Thoughts on the Ending of Jane Eyre

Bicknell captures St. John's zeal.
Jane Eyre does not close with Jane Eyre's marriage to Rochester, the birth of their son, and their happily married life. It certainly mentions those things ("Reader, I married him") but it ends instead with several paragraphs about St. John. The passage is worth quoting in full:
As to St. John Rivers, he left England: he went to India.  He entered on the path he had marked for himself; he pursues it still.  A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers.  Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labors for his race; he clears their painful way to improvement; he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it.  He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.  His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ, when he says—“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”  His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth—who stand without fault before the throne of God, who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb, who are called, and chosen, and faithful.

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now.  Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil, and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.  The last letter I received from him drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with divine joy: he anticipated his sure reward, his incorruptible crown.  I know that a stranger’s hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord.  And why weep for this?  No fear of death will darken St. John’s last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast.  His own words are a pledge of this—

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me.  Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”
Since I am not a fan of St. John's insidious bullying of Jane during the proposal, I've always shrugged off this part of the story as "spin"--Bronte's attempt to pacify her Victorian audience.

Buchan captures his honesty.
Recently, however, I rethought that idea. Victorians were domestic and pious (they were also earthier than we often imagine them to be; still, they thought of themselves as domestic and pious). Take Jane getting married and having a kid: Victorians readers wouldn't have been too happy about Jane's boldness in returning to Rochester before knowing for sure that his wife was dead and they wouldn't have been too happy about a lowly governess marrying the head of a household although Jane was of a legitimately good family and had her own inheritance. And they wouldn't have been too terribly pleased about her strong  physical response to Rochester's physical advances.

But, still, ya know, marriage and a kid isn't so bad.

St. John, however, for better or worse turned his back entirely on domesticity. Victorians, in resemblance to their beloved queen (who was far less motherly or wifely than her image: see below), placed a high premium on loving God and supporting missionary work--from the comfort of hearth and home. Being religious was very, very important (no atheists here!) but in a restrained, civilized, non-weirdo American way (all those cults!).

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Wedded Life
St. John is extraordinarily . . . Catholic in his response to his personal call to go abroad. There's a kind of fervor in his decision and in the outcome of that decision. The guy wanted to be a martyr and by George, he succeeded!

That is the furthest thing from the married, middle class, wedded bliss purported by the queen and her subjects plus Victorian painters and poets. And it made me wondered if Bronte was pushing the envelope in more than one direction--not just in extolling Jane's supreme self-confidence in her right to choose (rather than be guided by her male relative) but in praising St. John's supreme self-confidence in his single lifestyle that puts a cause above all else.

The St. Johns of the world make me mighty uncomfortable. I'm like Spike--I like the mundane fun of ordinary life. But I can certainly commend Bronte for knocking down all the fences in her path.

M is for McGraw

When I was younger, I became enamored with Ancient Egypt. I adored Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (I knew all the songs and could sing them, tunelessly, as I wandered about the house) plus Joseph and His Brothers, the video put out by the Genesis Project. At one point, I think I even tried to read Joseph Mann's Joseph in Egypt (I gave up).

Regarding books, I naturally read Zilpha Keatly Snyder's The Egypt Game. Like the girls in the story, I researched hieroglyphs and wrote out a kind of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. During this time period, for Christmas, my sister Ann gave me a cosmetic kit of Ancient Egypt--I still own the perfume.

I also read and very much enjoyed a book that is difficult to find now:  Lost Queen of Egypt by Lucille Morrison, a book I must have read two or three times. It tells the story of Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Akhetaten and Nefertiti, who married Tutankhamun and may or may not have vanished after his death (which, according to current investigations, was likely not a murder but still could have been).

Another influence was Mary Stoltz's Cat in the Mirror in which a modern teen experiences her past life as an Egyptian maiden. Like with many of Stoltz's protagonists, the experience allows her to tackle a teenage problem in her personal, contemporary life. When I was in sixth grade, a fellow student reported on this book for an assignment. She created a diorama in a box--one side of the box was the girl's modern bedroom; the other side was the girl's Ancient Egyptian bedroom. I can still see it in my head! 

My biggest literary influence was Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise McGraw. I wish I could say it was McGraw herself--that is, I was captivated by her writing. But this is one of those cases where the subject matter drew me as much as the writing. Mara is the only book of McGraw's that I have read.

Mara is a slave who is recruited to be a spy for a young man who is trying to help Thutmose III oust Hatshephut from the throne (in reality, Hatshephut ruled successfully for 20 years--her reign was prosperous and free from excessive wars; she died of natural causes). The spy/thriller elements of the story are well-told. Mara's growth from understandably self-serving to passionately dedicated is believable. And there's a romance! I have loved reading romances all my life.

My Dungeons & Dragons friends could have the medieval time period, what with the cold and the rats and the diseases and bad plumbing. I'd take Ancient Egypt. It seemed so . . . civilized--despite the spies and angry priests, possible murders and crazy kings . . .

Japanese Slapstick

Image result for library wars Kasahara animeI remember the moment I realized that the Japanese are not all math-oriented, serious geeks (note: I see nothing wrong with being a math-oriented, serious geek).

Prior to that moment, if anyone had said to me, "But people are people. Why can't the Japanese be as silly and raunchy as everyone else?" I would have agreed. I wasn't intellectually surprised to find out I was wrong.

But, cultural assumptions being what they are, I was surprised:
So . . . I'm watching a clip of Japanese television. What's on is some type of game show or reality show where the hosts wake people up in the morning--you know, with the bed head and sleepy voice, etc. etc. This is, apparently, hilarious.

And the host makes a fart joke.

I'm not kidding!
This was my initial introduction to what cultural critics often still misunderstand: the Japanese are fans of all kinds of bodily humor, including slapstick.

I am not, which may be why I didn't notice it for so long. But the Three Stooges leave me cold. (I was the kind of kid who felt sorry for the Coyote in The Road Runner--seriously: I hated the Road Runner.)

I don't especially mind slapstick in manga (illustrated), mostly because it is less violent than farcical--less Three Stooges, more Mr. Bean--and--perhaps mistakenly--because I read it as almost entirely representational.

