Musings on Memory

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read Charles De Lint’s novel, Memory & Dream sometime between age 14 and 17. I honestly couldn’t tell you when I read it. I know it was in Canada, in part because he’s a Canadian author although he’s pretty popular in the US as well. But at the time, the book was out of print, I borrowed it from my local library. It was the first book of his I ever read.

I started reading fairy tale novels in late Junior High/High School. I was an avid reader, and I read the Lord of the Rings before the movies, and long before the books regained popularity. In fact, I was shunned at school for reading them. This was long before nerdom’s renaissance.

My parents read me a lot of books, but I really got into reading in 2nd grade because of my best friend Nicole—who introduced me to Babysitters Club’s Little Sisters series—which are easy reader books, but they’re all about the friendships between girls who are in elementary & middle school. So they were definitely geared toward my age group.

After I had read all the Sweet Valley, Boxcar Children, & Nancy Drew series available at the library, I got into reading Star Trek—this one was due to my father’s influence as he began purchasing Star Trek novels for me when he had business trips. When I had read all the available Star Trek novels, I began to search around the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the library since I already knew I liked Star Trek I was looking for something in that vein.

I don’t know what my first discovery of Fairy Tale novels was, but I do know that I began a passionate love affair that continues to this day.

Shortly into this relationship is when I discovered Charles De Lint. He is the first and only celebrity that I have ever sent a fan letter to, and he was kind enough to respond and give me his autograph. Approximately a decade later I had written my own collection of fairy tales, At Times I Almost Dream, and I contacted him to tell him how much he had inspired me to become a writer and to become a writer of faerie. As De Lint likes to remind his readers, Jane Yolen once said, “Touch magic, pass it on.”

Though I have reread many of De Lint’s short stories, I never went back to Memory & Dream. In part because we moved away from the city with the library that held all his works of fiction—and like I said, for a long time it was out of print. But I suppose it also didn’t really occur to me. I was so busy devouring new titles, I didn’t really take the time to go backward.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were discussing novel writing together. He has a novel that he’s been working on for several years, and I mentioned to him that I did as well. I gave him a short synopsis, and he said it sounded amazing and that I should work on it again. In fact, I should start on it right then, while we were talking.

I didn’t start it right then, but I did open it up and I reread all the chapters I had written. I suddenly recollected just how much I had loved Memory & Dream, and how I had wanted so desperately to follow in De Lint’s footsteps.
An aspect of Charles De Lint’s work that I love the best, is how he has formed a world inside the fictional city of Newford, but more than that, he created a community of artists who all bring beauty and magic into the world together. De Lint is both beautifully meta as well as a bit sentimental. But that’s what I like about him.

It was really fascinating for me being both older and more mature in my craft, to go back to this narrative that inspired me so heartfully. There was a great deal about the way I’ve come to view fantasy narrative, that I definitely have inherited from him. It was also somewhat moving, to come to understand that his prose was no more unearthly than any other writer. Of course, I adore him greatly, and of course I think that he is brilliant and talented. But I was able now to see flaws, where before I could only worship. Coming back to De Lint as an adult, humanized him for me. Which is a gift in and of itself. To no longer feel completely cowed by an idol’s talent. To realize that I have grown. And that I myself am talented. Equal to those whom I respect.

Thank you Mr. De Lint, for all that you have done for me.

On Writing

Back in February I wrote a piece for Writer’s Digest, which was pretty cool. Now that I’ve opened up my own writer’s blog, I thought I would share it here. Enjoy.

I loved fairy tales from a very young age. It never really mattered whether it was a book, movie, or someone telling me a story before bed. I loved the adventure, mystery, and fun of them. I devoured them so quickly, I remember going through all the shelves in the children’s section of the library and my mother speaking directly to the librarian for advice.

In my teens I was a budding storyteller myself, and I heard the advice over and over that you should write what you know. The first time I heard this advice was actually in Little Women. Jo March, a writer, sells mad fantastical stories of murder and mayhem. But her mentor Professor Bhaer is disgusted. He tells her these tall tales are nothing but trash. That she has the potential to write something great, and she’s wasting her time. She then put together a book that’s autobiographical, and he has it published.

