Archive for February 23rd, 2014

Terry Castle: “Austen’s characters know nothing of date rape, unwanted pregnancies, hip-hop bitches”

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Essayist, memoirist, critic Terry Castle (we’ve written about her here and here and here) gives a feminist take on Jane Austen over at The Lumière Reader. It’s offered with Terry’s usual tossed salad of brio, wit, and insight. An excerpt:

jane-austenWhat Austen activates in ardent fans then would be something like a kind of ‘Upwardly-Mobile-Hetero-Girl-Love-Fantasy’. I’d describe it as a vision of living life as a ‘woman’ (i.e., in a female body) without suffering the abuses and humiliations visited on real-world women, alas, even today, in what is a still-violent, deeply misogynistic global order. My female students—the ones who claim to be besotted by Austen and her books—tell me that even now, in 2014, they read her and watch the movies not for the social comedy or the brilliant style or the moral themes, but for the ‘love stories’. Getting to kiss the hero. Or not.

Such readerly euphoria can maybe seem regressive or childish but probably has everything to do, I’m thinking, with the so-called ‘post-feminist’ world we are all now said to inhabit. In some saddening, hugely entropic sense, feminism appears to be ‘gone’ or ‘over’ for these young women—or else never really existed for them. If they think about feminism at all, it’s merely as a sentimental vestige some long-ago-concluded sociopolitical readjustment carried out by no doubt distinguished but nameless female worthies.

castle2[So] bizarre though it sounds, I think reading Austen’s fiction acts for them as a displaced surrogate for a feminist point of view—a more wholesome way of rebelling and resisting than bulimia or cutting yourself with a razor blade. A novel such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice represents an imaginary realm in which, however inchoately or metaphorically, female rage and desire—ongoing longings for power, physical safety, intellectual and moral authority, social acceptance, emotional freedom and fulfillment—can all be dramatized at once. My students don’t ‘get’ feminism, but they sure do ‘get’ Jane Austen.  She’s like swallowing a happy pill for them. The spectacular pop-culture fetishisation of Austen’s fiction in print and on film in recent decades may reflect what feminism itself has become in the early 21st century—a sort of amnesiac, occluded, teacup-filled, muslin-skirted version of itself.

The curiously sexless-seeming love-relationships in Austen’s novels, one would speculate in turn, exert their appeal because they intimate an idealised human scene so radically (and refreshingly) unlike our own: one in which young women do not face a daily barrage of demeaning or obscene images of themselves or feel obliged to put up with the appalling carnal vulgarity of contemporary culture—the grotesque tedium of human sexual activity as it is caricatured in advertising, the mass entertainment industry, and now on the internet. Austen’s characters know nothing of date rape, unwanted pregnancies, hip-hop bitches, or ‘reality’ shows about brainless self-obsessed housewives.  Her fiction could almost be said to work as a sort of crypto-ideology. She articulates fantasies about being beloved, attractive yet undefiled, emphatically abuse-resistant, and adored by a gentle, generous, and charming man. Sexuality hasn’t started for Austen’s heroines. And it never really does.

Read the rest here.