Dream Diary, 11/20/15: Bobby Jindal in Discworld

bobby jindalI dreamed that Terry Pratchett had written a Discworld novel in which Bobby Jindal was a character, and was gay. In the book-within-a-dream, Jindal’s mother was a super-progressive, pro-LGBT PFLAG mom, and Jindal was embarrassed by this, because he was still a conservative Republican politician, and although he was out about being gay, he was embarrassed about it and didn’t like to talk about it.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”

“Warning — I’m going to say some things here that aren’t politically correct.”

Or, “Oh, I’d better be careful, I might upset the PC police.”

Or, in response to a complaint about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, “They’re just being politically correct, I’m so sick of all that PC nonsense.”

I hear this a lot. I hear it from writers, speakers, politicians, commentators, comedians. And I don’t just hear it from overtly douchey asshats. I also hear it from people who are generally smart, thoughtful, decent, and clearly wanting to do good.

hexagonal-warning-signI hear this a lot. And whenever I hear it, it’s like a red flag. It’s like a red flag attached to sirens and klaxons and flashing red lights. It’s like a guy on the side of the road jumping around with a giant sign — a sign that says, “This person is about to say something incredibly screwed-up.”

When you use the phrase “politically correct,” here’s what you’re saying.

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t want to be held accountable for it.”

You’re saying, “I don’t want to have to think very carefully about the things that I’m saying. I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it’s unfair, inaccurate, bigoted, or otherwise harmful.”

You’re saying, “I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it perpetuates harmful tropes or stereotypes.”

You’re saying, “In particular, I want to say whatever pops into my head about people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for centuries — and I don’t want to think about whether the things I say are bashing them with that stick one more goddamn time.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I don’t want to have to think about the actual content of what they’re saying.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not going to engage with the content of what they’re saying — I’m just going to dismiss it wholesale.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not only going to dismiss what they’re saying — I’m going to trivialize the very idea of them speaking about it and asking people to change.”

get out of jail free cardYou’re saying, “Rather than actually thinking carefully about the things I’m saying, I’m just going to say whatever I feel like, and tack on this ‘PC’ line as a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t just want to avoid accountability. I actually want to be seen as brave and heroic.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to be seen as a champion for free speech.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to act like a martyr when I get called on it.”

If you don’t want to be saying any of that — don’t use the phrase “politically correct.”

The phrase is supposed to act as a shield, a Get Out of Jail Free card. But for me — and for many other people — it does the opposite. It’s not a shield. It’s an alert. It’s a giant red arrow, saying, “Heads up! This person is probably going to say some seriously douchey bigoted bullshit — so prick up your ears and listen carefully for it.”

Look. I get that this stuff can be hard. I completely understand the feeling of walking on eggshells in a minefield. I get that if you’re going to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics, you’re eventually going to say something wrong-headed or piss people off. And I get that people want to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics anyway. I not only get that — I support it. I don’t want every writer, speaker, politician, commentator, comedian, to spend all their time talking about the weather.

Yes, you show courage when you walk into the minefield. But that courage is eradicated when you use “I guess I’m not being very PC here” as a shield. When you walk into the minefield and you step on a mine, the shrapnel can hurt people other than you. It’s not very brave to use the “I guess I’m not being PC” shield to protect yourself from that shrapnel. And it’s seriously not brave to deflect that shrapnel onto the people who live their entire lives in that minefield, and whose bodies and minds are carrying scars from every other mine that exploded onto them, and who live in constant expectation of the next explosion.

So take responsibility for your words, and for their effect. If you screw up and hurt people you didn’t intend to hurt — cop to it. Apologize. And do better next time. Don’t turn the people you hurt into the bad guys, the so-called PC police who don’t want anyone to make jokes or think original thoughts or have any fun at all — simply because they told you that you screwed up.

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What’s the Opposite of Dictionary Atheism?

merriam webster dictionarySo I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism and dictionary atheists — atheists who insist that “atheism” can only mean, and should only mean, “no belief in any gods,” with no other implications, and no atheist activism about anything else. (Except, of course, for the issues they think are clearly connected to atheism, like church/state separation.)

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that: atheists who use the word more broadly, for whom “atheism” can also mean the implications that they see as implied by lack of belief, or the communities and movements and organizations created by atheists, or the critical thinking skills and commitment to evidence-based thinking that led us to atheism in the first place, etc.

