The Brothers Ford and the Charm Problem

Don't confuse crass with class. Putting money over manners is a sign of the times.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

With Toronto's mayor Rob Ford -- or RoFo as the wags have dubbed him -- dominating the news for more than two weeks over reports of a video allegedly showing him smoking crack cocaine, you might have missed the ongoing and not entirely-unrelated stories about what I'm calling "The Man Problem."

When it's cropping up on the grammar sites, I think we have to begin taking it seriously.

Grammarly.com, a site that offers a spellcheck service, posted an amusing card to its Facebook site, which earned more than 8,000 likes and 2,500 shares in a matter of hours, sending it viral.

"I don't care if he is a fictional character, I still want to marry him," says the woman on the card.

"Who's your literary dreamboat?" the site asked, archly. And boy did those bookish girls dish -- 1,500 comments in half a day.

The obvious choice for many readers was Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy -- there's nothing more appealing than a man you can count on when the chips are down. But another surprisingly big winner was Gilbert Blythe, the boy who taunts and teases Anne of Green Gables about her red hair and eventually becomes her husband. And Scout's dad in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch -- who'd a thunkit -- was another crowd pleaser.

Yet another Jane Austen character, Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility earned applause along with Severus Snape from Harry Potter, suggesting that some of the commenters might just have a thing for Alan Rickman. There were nods to Lord of the Rings' Aragorn, but the prototypes for romance novel heroes -- Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff -- earned far fewer nods than one might expect.

One astute lass noted, wryly, that we all marry fictional characters. But I was surprised to see how often the decent, honourable, and upstanding heroes, many of whom display considerable charm, were fan favourites.

Now, I get that women find this joke as funny as men find it exasperating. A man once gave me a fridge magnet of Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy and the message: "She liked imaginary men best." It was criticism disguised as a tchochke.

So I might have ignored what superficially seemed like man-bashing if it weren't for the sheer volume of responses, the thought that had gone into them, and the Atlantic. The magazine, not the ocean.

Charmless and gormless

Benjamin Schwarz, a literary critic, has written a provocative essay on why North American men consider it a virtue to be charmless, and it has implications for understanding politics. I'd just been wondering about the death of charm myself -- and the associated qualities of grace, honour and decency -- in light of the mysterious voter enthusiasm for gormless RoFo and his equally crude brother Doug.

"The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men" is well-worth reading for a number of insights about why we live in a culture devoid of male charm. Schwarz looks at the mid-20th century's enthusiasm for stars like Cary Grant -- everyone's charm yardstick -- which gave way to... well you name an actor known for charm.

He allows for the greying George Clooney. To which I'd add Grey's Anatomy's Patrick Dempsey, whose Dr. McDreamy character was written to emphasize his playful charm in the first three seasons of the show. That made it a huge hit with women, and it's a still a juggernaut that just got its 10th season renewal.

But Schwarz has a point: charm is in short supply on the screen because it's in such short supply in our society. He notes how often women make jokes about the inability of men to carry on the simplest social interaction with any skill.

"Even in the most casual conversation, men are too often self-absorbed or mono-focused or -- more commonly -- guarded, distracted, and disengaged to an almost Aspergerian degree," he writes.

You'd think he listened to the Fords whinging about how the "maggots" in the media have been harassing them. (Never mind that they're doing heaven-knows-what with the public purse.) And why are they whining like 12-year-olds -- what kind of grown-up refers to his opponent as a maggot? They really are like particularly vile children. Every time they start I have the urge to snap, "Man up!"

Money over manners

Schwarz defines charm as an inherently adult quality that only the self-aware have because it requires worldliness if not wisdom. It's connected to civility and old-fashioned notions about good manners, in the sense of treating others with courtesy. Those values were tossed out in the 1960s when society's perpetual adolescents, the Baby Boomers, used their numbers to turn most of the world into a permanent high school, complete with crass values.

But he also gets at why women enthuse over fictional characters when he notes that the secret to Cary Grant's appeal was that "... he treated his leading lady as both a sexually attractive female and an idiosyncratic personality, an approach that often required little more than just listening to her -- a tactic that had previously been as ignored in the pictures as it remains, among men, in real life."

Even the relatively taciturn Aragorn looks good compared to the sort of men who grunt in lieu of conversation. Throw in the way he defends hobbits, and it's little wonder so many women are advertising their preference for literary men with manners.

"No one can be charming who doesn't draw out the overlooked, who doesn't shift the spotlight onto others -- who doesn't, that is, possess those long-forgotten qualities of politesse and civilité," Schwarz writes.

He traces part of the decline of charm to the predatory urge to turn everything, including other people, into a commodity to be bought and sold.

"Of course, all of these social and cultural shifts, which are themselves inimical to charm, are rooted in a more basic change -- the ever-widening infection of social relations by market values. That development, whether good or ill, indisputably makes for blunter and more crudely utilitarian manners."

Which would explain how a RoFo -- or any of a host of crude, casually dishonest, dumb-sounding politicians of both sexes -- could find support with voters. If you view the world as nothing but a series of financial transactions, then someone who put the effort into acquiring good manners would be suspect.

Hooooly Fords

Maisonneuve magazine argues that "elites" dislike the Fords because of class issues. The Fords say "eh" and "hooooly Christ," which according to author Eric Andrew-Gee bothers the left-wing voters. (Really? I know many a lefty who says "eh," but maybe the writer has never actually encountered anyone from outside Toronto's neo-liberal circles?)

Andrew-Gee suggests they're hosers, but brother Doug, with his open collar displaying a gold chain, looks more like he's auditioning for the Sopranos.

It's not a class issue at all -- the Fords are filthy rich and could buy most of their opponents 10 times over. Like spoilt children, they break the rules precisely because they have the financial clout to do so with impunity. Just consider how much power they must have to party with Stephen Harper, another rich and graceless guy.

Andrew-Gee has mistaken charm for class. The people who despise the Fords and politicians of that ilk also tend to be the sort of people who value a civil society. They come in every political and economic stripe. Every time the Fords open their mouths, and spew their incoherent rants, they signal their utter contempt for those around them as much by how they speak as what they say.

They're charmless. The fact that they find themselves in public office despite that says nothing good about the rest of us. Which is why I, like the women of Grammarly.com, so often prefer to stay home and read a good novel.  [Tyee]

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