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Downton Abbey

Friends! I know that for weeks now the two or three of you reading this have been wondering where on earth the long-ago promised part three of my series of posts on the whole issue of showing and telling and balancing aesthetics, good storytelling and social conscientiousness is. Well, the truth is that it’s proving incredibly difficult to write. I knew from the beginning that I would end up with more questions than answers when I was done, but try as I might I can’t give my current collection of questions a shape that makes them worth asking.

I am not giving up, though – just putting it on hold. However, as I’ve been silent here for far too long, I thought I’d do something a little different today and tell you about my most recent addiction – Downton Abbey. My being hooked on this series is a direct consequence of the first ever periodical (hey, one can hope) meeting of two thirds of Lady Business, featuring the awesome future LB guest posters Meghan and Ana (this is not in any way a hint *cough*). Our absent one third was of course very much missed, but nevertheless many books were coveted, laughs were shared, Shakespeare was watched, benign gossip was exchanged, good food was consumed, trains were very nearly missed, much fun was had by all, and Downton Abbey was pressed into my eager hands.

Downton Abbey is a period drama focusing on the lives of the Crawley family and the large staff that runs their stately home. The series is set in the years before WWI, which to someone like me gives it immediately appeal. While some of the Crawleys try to figure out whether there’s a way of preventing their home, Lord Grantham’s title and his wife’s considerable fortune from going to an unknown distant relative rather than their eldest daughter, international tensions mount, women fight for the vote, and society inevitable moves towards change. I am now five episodes into the series’ first season, which has a total of seven. I imagine that I’m still in for some surprises, but I feel that by now I have a good grasp of what Downton Abbey is all about.

I’m not sure if I would rank the series among my all-time favourites, but one thing is certain: it’s excellent storytelling, and it constantly has me dying to know what’s going to happen next. As I’m fairly sure is the case with all of you, I’m addicted to story. Although books are my preferred way of satisfying this craving, I’m not at all averse to satisfying it through other media. Thanks to my recent reading slump, I spent months and months without experiencing the delicious thrill of being completely enthralled in a story, and let me tell you, I’d really, really missed it.

Anyway, Downton Abbey is a series whose appeal largely depends on our tendency to romanticise pre-war upper class living – although, as we will see later, this is not an entirely fair comment. I’ve been known to become annoyed with novels that do this, but if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m by no means immune to the lure of a good country house story myself. All historical periods are romanticised to some extent, so it seems unfair to pick on the early twentieth century in particular. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that most of my social history reading seems to focus on either this period or the Victorian era. Whatever the reason, I tend to roll my eyes at stories that don’t somehow acknowledge its dark underbelly, or at the very least the cost and social implications of this glamorous lifestyle. But of course, the best thing about Downton Abbey is that it actually does.

Downton Abbey does a remarkable job of balancing the romance and glamour of life at a stately home with the social insight that a twentieth-first century audience will undoubtedly have. I don’t think the series is actually particularly revolutionary, in the sense that most of the progressive values it espouses are easy and safe and widely accept in our day and age by people all across the political spectrum (e.g., women should vote. None but a radical fringe would argue with that). But at least there isn’t much about it that is careless or insensitive or dehumanising, unlike other stories of this kind I could mention.

The characters are all fully human regardless of their class or background, and the family’s servants are involved in storylines that are not only interesting in their own right, but don’t always involve their role as servants. Of course, the power dynamics between the upper class and their domestic staff are at the very heart of what Downton Abbey is about, but I was happy to see that the servants are allowed to exist as human beings beyond this. This is tricky to do well, because there were people who, for the sake of financial security and due to a lack of other options, often gave up their right to have lives of their own in the name of their employers’ well-being. The series acknowledges this, but it does so in a way that never really robs them of their humanity (and of course, now I’ve made myself really want to reread The Remains of the Day).

I said above that I didn’t think there was much about Downton Abbey that was insensitive, but there’s an exception to this that made me very, very sad. Why oh why does the one and only main glbtq character have to be so completely evil? (And the one supporting character wasn’t much better, really). I think Downton Abbey does a great job when it comes to representing women, and the main reason for this is the fact that there are so many of them. Because most of the cast is female, they’re allowed to be kind, scheming, competitive, smart, hard-working, lazy, ambitious, snobbish, gentle, thoughtful, competent, clumsy, awkward – you name it. The full spectrum of human emotions, behaviours and motivations is available to them without any ties between the nastier traits and their femininity being implicitly established, because for every example there is a different one to challenge it.

As I’ve said in the past
, ideally this is what would always happen. I think a lot of progress has been on that front when it comes to representing women (although now I occasionally see people complaining when female characters display vulnerability, which… is not the point of feminism. But that’s a subject for a different post). However, glbtq characters are miles behind on this regard. Ideally they should have the full spectrum of human behaviours at their disposal too. There are plenty of glbtq people who are not particularly nice, so why shouldn’t fiction acknowledge this? But. If in a series you have a single token gay character who turns out to be evil, and in addition to this they are very very likely one of a very small number of glbtq characters being represented in the totality of series being aired at that particular point in time, then you do have a problem. Because no matter what the writers intended when they wrote the character, those implicit ties are going to pop up. Their identity and their evilness are going to get interlinked in some people’s minds. There just aren’t enough counterexamples for that not to happen. We can say that those people are READING IT RONG, but the world being what it is, are they really? Can their reading really be disregarded?

As I said, I have not yet finished season one, so it’s possible that I might yet be surprised, either in the two remaining episodes or next season. Also! I had almost forgotten how nice it can be to eat a light dinner in front of the laptop while watching an episode (… or three) of something with M. Series are stories we can share immediately, instead of pressing books/rpgs on each other and waiting a few months or years until the other gets to them so we can finally discuss them. All this to say that if you have further suggestions of things I should watch (other than Inception or Buffy, that is. It WILL happen, Amy and Renay), please throw them at me. I feel clueless when it comes to TV, so I will fully trust your guidance.
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The Orange Prize is the International prize, with a long list made up entirely of novels from female writers and I enjoy reading about it every year. Last year I read as many long listed books as I could. This year, despite thinking that the judges had created a super powered exciting long list (theme parks, tigers, mermaids) and having five of the six short listed books in my house I’ve only read one book off the list.

It seems a shame to mark the first year of ladybusiness with an abscence of Orange Prize commentary, so I thought I’d share some links from other bloggers read through part of the long list. Some of them have been reading along for a few years and I always enjoy following their thoughts. Some are just having a go this year, like intrepid bookish adventurers. All have got plenty to say about this year's short-list

Short list

 

'Room' - Emma Donoghue

Eve’s Alexandria

Savidge Reads

Farm Lane Books

Paperback Reader

'The Memory of Love' - Aminatta Forna

cardigangirlverity

'Grace Williams Says it Loud' - Emma Henderson

Savidge Reads

Iris on Books

'Great House' - Nicole Krauss

cardigangirlverity

Savidge Reads

dovegreyreader scribbles

'The Tiger’s Wife' -Téa Obreht

cardigangirlverity

Eve’s Alexandria

'Annabel' - Kathleen Winter

Bookgazing (the only one I’ve read so far so let's bang my post in here)

cardigangirlverity

Savidge Reads

dovegreyreader scribbles

And the winner is: ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ - Téa Obreht


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Anna and the French Kiss The 10PM Question


For the first part of this series of posts, please read: On Showing & Telling & Making My Head Explode

I want to begin this second post by analysing examples numbers three and four in my list of novels that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways. My current working theory is that the centrality of the problematic or controversial aspect to the novel or story’s overall themes makes a world of difference when it comes to the extent to which the plot is allowed to speak for itself. But it’s entirely possible that there might be more to it than that.

In Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Anna’s relationship with Meredith, the first person she befriends in France, shifts into understated tension over the fact that both of them are in love with the same boy. Likewise, Anna’s best friend back home disappoints her by becoming involved with the boy Anna liked before going to France. As I said before, I spent about two third of the book worrying this was going to be yet another girls-do-nothing-but-fight-over-boys sort of story, and my ultimate conclusion that Perkins avoided this huge pitfall is by no means universal.

What I think places Anna and the French Kiss firmly in portraying-is-not-endorsing territory is Anna’s realisation that this a problem, and how this ties in with the novel’s overall theme and stance on human relationships. Anna and the French Kiss is unapologetically a romance, but the points it makes about trust, communication, the dangers of entitlement and the slow build-up of intimacy go far beyond romantic relationships. In the end, Anna rekindles her friendships with Meredith and Beatrice not because some sort of agreement is reached about who “deserves” to get the boy, but because they all learn something about what you can reasonably expect from those who are close to you. They all learn about honest communication and entitlement and control – they all grow up, and thus grow closer as human beings.

In Kate de Goldi’s The 10PM Question, the protagonist, Frankie, befriends a girl named Sydney. Both Frankie and Sydney have complicated family backgrounds, and upon learning Sydney’s history Frankie has several uncharitable thoughts about her mother, including comparing what she does (letting the guys she’s dating pay the bills) to prostitution. This is thought in definite loaded and shaming terms, not in a neutral she-is-a-sex-worker sort of way. I’m in awe of the way de Goldi prevented the thoughts of her close third person protagonist from becoming the only voice that is heard within the story, and try as I might I’m not sure if I can exactly point out how she did it. The 10PM Question is actually a novel that goes beyond my current working theory, because it’s not that slut-shaming and the complex circumstances sex workers find themselves in are exactly central to the story. Yet de Goldi manages to introduce enough plurality into the universe of the novel that Frankie’s anger is shown for what it is and Sydney’s mother is ultimately humanised.

Something that worries me when I consider how I position myself before these stories is how much of my reading is influenced by factors outside the text. Some of these books came recommended by other writers or bloggers I love and respect – how much does that predispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt and read their ambivalent aspects in a positive light? Then again, we never read in a vacuum, so perhaps this shouldn’t worry me – perhaps I should just embrace it as an inevitable part of how we engage with texts.

Another issue I keep returning to is that of didacticism – I’m tempted to say that no, I certainly don’t want YA or any other form of fiction to be didactic, but then again, I’d first like to come across an unambiguous definition of “didactic”. Like “preachy”, I suspect it’s often used to mean “takes a clear stance about something I disagree with”. In a comment last week, my partner in crime Jodie said:
I think some of the best modern novels in the world include didactic 'comments' in amongst ambiguity, it's just that they do it much more elegantly than the word didactic implies. Paulo Bacigallupi's 'The Wind Up Girl' for example is hugely complex and ambiguous to the max. He never really lets his characters go off on 'here is the point I am trying to make' speeches and pretty awful things happen to good people, but there are deaths and consequences in his novel that reveal where he stands on everything, while he still allows the reader the freedom to make up their own minds on many issues.
This put me in mind of a point John Carey makes in the excellent What Good Are the Arts: that the idea that literature should strive to be “neutral” can and often does turn into a plea for it to be apolitical and disengaged with any sort of Big Issue – which is the opposite of what some of the most beloved literary works of all time have been doing for centuries and centuries. There is certainly such a thing as heavy-handedness, but I’m inclined to distrust those who are too quick to file any novel that makes some sort of political or social point under this heading.

This brings me back to my original question, which yes, I realise remains unanswered: where do you drawn the line between ideological engagement and heavy-handedness? What about between subtlety and disengagement? As we have seen, the centrality of the issues being dealt with to the novel as a whole have a role to play; afterthoughts rarely work (except when they do). Another factor that I think might be important is how the world at large frames the topic at hand – is it unacceptable enough that most readers will see a subtle critique for what it is?

Again, I shall quote my partner in crime, who took the words off my mouth in her comment to part one (and who really should be writing these posts for me):
… if general society perceives something as absolutely wrong a book is much more able to cast aside didacticism and effectively explore an issue from all angles, without being read as condoning that issue. So, for example, 'Lolita' presents a paedophilic protagonist that the reader is initially encouraged to sympathise with, but each reader knows that general society condemns paedophiles, so we're more willing to go along and see where Nabokov is going with this and feel like what he writes doesn't threaten out particular stance on this issue. Books about rape are different, because we don't all know that general society agree with our individual stance on rape (every day there's proof that many people just don't get what constitutes rape) and so anything written more ambiguously can lead the individual reader to feel like the book threatens to lend help to a view they despise.
I think this is absolutely true, but the supposed “revenge rapes” in Tender Morsels are actually of the kind society is mostly willing to accept as “real rapes” – unambiguously brutal and involving strangers. Still, the point nonetheless stands: it just might be that some readers are too wary of how rape is generally perceived and portrayed to tolerate any ambiguity at all; anything but firm, clear condemnations. As much as I sympathise with their wariness, though, I don’t think this makes for particularly good art (or even politically effective art, if you choose to think of it that way).

But suppose it’s murder we’re talking about rather than rape: a story like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant and chilling “The Lottery” doesn’t critique anything explicitly, but you’d be hard pressed to find readers who claim it endorses ritual killings (or so I hope, at least). Everyone knows that what happens in the story is a big no-no, so no explicit commentary is necessary. This is also true of a novel like Never Let Me Go (I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll refrain from saying more, but those who have read it will know what I mean). Yet if we return to slut-shaming and the Lyga story I mentioned in part one, the picture is much less clear. I don’t think slut-shaming has been exposed for what it is enough in the real world for a story like this to speak for itself. It goes on around us all the time, and it’s widely accepted as only right and proper. That makes the lack of overt pointers in the story problematic. Regardless of authorial intent (which only means so much, at any rate), it’s much too easy for Andi’s fate to be taken at face value exactly because this is what happens in real life.

But is it really the role of a writer to do something about this? Can you introduce these overt pointers while maintaining the narrative elegance Jodie speaks of? In Part Three: The Big Questions, I’ll attempt to address these questions, as well as others such as what can we reasonably expect from literature, and what does it all mean?
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Tender Morsels Geektastic

This series of posts has been long in coming: partially inspired by my own reading, partially by recent (and recurring) debates online, I decided to devote some time to considering the following questions: where exactly do you draw the line between a novel that doesn’t acknowledge or question its own problematic aspects and a novel that is simply being subtle, letting the story speak for itself, and not hitting readers over the head with unnecessary heavy-handedness? Should a novel be required to always question the status quo? Why does any of this even matter? What do these discussions tell us about the nature and the role of fiction, and about readers' expectations?

Before I start, a few warnings: first of all, this is one of those posts where I attempt to figure out my thoughts by writing them down. So if the end result turns out to be confusing, it’s because I’m indeed confused. It’s quite possible that I’ll end up with more questions than I started out with, but then again that’s part of the fun of writing (and indeed of thinking about things). Secondly, I’m going to attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum, but none of what I have to say would make much sense without concrete examples, and often these have to involve a story’s ending. Apologies in advance for that.