Sometimes the slapstick is obviously representational, such as the manga and anime scenes in Library Wars where Kasahara "freaks out" in her head about something someone has said (see above). However, often, the physical humor is exactly what it appears to be: people are giving each other headbutts and noogies and wrestling each other to the ground. Which can be cute but often make me glad I'm not watching the encounters live.

And sometimes, the physical humor is utterly amusing, such as the omake (a possible non-canon ending invented by the mangaka herself) of Wild Rock in which the hero, instead of rescuing the main protagonist from a lion, is eaten!

"So now a moment of silence," writes Kazusa Takashima in her notes, "for that poor, pathetic, but brave man who lost his life for love."

Why Psych Got Less Funny

The initial seasons of Psych are drop to the floor laughing value. The middle seasons are less funny but fairly okay storytelling. The final seasons are painfully unfunny.

What happened?

My Theory

Part of Psych's charm from the beginning were the coy allusions to outside pop culture. The following is a classic exchange between Gus and Shawn:
(Gus steps on a floorboard, making it creak.)
Shawn (to Gus): Dude, there's something under there.
Gus: What do you think it is?
(Shawn starts to make heartbeat sounds.)
Gus: Will you stop it, Shawn. You know how that story gives me the creeps. (When Shawn won't stop making heartbeat sounds, Gus gets behind a creaky rocking chair, rocks it, and speaks in an elderly voice): Norman! Norman! Norman! (Shawn freaks out.)
These allusions enhance the dialog and the viewer's enjoyment. I probably catch only about 1/2 of them but the ones I do give me the giggles and a little bit of pride for being able to spot them.

Wild West allusions always work with Timothy
Omundson who looks fantastic with and
without facial hair.
These types of allusions are funny precisely because they are designed to be delivered but not dwelt on. (My favorite example of a fly-by allusion actually comes from NCIS. In an early season, while discussing the U.S.S. Eisenhower and the fact that ships are "she"s, Tony Dinozzi says, "Then shouldn't it be named after Mamie." I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't get that reference immediately. [Mamie was Eisenhower's wife.])

So the multiple allusions in Psych's early seasons are not only delightful but enhance the episodes, especially when they are joined by non-allusive banter:
Shawn: Is this a briefcase or an attaché?
Gus: I think it's a briefcase. Attachés have a softer shell.
Shawn: Really? That's all that differentiates them, a softer shell?
Gus: Well, "attaché" does have a better ring to it.
Shawn: Let's go with attaché.
Unfortunately, as the show continued, the allusions become not clever dialog but the whole point. That is, the show become . . . satiric is actually not the right word . . . entirely referential.

Really? That was your plan? That has to
be the poorest executed attack in history. I
was two feet away from you all the time. I mean,
you have to be absolutely, without doubt,
the worst murderer I have ever seen.
When Tim Curry showed up in the Season 2 episode "American Duo," he was hilarious. Yes, he was spoofing Simon Cowell but he was so cleverly obnoxious in his own right, he was enjoyable to watch.

Yet when Christopher Lloyd showed up in the Season 7 spoof/tribute to Clue, he wasn't funny at all. And he can be! But he wasn't there to be his own crazy/chewing-the-scenery self (which Tim Curry was); he was there to remind us of the other movie.

More and more of Psych's episodes in later seasons depend not on a plot that happens to contain funny references but on the funny references that sort of, maybe, not really try to form a  plot--except funny references all by themselves do not a story make. And oddly enough, they eventually cease to be funny.

Humor needs context.

Wish-Fulfillment Is Not Always Wrong

"Yes Yes Yes No No No" scene from Singin' in the Rain
Background: I believe that women do not automatically read romance literature out of wish-fulfillment, i.e. because they see themselves as the heroine of the piece and/or want to be swept away by Darcy or Mel Gibson or, to update myself a little, Josh Hutchinson or (still) Darcy.

The statement/attitude that women only read romance out of a desperate need to "get themselves a guy" is almost always accompanied by a guffaw, smirk, or patronizing tone. Truth: women readers are as capable as anyone at reading something for other types of reasons, from philosophical to writerly.

In this post, however, I want to defend the idea of reading for wish-fulfillment. Although it often gets mocked, it is a perfectly respectable reason to read.

I argue in my thesis that many readers engage in a synthesis of "using" and "receiving." I am borrowing C.S. Lewis's terms from An Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that "users" read for the message or the personal application; he is understandably not a fan of "using," and I don't completely disagree. I saw plenty of "using" during my years as a student: people reading great literature in order to find evidence for their socio-politico-eonomico theories. And one doesn't need great literature to do that kind of thing. I can do it with a cereal box.

My contribution to Middle Earth fan fiction: a
continuation of Tolkien's map.
C.S. Lewis uses the second term, "receiving" to refer to readers allowing themselves to be swept away by a poem or short story or novel or play. They don't judge the work until they have fully experienced it.

In my thesis, I suggest a third road that combines "using" and "receiving." My point was/is that people have a creative instinct or urge (a theory that Steven Johnson defends in his latest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World), even if they aren't "creative" in the painting-pictures-writing-books-spouting-poetry sense. In fact, the desire to "make" can be as basic as "I want to make a good birthday party" or "I want to make a decent filing system." Like Johnson, I suggest that this desire has as much weight (if not more) than power and money. (And is the basic reason why theories like Marxism that ignore community involvement and personal experience so grossly misread people and fall short of even stock-market-valid prophetic outcomes.)

The desire to exercise the creative impulse means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience. It's the same reason that shows like 1900 House were so popular yet failed--the capacity for humans to imagine an experience outweighs any reality (show).

When I watched my brothers and their friends play
Dungeons & Dragons, it was the pewter figurines
that enthralled me. The game itself was too much like Risk,
which meant it was boring, not corrupting.
The latter issue is the problem--and the reason that people guffaw at wish-fulfillment. Wanting-to-be-part-of-the-romance immediately conjures up images of women (mostly) and men (too) investing themselves in a world to the point where they cease to pay their bills or feed the dog--or, to put this in social terms, date real people or apply for real jobs.

