Monthly Archives: March 2013

Capturing Generational Change: The Queen

“The Queen,” a 2006 film by Stephen Frears starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, was on TV last night. I’ve seen it before but I got sucked in and watched every minute of it again. 

When I first saw it, I thought it was about British politics and the phenomenon of Princess Diana. But this time around, I saw something else at work. Once again I have to wonder if the film-makers knew about this particular dimension of the film, or if they captured a truth about how our society is changing without realizing it. I did find a telling quote in an interview with Frears:

“My mother is uncomplaining, stoic, never sees a doctor, would be in incredible pain and never mention it, thinks aspirin is decadent, walks around turning the lights off and wears clothes that are 30 years old,” he said. Such an attitude contrasts with the “narcissism and intolerance of pain of our generation, to whom happiness is a God-given right,” he said.

He does see the generational difference, then. And like so many, he admires “the Greatest Generation” for being how they are. They had to be stoic. Most of them were born about the time of World War I and the great influenza pandemic of  1918, experienced the Great Depression when they were children, and came to adulthood at the time of Hitler and World War II. They had to be tough and stoical to survive. The queen, who became the monarch when she was only 25, had to be even tougher.

They were the last generation to be like that. Pendulums swing. Or perhaps, the fairies intervened, for this tight-lipped, highly private, perfectly groomed generation gave birth to changelings. Their children grew long hair and beards, wore loud and ragged clothing, and spoke out on everything. They gave a voice to those who had been forced to be even more silent than the stoical ones: people of color, women, people with disabilities, people of different sexual preferences. They spoke out for the planet. They spoke out against family traditions of incest, abuse, and alcoholism. They bared their souls (and often their bodies) in public.

No wonder their parents were horrified and bewildered. Nothing was sacred any more. Nothing was private. Like Frears, they saw much of this behavior as narcissistic and self-indulgent.

The movie captures this generational difference beautifully. But I think it captures something else as well. 

Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology who specializes in cognition and psycholinguistics (the role of language in human development), wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, a line from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In it, he argues that violence has been steadily declining in the West for centuries, because of “changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.” One of these changes, he thinks, is an increased sensitivity to violence. People used to be used to violence. They went to see hangings for fun, and put babies out on the hillside if they weren’t perfect. But for many reasons (too many to list here), over time we’ve become less inured to violence–and injustice, I would add–and so we get more upset when it happens. And more likely to object to it and try to stop it instead of just saying “oh well, that’s the way things are.”

We’ve also become more connected to each other, thanks to our global media. We get used to seeing and start to care about the people we see onscreen, even if we’ve never met them or ever will.

Diana evoked a lot of this caring from people. She was young, she was beautiful, she was vulnerable, and she was mistreated by her husband and her family – or so people saw things. She also spoke out and worked for social causes, like the effort to get rid of land mines. She was “the people’s princess” for the modern age, while Elizabeth was the queen for the earlier  hard times.

When Diana died, the queen did not understand the upwelling of grief and the people’s need to speak up and to have her speak up about it. Tony Blair did, and eventually got the queen to give her people what they needed. At the end of the movie, Elizabeth admits to Tony that she has always tried to be the queen that the people want, but that she doesn’t know anymore what that is. 

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The Power of Film to Change Reality

In my upcoming book on how women write the story of the wandering heroine, I make the claim that authors can change our reality by imagining a new future, a new way of being, that becomes a goal for people to achieve in real life. For example, Doris Lessing’s 1962 book The Golden Notebook had as protagonists two independent women who made their own ways in the world and who expected men to treat them as equals. Lessing said she wrote as if the Women’s Liberation movement had already come to pass, but in 1962 that movement was barely in its infancy. The role models Lessing gave women with her characters Anna and Molly helped shape the ideals of the movement. While Lessing wryly commented that these characters “came as a surprise” to most male critics, women readers recognized them immediately and wanted to be like them.

