The recent release of writer-director Whit Stillman’s film Love & Friendship marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of his acclaimed social satire Metropolitan. Revisiting the movie’s humorous hierarchy of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one question surfaces: what is the story with the “urban haute bourgeoisie” (UHB) of today?
According to its title card, Metropolitan takes place “not so long ago” focusing on the winter vacation of a close-knit group of young city socialites called the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack.” The plot follows Upper West Sider Tom Townsend’s transition from outsider to rat-pack member as he accidentally enters the world of cotillions and cocktails.
Yes, much has changed since Metropolitan; letters have been replaced by email, the cha-cha by dabbing, and Jane Austen by Justin Bieber. The core difference between the UHB portrayed in the film and today results from technology. Scenes of intense discussion and debate over novels and essays now revolve around television shows and movie trilogies. Rather than playing cards, teenagers snap “selfies” with each other. The callow conversations seen in the movie are no longer conducted in person but via text message.
Today’s internet-dependent society comes with an additional set of UHB “dos and don’ts.” Not only are they expected to attend soirées and schmooze with socialites, now they are pressured to post pictures on Instagram and increase their number of Facebook friends. The expectation of a proper escort extends far beyond arriving on time and includes announcing one’s relationship status on Facebook. Additionally, an impulsive, sarcastic teenager like the film’s character Nick Smith would be prohibited from sharing tweets that could be misunderstood and incendiary. Instead, UHBs are confined to what is considered “PC” thereby infringing on their self-expression and freedom of speech—two key values in Metropolitan. As a result, social-media-obsessed Manhattanites surrender their privacy for social acceptance.
Despite differences stemming from the digitization of our world, underlying commonalities between the two eras are undeniable. Of course there are still Park Avenue parties, powder-room gossip sessions, and debutante seasons—contrary to what Metropolitan predicted. As always, pseudo-intellectuals boast their ever-changing political ideologies, while hypocrites spend hours getting their hair done for the very galas they disparage. Love triangles, fabricated rumors, rivalries, and insecurities remain the enemies of any young socialite. The biggest difference is that debutante season has evolved into a 24/7 event broadcasted through social media.
Perhaps the most disheartening parallel between the world of Sally Fowler’s Rat Pack and the present day’s equivalent elite cliques is the perpetual fear that they are “doomed to failure” as best put by Charlie Black talking to an older UHB at JG Melon. Furthermore, adhering to social obligations seems to offer the UHB of any generation a way to somehow secure their social standing and avoid Charlie’s threat of “downward social mobility.”
From TheGreat Gatsby to Gossip Girl, there will always be critical spectators captivated by the etiquette of “high society.” What these stories explore is an answer to Nick Smith’s timeless question: “Are the more fortunate really so terrific?” or is there only suppressed sadness behind all of the superficial seduction?