Historical Feminists (and Feminism) in Modern Television

Our lady Jane (Austen)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mythologisation of great women writers, artists, and other historical figures.

As feminist scholar Christine Battersby points out, writing against the postmodern impulse to declare the author or great genius ‘dead’:

The concept of genius is too deeply embedded in our conceptual scheme for us to solve our aesthetic problems by simply amputating all talk of genius, or by refusing to evaluate individual authors and artists. Before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us. [Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, 1989, p. 15]

In other words, Battersby frames the mythologisation and popularisation of female historical figures as inherently good, and feminist. In her book this is a convincing argument, and I believe representation is a very necessary part of equality. Naturally things are usually more complicated in practice than they are in theory, though.

Screenshot from Harlots (2017)

Dr. Rosanne Welch has written (/podcasted?) about some of the recent depictions of historical feminists in popular television, and raises related concerns:

Recently, in watching television shows and films set in the past I’ve begun noticing a proliferation of female feminists who are eventually aided by male feminist characters in the quest to be treated equally and I can’t decide if I like this new trend…. or not.

Screenshot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)

So as a feminist and as a writer, you’d think I’d love to see the kinds of feminists that are popping up on several new historical fiction shows I’ve found on Netflix recently — women detectives like:

Phryne Fisher and Dorothy Williams in 1929 Australia on Miss Fisher’s Mysteries or female medical doctors like Julia Ogden and Emily Grace in 1898 Toronto on Murdoch Mysteries or Samantha Stewart in 1940s London on Foyle’s War — or perhaps the most famous recent historical fiction feminist on television — Sybil Crawley in 1912 England on the wildly popular Downton Abbey.

Those last 2 shows I found thanks to PBS, which was our only window into international television before the advent of Netflix so I wanted to make sure and give credit where credit is due. The other thing that sparked my mind about this idea of ‘fake frequent feminists’ was an interview with Alan Rickman [on] a film he directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan ) called A Little Chaos. Apparently, it’s set in the court of Louis XIV and involves two landscape architects involved in designing the gardens — one male (who existed in real life) landscape artist André Le Notre, and one female — who is entirely fictional.

Publicity still from Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

 

In an interview with Variety Rickman said he enjoyed the historical inaccuracy of the story:

“But there was something unmistakable about the dialogue and the fact she’d created a leading female character who couldn’t possibly have existed then — it’s a complete fantasy. But that’s what the movies can do, you can take a period of history that’s incredibly male dominated and you can inject into it a very modern independent woman and make a point about feminism through a prism of history. So if anyone says the story’s implausible, you just say: Well, yes.”

Rickman gave us one of the many reasons for the many feminist characters we are encountering these days. Another is that post-Buffy (which I discussed a couple of shows ago) women want to see empowered women, rather than victims — and the networks and studios know this. Also, writers know that characters need to be active to be interesting, not passive. They also know that stories need to focus on unique and dramatic events, not boring average everyday living. So what’s the problem with that?

I fear all these feminists in the past are giving young girls the idea that it’s always been easy to demand and receive our rights in various countries around the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

You can read the rest of Welch’s piece (which contains a few more examples and some suggested solutions) over on Medium.

Publicity image from the forthcoming Mary Shelley biopic.

Review: Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016)

11452529_oriNOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.

Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).

Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.

94274The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.

Queue the obligatory 'suiting up' scenes.
Cue the obligatory ‘suiting up’ scenes.

Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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A shot from of the eerily out-of-place horror scenes in the film.

This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.

I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.
I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.

Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.

Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Zombies-teaser
The film ultimately had far too few of these moments.

The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).

George Wickham, hero of the people.
George Wickham, hero of the people.

A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.

Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.