The same thing happens onscreen. Lt. Uhura of Star Trek was the first black female character in a lead role in a television series. When comedian Whoopie Goldberg, then a child, saw the show, she exclaimed to her family “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to apply to NASA and become the first black woman in space. Uhura and Lt. Sulu, a Japanese-American character, allowed us to imagine a future where race did not matter. The character of Ensign Chekov, a Russian, suggested that in this future, nationality and past political differences would not matter either. This opened the way to “colorblind” casting where the race of the actor is irrelevant to the story, as with Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan in Unforgiven

Likewise, the show Will and Grace showed us a gay man who behaved in every way like any other man might, except in his choices of sexual partners. Ellen Degeneres dared to come out in her own sitcom Ellen and her talk show is now one of the most popular shows on television. Nowadays, race and sexual orientation, like gender, is mostly treated as no less or more important than other factors; each plays a role in how a character behaves, but the character’s individual personality is allowed to shine through.

I’m watching with approval how movies and TV shows are widening the net of “normal” to include people who differ in other ways. The show Life Goes On, which ran from 1989 to 1993, had a lead character who had Down Syndrome. The current hit show Glee also has a character with Down Syndrome who made the cheerleading team. Willow, the 1988 film by George Lucas, featured Warwick Davis, a dwarf, in the lead role. Willow and Davis broke the ground for subsequent film roles for “little people” in not just fantasy films and shows like Game of Thrones, but serious movies like The Station Agent and TV shows like Seinfeld.

We become accustomed to what we see. The more we see different sorts of people portrayed on screen, the more we get used to them and think of them as normal. Then it’s no big deal when we see them in the neighborhood, at school, or at the workplace. And thus our society is gently changed.

Aspie Heroes?

A writer friend recently posted on Facebook that he was having trouble not giving his detective hero “too many autistic traits.”  This struck me, as I have recently found myself wondering whether Mr. Darcy,  hero of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and literary crush of countless women, might have had Asperger Syndrome.

People with Asperger syndrome (“Aspies”) supposedly demonstrate limited empathy, a tendency towards obsessive behavior, and are physically clumsy, at least as children. The diagnosis itself has been eliminated from the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; instead, people will be labeled as having a “mild” form of autism.

Personally I think that the line between “normal” (or “neurotypical” as current jargon has it) and autism is pretty fuzzy. There’s a lot of folks out there who are kind of clueless about people and have their little obsessions. We used to call them nerds. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that quite a few heroes of books & screen popular today seem to land near the autism end of the spectrum.

Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s obsessive all right; he can identify different soils and types of cigarette ash at a glance. He has very few friends and says of his time at university, “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year.” He is indifferent to the feelings of others, even his friend Watson. We seem pretty obsessed ourselves with Holmes; there are three avatars of Holmes at the moment, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the movies, Benedict Cumberbatch on British TV, and Jonny Lee Miller on American TV.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the hit show The Big Bang Theory is clearly an Aspie. He’s bewildered by other people and obsessive about physics and science fiction. And Mr. Spock of Star Trek is even worse. Any display of emotion is ignored as “illogical” while he pursues the rational course of action.

Those are obvious examples. But what about Mr. Darcy? In Austen’s book, he says “I certainly have not the talent others possess . . . of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns.” Sounds like an Aspie to me.

I’ve been watching the brilliant online “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modern version of Pride and Prejudice set in America and told through various characters’ video logs. Lizzie takes against William Darcy at first because he’s withdrawn and socially awkward, which she interprets as being stuck-up. We later find out that he’s a genius in certain areas. But he can’t read people, and as a result meddles disastrously between Jane Bennet and Bing Lee, which of course also upsets Lizzie. Later, Darcy confesses to Lizzie that “I’m not very good at communicating what I mean.” 

Why do we make such people into heroes? When I was much younger, a friend and I made a list of the traits we found most attractive in a movie or TV male character. It was pretty short: dark, tall, with an accent, and aloof or distant. We didn’t like “players,” we liked the guys who pretty much ignored women except for the one exceptional woman to whom they would give their heart forever, as Mr. Darcy gives his to Lizzie. Of course we wanted to be that exceptional woman who inspired such love.

These characters’ aloofness suggests mystery, unplumbed depths that few are privileged to enter – and that may contain hidden treasures. The slightest gesture of respect from one of these people means far more to us than any gushing compliments from people who are always effusive. Watson is wounded in one story. The wound is slight, and he is shaken far more by Holmes’s response – the first evidence that Holmes cares at all for his friend. “For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.” And that great heart cared for him. it was a moment he never forgot.

Perhaps that’s the hook. We want to believe that these great minds are accompanied by a great heart. We accept that only a privileged few will ever be allowed to see that heart, because we hope to be one of those few.