To attempt to answer the above question, I’m particularly interested in considering the following cases, all of which are YA novels or short stories that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways:
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I make no secret of the fact that this is one of my favourite novels of recent years, and that I completely disagree that it “glorifies, by failing to address or question, rape as revenge”. But rather than just tell you that I disagree, what I meant to do here is explore the reasons why.
  • “The Truth About Dino Girl” by Barry Liga, from the Geektastic anthology. A horrifying exercise in gratuitous slut-shaming, or an “empowering, realistic” story about high school dynamics? If you’re me, it’s very much a). But once again, what matters here is the why.
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins – Just another story about girls fighting over a guy, or something that goes beyond it? My review should let you know what I think, but I hope to be able to elaborate on it.
  • The 10PM Question by Kate De Goldi – I posted my review of this earlier today, and I mentioned it’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I have recently become aware that there were readers who felt that the way the story portrayed the protagonist best friend’s mother had too many hints of slut-shaming for comfort. Since one of my favourite things about the novel was exactly how this aspect of the story was dealt with, this gave me considerable pause.
I’m a big believer in the value of a plurality of perspectives when it comes to literature; of approaching reading as democratically as possible. But at the same time, I have no problem acknowledging that there is such a thing as misreading a text by making claims for which there’s no textual support whatsoever. Because it’s been some time since I read the texts I mentioned above, I don’t feel that I’m in a position to comment on the existence or nonexistence of textual support for readings that contradict my own. Therefore, I’m going to assume that the texts do not completely rule out these readings, and that the issue here amounts to how certain plot elements are framed, as well as the lenses/worldviews through which they’re filtered.

My first example is Tender Morsels: I have to say that it feels like cheating to start here, because someone has written down all the reasons why I disagree with the Bitch Media reading of it, and worded it far better than I ever could. I encourage you to read the whole post, but I wanted to highlight the following paragraph:
There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this point, because while in the case of Tender Morsels I agree instinctively, there are other cases in which I’m the first to reject the “there is no need for an explicit critique” argument (see my Barry Lyga example below). What, then, is the difference between texts about which I feel this is true and texts about which I don’t? I think it comes down to how central the problematic issue is to the novel as a whole. In the case of Tender Morsels, the consequences of sexual assault are at the very core of what the book is about. This makes it easier for me to accept that when the impact of the rape of a group of secondary characters is not dwelt on at length, it does indeed speak for itself. After all, the reader has just spent about 400 pages witnessing the impact of rape on the protagonist’s life, so it doesn’t take that much of an imaginative leap to understand that the same kind of violence will also have an impact on this group of men. And no, this is not a good thing, even if these men are not characters we like. It doesn’t take a scene where we see them suffering  psychological horrors for that to come across.

But take my second example, Barry Lyga’s “The Truth About Dino Girl”. I’m going to have to spoil the story for you before I continue my argument, so apologies in advance. In this story, Katherine, a nerdy and unpopular high school student, takes revenge on popular and arrogant Andi by taking a photo of her naked in the school’s locker room, photoshopping it to pretend it was taken at a motel, and distributing it to the whole school with captions such as “Do you like sex? She does!!!! Call Andi!”. As a result, Andi’s boyfriend breaks up with her, her friends shun her, and she becomes a social pariah – the end.

This story horrified me when I read it, but since then I’ve seen readers say that it’s realistic, that it’s empowering because geek girl fights back and triumphs, and that the fact that the story portrays slut-shaming doesn’t mean that it’s endorsing it. In a different story, this could be true – portraying something is certainly not the same as endorsing it. But as for the other arguments, as the other Ana so well says, the “It’s realistic!” card doesn’t tell us much on its own. Also, before I go any further I wanted to say that even though I know that what I described is dreadful, I fully acknowledge that it’s no more dreadful than a group of magical clothesmen violently and gleefully raping Liga’s rapists in Tender Morsels. It’s not the dreadfulness of what happens in itself that I object to – it’s how it’s handled by the text.

As we have seen, Tender Morsels is about sexual assault. But “The Truth About Dino Girl” is (arguably) about bullying, not about slut-shaming, or female sexuality, or the many challenges that teen girls who want to enjoy safe, happy and fulfilling sexual experiences without having these determine who they are and how other perceive them have to face. The story is about high school power and arrogance and the mistreatment of others. If I read it generously, I’ll say that it’s attempting to explore how someone like Katherine could be driven to a horrifyingly malicious revenge by years of bullying. I therefore acknowledge that it’s indeed possible to read a story like this as doing something other than glorifying revenge.

However, it’s the form that Katherine’s revenge takes that troubles me. She uses female sexuality for shaming purposes in a way that feels completely incidental to the story. The act of revenge itself may or may not be questioned, but the idea that female sexuality is fair game for such purposes never, ever is. Unlike what happens in Tender Morsels, there is no other characters we can use to draw a parallel. There’s absolutely nothing but a dominant social assumption – that teen girls who have and/or enjoy sex are sluts and deserve to be ostracised – being replayed. Readers may leave the story thinking that Katherine shouldn't have done what she did, but not because of the nature of her actions. It isn’t just that the text doesn’t explicitly critique Katherine’s use of sex to shame Andi – it’s that it doesn’t do it implicitly either, not by any stretch of the imagination.

My whole point, then, is that slut-shaming is too important as a social phenomenon to be included in a story as casually as thoughtlessly as it was here. By all means it should be written about, but not as an unquestioned afterthought (of course, this raises all sorts of questions along the lines of “Why not?”, and these will be addressed later on in this series of posts). Sexual assault is of course also important and painful, but being at the very centre of Tender Morsels, the same arguments don’t really hold.

Coming soon: Part the second, where I analyse the final two texts and attempt to reach some conclusions about what these examples have shown us.
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Book coverting


I sometimes worry that book list type posts are somehow cheating, which makes little sense considering how much I enjoy reading other people’s. But anyway, I do know no one will hold today’s post against me. Lady Business has been silent for a few weeks now, as all three of us were swallowed by school, life, or both. But we’re now ready to return, and the future holds actual reviews of books and other media, including epic three way ones which will make the universe explode with their sheer number of words. In the meantime, I’ll ease myself back into this space with a list of books by ladies that have caught my eye:

  • How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ. This first caught my attention at my university’s library a few months ago, but I was reminded me of again recently both because the author unfortunately passed away and because the cover was making the rounds on tumblr. The book has been described as a “sarcastic guidebook” to the history of women’s literature, which kind of makes it sound like a sexism-focused version of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. WANT.
  • Dude, You’re a Fag by C.J. Pascoe. My friend Chris added this to a list of possible books for us to read together, and I immediately got ridiculously excited because it sounds like it would make for awesome background reading for my dissertation. The subtitle is “Masculinity and Sexuality in High School” – with basis on her PhD research, Pascoe analyses the links between sexism, heteronormativity, and enforced ideals of masculinity in high school culture. (On a side note, I made the mistake of clicking 1 star reviews of this on Amazon: they’re all by reviewers who are outraged that a feminist, who obviously “hates men”, would dare write about masculinity. One is very suggestively titled “excrement on paper”. Naturally I should have stopped reading there – I have no idea why I do these things to myself.)
  • Girl Reading by Katie Ward — A new Virago! Girl Reading is a collection of interconnected short stories (these words, by the way, are music to my ears) spanning from 1333 to 2060, and each inspired by an image of a girl or woman reading.
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick. I blame Renay for this, though to be fair the subtitle alone would have sold me: “A cultural history of science fiction feminists”. I want it so badly.
  • Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories Sandra McDonald. More interconnected short stories! And to make it even better, this book was shortlisted for the very awesome James Tiptree Jr award (previous winners of which include The Knife of Never Letting Go and Cat Valente's The Orphan's Tales). I was sold by this review, which says:

    McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens.
    And:
    I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society.
  • Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting. Another James Tiptree listee. Lorian Long at Bookslut says:

    Nutting recognizes gender for the fucked game it is, and violation via structure, via holding, is what Nutting intends to untangle, knot by knot. A shaky foundation for bodies to slip through, these stories give way to fantastic chaos in which we lose sense of meaning, moments, memory, and performance. Without boundaries, the body is capable.
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500 Days of Summer


A slightly different version of the following review was originally posted on my tumblr in August 2010. Also, be warned that it contains spoilers.