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that, and a question occurred to me: What’s the opposite of “dictionary atheist” What would be a good term for that?

I was thinking “thesaurus atheist,” which I like — but it’s a little hard to say, with all the th’s and s’s. What are some other ideas?

A few suggestions that were made on Facebook, where I first posed this question: connotative atheism; encyclopedic atheism; consequential atheism; extended atheism; practical, pragmatic or functional atheism; applied atheism (this sounds like a college course, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing); descriptive atheism (“as opposed to dictionary atheism, which is inherently prescriptive”); philosophical atheism; expansive atheism; verb atheism; Wikipedia atheism (“Full of helpful connections to related topics and subject to change without notice”); Big Picture Atheism. (This isn’t a complete list: it’s a longish Facebook thread.) Do you like any of these? Do you have others to propose? Your time starts — now!

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Why I Like Ebooks

Please note, before I begin: The title of this piece is not “Why you should like ebooks.” It’s “Why I like ebooks.” I’m both amused and irritated when questions of subjective taste get treated as arguments about morality or character or the well-being of society. So I’m both amused and irritated when people insist that ebooks represent the decay of all that is truly beautiful about reading — and when people insist that people who prefer paper books are out-of-touch fuddy-duddies who need to get with the times.

That being said: I do have a personal preference for ebooks over paper books — so this piece is a bit more of a pushback against the “Ebooks are destroying literature!” crowd. I like ebooks. Unless a book is an art book or has a lot of illustrations, I almost always buy books in ebook form if I can. I think this is a reasonable preference. Here’s why — and also, here’s why I understand that some people feel differently.

suitcases airline tickets and globeTravel. I travel a lot — and my ebook reader has been the secular equivalent of a godsend. Before ebooks, I hated the fact that when I was traveling, I had to decide ahead of time exactly what I wanted to read. I often wound up bringing four or five books with me — making my suitcase heavier, with less room for other stuff — and I still often wound up not being in the mood for any of them. (“I thought I wanted to read Great Expectations on this trip, but I’m just not in the mood for something that serious — can’t I just read Georgette Heyer again? No, because I don’t have it with me.”) When I’m tired and crabby at the end of a travel day, or bored and crabby on an airplane, I love having hundreds of books to choose from.

Plus, I love being able to flip back and forth between my books, depending on what I’m in the mood for — the serious novel or science book at the beginning of the long plane ride, the light familiar comfort book at the end of a long day. That’s also true when I’m at home, but it’s even more true when I travel. I’m something of a promiscuous reader — I often read more than one book in parallel. And I don’t always know what book I’ll be in the mood for when I’ve finished the last one. Ebooks make this a non-issue.

Immediacy. I love, love, LOVE the fact that, with an ebook reader, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. Ebooks mean that I’m not wandering into bookstores asking the clerk, “There was this book I heard about a few weeks ago, I don’t remember the title or the author, but it was something about feminism and pop culture, or maybe the history of female characters in pop culture, or something like that, it had a writeup in the New Yorker, or maybe it was The Toast.” With ebooks, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. (This is also dangerous, of course — being able to buy books on impulse means buying more books — but this is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that ebooks tend to be less expensive.) [Read more…]

Pride and Prejudice and Class Warfare: An Homage to Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts From Jane Eyre”

Okay. Longish preface with short but hopefully worthwhile payoff.

So. In order to share my snarky class-warfare analysis of Pride and Prejudice, I need to briefly preface with two things.

texts-from-jane-eyre1: If you haven’t read Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg of The Toast fame, I passionately suggest that you stop whatever you’re doing and get a copy right this minute. It is hilarious — and it is incisively, snarkily brilliant. It’s a collection of imagined text-message conversations involving famous writers, philosophers, artists, literary characters, and mythological figures — and it does a brilliant job of skewering these figures and characters and stories, stripping them of their pretensions, and bringing them down to Earth. It’s also got some amazing social and political commentary: in putting these stories and ideas into a modern framework, Ortberg shines a merciless spotlight, not only on the casual oppression and clueless privilege of the past, but on how it resonates into the present.