Being a lover of fantasy, a nerd who read Lord of the Rings at twelve and had a rather large collection of Star Trek books, I was heartbroken. I looked for advice in books, but all of a sudden a book was telling me something that seemed wrong. I didn’t really understand. To further complicate things, teachers began to say similar things. Did that mean I couldn’t be a writer? Did I have to wait until I was old so I had something interesting to write about? At this point, I stopped. Nothing seemed good enough. I kept reading, I kept watching movies, but I put my pen and notebook away.

In college I fell in love again, but this time with fandom: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire. Everything was exciting; suddenly there were other people who understood my adoration of story. And I found something else. Fanfiction.

It felt more than vaguely illicit. Even now, many fanfiction writers don’t like to admit it. You’re not being original. You’re stealing from a real writer. Shipping, Crack!fics, Alternate Universes. No one cares what you do, and there’s no limit to your imagination. There’s no pressure write something great. So I just wrote. I wrote a story every weekend.

I came to the realization that writing was something that I really loved to do. And that there were at least certain aspects that I was good at. No, great at. I had audience feedback telling me that my story about Lois & Superman had made them cry. I wasn’t Lois, and there’s no such thing as Superman. Did that mean that the advice I had been hearing all my life was wrong? Had I become a writer without even realizing it?

I went to graduate school for creative writing and put together a book of my own ten fairy tales. Did I write what I know? I guess it depends on your definition. Even while writing my collection I had professors tell me that my writing was just as good without all that “magic stuff.” That I didn’t need genre to be interesting. Of course, no one does. I don’t think that’s the point. Sometimes magic has been metaphor, and sometimes it’s merely garnish.

My Tips

1. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about what you enjoy writing

2. If what you love is genre, learn more. Study the origins, read criticism, read books about it

3. Take the pressure off, and just practice. You don’t always have to be original

I don’t say that I write what I know, but I do say that I write what I feel, I write what I think is beautiful, and I write what I enjoy. And so should you.

Janeite Thoughts for an Evening: Mansfield Park IV

Blenheim Palace - Fountain - 1993

(Photo credit: ell brown)

I wrote this piece a while back, but I didn’t want to share it right away, because it’s shorter and more of an overall look at Mansfield Park. More from my imagination of what could have been Austen’s point of view, rather than us as the entertained readers.

So, Lord Bertram. Lord Bertram is in trade, actually. Which is interesting for a Lord. I’m probably forgetting Austen’s explanations from the story. Where MP was inherited from, as well as the titles. But their money is, predominantly, from the slave trade in Antigua.

I would put forth that the dysfunctionality of the Bertram family overall, and all the troubles that befall them, actually stem from and are symbolic of this. The corruption comes from Lord Bertram himself–as the head of the household. The 1998 version dabbles in this–when it portrays Tom as an artist and his internal conflict with having seen his father enact atrocities against other human beings. But that is not an overt theme in the original narrative.

Someone should correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I watched a documentary that said Austen’s family had connections to the slave trade, and she herself benefited from this. Even if this is not the case, England’s economy at that time was definitely benefited by slavery in the colonies. So that would still be an indirect benefit to Austen herself.

We don’t allow slavery in the United States, but we still benefit from it today certainly. Almost all of our every day products are produced in sweat shops, or created by companies that have enacted horrific human rights violations. Check out some lovely info about Nestle, as well as other well known corporations, for some good examples.

Mansfield Park, then, might be seen to enacted her own turmoil upon the page. How life is tainted by human cruelty. I can’t be sure, but it’s interesting to think about.

P.S. It’s likely that others far more academic than myself have said this already, and better. I definitely recommend checking out some of them on Amazon.

Sexism in Teaching Literature & A True Teacher’s Response

Yesterday the internet was buzzing with some extremely sexist remarks made by Professor Gilmour – a University professor in Canada. He wrote:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.” Via

Holger Syme, a true teacher repsonds:

Is passion about your subject matter important in teaching? Absolutely. Is the passion required in teaching typically stirred because the teacher identifies with the author or the text she teaches? I seriously hope not. I can only speak for myself, but I can categorically say that I have never identified with Shakespeare. (Marlowe, well. Is wanting to be someone the same as being someone? [For the record: I don’t want to be Marlowe. I like my eye-sockets too much.]) I don’t believe I have a reputation for lacking passion for my subject, though. But what do I know. From what I can observe in my colleagues, I don’t think too many of them only teach authors in whose works they see mirror-images of themselves. English Departments would otherwise be rife with psychopaths, morbidly jealous types, would-be kings and queens, and wealthy socialites. And people who ride around on donkeys. (They’re not?) I don’t even want to think about how dangerous a work environment history departments would be.

