"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 7, 2019

Comeliness, Grace, And Charm–The Sad Passing Of A Victorian View Of Courtship

There is a certain aggressiveness about female beauty today.  Gone is the  demure charm, elegance, and sexual sophistication of ladies of the past.

Victorian women and their great-grandmothers were ladies in waiting, women who waited for male attention and who enhanced their charm with subtle enticements. A fan was never just a fan but, held and turned gracefully, was an instrument of seduction.  The sumptuous fabric and the intricate lace, embroidery, brooches, and pearls were never meant to keep a distance – a beautiful perimeter of chastity - but to invite proper seduction.  How exciting it must have been for a man to decipher the folds and drapery of formal dress or find sensuousness in sundresses and parasols. 

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Modern critics are quite happy that such enforced female subtlety is a thing of the past, an antiquated notion of female availability configured according to male preference and patriarchy.  A woman in those days had no choice but to be coquettish, full of false charm, promise, and sexual pretension.  Today’s woman needs no such scrim and folds to attract a man.  She can be bold, expressive, sexually overt, and demanding.  She needn’t wait for attention.  She can not only invite it but demand it on her own terms.

However, regardless of feminist assertions that a woman’s worth must be valued uniquely on her character, mind, and principles, women still dress to a man’s sexual weakness – his obsession with the female body, her sensuality, and her hard-to-come-by accessibility. Hot lipstick, décolleté and short skirts are still very much in vogue.
You’ll see her perched at a banquette at the bar after work: the millennial college grad nursing that outdated American dream of marriage, kids, and the house with the lawn and the white picket fence… She’s nursing a stiff drink, too, because husband-hunting is hard work these days, not to mention frowned upon in college-educated career-girl circles. She toys with a stray curl and sucks listlessly at (how fitting) an Old Fashioned, or a gin martini (but only one) if she’s out with an older man and wants to seem sophisticated.
She may go full-blown retro and have her hair done in pin curls, or it may be modern, but her lips are likely stained a crimson shade—Bésame’s Red Velvet 1946 as seen in ABC’s “Agent Carter” is a good bet these days. She’s dressed in something fetching and feminine that she got from Etsy, eBay, or one of the dozens of “vintage inspired” or reproduction clothing companies that have gained popularity in the last decade…(The Federalist)
Nothing much has changed in hundreds of years.  Men chase women, and women dress to be chased.  Everything else plays second fiddle to male confidence, strength, and purpose; and females seductive, Marilyn Monroe come-hither allure.

What is missing, however, is Victorian reserve.  Since women have never changed their approach – Shakespeare’s Comedies are perhaps the best example of male-female relationships and the ultimate besting of men by their overwhelmingly more canny, versatile, intelligent women who play them for fools – their new forwardness and sexual overtness seems unnecessary.

One does not have to read through many volumes of literature to find examples of men’s frustrated pursuit of women.  A woman’s ‘no’ was part of her allure, ‘playing hard to get’ was part of an elaborate pas de deux, a mating dance of sexual demurral, passion, and conquest. A woman’s currency was her honor and her chastity. Her marriage might be arranged and her final worth a matter of dowry, family name, and ancestry; but the ballet was still her way of testing the interest and resolve of her suitors, exciting them with her demure sexuality, and promising much more.

Image result for images helen mirren as rosalind

It was no surprise, then, that sexual games were played so elaborately. The hi jinks of Shakespeare’s comedies were no more than metaphors for the necessary mating rituals of everyone who had a stake in marriage. The fanciful scenes of  All’s Well That Ends Well or Love’s Labor Lost play out prescribed sexual roles according to which women piqued men’s desire but did not give in to it; and men pursued women to the point of silliness but could never have them. 

Image result for images Fifties boy and girl on a date

One would have thought that with the final liberation of women, although the game might remain the same, the rules of engagement – pursuit and submission – would be altered.  There would be no need for shy demureness, reticence, or chastity on the part of women who would have no reason whatsoever for refusing sex other than lack of interest or desire; and men, now appreciating women’s new sexual authority and seeing a wide-open field, would not bother to persist.

Yet, sexual relationships have still not found their equilibrium.  Women are caught between victimhood and sexual forwardness.  They feel themselves sexually liberated and empowered, but have turned to institutions to protect them from unwanted sexual advances.  They feel justified in wearing whatever dress they choose, no matter how sexually provocative, but are surprised at the very sexual attention they claim to abjure.  Men are excited by women’s physical sensuality as they have always been, but are confused by institutional prescriptions for ‘proper’ behavior and women’s even less restrained dress and demeanor, and end up as sexually frustrated as the women they pursue.  No one wins in this prescribed, institutional, legalistic approach to sexual intimacy.

Gone are the days of flirtation, innuendo, sexual promise, and place.  Women feel obliged to shed whatever sexual decorum they may have had as enforced, patriarchal, and retrograde.  Men feel they must relate to women under contract, agreed upon terms of reference, procedures, and outcomes.  The academically-parsed feminist critiques notwithstanding, the equal sexual footing of the past might be more than welcomed today. 

Sexual forthrightness, for lack of a better term, is a part of the general disregard for manners, civility, and graceful encounter.  Not long ago men and women in America still played the same sexual games enacted hundreds of years before. 

The movies of the 40s reflect this culture of good manners and social propriety. Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Lionel Barrymore were exemplary of a culture which, while no less enterprising as today’s, respected a notion of social grace.  Men wore suits and hats.  Women dressed elegantly but conservatively.  Clothes were both fashion statements and reflections of common social values.  A suit displayed formality, shirtsleeves an intrusive, personal informality.

Graceful masculine manners – holding a door, standing up when a woman entered the room, helping her with her coat, escorting her to her car – were not the now-parodied  symbols of male superiority and chauvinism but tributes to a woman’s own careful attention to her dress, demeanor, and social behavior.

One can never go back, and nostalgia for the past is always overly romantic and suspect; but there are times when young women and their suitors wish for an easier, more understandable, more gentile time.  Courtship can never be what it was, but there is no reason to dismiss entirely what was.

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