THE RATIONAL ANIMAL'S VALUES: Who cares about destitution?

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2020

Contemporary values of Vox:
We've tried, but we haven't quite succeeded! We haven't quite made it past the comments about the poverty—the poverty which isn't quite seen in the lionized film.

The film in question is Greta Gerwig's new version of Little Women. The comments were made in passing at Vox, early in a hagiographic discussion of the Oscar-nominated film.

Eventually, the three fanpersons discussing the film would complain about the way Gerwig was robbed when she wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Someone at Vox then put a bogus headline on the discussion—a bogus headline which amped up what the three fanpersons had said.

Increasingly, so it goes when liberals like us pretend to be doing journalism. Still, the comments about the poverty pretty much stuck in our craw.

The comment in question came right at the start of the lengthy discussion. Bogus headline included, the discussion started like this:
Greta Gerwig’s fresh take on Little Women won’t win Best Picture, but it should

WILKINSON: I have all faith in Greta Gerwig, but even I was a little worried when this project was announced! I grew up reading the Little Women novels and watching the film adaptations, especially the 1994 version, which was one of maybe six VHS films I owned growing up.

But the new adaptation delivered even better than I could have imagined. The cast is marvelous, but it’s Gerwig herself who really made it sing, finding a unique way into the story that preserved the joy of the earlier adaptations while also teasing out elements that were there all along but hadn’t been emphasized before.

What for you were the film’s biggest revelations or realizations? What was the moment at which you realized what she was doing?

HAGGERTY: I’m a Little Women diehard...so when I heard about this one, it sounded like an incredibly promising addition to what I basically consider a genre. My biggest fear was my own high expectations, but it seriously delivered.

For me, the biggest revelations were 1) Florence Pugh’s Amy (Constance, I know you identify as an Amy too; we will be getting into that), finally bringing justice to a misunderstood sister, and 2) the way Gerwig dealt with the role of money in the March family’s lives. I’ve seen arguments that the family March’s poverty wasn’t explored as much as it could have been, but I did feel like the incredibly limited choices for women and the pressure to save the family came across more than in other versions of the story...
So spoke Alissa Wilkinson and Meredith Haggerty. Constance Grady quickly added a comment about the "poverty" in which the oldest March sister is forced to live when she marries John Brooke.

First, a few basic points:

In the passage we've posted, we learn that Wilkinson "has all faith in Greta Gerwig," and that Haggerty is "a Little women diehard." This hagiographoic tone extends all through the colloquy. A similar tone has animated the vast bulk of upper-end mainstream discussion, which has been remarkably extensive over the past few months.

Beyond that, we learn that Haggerty and Wilkinson both "identify as an Amy." Later, Grady tell us this: "I am aggressively a Jo, for the record."

One last introductory point. In Vox's lengthy discussion, no one says that Little Women should win the Best Picture Oscar.

Eventually, the three discussants do take turns declaring that Gerwig was robbed when she didn't get a Best Director nomination. The discussion is so ritualistic that it deserves to be shown:
WILKINSON: I (unfortunately) think we need to talk about something frustrating about this movie’s Oscar chances, which is its many Oscar nominations (including for screenplay, actresses, and Best Picture) that somehow omit Gerwig as director. There are a lot of weird factors going into who gets nominated for director, of course, and many worthy candidates—as well as many worthy women who directed outstanding films this year. Should we be mad for Greta?

HAGGERTY: I think it’s impossible not to be mad for Greta in a year when Todd Phillips is nominated. I’m not going to pretend I fully understand what a director does, versus a cinematographer, or an editor, etc., but the look and feel of this film worked so well for me—nostalgic enough to evoke warm feelings, but fresh for a very familiar story. If a director can be judged on successful vibes (can a director be judged on successful vibes?) and also on not, say, boring me to tears by being overlong and indulgent (ahem, The Irishman), she was robbed.

GRADY: I am absolutely mad for Greta, especially since only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director. (Gerwig is one of them, for 2017’s Lady Bird.) The Academy seems to pretty consistently treat movies directed by women as if they just sprang into the world fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus’s head, without any women around to birth them.
This is ritualistic tribal dogma. Consider:

Even as she directly states that she (like almost everyone else) doesn't know how to judge a director's work, Haggerty says that Gerwig was robbed when she didn't get a Best Director nomination. She bases this judgment on the fact that "the feel of the film worked so well for me," but also on "successful vibes" and on the fact that a different film which did get nominated "bored me to tears."

