Stein and Sensibility

Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME; Bag: Corbis

I like a lot of girly stuff that most guys don’t enjoy, such as reading and talking. But I hate Jane Austen. Listening to rich women plot out which milquetoast guy to not have sex with before marriage sounds worse than those Real Housewives shows. I couldn’t believe it when Britain announced last month that it would put Austen on the £10 note until I realized that men would never see it, since we also hate to shop.

It seemed obvious that Austenland, the upcoming movie about a Jane Austen re-enactment resort, was not going to pull in a lot of dudes. But at the Sundance screening, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard was somehow surprised that while women pealed with laughter, male critics destroyed it. I figured he was one of the rare male Janeites, since his division released the film versions of Persuasion (1995) and The Jane Austen Book Club (2007). But when I talked to him–while he was in Las Vegas to play a hockey game–he admitted that he wasn’t a huge Austen fan. In fact, when I asked him which book Mr. Darcy is from, he said he didn’t know. “I know he’s important,” he said. Bernard is the kind of man you can buy pints of beer for with two £5 notes.

Bernard knew he’d never win over guys like us, so he launched an overtly women-targeted marketing campaign, inviting women’s groups to screenings where they served high tea and handed out I [hearts] MR. DARCY T-shirts and tote bags. Sony’s legal team, however, told Bernard that he couldn’t actually exclude men, so I invited myself to a screening. “There’s no guard at the door,” said Bernard. “Though there is a cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy outside of each screening.” Or, more accurately, a guy who Bernard guessed was Mr. Darcy.

My screening was with members of the Society for Manners and Merriment, who dressed in the 18th century outfits they wear to the group’s annual Jane Austen ball in Pasadena, Calif., as well as some members of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Southwest chapter, who dress like that in their minds. I have never seen a group of people enjoy a movie more. The woman next to me, in a low-cut Regency gown and bonnet, kept yelling things at the screen such as “Where are the footmen?” and “Nice!” whenever people kissed. If I ever do stand-up at the Apollo, I will make several jokes about how yelling at the screen is something very, very white people and very, very black people have in common.

I felt a little weird being one of the only men there, so I walked up to one of the actors, Ricky Whittle, who, unlike his character, owns a shirt. He was not an Austen fan either. “At first I was like, ‘Will she be at the premiere?’ And people were like, ‘She’s been dead for years, Ricky.’ But I’m a fan now,” he said. When I asked which novel he liked best, Whittle said, “I’ve still not gotten through the books. But I’ve made more of an effort on the films.”

While waiting in line for a cucumber sandwich and trying not to look out of place despite my modern dress and penis, I somehow chatted up Amanda Black, who had red ringlets and wore a green gown with an Empire waist and a wooden corset that she let me knock on, which I believe in Austen novels is third base. “It’s not the Renaissance fair, where you can dress like a wench. Here you have to be proper,” she explained. “That’s the only downside to it,” said her friend Alexis Tabor. This was the kind of fun, flirty banter that would take Austen 15 pages to deliver. Things were going well until I admitted to mixing up the plots of Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. “That’s like crossing Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings,” Tabor said. Even people dressed like dorks assume I’m a nerd.

I was about to leave when I saw Rachael Graeff, a very cool TV executive I had met before, though never in a floral-pattern Regency dress. “I feel like an overgrown kid,” she said of her outfit, which she had bought for the screening. Despite her love for Austen, she said there was no way she’d take a date to see Austenland. “If I took a guy to this, he’d think I sleep with stuffed animals. He’d think I’m a sad cat lady. You have to control the p.r. for your social life.”

More than cats or stuffed animals, what scares a man is a woman who worries about controlling the p.r. of her social life. This, of course, is exactly what Austen novels are about. I’m worried that maybe I hate Jane Austen not for her writing or her effete characters but because I don’t want to know how women really think. Which, I’m realizing, is exactly why I should go see this movie again. But this time, I’m going to wear one of those puffy shirts.

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