The exact opposite of Gilmour’s point is true: good teaching requires empathy — an effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is not just what research means, and why research is necessary, it’s what reading is. via

Gilmour has since offered an apology but one can only view in light of the vitriol that has been aimed his way in response to his outrageous and egregious misogyny. I’m not a teacher, but I am a woman and an author. Purposefully excluding women from what you consider to be academic worth is offensive and wrong. The more teachers promote ideas like this, the more students believe what society teaches them–that women’s work is worthless.

I’ll never forget during my studies when a male student told one of my female professors that he refused to be taught by her, or read any of the books she had chosen on the syllabus with female authors. He said, all these books were written by women. What could they possibly have to say to him. He wasn’t interested.  He was removed from her class, but it is my opinion he should have been kicked out of the program for that kind of disrespect.

How can you inspire and teach when your very students don’t consider you an authority? How does society respond to female minds and female achievement when authorities denigrate them continuously?

Janeite Thoughts for an Evening: Mansfield Park III

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Hey all, let’s get going. Last time I ended my analysis of Fanny, for the moment, and I’ve moved on to Maria. I made the claim that Maria has been abused as much as Fanny, but I didn’t explain how.

Certainly this isn’t something I would have thought when I first watched the adaptations. Nor even after a few rewatchings/readings. It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to the entirety of Mansfield Park unabridged that it really dawned on me. In fact, Austen herself tells us this, I simply didn’t hear it. She says, and I’m paraphrasing, that the ladies Bertram as well as their older brother Tom have been spoilt but not loved. They have been reprimanded by their father, but not shown real feeling.

Their father doesn’t understand their behavior, and expects his children to love him, when he has been not only physically distant, but emotionally so. Really, he can’t expect anything different. He has neglected their upbringing.

The same is true for their mother, Lady Bertram. Though she has been emotionally distant as well. Neither Fanny’s mother nor her aunt are particularly interested in their children. Both of them are idle and insipid. Mrs. Norris coddles and spoils the Bertram children. I think her feelings for them are as genuine as they can be, but she is blind to their faults. Mrs. Norris has something like Borderline or Narcissistic personality disorder. She projects her own feelings, psoitive or negative onto other people and identifies them either with herself. In this way she can get rid of her feelings of failure, as well as celebrate her feelings of grandiosity. So to the Bertrams her grandiosity. And to Fanny, the scapegoat, her failings. The Bertrams are all good, and Fanny is all bad.

Getting back to Maria, she is the oldest and so she receives the most attention. Particularly from Mrs. Norris now that Tom is away. None of her selfishness is hindered, her family is wealthy, and so she is given all kinds of toys. She cannot get at her parents emotionally. We don’t see this, but one can only guess that this occurred in childhood. All children want parental affection and admiration. Maria’s would have been met with boredom, for the most part from her mother. And her father is frequently away. When he comes back, it’s not hard to imagine that she would be frightened of him or wary. And he would likely have stopped trying to spend time with her, if he ever tried at all. Just a guess.

As I said before, Maria has quite the appetite for consumption. She has a hole inside her, where love ought to be. So she tries to fill it with things. She has a small circle of friends, so she hasn’t ever tried to fill the hole with romance or sex. She finds the richest man she can, and marries him as quickly as possible. Against everyone’s judgment, even her own. Because she knows, subconsciously, she needs access to a large income. Re-modelling a fancy house and shopping as much as she can are the only things she has to distract herself from her internal misery.

Once attached, she meets Henry Crawford. Unlucky for Maria, she enjoys flirtation with married women. They are unlikely to try to get their claws into him, and force him to marry. They’re also more likely to have sex with him. Without birth control, they can pass a child off as their husband’s. Impossible to hide a pregnancy if you’re supposed to be a virgin though.

For the first time, Maria feels something closer to filling her emotional wounds. It’s not perfect, because Henry doesn’t really care about her. But sex is a hell of a lot more exciting than shopping, and Maria falls for it, because she’s never felt so much before in her life. This is probably the first time she’s felt much of anything.

Due to the social mores of Rengency England, Maria is punished as a fallen woman. Nothing happens to Henry of course. He has to disappear from Manfield’s social circles, but he’ll do just fine in London. Maria on the other hand, is ruined socially for life. She will never escape her reputation. And unlike Lydia, she isn’t even able to wed the person who helped destroy it and recoup any of her social standing. She’s sent into outer darkness.

