28 March 2011
Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.
Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)
When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)
More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!
A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.
17 March 2011
In my professional life I happen to be writing about the question of political expediency, and it’s affecting the way I think about feminism and pop culture. To wit: I’ve become concerned that when feminists debate publicly whether something is feminist, it leads antifeminists to hold up a banner saying WHO OWNS FEMINISM?, as if us feminists are angrily policing some kind of fortress. I strongly believe that feminism is not such a plastic word that it can encompass both Audre Lorde and Sarah Palin; but here’s my question: for the sake of political expedience, should feminists restrict their public battles to decrying anti-feminism, rather than parsing what counts as feminist?
I got off on this question after watching Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Feminist Frequency video (if any of you are unaware of her terrific pop culture analysis, give yourself a treat and get up to speed NOW) about whether the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, right) from True Grit is a feminist character. In doing so, Sarkeesian responds to a number of mainstream articles claiming that Ross is feminist; she maintains “it’s a bit of a leap” to make such a designation. She advances two key reasons for disagreeing: 1) Mattie’s character doesn’t change but remains “basically the same person from the first scene to the closing credits,” and 2) Mattie’s strength, independence, and grit are all coded as male; that is, she’s accepted the rules of a male-dominated society and plays along. In contrast, Sarkeesian says,
“The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more then women and our fictional representations simply acting like men or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and the using violence as a form of conflict resolution.”
Oh, the mixed feelings. On one level I agree with Sarkeesian on all counts: it’s one thing to say it is a feminist act to place an interesting, complex female character at the center of a film and watch the events through her eyes and a far different thing to call Mattie Ross a feminist. One might even go so far as to say that the question of her feminism is irrelevant to the film, the era it describes, and the range of emotions it covers. Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood has a neat way of drawing a line between feminist movies (with female leads as well as narratives that seem to promote women’s equality) and movies that she’s “not so sure they are feminist but they are about women.”
It’s great to hold high standards, but have you noticed that most female characters onscreen aren’t just one-dimensional but so stereotypical that I want to hurt someone? Is it really important to dicker about whether Mattie Ross (or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, or Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, or Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass) is a feminist? Wouldn’t it be better to complain about all those rom-coms oriented around weddings and bridesmaids — or, for that matter, Slate.com’s consistently contrarian rejections of all feminist issues? Katee, hand me that gun so I can blast some holes in Hollywood execs’ heads!
I “hear” myself write that paragraph and laugh, because as an academic I spend a lot of time on far more esoteric questions no one gives a shit about. And, frankly, I’d love to engage in a debate about the relative feminism of these characters — these discussions are fun. So why do I suddenly care about political expendiency such that I’m willing to argue we keep those arguments amongst ourselves?
Because the battle to define feminism is ultimately not just a distraction but a zero-sum game, and I’d rather leave those definitions open enough that we feminists can stay focused on denouncing anti-feminism. I would rather see writers at Slate spending their time analyzing the deeply misogynistic notions that women need to have 24-hour waiting periods and detailed explanations of sonograms before being permitted to get their legal right to an abortion — rather than read some idiotic essay about how the Tea Party is feminist simply because it has a lot of women in it. Look: women can be just as effective anti-feminists as men can be. (WHERE is that gun? Chloë?)
And because Chloë Moretz was the best part of Kick-Ass, and likewise Katee Sackhoff was one of the best parts of Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure it’s a rejection of feminist values when films depict worlds in which not all women exhibit the characteristics of cooperation, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence. I think it helps us all question whether there’s anything necessarily male about being violent, emotionally inexpressive, dominating, and competitive (can I introduce you to some of my female colleages?). More important, such characterizations offer opportunities to explore complex expressions of gender identities. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see just a bunch of gun-totin’ women in film (for gods’ sake, I live in Texas already). Besides, wasn’t True Grit just a great story with a great female lead?
What do you think: is it useful to have these public discussions about whether something’s feminist or not, or it is more politically expedient to avoid having them publicly?