Magical Melanie Wilkes

Melanie Wilkes is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.  Yes, I know, most of my favorite characters are psycopaths or fascinatingly miserable, but there is breadth to my tastes and there’s loads of room for Melly.  It’s not just that she’s such a perfect foil for Scarlett – calm, intellectual, compassionate – but that she is largely the axis around which the book spins and she manages that role with such grace.  I’ve met people like Melanie, people who are naturally and unconsciously kind, but they don’t show up in fiction very often and when they do, they’re often cliched or more plot-device than person.  Melanie is none of these things.  And that’s what makes her role in this book so beautifully, subtlety magical.

I should probably do an essay about glorification of the Confederacy in Gone with the Wind, because I don’t read it here quite like a lot of people do and talking about Melanie brings us right up to it.  On the other hand, I don’t really want to do back-to-back 3,500 word essays, either.  So let’s table as much of that discussion as we can for another day, and feel free to scream in the comments if I set off some twitching.

The book does this marvelous thing with Melanie where she is both the thing that thwarts Scarlett’s desires, and Scarlett’s only hope of ever actually getting what she wants.  Without Melanie, Scarlett could have had Ashely from the start and the need that helped her focus and kept her going through misery, war, and poverty would have vanished like so much smoke.  Instead, her obsession with Ashley takes the place of conscience, and it becomes the only limit on Scarlett’s behavior.  Ashley is the only thing that ever prompts self-analysis from Scarlett, or anything like an interest in the inner lives of other people.  Without Ashley, Scarlett would have come out of the war an utter sociopath, and she’s not far off even with him.  Just by existing, just by making sure Scarlett would never get enough of a handle on Ashley to figure out she didn’t want him, Melanie single-handedly enables our heroine to cling to humanity long enough to grow up and get some sense.

More impressive, though, is the mirror for princes effect Melanie has on Scarlett. Without fail, Melanie interprets everything Scarlett does benignly, attributing thought, motive and intentions Scarlett never had to her actions.  Scarlett stays with Melanie in Atlanta and drags her through the siege not because Scarlett is a good person, but because fear of disappointing Ashley drives her to.  Yet every time Melanie expresses gratitude for Scarlett’s stalwart caretaking, Scarlett has to face the discrepancy.  Objectively, staying with a pregnant woman, rescuing her from battle and then caring for her through privation is a good deed, and Melanie gives Scarlett the space to potentially embrace correct action for the right reasons.

The scene where this is most important comes after Ashely’s surprise birthday party, when Scarlett goes to Melanie to confess.  Melanie refuses to hear explanations of any sort because her faith in Scarlett won’t permit it.  And here we get the first inkling of an independent conscience from Scarlett, one unmotivated by fear of disappointing somebody she cares about or fear of personal torment in hell.

Yes, it would be her cross, until she died, to keep this tormet silent within her, to wear the hair shirt of shame, to feel it chafing her at every tender look and gesture Melanie would make throughout the years, to subdue forever the impulse to cry: “Don’t be so kind! Don’t fight for me! I’m not worth it!” (936)

Absent Melanie’s utter faith, Scarlett could have had an honest scandal, been utterly cut off from everybody decent, and lost any chance of actually growing up into a worthy person.  Melanie believes Scarlett is good and Scarlett, knowing she isn’t, has to actually contemplate that.  The first cracks in her immaturity have already started, but Melanie is the wedge that will crack them open, and this moment here is the thin end of it.

Melanie’s powers of illusion extend beyond Scarlett, though.  As the paragon of what a good Southern woman ought to be, Melanie has the power to shape what a good Southern woman is.  Take, for example, her triumph with the Committee for the Beautification of the Graves of the Glorious Dead. (That name is a punchline that will never get old.)  Melanie doesn’t just stop them from ignoring Yankee graves on the grounds that Yankees are evil and unworthy of their effort.  Melanie humanizes the Yankees, insists they can’t be a universally bad breed, and convinces the committee that the right thing to do is to put flowers on all the graves.  Melanie is the path that allows these women to cling to the ideas and fictions that keep them going without letting those ideas become a path to demonizing others and undermining the moral foundations of the dreamers.  Time and again she does this, creating a space where it’s safe to speak out against the war and to question the direction their society has taken without becoming a traitor to that society.

I’m going to talk about what she does for Ashley just long enough to say that yeah, keeping an anti-Klan, anti-secession, abolitionist sane and respectable in post-war society and enabling him to buy mills and turn away convict labor is a good thing, and Melanie did that.

No, far more interesting to me is what Melanie does for Rhett.  As far as I’m concerned, the emotional pinnacle of the book is Rhett’s scene with her after Scarlett’s miscarriage, but I’ve got a perverse fondness for putting characters I like in that kind of misery.  Sure, Melanie is a great device for showing the reader Rhett’s humanity, but what she does is much cooler than that; she gives him an escape route.

Rhett’s respect for and fondness of Melanie is definitely the flag Mitchell planted to tell the reader, “Yes, he’s a scoundrel and does bad things, but he’s ultimately a good guy.”  And it’s good the reader knows that, because there are parts of the book where Rhett doesn’t.  He changes his spots, but remains ever the leopard, owns the fact, and with nothing else to judge himself by would drink himself into oblivion at Belle’s, come the end of the book.  Twice Melanie enables him to reach for happiness, first in keeping Scarlett away from Ashley long enough for Rhett to marry her, and then in enabling the reform of his reputation, allowing him to spoil Bonnie and sparing him the agony of blighting her prospects with his own misdeeds.