And did I mention hilarious? Ingrid will testify to this: I have been giggling and poking her and reading her bits from the book pretty much every day since I got it. And the first time I read the Edgar Allen Poe chapter, I laughed so hard I could barely breathe. I have now re-read that chapter probably thirty times, and it still makes me laugh out loud. Even just thinking about it now is making me chuckle. Get it. (Here, btw, is a very good Serious Literary Review of the book, by Sarah Mesle at Los Angeles Review of Books. There are also “Texts From” on The Toast site itself.)

2: In my last re-reading of Pride and Prejudice, I was thinking (not for the first time) of an oddity of the Regency class system. In the Regency class system, being in trade, or having a job, automatically cut you off from the higher levels of society. You could be in the aristocracy if you had land and investments, of course — those were pretty much de rigeur — but you couldn’t actually make stuff, or sell stuff, or provide a service. Among the gentry and gentry-adjacent, having a job or being in trade — or having relatives who had jobs or were in trade — was gauche, almost shameful. If you had social ambitions about being in the aristocracy or the gentry, the best you could hope for was that your children or grandchildren might marry into it. (As long as they didn’t make stuff or sell stuff or have a job, that is.) There were a couple of exceptions — being a military officer or a clergyman — but even with those, there was a social glass ceiling. Not glass, actually. Just a regular ceiling that everyone could see.

So. That being said. Here’s the short but hopefully worthwhile payoff: my own “Texts From Pride and Prejudice,” an imagined text-message conversation between Caroline Bingley and Jane Bennet.

so your uncle is an attorney
and your other uncle is in trade
well that’s just
well you’re such a sweet girl
i’m sure you’ll do fine
it’s such a shame though

it’s so shameful
i have relatives who provide goods and services that people need and want
who don’t leech off other people’s labor
whose wealth wasn’t inherited
from people who inherited
from people who inherited
i have relatives who aren’t parasites
i don’t know how i can hold my head up
i might as well go lie in the gutter
oh, maybe with your brother
that sounds like a good idea
i’ll go do that


Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”

And now for something completely different. Spoiler alert: This post has spoilers about “Pride and Prejudice”.

Pride and Prejudice BBCNo, this isn’t about how hot Colin Firth was in the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Although… well, yes. Damn. Day-um. But this isn’t about that.

In movies, books, TV shows, etc. aimed at women, there’s a common trope, a fantasy that gets trotted out a lot: Reforming the Bad Boy. In the trope/ fantasy, the heroine is so amazingly awesome — so beautiful, so sexy, so brilliant, so charismatic, so noble — that the bad boy reforms his bad boy ways in order to be with her. Think Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or George Clooney on E.R. (Please feel free to cite other examples in the comments. Ideally with links to pictures. No, I’m not immune to this fantasy, even though I know how ridiculous it is.)

This trope even got poked fun at in The Simpsons, when Bart’s babysitter Laura is dating Jimbo Jones: Bart asks her, “What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules” — and Laura, Lisa, and Maggie all sigh wistfully.

And I was thinking: Does Pride and Prejudice fit this category?

In the most obvious sense, of course it does. Mr. Darcy is a handsome, not-very-nice man who initially dismisses the heroine, but is quickly struck by her fine eyes; becomes increasingly taken with her intelligence and wit and spirit; falls in love with her; courts her; is spurned by her; is initially enraged by her spurning; takes her chiding to heart; and betters himself to win her over. Yup, that sure sounds like the “I Can Reform Him” trope.

But I think in the larger sense, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t fit this trope at all.

For one thing: Mr. Darcy is anything but your standard Bad Boy. He’s not a rake or a bounder or a ramblin’ man. He’s a stuck-up snob who’s way too full of himself. In order to earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love, he has to get over his priggish superiority, stop worrying so much about propriety, and let go of some of his rigidity about social class. (Some of it, I said.) Yes, he reforms to be worthy of Elizabeth, but her influence doesn’t tame him — if anything, she loosens him up. He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.

