It’s been a while since I addressed my odd High WASP culture. Those of you old-timers who find the theme annoying, please (as Faux Fuchsia would say), Look Away Now™.
Those of you new to the blog, I ask your forbearance. This is a complicated topic*. We’re throwing in a book and a movie review for good measure.
This weekend I finally caught up with I Am Love, Tilda Swinton’s movie about an Italian “haute bourgeoise” family. Coincidentally, and recently, I happened also to have read Maggie Shipstead’s book, Seating Arrangements.
Both sent me into tiny rages.
I Am Love tells the story of a Russian woman, married for something like 25 years to the patriarch of a wealthy Italian family. The term bourgeois applies because the money comes from textiles, not land or title. A distinction we don’t make here in America. Never mind.
So the lovely Russian, known now as Emma, leaves her husband, family and beautiful house for a young chef. She and her lover cook, make love in fields, and for some reason wind up dirty and entwined in a cave. I’m still shaking my head over that part. Along the way, loved ones die, tables are set, glorious Jil Sander clothes get worn. A tragic melodrama, I’ll call it.
Pearls, those harbingers of doom.
Seating Arrangements, on the other hand, is more of a melodramatic comedy. No denying, it’s entertaining.
Did you know that comedies often end in weddings or dances? Yes. Yes they do. This one tells the story of a New England High WASP family wedding. The patriarch, Richard, serves as protagonist. Ineffectual, alienated, foolish; protagonist nonetheless. I was so mad by the time I reached the end of the book that my memory of the plot is foggy, but I do recall that Richard falls off a roof when attempting to steal the weathervane from his more successful rival’s new house.
And there you have the primary stereotypes of privileged European-derived families, one, two, and done. Repressed and dominated woman, alienated anxious man. Bah humbug. Updike and Cheever wrote this guy to pieces. Richard Ford does a far better job with the species, albeit one conceptual town over. To say nothing of Edith Wharton and Age of Innocence. Ibsen and Flaubert imagined Hedda Gabler and Emma Bovary (get it? Emma?), ages ago. It’s been mapped, people, it’s been done to death.
I understand that some privileged families will be very similar to those portrayed in these two vehicles. I get that. What bothers me is that it’s the same picture all the time, and each time we’re supposed to experience the narrative as new and revelatory. I don’t mind that Swinton and Shipstead got it wrong for some, but that they imply it’s correct for all, otherwise known as stereotyping.
I’m angry because it’s wrong to use cultural stereotypes inauthentically in art, as symbols. Especially in melodramas. Only irony illuminates stereotypes.
And I’ve got a dog in this hunt. Look, in my own family, we’ve got men who feel anxiety. They are not figures of fun. We’ve got women who leave. They don’t wind up in fields, with bugs. If you really want to understand this culture in America, read Cheerful Money, Tad Friend’s family history. Just because England is your prison, doesn’t mean Italy sets you free.
Art is supposed to have a valuable relationship with truth.
I understand that my reaction is highly personal. Too personal, probably. Had this been about an Asian family, I could simply have enjoyed the pageantry and the comedy or tragedy of manners. Narratives of the privileged set a stage for fashion and design. Money makes for impeccable surfaces. But it feels dreadful when your own details are used as commodity symbols.
By the way, while Shipstead captures a New England island party, I Am Love misses, here and there.
For example, at one point Emma steals a book. We’re supposed to see she’s overwhelmed by desire, but really? She’d have realized the crime, just before she gets into the truck to go cook with Antonio. Neither shrimp nor a bare-chested bearded man would make her break the code. Another example. At the climactic deathbed? No one comforts the bereaved wife. Very, very rude. In extremis we rely even more on decorum.
Most erroneously, when Emma leaves, she walks out with nothing. In real life, she’d take the jewelry. She would. She knows the value or she’d have left long ago.
Finally, I do understand that coming from privilege, my feelings count as what we call First World Problems. That’s the thing about privilege, at least what I hope is intelligent privilege, you know you have to suck it up from the git go. You understand, early on, that others stand before you in the injustice line.
But I have to ask, does privilege waive one’s right to protest stereotyping? Or, are the privileged fair game? It’s a serious question, one to which I do not know the answer. Maybe all American jokes in the future will begin, “Two High WASPs walk into a bar…”
*”What is a ‘High WASP,’” you may ask. A term I use to mean someone who fulfills the WASP acronym, but also comes from a family that made an American fortune. Often the term ‘WASP,’ alone is used to refer to this smaller sub-group; I aim for precision. Note that Pete Campbell’s father-in-law call him a “High WASP,” on Mad Men. We do not use the word “high” here to indicate virtue, only circumstances. For more, here’s my About page, and here’s the search on prior posts. I have to promise you I am not too big of a big jerk, and hope that I’ve done a better job here at the nuances than in this January post.