Monday, February 13, 2012

Can Feminists Dig Darcy?

Can feminists swoon for Jane Austen's quintissential romantic hero Mr. Darcy? Or does such an act require one to burn her membership card?

Similarly, can someone concerned with classism and class politics also adore Julian Fellowes' early 20th century miniseries Downton Abbey without feeling the need to "Occupy the BBC?"

How do those of us with deep commitments to progressive politics reconcile our tastes in film and books - if those tastes include things that are not (at least on first glance) progressive?

I ask all this because there seem to be a lot of us out there. Progressive activist folks who also read, say, a Georgette Heyer once in a while (not to by any means compare Miss Heyer, that writer of light hearted regency romances, to my beloved Miss Austen), or get twitter injuries while watching Mad Men or Downton Abbey. And I don't mean making commentary on how sexist or classist the characters on those shows might be, rather, nerding out on their costumes or the dowager countess' fantastic one liners like this terribly classist one I just tweeted yesterday:

"Don't be defeatist, dear... it's so middle class."

So how do we do this? Do we, as a progressive friend of mine recently suggested, give certain authors or shows a "pass" because they are from a certain period or written so well? Do we shut off our internal social critic? Do we, as Zeta Elliot has suggested, forget about a certain part of ourselves while we read about such dissimilar characters -- to the point that we don't even recognize this erasure of self? Consider the words of Elliot (as quoted on the bookslut blog),

"Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me -- but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read -- I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much."

Along a similar vein, I recently read this post on Reading in Color called "Is Jane Austen only for white people?" Now, although my family is from a (postcolonial) part of the world that adores Austen and pretty much all sorts of British literature, and I am personally an Austen addict, I think the question is a compelling one.

So, dear friends and readers, what are your thoughts? How do we reconcile progressive politics with a love of, say, Austen? Now, I don't mean to say that Austen is somehow anti-feminist; in fact, her novels are imbued with a deep sense of women's worlds and women's lives - but of course these are a certain kind of women's worlds and lives.

In the end, whatever the reason, my social politics and my love of Mr. Darcy seem to co-exist quite happily together. As deeply committed as I am to feminist or anti-ractist activism, I am still quite likely to swoon over the intricate folds of Mr. Darcy's cravat.

The only explanation I can come up with is that life is complex and we humans are perfectly capable of multiple, seemingly contradictory commitments and passions.

What do you think?


  1. I think we have to read these stories in context, taking note of the time period they are set in and readjust our progressive viewpoints.

    I agree with you, I don't think we have to reconcile the two, as humans we have contradictory passions.

    I want to do a follow-up to my Austen post because I hadn't even considered how readers in former-British colonies would feel but they almost universally loved Austen. Interesting stuff, the BBC did a recent item on India's love affair with Dickens and they touched on similar questions I was asking (but in a much more intelligent manner).

    I really need to start watching Downton Abbey

  2. Thanks for your comment and your fantastic initial post Ari! It obviously got a lot of conversations going (for those interested, please do visit author Y.S. Lee's post "We are All Jane Austen" here:

    And yes, can't wait to discuss your thoughts on Downton!

  3. I think the trouble is that both human beings and their creations are multilayered, so I can object vehemently to a story or characters social overtones and implications but be totally in love with it from a symbolic or emotional or aesthetic level. I think it's okay to have different reactions at different levels to movie, book, or tv series, even when they are conflicting. I think it's easy to fall into the trap of labeling anything "good" or "bad" rather than letting it be whatever it is for you, which is probably a mix of some sort. Sometimes one reaction, a positive or a negative one, over shadows the others. Thank you for asking this question.

  4. Thank you for the response @wrysuitor! I particularly liked your drawing attention to nuance and away from "good"/"bad" binarism...