Posted on | April 23, 2012 | 40 Comments
Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody in Damsels in Distress
That which is romantic is almost always in some sense old-fashioned, but we cannot be old-fashioned if we know nothing of the past, and most young people have no idea what Edmund Burke meant when he lamented that “the age of chivalry is gone.” Maggie’s Notebook linked to a column by Thomas Hibbs, a dean at Baylor University, reviewing the new Whit Stillman film, Damsels in Distress. Hibbs remarks of contemporary campus customs:
Nowhere is the absence of customs and purpose more evident than in the confusion about relations between the sexes. Dating has nearly vanished from college campuses. How dire the situation has become is evident from a recent piece in Boston College Magazine about the popularity of philosophy grad student Kerry Cronin’s lecture, “10 Reasons You’re Not Dating and What to Do about It.” Cronin reflects on being shocked at one student’s response to her response to the question, “How would you ask someone out on a date?” The student, with notebook and pen in hand, abruptly interrupted Cronin’s initial, somewhat abstract response. “No,” she clarified, “what are the words?”
A very old-fashioned book I once read — written sometime in the late 1940s or early ’50s — offered this simple advice: Date to mate.
That is to say, the entire purpose of dating is to find a spouse. Thus the near-disappearance of dating from the college scene is a symptom of the decline of marriage, which is in turn related to the widespread acceptance of non-marital sex. Yet it seems to me that conservatives keep trying to change the wrong variable in this equation. If we wish to encourage young people to wait until they’re married, we ought not expect them to wait too long to get married. And if they’re not interested in getting married, why are they dating at all?
What is called “dating” was a 20th-century adaptation of what was once called “courtship,” a transition perhaps best explained by the title of a book, From Front Porch to Back Seat. Courtship naturally leads to the altar, and we cannot expect young people to engage in something so quaintly old-fashioned when we insist on placing the altar off somewhere in the far-distant future. Bad habits begin with bad ideas, and most of the ideas young people get about love, sex and marriage from popular culture — or from their peers — are very bad indeed. One nowadays hears talk of “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” while kids are still in elementary school, and we thus hear quite shocking tales about middle-schoolers, while perhaps accounts of the libidinous adventures of high-schoolers shock us much less than they should.
By the time they get to college, a majority of students have long since become “sexually active,” to use the politically correct language for what used to be called screwing around or, even more judgmentally, fornicating. We have lost the language of judgmentalism for fear of being thought sexist or homophobic or otherwise old-fashioned, as if it were a hate crime to tell young folks, “Hey, keep your britches on!”
Perhaps even more disastrously, too many people seem to assume that it is unrealistic even to suggest a high moral ideal, simply because people are apt to fall short of those ideals. Not only is it considered “unrealistic” to say that young folks ought to keep their britches on, but the praise of virtue is nowadays supposed to be psychologically harmful, given the prevalence of vice.
Why, for example, have feminists lately gotten so worked up about “slut-shaming”? Because we might hurt their precious self-esteem!
We wouldn’t want some tramp, vamp, hussy, floozy, or common slut to feel bad about her promiscuity, would we? Perish the thought! Because no matter how harmful to her health or happiness such behavior might be, there is nothing more important than feeling good about yourself — or at least, not having anybody suggest that what you’re doing is wrong, bad, shameful and dangerous. (Don’t even think of saying “sinful,” you christofascist godbag!)
Religious faith, cultural tradition, ancient customs — all of these are strictly forbidden as guidelines for the behavior of Young Moderns, and even ordinary common sense has been cast aside. Your grandmother would have told these girls, “He ain’t going to buy the cow, if he’s getting the milk for free,” but the basic supply-and-demand logic of that equation makes no sense to them. Strange to say, egalitarianism has progressed to the point that quite often the girls are on the demand side of the equation, and any halfway attractive young fellow can scarcely keep up with all the girls craving his amorous attention.
Well, having lectured disapprovingly of what is, I hesitate to conclude by suggesting what ought to be, lest Professor Reynolds should again be shocked that I would offer “dating advice.”
Whit Stillman’s films are subtly didactic, and I’m sure that Damsels in Distress is another excellent lesson. But I also wish young people would watch more old movies, which provide so many wonderful examples of politically incorrect romance.