Monday, June 19, 2017

Emotional foils

There's an easy answer to figuring out what virtue is. That perhaps too easy way is to find two distinct groups of idiots—one group that does too much of something and another that does too little of something—and place yourself in the middle. That's not quite Aristotle's answer. He believed you could think about abstract notions such as "timidity" and "foolhardiness"  and then figure out where courage is because it must be somewhere in between the two.

The problem is that you can only figure out what "timidity" and "foolhardiness" are from experience,; that is, you can only figure out what they are from making judgments about other people's behaviour.

Which brings me to Pamela. Pamela is the first English Novel. It's not the first novel written in English nor is it the first novel written by an English person. It's the first novel to have a set of characteristics that are typical of English novels. A group of Scottish people could make a rye whiskey in Scotland using ingredients that are all from Scotland and it wouldn't be Scotch. The English Novel is like that. Someone from Quebec could, and it has been done, write a perfectly good English novel in French and set it in Montreal.

In Pamela the a man, always called Mr. B, pursues a sexual relationship with the heroine, Pamela. She, returns the feeling but wants it to be a particular kind of sexual relationship, which is to say marriage. The novel is very frank and open about what is at stake.

The English Novel is a perennial favourite and every few generations its charms are rediscovered. And so are its less attractive features. The four movies Doris Day and Rock Hudson made together were witty and daring and yet, at the same time, there was something about them that people found unsatisfactory. It seemed as if the heroine was using her virtue to manipulate the and into marriage. People said the same thing about Pamela.

There was a brilliant update of Pamela a few years ago. To keep it with the times, it began with a  woman who was already in a sexual relationship with a man who was always referred to as "Big" but who wants more from him, which is to say, she wants marriage. Lots of people, mostly women, found this very satisfying. Others found it less so, not because they saw Carrie as manipulative but because they wanted her to seek satisfaction in something other than marriage. Oh well, you can't please everyone.

Three foils

One of the very clever devices the new Pamela used was to have three foils for Carrie. To bring it back to Aristotle, Carrie had three friends who were all too "something". Miranda was too willing to submerge her femininity to other goals in life. Charlotte was too girly, that is to say she was too willing to be feminine in a nonsexual way such that her sexuality was always a factor in everything she did. And Samantha was too slutty, that is to say she was too willing to be feminine in a sexual way such that her sexuality was always a factor in everything she did.

And we should stop here to note the central, feminist value at work in Sex and the City: a woman's sexuality should never define but, at the same time, a woman must fully explore and experience her sexuality. You may sneer but SATC, like Pamela before it, was a show about feminine virtue. And it defined what was feminine virtue socially, again, just like Pamela had done before. The difference was, in an era that prides itself on being "non-judgmental", it couldn't point to abstract notions. It has to point at people.

In one particularly famous episode, Carrie asks, "Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?" The (infamous for some) answer the show gives to that is that Carrie is not a slut because she isn't Samantha.  In the end, Samantha reaches a sort of fulfillment by bravely facing breast cancer. That made a lot of people uncomfortable. But, within the context of the show, that was the only way it could work out.

One thing that should stop us from being too dismissive was the ease with which women watching the show identified with Carrie and classified their friends as Mirandas, Charlottes or Samanthas. A woman I knew back in the 1980s, before Sex and the City, always had a Samantha in her life—three of them: Janet, who was the Samantha from her high school days, Nancy-Jane who was the Samantha from her university days and Sharon who was the Samantha from the early part of her career. Any time my friend was faced with the question, "Am I just being a slut?" the answer was found by contrasting herself with whichever of these three women was in her life.

The irony is that I've since discovered that at least two of those women saw my friend as the Samantha in their lives and they did so with considerably more justice, which is why my friend is the only one not named here. The important lesson is that contrasting myself with others is no help if all I do is narcissistically project my faults onto them. Not doing that is difficult for everyone's natural starting point is egoism. Learning to see others as different requires life-long learning.

For the TV show, indeed for all of us, the problem is not "being a slut". Indeed, given the way SATC defined feminine virtue, it would be a major failing for a woman not be sometimes be a slut. Indeed, she should do so proudly and defiantly in the face of the odious and unfair standards society puts on women. I should disclose that I think the show is absolutely correct about this.

As the show saw it, virtue lay in how much a woman allowed her sexuality to define her. The three foils are all women who allowed it to define them either too little or too much. She needed to be able to turn the slut switch  on so as to defy social convention but also to be able to turn it off when it was likely to get in her way. That seemed right to me. What dismayed a lot of people was that, just like Pamela, before it, SATC operated on the assumption that a woman failing to learn how to control her slut switch could be a barrier to romance. Miranda was too practical about it, Charlotte too scared to turn it on and Samantha too unrestrained about turning it on.

I'm sure everyone can work out their own answers to the questions that raises.

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