True Love Jane (Austen and Campion) Style

Sarah Seltzer

Favorite romantic works of art as of late? Two old-fashioned, British costume dramas: "Emma" on TV and "Bright Star" in theaters. Some say these represent a backlash against sexual liberation but both achieve the goal of being enrapturing and romantic while subtly critiquing conventional conceptions of love.

In recent months, my favorite romantic works
of art, "Emma" on TV and "Bright Star" in theaters, both
featured well-mannered Regency Brits in old-fashioned romances. Cultural
critics love saying that women viewers’ proclivity for costume drama represents
a backlash against sexual liberation, a longing for a return to decorum and
being treated like property. But to me, it’s the opposite. Both film’s visions
of love achieve the goal of being enrapturing and romantic while subtly
critiquing conventional conceptions of love.

This past month PBS broadcast a new adaptation of "Emma," Jane
Austen’s novel about a heroine, "handsome, clever, and rich" but also
spoiled, willful, blind to the feelings and attachments of all around her. As a
die-hard Austen fan, I never used to think of "Emma" as a love story
but rather a story about a woman’s self-realization. Then I re-read it and
watched the series this January, and I found it to be one of the most
thoughtful portrayals of love I’ve ever encountered.

Austen champions enduring love over socially-constructed conceptions of
romance. She invariably presents her heroines with two choices: a charming,
witty, attractive "rake" and a hero who lacks such outward appeal but
who has a hidden reserve of goodness and intelligence. The fact that
pinup-worthy actors like Colin Firth and Johnny Lee Miller play Austen heroes
makes it easy to forget that these male characters are not the obvious romantic choices. They are initially overlooked by
Austen’s heroines, ignored for the kind of men who sweep women off their
feet–the kind of men that conformed to popular conceptions of heterosexual
romance, the kind of men women were supposed to
fall for.

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But as Austen’s heroines grow and begin to notice the inner character of the
heroes, they begin to find these men desirable too. Emma herself spends much
time flirting with the charming, impulsive Frank Churchill who fits her
stereotype of the ideal lover. But she can’t get her emotions to rise to the
task of truly caring for him. Only after much anguish and soul-searching does
Emma recognize her true love in her lifeling friend Mr. Knightley, who is far
from dashing, but instead upright, loyal and unwilling to give her a pass when
she acts selfishly. Emma first notices Mr. Knightley’s physical attractiveness
when he kindly dances with a girl who has been snubbed by another man. He in
turn almost kisses her when he finds out she’s paid a visit to a poor widow
whom she’s mistreated in the past. The story seamlessly combines real romantic
attraction and blossoming love with burgeoning admiration and respect–the
foundations of an equal partnership. Knightley loves Emma for her open heart
and lack of affectations, while she loves him for his considerateness about
others’ welfare, something Frank lacks. Perhaps the best example of their brand
of love is that Mr. Knightley agrees to sacrifice his independence and status
as master of his own house to move in with Emma and help her follow her best
impulse: caring for her aging father. It sounds prosaic, but it’s stunningly
touching.

These kinds of matches are all very well in Austen’s time, where women were at
risk of being imprisoned by husbands or abandoned and shamed by seducers. But
in today’s culture, women are still sold a bill of
goods about romance. We’re still told to value a flowery, false construction of
love over that more prosaic, more durable, more real version. On Valentine’s
Day, we’re expected to participate in a charade of expensive wooing, to be
disappointed if we don’t get flowers, chocolate, an over-the-top night out. But
Austen would be suspicious of the man who brings the huge bouquet and tries to
make the priciest dinner reservations. She would ask whether he would be
willing to help you care for your family, whether he’d value your intellect,
whether he’d help you be your best self (and vice-versa; her stories are
peopled with examples of men who marry "silly" women for their beauty
and charm and find them unsatisfying partners).

Austen would find the hoopla over Valentine’s Day absurd, and she wouldn’t
excuse us for buying into it. She would be severe on women who privileged
potential diamond-givers over potential partners–just as she’d be severe on
men who chose arm candy over equals.

It makes sense to reject false social ideals of romance. But what if a person
you fall for is intrinsically romantic, or is in fact one of the famed 
Romantics? My favorite movie of the year was Jane Campion’s "Bright
Star,"
which turned the "muse" trope on
its head by telling the story of poet John Keats from the perspective of his
wonderfully vivacious, unconventional "minx" of a love interest,
Fanny Brawne.  This story takes place at the same time as Austen’s, among
a slightly less genteel, more bohemian milieu. Instead of doing the expected
thing and portraying Brawne as the woman who inspired Keats, Campion asks us
what it would be like to be that woman, a curious
and eccentric teenager who happened across one of the world’s great, doomed
geniuses and fell deeply in love with him.

