Pressure and Promiscuity
Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected The melancholy
part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners,
and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders!
Jane Austen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,
December 9, 1808
The next time you're really bored on a Friday night,
flip through the cable channels or the pages of a
recent girl mag and count the belly buttons, bare
legs, and cleavage. Seriously. Keep track on a piece of
scrap paper: fifteen innies, twelve outies, thirty-six
bare legs, eighteen thighs, twenty-four bosoms, etc.
Any bare backs, bikini tops, or naked torsos with
certain areas coyly covered? Add those too. Then
divide the total by four and treat yourself to the same
number of large scoops of caramel-latte-macadamia-nut-chunk
ice cream. Go ahead: make yourself sick.
Despite the retro-preppie fashion movement, a
quick survey of today's magazines, TV episodes,
movies, and Super Bowl halftime shows proves that
girls are exposing more skin than ever. What's that
about? If we are supposedly so "liberated" compared
to, say, when Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice
in 1813, why are we still tempted to offer our physical
bodies as our greatest and only attribute?
Welcome to the Relationship Market, otherwise
known by the more humane title of the Dating Game
(though "game" still implies winners and losers). It's
the public auction where single girls
and guys advertise their (mostly
physical) attributes in order to
get the attention of the opposite
Okay, so that's putting it rather bluntly. But you
know exactly what's going on. And so did Jane
Austen, our beloved authoress.
In fact, the pursuit of romantic attachments in
the twenty-first century is eerily similar to what
young people went through in Jane Austen's time.
Singles in the dating "market" often have only brief,
contrived opportunities to get to know each other
and decide whether or not a person's character or
personality fits theirs. Much like the young people of
Regency England, we often congregate at "watering
places" where other singles are likely to be and
parade our best attributes in order to gain the attention
of a potential partner.
And, as in Jane Austen's time, those of us who
are respectable still dance the intricate dance of
healthy relationships while the silly and selfish pursue
paths that lead to pain for themselves and others. We
girls may feel like we have more power than ever to
choose for ourselves which guy to date or marry (or
not), but to a large extent culture still dictates how to
look, what to wear, what to say, and how to "advertise"
ourselves to the opposite sex.
Yes, as much as it disturbs us, the metaphor of
the "market" in reference to relationships is, unhappily,
still current. This doesn't mean we like it. Thatany of us would put ourselves up for sale in any
century is degrading to our sense of human dignity.
To our disgust and annoyance, guys still respond to
the female form, and girls still respond to guys'
responses to the female form. And round and round
Perhaps that's why we girls are
intuitively drawn to Jane Austen.
The world's most famous writer of
romantic comedy wrestled firsthand
with the realities of the relationship
market, though the stakes were arguably
much higher back then (i.e.,
we're not likely to end up destitute
in spinsterhood, dependent on the financial assistance
of our older brothers).
While she was a young woman in her early twenties,
Jane Austen met and flirted with a cute young
Irishman by the name of Tom Lefroy, who, historians
suspect, might have married her if she'd had any
money (creep). Later Jane accepted a marriage
proposal from a family friend, but then turned him
down the next morning. Some biographers suggest
that she refused yet another offer later on. By that
time she was a novelist. We get the sense from her
letters that her identity now rested in her ability, not
her marketability. How many of us would have the
self-awareness to do the same?
In the same way that we're intrigued by Jane
Austen, we're also drawn to the character of Elizabeth
Bennet. Like Lizzy, we don't want to play the
"market" in any of its forms. We don't want to put
our "wares" on display for the admiration of the Mr.
Collinses or Mr. Wickhams in order to feel secure
about our own body image, if not our future. We
don't want to gear all our words and actions toward
pleasing, intriguing, or enchanting every eligible
bachelor who comes our way. Not only is the prospect
exhausting, but it grates on our sense of dignity
and self-respect. If guys can't deal with us as we are,
then it can't be worth bothering about them, right?
Yeah! So there!
The problem is, we're wired by God to be in
loving relationships with the opposite sex, which
hopefully isn't a problem after we find those relationships.