This is the real tragedy of Mansfield Park. Maria isn’t written to be likeable, and so the reader doesn’t even feel much sympathy for her fate. But the truth is, even unlikeable people have hurts–often the deepest hurts of all. Which is what makes them so unlikeable. Fanny, at least, had Edmund and William (her brother). She has people to bolster her, and to help teach her to feel kinship.

Because Maria was never taught how to empathize with her siblings, and to care for other people besides herself, in the end she doesn’t even have Julia by her side.

Janeite Thoughts for an Evening: Mansfield Park II

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Welcome back, I hope you’re enjoying this Janeite analysis.

These aren’t real academic essays, I’m just spouting my thoughts stream-of-conciousness style, so I’m not going to go searching for quotes. If you do have a question, or feel like I’m remembering something incorrectly, tell me in the comments!

Now, onto Mansfield Park. Those who love to read Austen will recall that there are many instances when Fanny begins to think something negative and internally chastises herself.

I don’t think this is Fanny being a prude or stick in the mud or goody-two-shoes even though that’s how it can come off. Fanny is Austen’s most internal and secretive character. Her whole identity is wound up in protecting herself, and so she’s curled up within her own mind, and often hides her feelings even from her own concious thoughts.

I would argue that, like Austentatious says in many of her essays, Fanny is performing. But my argument is that she’s performing the role of the good daughter. She doesn’t know how to generate positive attention, all she knows how to do is try to hide from the negative. She does this by not breaking any rules. Ever. (Until everyone wants her to marry against her will and it is VERY difficult for her to break the rules even then.)

An abused person, especially an abused female I would personally argue, is more likely to take on this role than to act out because the performance of femininity is to be submissive anyway. So when you add abuse to this era and this type of gender performance, I think Fanny is what you end up with.

I think that Fanny is so desperate for love, and the affection shown to her is so inconsistent, that she plays games in her mind to protect herself from harm.

For example, when she sees Maria or Mary doing something she doesn’t approve of or doesn’t like, instead of standing up for herself or condeming them, she often tells herself—she’s the bad one. She’s being unkind. I don’t have an exact quote, but I’m thinking in particular of the chapter when Fanny is sitting on the bench and Maria climbs over the gate. Fanny, slowly, as she waits for everyone, becomes angrier and angrier at having to wait. Yet, she argues with herself about what she’s feeling and subverts her anger into resignation and, in general, something of a depression. (Overall Fanny is not very upbeat and that’s in part because she has so much anger that she’s constantly sublimating into anxiety & depression.)

Therefore, it seems like Fanny has no backbone. But actually Fanny is trying to bend reality to this fantasy she has of love. Mom didn’t mean to hit me, she loves me. She was just upset because she lost her job. It’s my fault for bothering her when she was cooking dinner. —See, it makes sense.

Fanny does this with Edmund especially. She cannot bear to see him as anything other than her fantasy White Knight. And so she creates all kinds of fantastic reasons to maintain this view and to erase any anger, hurt, or disappointment she feels in reality toward him.

At the very end of Mansfield Park, the fantasy of many abused people becomes Fanny’s reality.  The unloving, abusive Maria is displaced and Fanny glorified in her stead as the Good Daughter. She finally gets the recognition she’s deserved all along.

Next time, we’ll talk about how this happy ending really isn’t so happy. And it’s all because of Maria.

Janeite Thoughts for an Evening: Mansfield Park I

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Hi everyone! I’ve decided to do a Jane Austen series. These aren’t real academic essays, I’m just spouting my thoughts stream-of-conciousness style & I don’t often go searching for exact quotes.

So, Mansfield Park. I was inspired by watching Ron Lit on Youtube (link at the bottom) and some of her analysis of Austen. She was talking about the hunkyness of Henry Crawford so that got me thinking.

I wonder, if Henry HAD waited for Fanny, and hadn’t been such a douche with Maria; would Fanny have fallen for him? Thing is, Fanny is not a very trusting sort, she is very timid. And she isn’t fully in touch with her own sexuality, so I think that Henry’s overt sexuality frightens her.

In many ways, I think that she loves Edmund because he is very proper and his affection is not sexualized. Fanny is NOT comfortable being sexualized. And, I get that. Fanny doesn’t like being forced into this role of sex object for men, where she will be paid for by her husband and then he will keep her. She has very little autonomy, and she’s protective of what she does have. Besides this, Fanny is emotionally stunted due to the neglect she’s experienced. So she’s even younger, emotionally, than she is by age. She’s just a young girl, she’s not ready for sex.