"Bright Star" is a slow-burning, sad love story which uses
breathtaking cinematography and shots of nature in bloom and decay to
illuminate the inner lives of its characters (tonally, it reminds me most of
one of my other favorite tragic love stories, "Brokeback Mountain"). Campion resists
nearly every impulse to portray Fanny as "the woman behind Keats" and
instead just tells the story of their love, describing the social and economic
obstacles the young couple faced, the post-adolescent moodiness they
experienced, the ultimately-transcendent connection they shared.

The relationship between Fanny and her mother is another beautiful aspect of
this film. Fanny’s public romance with Keats, who has no money and no prospects
for it, subjects the family to scandalous gossip. Mrs. Brawne is deeply worried
that her daughter will be penniless. And yet she sees how much Fanny cares for
this man and she can’t bring herself to stop the romance, against all her
social inclinations. It’s one of the most moving, least cliched mother-daughter
relationships I’ve ever seen onscreen. 

The openly-feminist Campion was snubbed by the Oscars this year, despite
universally-rave reviews. It’s possible that if she had told this story in a
more traditional, "Shakespeare-in Love" manner–with a burning,
amorous poet and a delicate, conventionally-gorgeous woman as his muse–the
film would have gone farther and gotten more attention. But she in fact takes
this legendary romance and brings it down to earth, casting actors who look
like real people, making us understand that no matter how immortal Keats’ words
were, his love was of a time and place, and it both fulfilled and hurt its
participants. To Campion, love is flowers in bloom and poetry, but it’s also
sickness, and loneliness when your partner is away, and worrying and sacrifice.
"Bright Star" is a radical take on romantic love that’s easy on the
eye, and given how Keats’ real story ended, heartbreaking.

Analysis Race

Black Lives Matter Activist’s Mayoral Bid Elicits Praise—and Skepticism

Kanya D’Almeida

From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the "war on drugs," DeRay Mckesson's website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itself.

DeRay Mckesson, the prominent Black Lives Matter activist who is running for mayor of Baltimore, has unveiled a campaign platform just over a week after announcing his bid.

From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the “war on drugs,” the DeRayForMayor website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itselfand highlights the ways in which Black Lives Matter has brought U.S. politics to a critical tipping point.

“I think [Mckesson’s bid] is a sign that Black Lives Matter is a movement not a moment, one of many examples of how the conversation about an alternative direction for this country is deepening,” Eugene Puryear, a Washington D.C.-based activist and author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America, told Rewire.

“The question before the movement is whether we are creating space only, or fighting to take power and change our lives. To the extent it is the latter, fighting in the electoral arena as well as the streets is going to be a necessary tactic,” added Puryear, who is also the 2016 vice presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “No movement that truly wants to fight for the power to change things can avoid having people assume positions of some prominence.”

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There is a long history of civil rights activists seeking public office: Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, California, back in 1973. He lost, but the race brought out “more black voters than any other election in the city’s history,” according to the New York Times. And as Matt Ford notes in the Atlantic, “While Mckesson is the first civil-rights activist of his generation to seek higher office, he follows in well-worn footsteps. John Lewis, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, Marion Barry, and Jesse Jackson are among the most prominent figures in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s to win major elections, and countless other activists of the era also sought transitions into governance.”

In entering the Baltimore race, Mckesson has squeezed himself into an already crowded room—he is one of 13 Democratic candidates out of 30 overall competing in the April 26 election to replace the outgoing mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D). If elected, he will join some 500 African-American mayors representing 48 million constituents across the United States.

Mckesson’s crowdfunding appeal has already secured over $115,000 from more than 2,100 donors, a testament to his popularity in the virtual realm—within a single year, the 30-year-old has grown his Twitter following from 85,000 to over 300,000. This he accomplished through a combination of providing real-time updates from sites of popular protest—including Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and his native Baltimore during the wave of unrest that followed the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray—and sustained online commentary in the aftermath of protests about the growing movement to end police brutality.

His most recent endeavor, Campaign Zero, created jointly with fellow BLM activists Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and others, offers solutions to the scourge of police violence. Among its ten proposed policies, the data-driven platform calls for ending “broken windows policing,” which disproportionately criminalizes low-income communities of color; ending for-profit policing by clamping down on civil asset forfeiture abuse, which has been known to disproportionately punish Black communities; and demilitarizing police departments.