There’s something really disappointing about disliking something you were convinced you were going to love, be it a movie, a book, or a new album by a favourite band. And in some cases, for reasons that I hope will become clear as this post progresses, there’s something really lonely about it too.

My issues with (500) Days of Summer go beyond the random sexist one-liners, the fact that it reinforces double standards, the manic pixie dream girl syndrome, or the fact that the story is told solely from a male perspective. I’ve seen the film criticised on all these grounds, and while I think they’re all very fair points, I won’t repeat them here because they’ve been written about extensively by people more knowledgeable and articulate than I am. A quick comment on that last point in particular: I think that yes, we do need more movies from the point of view of girls and women, and yes, the absence of their voices is a problem. But I think this is more of a problem with cinema as a whole than with each individual story told from the point of view of a man, if that makes sense. I could write a whole other post on this topic (ETA: and now I have!), though, so I’ll leave it alone for now. I just hope I don’t sound dismissive of people who get tired of only ever hearing the same old straight white male voices, because as I said, I really do think that’s a very valid point.

But anyway: this movie made me feel cheated in a way that no story had in a long, long time. Obviously the screenwriter sees the world very differently than I do, but that isn’t really a problem in itself, as I don’t need every story I’m exposed to reflect my exact set of values. The problem is that this is also a story that misrepresents and dismisses people like me; a story that only subverts tired old Hallmark clichés on the surface; a story that unforgivably reduces the world’s complexity and the myriad ways people approach romantic relationships to, once again, the same old clichés and stereotypes.

I’m going to assume that anyone who’s reading this has either seen the movie or read a quick synopsis, so I won’t go over the plot. (500) Days of Summer didn’t ever really strike me as an amazing movie, but until the final ten minutes or so, I thought that though it had some major issues I might still like it. All the way through I got mixed signs about how the narrative framed Summer’s position, but somehow I didn’t for a moment doubt that she was not going to be portrayed as a heartless monster in the end. So much for wishful thinking. In retrospect maybe I should have expected it, as the mixed signs and creepy moments really were abundant, but somehow I didn’t see the train wreck that was the ending coming at all.

I really don’t think Tom can rightfully accuse Summer of any wrongdoing – she was completely honest with him about the fact that she wasn’t looking for a serious commitment from the very beginning, and she trusted him to be an adult and actually mean it when he said he was okay with that. The story more or less acknowledges this several times, which was what I was hoping it would do, but then it blows it by presenting her as someone who, as Tom tells her in that cringeworthy final scene in the park, just “does whatever she wants”, with no regard whatsoever for other people’s feelings. This appalled me for several reasons, one of them being the fact that, as this post so well puts it, there are some serious sexual double standards at work here:
If Zooey Deschanel were actually a boy, and in this situation, most people would not perceive her as the problem. She wouldn’t be a monster, a whore, a freak; she’d just be a dude. And she’d get to complain about the clingy psycho bitch she fucked who’s now, like, putting all this pressure on, that bitch is fucking CRAZY, she just hooked up with the girl, she didn’t buy her an engagement ring, etc. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt, were he an actual girl, would be getting some sympathy from his lady friends, true, but he would also be getting well-meaning lectures about how Dudes Are Like That, and what did he expect, and he needs to be more cautious about these things and not put out so easily, and has he ever read a book called “He’s Just Not That Into You?” He should read that book. He would be told, to be blunt, that he was the real problem in this situation.
Then there’s also the fact that Tom’s huge entitlement issues are never properly addressed, and are in fact pretty much legitimatised by the ending of the movie. This is extra disappointing because there are so many scenes where the film almost acknowledges them; where it very nearly presents Tom as the huge jerk he often is, only to turn things around at the last moment and present him as the victim of a cruel and fickle pretty girl.

Summer never lied to him, and she doesn’t really owe him anything. No, people shouldn’t be careless with other people’s feelings, and yes, it's unfortunate that he wants more from the relationship than she does. It's unfortunate that their emotional needs and expectations are so mismatched and that he gets hurt, but she isn’t to blame for that. These things happen all the time. The fact that a girl doesn’t love him the way he wants to be loved does NOT make her a heartless monster, and it doesn’t mean she wronged him – just like it wouldn’t if he were a girl and she a guy. I just can’t wrap my mind around resenting people for not feeling about you as you wish they did. Feeling hurt, yes. Feeling lonely and miserable and rejected—of course. But the vicious resentment Tom so often expresses just makes no sense to me at all.

(Also, while I’m at it, why on earth did Summer apologise to Tom after getting mad at him for punching a guy who was hitting on her at a bar, supposedly to “protect” her? She didn’t ask to be protected, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw her apologise. What exactly did she do wrong? Does her mere existence mean that she’s to blame when Tom stupidly gets into a fight because of her, in a situation in which she was under no physical danger whatsoever and that she very clearly could handle on her own?)

Even more disappointing than that, though, is the way that the film’s final scenes completely undermine all the character development that took place until then. Summer is a girl who enjoys being independent and who isn’t looking for a serious relationship. This is unusual for a pop culture portrayal of a woman. And even more unusual is the fact that at first the story seems to frame this as – gasp! – a perfect valid position, as something worthy of respect. So far so good. But then Summer meets The One. In fact, before she even meets The One, we see her crying as she watches a wedding scene in a movie. Well, of course. The only possible reason why someone, especially a woman, would reject the dominant relationship model would be because she hasn’t met The Right Man yet. Deep down she’s aching for him and secretly dying to get married. Aren’t we all? As Summer tells Tom in the park in those disastrous final ten minutes of the film, once Prince Charming entered her life she realised that she had been wrong all along, while he, Tom, had been right. Yes, there is such a thing as a soul mate and true love. But the two of them weren’t each other’s soul mates, and that’s the real reason why things didn’t work out. It just wasn’t Meant To Be.

….

I swear, I felt like crying as I watched that scene. I can’t remember the last time a story disappointed me this much. I should tell you up front that I hate the idea of “true” love – the idea that we can only form one real connection in our lives; that we can only be happy with one specific person; that relationships don’t take any work, and if things don’t go well, it can only mean that your current partner is not The One. The whole myth irks me beyond belief. Much to my dismay, in the end (500) Days of Summer reinforces this myth, even as it appears to subvert it on the surface. But this still isn't what bothered me the most. As much as I hate this way of looking at romance, I fully respect people who believe those things, and I can very well see myself enjoying a story that included them if I felt that it came from an emotionally honest and resonant place.

What really got to me was the way the movie presented sceptics like Summer—or me. The subtext tells us that clearly anyone who’s uncomfortable with neatly labelling every relationship is cynical, bitter, immature, and will sooner or later realise that they’re wrong. Why couldn’t Summer have said all those things and meant them? Why did she have to change her mind so completely? You know, the movie could even have ended the as it did, with Summer getting married and Tom meeting someone new, if only it hadn’t framed those events the way it did. It’s perfectly possible that someone who never wanted to get married could meet a person who made them change their mind. That’s absolutely fine, but it doesn’t mean they were wrong before, or that their previous position was immature and silly. Sadly, those final scenes reduce the whole movie to this tired stereotype. The immature one grows up and settles down, and the romantic one is rewarded with Princess Charming. But look, the usual gender roles are inverted! How very original.

