Pride & Prejudice is Emotional Manipulation and We All Fall for It

When it comes to the great romances of literature, it’s pretty hard to beat Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy of Pride & Prejudice.

If you’re familiar with Jane Austen’s classic novel, or one of its many film adaptations, you probably love Mr. Darcy. He’s the perfect romantic hero: brooding and intense, a bit misunderstood, but with a heart of gold.

We tell Lizzie & Darcy’s love story over and over. To start, there’s the 2005 Keira Knightly film, as well as the 1995 BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Adapt the story for modern day, and Bridget Jones got three blockbuster movies out of it, the most recent just last year, and all three — because studios are not total idiots — star Colin Firth. Aishwarya Rai was amazing in that pseudo-Bollywood version. (The one with Rory from Gilmore Girls.) There’s even a weird zombie one now, because what on earth could possibly be better than Pride & Prejudice & Zombies?

I’ve loved this story ever since I first watched Colin Firth stare longingly at Jennifer Ehle in the BBC miniseries at age 17. My friend Christy and I marathoned all five hours of 1995’s Pride & Prejudice at her house after school, probably while we were supposed to be doing homework.

But as I watched Pride & Prejudice (never the Keira Knightly one; always the BBC version with Colin Firth) the other day, I was reminded — with even greater intensity than usual — what a genius at emotional manipulation our dear Jane Austen is.

Pride & Prejudice is a total setup. It spends the better part of three hours building Darcy up to be the biggest jerk in the history of insufferable, pretentious jerks, only to spend the remaining hours doing everything in its power to make you fall madly and hopelessly in love with him.

The result is an emotional mind game, and it works. We all fall in deep, deep infatuation with an arrogant and presumptuous jerk, but we’re so caught up in the rush of emotions, and the sheer romance of Austen’s story, that we don’t even notice.

Every time I watch the film, I know exactly what is happening. I get why I’m having such a strong response. Jane Austen is a genius. She tells an excellent story that plays on our emotions just right. We have seen firsthand what an awful person Mr. Darcy can be, and by the end of the story, we don’t even care.

It’s not that Darcy doesn’t have amazing qualities. He went to great lengths to save Lizzie’s entire family from complete ruin. He’s fiercely loyal to those he loves and he can be incredibly selfless. He also happens to look incredibly attractive when he’s stripped down to his (Victorian era version of) boxers after swimming in that freaking pond. You know, when he gets completely flustered by running into Lizzie when with his perfectly tussled hair and his clothes dripping wet? Yeah. That.

But Jane Austen spent the entire story conditioning me to respond this exact way, and I don’t appreciate being emotionally manipulated. Plus, I’m well aware that Mr. Darcy isn’t the only arrogant, insufferably jerk we’ve been culturally conditioned to love.

Part of me wants to think: so what? Who cares if Hollywood is making a ton of money recycling Jane Austen’s brilliant library of Victorian-era (socially aware) chic lit? Her pre-Hollywood romcoms were wildly successful. Why shouldn’t we capitalize on the work of an 18th century woman who was a successful author, a master of dramatic flair, and pretty great low-key social commentator? With all that in mind, I should be able to live with the cognitive dissonance just fine.

Then I started watching Japanese teen dramas. 

I’ve always wanted to get past my high school-level Japanese and learn to speak with a bit more fluency. A few months ago, I finally decided to stop whining and actually enroll in a class.

Luckily, Netflix has a great selection of Japanese dramas. I’ve started watching them in Japanese with English subtitles — which is kind of cheating, because my Japanese teacher makes us watch with subtitles in Japanese — but my co-worker from Sweden says this is totally how she learned English, so I’m hoping it’s fine.

So far, my favorite drama has been Itazura na (Mischievous) Kiss, a high school romance based on a very popular graphic novel.

This is Irie Naoki, the male lead of ItaKISS. He’s super tall, ridiculously intelligent, and also a total jerk. (But he’s pretty, so…)

Like Darcy, Irie-kun referred to by his last name. (In Japan, surnames are listed first, and “kun” is the equivalent of Mr. for boys.) Like Darcy, ItaKISS‘ Irie perfectly embodies society’s view of male perfection. Both are wealthy, attractive, and intelligent, though Japan’s version does put more emphasis on intelligence than Austen did in the U.K. ItaKISS‘ lead is a genius with a photographic memory who scores first in his school on exams and is later becomes likely the most skilled doctoral resident his hospital has seen.)