His own campaign, a three-pronged approach involving youth development, community prosperity, and public safety, echoes many of the same sentiments. The mayoral hopeful wants to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department’s use-of-force policies, implement mandatory anti-racism training for law enforcement personnel, and enact an “ordinance making chokeholds and ‘rough rides’ (leaving a person unrestrained in a police vehicle) by police officers illegal.”

The latter is a direct reference to Gray, who died of spinal injuries sustained while being driven around, without a seat belt, in the back of a Baltimore police van on April 12, 2015. Gray’s death touched off a public outpouring of grief and anger over police brutality, which often saw Mckesson in the spotlight. In a widely watched interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Mckesson called the protests an expression of Baltimore residents’ “pain … and mourning”—a direct challenge to the mainstream media’s portrayal of the situation as a “riot.” When the CNN anchor pushed him to denounce the “violent” tone of demonstrations, Mckesson said, “You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” adding, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”

Mckesson claims his understanding of the beleaguered city runs deep. In a Medium article announcing his bid, Mckesson recalled a childhood immersed in the city’s joys and also its pain. He revealed himself to be the child of “two now-recovered addicts,” who has “lived through the impact of addiction” and who, like so many other residents, has “come to expect little and accept less.”

And although the city is currently nursing a 24 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data, Baltimore is, in Mckesson’s mind, a place of “promise and possibility.”

“I am running to be the 50th Mayor of Baltimore in order to usher our city into an era where the government is accountable to its people,” Mckesson wrote. “We can build a Baltimore where more and more people want to live and work, and where everyone can thrive.”

His campaign website suggests to some locals that these are not empty words, but reflect a deep commitment to his native city. “After one week he has a better plan than a lot of the establishment candidates have after running for months,” Lawrence Brown, a Black professor at Morgan State University, reportedly told the Guardian soon after Mckesson released his platform. “It’s the craziest thing.”

In an interview with Rewire, Rukia Lumumba, daughter of the late civil rights lawyer and Mississippi mayor Chokwe Lumumba, called Mckesson’s bid a “bold move.”

“It probably wasn’t an easy decision to make, and it won’t be an easy run,” Lumumba said in a phone interview. “But anytime a younger person steps up to represent [Black communities], especially someone who has a strong understanding of people power and human life and is capable of dreaming bigger than what our current government looks like, it signals a positive change.”

Lumumba, who has held numerous institutional posts and organized nationally in the field of criminal justice reform for over a dozen years, added, “One of the many things my father taught me is that the center of any human rights struggle is the will and the need of the people—whoever is running for office with the goal of building freedom and self-determination needs to remember that.”

When Mckesson officially entered the mayoral race at the 11th hour on February 3, he sparked a wave of speculation as to whether, or to what extent, he was truly in touch with the needs of his constituency.

Slate’s Lawrence Lanahan claims Mckesson’s bid drew “derision from … local black activists who were working in disinvested communities and drawing attention to racial inequity and police brutality before the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.” (Mckesson himself deemed those deaths responsible for pushing him into full-time movement work.) Lanahan goes on to quote Dayvon Love, director of the local think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, casting doubt upon Mckesson’s ability to mobilize at the grassroots level: “It’s one thing to be able to show up to an event in a major mainstream media moment,” Love said, according to Slate. “It’s a different thing to get people from Baltimore to go to Annapolis for a hearing on police reform on a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon.”

Shortly after Mckesson announced his bid, Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun reported that one of the front-runners in the upcoming race, Sheila Dixon, had never even heard of the activist until he threw his hat in the ring. Whether Dixon’s claim was genuine or a political ploy aimed at deriding a newcomer into an already stiff contest, it goes to the heart of a larger critique among some Baltimore residents that an activist who has a bigger presence online than he does in the political establishment may not stand a chance at the polls.

Mckesson himself appears well aware of this critique, and even addressed it in the Medium post announcing his bid, when he wrote: “I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs. Many have accepted that our current political reality is fixed and irreversible — that we must resign ourselves to accept the way that City Hall functions, or the role of money and connections in dictating who runs and wins elections. They have bought into the notion that there is only one road that leads to serve as an elected leader.” 

Other commentators have noted that, though Mckesson has largely made a name for himself via social media and a number of appearances on popular talk shows, his résumé also displays several years of practical work. He has served as an administrator in Baltimore’s public school system and spent several years teaching at public high schools in East New York, experiences that have obviously informed his current campaign: His ambitious plans for strengthening Baltimore’s education system include scaling up public funding for pre-K education, investing heavily in after-school programs for middle and high school students, and expanding college and career support services in low-income communities.