Grady extends the claim that Gerwig got robbed on the basis of gender. She does so even as she notes the fact that this same Oscar directors' guild nominated Gerwig as Best Director two short years ago.

Today, within our failing tribe, this sort of thing counts as "analysis." Given the ways of human affairs, when we liberals are willing to dumb ourselves down to such an extent, progressive interests will be in a deep fail.

Meanwhile, let's be fair:

As noted above, none of the three discussants at Vox said that Little Women should win the Oscar for Best Picture. The headline which sat above their discussion simply put that claim in their mouths. Increasingly, this is the way our failing tribe performs our "journalism" in this, the fourth year A.T.—the fourth year After Trump.

Over the past several months, our tribe has been deeply sunk in propagandistics concerning this well-reviewed if imperfect film. In our view, this discussion has been deeply instructive concerning our tribe's intellectual capital—but also, concerning our tribe's current values.

The discussion at Vox is an embarrassment in an array of ways. As we'll note as the week proceeds, other discussions of Little Women at Vox have been even worse.

That said, the comments we couldn't quite get past were the early comments which brought the "poverty" in.

News flash! In Louisa May Alcoot's Little Women, the March family isn't living in poverty. Another family, the Hummels, is—but who gives a fig about them?

It's true that Alcott used the term "poverty" throughout the book to describe the March family's financial situation. But as described, the family isn't living in poverty as the term is now understood.

It's easy to see how our modern observers at Vox could have gotten a different impression. As described in Alcott's book, the March family has only one full-time, live-in servant—and when Amy takes the extended grand tour of Europe, she doesn't get to live at Versailles.

However distressing, these circumstances don't rise to the level of poverty as the term is now understood. The Hummels' circumstances do, and we see them described by Marmee, the March girls' mother, right at the start of the book:
ALCOTT (chapter 2): "Merry Christmas, little daughters!...I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?"
That other family was living in poverty. When the March family brings them food and firewood, their condition is further described:
ALCOTT: A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.

How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in.

"Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!" said the poor woman, crying for joy.
The March sisters were angel children, "cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze" Mrs. March had started for them. Or at least, so Alcott reported.

Within the moral universe Alcott created, this is the family which actually is suffering from poverty. Eventually, Beth March catches scarlet fever and dies because she is the one March sister who cares enough to continues to go to their home and help them.

Beth dies because she cared. But as you know if you've been reading the punditry, Beth is widely understood to be the boring sister—the sister no one identifies with. Does this possibly tell us something about us?

It's striking that none of our modern Alcott fans identifies with the most moral of the four March sisters. That said, consider the way Alcott's famous book ends.

Alcott's book ends in a way the modern fans reject. They find it "profoundly unsatisfying." Gerwig changed the ending completely, setting their hearts at ease.

How does Alcott's famous book end? First, Jo March marries Professor Bhaer, a person she deeply admires. Over at Vox, Grady finds him impossibly old and stout, as we'll see tomorrow.

Jo March marries Professor Bhaer, a person she deeply admires. And oh no! After she marries the fat old fellow, they open and run a school together!

Despite their location, they don't start Wellesley College, strange as that might seem. Nor do they start a school for young women who aspire to be painters or writers—for the Beths and Jos of the world.

Impossibly and maddeningly, they start a school for the destitute! Given the current values of our tribe, this is apparently hard to fathom. But in the following passage, with Jo speaking, we start to see that it's true.

The "my Fritz" to whom she refers is the overweight loser she married:
ALCOTT (chapter 47): "[T]his isn't a new idea of mine, but a long cherished plan. Before my Fritz came, I used to think how, when I'd made my fortune, and no one needed me at home, I'd hire a big house, and pick up some poor, forlorn little lads who hadn't any mothers, and take care of them, and make life jolly for them before it was too late. I see so many going to ruin for want of help at the right minute, I love so to do anything for them, I seem to feel their wants, and sympathize with their troubles, and oh, I should so like to be a mother to them!"

[...]