This makes me feel terribly lonely, but I suspect that that most people would think that my objections to the movie mean that I’m as cynical and immature as Summer was until she met The One, and that one day I too will grow up and learn better. The thing is, I’m not bitter in the least, and in fact couldn’t be happier in my love life. And no, obviously I shouldn't have to bring any of this up to justify my position - the way I feel wouldn't be any less valid even if I were coming from a place of anger and hurt. But because the ways in which the film disappointed me hae to do with my experiences, here it goes: I’ve been with my boyfriend (a word I’m not crazy about, by the way, but which I use for convenience’s sake) for six years and a half now. No, I don’t think he’s the only person in the world who could ever make me happy, and neither am I the only person out there for him. But we happened to have met and fallen in love, we enjoy each other’s company immensely, and so we choose to stay together and do our best to make sharing our lives with each other as pleasant as possible. Not believing that there’s any cosmic significance to our relationship doesn’t make us bitter, it doesn’t make it “casual” (whatever that means), it doesn’t make us cruel or careless with each other, and it doesn’t at all make us dismiss the concept of love. My boyfriend is one of the most important people in my life, but not because fate decided this would be so. It’s because of what we have built together, every day, for all the years that I’ve had him in my life. Being this close to someone takes daily work, and isn’t always easy, but it’s extremely precious for that very reason.

This brings me to yet another point I wanted to make: even if the movie had ended as I hoped it would, with an acknowledgement of Tom’s entitlement issues and both characters trying to make the best of things with the new people in their lives, I’d still have a problem with the fact that two very extreme positions are presented as the only ways to approach romantic relationships. I’m sorry, but real life is not a matter of either/or. You don’t either dismiss the whole idea of love or believe in soul mates. You’re not either a believer in fate and love at first sight, or a character from a Beckett play. There’s a middle ground somewhere in there, a middle ground I very happily inhabit, and I really wish the movie had acknowledged it. Not to do so is – I kind of hate this word because I’ve seen people who like to pat themselves on the back for being so clever use it one time too many, but I really can’t think of  another – inexcusably simplistic.

Even if I try to read the ending generously (not as an ending that reinforces the idea of fate, soul mates and true love at the exclusion of anything but loneliness and bleak bitterness, but rather as an ending meant to illustrate that it’s only human to behave foolishly and hastily when you’re in love), it still bothers me that it gives Tom a free pass for his jerkface behaviour, it still portrays Summer as callous and fickle because she hadn’t met her Prince yet, and it still completely fails to address the whole issue of entitlement. ARGH.

As NPR put it (and I can’t tell you how very, very comforting it was to read these words), “For all its rhetorical whimsy and hipster dressings, (500) Days of Summer is a thoroughly conservative affair, as culturally and romantically status quo as any Jennifer Aniston vehicle (…). Its vision of the sexes, human bonding and the workplace are laughably superficial.” That’s what it comes down to, really: apparently, deep down we all just want to get married, and if we dare conceive of relationships in a different mould, well, we just haven’t met our one true love yet.

I keep wondering if I shouldn’t generalise; if maybe I should simply see Tom and Summer as two flawed people, and think that their stories are not meant to be taken as universal illustrations of love. But sadly, the movie’s constant use of voiceover to make generalisations and drop aphorisms on The Nature of Love makes this reading kind of impossible, no matter how charitable I’m feeling. (Also, the tagline is “This is not a love story. This is a story about love”. I rest my case.)

I think I feel so strongly about this movie because it could have been good. If only it had left more room for nuance and complexity; if only it hadn’t been so dismissive of anything that falls outside a very limited way of looking at gender or romantic love. If only it had really subverted all those old clichés instead of beginning to do so but then giving up halfway through. The music was so wonderful, the cinematography was so beautiful, and the potential was very much there. But then the story had to go and completely STOMP on my heart. Dramatic as it sounds, watching it was really a painful and very lonely experience. It made me feel – me and my way of experiencing the world – dismissed and erased.

 (I'll finish this by saying that a lot of people I really respect [including John Green!] loved this film, and it goes without saying that I don't think any less of them because of it. At the time when I originally posted this on tumblr I had some interesting conversations about the film with friends who interpreted it differently, and I'm always open to doing that again.)
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The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison
I swear, when I finished Rosie Alison’s historical romance The Very Thought of You, I kind of expected a final page with LULZ, JUST KIDDING in huge capital letters. But sadly none came.

I don’t dislike books this intensely very often. The Very Thought of You is a book I want to mock relentlessly, only I mistrust the inclination to be snarky because it can turn me cruel and careless towards other readers. I know; I worry far too much. Obviously I don’t think anyone should ever hold back their feelings for the sake of not hurting others, and I’m not going to refrain from expressing my borderline contempt for this book. But I do worry about how I express it. As a fan of fantasy, comics and children’s literature, I’ve been on the receiving end of “THIS BOOK IS DUMB AND SO ARE YOU” far too often to ever want to come across that way. I suppose it all comes down to what Jeanne very wisely told Iris in a comment recently:
But there’s always that moment where you know you’re going to have to justify yourself, and perhaps ultimately to stand symbolically naked before the world saying you love something and you’re going to continue to stand there while other folks take their shots at you for loving it. The “how could you love that unless you’re kind of shallow or silly or sentimental?” shots.
I’ve been there too often to ever want to deliberately put others in that position. So: as silly and ridiculous as I found this book, I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t think liking it makes anyone silly or ridiculous. Nor do I think that anyone who likes it incapable of critical thinking, or approves of all the things I found questionable about it. The way we read and relate to literature is fortunately far more complex than that.

The Very Thought of You is a historical novel mostly set in Britain during WWII. It’s ostensibly the story of a child evacuee, Anna Sands, who’s sent from London to Ashton Hall, a large mansion in Yorkshire, along with numerous other children. This and the fact that the novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize were the reasons why I picked it up in the first place.

Part of me is surprised that The Very Thought of You was included in the Orange shortlist; but then again I don’t really see literary awards as reflecting anything more than the taste of that year’s particular group of judges. I vaguely remember that there were some outcries because this was a romance novel being nominated for a “literary fiction” award. If anything, this predisposed me to like it all the more, but unfortunately I have to agree with the naysayers (minus the implications that everything I disliked about the book is an inevitable consequence of it being a romance, of course). I suppose this really just further proves the arbitrariness of it all (if you have ten minutes to spare do click the link; best vlog ever). Why, among all excellent genre fiction out there, was this distinguished with “literariness”?

I should warn you that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS from here on. I can’t really illustrate the WTFery of this book in its full splendour without spoiling it.

The first thing that disappointment me was the fact that The Very Thought of You wasn’t quite Anna’s story – she’s actually in the background for most of the book. Though I wasn’t crazy about the writing from the beginning, I actually mostly enjoyed the first section, which described Anna’s last day with her mother in London and her journey to Yorkshire. But it all went downhill from there. The Very Thought of You is first and foremost the story of the dissolution of an upper class couple’s marriage, Thomas and Elisabeth Ashton’s, plus the story of a bunch of random people they have affairs with, and whose inner suffering is revealed to us through extensive flashback. Alison manages to do the opposite of what Virginia Woolf does: Woolf effectively portrays the interior life of even minor characters in a sentence or two; here, we get pages and pages of back story and they still all feel like cardboard cuts. Possibly this has to do with Rosie Alison’s penchant from Telling, Not Showing, which plagues the entire book.

