Monthly Archives: February 2014

Mixed Messages in Austenland

I really wanted to like Austenland. I’m a huge Austen fan. I’ve read all her books and can quote from most of them. I’ve seen every television or movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” out there and own four of them, including the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice. And yes, I have a crush on Mr. Darcy.

Austenland should have appealed to me. The story is that of a rabid Austen fan (“I memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when I was 13″) who spends all her savings to go to England and live for a week totally immersed in the Regency era at a manor where all guests are promised “romance.” This sounds like a fun vacation to me. Until we have holodecks or time machines, this kind of extended cosplay is the only way we have to experiencing life in another time and place. And sure, I’d like to live for a little while in a world where politeness and courtesy between men and women are high priorities. (Yes, I’d get bored after a while, but I could handle a week of that.)

But I couldn’t get into it. The film cuts to the chase too soon; we get a quick succession of brief scenes and an expository friend to tell us that Jane Hayes, the heroine, is obsessed with Austen to the point that it’s disrupting her ability to 1. pick a boyfriend who’s not a loser and 2. live in the real world. Yet she has friends, a job, her own large apartment, and money in the bank, so I couldn’t see what the issue was. (HINT: the expository friend is PREGNANT.)

Despite her friend’s opposition, Jane goes off to England and meets the first of several caricatures she’ll be interacting with on her stay. Here’s where the movie began to lose me. Almost every person at the Regency Manor is exaggerated and ridiculous. The two other women guests are wealthy and clearly hoping not just to find romance but sex. The men are hired actors, and despite one character’s assurance that the owner of the manor hires “the best,” they are terrible. The owner herself despises Jane, who could only afford the “copper” experience and thus is treated as a poor relation by everyone except the handsome young coachman who also seems to do all the hard work around the estate. Then there’s the Mr. Darcy character, “Henry Nobley,” who turns up his nose at all of them.

He is, in fact, the voice of the film, speaking for the film-makers themselves, who despise the play-acting Austenites as much as he does. And Jane soon despises them too. She and Henry form an alliance which mostly consists of agreeing that they are better than the others, for they have a true interest in the time period (we find out eventually that Henry is actually an historian) while the others are just playing dress-up.

At one point the house party is roped into putting on a play. Both Henry and Jane are revealed as terrible actors, and later Henry tells Jane that this means that neither of them is good at pretending to be someone they are not. But everyone else in the group is also a terrible actor, so the exposition is once again at odds with what the film is actually doing.

Eventually Jane finds out that even the coachman is an actor, and for some reason this fills her with such disgust that she leaves the manor, saying she wants “something REAL.” We’re supposed to be happy for her because finally Jane has freed herself from her obsession with Austen, no longer wants to live in that time, and no doubt is going home to get married and have babies. Which is what this film defines as success for a woman. In the first gathering of the party, it comes out that Jane has a “tragic” history of a series of failed relationships. Everyone looks pityingly at the poor woman who is OVER 30 and NOT MARRIED. “Tick tock” says one of the men, smiling sadly at her. The “real life” that her Austen obsession has robbed Jane of is marriage and babies.

Jane Austen herself never married, never had children. Instead, she wrote some of the greatest books of the 19th century, books that have never gone out of print and are more popular today than ever. This film banks on that popularity to draw in the very people who love Austen, and then sneers at them.

This is not the worst of the film’s mixed messages. For most of the movie, we’re being told that fantasy is bad and that we need to live in reality every moment. Yet at the very end, Henry shows up at Jane’s door and, when she tells him she is done with fantasy, says “you’ve got it backwards. Jane, you are my fantasy.” Apparently, while it’s wrong for a woman to have fantasies about the kind of man she’d like to be with, it’s a good thing if a man does.

If Austen had written this movie, yes, some of the people would have been caricatures. But she would have also peopled the movie with reasonable and interesting characters who would have helped Jane see past her own blind spots and stand up for herself. Henry would have never told Jane that she was his fantasy, but instead have made a speech about how her integrity helped him to see his own shortcomings and realize what he valued most in life. One or both of them would have defied the very people who were trying to make them conform to society’s expectations, and together they would have formed a true partnership of like minds. But Austen did not write it, and instead we get a movie populated almost entirely by caricatures in which one fantasy is exchanged for another one.

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Bella Swan: The New Sleeping Beauty

We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty. She’s a beautiful princess who lives in a bubble, protected by her parents from every danger and apparently content to be so. Eventually a witch invades her bubble, but only to put the princess to sleep. And sleep the princess does until awakened by a kiss from the heroic Knight in Shining Armor who has fought his way to her side. The story ends with her marrying the prince. We assume that her life will go on as it was before: in the castle, protected by her husband for the rest of her life. She’ll have children, but they will be cared for by others; everything will be done for her. She will continue to live in a bubble.

Vampires have morphed from creatures of horror that prey on others into sexy, suave, well-dressed, and yet dangerous immortals—something like James Bond crossed with the sun god Apollo. It’s no wonder that Bella Swan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books falls for the vampire Edward Cullen: he is a being of pure fantasy, the Knight in Shining Armor carried to the extreme.

We see the same trope with Angel of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Bill and Eric of “True Blood,” and no doubt in the newer vampire-oriented television shows (which I must confess I have not bothered to watch, because enough already!). But in these shows, there’s a human heroine who is spunky and a fighter. Sookie and Buffy may love particular vampires, but they don’t let that stop them from speaking back to those men, rejecting their over-protectiveness, or going their own ways when they want.

Not so with Bella Swan. This is a girl with no apparent interests or talents of her own that might give her life passion and direction. Instead, she lives only for being with Edward. She is paralyzed with depression when he leaves her for her own good. Edward does not wish to jeopardize either her immortal soul or her right to live a normal human life and have the normal human successes–like children–but Bella doesn’t care about either of those things. She refuses to wake up from her fantasy and move on; she would rather die. In the face of this passive refusal to live, Edward gives in and kills her to make her a vampire too.

Bella, like Sleeping Beauty, is now in a state of suspended animation. She will remain 18 years old forever. She will never grow up; she will never grow old; she will never grow, period. She lives only when Edward kisses her. Meyer cheats and gives her a child, but the child grows up so fast that Bella has to be a mother only for a few months (and most of the child care is apparently done by others anyway). When Bella and Edward’s blissful non-life is threatened by the dangerous Volturi, Meyer gives Bella the ability to “shield” herself and others from their magic. Nothing can penetrate the bubble that surrounds Bella and Edward.

It is fitting that the final scenes of the series take place in the snow, for Bella and Edward are like figures in a snow globe, frozen in time, gazing only at each other for eternity. How boring!