And sure, that can happen. But people who do that stuff don't need literature, popular or "great", to pull it off. Whether they retreat to an created world for escapism or some other reason, that world is no more likely by itself to engender a negative outcome than Dungeons & Dragons was to produce psychopaths (I grew up around Dungeons & Dragons players--they all turned out fine).

As a kid, I was obsessed with Star Wars and my striped
shirt. Neither did me any damage, although I literally
unraveled the striped shirt--unfortunately.
Besides which, beyond the kind of obsession that involves people locking themselves in a room with a media system that plays Avatar over and over and over (or listening to radio pundits rant about politics over and over and over), a little obsession is by no means an unhealthy, unproductive, or problematic thing.

I think the issue comes down to semantics. The truth is obsessive nitpicking of great literature in order to produce boring socio-politico-economico theories can be just (if not more) limiting than writing fan fiction.

But writing a "treatise" or "exploring the juxtaposition of ideological factors in The Scarlet Letter" sounds better than "I wrote some fan fiction about a character who joins the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings" (see above).

Truth: In the long run, the fan fiction will prove more satisfying and more productive. It is always better to create than destroy.

L is for Laughter

Originally, L was the Lowry. I determined early on that I wouldn't discuss The Giver because (1) I only read it once; (2) I don't care for dystopia fiction (yes, I have read Lord of the Flies; yes, it is good; yes, I have no desire to read it again).

I wished instead to praise Lois Lowry's amazing comedies--which I do below:

Well-written comedies remind me of the time I tried to paint abstract art. I can produce fairly respectable representational art. But the one time I tried abstract art, it looked like mud.

It "looks" easy; it isn't--not for self-conscious adults anyway. I won't argue with those who claim, "My five-year old could do that!" Yeah, your five-year-old probably could for the same reason that non-Hollywood child actors often get the leads in movies like Glory and The Black Stallion. They bring a freshness and naturalness to the roles that adult actors can only reproduce through sheer willpower or luck.

Likewise, not everyone can be a comic, no matter how effortless it appears (and good comedy should appear effortless). Anyone can be a tragedian. Let's face it: it is EASY to be depressed and angsty and down on life. It's EASY to claim profundity by talking about BIG TOPICS. Twain hilariously spoofs this easy profundity in Huckleberry Finn when Finn learns about the young woman who produced death poetry--and people took her seriously:
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
   Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
   By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
   Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
   In the realms of the good and great.
Comedy is hard. Good comedy with banter and strong pay-offs is even harder. You think Romeo & Juliet is difficult to teach? (It isn't.) Try Much Ado About Nothing!

Lowry's comedic works are hilarious with strong characterizations, excellent banter, and a deceptively light tone. May they never be forgotten:
Anastasia series (9 books)
Taking Care of Terrific
If you are dead-set on seriousness and don't care for dystopia fiction, check out these books by Lowry:
A Summer for Die
Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye
Following my tribute to Lowry's fiction is the extra "laughter" part:

Since I'm discussing hilarious children's fiction, and I've reached the "L"s, I have to mention Astrid Lindgren. She's best known for writing Pippi Longstocking, but she also wrote a hilarious series about a young boy named Emil: Emil and the Soup Tureen, Emil and Piggy Beast . . .

Basically, Lindgren created Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) before Watterson did. The individual tales, vignettes, are not only clever and funny but helped by the equally funny drawings.

The Wry Friend

The wry friend plays a similar role to the wry outsider (see Spike and Crowley): he or she comments ironically or bemusedly on the behavior of the main characters. However, unlike the outsider, the wry friend does not represent the edge of society/civilization--rather he or she represents the middle-of-the-road.

Wry friends are not particularly moral or immoral. They are not strange. They don't stand out. Unlike the outsider, who scorns the hero and heroine  for trying to fit in (think Christian Slater's role in Heathers), the wry friend points out when and how far the hero and heroine stray from the middle, which, by the way, the wry friend considers a good place to be.

The wry friend's basic philosophy could be summed up as "Boy, you folks are weird." And since we, the viewers, sometimes feel weird and sometimes think other people are weirder, we know why the wry friend is saying what he is saying.

Three Wry Friends
Pete (Joe Murray) in Dharma & Greg
Pete (above image) is Greg's lazy lawyer friend who finds the whole Dharma-Greg soap opera amusing in the extreme. He tries instant love himself with Dharma's friend Jane, but he isn't cut out for it (most people aren't) and goes back to shaking his head at not only the antics of his friend and friend's wife but the eccentricities of their in-laws.
Mark Addy is seated.
D.C. Boyle (Mark Addy) in Thin Blue Line 
Thin Blue Line is my favorite Rowan Atkinson production. He gets to combine physical performance, as with Mr. Bean, with wry commentary, as with Blackadder. The role-playing sequences in Thin Blue Line are some of the funniest clips I've ever watched.

Mark Addy appears in the second season of Thin Blue Line as D.C. Boyle. Unlike the incredibly funny, malaprop-er D.C. Grim (David Haig), Boyle is not particularly invested in arguing with Inspector Fowler (Rowan Atkinson) or defending himself. His morals are indifferent at best. He will side with Fowler's subordinates as smoothly as he will side with Grim. Since he is more intelligent than Grim (like everyone at the station), he rarely gets pulled completely into Grim's antics. He also doesn't get upset when D.C. Maggie Habib (Mina Anwar) tells him off. He shrugs his shoulders, makes a wry remark, and keeps going.

Judge Watkins (John McMartin) in Coach
Judge Watkins, who appears in the second season episode of Coach "Poodle Springs" (one of the funniest episodes on record), is not anyone's friend. But I love his function in this episode. Unlike the grumpy Hayden Fox, confused Dauber, high strung Judy and her mother, and peacemaker Christine, Judge Watkins goes along with whatever is happening in the moment. He and Hayden do have a moment of perfect agreement since both men are outsiders to the event (the poodle's possible death) yet insiders to the participants. They both take a rather sardonic, jaundiced view of everyone else's reactions.
Unlike Coach Fox, however, Judge Watkins leaves the impression that he is always like this: watching the upheavals of others not with chew-the-scenery overreaction (Coach Fox) or outsider coolness (Crowley) but with droll bemusement. And when he questions why anyone would (1) get so upset about a dog that isn't even dead; (2) enjoy airport gift shops; (3) call his brother in prison during a meal, he echoes the mainstream, non-eccentric part of all of us.