I think it was Melanie’s image of Scarlett that kept Rhett going right up to the end.  As long as somebody could see Scarlett as a mature, adult person, Rhett could hope Scarlett would actually become one.  That, not Ashley’s sudden availability, is why Melanie’s death triggers his decision to leave.  But where  he goes and why is important.

“I’ve reached the end of roaming, Scarlett.  I’m forty-five – the age when a man begins to value some of the things he’s thrown away so lightly in youth, the clannishness of families, honor and security, roots that go deep.” (1021)

We, the reader, have known he values these things since the night he enlisted in the army.  Melanie gives him the space to contemplate that, to see the potential for sincerity and goodness mixed in with the hypocrisy and cruelty he experienced in his childhood, and thereby gives him the path he needs to that life.  It’s contentment, not happiness, but it beats the hell out of what anybody else in the book walks away with.  Scarlett, freshly enlightened, has to make up for the last eight years of her life, Ashley is incompetent, India guilt-wracked, Pitty stuck with India, Will Benteen married to Sueellen…contentment looks pretty good.  But without Melanie there to show Rhett that it is possible to value family and honor and security without being his father, he’d have never made it.

Melanie Wilkes, you are a creature completely out of touch with reality, but you make reality better by doing it.  I’m a fan.

Hot Girls are Good at Math, Margaret Mitchell Said So

Thematically, Gone With the Wind is all about the world being out of whack and off kilter and what that does to the people in it.  This is where a lot of the apparent romanticization of plantation society comes from, but it’s also the reason this is a romance novel I love to bits.  The plot would not work if the social mores and concepts around love weren’t dysfunctional, and the book knows it.  But I think the tension about monogamous love and coerced fidelity actually comes in as a distant second to its unrelenting awareness that women were not given the space they deserved to be real people.

Lots of people argue back and forth over whether or not Scarlet counts as a feminist heroine.  On the one hand she defies social convention to go into business and succeed where plenty of men don’t, a big argument for the yes-it’s-feminist crowd.  On the other hand, she’s not pro-women, she’s pro-Scarlet and uses her sexuality for everything.  I’d grant both sides their points, add in that without a good business head and the brass required to use it, no amount of feminine wiles would have been enough.  I don’t think the book’s claim to feminist quality relies on Scarlet at all.  Long before we get any inkling that Scarlet is more than a pretty, shallow girl, the book is already pointing out the gender problems in the society.

Gerald rode beside the carriage on his big hunter, warm with brandy and pleased with himself for having gotten through with the unpleasant business of Wilkerson so speedily.  He had shoved the responsibility onto Ellen, and her disappointment at missing the barbecue and the gathering of her friends did not enter his mind; for it was a fine spring day and his fields were beautiful and the birds were signing and he felt too young and frolicsome to think of anyone else. (84)

There are dozens of quotes in the early chapters where the book just casually drops, “The women worked their assess off and covered for the men’s mistakes and the men cheerfully didn’t notice and carried on.”  I picked this one because Gerald’s reaction to Ellen’s death is, I think, one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the book.  She just about literally works herself to death and losing her destroys him.  But here he is, on page 84, contributing to it.  Assuming the reader tracks the details of their relationship across 500 pages, you don’t get a much clearer argument.  Ellen was a real, developed, capable woman who Gerald didn’t understand, and that lack of understanding and his willingness to profit off it is his undoing.  Right there, the book opens with “Women are real, capable people,” and sets up, “Forgetting that will end in insanity and death.”

Another point, let’s take a look at Miss Pittypat.  Like many of the characters in the book, having to interact with this woman would drive me toward homicide.  She is the epitome of what a woman allegedly ought to be; delicate, fainting, frivolous, and uselessly dependent on others – especially men – for everything.  Melanie pretends she’s dependent on Ashley while quietly guiding him along.  Mrs. Merriweather et. al actively intimidate everyone, including the men.  Ellen nurses a secret longing for a dead lover not her husband.  Every single (white, I’ll get there tomorrow) woman in the book except Miss Pittypat with the least bit of happiness breaks from the official conventions in some fashion.  And Miss Pittypat is tolerable as a character in the book only because in her exquisite, continuous misery she makes great comic relief.  It’s in the subtext for most of the book, but when Melanie and India start feuding the book comes right out and says it.

Yes, Pitty owed love to Melanie, security to Scarlet, and what did she owe India?  Nothing, except that India’s presence kept her from having to break up her pleasant life and make decisions for herself.  It was all most distressing and too, too vulgar and Pitty, who had never made a decision for herself in her whole life, simply let matters go on as they were and as a result spent much time in uncomforted tears. (943)

The book has, by this time, established India as a sufficiently dour, unpleasant person that being forced to live with her does seem rather a fate worse than death, and the point here seems to be clear, as well.  Women who break from the official standard have a chance at happiness and contentment.  The ones who don’t wind up quietly, helplessly miserable.