"I told my plan to Fritz once, and he said it was just what he would like, and agreed to try it when we got rich. Bless his dear heart, he's been doing it all his life—helping poor boys, I mean, not getting rich, that he'll never be."
There is a backstory in the book in which the professor, despite his girth, has in fact reduced his own circumstances to care for his motherless nephews.

At the end of Alcott's book, Jo and her unattractive husband open a school at which they hope to serve the poor! In the passage shown below, we're told how things go at the start:
ALCOTT: It was a very astonishing year altogether, for things seemed to happen in an unusually rapid and delightful manner. Almost before she knew where she was, Jo found herself married and settled at Plumfield. Then a family of six or seven boys sprung up like mushrooms, and flourished surprisingly, poor boys as well as rich, for Mr. Laurence was continually finding some touching case of destitution, and begging the Bhaers to take pity on the child, and he would gladly pay a trifle for its support. In this way, the sly old gentleman got round proud Jo, and furnished her with the style of boy in which she most delighted.

Of course it was uphill work at first, and Jo made queer mistakes, but the wise Professor steered her safely into calmer waters...
Despite his girth, Jo's husband was said to have offered good sound advice. Meanwhile, children facing "destitution" were being helped at their school.

These are the roles played by poverty and destitution within the moral universe of this famous novel. And that's the way the novel ends.

The voices of Vox take no inspiration from this, the actual ending of this actual book. Neither did Greta Gerwig in a well-reviewed film which might even help us, within our liberal tribe, understand why we're so widely loathed and so little respected.

Tomorrow: Ch-ch-ch-changes! Also, the factors which make Professor Bhaer "the most disappointing of all"

37 comments:

  1. "This hagiographoic tone extends all through the colloquy. A similar tone has animated the vast bulk of upper-end mainstream discussion,..."

    Somerby refers to a hagiographic tone. What women are actually saying is that Little Women (book and films) means something to them.

    Hagiography refers to adulatory and idealized writing about a subject. In this case, women care about Little Women because it is one of the sources that gives them hope of overcoming obstacles in their own lives, a means of transcending the limits women routinely encounter, even today after Women's Lib supposedly changed everything.

    There is something cruel about calling the reverence for such books "hagiography" when those figures are important to women because they are aspirational and girls and women are still striving against social constraints.

    This is akin to chastising black people for admiring MLK. It would sound incredibly racist to suggest that books about him are hagiographic because of what he meant to the black civil rights struggle. When he disparages women for using Little Women as encouragement, he sounds incredibly sexist -- and more than that, unkind and mean-spirited.

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  2. "Grady extends the claim that Gerwig got robbed on the basis of gender. She does so even as she notes the fact that this same Oscar directors' guild nominated Gerwig as Best Director two short years ago."

    The rationale is actually that because women have to be twice as good as men to get nominated at all, she must deserve to win. If she were male she would have won by now.

    Somerby's reasoning seems to be that the academy threw women a bone by nominating someone female, so what more do women want. They should be happy that they were ever included when they never deserve to be on any such list but are only nominated to shut them up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree! There should be a "Best Female Director" category to insure such mistakes are nver make!

      Delete
    2. If there were, more women would get better paying jobs and more films that appeal to women would get made. It is hard to tell whether you are being serious or not, but acknowledging that there are "best" female directors is a step in a better direction than shutting them out of the field.

      Delete
  3. Somerby doesn't understand the concept of "poverty" in Little Women because he doesn't read books about Victorian society and doesn't understand the difference between genteel poverty and real poverty.

    Real poverty is experienced by the poor, those who were born into circumstances where they have no money, no chance at education, and no chance to apprentice and learn a skilled trade either. In such families, women worked at menial jobs. Entering service (working for a wealthy family) was considered a good job but a woman needed to be educated and presentable to get such a job. So servants were not poor.

    The March family is not poor. They were from good families (born wealthy or related to someone wealthy who owned land). They fell onto hard times because of the war (hinted at) and because the father had to leave his family. Because of that, they didn't participate in society (go to visit other wealthy people at social events). Their poverty is indicated by the need to mend clothing instead of buying new, fashionable dresses. When Jo scorches her skirt by standing too close to the fire, it is a big deal because it cannot be replaced. Similarly when someone loses a glove. Because genteel women don't go out without gloves yet they cannot afford to replace them. That, not actual hunger, is poverty for them. Being a poor relation is humiliating because they do not want to depend on wealthier family. That is why the girls are sacrificing as they wait on Aunt March and suffer her badgering. They hope to inherit from her, as Jo eventually does. It is their only hope of improving their circumstances because genteel people do not work for a living.