Getting to Know You: Character-Building in Romance

"Getting to Know You" sequences depend on
location, location, location.
One place that romances unfortunately often fail is the "getting to know you" part.

Romances need the characters to get to know each other. If they don't, the reader is left wondering, Why are these people together? The reader also needs to "see" the "getting to know you" parts--not simply be told that the characters spent an afternoon together exchanging recipes and jokes.

The problem for the writer, of course, is how long should the "getting to know you"  parts be? Too long, and the plot gets lost. Too short, and . . . Why are these people together?

Examples of "getting to know you" montages in movies and paperback romances:
The Lake House
Time travel scenarios are difficult because the characters often only know each other through a single medium: letters or phone calls or images. The Lake House is a remarkably credible film (and one of the few where I think Keanu Reeves is as good as he is in purely physical roles--it likely helps that he is acting opposite known-element Sandra Bullock). The characters not only exchange letters and share a physical space, they do in fact meet. And their meeting contains enough dialog and behavior to convince us, Yeah, that couple could make a go of it.

Beauty and The Beast (Animated)
Getting to the know the Beast works too well. Bring back the Beast!

Lisa Kleypas (Steamy)
In Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, a slim contemporary romance novel, the main characters/couple believably become friends, then mutually interested friends on ferry rides to and from Seattle (see first image). By necessity, Kleypas has to summarize. But she provides enough conversation and enough specifics in her summaries to make their budding relationship believable. When she does have to fall back on "okay, so, they talked; I couldn't transcribe the entire conversation," she tells us what they spoke of, what types of jokes they shared, and what they found enjoyable in each other's responses.

Location, location, location.
Likewise, in Kleypas's Regency romance Devil in Winter, Sebastian and Evie elope to Gretna Green for practical/financial reasons. They barely know each other, yet by the end of the journey (first 2-3 chapters) readers feel, "Hmm, maybe this will work." Not only are we provided with dialog but also with concrete behaviors. We learn, for instance, that Sebastian for all his aloofness is kind and, more importantly, efficient in his kindness (that foot warmer!). We learn too that they are easy with each other physically. And we learn that they are capable to taking a long journey without ripping each other to shreds (I had a roommate who said she would only marry a guy after she had driven cross-country with him--and not killed him. And she did: drive cross-country with the guy she ended up marrying. No deaths!).
"Getting to know you parts" are like sports montages: a series of scenes pulled together (sometimes with music) to prove that yes, the athlete did train; yes, the ending where the underdog beats the champion will now be believable.

Don't tell me that the relationship worked out--prove to me that it could!

Sully, Fly By Wire, and Another Look at the Power of Non-Action

Sully is a good movie. It has a reliable arc, Tom Hanks--excellent as always--Aaron Eckhart in strong support and a decent if slightly inaccurate "true" human interest story.

The movie tackles the landing of US Airways A320 on the Hudson River in January 2009 and its aftermath. The landing sequence is highly accurate. The behavior of Sully and Skiles, the co-pilot, is also highly accurate. The reaction of the NTSB, on the other hand, was likely not as negative/critical of Sullenberger as the movie portrays; William Langewiesche's description of the NTSB hearing in his book Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke's comment about the tedious monotony of town democracies: "[It's] like being a cell in a plant."

Arguably by necessity (people go to see movies about people, not mechanical objects), the movie also  entirely ignores the primary focus of Fly By Wire: namely, fly by wire. On January 15, 2009, Sullenberger was flying a plane that did everything it was designed to do to compensate for the loss of the engines, prevent pilot error, and ground itself safely. Pilot and plane together made an astonishingly successful landing. 

Langewiesche does a fine job presenting a balanced account. He extols Sullenberger's achievement and defends every one of his choices (Langewiesche points out that the NTSB later requested simulated tests based on the event; in those that used real-world timing, the test pilots all crashed; Langewiesche is basically saying what Sully says in the climax of the movie).

At the same time, Langewiesche never forgets that pilot error is responsible for a great many (as in most) airplane accidents, a reality that pilots, pilot unions, and even passengers are often reluctant to confront. 

Consequently, one of Langewiesche's most profound compliments for the humans in the story comes during the three-minute glide. It is one of my favorites because it dovetails with my own personal philosophy, one I discuss in my review of Moneyball.

Sullenberger and Skiles are heading towards the Hudson. They have remained calm and collected. In his book, Langewiesche comments on Sullenberger's extraordinary ability to focus in a crisis, and he is doing all of that now. Skiles has followed protocol, running down the (relatively useless) checklist. The flight crew have prepared the passengers for landing. Everyone has done his, her, or its job, including the plane or Airbus.

Here Langewiesche reports the conversation between Sullenberger and Skiles right before the end of the glide:
This is when Sullenberger had the presence of mind to ask Skiles if he had ideas, and Skiles had the cool to say, "Actually not." The fluency they exhibited at such a critical moment, in continuing to discuss matters calmly, helps to explain why their passengers survived [my emphasis].
In another passage, Langewiesche relays the (proper) suggestions from air traffic control and Sullenberger's responses. Sullenberger concentrated on doing his job:
You fly the airplane first, you navigate second, you talk on the radio after that. Sullenberger was clear about priorities. His silences were brilliant [my emphasis].
In a previous chapter, Langewiesche details the crash of American 965 into a mountain in Columbia. The crash was not caused by any mechanical failure but by the pilots' snowballing errors. Many of those errors began and ended with the captain who refused to admit that he had made inaccurate calculations. Langewiesche doesn't spare his criticisms of pilot arrogance. He makes clear as well that a large part of the problem was the growing confusion and miscommunication between the captain and copilot as their mutual guessing led to more and more bad decisions.

Nobody said, "I don't know."

Nobody said, "Nope, I can't think of anything."

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum, quotes Langewiesche, quoting Ziegler, the Airbus engineer, quoting the Latin proverb.

To err is human; to persist is diabolical.

Compassionate Heroines: The Exceptions

In a previous post, I mention that the compassionate heroine can be rather exasperating. I list Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary as an awesome exception.