The character in the book who comes closest to a feminist has to be Rhett.  He doesn’t quite get there, but he comes awfully close.  His attraction to Scarlet is the first obvious clue – he falls for her precisely because she’s a smart, fearless, capable woman.  This is explicitly the source of her appeal to him as contrasted with the other, prettier girls he boasts about getting bored of.  Women are mysterious, delicate creatures to Rhett.  He apprciates them as people, is shamelessly comfortable with female bodies including pregnancy and whatnot, is thoroughly sex-positive, and appreciates the damage done to them by a culture that values shallowness and vapidity in its females.  He isn’t perfect, see his comment about Yankee girls making it clear they don’t need men and that being why they’ll never be as appealing as Southern women, but he makes it most of the way.

It’s telling about the book’s intentions, then, that the character most closely resembling a modern feminist is established as the correct object for affection.  Even Scarlet figures out what a waste of space Ashley is by the end, opting instead for Rhett.  Of everybody in the book, I’d say Rhett makes it out the least scathed, too.  Like Scarlet, he’s got the strength to get through what happens to him, and unlike her, he walks out of the book on a path he chooses and ready to be content with his life.

Some of you are probably screaming because I’ve glossed over Rhett’s flagrant possessiveness and the, er, fuzzy consent scene.  I’m getting there.  Gimme sec.

Remember, I’m reading this book as one built on examining the damage done to its characters by the things wrong with the world.  This is why I started with Ellen and Gerald and Miss Pittypat.  Context and setting matter.  This book could not be set somewhere else or during a different time without fundamentally changing its thematic content.  This but there  book is saying things about war and the South and feminism but there is no stand-in  character for the author.  None of the characters stand back and expound the themes or messages.  They’re too enmeshed in the setting to do that.  The pointers come from the narrator and from the way the story unfolds.  Once, just once, Scarlet explicitly examines the the role her society approves for women.

A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man, a revolutionary thought to Scarlet who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright.  Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind. (610-611)

Being Scarlet, this thought process ends in a determination to make money and that’s the end of it.  But Mitchell left it on the page for the reader to pick up, and mix in with all the other hints, clues and observations contained in the book.  This is a feminist book without a single feminist character in it, and deliciously avoids the painful didacticism that undermines or dates other books so relentlessly on message.

But that brings us to the problems with Rhett, our almost-not-quite champion.  This time through I noted three marks against him; the comment about Yankee girls, Bonnie, and the afore mentioned consent-fail.  The comment about Yankee girls is, I think, so clearly an artifact of his Cherlestonian upbringing and suppressed but still present cultural conditioning that it’s not very interesting; it’s there because he wouldn’t be a human character without it.  Bonnie, though.  Well, Bonnie.

Even before Scarlett was able to be about again, she noticed Rhett’s pre-occupation with the baby and was somewhat nettled and embarrassed at his pride in her in front of callers…

“You are making a fool of yourself,” she said irritably, “and I don’t see why.”

“No?  Well, you wouldn’t.  The reason is that she’s the first person who’s ever belonged utterly to me.”

“She belongs to me, too!”

“No, you have two other children.  She’s mine.”

“Great balls of fire!” said Scarlett.  “I had the baby, didn’t I?  Besides, honey, I belong to you.”

Rhett looked at her over the black head of the child and smiled oddly.

“Do you, my dear?” (880-881)

Want to see a poly girl’s crush waver?  Yeah, this scene is actually the moment where I go, “Wait, maybe Rhett isn’t so perfect,” far more than the other one.  I can handwave his jealousy about Ashley but this implication that he wants to own Scarlett, one he confirms in their parting scene at the end of the book, this is squick-inducing.  Like the stereotype of the modern woman, Rhett might not care about sexual fidelity but he’s hung up on emotional fidelity.  And in a book set when and where it is, there is no handwaving expressions about ownership.  Rhett, you scoundrel, you let me down.

Mitchell doesn’t.  Rhett suffers two great blows in the book, and they both tie into this possessiveness.  Bonnie dies explicitly because Rhett indulges her and lets her raise the jumping bar too high after saying she had to wait until she could sit a bigger pony.  (A detail, incidentally, cut from the movie which generally ignored most of the subtlety in the book)  Like Gerald’s suffering after letting Ellen work herself to death, Rhett possesses Bonnie to the point that nobody’s efforts to curb his spoiling work, and that indulgence kills her and wounds him.  Rhett is flawed and wrong in wanting to express his affection the way he does, and the book’s plot engines punish him for it.  The second blow, of course, is failing to take possession of Scarlett, suffering with the desire to, and finally realizing that he’s lost his passion for her.  There was no safe way for him to go about falling in love with Scarlett, and the way he went about it is at least 60% of what makes him appealing to me, but absent that need to possess her, their timing just might have lined up.  He doesn’t pack his bags and leave when Bonnie dies; he waits until Melanie is dead and Ashley is free.  It’s the (mistaken) realization that he’ll never really have Scarlett that cements this second wound for him.  His inflexible need for emotional fidelity robs him of the chance to have an adult relationship with Scarlett when she’s ready to be an adult.  His desire to spoil and coddle and own might be something dangled to the reader as part of his appeal, but it certainly isn’t endorsed by its consequences.