In the meantime, we long to be special in
someone's eyes: to capture his attentions, win his
affections, and make him feel lonely when we're not
around. When an attractive single male enters the
room, we pick up a signal somewhere in our relational
radar that activates our marketing instincts, try
as we might to override them. A sudden urge to
smooth our hair, pick the lint off our skirt, and rub
the lip gloss off our teeth takes us by force, and we
find ourselves prisoner to our deepest insecurities.
We know we shouldn't care that this Bingley or Darcy
or whoever he is has just entered our field of vision.
But we really wish we'd worn a different skirt.
Lizzy herself is only too human in this regard.
While in agony as to whether or not Darcy still cared
for her, "she followed him with her eyes, envied every
one to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough
to help anybody to coffee; and then was enraged
against herself for being so silly!"
Phew. So we're not the only ones.
But Lizzy needn't worry. What Darcy has grown
to appreciate most are her inner qualities, not the
color of the dress she's wearing, though his initial
reaction to her outward appearance at the Meryton
Assembly is one of bored indifference. Silly boy! It
takes Lizzy's lengthy visit to Netherfield during Jane's
illness for him to begin to admit that not only is
Elizabeth Bennet attractive in her own right, but she
holds an unexpected fascination for him, largely
because she isn't conscious of her looks and refuses
to play games. (Of course, when compared to the sly
tactics of Miss Bingley or the wild flirtations of Lydia,
any girl looks modest.)
This doesn't mean Lizzy is meek and unassuming,
however. Once she gets past her initial intimidation,
she engages Darcy in verbal sparring that has
the unintentional consequence of making him fall
head over heels in love with her. "Now be sincere,"
she teases him after they get engaged; "did you
admire me for my impertinence?" And he replies,
"For the liveliness of your mind, I did." Mmm. A
guy who falls for us because of our wit and intelligence?
Yet when this unconscious bewitchment first
begins, Darcy is alarmed. He quickly reverts back to
assessing Elizabeth Bennet's outward traits in order
to keep himself "safe" from her intriguing inner
qualities. As Austen writes, "Darcy had never been so
bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really
believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her
connections, he should be in some danger." In other
words, he thinks to himself, Okay, so she's smart. And
pretty. But what about her obnoxious family and friends?
Dude, don't go there.
At first this strikes us as extremely snobby, and
of course it is. But part of what's going on is Darcy's
acknowledgment that our family and friends play a
large role in who we really are. In fact, our connections
form a major part of our identity and eventually
influence our romantic attachments, whether we
like it or not. Our connections become his connections
too, even when we're just dating. Darcy understands
this principle to some extent, though he makes
the mistake of seeing Lizzy's family and friends
themselves as points against her rather than looking
at her character in light of those relations. Had he
inspected further, he would have seen a girl doing
her best to be a wise and patient daughter, a caring
sister, a faithful friend, and a respected young
woman in the community.
He also would have seen a girl of faith and
moral conviction, someone who acknowledges there
is a higher rule or law that guides our speech and
actions in all of our relationships. This moral law
says we are responsible for the pain others experience
as a result of our selfish words and actions. We will
deal with the consequences someday, if not in this
lifetime then certainly when we stand face-to-face
with God. We are accountable to God for the way our
romantic relationships might hurt those who love us
best-something Lydia, for example, fails to grasp
and Wickham chooses to ignore.
But Darcy at first decides not to probe too
deeply into Lizzy's character as a daughter, sister,
friend, and person of faith. He prefers to keep his
distance. And Lizzy treats him with the same dismissive
attitude. Judging a guy's character without taking
into account his family background, the quality of his
friendships, and the strength of his moral convictions
is a dangerous business.
Very dangerous. When it comes to guys like
Wickham, a girl's got to have her Creep Detection
System fully functioning. Unfortunately, Lizzy is just
as blinded at first by Wickham's outward appearance
of goodness as she is by Darcy's outward appearance
of smug arrogance. Because Wickham is cute and
friendly, she easily falls for his half-truths and
outright lies about Mr. Darcy. Even when Lizzy's
sister Jane questions how Darcy could get away with
such awful behavior, Lizzy insists that Wickham
couldn't have made up the story. "Besides," she says,
"there was truth in his looks."