Here are a few more:

Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation: Troi  marks the line between irritating "oh, Captain, I feel their pain" emphathizer and a strong women who sincerely wants to help people. Barclay's view of her in "Hollow Pursuits" is a good example of how Troi could be played (and viewed). My personal assessment is that Troi survives as a character despite the Barclay possibility not because she is tough (Joan Watson) but rather because she is fallible.

So she gets exasperated with her mother (multiple episodes), angry when she loses her abilities ("The Loss"), bemused by Barclay (multiple episodes), unyielding and even ambitious when she handles the bridge successfully ("Disaster"), silly about a crush ("The Price"), and irritated when she's drunk (see First Contact).

Her fallible side becomes clear when one compares her to Kess from Star Trek: Voyager. I quite liked Kess's character (and I really loved the way she dressed), but she had a shelf-life. Bad things could happen to her--but Kess herself was so perfectly sweet and tolerant and understanding that she kind of, yeah, totally needed to be replaced by a snarky Borg chick (there is a great episode where older Kess comes back and destroys the ship because she felt abandoned by Captain Janeway and . . . then everybody is saved by sweet Kess).

You see Turrell Baylor in hell, you
ask him what I wouldn't dare to do.
Brenda Lee Johnson from The Closer: Brenda is a strong emphathizer--it's what makes it possible for her to understand
the bad guys and their victims. She also extends sincere and unqualified compassion to, for example, victim's families, including a victim's crazy chef husband; Stana Katic's Russian ex-prostitute; Flynn's sex-changing cop friend, and her cat (and occasionally Fritz, her husband).

What makes Brenda so delightful (on the screen) is the streak of pure self-centeredness that runs through her personality. She empathizes with people right up to the point when she gets exactly what she wants from them. She is sure of her path/cause--to the point of being possibly the most tunneled-vision protagonist on television. She would be absolutely unbearable in reality. On-screen, she's great to watch since she is willing to get inside people's souls in order to take them down (to be fair, she doesn't care if her decision to get people to confess rips her apart emotionally). From a feminist point of view, she is relief to watch since her compassion never negates her principles: men are often allowed to have principles that trump all else; women  . . . not so much.

Judy Hopps from Zootopia: Judy is actually an adorkable optimist. However, I placed her here because it is her outsized compassion that gets her into trouble--then gets her out. She is initially easily conned; she goes through a period of disillusionment because people aren't what she expected them to be; she makes promises to a victim's family that she may not be able to keep; she reaches for an easy, so-called compassionate answer regarding the "savage" animals rather than a harder, more complicated one; she gives up because she hurt people.

On the other hand, compassion and empathy are her strengths. Her commitment to help the victims pushes her to keep looking; she figures out how Nick thinks and successfully anticipates his attempts to wriggle out of helping her (okay, she didn't see the sloths at the DMV coming--ha ha); she reaches out to others (including the local mafia boss and his daughter); she extends magnanimity to her childhood bully; she sees things through others' eyes and apologizes for her mistakes.

"You know you love me," Nick says to her at the end.

"Do I know that?" she replies. "Yes, yes, I do."

Romance Problems

I prefer characters to have what I call an internal identity arc. That is, I like a character's problem to be located in his or her personal integrity or self-knowledge rather than in how others treat that character. Below are common romance problems with examples of internal identity struggles;  these struggles create a more interesting story overall.

Czech translation: I love the play on
Loretta Chase's name.
Common romance problem: The person I loved years ago has changed; is our relationship still possible?

This problem is interesting. It is more interesting if the characters take responsibility for their changes. Sometimes, the characters regret their own mutability. Sometimes, they feel a sense of inevitability. Whatever the case, the characters are always more interesting if they desire to go forward rather than wallow in the past--we can't reclaim the past; maybe, we can remake the future.

A variation on this problem is when a character realizes that the type he or she always fell for in the past is not, in fact, the best type for that character to grow old with. Emma tackles this variation as does Little Women.

Another variation is for a character to realize that his or her memory of the past no longer applies. In Loretta Chase's Last Night's Scandal, Peregrine is reluctant to become reacquainted with his high-spirited childhood friend, Olivia, because he remembers all the trouble she got him into when they were younger. He wants a "steady" partner. He learns that, well, yes, she will still get him into trouble, but she'll also get him out of it. She isn't "flighty" or even particularly high-maintenance in the way that he remembered. She is reliable and efficient and won't let him down. 

Common romance problem: I don't think this relationship will last. 

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. By itself, the yes/no possibility is less like Schrodinger's cat and more like a T/F question. Once it is over, it is over. Besides, if one is watching particularly irritating television, it's more or less a given that the relationship won't last (see Ross & Rachel).

Jane Eyre at a crossroads.
What makes this problem more interesting is if the characters tackle it from within their personal philosophies/self-concepts: Why would I want this relationship to last? An even more interesting variation occurs when the character ponders, How much of my self will remain if the relationship does last?

Jane Eyre is sometimes seen as dated because Jane runs away from Rochester rather than agreeing to live in sin with him. I have never understood this objection. I think the text makes clear than even before the crazy-wife-in-the-attic comes to light, Jane is worried that she is being overwhelmed by Rochester's personality. It isn't that he is domineering, per se. It is rather that his energetic, extroverted-to-the-max personality is overloading her circuits. She runs because she can't make a decision with Rochester hovering over her saying, "Pleeeeease stay. Please? Pretty please!!!!" She returns when she realizes that she has enough self-gumption not to disappear into the shadow of her partner's personality (and well, yes, also after events have toned him down just a bit). 

Common problem: "My partner cannot be trusted based on past behavior." 

This problem has almost no self-life. Either the partner can be trusted or not. End of story. (And solving the problem based on luuuvv makes the characters look stupid. If their sense of personal worth is so damaged that they won't take previous bad behaviors as a warning, they aren't worth investing in as characters.)

Common problem: "How do I prevent an external bad thing from happening to me and my partner?"

Clark/Superman is dismayed when he realizes that
even Lois has given in to the Superman hype.
This problem is necessary to most narrative arcs. But without an accompanying internal arc, it gets rather dry. I've never been particularly partial to narratives where more and more and more bad stuff keeps happening--hence, my distaste for television serials that force me to keep watching every week.