Fanny has been emotionally abused, and neglected for most of her life, and so she doesn’t trust affection until it has been proven. You can see how her female cousins have treated her, and especially her other aunt. Abuse works this way: the abusive people are nice to you one day, and nasty the next. So you come to feel unable to depend on consistency. Edmund is the only person consistently kind, and therefore all her needs for parental love & acceptance, familial/brotherly companionship, and just plain friendship end up being placed on Edmund’s shoulders. Fanny’s brother is in the navy, she never sees any of her family, she has no connection to them. At Mansfield, no one cares about her. All her needs are being met by Edmund alone. He’s her father, brother, and friend.

Edmund was attracted to Mary because she doesn’t have as many needs as Fanny. He can just relax and be a guy. He doesn’t have to play father with her. And she IS comfortable being sexualized. She sexualizes herself, and so Edmund doesn’t have to. Edmund is not very comfortable with sexuality himself. His brother is a real ne’re-do-well and I think that forces him into this role of being the Good Son and following the rules. Mary lets him break these rules in a comfortable, fun way.

Mary isn’t a villain, but she is a modern woman. She fits into the 21st century far more easily than her own time. In fact, I would argue that Mary is Fanny’s shadow self. All of Fanny’s hidden desires, her unattractive thoughts, her selfishness, her vanity, her sexuality, her confidence, her desire for control and power—they all are formed in the character of Mary. Because of this, Fanny is both attracted and repulsed by Mary. Mary is the embodiment of all the things that Fanny has either cast off because she thinks they’re inappropriate/unkind, or hasn’t been unable to attain because she lacks the experience/skill.

This is also the reason why there are many scenes between Mary & Fanny which are somewhat suggestive. Mary IS Fanny, so it’s only natural that they would have moments of intense sexual chemistry.

Because of the ideals of femininity during the Regency period, Mary cannot be the heroine. Fanny, though, can take on aspects of Mary. And I think she does so when she refuses to marry Henry, rejects Mansfield, and proves that she is an autonomous human being.

She will not openly become Mary, but when Mary disappears from the story, and Edmund falls in love with Fanny, I would argue it’s because Fanny has accepted more of her own true character than she had in the past. Not perfectly so, but she has grown up.

P.S. I have taken some ideas that Veronica mentions in her video about Jane Eyre, as well as Austentatious —and then I’ve kind of just run with it.

Knock Knock Knocking on Reddit’s Door

English: Simple but elegant old brass door kno...

Yesterday I got into a fight on the internet. Wellllll three fights, but they were all in the same place and they were all the same argument, it just so happened that it was with three different people.

Anyhow, it was about sexism in the publishing industry and how that can, unfortunately, help to foster sexism in readers. Basically, someone created that list I shared yesterday of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women. And oh boy was there a tither from the male peanut gallery:

Redditor1: [Seriously as the reader I could care less about the race or gender of the author of a book. Is it a good book? If yes then I am happy to read it, other than that I could care less about who wrote it. Am I supposed to lower my standards for books just because the author isn’t a strait white male? No that would be silly and frankly condescending to the author that they would be held to some sort of different standard because of their background.]

Redditor2: [The author’s gender is irrelevant. If you care about the author’s gender then I question your ability to judge the writing.]

Redditor3: [It isn’t just the publishers tho, our genders tend to write differently too. So then you gotta consider the audience and who’s gonna serve it. For example, women generally don’t write hard sf. Nature or nurture? I dunno. Think about hormones and classic gender roles. Nesters and penetrators. Yin and yang. There’s more to gender than genitalia. Maybe it’s spiritual.]

I had someone, two feminists on Tumblr actually, tell me that there was basically no point in engaging these people. Redditors, especially male redditors, are ridiculous. Except, that’s pretty problematic itself. To say that you shouldn’t even bother to engage sexists because there’s no point in trying to change minds? I mean, isn’t that the very point of feminism itself? To be an activist and work, against the odds, to change minds? (I also don’t like the implication that there’s places I shouldn’t go. That’s like saying women shouldn’t leave the house at night, etc.)