And that brings us, at last, to the scene in the book where the feminist arguments get really thorny.  I’m utterly in capable of looking at this scene objectively – the movie oversimplified it and I saw it when I was too young when I saw it to get what was going on. It was all high drama and tension with Rhett giving Scarlett a well-earned telling off, dramatic exit up the stairs, cut to smiles.  Once i was old enough to get what was going on it was too late for a shocking first exposure.  What happens in the movie is rape, hands down, and the handling of the next day is done badly, without question.  I’m not even interested in entertaining an argument about this scene, as rendered in the movie.  (You could argue that after the camera cuts, he dropped Scarlett in bed and stormed off to Belle’s, but then you have to explain exactly how Scarlett wound up pregnant and I don’t think you can.)

It’d be nice if the book were that easy, but I can’t bring myself to look at it that way.  Part of that stems from a series of complex, inconclusive, thoroughly unsatisfying thoughts I run into with pre-sexual revolution marital rape in general.  On the one hand, I operate from a strict, “If it felt like rape, you were raped,” philosophy, and no amount of cultural or historical context is going to change that.  What gets thorny for me is looking for a rapist.  Modern days ideas like enthusiastic consent are wide spread enough that short of a reason to suspect fabrication, for every person claiming rape there’s a responsible party to be labeled as a rapist.  Current standards make it clear that acts undertaken where ambiguity or miscommunication are possible means minimal standards for consent were not met.  Period.  Easy peasy.  But that’s modern context.  This book is not set in our culture.  It wasn’t written in our culture.  And it is actively engaging with questions about female sexuality and the idea that women might crave and enjoy sex as men do.  This leads us to a rather sticky mess.

What we have is a culture where a woman in Scarlett’s position cannot consent to sex outside of marriage.  If she has extra-marital sex then officially, she’s been seduced and the person she had it with (assuming a man, I’m not sure what would happen with a discovered lesbian affair) is liable to be shot.  In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Rhett proposes that Scarlett become his mistress, but even that proposal runs a risk of getting him shot.  Inside a marriage, officially, consent is a given.  The book reminds us of this well before the problem scene, when Scarlett bans Rhett from her room and he points out that he could divorce her for it.  In other words, officially, Scarlett is not the arbiter of her own consent, her marital status is.  A decent, respectful husband will take his wife’s opinion into consideration when opting to exercise his marital rights, but he’s not a rapist of he doesn’t because her consent is understood.  Modern women aren’t more delicate or victim-prone than historical counterparts, so these wives could still feel raped, but to call their husbands rapists…I struggle here.  These men have been raised with the understanding that their wife’s consent is a given.  At points in history they’ve been told that a good woman is going to say no and be repulsed or otherwise displeased or upset but they should go on with it anyway.  To call them a rapist assigns responsibility, and I struggle with doing that to somebody who has, effectively, been lied to.

This struggle is academic in general, and particularly so when it comes to Rhett because, and this could be me reading him with modern sensibilities and a long-standing crush on him, I think he does know better.  I’m convinced enough of his proto-feminism that I’m certain he’d look at that scene and be just as uncomfortable with it.  There’s even a hint of it in the book; he disappears for two days.  Shame?  Remorse?  I read it that way because it makes me feel better about him and I enjoy feeling good about Rhett.  I can’t really argue with you if you don’t read it that way.  But that doesn’t quite simplify things enough for me to comfortably draw a “Rhett, you did a bad thing,” line.  Movie Rhett, absolutely.  Book Rhett…

He hurt her and she cried out, muffled frightened.  Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up and she was wild with fear…He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh…She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again.  Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, sadness, excitement, surrenter to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast.  For thuld neither first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her.  Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again. (929)

Emphasis mine.  That’s about half the paragraph that causes all the problems.  Rhett’s behavior prior to that paragraph isn’t great, but neither of them treats the other one very well and he’s not escalating their baseline by much.  At the beginning of this paragraph, Rhett’s in the middle of doing a very bad thing he knows is bad.  By the end of it, around where I drew the underline, Scarlett’s making everything complicated by consenting.  Dragging her up the stairs and the first kiss, not okay.  Would Rhett have kept going even if Scarlett hadn’t changed her mind?  You could argue it either way.  If yes, why did he stop before they got to her room?  That could have been his better angels stepping in.  Or it could have been a convenient way to heighten the tension and get more sex on the page before the obligatory cutting away at the bedroom door.  We know that, come the next day, Scarlett doesn’t feel raped.  On the contrary, this is the moment she later fixates on as when she started valuing Rhett.  (It’s not.  There are hints well before this.  But nobody is crediting Scarlett with great personal insight)  It’s, saints preserve us, the first time Rhett really snags her attention.

I blame Mitchell for this one.  If she’d at least given me a line scolding Rhett for the bit before the underlined bits, I could chalk all of this up to the complicated, messy fallout of letting anything other than incident by incident consent mediate how people go about fucking each other and saved us about a thousand words of essay.  Instead, she drops this bomb in the plot and lets it sit there.  It’s well done enough that I believe the whole sequence, from Rhett’s violation to Scarlett’s reaction.  My best guess for making this work is that by the standards of 1936, since Scarlett consented before they got to bed this scene wasn’t as problematic then as it is now.  I do not know enough about the sexual mores of 1936 to know whether or not that’s true.  I feel like if she’d written it today the scene itself would have been largely the same, but we’d get a few dry remarks from the narrator in the aftermath.

