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Much Ado about a Public Shaming

much adoJoss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing is a tender, sexy, and very funny film production of Shakespeare’s comedy, but what made it most satisfying was its creepy presentation of Hero’s public shaming and its concluding on a melancholy note rather than with victorious fanfare.

For those unfamiliar with the play, the ill-tempered Don John plots some villainy by making it appear as though Hero, the daughter of the governor of Messina, is not a pure maid as everyone from her soon-to-be husband Claudio to her own father expects her to be.  Instead of speaking to his beloved privately, the unimaginative Claudio and his friends simply assume that Hero is guilty, “an approved wanton” and no maid, a mere “sign and semblance of her honour.”  Before a crowd of guests and the priest who expects to hear the couple’s vows, Claudo shoves Hero back to her father, intent not be be married to her. Eventually Hero’s innocence and modesty come to light, but much grief could have been saved had Claudo given his beloved the respect due a person.

Of course, in his world he wasn’t expected to do so.  Hero’s father Leonato doesn’t protest his daughter’s shaming; he accepts the words of these other men and joins in the shaming: “Hence from her! let her die.”  This public shaming is socially awkward, but nonetheless socially acceptable.  Hero’s accusers are mistaken, but they’re acting in line with social expectations and norms.  The individuals realize their error and, as individuals, all seems to end well for them after forgiveness and penance.  And yet the patriarchy of which Don John made devastating use remains.  Of course it does.  It too much serves the interests of men like Claudio and Leonato.

Setting the film as Whedon did really helped get these social expectations across.  The structural sexism is more apparent alongside the occasionally seen smart phone, within the film noir stylization, and with “Sigh No More” sung with a hint of sadness.  We in the audience expect that these classic characters would know better than to treat Hero as goods damaged before the date of sale.  The fact that they don’t know any better helps bring the social context in which they act to the foreground.

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44 thoughts on “Much Ado about a Public Shaming

  1. I understand what Whedon is trying to do but a lot of grief in fiction could have been avoided if the characters actually communicated. Most of the conflict and tension in drama comes from a lack of communication. If the characters behaved in a semi-rational manner, you wouldn’t have a play.

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  2. Is this about shaming or is this about the enforcement of a particular sexual norm? Which of those things is “creepy”?*

    It’s worth noting that, to my observation, the people most likely to complain about shaming behavior are also the people most likely to turn around and try to shame people in the opposite direction. Calling something “creepy” is just another form of shaming.

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    • Shame is one of the hidden glues that help hold society together. An even better glue is guilt — which effectively paints certain actions as universally wrong even if nobody else knows about it or is directly hurt.

      Of course glue can be used for bad purposes too, and shame and guilt often are abused.

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      • : The Catholics have raised shame to an art form, truly baroque the way they carry on.

        I will give Judaism a slight edge, though. They’ve mastered irony, which makes ’em better comedians. But that’s only because they’ve been at it somewhat longer.

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      • ND, guilt and shame are not the same thing. Under guilt-based morality, your action is moral or immeral regardless of whether anybody knows what you did. Shame-based morality requires public exposure of the illicit act. You only feel shame if your wrong doing is known to other people. You feel guilty even if you get away from it to your dying day beause you know you did wrong.

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      • Gets tricksy, separating guilt and shame.

        Shame is both a noun and a verb. Guilt is just a noun. Guilt is assessed, either by others or by ourselves, no choice there, it’s like sin or crime, a transgression. But the shamer’s message can be accepted or rejected by the shamed.

        In cultures which shun, isolation is the price to be paid for some infraction of communal standards. That’s the only way you can get shaming to work, to force the shamed to accept the shamer’s message. Otherwise, shame can’t work.

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  3. I’ve seen an uptick in campaigns against shamming but like all things on the Internet. The word has been overused to the point of meaninglessness and it seems to be used to dismiss all criticism (constructive and non-constructive).

    For example: How do you separate the very valid and very serious public health concerns that come from us being a largely overweight nation from fat-shamming?

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2013/10/stop_calling_all_criticism_shaming.html

    Admittedly what is shamming and what is necessary criticism is often going to be in the eye of the beholder and dependent on all sorts of biases and prejudices including potentially unconscious ones.

    There are times when it is just pure and simple shamming and wrong like “slut-shamming”. There are times when the issue is serious.