Eek! Lizzy is the last person we'd expect to win
the prize for Most Gullible. If she falls for the resident
hunk, what does that mean for the rest of us?
We're toast, that's what it means. All of us will
get burned at some point or another. That's because
we're created to find certain facial features, mannerisms,
and body types attractive, and we often find
ourselves attracted to a guy on the basis of those
characteristics before our brain has time to kick in.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing every time. As
you've no doubt been told a million times, physical
attraction is a God-given gift that all healthy couples
enjoy. You don't want to make a commitment to
someone you have no attraction for, or your disinterest
could quickly turn to repulsion (think Charlotte
Lucas). But you also don't want to make an emotional
attachment to a guy on the basis of his stunning
profile alone. Or the way he looks in that button-down
Oxford. Or the cute little dimple in his chin.
Or the .
Right. Get ahold of yourself. This is where the
sensible side of you is supposed to kick in.
As Lizzy discovers after reading Darcy's letter of
explanation, it's far too easy to let your emotions
lead you off track in your assessment of someone.
"Pleased with the preference of one," she chastises
herself, "and offended by the neglect of the other, on
the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have
courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven
reason away, where either were concerned." She
reviews the attributes of Wickham's character and
realizes she's been deceived, while Darcy has in fact
been the best sort of guy all along: an esteemed
friend, an affectionate brother, and someone with
strong moral values. Eventually she comes to realize
that he's exactly the sort of guy with whom she could
make a serious commitment for life.
"Whoa," you're saying right
about now. "Who said anything
about serious commitment? I just
want to have fun here. Give me
Wickham any day rather than a
boring weekend at home babysitting my little
brother." Point well taken. Marriage may be a long
way off, and there's plenty of time to play the Dating
Game for a while before getting really serious
And yet, like Lydia Bennet, perhaps we should take
everything a bit more seriously after all. Not because
we're going to be married by the time senior prom or
even grad school rolls around, but because all the
habits we form in our dating relationships become
the (often shaky) foundation on which our marriages
are built down the road. Yep, it's never too soon to
consider whether those habits are good or bad,
healthy or unhealthy, just as we need to pay attention
to the food we eat and the grades we get in school.
Everything we do now has consequences later, and
that's true in romance too.
So let's say Mr. Darcy has entered the ballroom
of your life, whether as a date or a prospect. As Lizzy
can tell you, beware the "Love Nest Syndrome,"
where no one except your Number One Crush is
invited to be part of your life anymore. That's exactly
what Darcy himself wants to create with Lizzy in his
first marriage proposal. He tells her, in so many
words, "I want you so badly, I'm determined to
ignore my family, my friends, and my moral principles
in order to have you."
Now, for a fleeting moment that sounds horribly
romantic: "He's going to throw all that away forme? Because he loves me?" But Elizabeth is sensible
enough to see the audacity of his words. She recognizes
instantly that it's impossible to ignore those
other factors when it comes to romance. We simply
can't pretend our family, friends, and faith don't
exist. They are at the core of who we are.
It's far too easy to think of dating Mr. Darcy as
this bubble that protects and secludes you from all
other relationships. Sure, your family and friends
are important, but sometimes you'd like to change
your name and zip code and start over. The truth is,
as Jane Austen so eloquently expressed, those relationships-as
well as your faith
commitments-are ground zero for
your romantic attachments. This is
the arena in which your character is
tested, tried, perfected, and
So the question of gauging a
guy's DP is bigger than simply
figuring out his favorite Slurpee
flavor or ideal movie. It's more than
merely assessing what you think you know about his
virtues and vices. What reality TV fails to show is that
a guy's character is primarily shaped by his other
relationships, and if you're clueless about who this
guy is in the context of his family, friends, and faith,
you're clueless about who he is, period.
Not only that, but you need to consider how
well you know yourself in all of those areas too.