Alison’s writing quite reminded me of Kate Morton’s, and if you’re me, this is not a good thing. I couldn’t help it – I kept laughing out loud and reading paragraphs sarcastically to my boyfriend. And no, the irony of someone like me accusing others of writing flowery purple prose doesn’t escape me, but this book just crosses the line for me (I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the line is of course very personal – one person’s unintentional comedy is another’s beautiful prose). This is writing of a kind I absolutely can’t take seriously. I wish I had marked some of the most outrageous passages, but luckily I can open the book at random and find something worthy of the lulz:
He had hoped that this school initiative might rekindle their warmth, but perhaps it was just another false dawn. Any spontaneous intimacy seemed to elude them both at the moment. There was always that distance in her eyes. In his eyes, too. He knew his disability had short-changed her, but he sensed other patterns at play too. As long as he could remember, he had always been straining to know how to love. He couldn’t say whether it was his stiff upbringing or his siblings’ deaths which had cauterized his feelings, but he knew there remained something remote about his heart.
Or:
Barely spoken then, even in her mind, was the whisper of her empty womb. She was so stricken with a fear of barrenness that she could scarcely bear to acknowledge it. Every month, she kept up a faith that perhaps a child would come to relive the years ahead. But always she felt the sharp ache, the pang, the subtle inward wrench which preceded her menstrual flow. Then the blood oozed forth, washing away her hope.
Or:
By the light of a bare bulb they took off their clothes, Elizabeth’s nipples erect, her womb crying out for a child. She let him grapple her like an animal, his legs robust and his thick erection protruding from crinkly black hair. In a rapture of procreation she rolled on Luc’s unmade bed and cried out as she felt his hot rush inside her. Then she lay back to halt the ooze down her thighs, and luxuriated in the thought of her child forming within.
But still no child came. At the end of the month her womb washed itself out with blood, as usual.
(Ha – I hit the jackpot with these last two passages. I’ll have plenty more to say about the language Alison  uses here later.)

But if it stopped at the writing, it wouldn’t be so bad. What really bothered me were the trite ideas, the melodrama, the ideological stances that I personally find very dubious, and have I mentioned the cardboard characters? There is not a single multifaceted human being in this book; not a single character who didn’t feel like a puppet being manipulated for very specific purposes. I swear, you can actually see the strings hanging behind the text.

I also found The Very Thought of You extremely conservative – and I mean this more widely than in a political sense. This has in part to do with its uncritical presentation of a romanticised version of pre-WW2 upper class life. Think The Little Stranger minus all the questions it poses (except you can’t, can you, because that novel is the questions). Sadly, The Very Thought of You lacks any sort of self-awareness. I don’t mean that I wanted all the upper class characters to be portrayed as villains because if they’re rich they must surely be wicked. That would be every bit as facile as the idealisation we see here. But I’d love at least some degree of acknowledgement of the social implications of their grand lives, instead of seeing them be played up for drama and romance. This is the same sort of think that annoyed me about The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson, though I’ll be the first to admit that my patience for this sort of thing is very short.

Moving to the tragedy-slash-melodrama: you know, it’s not that I want to dismiss what these characters go through. A lot of it may seem ideologically questionable, but I could read and sympathise with a story about these things anyway – isn’t that what the best fiction does? The best example is perhaps Thomas Ashton and his disability – he become ill with polio early in his marriage, and as a result he ends up on a wheelchair for life, which makes him feel “humiliated and emasculated”. This is a realistic reaction, especially for an Edwardian man. It makes sense that Thomas’ disability would affect his sense of masculinity, but I have huge issues with the way the whole thing is dealt with here. It’s presented more like an unexamined assumption (of course a disabled man will feel emasculated, because he is) than as something Thomas struggles with.

It can be hard to explain what I mean when I say I wanted it to be examined – I didn’t want heavy-handedness or didactic asides. Just… fewer absolutes, I guess. I didn’t want Thomas’ “emasculation” to be presented as universal or inevitable. I don’t want to censor his feelings, of course – there is a place for an exploration of an issue like this in literature, just like there’s a place for anything that belongs to the spectrum of human emotions. But it needed more depth than this. I suppose the main issue here is that the whole thing is only explored very superficially. It’s not really addressed in any amount of detail, which makes a normative, ableist reading much too easy.

So: the world of The Very Thought of You is a world where men in wheelchairs inevitably feel emasculated; where “barren women” are driven to murderous rage by their bitterness and frustration; where mothers who go dancing in London while their daughters are lonely and far away are punished by bombs, but are of course given time to Repent Their Wicked Ways before they die; where woman who “walk in sensuous ways that make them seem available” get what they deserve; and where people pine for their true love forever and ever and ever — because obviously it’s impossible to connect with another human being ever again once you have found and lost The One (or worse – if The One doesn’t love you back). Even if you think you have, it will all turn out to be a lie. Sooner or later, the truth will surface and the emptiness inside you will EAT YOU UP.

And just in case you’re wondering, I’m not making any of this up. Take this gem of a passage, for example:
When I was younger, I met a wonderful woman, the right woman, and she loved me. We loved each other, and we both knew that. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Mutual love? The memory still sustains me, every day. So I may seem like an old wreck to you—but inside I’m still dancing, as they say.
This really bothers me, because it’s so (excuse the made up word) romanticonormative. Apparently “true love” is the only source of real happiness, and it’s what all of us really want deep down. Here’s a radical idea: what if it’s not? What if – insanity of insanities – there are people out there for whom romantic attachment is not actually that much of a priority? What if there’s nothing wrong with them? What if the ways in which they chose to live their lives are every bit as valid as a normative life path? Yet in the world of the novel, this is all absolutely unthinkable.

The Very Thought of You is a sad story, and it actually had the potential to become a novel about how people who overinvest in love, who put all their eggs in one basket, are destined to fail and to miss plenty of opportunities to enjoy life in other ways. Only it never takes that step; instead, this kind of fixation on romance is glorified. Thomas Ashton lives in despair for twenty years, until Anna hands him a letter from his true love, Ruth, which brings him comfort and gives a new meaning to his final days. Thus we learn that the memory of having loved and been loved is the one thing that makes life’s other pleasures enjoyable. Anna, on the other hand, realises in her final moments that her own life has been a desert because she’s never known that kind of love. To which I can’t help but say: WTF.

Moving on to the gender shenanigans (I’m almost done, I promise): Elizabeth Ashton’s greatest sorrow in life is her inability to have children. I absolutely don’t want to dismiss her feelings, but I found the language in which this unhappiness was consistently expressed highly problematic (as you can see from the two passages I cited above). We’re told she resents her “shrivelled womb”. Because at first she believes that her husband is the problem, she attempts to get pregnant by sleeping with other men, her “trysts in Soho” driving her to “a rapture of procreation”. All through the book, Elizabeth’s infertility is described in essentialist language that very firmly ties down her misery and frustration to the imperatives of female biology.

Obviously there are biological elements about the decision to procreate, but the novel makes the overwhelming urge to have a baby a) strictly female and b) inevitable and “natural”, as opposed to those “unnatural” women who feel otherwise. The worst part is that I suspect that all of this is supposed to make Elisabeth sympathetic – of course she turned bitter and resentful and ultimately murderous when confronted with another woman’s pregnancy. Of course – how could a barren woman possibly react otherwise? Which is just… NO.