    Part of the overuse of shamming I think comes from a very human streak to reject anything that seems paternalistic.

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    • Part of the overuse of shamming I think comes from a very human streak to reject anything that seems paternalistic.

      Shame on you for using ‘paternalistic’ instead of ‘authoritarian.’ Because women have the right to be asshats, too.

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      • Paternalistic and authoritarian are not necessarily the same thing though. Sometimes they are but many times they are very different. The French state since the Third Republic or maybe even earlier has had a strong paternalistic streak but not authoritarian streak. The dietary habits of the French, in terms of frequency of eating, etc., have been linked to paternlistic practices that occured in Third Republic France. They attempt to eliminate the bad behavior of their citizens but prefer an indirect and less commanding touch. An authoritarian orders, something that is paternalistic might lead by example or demonstration.

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    • Thanks for the provocative link, ND.

      Further complicating things is that society and culture are complex systems beyond human understanding. We think we know how all the puzzle pieces fit together, but this is just us lying to ourselves. Some of the types of shame and guilt we think of as bad may not be all bad, indeed they may serve important but subtle roles for gluing society together.

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    • Shame is an interesting thing — shame is how social groups enforce norms that are not enshrined in law.

      Which, in the internet age, is becoming increasingly problematic. The people of my town might think X is shameful (if legal), but what about the people in another town? Or the ten thousand people from across the country? Why should an accident of birth location determine whether something is socially acceptable, rather than the law? (Which can be modified, argued with, or declared wrong far more easily than the opinions of a neighborhood of people).

      Then there’s porn, the legal definition of which rests on the same concept — your local community standards. Which is interesting in an age where a person in Europe might be viewing something produced in a private house by an amateur in Florida and then judged by a court based on standards that boil down to ‘I know it when I see it, and by that I mean ‘Go do this in California where the neighbors are gonna care less’.

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      • Shame is an interesting thing — shame is how social groups enforce norms that are not enshrined in law.

        Shame is greatly underused in this regard, in my opinion.

        Consider what has happened with gay rights in this country. In my lifetime, shame has gone from being used to keep homosexuals in the closet to defeating bigots in elections. The social norms are changing and the shift in the use of public shaming has been well out ahead of the law in response to this cultural shift.

        I think public exposure is likely the way forward in mitigating the corrupting influence of money in politics, considering the constitutional implications of campaign finance regulations. Some good ol’ public disgracing of politicians who are bought, amplified by the Internet, could be one of those useful types of shame that Roger proposes.

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  4. Haven’t seen the film but know the play pretty well. All sorts of interesting lies and rumours in MAAN. Two sets of lovers, a common enough device for a play, one a pair of squabblers, the other a gawky, love-smitten pair. Usually it is Beatrice and Benedick who get the attention. Claudio and Hero, like Romeo and Juliet, are more victims than actors.

    The whole play hinges on the lies and rumours and ultimately finding out the truth of things in these relationships. Lest anyone get too mopey about poor Hero and her maligned virtue, she’s waist deep in the lies and gossip, too. Such plays work because we the audience are made privy to all the scheming and lying. We know about schemes and lies and ambition. We enjoy the sparring of Benedick and Beatrice, that’s fun, lots of interesting puns, Shakespeare got in some of his best and most-complicated zingers in MAAN — but we’re more like poor Claudio and Hero, not quite sure what to say. Hero doesn’t exactly defend herself, she faints. It’s wonderful old Dogberry who comes to her rescue.

    If there’s sexism in MAAN, we also see how stupidly the men behave, how they fret and worry about women. Not merely about their daughters and wives-to-be, but about their own silly reputations should they be cuckolded. In its time, MAAN was not exactly the height of moral example, people sneaking into other people’s bedrooms for a bit of fun. Granted, the slut in this one was just a chambermaid, Margaret, with another low-born, Borachio ( Italian for a drunkard ) but none of these high-born men seem terribly secure about these women.

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  5. Hang on – it’s not just that Hero is appears to be “no maid” – not a virgin. It’s that Claudio sees her in bed with another man on the eve of their wedding. (It’s not actually her that he sees but Don John arranges a things so that the trick is very convincing.). So this is not about damaged goods – as if she’d slept with a man before she met Claudio – it’s about deceit and betrayal.

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