Unguilding the Times

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I’ve become such a fan of Julian Fellows’ The Guilded Age that I even belong to a group that discusses each episode. One thing that I have noticed in the comments is the tendency to dissect the characters with our modern day ways of thinking. Fortunately Fellows has instead studied the era and carefully crafts his characters to behave according to the customs of the time. 

We might wish that the ingenue, Marion, were less naive and more forceful, but she is a product of beliefs about young women that were prevalent back then. She is expected to behave according to a particular code. Deviating from the accepted ways would be a clear pathway to a difficult life, especially for a woman or anyone who is different. 

Thus we may cringe at the seeming deviousness of Aunt Agnes’ son, but we have to remember that he is a gay man living in an age when being so endangered his freedoms. The total lack of understanding and acceptance of who he is forces him to live a lie every single day. Pretense has been forced on him by a society that would make him an outcast and judge him to be a deviant if they learned his truths. 

So it is with every character in the series, people caught in a highly constricting and judgmental time of history when aggressive women were viewed as pariahs and even educated Black citizens were confined to the downstairs. It was a time before an awakening to the value of every person regardless of who they are and where they began their journeys. 

The Guilded Age was just that, a time society was judged and ranked on artificial characteristics over which they often had no control. Women were pretty little adornments for their powerful husbands. Race was segregated from view. Sexual preferences were considered an abomination. The right to vote was confined mostly to white men. For all of the mansions and fashions from France it was in truth a difficult time for most people, even the most wealthy who were never completely free to be themselves. 

As I watch this program and research its authenticity I marvel at how far we have come in our acceptance of one another. Women hold powerful positions in families, industry and the government. Our LGBTQ community is becoming more and more open about who they are and how they feel. All races are demanding the equality that should have been theirs all along. We speak out, tear down social barriers, and advocate for freedoms that once were impossible to achieve for a vast swathe of the population.  

We all have a sense that there is more to do and that our present day ways are imperfect, but few of us would want to return to an age that was so stifling to so many people. In all likelihood few of us would have been members of the wealthiest class that dominated and hoarded the prizes of the era. Most of us would have instead lived rather dreary existences working sixteen hour days at the mercy of barons of industry whose only goals were to make more and more money. 

We might complain about the cost of gasoline today, but we actually have cars to drive. We get stressed over the schools that our children attend, but they get to stay in them for a full twelve years at no cost to us other than the taxes we pay. Many of us have homes that would have been unattainable for ordinary people in earlier times. We dine out at restaurants regularly and attend plays, concerts, ballgames and other events that were unreachable for most people in the nineteenth century. We have an openly gay man holding an important cabinet position in the government and a Black woman serving as Vice President of the United States. We indeed live in a time when opportunities are almost endless for anyone with imagination who is willing to work hard, and yet we spend a great deal of time complaining and longing for an earlier time that we have wrongly imagined was better than the present. 

Life can be tough regardless of advances. We may live in ways that our ancestors would not have been able to imagine, but there are prices to pay, sacrifices to made just to maintain the lifestyles that we have come to take for granted. We want our big screen televisions with hundreds of channels and our fancy phones and laptops without having to give up something else. We are finding out that we may have reached a moment in time that calls for each of us to be willing to give a little and to adapt. 

The world is always changing and asking us to be flexible enough to keep up with it. One day we were riding in buggies pulled by horses and the next we had gasoline powered cars. There was a time when darkness made it difficult to see but soon electricity lit up the world making it possible to be productive twenty four hours a day. Our grandparents were lucky to reach the eighth grade before joining the workforce and now we take high school diplomas for granted. Instead of complaining about where we are now, we should be celebrating that we have come this far. We should be working to make certain that everyone has better opportunities for living a good life. 

Frankly I don’t want to be constricted by the heavy corsets and restricting societal practices of the Guilded Age. I feel fortunate to be living in the present time. Even with all of its problems it is generally a better place for the vast majority of us. I’ll adapt to the rough spots and work toward spreading the freedoms even more. Now that we have broken away there is no turning back. I can be me and you can be you. We have unguilded the times to be freer than ever before. Let’s keep up the work of moving forward. There is still much to do.


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