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Pride and Prejudice, Period Dramas, and The Female Gaze

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“Do not consider me as an elegant female intending to plague you,
but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

In cinema, television, and literature alike, period settings have been experiencing a recent resurgence in popularity. As far as silver screens and smaller are concerned, we have enjoyed an influx of stylized period dramas, from Autumn de Wilde’s quirky but still rather straightforward 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma to the deliberately anachronistic, romance-tinged comedy of series such as The Great and Our Flag Means Death. There’s a plethora of reasons why audiences gravitate toward period settings in their media – too many to truly get into here, to be quite honest. But there’s a particular subset of the period drama audience that bears consideration: women. I’m not suggesting that all women consume period dramas for one singular reason, by any means; that’d be absurd. Like any other subset of a viewing audience, women consume media for a multitude of reasons, some complicated and some not so much, and those reasons are highly dependent on both context and the specific story in question. But as the stereotypical period drama viewer is a swooning, romance-obsessed woman, I see this recent resurgence and The Frida’s upcoming screening of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice in partnership with Arvida Book Co.’s Movies ‘n Books Club as a good opportunity to restore some dignity to those viewers whose primary motivation is romance – because why should it be any less valid of a reason to watch a movie than any other?

With the rise of books, movies, etc. largely oriented toward women as their target audience and the resultant feminist media critique written by women came the rise of a concept now commonly referred to as “the female gaze.” At first glance, the female gaze is easy enough to summarize: women – at least, women who are attracted to men – enjoy having the opportunity to look at hot men. But the very ease of that definition begs more in-depth consideration, doesn’t it? Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not storytelling and especially not the way we choose which stories we pay attention to. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, originally published in 1813, boasts one of the most well-known romances in the world, and the iconic status of Wright’s 2005 adaptation is owed at least in part to how the camera makes a meal of all 6’3” of Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy. There has to be a reason for that kind of longevity. So, what exactly is the female gaze, and how does it factor into certain media’s recent and meteoric rise in popularity?

It’d behoove us to start with the original concept that “the female gaze” is riffing on: “the male gaze,” best explicated by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” First published in 1975, Mulvey’s essay is credited as a major influence in introducing the concept of the male gaze to film theory, from which point this type of feminist approach to discussing narrative storytelling seeped into analyses of literature and art. At our present moment, it’s pretty likely that we can drop “male gaze” in the middle of a casual conversation and not expect to have to explain what that means. But what were Mulvey’s exact words on the male gaze? She writes, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” In other words, cinematic audiences are expected to identify with a point of view that is heavily informed by the misogyny that dominates the culture that has produced film. Saying that women are objectified onscreen is maybe too obvious of a statement to accurately get across the gravity of what’s actually happening. Let’s put it another way: the value of women characters is predicated more on how enjoyable it is to look at them rather than whether they effectively serve their narratives. Worst case scenario, they’re little more than eye candy, a body to squeeze into a bikini and shoot in slow-mo, dripping wet. From the more mainstream and typical “Bond girl” fare to master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s (in)famous blondes, women characters’ “to-be-looked-at-ness” has often been the epitome of their value. And so it happens that even films that genuinely have great artistic merit end up alienating significant portions of their audiences, not to mention the way they perpetuate the presumed powerlessness of women, on and off screen.

As a colloquial term, I wouldn’t unequivocally say that the female gaze is an exact equivalent to the male gaze. For one, it lacks the violence and dehumanization associated with the male gaze, for the most part*. In a society that’s still deeply misogynistic, women (generally) lack the systemic power necessary to oppress men to a level equivalent to that of women. Secondly, the female gaze is more akin to an escapist fantasy whereas the male gaze is an extension, a visual manifestation of the power men already possess.

So, in the face of all the… everything going on in the world right now, it’s a pretty damn nice escape to watch Matthew Macfadyen stride through the fields in a long coat, shirt half-open, backlit by the sunrise. Even nicer to see his eyelashes flutter and hear the overwhelmed hitch in his voice as he confesses his love to Lizzy. It’s extremely gratifying to see Lizzy, whose willful personality has left her at odds with so many of her friends, family, and peers, get to choose her happy ending. What makes this scene such a nice escape in the first place – the reason why this adaptation in particular is so well-loved, why Austen’s novel is mined for material again and again – is everything Darcy does leading up to it.

This is going to sound like a digression, here, but go with me. Pride and Prejudice, to me, is highly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, first published in 1600. I bring this play up to draw attention to not only how long these stories have been around but also how many times we’ve actively chosen to return to them. Plot mechanisms aside, both stories exhibit similar feminist concerns, and both stories’ emotional journeys follow the same arc: the lovers-to-be begin the tale at each other’s throats, in constant conflict… until someone besmirches the honor of the heroine’s female relative, which spurs the hero into action that demonstrates the depth of his love. Much Ado is a very early romantic comedy whose model persists to this day – and I don’t mean the squabbling enemies-to-lovers trope; that’s surface-level. I mean that when these romantic heroes say that they love their heroines, it is the kind of love that isn’t simply free from the misogynistic trappings of their cultures but actively works against them. Both stories take place in settings where daughters are little more than economic burdens and where women’s most realistic prospects are to hope to be married off to men who tolerate them well enough. When push comes to shove, the romantic heroes of both these stories respect their heroines enough to listen to them – to recognize the dearth of these women’s agency and witness how being powerless pains them. These men are not out to win love; they act out of genuine care and devotion. The person they are devoted to is suffering, and they will do what’s in their power to put an end to that with no expectation of return or repayment. And in my opinion, that’s maybe the sexiest thing about these heroes. When Darcy intervenes on Lydia and Wickham’s affair on the Bennets’ behalf, he doesn’t do it because he wants Lizzy to be grateful to him. He sees that she is in distress and that her family is on the verge of social disgrace. For all he knows, she may never reciprocate his feelings. But he loves her – and that’s reason enough to take action. Who can help swooning over that kind of adoration?

I have no pretensions of this singular blog encompassing all we could possibly discuss about the female gaze and period dramas. However, I am sure of this: there aren’t enough hand flex scenes in the world to sustain interest in this film – in this story, regardless of medium – if there wasn’t also a firm emotional foundation acting as bedrock for all that sexual tension. Part of what makes period romances compelling is the level of restraint they show when it comes to sexuality. In a time and place where women in media are often hypersexualized, romances that thrive off tension can sometimes be more even more delicious than actual… let’s call it “payoff.” Regardless, though, if it’s the sexiness or the social criticism or a combination of both that captures our attention, all are valid and worthwhile reasons why we keep returning to period dramas at large, especially given the fraught web of our current social and cultural climate. They provide escape and opportunities for commentary – both, simultaneously.

Pride & Prejudice screens Thursday, April 27th

*Caveat: frankly, this statement is only true to an extent. Just because society at large is heavily skewed toward the desires of cisgender, heterosexual men, doesn’t mean that the “female gaze” and the phenomenon of dehumanizing objectification are mutually exclusive. For a brief but recent discussion of this topic, I’d suggest taking a look at Brit Dawson’s British GQ article on the current, aggressive sexualization of male celebrities like Pedro Pascal and Paul Mescal. I also want to point out that it’s a whole other can of worms when we consider how the power dynamic of “looker” and “looked-at” fetishizes and dehumanizes GBTQ+ men and men of color. Had we enough and time, we could have that conversation here in this blog entry, but alas. Still, it’s an issue to be mindful of.


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