Another thing I found problematic was the fact that a disproportionate amount of blame goes to Elizabeth for the failure of the Ashton’s marriage. On the one hand, the novel shows how Thomas makes himself emotionally unavailable, and ostensibly tells us that he’s every bit as guilty as Elizabeth is; yet on the other hand, the subtext tells a very different story. When all is said in done, he’s the tragic, sympathetic, romantic figure, while she’s the bitter scheming madwoman whose rage cost him his happiness. To be completely fair, Ms Alison is not entirely to blame for the fact that the characters come across this way – part of it has to do with how we’re culturally conditioned to perceive men and woman in these roles. But again, this is never ever questioned. All these assumptions are taken for granted, and that’s that. Similarly, Thomas is portrayed heroically in his lifelong longing for Ruth; Anna kind of pathetically in her fixation on him.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Anna’s mother, Roberta Sands. Roberta goes dancing in London while her daughter is in Yorkshire, has an affair, and is of course punished by death. But! Not before spending hours trapped in a ruined house, which gives her plenty of time to regret her selfishness, her “sensuous frivolity”, and her “abandonment” of her daughter (which of course results in lifelong trauma). Just to be completely clear, Roberta didn’t send her daughter away to be free to go dancing (not that this would make killing her okay, but it might raise interesting questions about the responsibilities any adult has towards the child they bring to the world). No, she sent Anna away to she would be safe from the bombings, like countless other parents did. And once Anna was away, she began to enjoy living the life of a single young woman again. Obviously this makes her a horrible, wicked, selfish woman – better make sure she dies a horrible death.

In case you were wondering about the father, he too is away all the while, doing war work. I realise this isn’t something a man would have much of a choice over (just like Roberta didn’t have much of a choice in evacuating Anna), but I can’t help but wonder why he’s not held equally responsibly for Anna’s childhood loneliness. He was just as absent as Roberta was, after all. Again, the text and the subtext tell us very different things: there might be passages about how Anna’s father was absent too, yet at the end of the day he’s neither punished nor vilified.

Ugh. What an absolute trainwreck of a book. Though feel free to argue with me if you feel otherwise, of course.

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An Education

An Education is a 2009 film by Lone Scherfig based on the real story of journalist Lynn Barber: as a teenager in the 1960’s, she got romantically involved with an older man, and as a result considered giving up her plans to go to Oxford and getting married instead. Barber has published a memoir of the same title, but the film is not actually an adaptation of the book. Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay, based his research on an article by Lynn Barber, which was only expanded into a full-length book at the same time as the film was being produced. (Needless to say, I’m quite interested in reading it to see how the two compare.)

What I liked the most about An Education was the fact that it came close to being the sort of story I’m constantly on the lookout for: a story about a woman looking back on a relationship that ended badly without regretting that it happened to begin with, and fully and unapologetically acknowledging that her experiences mattered to her regardless of the break-up. This aspect of the film is more implied than explicit, and it’s possible that the fact that the script was penned by an author I love and trust influenced how I read it. But at the very least the story doesn’t disallow this interpretation, which is more than I can say of a lot of what is out there.

I don’t want to say too much about the end of Jenny and David’s relationship in case you haven’t watched An Education, so suffice to say that she goes through the kind of disappointment that could easily taint a person’s whole memories of someone who once mattered to them. And yet when all is said and done, she reclaims her experiences as her own. Despite everything that happens, she’s able to hold on to the bits of it that obviously changed her as a person.

Of course, there’s a lot more to An Education than the failure of Jenny and David’s relationship. The story is predominantly about, well, education, and life choices, and gender and opportunities, and most of all about someone struggling against the tiny confines of their world. Which brings me to favourite thing number two: Jenny is clearly an intelligent young woman, and the film never portrays her as anything but. This isn’t a “silly teen girl makes dumb decision and almost wrecks her life” kind of story, though it very easily could have been. Fortunately, the film never downplays the complexity of Jenny’s life circumstances, nor does it portray any of the characters with anything less than the full nuance of a real human being. The result is the vivid evocation of a social world where people and their relationships are intricate, and things happen for multiple and often messy reasons.

You can see what motivates Jenny, and why something that in retrospect wasn’t the best of decisions did in fact have a lot of appeal. Towards the end of the film, Jenny says that she has finally realised that there were no shortcuts to the kind of life she wanted – but the thing is, you can clearly see what made her believe there were. The question the story deals with most consistently is what an education meant for a girl in the 1960’s. Today we see an education as something to be got for its own sake – it may or may not open doors for you in the job market (I am not bitter about my soon-to-be three degrees and complete lack of prospects, nope, not at all), but it will change and challenge and enrich you as a person. I believe in this (though obviously traditional education is not the only valid path to said personal enrichment), but I understand why Jenny didn’t. This was very much not the idea being sold to her. Prestigious education or not, nobody but one of her teachers seemed to see her as anything other than a prop.

Jenny has a father who desperately wants her to go to Oxford: he monitors her extracurricular activities, controls her study time, and buys her Latin dictionaries for her birthday. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that he doesn’t want her to go to Oxford for its own sake, but because it would increase her chances of being “settled” in life, i.e., of finding a rich and well-connected husband. Therefore, an early marriage to a well-off man will do just as well. To paraphrase Jenny, he saw Oxford as the 1960’s equivalent of the Victorian ballroom. This is the implicit attitude of most of the adults who surround her. Although the film is intelligent and generous enough to portray someone like Jenny’s father in a nuanced way, in these circumstances you can’t not respect her or fail to sympathise with her when she dismisses what education means or can achieve. This isn’t the result of stupidity, but of a mind constantly engaged that cannot help but ask why.

More than being a person, David represents excitement, possibility; a life that Jenny fears is forever beyond her reach. We know the dangers of relying on a single person to provide that for you, let alone a man with whom you can’t really have a relationship that stands on equal terms – the power gap is too wide. But in a story told as respectfully as this, we can also see what drove her to attempt a shortcut; what drove so many girls in her position over time: almost everyone around her communicated and reinforced the idea that she couldn’t be or do things for her own sake, that no other doors were open to her. Sadly it took heartbreak for her to learn otherwise, but still she was luckier than countless other girls.
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Manic Pixie Dream Girl the First Manic Pixie Dream Girl the Second

First of all, this post was partially inspired by a John Green quote my friend Marisa reblogged on tumblr the other day:

 

I’m fascinated by the way the contemporary world has constructed this manic pixie dream girl (to use a term coined by Nathan Rabin) who flutters into the lives of men and changes them forever with her moodiness and mystery. This idea has become the kind of female Edward Cullen, and I am of course drawn to it myself but also really troubled by it, because I think it’s just a new kind of objectification of women. So I think I wrote about that in Paper Towns not because I saw it in my own life but because I saw it in my first novel, Looking for Alaska, and because in the years after writing that story, I became more and more troubled by the book’s failure to point out that, like, the idea of the manic pixie dream girl is not just a lie but a dangerous one that does disservice both to the person doing the imagining and the person being imagined.

I love what he says, and I love how this transition actually shows in his writing, which isn’t always the case when it comes to what writers claim about their own work. What I mean to do here is not only talk about why these stories are problematic, but also about why I’m nevertheless so drawn to them, just like John Green. It’s almost embarrassing to look at a list like this and count how many of these films are among my all-time favourites. This is a bit of a scary post to write, actually, because I don’t want to come across like I’m saying, “This is not a problem! Will everybody please shut up and go away!” I never want people to shut up and go away when it comes to criticism, even when I disagree with the points they’re making. And in this case I do agree, which leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions and vague notions that I need to try and articulate.