Irie is one of the most popular students in school, but he’s also pompous and incredibly rude. When Kotoko — an academically-underperfoming classmate with a huge crush on him — confesses her feelings, he curtly responds: “I hate girls who are idiots.”

He says something of about a similar caliber of rudeness pretty much every day. And when Kotoko’s finally had enough, and tells him she’s done being in love with him, he — SORRY, SPOILER ALERT — literally kisses her unexpectedly (presumably for the sole reason of messing with her) and says, “Then try and forget about me.”

He is the actual worst.

This isn’t okay. I’ve heard the attempts to justify it. This is never okay.

Now, for the record, I’m totally following actor Furukawa Yuki on Twitter. (Reading tweets helps me practice my Japanese, okay?) He seems like a really great person, and yes, I really don’t at all mind looking at his face. (Though he actually just mostly posts photos of his food, and not too many of his face. Huh, it’s almost like humans don’t like when people have a tendency to objectify them?)

But back to the show itself, ItaKISS does a fairly good job of trying to explain away Irie’s unexpected kiss later on in the season. We learn this was actually his first kiss (aww!), and that he really did care for her at the time, he just didn’t know how to show it. His mom — who in in many ways, plays a role that can feel a bit like Lizzie Bennett’s dad — provides the narrator-like insight of what’s actually going on in the situation.

Through his mom, we learn that, yes, Irie is an absolute jerk. But he was raised in a life of luxury, never felt particularly comfortable in social settings, and his extreme intelligence has rendered him pretty pompous. His mother hopes for nothing more than that he and Kotoko will start dating. Kotoko — with her vibrant joy, clumsy imperfections, and selfless dedication to those she cares about — is exactly what Irie-kun needs to be a better person.

The problem is: I have a very hard time with TV shows that continually bombard girls with the implicit and explicit message that it’s okay for a boy to treat you like dirt. You can fix him, women are told. Sure, he’s bad now — but all he needs is you. You can bring out the amazing, kind, thoughtful knight in shining armor just waiting for you to let him out.

Yeah, because there’s no way that plan could go even remotely wrong.

(The deep irony here is that the version of ItaKISS I watch on Netflix is Japan’s equivalent to Pride & Prejudice‘s decidedly sub-par Keira Knightly film. Everyone likes the original ItaKISS better, and the only people who prefer the newer version — like me — don’t actually know what they’re taking about.)

ItaKISS embodies the same principles — and sets the same root norms for relationship dynamics — that make me so deeply uncomfortable about Pride & Prejudice. But where Austen held back or softened the story a bit (ie. Darcy never crossed any of Lizzie’s physical boundaries; Lizzie was his intellectual equal, and he respected her for it) ItaKISS takes those principles past the line of what feels comfortable … at least from my specific view of relationships and the world.

I didn’t realize quite how much Pride & Prejudice bothered me until I watched ItaKISS. As a society, and as a world, we have to stop telling this story. It isn’t doing any of us human people — male or female — any favors.

Some examples from Hollywood that tell send the same harmful message, but are even worse: Twilight, that awful Twilight fanfic series, pretty much every rebel/bad boy character in the history of Hollywood film.

Yet we, in cultures around the world, devour these stories like crazy. We swoon, we fawn, we .gif, we write fanfic, and suddenly oops! terrible things like 50 Shades of Grey happen. Point blank: film and television around the world continue to make a killing off of our rapid, unhealthy consumption of emotional junk food.

We can be better than this. We don’t have to make ourselves sick stuffing our faces with love stories that fill our stomachs with butterflies and our minds with low-key harmful, objectifying, and belittling messages about our value and worth.

It’s one thing to swoon over Mr. Darcy. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a perfectly normal emotional response had by a great number of humans over a great number of years.

The problem is when we continue to consume the stories, ideas, and norms that society sets in front of us without any thoughtful examination. How is society telling us we should look, act, think, and treat others? How much are those ideals showing up in our own lives — particularly when we don’t realize it?

In a world where we are being constantly bombarded by millions of different messages every day, it’s our responsibility to carefully examine what those specific messages are, and how we respond to them.

Having an emotional response is completely natural. But how much you allow that response to dictate your thoughts, actions, and beliefs: that is entirely up to you.

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