remain humble. He must be decisive, but also a good listener. He must exhibit craftsmanship and excellence, but allow others to show equal excellence.

The main contradiction in the ideal of modern masculinity is this. On the one hand a man must be able to demonstrate his prowess. This is the residue of traditional masculinity. He must be able to show that he is in some sense superior, to other men, and to women. This is how a man develops his power, his leadership. Masculinity is very much tied into the notion of hierarchy. A man must be able to show supremacy. This is was what will make others follow him, make his children obey him, and which will attract women to him. His excellence, his prowess.

However, in the modern context, he must also be an egalitarian. He must not exclude women from competing with him. He must not claim ownership of his children and his wife. He must be able to demonstrate his prowess, but do it with compassion and without excluding women.

And herein lies the stifling contradiction of modern feminism. A woman these days makes a lot of noise about demanding a real man. But at the same time she maintains the per-requisite of equality and mutuality. She is attracted to a man, as always, by the extent to which he exhibits prowess. But she at the same demands that she be allowed to exhibit at least the same levels of prowess.

Modern women are in a state of crisis when it comes to relationships with men. They want a man to be excellent, and part of the attraction of a man, is his ability to demonstrate his superiority at a set of tasks, to show the woman that she needs him, that she cannot live without him. His masculinity then, is measured according to a hierarchy. At the same time, however, the politics of feminism requires that women no longer accept exclusion. That a woman's gender must not preclude her from demonstrating excellence, and from competing with men.

Most men accept this. Many men, in fact, happily embrace it. Where the problems tend to start, is on the female side. Women still expect a man to demonstrate a superiority over them. On the one hand they want to be treated equally, but on the other hand, they still select a mate based on traditional and very primitive ideas of masculinity - masculinity that is defined by hierarchy and supremacy, on high risk, and domination.
The point is this: it is impossible for a man to exhibit true masculinity and at the same time be egalitarian. Feminine culture then, needs to take the lead. Do you wish to select domineering masculinity, or do you wish to select a more evolved, understanding masculinity?

I know that for the last twenty or so years, women have been trying to say that a man can be both. That he can be assertive and strong, without being domineering. That he can take control, without being overbearing and chauvinistic. That he can protect a woman, demonstrate his prowess, without violating egalitarianism between the sexes.

But this is a false promise, and here's why. A man's excellence and prowess, the thing that makes him attractive to a woman, is based on his authority. Now, of course, he can have authority in many fields. But as long as he demonstrates authority in a certain way, then he has a high chance of facing selection by the female of his species.

His prowess must be exhibited at some level. That is, he must assert authority.

However, in doing so, he can no longer claim to be a feminist. And women who perpetuate this sexual dynamic through their selection of mates (most women) are sending a message to men that what they find attractive has nothing to do with egalitarianism.

The burden lies with the modern woman. As men try to self-examine, and to evolve a new range of masculine ideals, women must also examine themselves. Do they want an authority figure, or someone to treat them as an equal? And unless this egalitarianism extends into all areas of life, modern women will simply continue to demand to have their cake and eat it, and at the same time be making a mockery of the feminism they all claim to value so much.

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