Example: Superman stories often stumble because they rest almost exclusively on external hurdles. In Lois & Clark, however, Clark struggles with internal conflicts regarding his personal identity. In a Season 2 episode, he worries that if "Clark" dies, leaving only Superman, he--Clark--will no longer have the same relationship with his co-workers. This legitimate worry dovetails with Clark's ongoing uncertainty of what constitutes his "real" self. The death of his human self isn't simply an external problem; it has an internal component that is tied to the character's personal philosophy: Who am I?

Summing up: internal issues such as confusion or disillusionment or doubt help any arc. But states of mind are often not enough to keep an arc going. Writers do much better if the state of mind goes back to a fundamental need or want--the character's place in the world (identity), not merely the character's temporary feelings.

The Compassionate Heroine (Who is Cool, for a Change)

Pollyanna is more the adorkable optimist than
the empathizer. Still, one can't help but worry
that Pollyanna will grow up to hand over
thousands of dollars to real estate fraudsters.
A common stereotype--occasionally archetype (see prior posts)--is the emotional, people-oriented heroine versus the grouchy, logical, people-eschewing hero.

There is some (minor) truth to this dichotomy. Generally speaking, more women than men tend to enter people-oriented professions. Ponder-worthy enough, women also move more easily between fact or "thing"-based jobs and people-based jobs while men tend to excel at one particular type of job. So men tend to rise to the tops of certain professions but they don't always prove as flexible as women when it comes to changing careers/roles.

Troi, on the other hand, is definitely an empathizer.
Still, I'm speaking in macros, not micros, here. There are men who easily change careers and there are men who love people-oriented professions, just as there are women who loathe them.

My focus here: the compassionate heroine who shows up to remind all the non-nice people how important it is to be nice. She is not ALWAYS awful (I will bring up some positive examples at a later date). Still, I often cringe a little when this heroine appears for the same reason that I cringe a little at church when people talk about women being more service-oriented than men because they "care" more about people's problems. I know exactly how service-oriented I am, and it rarely involves me wanting to climb inside people's personal lives and learn all about and/or fix their deep, dark secrets. (I often think, "Why can't we women be like the men and just clean people's garages?")

Which is why I have to give ultra kudos to Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

Joan Watson's character on Elementary is people-oriented (as is Sherlock in a different way). She is also compassionate, empathetic, and more than ready to remind Sherlock of the importance of those attributes.

And yet, she is one tough cookie.

I hate to admit this, considering I was raised Christian, but Joan Watson's character is honestly the first time I have seen female compassion for others as a strength, not a weakness.

Yup, I'll admit that emotionally--not necessarily intellectually--I have almost always perceived compassion as something women should do/practice even though other people will take advantage. Don't get me wrong: the older I get, the more important I think compassion is though I still tend to prefer ordinary civility to "I feel your pain" empathy. Still, as AI philosophers and neurologists point out, emotion is part of the decision-making process, and empathy plays an important role in that (macro) process--that is, human beings differ but the human race requires some type of trend towards projected insight/feeling to survive. (To clarify, "compassion" is to feel sorrow and/or want what is best for someone; "empathy" is to see things from that person's point of view; "magnanimity" is to extend compassion to someone despite that person's poor behavior. For the purposes of this post, I've conflated these terms.)

Yet Joan Watson manages to help/care about people without leaving the impression that she is going to get conned into buying a condo somewhere to help somebody earn enough money to pay for that very important operation without which his or her child/mother/aunt/grandpa will die.

Joan's compassion extends to Sherlock. In Season 2,
she sets aside his "debt" to his father to concentrate
on what is best for Sherlock: to stay in New York.
That is, she has the capacity to create boundaries, yet not give up on being kind. 

I'm not sure that Hollywood or television realizes how powerful this type of woman is to other women. When I was still watching NCIS (I tend to give up on shows that last more than 7 seasons), I was surprised and impressed by how many female viewers liked the show precisely because of Ziva's character. I've mentioned elsewhere that this was because she was a tomboy, which I think is true. But Ziva is also quite feminine and compassionate. And yet, like Joan Waston, she retains the ability to say, "Okay, I feel for you. Yet I'm going to arrest you. I'm also not going to give you my stuff or let you take over my life."

Which is very, very cool.

K is for Konigsburg

Konigsburg illustration
And she's great!

Okay, that's the end of the post.

No, not really. 

Konigsburg wrote many books, among them The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for which she won the Newbury and the Newbury Honor awards. (She achieved the Newbury again over twenty years later for a View from Saturday.) In anticipation of this post, I read her last book The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World and was surprised at how quickly I sped through it; at seventy-seven, Konigsburg hadn't lost her knack for an unusual premise with interesting characters.

The Mixed-Up Files is one of my favorite children's books. My mother read it to me in my youth before I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My eventual visit there was highly influenced by me trying to spot all the places the brother and sister visited from the fountain to the restaurant to the four-poster bed.

Konigsburg also wrote a lesser known book of which I am quite fond: (George). It is the story of a young teen, Ben, who has an imaginary friend--George--who says all the sarcastic things that he never says. George is also quite witty and insightful, Hobbes to an introverted Calvin.

The marvelous thing about this book is that although the young man worries that he might be a bit strange and/or sent in for counseling, the author's solution is not to get him "fixed" (sticking with the big cat theme there). The author's solution is to have George and Benjamin's personalities mesh as he gets older. After all, George--like Hobbes--lends ballast and confidence to Benjamin's observant nature.

I think that sometimes people forget that although our culture has gotten more tolerant in the past thirty-odd years, it has lost some tolerance too. Nowadays, everybody has to have a label!

Ben and George don't.

As a person who actually considered buying a Bluetooth, so she wouldn't look crazy working out character dialog out loud in her car, I totally approve.

Character Archetypes Continued

In a prior post, I discuss the power of archetypes. I end by admitting that stereotypes--as opposed to archetypes--often fall flat. I've read romance novels where the characters were little more than their labels--dominating hero, sweet heroine, wide-eyed innocent, reformed rake, damsel with hutzpah, perfect gentleman . . .

So what is the difference between an archetype and a stereotype, literarily speaking?

