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.

Postcolonial Steampunk

1888 American cartoon of the Imperial Octopus, its greedy squid arms reaching out to grasp the world’s various regions.

Steampunk is a popular aesthetic these days, though it’s still too early to comment on its long-term staying power as a movement. Either way, the subculture still caters to many different groups of fans in many different countries. This past weekend the Emporium Vernesque opened its doors for a Dutch gathering of steampunks. A few months ago, the UK’s largest and longest-running steampunk festival, The Asylum, saw hundreds of steampunk enthusiasts flood the city of Lincoln. San Diego’s annual Gaslight Gathering draws similar crowds.

Most of these people are white.

1280px-Steampunk_convention_world_record_attempt,_Lincoln_Asylum
A group of very lovely, very white steampunks gathered in Lincoln for the 2011 Asylum Festival.

I say this not to comment on the skin color of steampunk lovers per se, but rather to highlight a different problem in the subculture: the visual heritage of colonialism. Namely, in how far can we appropriate the Victorian aesthetic without paying unwanted homage to the period’s legacy? I’m far from the only person to address this difficult question. People both inside and outside the steampunk community have shared their thoughts on the (in)separability of steampunk aesthetics and ethics, and have come down on both sides. Some dismiss steampunk outright as culturally elitist and politically impotent. This couple is a good example of how neo-Victorian sentiment can get out of hand. Other commenters on the aesthetics of steampunk see no problem donning a pith helmet, smoking jacket, and monocle, arguing that dressing like a coloniser is not the same as supporting colonialism. Still others see the aesthetic as a direct critique of colonialism, appropriating it to subvert and reshape its meanings. This issue of cultural appropriation is also something we’ll hopefully be discussing at next year’s British Association of Victorian Studies conference.

For me, the most interesting response to this issue is in the increasing amount of postcolonial cosplay taking place in and around the steampunk community. In a variety of different ways, these interpretations of the steampunk aesthetic imagine the Victorian period from a perspective other than the white, Western norm. I’m hoping to write more on this topic in the near future, but here are a few great articles and websites dedicated to the subject of multicultural or postcolonial steampunk, which should tide you over in the meantime.

Below are just a few examples to get us started.

Steamfunk

One of the first images I came across when I Googled ‘multicultural steampunk’ was this:

steampunk-sista-6

The image was in an article by Balogun, who writes in a genre he calls ‘steampunk’, defined as follows:

Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is A philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or  steampunk fiction.

Visually it works as a combo of genteel nineteenth-century styles and the powerful fashions of the 70s funk movement. I have yet to find many concrete examples of this type of cosplay in the steampunk world, restricted as I am to Google Image searches, but am fascinated by the potential of the aesthetic. If you know anyone who has worked in this area, I would love to hear about it!

Alternate Empires

More common in the steampunk cosplay world is the visualisation of alternate empires. Britain wasn’t the only nation with a large international presence in the nineteenth century. Austin Sirkin has a great post to this effect called ‘adding a multicultural touch to steampunk without being an insentsitive clod’. He also includes some of the better-known examples of this kind of cosplay:

[W]e have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:

[…]Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:

This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn’t incorporate many “Western” elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don’t belong to.

Do check out his article for more examples.

Native Tech

In addition to referencing some of the other international powers of the nineteenth century, Sirkin’s post also looks at those nations and peoples who were on the losing side of history. He provides the following three images of Native American cyberpunk, though as he points out, despite their attractiveness as examples of postcolonial cosplay, these images have problematic, commercial origins:

While in this case the images are rendered problematic by their status as ads for the company ColourChiefs, they do provide an interesting launchpad talking talk about Native Tech. Monique Poirier wrote the following about her own foray into Native American steampunk back in 2010, describing what she enjoys about the subculture’s opportunities for neo-historical revision:

Monique Poirier
Monique Poirier

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Though I really like this idea of intentionally anachronistic history and revisionist mythmaking, I can imagine that the line between respectful and disrespectful uses of this aesthetic is a fine one. This is a problem Monique Poirier does mention frequently in her writing, and is something blogger Miss Kageshi also discovered following negative responses to her own post on Native American steampunk.

And the rest

What do you think? Can steampunk escape its colonial heritage? What should postcolonial steampunk look like?

