Politics & Policy

Mistress Manners

Back when there was an adult world, she enforced its rules.

Pin-up girl Bettie Page — sex symbol of an older, weirder America — has died.

She wasn’t my generation’s pin-up girl. Like many young men in the Reagan years, I had that obligatory poster of Heather Thomas in a pink bikini on my bedroom wall, a sort of advertisement for my heterosexuality. Miss Thomas is perfectly adequate, if your tastes run that way, but she is no Bettie Page — all high-def blondness and obviousness. But if your tastes run more to the dark side, or to the unexpected, then you are bound to find yourself transfixed by less obvious sex symbols — Bettie Page, maybe, or in the case of some conservatives, Sarah Palin.

In my case, it has always been Miss Manners.

#ad#It is true that Miss Manners was never sexy in the obvious, vulgar Heather Thomas mode — she’s a sensible sedan to Thomas’s Malibu Barbie Corvette — but the photo that accompanied her column was lovely, even though I suspect the one used by the venerable Lubbock Avalanche-Journal was a decade or two out of date. Born in 1938, she is holding up quite well — there’s something about the lady. The allure of Miss Manners (call her Judith Martin, if you must, but I won’t) has never been simple physical comeliness, which is indeed shallow, though not merely “skin deep,” as the cliché would have it. Miss Manners’s charms are darker and more complex than any pin-up girl’s.

You see, of all the popular syndicated columnists of her heyday, Miss Manners was the most adult. Hers is a world of weddings and births, a world of social demands — an adult world, suffused with sex and the entanglements in which sex once enmeshed men and women. It is an impoverished thing that today the words “adult content” denote sexuality of the opposite sort, the low lonesome infantile pseudo-sex of pornography. I was lucky to be born into the last generation in which adolescents aspired to adulthood at least as feverishly as adults now aspire to adolescence. The cases tried before Miss Manners’s magistracy seemed to me the stuff of adulthood and sophistication, and her regard for the rules of propriety suggested a symmetrical familiarity with those things which were forbidden.

She’s still in the game, now part of the lineup at wowowow.com. But the thrill is gone.

It is significant that Miss Manners’s diminishing cultural presence has tracked the decline of the American wedding. On the subject of matrimonial etiquette alone, Miss Manners has probably written more about sex and sexual tension than any other syndicated columnist, while rarely if ever mentioning the genitive act itself. Done right, a wedding is elaborate foreplay — an act of bondage that ends with a kiss — and Miss Manners is only a half-step away from being Mistress Manners. As every female police officer knows, there is something maddeningly sexy about a woman enforcing rules, and something sexually repugnant about a woman without any rules at all. Within living memory, the social economy documented by Miss Manners was also the sexual economy: sex was still quite stubbornly attached to antiques like marriage and conventional parenthood and personal obligations of sundry kinds. Many words have been written and spoken about the disastrous effect that the decoupling of sex and marriage has had on the family — but what of its dispiriting effect on sex?

Without risks to take or rules to break, sex has become boring. One of the reasons that contemporary weddings are such dreadfully dull affairs is that, divorced from sex, the ceremony is nothing more than an embarrassing prom sequel for women who now are mostly old enough to know better – a chance to put on a fancy dress and play princess for a day. There is no promise of a once-in-a-lifetime erotic payoff when the party’s over. In the modern shambolic affair, brides and grooms recite the cringe-inducing vows that they’ve written for themselves and then tediously hang around their receptions for hours and hours, boring their guests and themselves to death, and possibly to impotence. Miss Manners is horrified by couples who hang around the reception “until breakfast.” The fact that the modern bride is apt to be well north of 30 also diminishes the erotic charge of the affair — many are ready to go straight from the altar to the infertility clinic. (Altar? Who am I kidding? Better to write “from the beach” or casino or sweat-lodge or wherever they’re getting married this week.)

Unlike Bettie Page, Miss Manners never became a feminist icon, probably because she was never associated with any trendy pathology. Like Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, she is not conventional; she is convention itself. I adore Miss Manners for her musts and mustn’ts. One of the great poverties of American life is that there is so little that is forbidden. There are so few meaningful taboos that one is almost entirely deprived of the pleasure of violating them. I was born in 1972 (three months before Roe v. Wade was decided, which is not incidental) to an unmarried girl in her middle teens. In small-town Texas, this was still considered a remarkable circumstance in which to enter the world. By the time I was in college there was a national political crisis over the question of whether fellatio constitutes sex, and by the time I was in my first real job the Supreme Court had excavated a constitutional right to anal sodomy lurking in the penumbras, which I suppose is where such things prefer to lurk. Anything goes — and it’s all going nowhere.

The sad little episode that puffed itself up as the Sexual Revolution encouraged us to think of ourselves as animals, but normal male animals are attracted to fertile females, and many of those early feminists who womanned the barricades of the free-love revolution are today chagrined to find themselves cropped out of the sexual picture by their porn-addicted partners, losing the erotic rat-race to literal sex objects. The attack on sexual convention turns out to be an attack on sex itself. Inevitably, the erotic imagination meditates upon those very icons of convention. Miss Manners is sexy for the same reason that librarians and teachers and nurses can be sexy: she is an authority — it’s fun to play with authority. And I like to imagine that with Miss Manners, breaking the rules in some discreet but imaginative fashion might result in a thank-you note, which would be nice for a change.

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