Yes I know Kingsman: Secret Service came out over a year ago but I’ve been thinking about it on and off for pretty much that whole time. There’s a lot about the film that’s extremely jarring, but if you haven’t seen it, here’s a rundown. A boy named Eggsy father gets killed. Eggsy grows up in a lower-class neighborhood, until growing up and finding his father was part of an elite secret service organization that has traditionally employed members of the upper classes. Eggsy is invited to try out for the secret service and fails, but Eggsy also discovers a secret plot to take over the world by the upper classes, and takes it into his own hands to basically become James Bond and save the day.
Throughout the movie, Colin Firth is Eggsy’s mentor in the service, and explains certain rules to him. The code is “oxfords not brogues,” referencing the service’s sartorial preference for neat but plain dress over flashier outfits. He also repeats the refrain “manners maketh man,” and after we watched it, this is the phrase that drove my husband mad. Because by the end, Eggsy has ditched his street clothing and adopted Firth’s suits and oxfords. On the surface, it appears that “manners” just means “emulating the rich.”
I wrestled with this until I read one of the most astounding pieces of cultural criticism I’ve ever seen, which happens to be written in the voice of the Incredible Hulk. Ignore the all-caps and look at this:
CONSIDER THE KINGSMEN AS AN AGENCY. THEY ARE NOT ONLY THE THROWBACK ICONS TO THE STYLINGS OF THE ’60S, BUT ALSO (WHAT THEY CONSIDER TO BE) THE BETTER, MORE GENTLEMANLY VALUES OF THAT ERA AS WELL. MEANING THEY DO NOT JUST VALUE THEMSELVES AS THE PARAGONS OF JUSTICE, BUT THE STALWART EXAMPLES OF MANNERED DECENCY AND HONOR. AS COLIN FIRTH SO REGULARLY ESPOUSES, “MANNERS MAKETH MAN.” BUT, OF COURSE, SO MUCH OF THE KINGSMEN’S TROUBLE COMES FROM THE WAY THEY EASILY COME TO CONFUSE THE SURFACE APPEARANCES OF WHAT IS CONSIDERED “GENTLEMANLY” WITH THE ACTUAL INTENT OF POLITENESS AND CARING. IT CONFUSES THE SIGNPOSTS OF BEING CULTURED – THAT WOULD BE POSH ACCENTS AND WEALTH, ESTEEM AND POWER – WITH THE SIGNPOSTS OF ONE’S BASIC GOODNESS.
The film deals a lot with that dichotomy between surface “gentlemanly” habits and actual good behavior. Because ultimately, the movie is about rich people throwing poor people under the bus, because they believe their manners make them inherently better. And that is because “manners” is often confused with “good manners.” Manners are just a set of customs and habits prevalent among a group of people. Manners in and of themselves are valueless, but they are made good or bad by their goals. Is the intent to make others feel included and welcome? Or is the intent to exclude those who do not have the same manners as you?
Throughout the film, Firth is the only of the Kingsmen who understands this different, and shows actually good manners. He understands that it is not his money, his house or his fine suits that make him a mannered man, but his treatment of others. That the only thing different between him and someone of a lower class is the suit he can afford.
In the Victorian era, as the middle class rose and more people had disposable incomes, the upper classes began to panic. Having “class” became less about money than about what one did with it. “The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it,” wrote historian Deborah Valenze. Thus, the distinction between “new money” and everyone else, exhibited in Charles Dickens’ sick burn of his characters the Veneerings’ new furniture in Our Mutual Friend: “The surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.” Their furniture was new and literally tacky.
There was also the assumption that if one didn’t have money, it was because of some moral failure. “A series of laws passed between the 1840s and the 1880s, attaching penal sanctions to unpaid loans, arose from a consensus that debt was subversive of ‘national morality,'” writes Timothy Alborn, encouraging the idea that if you didn’t have money, it is because you are irresponsible or criminal. Unfortunately, this viewpoint hasn’t exactly gone away. One need only to look at the rise of the prosperity gospel, which espouses that if one is rich it is because one is favored by God, or the assumptions that all poor people just don’t work hard enough, to see it still exists.
But back to good manners. I think what keeps endearing me to the movie is that it shows the divide between appearance and action. Manners, the collection of actions society has agreed are polite, are the surface. They are supposed to represent good intent. But if the intent isn’t actually there, the manners become hollow. A kind person who doesn’t know manners will always be favorable to an unkind person who knows how to put on a show.
Yes, at the end of the film, Eggsy is dressed in a suit, glasses, and a cane. Part of that, I have to assume, is because the Kingsmen’s suits are fucking bulletproof and that cane has a knife in it, but part of it may also be he just likes wearing it. But he’s in his neighborhood bar, and confronts the man who has been domestically abusing his mother, just as he did when he wasn’t wearing a suit, because appearance or not, Eggsy knows domestic abuse is wrong. He knows that protecting the vulnerable will always be more important than maintaining appearances. Those are the type of manners that make someone, no matter what you wear.