While Mckesson is not formally tied to the official Black Lives Matter (BLM) network, which was founded in 2012 by three Black women with the aim of centering the leadership, lives, and voices of queer and trans Black women, his bid has elicited statements of support from other prominent voices within the broader BLM movement.

An article published by Black Youth Project, the Chicago-based organization that has been instrumental in heaping pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his administration’s role in covering up the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, called Mckesson’s mayoral bid proof that “he’s not just another person looking to point out problems with no intention to fix them,” and New York Daily News correspondent Shaun King said he was “enormously proud to see [Mckesson] take the plunge,” adding: “Local politics impact real people in the most critical ways and we need young, energized leaders all over the country to do what DeRay is going to try to do.”

Commentary Media

Aziz Ansari’s ‘Modern Romance’ Takes Surprisingly Earnest Look at Love

Eleanor J. Bader

Part memoir, part sociological study, and part self-help treatise, Modern Romance zeroes in on contemporary dating mores with a perceptive eye toward the shifts that have taken place over the past several decades. While the book is immensely entertaining, however, it is not fluff.

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari’s fascinating, funny, and practical look at romance in the digital age is a surprisingly wise, fast-paced romp through U.S. sexual and marital history. Part memoir, part sociological study, and part self-help treatise, Modern Romance zeroes in on contemporary dating mores with a perceptive eye toward the shifts that have taken place over the past several decades. Along the way, Ansari addresses how people find a potential consort, whether for a passionate afternoon or for a lifetime of companionship.

It’s a terrific read. But please note: While Modern Romance—out June 16 from Penguin Books— is immensely entertaining, it is not fluff. In fact, Ansari, along with his co-author, sociologist and New York University Professor Eric Klinenberg, spent 2013 and 2014 doing extensive research that included focus groups and in-person interviews with hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita, and Monroe, New York about their most intimate desires and relationship goals. In addition, many study participants in these cities shared their phones with the pair, giving them full access to text messages, emails, and interactions on online dating sites.

“This information was revelatory,” Ansari writes in the book’s introduction, “because we could observe how actual romantic encounters played out in people’s lives and not just hear stories about what people remembered.” This information was then used to ascertain dating patterns among the many men and women who elected to participate. Though not a scientifically vetted survey, it did reveal some startling anecdotal information about desire, pursuit, and expectations with regard to dating.

Ansari and Klinenberg also created a “Modern Romantics” subreddit forum on Reddit, which itself turned into a massive online focus group, with participants from all corners of the globe joining the conversation. Although the bulk of the book focuses on American dating and mating, insights gleaned from the authors’ international travel—to Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris, and Tokyo—put the myriad ways people connect into political, religious, and social perspective. For example, Ansari writes that French people seem to be more tolerant of infidelity, while young adults in Doha find surreptitious ways to flirt outside the context of arranged marriages.

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Cross-national comparisons are a theme writ large for Ansari, whose own Indian parents married a week after an arranged introduction between their two families. They’d spent 30 minutes talking before deciding they could make it work, he reports. Thirty-five years later, they’re still together and, Ansari adds, seem to be content with the life they’ve built and the time they’ve shared.

Unfortunately, Modern Romance does not interrogate other U.S. couples in arranged unions—fodder, perhaps, for a follow-up text. Instead, the book looks at the search for love among overwhelmingly young, professional, able-bodied, college-educated, men and women, with a smattering of older adults included for context. Most, but not all, are straight and are looking for “The One.”

Technology, not surprisingly, features prominently in these quests, since the average American presently spends approximately 8.5 hours a day in front of a screen. Phones, Ansari writes, are particularly alluring for those in the dating pool since they are basically a pocket-sized “24-7 singles’ bar,” where with the touch of a finger anyone can be “instantly immersed in an ocean of romantic possibilities” via sites like E-Harmony, Match.com, OKCupid, J-Date, or Tinder.

That said, Ansari makes clear that the changes in our romantic lives are not just a result of technological advances. “In a very short period of time,” he reports, “the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically.” Ansari cites studies from the Journal of Marriage and the Family, noting, “A few decades ago, people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid, all by the time they were 24. Today, people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.”

As recently as the 1960s, Ansari explains, most middle-class folks had rigid gender-based expectations about what a partnership would look like, with men providing financial security and women caring for the home and rearing the children. Love wasn’t a necessary part of the deal. Although there were certainly exceptions, marriage was often about creating the “conditions that made it possible to survive and reproduce.” End of story.

