Friday, March 24, 2017

Forward, Miss Matty Cried from the Rear

"I want it and I want it now
I'll say it once, I don't care how
You get it, you can rob a store
There just is nothing I want more
Than diamond jewelry for me
And I'll talk louder so you see
How very much it means to me!"

Rasputina - Diamond Mind

A few years ago I managed to catch most of the BBC series Cranford while it made its rounds on PBS here in the states. While I'm going to focus this post on one little snippet of it, let me start by saying that from most technical or artistic standpoints it was perfectly watchable if you like period pieces: directing, costumes, dialogue flow, acting, what have you. Hell, it starred, among others, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins and watching those two overtalented crones play off each other would alone be worth a couple of hours of my time.

Cranford's based on a mid-19th century set of stories, which I've never read and will therefore neglect here. It draws much of its appeal from provincial small-town English quaintness, adding the quirk of the small town in question being predominantly inhabited, owned and ruled by women. Whether present in the original texts or amplified and emphasized for the benefit of polite modern society's voracious tastes in misandry, Cranford's lace-trimmed "Amazons" voice quite a bit of casual male-bashing, like this little gem:

"I do not pretend to understand the nature of friendship between men, Dr. Marshland, but surely in its better points it resembles that between women."

However, for the most part it's just tedious interpersonal drama. Courtships, funerals, mysterious estranged siblings and soggy pocket-handkerchiefs abound. After the death of her domineering sister (who'd previously run her life) and losing her savings when her bank folds, Miss Matty (Dench's character) finds herself in the unenviable position of having to make money. Far from dirtying her hands with anything productive, the dainty, respectable old spinster opens a tea shop.
Ever since I saw that installment of the series I've been dying to ask:
Where's Miss Matty getting her tea?

You know, those little baggies and boxes and packets and cuppas herb, perfuming the peaceful, well appointed homes of Cranford's beneficent matriarchs, where's it all coming from? What's that phrase? All the tea in _____? Well, actually, by this point in history much of the tea in England was likely already coming from India. For more information on how well that went, consult your local Gandhi. If you find the image of barbarian slaves beaten for not meeting their quota on the plantations clashes with Dench's ever so innocent pout under a lace bonnet, don't blame yourself. Such confusion's woven by design.

By the same conceit as almost all hyperinflated feminist self-promotion, Cranford's retrenched hen brigade is presented as an idyllic bastion of peace, prosperity, benevolence and such esoteric high culture as the symbolism of flowers. As with (m)any nostalgic portrayals of village life in the good old days of imperial heartlands, all social ills like violence, theft, war, genocide remain blissfully remote from polite society. In Cranford's case, this also places them in the sphere of that faintingly disorderly world of men "out there" somewhere beyond its invisible walls. Which by no means implies an absence of men. As in other such works, men materialize at convenient times to plight troth to women, to tend to women's needs, to be browbeaten for not plighting and tending hard enough, to defend women from other (wicked) men, to work a lifetime providing for women then die conveniently when their use as mules diminishes leaving those women the remainder of their fortunes, and if they misbehave to be packed off to India to send back tea for Miss Matty's glorious industry venture.

It's long past time we paired the phrase "cherchez la femme" with "proxy war." The natural role of men has always been to assume all risk and responsibility they can in place of their mate and other female members of the family/tribal unit. Much of this has meant, throughout history and prehistory, claiming resources from other tribes' men, usually by killing them. Yes, men make war in far-off lands, and the tea somehow always mysteriously makes its way back to Miss Matty's house back in Cranford. Look at every degenerate street thug knocking over convenience stores, then look over his shoulder at his girlfriend's diamond necklace and engagement ring. Look past the plantation master's whip to his wife and daughters dining on whipped cream.

Deniability's a wonderful invention, isn't it?

As the original author (Elizabeth Gaskell) lived before feminism began laying claim to all of human achievement, she's let a bit more truth slip through the cracks than the TV series' adaptation liked to admit. For one thing, Cranford as a town of women is an intrinsically, even comically reactionary, backward place. (Atkins' character dies of an aneurysm when she hears the railway's coming to town.) Gaskell, riding the tail end of the Romantic era (itself largely an emotional reaction to the scawy, scawy intellectual progress of the Enlightenment) displayed this stagnation in a decidedly positive light. This meshes only too well with the endlessly glorified imagery of neurotically repressed Victorian mores, and can't help but remind me of a quote by one of the ballsier gender activists out there, Camille Paglia:
"If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts."

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