“It’s not something Jane Austen would have done,” Tom Townsend tells Audrey Rouget at the end of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990). He has come to the Hamptons with a toy gun in his pocket to protect Audrey’s virtue from being tainted. Audrey agrees, perhaps the author would not have run off to vacation with the odious Rick Von Sloneker. But how can Tom, who had been critical of Audrey’s love for Austen, now hold her up to the exact morals he continually dismissed?

Not Something Jane Austen Would Have Done

On Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco

By Sabrina Papas

Film still from Metropolitan. A woman in a frilly white dress lounges on a frilly bed in a fancy bedroom.

In Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco (1998), Stillman offers his own Austen heroines: Audrey Rouget and Alice Kinnon. Both young women are criticized for their virtue and lack of experience, much like a Fanny Price from Mansfield Park or a Harriet Smith from Emma. When they try to adapt themselves to the social rituals of their milieu, they are not commended but criticized still—shamed for following the guidelines they’ve been taught to abide.

I first watched both films about 10 years ago, in my early teens. I saw a part of myself in the naivety and inexperience of Audrey and Alice. As I’ve grown, so has my identification with both characters. Although the sexual politics of Austen’s Regency era feel far removed from my generation, and from Stillman’s characters, I still find myself encountering the same seemingly outdated morals. 

Metropolitan follows the self-proclaimed Sally Fowler Rat Pack, a group of college-age socialites during debutante season in Manhattan. Tom, the middle-class west sider, accidentally finds himself in their midst. There’s an escort shortage, and Audrey immediately takes to him. 

Tom learns of Audrey’s admiration for Jane Austen when she cites Mansfield Park as one of her favourite novels, but having never read any of Austen’s novels, he misjudges what this fondness means about Audrey. In fact, Tom doesn’t read novels at all, relying instead on literary criticism to understand the writers he so confidently opposes. When discussing an essay by the critic Lionel Trilling, Audrey counters his argument that “we modern people today with our modern attitudes bitterly resent Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous” and asks, “What’s wrong with a novel having a virtuous heroine?” Tom, lacking his own original thoughts on the novel, can only regurgitate Trilling’s criticisms. Despite having never read the novel, Tom has already made up his mind about the “unbearable” Fanny. He holds the modern attitude that Trilling writes about and uses that perspective to judge Fanny for her timid disposition and outdated principles.

Tom’s opinion of Audrey has been constructed similarly. She exhibits the virtuous and moralistic qualities of an Austen heroine that are quite far from the sensibilities of her contemporaries. While Tom may consider Audrey to be intelligent, well-read, and a good conversationalist, he doesn’t see her as a romantic option. Instead, he’s stuck on the idea of getting back together with his ex-girlfriend Serena Slocum, who could be seen superficially as the opposite of Audrey; with her reputation for carrying on a number of relationships at once, she adheres to the sexual politics of their time.

But through Tom’s eventual reading and enjoyment of Austen’s Persuasion, he begins to change his mind about Audrey as well. His opposition to Audrey’s nature wasn’t due to a dislike of her, but rather, due to a misreading. By reading Austen, Tom realizes the worth of Audrey’s strong principles. She may not be a Serena Slocum, but there’s value in both ways of being. Tom’s learning to come to his own conclusions, to do his own close readings, instead of relying on the words of critics. When he finds out that Audrey has gone to Rick Von Sloneker’s house in the Hamptons, he worries that she’s now adopted the modern attitudes of their peers. What if she’s lost sight of the Austenian values he initially criticized and now admires?

Stillman introduces us to a post-graduate version of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack in The Last Days of Disco, replacing debutante balls with disco clubs. Alice, a naïve recent college grad working in publishing, finds herself following the misguided advice of her roommate, Charlotte—the less sincere Emma Woodhouse. Charlotte tells Alice that her unpopularity in college came from her judgmental and self-righteous attitude, likening her to a “kindergarten teacher.”

The virtuous Alice sets out to defy these expectations by taking Charlotte’s advice; she leaves the club with Tom Platt, a Charlotte-approved suitor, she switches out her clichéd vodka tonic for a Pernod and learns to drop the word “sexy” into conversation, albeit unsuccessfully (“There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck”).

When I first saw the film at 14, I felt betrayed by Alice. All throughout my teens, I was relieved when a young woman in a movie or television show was as inexperienced as me, and I aligned myself with these characters. But if Alice was so quick to acquiesce to Charlotte’s judgments, I thought, she wasn’t like me at all.

Later, Tom shames Alice for going home with him so easily. He describes her as a vision of “virtue and sanity” and tells her, “What I was craving was the sort of sentient individual who would not abandon her intelligence to hop into bed with every guy she meets in a nightclub.” Not only has he completely misread Alice’s actions (she had never had sex before that night), but he has also passed on two STDs to her. Alice was merely adapting herself to reform her college reputation. But even Charlotte remains critical of Alice—no longer for her virtue, but for her supposed vice. 

In my 20s, my understanding of Alice has evolved. Anyone who knows me is aware of my openness when it comes to my dating life. There have been instances, however, when I’ve found myself using these experiences as social currency. I’ve told stories about my dating life to signal to others that I have a certain value, to make up for years of feeling insecure and undesirable as a teenager. There had never been anything to tell, and then suddenly I found myself with a growing inventory of stories.

But there have been times when I’ve also been misread. I had a Tom Platt-type man tell me that he wasn’t the same as me, that he couldn’t sleep around casually. I had a friend tell me that I didn’t have to sleep with everyone after a first date. So although my candour originally came from a need to control the image others had of me, there’s always space for misinterpretation. Like Alice, I had played the part better than I initially planned.

By the end of The Last Days of Disco, virtue is rewarded.

By the end of The Last Days of Disco, virtue is rewarded. Everyone is left single and jobless, except Alice. Audrey makes a cameo at the club, and through Charlotte, we find out that she’s found success since we last saw her in Metropolitan. Despite misreadings and the missteps they’ve taken, both Audrey and Alice have remained true to themselves. I’d like to think it’s something Jane Austen would have done.

Sabrina Papas is a Toronto-based writer.