How Judge Judy is Like Jane Austen

I am a fan of Judge Judy, and have been so for at least a decade. I am also a fan (an uncharitable sort might suggest the phrase "obsessed lunatic") of Jane Austen. I don't think my admiration of the two springs from two different sources. It's not that one is a guilty pleasure and the other a highbrow appreciation.

There have been many Judge Judy imitators. I agree with Andrew Sullivan on this: none compare to her. What the imitators get wrong is that they think the appeal of Judge Judy lies in yelling at or humiliating people. That's not the essence of Judge Judy - that's a side effect.

Austen and Sheindlin have in common a very fine-grained moral sense and an uncanny ability to spot and expose the obfuscations people use to hide their petty and selfish motives. Austen can recreate them like no one else, and Sheindlin can pick out a liar and get him to recant in a matter of minutes. Each are better than just about anyone to look past what people are ostensibly saying and doing to uncover their true motivations. They each attend to the small moral situations at play in everyday life: when people use others, how people deny responsibility for uncharitable acts, etc.

Both are, unfairly I think, labeled as cold-hearted or unsympathetic. (Austen is also inaccurately pegged as a prude, but that's a topic for another time). What appears as disdain for the vast majority of people is the result of a very strong, clear sense of right and wrong. Both hope for the best and expect the worst. Austen writes very affectionately of her heroines and their more good-hearted, good-natured relatives and friends. It is only for the selfish and the cruel that she reserves her most derisive irony. Sheindlin relentlessly debunks the jerks on her show, but shows relief and kindness when presented with children, or with someone who tries to do the right thing. (I saw her on Larry King recently; she spoke movingly about how unfair the law in Arkansas is that demands that children be taken away from gay adoptive parents). She wants to see a world in which people take responsibility for themselves and their children, and treat each other with kindness and respect. She wants to reveal those who purport to do those things, but don't. Contrary to what some think, both hold out much hope.

There are obvious differences between the two, besides the fact that one is an artist and the other is a TV judge. Austen has the lightest of touches, Sheindlin has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Sheindlin seems to revel in her ability to spot moral deficiencies. Austen is clearly much more ambivalent about her own ability -- she values those characters who simply see the best in everyone (Jane Bennet, Charles Bingley), and expresses some reservation about the more morally perceptive (but consequently less generous) characters. She seems to express through her fiction, and also in her letters, two incompatible wishes: 1) that she could be more generous and open to the best in everyone, and 2) that everyone else could also see what she sees about what people are really like.

Both have taught me about human nature. And both satisfy a sense of justice by calling out even the minor wrongs, and pointing out how these are camouflaged.

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