No One Likes a Cassandra

I’ve just watched the trailer for the new movie based on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s clear from the trailer that Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is going to bear very little resemblance to Austen’s character. In the book, Anne is introverted and rarely speaks up in company, although like most introverts she observes others closely and with considerable insight. She is at her best having a meaningful discussion with one other person. Small talk is not her forte, and she never makes a joke.

The 1995 movie version was wonderfully true to the book, especially in Amanda Root’s portrayal of Anne. Root somehow manages to show Anne’s transition from faded and repressed at the start of the story to a blooming, confident woman; she becomes more beautiful in each scene, without the apparent help of makeup. It is an acting tour de force. But even to the end she is reserved in public, never confrontative. She is always sincere and serious. This new movie appears to be giving us an Anne who talks a lot, challenges others, and even when she is merely observing, has a sly grin and comes close to rolling her eyes.

I’ve been noticing a trend in many novels and shows where the lead female character has the quality of archness. Archness is defined on vocabulary.com as “a quality of being cheeky or playful in a way that’s almost rude.” Wordnik describes it as “slyness without malice; cunning; waggishness; roguishness; pleasing coyness.” We might call it snarky. The arch female character notices how other people act or speak, but makes fun of them in a way that lacks malice. She’s amusing. She’s no threat. She’s the jester of the group.

Elizabeth Bennet is definitely an arch character, known for her quick wit, which most people find attractive. Yet it must be remembered that Elizabeth is almost always wrong in her evaluations of others. She’s so quick to look for what she thinks is absurd or silly in others that she often fails to see who they really are. Her initial judgments about Darcy and Wickham miss the mark by 180 degrees; each man is the complete opposite of who she thinks they are.

We can all be very wrong about people we’ve just met. But Elizabeth also fails to understand her own best friend Charlotte, missing all the hints that Charlotte does not think as she does. When Charlotte tells her directly that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life,” Elizabeth’s response is “You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.” Yet Charlotte does exactly that.

Elizabeth pokes fun at everyone and then is surprised by them. Anne Elliot never pokes fun or teases, but she sees people clearly. Everyone around her—particularly her good friend Lady Russell—is taken in by Mr. Elliot’s charm, but Anne is suspicious of him from the start. “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished—but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others . . . She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped. Mr. Elliot was too generally agreeable.” She senses that he is putting on an act.

As a sister introvert, I am more drawn to Anne Elliot than any other Austen character. But I can see why she may not appeal to many people, because she has many qualities that I’ve been criticized for myself. She’s an overthinker. She’s too serious. And she’s always right. (I get why that puts people’s backs up. But she is.)

The witty, arch character is fun to be around—in part because no one feels compelled to take her seriously. We can like her even when she’s telling us we’re wrong, because chances are, she’s the one who is wrong and we are justified in not taking her words to heart. Like Charlotte, Elizabeth’s sister Jane laughs at Elizabeth’s opinions but is never guided by them; she continues to think the best of everyone. Mr. Bennet also laughs off Elizabeth’s advice about her sister Lydia.

No one laughs at Anne. She’s ignored a lot, especially when there are livelier people around like the airhead Miss Musgroves. Yet people are constantly asking her for her advice or delegating chores to her because they trust her to do the right thing. Even when people don’t want hear her opinion, their defensive reactions to her are proof that they fear she’s right. Lady Russell shuts her down when Anne tries to say that it was wrong for Anne to break her engagement and won’t listen to Anne’s reservations about Mr. Elliot; her older sister shuts her down when Anne tries to warn her against the scheming Mrs. Clay. They don’t want to hear that they’re mistaken.

We know Captain Wentworth is the right man for her because he instinctively turns to her for advice when calamity hits; he knows that Anne, out of all the group, will know what to do.

We are living in a time when people are rejecting the advice of wiser, serious people. There seems to be a huge resistance to being told what to do by others, even when that advice is to our benefit.  There’s a lot of effort to discredit the serious people, the people who have been proven over and over again to be right. People don’t want to listen; they would rather be “free” to do what they want, and are defensive about being told what they don’t want to hear. We treat the serious people like Cassandra, the character in the Iliad whose prophecies were always correct, but who was doomed never to be believed. That lets us out of having to listen and follow their advice.

We’re also treating as Cassandras those who try to tell us the reality of what women experience, what nonwhite or nonbinary people experience, what disabled people experience. We are living through a time of huge backlash against the continuing evolution toward a more equal society. Not only is there a lot of anger and defensiveness, there’s a lot of trivializing going on, a lot of downplaying or denigrating those who speak the truth—especially in public forums. The calm and rational voices are being drowned out by memes. We’d rather listen to people making fun of those who want us to think.

And we’d rather focus on the failings of the privileged than the struggles of the underprivileged. How many magazines, how many television shows are devoted to showing us the feet of clay of the rich and powerful? When we see their flaws, we can feel better about our own; but when we see the problems facing the underprivileged, we feel guilty, we feel like we’re not being good people. It seems most would rather laugh at others than take life seriously. So we’re invited into the homes of people like the Kardashians, but we aren’t being given reality shows set in the homes of the poor and struggling.

I have to wonder if this is playing into the trend that’s exemplified by “Bridgerton”—both the novels and the television series—to take a time in history where women had very few rights and not much of a voice and people it instead with witty women who speak up all the time. Instead of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (published in 1792), a serious look at the reality of women’s lives, we get Lady Whistledown’s broadsides that point out the failings of everyone in the privileged world of the ton, the upper classes of English society. We’re even being shown people of color as having equal rights with white people, instead of the reality of slavery as the foundation of most of the wealth being spent so lavishly on balls and dress.

It’s more amusing, no doubt, but I can’t help but feel this trend is a disservice to our understanding of history. And I worry that the arch female character is a disservice to women—especially when she replaces a character of real insight and wisdom. The arch female character lets us treat the serious woman as a Cassandra. If she’s not funny, we don’t have to listen to her.