I really want to point to Scarlett’s miscarriage and the agony Rhett goes through while she’s recovering as his plot-engine punishment for crossing lines, but I’m running face first into the part where Scarlett is the one who almost died, and it’s her book, not his.  She’s being punished for abusing her children and being too stupid to value the right things, and there’s no reason the plot-engines can’t punish multiple characters with the same events.  And arguing, “Rhett mistreats Scarlett, then nearly loses her,” is virtually the same argument I made for Gerald and Ellen.  I’m sure that’s what the book is trying.  The problem is that this time, it doesn’t work.  Rhett’s too aware which simultaneously upps the tragedy and makes punishing him by hurting the women in his life less acceptable.  The book never manages to fridge Scarlett, but I’m not about to praise it for trying in order to deal with fuzzy consent.

So, in summary, feminist book, no feminist characters, not quite perfect.  And when they start selling Rhett Butler, I’ll take two.

Why Can’t We be Friends?

Update 7/9/13: The reason I couldn’t find anything about boyfriends on their website is because it’s not there.  I should have waited for the transcript to post since I misheard the transition from description of Zwirlz to description of another game Jen Shanley was offended by.  Zwirlz commits no offensive boyfriend errors and does not deserve criticism as if they do.  Apologies for being a source of error and thanks to Jen for pointing it out.

Jen Shanley was on MarketPlace today for their summer reading series.  She’s the founder of Zwirlz, a mobile game directed to girls deep in the clutches of the Disney Princess phase of life.  If she thinks empowering girls means reaffirming that they’re girls all the time and conditioning them with stereotypical girly things via a smartphone, fine, whatever, I’m way past feeling threatened by glitter and tulle.  So I went along, blithely doing the dishes while she explained that her brand of perpetrated gender stereotypes helps girls, when she accidentally sent me into a frothy rage.  I can’t find a transcript for the segment and the audio doesn’t appear to be on the site yet so this isn’t an exact quote, but it went something like this: she’s trying to explain to a group of typical i.e. male and geeky game programmers the need for games targeted at girls by proposing, “Buying as many shoes as you can, using your boyfriend’s credit card.”

Uhm, bwuhuh?

It’s not Jen Shanley’s fault, though.  That comment wasn’t any worse than anything else she said, except that it brought in a whole other issue: I hate boyfriends.  I love friends.  I love boys.  Most of my friends are boys.  But “boyfriend” is this horrific, bastardized amalgam of several good things squeezed into a package designed for a sitcom and labelled, “Abuse me, and make it boring.”

Like “art” and “porn,” “boyfriend” is one of those things that’s hard to define but easy to recognize.  Can that guy act put upon and harassed by his main squeeze as a joke?  That’s a boyfriend.  Is he expected to intuitively grok the poorly communicated emotional state of his partner and correctly apply the right mix of emotional support and problem solving, or else be blamed for failing or have his contributions to the relationship downgraded?  That’s a boyfriend.  Is he supposed to expect chastisement for even being interested or curious in sex outside the relationship, while it’s perfectly acceptable for his partner to blather on about other desires?  Yeah, boyfriend.  Boyfriends are basically a stoic pillar of received abuse where it’s okay because, hey, hopefully they’re getting laid.  Being expected to finance frivolous shopping sprees isn’t part of my standard diagnostic routine since I’d thought the idea that heterosexual relationships ran on a cycle of sex/money transference was outdated, but Jen Shanley has pointed out the error of my ways.

There are lots of great things to be had from a boyfriend, or being one.  The problem is, that list of great things has a remarkable overlap with the list of things one can get out of having or being good friends with somebody.  But friendship as a relationship model is constructive and undramatic.  We don’t have the cultural tropes of worrying about whether dedication to a friendship is equal on both parts, about whether it’s time to spit in a cup and become blood brothers, about whether our best friend is inexplicably going to get bored and wander away.  Instead we have tropes about loyalty, intimacy, deep understanding, emotional support and solace, all the same things we expect from a romantic relationship, except the sex.

To be fair, this isn’t quite a valid comparison: we don’t model friendship to ourselves much past kindergarten because we spend so much time modelling filial and romantic relationships, and the ones we do model are often between women and in the context of coping with failures of romantic and filial relationships.  Friendship, especially across the genders but even within them, gets short shrift in our culture.  We “friend” strangers on Facebook, and the only people who really care about the differences between acquaintances and true friends are too busy throwing pedantic hissy fits over the language for anybody to care what they say.  But we know.  Everybody knew the X-Files was over when it started mistaking Mulder and Scully’s intimacy for sexual tension.  What’s “Bros before hos” if not an affirmation of the superiority of friendship over being a boyfriend?*  We don’t talk about it much, as a society and culture, but we know: friendship is where it’s at.

Which brings us back to Jen Shanley with her glitter and girl power.  After listening to her on the radio and looking at her site, it seems like the thing that makes this a particularly girl-centric game, aside from the noxious packaging, is the social element.  Her game can be played with friends (and doesn’t actually involve a shopping spree as far as I can tell).  The suggestion seems to be that a game needs to involve friends in order for it to appeal to girls.  The idea that girls are more socially-oriented than boys, that women focus on and value friendship more than men, isn’t a new one.

But looking at this, and letting my brain wander slightly off topic, I have to wonder whether our tendency to scan intimate, platonic males as gay for each other has just as much to do with our sense that the intimacy we value actually lies in friendship as it does with an uptick in homonormativity.   The logic might go something like “All girls are secretly into girls**, girls form friendships, men who form friendships must be like girls (i.e. gay, too), that pair of male friends are gay together.”  We lack a model for talking about friendship qua friendship, so we apply the models for intimacy we have, and thus is born the queering of the intimate yet platonic.  Yeah, I think that works.

