Earlier this year my best friend went on a date with a new guy to The Rex, a grimy but wonderful jazz bar in Toronto. She liked this guy a lot, but she really liked his friends who she considered cultured, sophisticated and the exact type of person she wanted to surround herself with. At The Rex, a place that serves beer in plastic pitchers and has a menu consisting primarily of nachos and chicken fingers, one of the girls in my friend’s group placed her Prada purse in the centre of the table and glared at the server every time he reached across it to deliver their drinks. When the night’s band went on the boyfriend of another of the girls repeatedly sent her text messages asking her to lower her voice because the other Rex patrons were staring at her instead of the band. She laughed and continued her conversation. My friend recounted all of this to me the next morning as she reiterated how much she wished to be included in this circle of friends.
I remembered this conversation when that dude broke up with my friend at around the same time I was re-reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. She had blocked the guy on social media so instead was stalking the social media accounts of his friends to catch glimpses of his activities. I was getting sent a lot of screenshots of the Instagram accounts of conspicuously wealthy thirty-somethings. None of the friends were “name a prominent business school after you” rich but they’d like you to believe they’re on their way. Here’s my theory on these guys. They all went out and saw Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby because Leonardo DiCaprio is their spirit animal and they thought “this guy is fucking cool.” Not Gatsby, he dies in the end and doesn’t manage to keep Carey Mulligan but this Tom guy, he really has it figured out. Where can they get something from Tom’s point of view? How do they get their hands on his rule book? Enter Newland Archer, the leading man of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
While we were all busy reading NYT Style pieces about hipsters a social group has arisen alongside them, largely without public attention. The MBA-wielding, Canada Goose parka-wearing, Crossfit obsessives wear their status like a price tag. They buy condos in the areas you complain are being gentrified, they drink $18 Manhattans and travel to Paris so they can shop at Christian Dior, even if there’s a Christian Dior store in their own city. And they have rules that are lifted right from the social dynamics in The Age of Innocence.
Rule 1: Control the Message
In an early scene in Wharton’s novel, Newland Archer decides to prematurely announce his engagement to May Welland. Shortly after her break up, my friend booked a last-minute trip to Nicaragua. The engagement announcement came after Archer’s fiancee’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, appeared at the Opera. Olenska was the source of gossip because she had left her husband and created a scandal. The engagement announcement created a good news story and threw the weight of Archer’s family behind Olenska. My friend booked her trip to she could fill her Instagram feed with drunk handsome strangers and bikini pics. Her ex-boyfriend’s friends and hopefully her ex-boyfriend would all see her not mourning the end of the relationship.
Fighting with your best girl friend? #TBT to the time you broke into the pool in the suburbs. Passed over for a promotion at work? Pin a recipe from your brand new side business as a personal nutritionist. Don’t like what’s happening over here? Show them something fabulous over there.
Rule 2: Artists Make the Best Accessory
So you fancy, huh? Money is only half the cost of entry. The hipsters, at the very least, are passionate about things, often things in the arts. They other guys though, they go to the ballet to fill a spot on their social calendar and mingle over champagne during intermission, stroking their $1000 watches.
Archer has his own artists, the journalist and writer Winsett. He respects Winsett. Though the man is of low resources and social standing, the two often run into one another on the street and talk at length about books and culture. These are conversations that Archer claims are difficult to have with is social equals and impossible to have with his simple wife. The bros do this very same thing. The token artist. Not quite in their circle but just on the perimeter so the artist, or mention of them can be cued up as needed. “I have a friend who’s a filmmaker,” “I ran into my buddy in front of his gallery.”
The artist has neither the means nor desire to travel in the bro circle but occasionally benefits from the bro’s resources or connections. Newland Archer and the bros soak up knowledge from their pocket artist. I’ll bet when Archer was talking to Winsett about books he was really collecting the opinions of a thinker so these opinions could be recycled to impress a less-philosophic audience. Just like the bro is collecting intel and new bands and new bars with which to dazzle the other bros.
Rule 3: Have a Lot but Covet Even More
Stuff is the barrier to entry. The ability to entertain in your home, the ability to inspire fashions with your sense of style. Whether it is a country estate or a cottage on Lake Muskoka. A Parisian wardrobe made to measure or the newest Prada bag that you wear on your shoulder like a price tag. A beautiful and kind wife and a hot and smart side piece. Beautiful things mean others will always be envious but that you’ll always need more beautiful things to sustain that level of envy.
Rule 4: Never, Ever, put the Other Bros in Harm’s Way
My friend was devastated when this guy eventually broke up with her. She couldn’t understand how someone who had clearly liked her so much could have changed his feelings so quickly. I shrugged it off as ‘he’s just not that into you’ but she came up with a much more elaborate explanation involving text messages from an unknown number that his best friend may have seen on her phone that may have been misinterpreted to suggest she was seeing another guy, making a fool of her boyfriend. She does know that before he broke up with her, this particular bro polled his friends and the best friend recommended the jackhammer.
In Wharton’s novel the obscenely rich Beaufort is found to have been a cheat in the banking business and according to the social rules he is to be put out of society along with his wife. His wife comes to her family pleading for help, reminding them that her name is Regina Dallas, she’s one of them. She’s told “[your name] was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels and it’s got to stay Beautfort now that he’s covered you with shame.” Fuck with their rules, or even appear to, and you’ll end up outside the tribe like my friend and like Regina Dallas.
I’ve never understood whether or not Newland Archer is meant to be a sympathetic character because the guy seems like such a dick. The cover copy on my edition describes The Age of Innocence as an urgent an poignant love triangle but I can’t imagine that the brilliant Edith Wharton would want my friend going after a guy like Newland Archer. It’s not a love story, it’s the tale of the shit way women are treated in societies where men spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on their level of awesome. But who am I to say? History has spoken and called The Age of Innocence an incisive look at emotion and desire and it’s decided that 100 years after publication it’s still the bro who will get the girl and inherit the world.