And perhaps more importantly: Mr. Darcy doesn’t just reform to be worthy of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth reforms to be worthy of Mr. Darcy.

pride and prejudice penguinThis is one of my favorite things about the novel — the two parallel character arcs. Yes, Mr. Darcy changes to earn Elizabeth’s love — and since we see the story primarily through her eyes, we see those changes through her eyes as well. But we also see — much more uncomfortably, much more painfully — her own changes, and her own growth. Yes, we see Elizabeth’s pleasure in realizing how much Mr. Darcy has been willing to change for her. We also see her pain in realizing how much of a jerk she’s been: how quickly she’s willing to dislike people, how attached she is to being right about that dislike, how easily her judgments of people are shaped by whether those people flatter her. The scenes where she realizes how much she misjudged both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham — they’re not fantasy wish-fulfillment at all. They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting the dark night of her soul. (Or, if you prefer more secular phraseology: They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting her cognitive dissonance collapsing in on her with a thud.) Her story arc isn’t, “He is inspired to change by his love for me, because I am so awesome!” Her story arc is, “He is inspired to change by his love for me — but I need to change too, because I’m not quite as awesome as I thought I was.”

This isn’t a story about a good woman reforming a bad boy. This is a story about two complicated people, each with good qualities and bad qualities, inspiring each other to be better.


What To Do Now That “Serial” Is Over: Read More True Crime (Guest Post by Ingrid Nelson)

This is a guest post by Ingrid Nelson.

shock-value coverI started reading and collecting true crime books when I was in college. I’m pretty sure my interest was first piqued by John Waters’ Shock Value. The chapter called “All My Trials” was all about his experiences as a trial buff. He attended the Manson trial, Patty Hearst, Angela Davis, all the most famous trials of the 60s and 70s. I am a California native, so those were all crimes I grew up hearing about, along with the Lindbergh baby, the Zodiac, Jonestown, and the Milk/Moscone assassinations.

The way John Waters talked about true crime, it was like a guilty pleasure: sordid but entertaining. I thought it was hilarious at first, then I went through a phase of feeling guilty about it. Then I started thinking seriously about why I was drawn to these stories, and I decided it was a natural human reaction, and not something I needed to be ashamed of. I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick, so of course I want to learn about what happens when people go horribly wrong. It reminds me of when I was studying anatomy and physiology in nursing school. I always found cardiology sort of confusing — until we studied congenital heart defects. Learning what happened when the heart didn’t work properly was how I came to understand normal cardiac function.

I am now unapologetic about my love for true crime, but I try not to joke about it anymore. If you read John Waters now, it’s obvious that he went through something similar. He has befriended some notorious killers, visits them in prison, even advocates for their release if he thinks they are rehabilitated. He has cast Patty Hearst in some of his movies. He has taught film classes inside prisons. He is careful to avoid any hint of exploitation, tasteless jokes, or gratuitous violence when he writes about it now.

serial podcastLike so many “This American Life” listeners, I have been completely obsessed with the “Serial” podcast. But I was struck by how many fans said they felt guilty or embarrassed. I went through that process years ago, I have made my peace with it, and I am here now to help you all embrace your love of a good crime story. I have formed some serious opinions about how to distinguish good true crime from bad. I look for books that are well written and thoughtful, that are unflinching and honest without being lurid. I look for moral complexity, for writers who try to analyze and understand the horror, but not excuse it. And of course, one of the most important skills is an eye for which case will make a good book.

So, for my fellow “Serial” fans, I present: Ingrid’s True Crime Top Ten. [Read more…]

Trans People, Pronouns, and Choosing Between Social Justice and the Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago_Manual_of_Style_15th_editionWhen it comes to the pronouns we use for transgender people, which is more important — treating marginalized people with basic respect, or following the Chicago Manual of Style?

I recently wrote a column for The Humanist magazine, Trans People and Basic Human Respect, in which I made the case (a case that should have been obvious but regretfully isn’t) for treating trans people with basic human respect, including accepting their own evaluation of their own genders, and using the names and pronouns they prefer.

Tom Flynn — executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, vice president for media at the Center for Inquiry, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine (for which I am a columnist) — has written a reply. He generally applauds the piece, and says that he mostly agrees with it. But when it comes to pronouns, and using the singular “they” for trans people who prefer it, that’s just a bridge too far. Flynn objects to anyone — trans, cis, anyone — using the singular “they,” on the grounds that “it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number.” (Read Flynn’s piece for a more thorough explanation of his concerns.)

As you might guess, I strongly disagree. That’s putting it mildly. I disagree on grammatical grounds — and far more seriously, I disagree on social justice grounds. Flynn’s understanding of the linguistics behind the singular “they” is just flatly wrong — and his take on the social justice issue is distressingly retrograde. [Read more…]

Anger, Tone Policing, and Some Thoughts on Good Cop, Bad Cop

So what works better to change people’s minds? Calm, respectful, patient empathetic engagement that offers solutions and is open to compromise — or snarky, uncompromising anger?