In summary: Stop valuing icky boyfriends, it makes Frodo gay.

*Granted, an affirmation that implies that cross-gendered relationships can’t occur, while being rather dismissive of women in general, but hey, it is a cultural model for friendship

**A false premise, but one a lot of our cultural tropes start with

Things Which Are Not True

I am not married and do not have children, so I won’t mind dropping everything and running halfway across the country to fix your project.

If you make it diminutive and pink, it will be more appealing to me.

I’m smiling and friendly, therefore I like you.

Doing “IT consulting” means I want to answer all of your questions about iPhone vs Android, in detail, when you have no idea what you’re talking about, for free.

I’m less than X years old, therefore I don’t know Y cultural thing.

My hair is long enough to reach my waist.  I must be planning to cut it all off and donate it to charity.

I’m female and my clothes match.  I must be on a diet, have body image issues, or feel guilty about eating good food.

My cat is a ferocious beast, ready to slay any and all who cross her.

I think your child is cute/adorable/the least bit interesting.

I like to cook, therefore I want to bake muffins for you.

I’m a writer, therefore I’m neurotic.

I’m not writing about the Capitol Access settlement because I’m so pleased by it, there’s nothing to say.

 

Did I miss anything?

Craig’s List and Car shopping

So, despite knowing this was coming for about a year, I need to buy a car, and should probably have that done by, oh, the end of the next week.  This has got to be the most stressful, unsatisfying shopping experience of my life.  House shopping was easier – I actually wanted a house.  I do not want a car.  I need a car.  (Insert mopey missing Chicago here)

Leaving aside the boring report about the angst involved in this process – do I buy a new car to maximize the time before I have to go through this again, or a certified pre-owned for the same reason but with a couple thousand dollars in savings, or the cheapest adequate thing that looks like it’ll hold up – I’ve settled on looking for a four door sedan with decent gas mileage, produced after the turn of the century, and which Edmunds tells me will not be expensive to maintain.  Tie breakers go to the car with the lowest insurance rates, particularly important since I smudged* my driving record last year.

Originally I had grand plans of scouring the country for the best deal, then driving back, triumphant, in my never-seen-the-rust-belt bargain.  But that required me leaving the rust belt in order to buy a car, having to awkwardly find a way home of the car I traveled for didn’t work out, and a really long drive.  If we were meant to drive long distances, god wouldn’t have invented trains.**

So prolonged denial (getting a different model from Hertz this week counts as shopping, right?), deep reluctance, and inborn laziness has left me combing Madison’s Craig’s List page for good options.  This experience has been interesting for it’s meta-details more than its fruit.  And since it’s my last day onsite for work and I am unspeakably bored, I’ll subject you to them.

The first interesting thing is the rubric of self-diagnosing my desired price point.  When I started searching I’d arbitrarily put my budget at <$10k.  I’m finding, as I skim through listings, that most things get ignored over $8k, unless the manufacturer is Nissan, or the title includes the word “Convertible.”  I have a high rate of clicking on those ads up to $12,500.  This makes sense – the Versa, Maxima and Altima are way up on my list of favorite cars to rent, and I have a theoretical fondness for convertibles.  In reality, I’m a spoiled creature fond of her A/C.

The second point: There are a lot of people posting on the Madison Craig’s List who are not in Madison.  I’m not talking about Fitchburg and Verona, I’m not even talking Sun Prairie and Lodi.  There are listings from Dubuque on there.  (That’s Iowa, for the non-locals, a desolate land of corn fields and…corn fields.  I’ve never been there, that’s makes me an expert.)

I’ve also found that I am irrationally unwilling to contact somebody who wrote their ad poorly, or in all caps, about the car.  This makes no sense since one’s writing skills and one’s car maintenance abilities don’t correlate.  Still, haven’t contacted a single all caps poster, and have definitely passed on poorly written ads even before putting them through the “Does your pricing match KBB?” test.  I’m aware of this irrational bias, but don’t think I’ll be doing anything to correct it.  One more point in the “Anaea is an unsalvageable snob,” category.

Lastly, the whole thing has been a fascinating exercise in the “Pics or it didn’t happen” aspects of internet psychology.  If there are no pictures of the car, I assume it’s a deformed junker and skim on by, even if the ad says, “Perfect condition, come look any time.”  If they’ve just dropped in a generic photo of the kind of car my brain switches to assuming there is no car and I’m viewing a scam.  That might be true, but it could just be that the guy selling the 2001 Oldsmobile to pay for his upcoming baby can’t afford a digital camera.  I’ll never know.

I have several cars lined up to look at tomorrow.  I’m going to pick one, get it inspected, and then buy it.  And if it fails the inspection, I’ll pick another one.  But at this point, I have got to have a car, so petty prejudices and irrational biases ftw.

*Don’t get caught speeding in Jefferson County, it’s a revenue stream for them and they’ll cheat to convict you.

** Part of my reluctance to buy a car is that I feel entitled to the option of a fully electric robot car that will drive for me.  Why does this thing not exist yet?  I am offended.  And you know the second I give in and actually buy a car, somebody is going to announce the 2012 Robotic Roadster.