    Somerby doesn't read enough to understand this distinction. He is right that the Hummels are truly poor. They are immigrants with no pretensions to high society (as the Marches have). They exist to show that the good-hearted Marches have not forgotten their class responsibilities as they try to help the Hummels by donating their Christmas dinner. In the book, Beth's goodness is demonstrated because she never forgets to help them, as the other girls do. It is radical that Meg marries someone who cannot support her (for love). It is scandalous that her circumstances are lowered so far that she becomes actually poor. I don't recall that from the book.

    The social mores of England were transplanted to New England but instead of hereditary titles, old wealth and especially land ownership was the basis for social standing, along with connection to a founding family.

    Being from Boston, Somerby should understand this. There is a kind of snobbery that still exists on the East Coast that is not nearly as important in the Western US. But Somerby's criticisms about poverty don't fall on Gerwig. They are an accurate portrayal of the times.

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    Replies
    1. I wouldn't worry about it.

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    2. Good grief, @Anonymous 12:02! You don't think that Somerby understood the distinction between genteel poverty and actual poverty? Surely that was the whole point of his discussion...and that our tribe's concern about "poverty" in this "Little Women" was reserved precisely for the genteel variety, and ignored the genuine variety. What does that say about our tribe? That we care about people like us, who, in hard times, will experience a 21st century version of genteel poverty, and give not a fig for the underclass of Yamhill or the Alabama Black Belt.

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    3. The book has autobiographical elements. As such, it wasn’t focused on the destitute Hummels. It was about the March family and their trials and tribulations. Alcott herself used the word “poverty” to describe the Marches. (The father had lost all his money). Why would an adaptation of the book take the focus away from the principal characters, the March sisters? This is an incredibly stupid criticism.

      Delete
  4. “News flash! In Louisa May Alcoot's [sic] Little Women, the March family isn't living in poverty. Another family, the Hummels, is—but who gives a fig about them?”

    News flash! “Having lost all his money, their father [Mr March] is acting as a pastor in the American Civil War, far from home.” (Wikipedia)

    News flash! “It's true that Alcott used the term "poverty" throughout the book to describe the March family's financial situation.” It’s *Alcott’s own description.*

    And, news flash!

    The book is about the March family, not the Hummels. You’ll have to ask Louisa May Alcoot (er, Alcott) why.

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    1. The March girls express gratitude for the relative bounty of their own circumstances as brought to light by the destitution of the Hummels. They are also grateful for the opportunity to help this family because they know their father would be very pleased.

      There’s an allegory in this scene by Alcott that is reflective of her priorities, as is the piece she excerpts from Pilgrim’s Progress:

      “I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, “a little woman,” and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else.”

      Alcott was less concerned about her female readership finding themselves thru personal or professional advancement than obtaining self empowerment via service and sacrifice (Beth and Marmee) and sincere love (Meg).

      She first wanted little women to live lives that were good rather than ones of self- involvement and fashionable tropes, and she ended with giving love, duty, and professional success...everything...to her dear rough and wild Jo.


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    2. Yes, this is an excellent description of the constrained nature of women's roles in that time period. Men, especially upper class men, had duty and responsibility too but they were permitted to pursue personal goals. Gerwig's film is all about the confining nature of gender roles in that time period.

      There is nothing wrong with self-sacrifice, service and sincere love, as long as it is chosen and not coerced. Jo doesn't abandon her family in Gerwig's film. And just as men are allowed compromise between their individual goals and the needs of their families, service and self-sacrifice, so can women be allowed it. Instead, gender roles put all the service and self-sacrifice into the female role and all of the individualism and personal advancement into the male role.

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    3. I’m sure that Mr, March would consider his service to his fellow troops as being empowering in the best way that Alcott viewed such sacrifices, as would the majority of his fellow troops not involved in pastoral duties.

      I’d wager that lower and middle class men of that era, were less involved with self-actualization than with feeding the babies that arrived with regularity.

      Upperclass men may have been afforded by birth and/or hard work , the time and the leisure for such pursuits, and so too their wives, but that doesn’t negate the eternal message that Alcott relays in this and her other books.