Fifty-plus years later, of course, life is different, a shift for which Ansari credits the women’s movement—a conclusion influenced by historian Stephanie Coontz’s work. “By the 1980s,” he writes, “86 percent of American men and 91 percent of American women said they would not marry someone without the presence of romantic love.”

So how to find it?

According to University of Chicago psychologist and researcher John Cacioppo, who is quoted in Modern Romance, between 2015 and 2012 more than one-third of U.S. couples who got married met through online dating. OKCupid, the book continues, claims credit for 40,000 dates a day, meaning that up to 80,000 people are being introduced to one another during every 24-hour period. What’s more, 38 percent of people who self-identify as “single and looking” have used an online dating site. The figure, Ansari reports, is even higher in the LGBTQ community, where an astounding 70 percent of couples say they met online.

Still, Ansari notes that online dating has numerous downsides, not the least being response fatigue: the exhaustion that comes from having to sift through hundreds of replies, typically all sounding remarkably similar. In addition, there’s the risk that what you say you want on a profile will not correspond to what you actually want on an emotional level. Ansari uses himself as an example of this phenomenon. He writes that he thought he was looking for a small, dark-haired professional women a few years his junior. His current, live-in partner? A tall, blonde who is slightly older than him, and works as a chef. And he couldn’t be happier.

The key, Modern Romance cautions, is not to spend endless time constructing a “perfect” profile or endlessly texting someone who seems like a good fit—or worse, playing the “how long should I wait before responding to a text?” game—but actually meeting in person, since there’s no way to know if there’s chemistry without hanging out with someone. Like other practical conclusions cited in the book, this too has been borne out by research: Ansari references several Northwestern University psychologists who conclude, “No algorithm can predict in advance whether two people will make a good couple.”

It’s also far better, the book advises, for you and a person you’ve met online to do something fun rather than simply having drinks or dinner and engaging in what can feel like an interview. You’ll learn more about the person as you go along, Ansari writes, and will make a better impression by choosing an activity that the other person might otherwise never have considered.

There’s more. “At certain times, the ‘I need the best’ mentality can be debilitating,” Ansari adds. “The Internet has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and if we search hard enough, we can find it … We are no longer the generation of the ‘good enough’ marriage. We are now looking for our soul mates. Even after we find our soul mates, if we start feeling unhappy, we get divorced.”

No group, he continues, has ever had more romantic options. In truth, there is likely always going to be someone out there who is smarter, cuter, funnier, and sexier than our current partner. So, when do we say “enough” and stop second-guessing our choices? If we stay with our current squeeze does this mean we’ve settled for mediocrity, or does it reflect the maturity needed to build a life with someone we already know to be a compatible fit?

“If you’re looking for the best, this is a recipe for complete misery,” Anzari advises. “If you are in a big city or on an online dating site, you are flooded with options. Seeing all these options, we are now comparing out potential partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure up to.”

Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar’s work, quoted in the text bears this out: Too many options, she found, can lead to indecision and paralysis.

It’s a sobering conclusion. While Modern Romance doesn’t attempt to offer one-size-fits-all platitudes, it does analyze behavioral trends using its focus groups as jumping-off points— topics covered include finding dates on and off-line, texting, sexting, monogamy versus non-monogamy, breaking up, and marriage—presenting common sense ideas about courtship and beyond.

“The endless string of first dates where you just say the same shit over and over again in the same places starts getting tiresome,” Ansari admits. As his own experience taught him “The casual scene was fun but in between the fun, a lot of times there was emptiness.” If there was an initial spark, it is far better to see the same person a few times, in Anzari’s opinion, to determine if something can develop.

Lastly, he reminds readers that there are two kinds of love: passionate and companionate. The first typically lasts for a year to a year-and-a-half, “spikes early, then fades away. Companionate love is less intense but grows over time … There is still passion, but it’s balanced with trust, stability, and an understanding of each other’s flaws.”

As someone who has been in a monogamous relationship for 31 years, I know this to be on point. In fact, my experience tells me that anyone who believes that the romance of the first period can be maintained is deluded, a point Ansari hammers home. At the same time, he acknowledges that there are no hard-and-fast rules for relationships, and points out that each couple needs to figure out what works for them.

Whatever your preferences, Ansari argues that that everyone deserves to be happy in their domestic lives. Nonetheless, the reality check that he has tossed into the mix about not holding out for an idealized person who doesn’t exist reminds us of several longstanding truths—among them, that a successful liaison requires clear communication, respect between parties, and tolerance of difference. Digital communications may have muddied the dating waters, but at the end of the day, love is still a mystery that baffles even as it beckons and delights.