Problem solving when money is involved

I’ve had it hammered home to me over the last year, particularly in October, that not everybody made it out of their childhood with a stick up their ass about making optimized decisions and squeezing the bleeding life out of every last penny. This is strange to me, but since many of the people who caused the hammering seemed just as confused about how I do it as how I do, because I’m in a state of chronic abject boredom, and because I just solved a nasty little problem that illustrates this perfectly, I’m going to ramble on the subject.

For reasons we will not get into now because it involves inordinate amounts of cussing and threats of physical violence, my ex-employer yanked my COBRA health insurance coverage six months early, and waited until last week to tell me. That’d be far enough after having done it that I have no way of going back and making it unhappen. So I’ve had to condense the process of finding new health insurance that I was going to begin in February so as to have it ready in June into a single week. Fortunately, when you call people and say, “My jackass ex-employer has screwed me, I need insurance,” they jump rather quickly. So here I am, a week later, with a choice of a bajillion different plans, most of them from my current insurance as an individual policy, plus four shiny new ones I’m eligible for because I’m a Realtor. I need to pick one today so I can get the application in with plenty of time for processing by Feb 1, or I don’t get coverage until March. This, this is a nightmare.

Optimized problem solving to the rescue!

I get pedantic and boring under the cut

Freedom

So, let’s talk about freedom.

There exist a lot of people who thing freedom is about living in a world where nobody has any power over you at all whatsoever. Government is an inherently bad, evil thing that is only tolerated for this one reason or another, but really it would be best if it didn’t do anything at all. There is a great deal to be said in favour of this point of view and there are a lot of people who will talk about that at great length. I find that whole portion of the discussion boring and obvious, so I’ll let you go dig it up on your own if you like. There are just two points I’d like to make about this point of view. The first is that the word for this philosophy is “anarchism” and the people who believe it are “anarchists.” If you have a problem with being called an anarchist, I suggest you rethink your understanding of freedom. My second point about this world view is that while it might free you from the evils of taxes, of being told what to do, of being beaten by cops, as far as my case goes it mostly frees me to starve to death if winter doesn’t kill me first. I am a thoroughly civilized creature who requires infrastructure and a social contract to survive. I could learn to build a log cabin in the woods and shoot bear for my meals, but I don’t really want to and my quality of life would be dramatically diminished if I did. That’s leaving out the part where I’m hypoglycaemic and my joints like to dislocate on me for no good reason meaning that after ten hours with no food I won’t shoot straight, and I’ll probably drop the log on my foot when my shoulder slips out of place. If I survived in an anarchists paradise, it would probably be through whoring myself out for food and shelter. Being a verbose, persuasive smart-ass with a frightening recollection of Doctor Who plotlines is not an essential survival skill.

Let me highlight that second point again. In a world with no government, I have the freedom to do one of two things; become a whore, or die. The first option leads rapidly to the second. I reject this model of freedom.

That, ladies and gentlemen, used to be how I explained identifying as a Libertarian. Government is not fun, it’s dangerous, but to be truly free, it is essential. I don’t explain identifying as a Libertarian any more. It’s a convenient side effect of deciding that I was probably never going to meet an organized group of people calling themselves Libertarians who actually give a shit about freedom. I haven’t changed, but my expectations for other people has. I am bitter about this shift in expectations.

Why do I say government is essential? Don’t I just need for there to be basic rules people follow so that civilization can flourish and there are social niches for tech-savy pushy people? Why isn’t a cultural understanding of a social contract enough? Because people are stupid, that’s why. In a small group of like-minded people you can have an understanding of a social contract that is self-enforced with no outside authority, as long as the group consists of one person and there’s no time travel involved. Think about the church schisms, fandom wanks, divorces, family feuds and social boycotts that go on all the time. Every single one of those is a group of like-minded people screwing up their social contract. Give those people territory and guns and you’ll have civil war. Put them in the wilderness together and you’ve got, say it with me now, anarchy. Why do communes fail? Because the first prerogative of a free person is to say, “Fuck this, I’m leaving.” There has to be something external to the people making the social contract with the power to enforce it or the social contract fails. That something is called “government.” Please remember what I just said. Government = the thing in charge of enforcing and preserving the social contract. This is a good thing.

In a governed society, like what most of the internet reading world has, lack of freedom stems from one of the two failure modes of government. The first of these is the government either falling short of or exceeding its role as the enforcer and protector of the social contract. To choose what is, I hope, a politically neutral example, let’s take a look at meat packing plants from the turn of the last century. We all agree that conditions that lead to poorly paid workers losing arms in shoddy facilities, and those arms going on to end up on our dinner plates, is not a hallmark of liberty, right? Good. It happened, a guy wrote a book about it, people got into a huff over it. Granted, he was worried about the guy who lost his arm and the huff was about the dinner plate, but huffiness happened. This was the government failing to properly enforce the social contract. The government was obligated to either do something, or lose its right to exist due to dropping the ball on its definitional obligations. Now, in doing something it could potentially step into a different failure, but continuing to eat the limbs of the hoi polloi was right out. I am not free if I can’t reliably go to work without being dismembered. I am not free if my attempts to buy a pound of beef gets me a pound of blue-collar worker.