      Whether leisured or captive to arduous work in staving off starvation. the call to service is a universal imperative. and one easily ignored via the particular false promises of whatever age.

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    4. Would they let Mrs. March go and serve as a Minister to the troops while her husband stayed home and minded the kids?

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    5. No, and they wouldn’t let her serve as a soldier on the battlefield either, but well could insist the Mr. March must .

      Mrs. March could have nursed troops. Even so, I doubt he’d have had even the social leeway to trade off with her and stay home.

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    6. There were women who served on the civil war battlefields. They dressed as men and pretended to be men in order to do so.

      Men of means during the Civil War were able to buy Irish immigrants to serve in their place, if conscripted. It is why there were draft riots in NYC. So, yes, he had plenty of social leeway if he wanted to stay home.

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    7. People of means have the leeway to manage most things. Even women could assist pastors and others out in the field in a variety of ways, ideally with all people, rich or poor, keeping in mind Alcott’s excerpt on doing their duty within their circumstance “instead of wanting to be somewhere else”.

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    8. Alcott may have responded to what her readers expected, at least to some extent:

      As Alcott wrote in a letter to a friend: “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.” (That funny match was Professor Bhaer.)”
      (From the New York Times article a couple of weeks ago).

      Alcott also said this in her journal:
      November 1: girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.

      Alcott based the character of Jo on herself, so it is interesting to note that Alcott had a “Laurie”, but refused to marry him. She was an advocate for women’s suffrage. According to Wikipedia, “Alcott was part of a group of female authors during the Gilded Age, who addressed women's issues in a modern and candid manner. Their works were, as one newspaper columnist of the period commented, "among the decided 'signs of the times'"

      She was also “one of the founders of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston.”

      Based on Alcott’s life, including the fortune she made off of Little Women, it probably isn’t advisable to accept the notion that Alcott was trying to instruct her readers about the values of “service and sacrifice” vs “personal or professional advancement”.

      Delete
    9. "
      Based on Alcott’s life, including the fortune she made off of Little Women, it probably isn’t advisable to accept the notion that Alcott was trying to instruct her readers about the values of “service and sacrifice” vs “personal or professional advancement”.

      Why not? That's exactly where Alcott started and what she did. Going on to do even more for married Jo and for her single self.

      Delete
  5. “Who cares about destitution?”

    This sounds like a swipe at Alcott as well as all the others mentioned here. She chose to make the novel about the Marches, not the Hummels.

    ReplyDelete
  6. “Who cares about destitution?”

    Does Somerby?

    He chooses to highlight only the stories that tend to show (or can be made to show) a purported “liberal” disregard for poverty.

    He ignores (or misstates) other stories that show the opposite.

    It is left to the reader to decide whether that means that Somerby himself cares about poverty.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Women such as Grady and Haggerty shouldn't be allowed to express opinions about who should win best director. Films like Little Women aren't allowed to have "fanpersons" who like the film.

    ReplyDelete
  8. “This is ritualistic tribal dogma.”

    Somerby then describes why Haggerty thinks Gerwig was “robbed:”

    She thought that Gerwig’s direction was better than that of other directors who were nominated.

    That isn’t tribalism. It’s called “an opinion.”

    ReplyDelete
  9. “Grady extends the claim that Gerwig got robbed on the basis of gender. She does so even as she notes the fact that this same Oscar directors' guild nominated Gerwig as Best Director two short years ago.”

    She actually doesn’t say that Gerwig was “robbed on the basis of gender.” She says that “only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director”, so ignoring women directors seems to be the rule, despite the exception of Gerwig two years ago, and she (Grady) wishes Gerwig had been nominated this time because she felt Gerwig deserved it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Should we understand from this that those who belong to the other tribe are dissatisfied with "our tribe" and won't vote for our politicians because in our movie consumption we do not sufficiently value the virtue of generosity? Is generosity the ultimate criterion for the other tribe? Or will it be the criterion for those anthropologists of the future?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Somerby seems to have been exercised by the charges of sexism that he finds or thinks he finds in discussions of Gerwig being “snubbed”. The Others hate discussions of sexism or even gender bias, apparently, even when the charge may be warranted.

      But here, Somerby invokes the “liberals are virtue-signaling elites who don’t care about poverty” trope as well.

      Delete
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