The fact is, I argued for hours. Round and round with these guys. From probably 1pm in the afternoon to about 6 o’clock at night. It wasn’t pleasant. It was frustrating. It was exhausting. At 4:30 I realized I’d broken out in a cold sweat and as I typed my hands were trembling from both stress and over-caffeination.

This isn’t preaching to the choir, this is once more into the breach. And it’s exhausting. It burns you up and, long term, it can burn you out. I don’t even want to know what my blood pressure was. Eventually I had to go to my own private corner of the internet and just reblog animated gifs for a while, to get my mind off it.

But guess what? Sometimes, once in a while, you get a win.

There was no response from Redditor1, but I ended up as a moderately high comment by being upvoted by other users. When other people are listening, it’s always encouraging to me.

Redditor2: [I see your point. I didn’t consider the social implications, just the quality of the writing.] –This actually amazed me. But I’m really glad to have changed his mind.

Redditor3: [No doubt we can transcend all that gender-induced mindwarp if we try. The best probably do.] –This guy was basically arguing that women are biologically less able to write hard scifi/men’s fiction. So I think him finally caving and saying that actually that isn’t the case was significant even if his final comment was odd.

Some people, its true, WILL never change. But can’t know who they are when we start off, only after we engage them. here’s no way to know who is open and who is closed until you knock on the door.

Keep knocking.

100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women

100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women

Did you know that science fiction was invented by a female writer? I didn’t when I first started out. Somehow, the women of scifi were sidelined. It happened pretty early on. And even know, we see the fake geek girl meme going around the internet, claiming that girls only like scifi in order to sleep with a geeky dude. This just isn’t true.

It is also a fact that Publishers, in tune with this societal norm,  that this genre fiction is so male, that female authors are told to take male pen names, or use only their initials. In order to hide from the general populace. And especially from men. Because women don’t read science fiction, you know. And men won’t read books by lady authors:

The 19th century saw an major acceleration of these trends and features, most clearly seen in the groundbreaking publication of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein in 1818. The short novel features the archetypal “mad scientist” experimenting with advanced technology.[31] In his book Billion Year SpreeBrian Aldiss claims Frankenstein represents “the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached”. It is also the first of the “mad scientist” subgenre. Although normally associated with the gothic horror genre, the novel introduces science fiction themes such as the use of technology for achievements beyond the scope of science at the time, and the alien as antagonist, furnishing a view of the human condition from an outside perspective. Aldiss argues that science fiction in general derives its conventions from the gothic novel. Mary Shelley’s short story “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” (1826) sees a man frozen in ice revived in the present day, incorporating the now common science fiction theme of cryonics whilst also exemplifying Shelley’s use of science as a conceit to drive her stories. Another futuristic Shelley novel, The Last Man, is also often cited as the first true science fiction novel. (Wikipedia)

So please, in remembrance of Mary Shelley, let us all read as many of these works as possible, and remember that this genre belongs to everyone.

Throwback Critiques: Thinking About Old Movies (Possession 2002)

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Today I watched a movie I hadn’t seen in years; Possession with Gwyneth Paltrow & Erin Eckhart. This is probably a pretty random movie to review, partly because it’s so old, and partly because I don’t believe it received much critical acclaim.

I personally love this movie because I adore Jennifer Ehle (Pride & Prejudice 2005) and Jeremy Northam (And Paltrow, sorry but I think her acting is great even if some of her personal values are a bit wacked out). I know, I know, it’s heresy but I don’t much care for Eckhart at all. I don’t think the man is a very good actor. I think Eckart’s best movie is Thank You For Smoking.

Sorry, tangent there. Anyway, I hadn’t seen this movie in probably five years at least, if not longer, and I remembered it being a favorite. I didn’t expect to change my  mind.

What really stood out to me on rewatch is that I have learned a lot more feminist jargon than I had when this movie was first released on dvd (I did not see the film in theaters). I’ve also come to view, I think, films in a far more critical manner when it comes to my feminist ideologies (realizing far more quickly if a film fails the Bechdel Test, how much of the film is just about the male gaze, and whether heroines exhibit personal agency or if they’re simply accessories for their male counterparts).

Within the first three minutes of the film there is a very obvious anti-feminist jab at directed at the main female lead: “So when will your little suffragist trinkets come up?” –they’re at an auction.

Now those who have seen the film, and enjoyed it especially, will argue that the speaker is something of a villain in the film, and we’re supposed to take his words as a portrayal of that. He’s anti-feminist, and he’s the bad guy. This is what I thought at first too, but in many ways Possession uses this rhetoric to uphold anti-feminist values because it comes up again and again—and not always from villainous characters.