I’m going to offer up a data point of one here — that data point being myself.

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece about body policing in popular culture, examining how celebrity gossip magazines give contradictory and impossible-to-follow messages about dieting and bodies, and how they applaud celebrities for staying rail-thin while at the same time gasping in horror about disordered eating. I titled the piece “Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia.”

I immediately got pushback on that title from more than one person, who complained that using the word “schizophrenia” as a pejorative was insulting to mentally ill people and contributed to their marginalization. One person in the conversation, Kit Whitfield, was very patient with me: they politely asked me to reconsider using the word; calmly explained why it was a problem; made it clear that they basically liked and respected me and just wanted to point out this one problem; stuck with me throughout several rounds of back-and-forth; and stuck with me even when I was getting snippy and defensive.

Sara K., on the other hand, just got angry — not only at my original post, but at my conversation with Kit. In a very snarky tone, she called me out on my privilege, and on how screwed-up it was for me to be telling a marginalized person how to talk about their marginalization with a privileged person. She made it clear that she basically liked and respected me, but she made it every bit as clear that she had lost some of that respect.

At the time, my reaction was to think, “Sara’s being a mean jerk! Kit is so awesome! It’s hard to hear people tell you you’re wrong, but it’s so much easier when they’re being nice and patient! Why can’t everyone be more like Kit?” (I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me. What can I say: I wasn’t as good at the social justice stuff back then.)

But in retrospect, it’s clear that both of these people were important in changing my mind.

I definitely valued Kit’s patience, their sympathy, their willingness to stay focused on the content and to overlook when I was getting impatient and snippy. But it was Sara who made me realize that this was important. It was Sara who made me realize that people were really being hurt by this — hurt enough to get angry, hurt about to get unpleasant with someone they basically liked and respected.

In the moment that this conversation was happening, I was getting that hot, defensive flush that you get when you’re doing something wrong and don’t want to admit it. You know — the Cognitive Dissonance Contortion Tango. So in the moment, of course I was happier with the person who was being all reassuring about how I wasn’t a bad person. But in order to take this seriously, I also needed the person who wasn’t reassuring me; who was forcing that cognitive dissonance on me; who was making me realize that I was not in fact being a good person, and that if I wanted to be a good person, I needed to change.

It took me a little while, but I am now being much more careful about using language that marginalizes the mentally ill. I am being much more careful about using words like “crazy” or “nuts” in a pejorative way, and about using words like “schizophrenic” to mean anything other than “having been diagnosed with the illness of schizophrenia.” And in fact, this conversation, and others like it, helped me accept the reality of my own mental illness. In realizing that my language was “other”-ing, and in working to not do that, I found it easier to not see mentally ill people as “other” — which made it easier to accept myself as one of them.

My point: “Good cop, bad cop” works.

Yes, in that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.

So when people are telling us things we don’t want to hear, the best reaction probably isn’t, “Why can’t you be nicer about it?” It’s an admission that we’ve lost the argument anyway: if all we can say is “You’d be more convincing if you were nicer,” and we’re not actually addressing their content, we might as well throw in the towel and not dig ourselves in deeper. (With our towel. Okay, I think I need to abandon that mixed metaphor.) But it’s also just not true. The good cops show us that we can be better people, and help show us how to do it. The bad cops show us that we’re screwing up at this “being a good person” thing, and they help show us exactly how. As uncomfortable as it is, we need both.

So belated thanks, to both Kit Whitfield and Sara K. I’m a better person now, thanks to you both.

Coming Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.

Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennett

Spoiler alerts for Pride and Prejudice.

Lydia Bennet in P&P 1995 BBCI have been re-thinking Lydia Bennett.

I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the 33,257th time. And I’m finding that my views on Lydia Bennett are changing.

(Quick summary for those who haven’t read P&P: Lydia Bennett is the youngest of five sisters in the Bennett family. Near the end of the book, she runs off with the villain of the piece, George Wickham — she thinks of it as an elopement, but he doesn’t actually intend to marry her at first, and they don’t marry for two weeks. It’s a huge crisis in the family, and only the hasty marriage protects Lydia, and in fact the entire Bennett family, from complete social ruin. Lydia, however, is unashamed about the elopement, and unashamed about having lived with Wickham for a fortnight before their wedding.)