The archetype, as opposed to the stereotype, is all of a piece.

My positive example is Buttercup and Westley from Princess Bride. She is the ultimate damsel in distress. He is the ultimate romantic hero who will rescue the heroine at all cost.

Note that chin!
Buttercup: You can't hurt me. Westley and I are joined
by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that, not
with a thousand bloodhounds. And you cannot break
it, not with a thousand swords. And when I say
you are a coward, that is only because you are
the slimiest weakling ever to crawl the earth.

Buttercup being a damsel in distress does not prevent her having a steely determination, as when she pushes "Dread Pirate Roberts" off the hill or confronts her dastardly fiance (I don't write many reviews where I get to use the word "dastardly"). Robin Wright has a low voice (as opposed to a shrill one) and she uses it to advantage. She also has "speaking" eyes as when she gives Westley a level gaze in the fire swamp that clearly says, "You're just making the best of this situation, aren't you?" (see above).

Likewise, Westley's romantic hero persona doesn't prevent him from having a delicious sense of irony delivered with panache by Cary Elwes (see below).

And yet, they never break character. Buttercup doesn't deliver any karate chops or run screaming from the palace in a fit of madness. Westley, even dead, never forsakes his mission. Likewise, Buttercup's intrinsic toughness leads her to mock her fiance even at the wedding while Westley's devastating wit allows him to deliver an entirely convincing denunciation and challenge to the evil prince/king.

I think Shakespeare intended to go for
stereotypes in Taming of the Shrew. But
he's too good: he ended up giving us
archetypes and, therefore, people, instead.
In other words, assigning archetypes doesn't start and end with a single event or adhere only to the characters' personal relationship. It washes through all aspects of their lives and dovetails with prior behavior/events. Stereotypes, on the other hand, tend to remain consistent only so long as a character needs to be DOMINANT or TRUSTING or PUSHY or . . . whatever.

Because they remain whole and consistent, characters based on archetypes--Persephone, Luke Skywalker, Darcy & Elizabeth--remain memorable. More importantly, the psychology of their behavior makes sense. They don't do things because, hey, it's time for the MENTOR to give a speech, the VILLAIN to act threatening, and the HERO to demand a kiss while the HEROINE gets nervous.

The stereotype never moves beyond the annoying assumption that the reader will accept the behavior because, well, that's what a mentor or villain or hero or heroine does. The archetype, on the other hand, becomes the character becomes the behavior which confirms the archetype.

And archetypes are powerful! Well-crafted archetypes create interesting characters who capture their fans' hearts. They become more real than any amount of "well-roundedness" could possibly manage.

Character Archetypes

Archetypes have been famous since Jung help kick-start psychology and proclaimed them integral aspects of dreaming and storytelling. Of course, archetypes existed before Jung came along--as mythologists like Joseph Campbell have pointed out. The reason Jung is important is because Jung justified the use of archetypes, making them intellectually acceptable.

Despite Jung, conveyors of so-called literary fare  still tote the so-called "well-rounded" character--as opposed to the archetype. The "well-rounded" character is supposedly more substantive, better written, more interesting, more "realistic," and more demanding intellectually.

These effects are assumed. That is, literary types assume that the "well-rounded" character is achieving all these marvelous, literary things. But then literary types rarely stop and ask, "But does all this actually make for a better story?"

The power of the archetype is that it invites more reader participation, not less. 

An archetype is like a good metaphor or simile: it provides instant recognition alongside new insight, allowing the reader/viewer to say, "Hey, I know people like that! I never thought of them in this way."

Recognition is the first step: for characters and for metaphors/similes. If I write, "The knife was as sharp as the teeth of a Suvagian tiger," and you've never seen or spoken to a Suvagian tiger (probably because I made him up), the simile will fall flat.

One of my favorite examples of a recognizable simile comes from Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus":
Like a vessel of glass, she stove [broke by collapsing inward] and sank.
Imagine a glass bobbing in a sink full of water. It turns until it begins to fill. As it fills, it descends to the bottom of the sink.

This sinking glass is a recognizable, everyday image applied to a ship. In the poem, the simile becomes a slow motion moment in a series of fast-moving verses. It packs a wallop.

Archetypes accomplish the same thing by giving us recognizable personalities: The leader. The friend. The gossip. The bully. The tough guy. The tough gal. The mentor. The student.

Genre movies and books specifically offer the calm, wry friend; the cocked-eyed optimist; the troubled, angsty hero or heroine; the grouch; the steady planner; the inspired dreamer; the rival; the rival who tells the truth; the helper; the sarcastic helper; the damsel in distress; the damsel who appears in distress but can kick your butt and so on.

A free spirit and a grouch like Camille and Richard (Sara Martins and Ben Miller) from the initial seasons of Death in Paradise are instantly recognizable. They are also endearing. Most importantly, they invite the reader to discover more--why does this partnership work? How do these characters overcome their differences to solve cases? They are archetypes, so we know them. They are well-crafted archetypes, so we are led to ask, What makes them unique? How do they both fulfill and break their archetypes?

Archetypes invite writers and fans to speculate (with varying degrees of accuracy). As I mention elsewhere, the success of such speculations is often measured against the already givens. Readers will say about a piece of fan-fiction, "Yes, that sounds like them!" or "No, I don't think they would do that."  

Stereotypes, in comparison to archetypes, are similar to poor metaphors or similes: It was as cold as ice. It was as white as snow. Eh: been there, done that. The sense of recognition is slim, and nothing new is learned.

So what is the line between stereotype and archetype?

To be continued . . .

Series' Finales: The Good and the Awful

Although I don't care for the Phillip Stroh
storyline, The Closer ends on the right note.
It is Season 7 or 8 or--in the case of Law & Order--Season 500. The final episode looms on the horizon and . . . often falls flat.

The problem, of course, is all the pressure to make the end BIG and AMAZING and--even more problematic--to pay off all the stuff that came before.

Truth is, the best endings occur when the writers ignore the pressures and simply produce good story.