Further into the movie: “”Listen. Let me ask you. Do you know a Dr. Maud Bailey?” “Yes. I know Maud very well. She teaches gender studies at Lincoln.”” This sounds ordinary enough in text, but there’s a hit of disdain when it’s spoken.

The third most obvious quote was against feminism directly: “I was accused by feminists at a conference of dyeing it to attract men.” Though Maud teaches gender studies, and is in appearance a feminist, the film seems quite stubborn in setting her apart from “those” types of women. Feminist aren’t egalitarian, they’re man haters who pick on other women for conforming to the male gaze.

But it’s obvious that Maud is being portrayed as something of a straw feminist, even while condemning stereotypical feminists. Earlier in this same conversation she refers to the poet Ash, Northam, as a “softcore misogynist.” So it’s quite obvious that Maud is not only a gender studies professor, a strong female academic, but she’s familiar with feminist jargon. She’s also our heroine, so what makes her an anti-feminist character?

It wasn’t until a little while after I was nearly finished rewatching the film that it dawned on me how much of a strawfeminist Maud is meant to portray:

  • She wears thick, heavy turtleneck sweaters so that there is no extra skin shown on her body, and she wears pants for the entire film. The pajamas she wears are also shown to be full length pant and sleeve pajamas that button all the way up the neck
  • She wears her hair tightly pulled back in a bun every single day—and explains the reason is in part because of feminists criticizing her
  • She is portrayed as very cold, if not outright frigid.
  • Unsmiling & stern
  • Very critical of her male colleague (Eckhart) and never breaks rules
  • Once she begins something of a romantic relationship with Roland (Eckhart) she begins to “loosen up” –as though a little male affection were all she needed to alter her personality

Oppositely, Roland (Eckhart) is portrayed as:

  • Constantly smiling
  • Friendly
  • Warm
  • Upbeat & friendly
  • Easy going
  • Not a rule follower
  • Adventurous
  • “Good Guy” –in that he doesn’t want to sleep with her on the “first date” to prove his motives regarding Maud are honorable and loving rather than simply sexual

Yes, these differences are framed as a theme of English Old World vs American New World. But these are stereotypes that you can see in many different films, which are predominantly made up of American characters entirely. Women are the unfun rule enforcers and Men are the fun, lackadaisical adventurers.

Finally, now that I have more experience with the portrayal of queer culture in the media, I find it strange that a film/book would choose to have a lesbian woman (Jennifer Ehle) fall into a heterosexual passion (with Northam). It is mentioned in the film that Christabel (Ehle) may have been bisexual. And this is not meant as erasure of bisexual identity. Certainly, bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation.

My quibble is simply with the fact that these are not real people, they are created characters. Which means that those who wrote the book, and then adapted it into film, decided that it was important to show a woman who was in a very open (for the 1800s time period) relationship with another woman.

She is shown to, in many ways, reject her queer identity that she had embraced in the past. She is shown to cause great heartbreak to her female lover and abandon her emotionally for a short, sexual relationship with a male partner.

Ash (Northam) is discussed as cheating on his wife. But it is never mentioned that Christabel (Ehle) is doing the same thing to her spouse. Ash & his wife do have a short conversation regarding their marriage and lack of sexuality—though it is not explained why they are unable to have sex. So his desire for Christabel is shown to be understandable. He NEEDS her because he can’t have sex with his wife.

But why does Christabel need Ash?

Christabel’s lover is shown committing suicide due to heartbreak over the infidelity and Christabel is shown to never be in another romantic relationship again. She dies a spinster. Why? It’s not explained.

Overall, I would say that there are many troubling messages in the film. The chemistry between all of the actors is very good, the cinematography beautiful, and finally the period costuming is lush and inviting for those who enjoy costume dramas. Not to mention, forbidden love.

That makes the anti-feminist and anti-lgbt messages of this film all the more disturbing. You don’t even necessarily realize they’re there. They’re not outright hatred. They’re shown to exist, but then you’re shown a better way. An alternative.

Maud & Roland are shown to save the day by breaking rules & loosening up emotionally. Roland even tells Maud—“You should wear your hair down.” It’s important to him that she not hide her sexual appeal.

And Christabel ends her life pretty unhappily—almost as punishment for not following societal norms of marriage.