Conversely, the government can overstep its bounds. To pull what is, I hope, another politically neutral example, let’s take the McCarthy trials and related blacklisting etc., that went on in the fifties. People had their lives ruined, literally could not get work to support themselves or their family, because of a witch-hunt conducted by the government that accomplished little more than turning functional, productive citizens into pariahs. Am I free if talking to people with radical political ideas can literally ruin my life? No, not at all. Bad government. Go squeeze back into your proper role. This is the kind of failure people complaining about the government being too big are trying to talk about.

The standard rendering of the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans sums up pretty easily as follows: Democrats freak out over the government falling short of its obligation to enforce and preserve the social contract while Republicans freak out over the government oversteps its obligation. To determine the validity of the standard rendering of differences, please refer to the political affiliations of the various people involved in the McCarthy example.

The second failure mode for government comes down to operating under a faulty social contract. For years the government enforced segregation which in perfect keeping with its role as enforcer and preserver of the social contract. Separate but equal was a major element in cultural understanding of how things ought to be. It was also a gross violation of liberty, not because the government was failing in one direction or another in its designated role, but because the social contract was broken. People formed movements to change the understanding of the social contract. Enough other people got on board with that to change the government’s role. The rest of the people got on board (eventually, mostly, ish) because that was how the government said it was going to go. This is the part of politics where things like the Overton Window become important. The government can do exactly what it ought to do with respect to upholding the social contract, but freedom is fleeting with a bad social contract. Social contract arguments are fundamental to debates about abortion, healthcare, and almost every social program out there. Great politics, statesmanship, comes from shaping the social contract, then nudging the details of the government into compliance. This is why Obama consistently talks about working with the Republicans when his core wants him to ignore them. Change is rarely permanent if it didn’t affect the cultural understanding of what we’re all doing in this here society.

Now, the two failure modes interact with each other. McCarthyism was an overstepping of the government’s role from our perspective today, but at the time there were people who understood the social contract to be one that excluded communists and therefore required the government to hunt them down. This is where arguments get ugly and unproductive. People talking about the same thing out there in reality are approaching it from two different possible failure modes. This is why everybody talking politics right now is doing it wrong, being full of wrong, and inflicting miserable acts of wronginess on everybody around them. Some people think they’re fixing the government to make it fulfil its obligations. Other people see a rewriting of the social contract and want it to stop right this instant.

What should the social contract be? I’ve got lots of opinions on that. But those are for another post. This post right here is about freedom. And my point about freedom is this: We cannot be truly free without both society and government. Society and government each have extraordinary power to take away our freedom. If you value liberty, if you get tingly and emotional when people start quoting revolutionary war propaganda, you must watch how for how to construct both of those things because each has the power to constrain you. A bad social contract gives you fascism just as quickly as a non-existent government gives you anarchy.

Our system is deeply muddled right now. Lots of people are screaming loudly about freedom. Let’s make sure we don’t forget what we’re talking about when we do that, okay?

Rules

When it comes to rules I tend to operate on a strong version of the “less is more” philosophy. When you, as somebody with authority, make a rule, you’ve put your authority at risk. If people find that it’s easy to break your rules then your authority diminishes. Even science says so. That’s not the kind of risk you should take lightly, especially not when you consider that there’s a strong sheep component to people in groups. You can exert control just as effectively with guidelines, rules of thumb, social pressure, and concepts of politeness.

For example, there’s really only one rule for guests in my house, though there are a heap of things that it’s really better for you to do, or not do. The rule is, “Thou shalt not do things that undermine the hospitality I’ve offered in my home.” That means no making the other house guests cry. No destroying the stuff in my house. No doing things that will have the cops called on us or the neighbours coming after us with pitchforks. These are all corollaries of the one rule, but I would never list them individually when telling people “the rules.” This is, I think, the best form of rule making. It’s phrased with the goal, the desired circumstances and behaviour, explicitly in mind.

Now, there are ways to be an jackass in my house without breaking that rule. You could, say, give me an order or otherwise usurp authority that, in my house, is mine, not yours. I won’t kick you out (and I will throw you out cold and uncaring if you break my one rule) but I will probably be rude back to you. I’m southern, thus compulsively polite to house guests if not people in general, thus people will notice when I’m rude to you. The usual result, because my authority as hostess is in tact and respected, is that you lose social status. Or you shape up and everybody forgets it. Either way, the consequences are based on the transgression and how your behaviour guides the feedback loop with those consequences. This is healthy, and nobody is dishing out punishment over momentary slips.

Outside my house there are thousands upon thousands of rules from a whole host of authorities with a variety of abilities to enforce them. I don’t have any respect for most of them, and don’t go out of my way to obey most of their rules. I am terrified of the TSA and their authority, but their rules are so dumb and hard to enforce that I still catch myself pushing them and getting kicks out of doing it, even while being terrified of getting packed off to GITMO. (Want to know how to smuggle your shampoo into your carry on luggage? Ask me, but somewhere off the record) An authority with no respect and enormous power is deeply terrifying, and let’s face it guys, will always read like a sad parody of the Gestapo.

My main point though is this: There is nothing inherently wrong with rules. They let people know what needs doing in order to get the circumstances we want. But that must be the goal of the rules, it must be inherent in how we conceive them, and they must stop there. More rules just means more loopholes. Loopholes discredit everything they touch. Leave the breakable things to culture.