Here are a few examples of the good and the awful (of course, there are spoilers!):

Good: Monk
The final episode of Monk is surprisingly good, considering that the six-fingered man fell perilously close to big, bad, conspiracy theory territory.  But the story was neat, fast-paced, and psychologically accurate (I won't disagree with those who think Monk should have opened the present years earlier, but I also think Monk couldn't have handled the truth about Trudy--whom he always idealized--until that moment in the show). 
Awful: Castle
Let's face it: the entire Season 8 was a huge mistake. Nathan Fillion did his darndest to carry the show with help from the supporting cast but the absence of Stana Katic from many of the episodes makes the season practically non-canon.

On top of which, while Season 7--which was likely supposed to be the last season--ended on a lovely, lets-go-forward-into-the-future note, Season 8 ended with one of those stupid endings that ABC seems just a tad too obsessed with (see below): "they could be dead/they could be alive/it could be a dream!" endings.
Possibly one of the best finales of all time.
Good: Star Trek: The Next Generation
"All Good Things..." is one of the best series' finales on record (in fact, I think I'll rewatch it this afternoon!). It not only gives the viewer a nice recap of previous seasons/episodes, it also handsomely pays off the pilot and Q (John De Lancie) specifically. It includes an actual plot. It utilizes time travel intelligently.  And it leaves the reader with hope for the characters.

Unfortunately, by the time the writers reached the finales of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, they had kind of gone off the deep end in terms of trying to be "unique." Voyager's seasons contain some very, very clever time travel episodes. But I don't care for how it is used in the finale.

I'm not placing Voyager's finale in the Awful category, however, because--kudos to Star Trek writers--despite the tiresomeness of time travel, the finale is still a strong story with decent payoffs. It is not . . .
Awful: Dexter and Lost
I have never seen either of these finales, so I am going off the complaints I have heard. Which are many! Plus they are useful comparisons to the above examples because both utilize the "is it a dream/is it reality?" approach.

I consider this approach the second epitome of writing cop-out-ness (the first is using death to solve a problem). When I talk to my students about argument/persuasion, I always say the same thing:
"When you are writing your essay," I say, "and reach the end, do not abandon your thesis! You've just spent the entire essay arguing that people should support a particular cause or theory. Do not get to the end and say, 'Well, you have to make up your own mind. This is just my opinion. Whatever.' Waffle. Waffle. Waffle. I've read wonderful essays that totally convinced me of an argument until I reached the end, and the writer gave up. I get so upset, I throw the essay across the room!!"
Decent open-ended finale: Frasier.
This is exactly how I feel about series that give up on its characters because the writers are trying too hard to be "clever." 
Of course, I haven't included all those seasons where the writers meant to keep going but couldn't because the show was cancelled. Sometimes, that is the worse. Sometimes . . . it is nice to know that the characters are still out there somewhere treading their way through the wide, wide universe.

Getting Irritated about Assumptions about History

Twain is right--every historical event is unique to itself.
Human nature being what it is: patterns do develop..
One of my biggest irritations when it comes to the discussion of history is the assumption that "things were bad; now they are good" or (more commonly argued these days) "things were good; now they are bad."

There is a certain degree of truth to the former, simply because we live in a world where people have better medicine, more rights, and far more freedoms. I've written about this in detail elsewhere.

However, even the former argument bothers me a tad because it is predicated on the assumption that societal assumptions and expectations work on some kind of continuum or arrow--everything moves in one direction.

And it doesn't.

A good example of this is the concept of modesty. Every culture includes this concept--what constitutes socially, non-offensive clothing--but what constitutes modesty changes radically between cultures.

One is a hippie; one is a lord. For one, the hair style 
was indicative of rebellion; for the other, it was
just one style among many.
NOT because the concept of modesty works on a less-to-more (or more-to-less) pattern. It changes radically because culture changes and with culture, the assumptions and attitudes embedded within that culture.

There is little to no point comparing ancient Egyptians with Medieval aristocrats or high society Victorians with modern day working men and women. Each society has within it an idea of what constitutes modesty--how people should dress at work, in public, at school--and each society punishes those who violate those standards. However, what those standards are is unique to each society.

Medieval aristocrats, for example, would have made little to no connection between privacy and modesty--a connection vital to modern Westerners. Even within the last 70 years in the West, privacy as a measure of modesty has increased ("I dress alone," "I bathe alone," "I breastfeed my baby alone," etc.) The Medieval era wouldn't even have placed privacy on the table. It truly is a modern concept.

So Medieval peasants and aristocrats dressed and bathed (when they did bathe) in public while aristocratic men thought nothing of pissing against the castle wall, behavior now reserved for perverts in subways. 
But Medieval men would not have been considered perverts.

Believe it or not, this dress is incredibly
provocative, even erotic--
at least it was to people at the time.
Not that they wouldn't have been considered louts--some Medieval writers do complain about the sheer plethora of public urination. And it isn't like nobody noticed the smell (they did). It is that the act didn't automatically violate "proper" standards.

But other things did.

And that's the point--it isn't that the Medieval era DIDN'T have standards for modesty; it's that their standards simply don't correspond to ours.

Here are a few examples of how standards can change radically between cultures and time periods:
However, the low bodice on this
Colonial-era dress would not have
been considered inappropriate.
  • Nude bathing (men together; women together) was common in the United States through the 20th century. No more!
  • In some societies, a woman going out in long, even loose trousers would immediately violate that society's code of modesty--something that is clearly not true in most Westernized societies, where a woman wearing long trousers can actually be perceived as MORE modest.
  • The ancient Egyptians did not consider an exposed breast immodest. 
  • Aristocratic ancient Egyptians, however, would never have gone out without their wigs.
It is easy to see changes as always on a trajectory, to complain--for example--that kids these days are SO immodest what with their low-riding jeans (which I actually find rather adorable) and their tube tops, etc. But this type of selective response ignores changes/differences that many Westernized Americans/Europeans would find rather disruptive--like having to always wear a hat or kerchief or veil outside--and changes/differences that other cultures don't see as particularly salacious, such as family members bathing together.

History changes, often for the better, and societies can improve, but understanding history is best accomplished by ignoring comparative statements. Or at least comparative statements that insist that everything works along the same continuum. "Teens are more disrespectful these days" ignores centuries of disrespectful, high energy, and occasionally destructive apprentices in England and America (and probably other places as well).

Without context, differences become interesting, not informative.