As John Green states, these films and books are problematic because the women in them are idealised to an extent that dehumanises them. And yet there's something about the process of doing that when you first fall in love that’s incredibly human and that really speaks to me. Don’t most of us do it when we’re young and struggling with very intense and sometimes new feelings of longing and desire? How do we deal with having someone, or the idea of someone, have such a huge impact on the person you’re in the process of becoming? I know I’ve been there myself, and I love these stories because they reflect and validate a kind of experience that isn’t perfectly aligned with the kind of romantic experience we acknowledge and value. I love them because even though this process isn’t the same as my current far more egalitarian, messier, and actually intimate definition of love, it mattered hugely to me. It matters still.

But of course, to speak of these stories in such general terms is to ignore the gender angle, which I don’t think is something we should be doing. This may be a universal and human process, but we’re only fed stories that present it from a male perspective – and yes, that’s a huge problem. It’s the good old issue of women being expected to relate to and put themselves in the shoes of men, but the reverse being unthinkable. Also, not believing that there are any essential gender differences in how we experience longing or in how we tend to idealise others is not the same as not thinking there are any differences in how men and women experience these things in a deeply sexist world.

I think the pattern is the main problem here – the pattern all these stories form, and how it ties into the history of the male gaze. I may love these stories individually, but when I look at them as a whole, they do ring alarm bells. They strongly suggest that to experience this – to become obsessed with, or be deeply changed by, someone you might not even know all that well but who seems to embody everything you care about and want to be – is only acceptable if you’re male. Which is why as a 19-year-old trying to write a story about it, I instinctively adopted a male voice and made it m/m.

As a consequence, girls are made to feel that their agency and their right to feel longing or desire have been denied. How many stories about unrequited love, for example, or about having deep feelings for someone who may "officially" only play a peripheral role in your life, have female protagonists? This is an honest question – if you can think of any examples, I’d love to hear all about them. And perhaps more importantly, how many of those stories about women present their unrequited feelings in a sort of heroic, glamorised light? My experience, both in stories and in life, is that this kind of idealised crush is exclusively the prerogative of boys and men. A woman in the same position would be perceived as kind of pitiful; not as noble or tragically heartbroken. I'm of course well aware that the idea of the tragically heartbroken male, Sorrows of Young Whether style, is also not at al mainstream. And yes, boys are laughed at and shamed for having deep feelings of any kind, let alone for deep feelings for girls who don't necessarily love them back. But at least the trope exists, you know? Sensitive young men along the lines of the protagonists of all these movies no doubt feel isolated, but there's no shortage of characters they can relate to; there's at least a whole subculture out there to make them feel acknowledged and validated and like they're allowed to exist. Girls in the same position? I'm not entirely sure.

Of course, the way we tend to read these stories can’t really be dissociated from culturally dominant ideas about male and female sexuality, even if the stories don’t deal with sexual feelings in themselves: it’s okay for men to experiment, it’s okay for them to go through several partners until they find The One, it’s okay to love and lose someone. For women, to do so implies you’re either foolish or Morally Loose. What you should be doing is finding and settling down with the person you’re going to stay with for the rest of your life as soon as possible. Nobody else is allowed to matter. (This idea applies to men and women alike when it comes to mainstream definitions of “true love” and romance, of course, but we do enforce it far more strictly when it comes to women.)

I’m a sucker for stories about people who have mattered and continue to matter to us even if the relationship is not permanent, or isn’t really a romantic or sexual relationship as we tend to define them, or isn’t even much of a relationship at all, but more of a vague and possibly one-sided connection: stories like Paper Towns, Meg Rosoff’s What I Was, The Virgin Suicides, and yes, all those manic pixie dream girl books and movies. But I desperately want them to be told from the point of view of girls too. Can you think of any examples of stories that actually do this?1 I will love you forever when you introduce me to some.

 

I thought it was interesting how John Green mentioned these female characters becoming a sort of female Edward Cullen – Twilight does seem to have had the potential of being a story about longing and idealisation from a female perspective, only somewhere along the way it became a cautionary tale about the dangers of female desire and the inevitability of true love. (I say this without having actually read it, though, so feel free to argue with me or tell me to shut up.)

When I was a teen, I devoted a lot of my time and energy to struggling with feelings of deep shame I couldn’t even put into words; feelings that in retrospect obviously have to do with the cultural notions hammered into my head about what I, as a girl, was allowed to feel or want without becoming a wretched, pathetic sort of creature everybody would point at and laugh. I wish there had been “manic pixie dream boy” stories around, preferably the kind that are also thoughtful and self-aware enough to alert us to the dangers of idealising people – but without demonising the process in itself. In sum, stories like Paper Towns starring girls.

They would have made such a huge difference in my life.

ETA:

 


1 My boyfriend read this post as a draft and suggested that Girl With The Pearl Earring might qualify. I knew there was a reason why I loved that book.
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[personal profile] nymeth
I have to confess that I have occasional moments of anguish when looking at my Last.fm charts. For all my (flawed but at least existent) attempts to diversify my reading and balance it gender-wise, I have achieved pretty much nothing when it comes to music. Part of me wants to say, “It’s hard! There just aren’t as many ladies in bands!”, but without concrete stats, I’m just not going to. I know I’ve seen people make the exact same argument when it comes to books, or worse yet, when it comes to the number of women writing “quality literature”, which just… wha? The one thing I do know is that we are not exposed to as many women artists. The world is not a level playing field, which is exactly why we make these corrective efforts to begin with. What this post is about, though, is spreading the love of ten of my favourite ladies in music. We all love a good list, right? There will be songs and videos ahead! Behold:
  • First things first: it’s only with great difficulty that I can recall what Life Before Emmy the Great was even like. She’s an excellent songwriter and lyricist, and believe me, you want her in your life.
  • Allo Darlin never fail to put a smile on my face – which isn’t to say all their songs are happy-bouncy (though yeah, most are. Which is a good thing, right?). I swear, I will not rest until I have converted at least 60% of my friends to them. BEWARE. I love the whole We Are Armed With References To Pop Culture And We’re Not Afraid To Use Them thing they have going.
  • Joanna Newsom: I’m trying to avoid too obvious choices along the lines of Tori Amos, Regina Skeptor, Fiona Apple, Laura Marling or Björk (much as I love them), but I just couldn’t leave Joanna out. She’s one of my absolute favourite writers, and there will be future posts about gender and her lyrics. Be forewarned! (There will likely also be future posts about Emmy *cough*).

  • Azure Ray – not one, but two awesome ladies! Who have also released great music separately! I’m particularly fond of Maria Taylor. <3

  • Neko Case – Definitely one of my biggest musical crushes. <3 I love her solo stuff pretty much as much as The New Pornographers, and that’s saying a lot. Also, this is one of my favourite music videos ever.
  • Mary Timony has an album called Mountains whose lyrics are full of unapologetic references to fantasy novels, including Ursula Le Guin. Need I say more?

  • St Vincent – I kind of fell in love with her when I saw her open for The National in 2007. True story.

  • Amiina are an Icelandic band who I saw open for Sigur Rós no less than 3 times. Their songs are instrumental and absolutely gorgeous.

  • Lisa Germano writes some of the most subdued but saddest songs I've ever come across. "From A Shell", the one I linked to, just kills me.

  • Beth Orton: Weird Mental connection time: Central Reservation, my favourite Beth Orton album, strongly reminds me of Michael Cunningham's The Hours. This is because I first got and obsessively played it when I was reading the novel for the first time. How much this affects what I see in her music I'll never really know.

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