I’ve included a slideshow of more postcolonial steampunk cosplay below. Please note that, like the images above, these images each have their own context and nuances, which should be researched before re-posting them elsewhere. Where possible, all images link to their source, but if you spot someone you know who isn’t credited, please contact me:

 

Past, Present, and (Retro)Future

Source: meccanismocomplesso.org
Source: meccanismocomplesso.org

Things are happening in the world of popular (neo-)Victorianism! This week not one, but two calls for papers graced my inbox. The first is for a symposium (a.k.a. a one-day conference) in Amsterdam on historical and neo-historical fiction, and the second is for a symposium in Portsmouth on Victorian materiality and the material object. If you’re interested in alternate history, material culture, steampunk, period drama, retrofuturism, nostalgia, or just the past (or the present) in general, do submit an abstract.

If you’re not in the business of giving conference papers, you can come along and listen for free, or, since I’m likely to attend both of these events, you can follow my experience at the symposium on Twitter, and read my thoughts about the event here, after the fact.

And now the CFPs!

640px-GrimburgwalAmsterdam1. Reading the Present through the Past: from Historical to Neo-Historical Fiction

One-day symposium, 4 March 2016
The Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies
University of Amsterdam

Ever since the turn of the twenty-first century, literary and cultural returns to earlier periods have become increasingly frequent and visible. Novels on past eras dominate the shortlists of literary prizes and the number of historical films and TV series has exploded. The popularity of Hilary Mantel’s books about Henry VIII’s court, the success of TV series like Sherlock and The Americans and of graphic novel series like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are cases in point. Many of these works, however, seem to relate to the past in ways that are different from earlier historical novels and films.

According to Elodie Rousselot, editor of the recent collection Exoticizing the Past in Neo-Historical Fiction (2014), literary contributions to this trend belong to a new subgenre of contemporary historical fiction, the ‘neo-historical novel’. Even though it is set in the past, ‘neo-historical’ fiction aims to discuss and mediate the concerns and occupations of our current age. In establishing overt connections to the present day, these works display an awareness of their own constructedness and open ways for a critical reflection on exoticizing approaches to the past. For this one-day symposium, we invite contributions that take up the challenge to think about the continuities and specificities of contemporary (neo)historical fiction and explore it as a literary and cultural phenomenon.

Keynote speakers:

Dr Elodie Rousselot (University of Portsmouth)
Prof Dr Elisabeth Wesseling (Maastricht University)

Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to:
• the neo-historical imagination as a literary movement and/or broader cultural phenomenon (literature, film, TV, art, adaptations, etc.)
• comparisons between (re)constructions of different historical periods (neo-Victorian, neo-Gothic, neo-Tudor, neo-medieval, neo-Golden Age, neo-WWI/WWII, alternate history, etc.)
• theoretical and conceptual approaches to neo-historical fiction (postmodernism and post-postmodernism, mashup, cultural memory, affect, postcolonialism, posthumanism, utopia/dystopia, etc.)
• connections within and across national and linguistic borders and communities; world literature and cosmopolitan memory

Please submit abstracts of 250 words for 20-minute papers in English, together with a short biography, to Daný van Dam at vandamhd@cardiff.ac.uk by 18 December 2015.

 

28742. All Things Victorian: Exploring Materiality and the Material Object

Call for Papers one-day symposium, 19 March 2016
The Centre for Studies in Literature
University of Portsmouth
Keynote Speaker: Dr Nadine Muller (Liverpool John Moores University)

The rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century, with its unprecedented increase in the mass-production, proliferation and consumption of machine-made material objects and things, forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the self and the physical world in Victorian culture. Since then, neo-Victorian re-imaginings of the past have recurrently appropriated Victorian materialities as both a means of re-fashioning the past for contemporary consumption and of engaging with the past through haptic communication. This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the material object, its invested meaning and the ways in which this has been presented and re-presented in Victorian culture and contemporary neo-Victorian re-imaginings.

We invite delegates to submit abstracts exploring Victorian materiality and the material object in literature, cultural studies, the visual arts, film, television adaptation, fashion and consumer culture. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:
•  The representation of Victorian things, objects and artefacts in: Victorian and/or neo-Victorian literature; film, television and drama adaptations; fashion and textiles; Victorian and/or contemporary consumer culture.
• The material object: Victorian clothing, jewellery, furniture, architecture, photographs, mementos, keepsakes, memorials, archives etc.
• Human interactions and engagements with materiality and the material object.
• Theories of material culture: thing theory, object theory, cultural memory theory, trace theory.

Please submit proposals of 250-300 words for papers of no more than 20 minutes along with a 50-70 word bio-note to cslpgconf@port.ac.uk. The deadline for accepting proposals is 31 December 2015 and acceptance will be notified by 15 January 2016.