Lydia is presented throughout the book as, to say the least, problematic. She’s not a villain exactly, but she’s presented as not at all a good person: she’s shallow, frivolous, self-absorbed, short-sighted, concerned only with trivialities, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Her life is consumed with flirtation, gossip, dancing, fashion, and handsome men in uniforms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — there are worse things, right?) Austen describes her as “self-willed and careless,” “ignorant, idle, and vain.” And yes. She is all of these things.

But she’s also something else.

She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.

She’s a woman who — in defiance of the powerful social pressures of 19th century England — decides that who she marries, and when, and when they do or don’t have sex, is nobody’s business but hers. (Well, hers and her partner’s, obviously.) She’s a woman who — when everyone around her is clutching their pearls and freaking their shit over the fact that she had sex before marriage — doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (“She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”) She’s a woman who — shortly before her wedding, when her aunt is lecturing her about the wickedness of what she did — is ignoring her, and instead is thinking about the man she’s about to marry, and what he’s going to wear. She’s a woman who — after the marriage has been patched together — has the audacity, much to the horror of her father and eldest sisters, to not be ashamed, to take pleasure in her life, and to look forward with excitement to her future.

She’s something of a pioneer. I find myself having a sneaking admiration.

Yes, yes, I know. Different times, different mores. The unfortunate reality of 19th century England, even in the relatively loose (compared to the Victorians) Regency period, was that for a gentlewoman to have sex before marriage probably did mean social ruin, not only for herself but for her family. Part of Austen’s point was that Lydia’s behavior was selfish. She didn’t just have loose sexual morals, which Austen clearly thought of as wicked just in and of itself. She had a lack of concern for how her sexual choices would affect her family.

But — well, actually, that’s sort of my point.

Gay men Kiss Alessandro MarveloosThink about people who brought shame to their families by marrying someone of another race, or another religion. Think about people who brought shame to their families by marrying who they chose, and not who their families chose for them. Think about people who brought shame to their families by coming out as gay. If I’m going to admire these people for deciding that their own sexual happiness was more important than the shame and suffering brought to their families by their breaking of vile and unreasonable rules — for being, as Elizabeth Bennett herself said in her famous confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness” — why would I not admire Lydia Bennett for doing the same thing?

It’s not a stretch to say that, for 19th century English aristocracy and gentry, society was, to a great extent, structured for the purpose of protecting unmarried women’s virginity. Unmarried women were rarely left alone; they were even more rarely left alone with men other than their relatives. They were considered “compromised” if they even slept under the same roof as an unrelated man without a chaperone: even having the opportunity to have sex was enough to destroy your reputation.

In that world — where the cage around unmarried women’s virginity was locked tight, and the social penalties for breaking out were severe — Lydia Bennett decided, “Fuck that noise. The rules are fucked up, and I’m going to ignore them. My body, my right to decide.” And she snuck out of the cage, and ran off into the night.

Good for her.

I’m tempted to write an erotica story about her, from her perspective. Probably not as a simple account of her elopement and defloration: I mostly don’t find “virgin’s first time” stories interesting, and given that she’s fifteen, it’d also be somewhat creepy. I’m thinking of her a couple of decades later: a married woman, not in a particularly happy marriage, but merrily screwing around with other libertines in the “if we do it behind closed doors everyone will pretend it isn’t happening” brigade, mooching off relatives and flirting with handsome men at parties and running in and out of bedrooms. (Think Dangerous Liaisons, but less Machiavellian and more of a romp.) I’m thinking of her, older, not very wise but certainly more experienced, looking back on her bawdy life, and looking back on her elopement and defloration — and seeing it as a moment of liberation, the moment when her new life began. I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain.

There’s a line in Chapter 9 that kind of sums up what I’m getting at; a line that sums up how Austen saw Lydia when she wrote her in 1812, versus how I’m seeing her today. It’s when Lydia and George have come back to the Bennett home right after their marriage, and her elder sisters (Jane and Elizabeth) are appalled at her shameless attitude. “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.”

Untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.

Sounds like my kind of woman.

(Alessandro_+_Marveloos kissing photo by See-ming Lee, via Wikimedia Commons)