Feminist Fridays: Jane Austen and Game Theory (or, My College Years)

I find I’m always interested in feminist perspectives, whether it’s in regards to literature, pop culture, or current events. Feminist Fridays is going to be my forum for discussing these issues, and may come in the form of book (or other media) reviews, link roundups, or my rambling thoughts essays. If you’d like to make a habit of discussing feminist issues on Fridays, join in and leave me a link. If you’d like to contribute a guest post for Feminist Fridays, I’d be happy to chat with you about that was well, so contact me!

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I read my first Jane Austen book—Emma—for a book report for my HS freshman English class. I chose it mostly because one of my favorite movies—Clueless—was based on it. I continued to read Jane Austen. Later in high school I would read Pride & Prejudice. In college I read Northhanger Abbey, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, and my personal favorite, Mansfield Park (infer what you will about my personality now that you know my favorite Austen heroine is Fannie Price). I’m not a huge Jane Austen fan, but I’m definitely glad I read her novels. She was such a keen observer, her work reveals great insight into people’s motivations, which is why her books have stood the test of time.

Game Theory is also something that I first discovered in high school. (I spent my Friday nights and Saturdays during my high school days trying to convince people that the US should really do something about all that spent nuclear fuel in Russia that was just sitting around in pails or that increasing teacher pay was the best way to improve academic achievement of American students. These policies were always necessary to prevent nuclear war.)

Competitive high school debate introduced me to a lot of academic concepts most 14-year-olds have no business acting like they understand, so it’s no surprise it wasn’t until graduate school when I took an entire course on Game Theory that I started to fully understand it (not that one class makes me an expert).

Given my affinity for both diverse subjects, I was delighted this week to discover an article in The New York Times about a new book from UCLA Political Science professor Michael Chwe about Jane Austen’s insight as the unacknowledged founder of the discipline of Game Theory. I’m so amused and ambivalent about this project, I know I’m going to have to read the book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist.

On one hand, it’s fantastic to see stuffy academics recognize the talent of an author while much beloved, is also written off as a woman writing about womanly things like petticoats and balls and the anguish of finding a husband.

On the other, it’s incredibly condescending to act like this is some great revelation. This article in Slate articulates this point of view. The juxtaposition of Jane Austen and Game Theory is just begging to be discussed in a feminist point of view.

Do we applaud Men in Important Fields for noticing what readers have acknowledged for two centuries? Or does reducing Austen’s insight into human nature to fodder for political theorists trivialize her art?

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5 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: Jane Austen and Game Theory (or, My College Years)

  1. Thanks for everyone’s interest! Of course my intention is not to be condescending, and I do not think I am “reducing” Austen to anything. I do claim that an understanding of game theory allows one to better understand the scope of Austen’s ambition. In other words, I argue that she was not just a keen observer of human nature, but that she was consciously trying to build a theory of human action based upon strategic thinking. This is also what game theory does, but Austen was 150 years earlier.

    I appreciate the Slate article, but the author did not read the book before writing it. The book is now out and freely available, so I would encourage folks to read it and then form an opinion. I hope that people coming from a feminist perspective would find it interesting; I would love a feminist critique. Some ideas from my 2001 book “Rational Ritual” were picked up by the sociologist Cecelia Ridgeway in her 2011 book “Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World.” Best, Michael

    1. Hi Michael,

      Feminist Fridays is a series I do on my (otherwise mostly YA fiction/librarian) blog to posit questions and encourage discussion and reflection. I did request we purchase your book at the library where I work because I was interested—amused and ambivalent, but definitely interested—so that I could read before forming an opinion.

  2. That’s interesting. I hadn’t come across that article yet. I’m going to have to go with with the article trivializes her art. I mean … if you read one of her books, you know she has insight into human nature. Though his article is interesting, I doubt he meant anything crude/rude/etc about it.

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