There has been a lot of chatter on Twitter lately about the role of gender in YA books. On one hand, women writers and female-centric books dominate the YA market. (An interesting phenomenon given the “general knowledge” that a girl will read a book by or about any gender, but most boys will only read books about–or sometimes by–males.)
On the other, there’s still a lot of sexism. Female characters are held to ridiculous standards (especially by female readers!) and vilified for having faults. In YA fiction, as in adult fiction, male writers are showered with praise and awards while comparable books written by female writers are not. Year after year, critics “best of” lists are all about the men. In that post, critic Lizzy Skurnick writes:
I got a glimmer of an answer last year as I sat in a board room hashing out the winners for one of the awards for which I am a judge. Our short list was pretty much split evenly along gender lines. But as we went through each category, a pattern emerged. Some books, it seemed, were “ambitious.” Others were well-wrought, but somehow . . . “small.” “Domestic.” “Unam –” what’s the word? “– bititous.”
Oh, those damn scribbling women and their little domestic novels!
A few months ago, I visited the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. The exhibit displayed some of Austen’s letters, first editions of her works, things like that. But the exhibit that stuck with me the longest was on on Nabokov. Seems he wasn’t such a fan of Jane (along with Emerson, Twain, and other males):
“I dislike Jane, and I am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.”
He was called out by Edmund Wilson, a famous literary critic. Great, huh? Well, wait until you see the manner of the calling-out:
“You are mistaken about Jane Austin. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park. Her greatness is due precisely to the fact that her attitude toward her work is like that of a man, that is, of an artist, and quite unlike that of the typical women novelist, who exploits her feminine day dreams . . . She is, in my opinion, one of the half dozen greatest English writers.”
So she’s good, but only because she writes like a man. Astounding, huh? Because no male writer (and certainly not Nabokov), ever made a great work of literature out of exploiting his own daydreams. Right? Anyway, Nabokov revisited Austen, found an appreciation for Mansfield Park, and proceeded to teach it in his lit classes at Cornell. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
As I said in yesterday’s post, I watched the new PBS version of Emma. I have to say it won me over in the end, but only because I am a sucker for the proposal scene and the way the two characters, who have had such an unequal relationship throughout the entire book come together in a moment of true mutual respect. Yes, it’s due to a big misunderstanding, but it’s quite moving, and it makes you realize that when they are married, he won’t treat her like the child he spent the first half of the book treating her as.
But I digress. My point here is that each episode of the mini-series began with actress Laura Linney addressing the screen and lecturing: “Is Jane Austen too ordinary and narrow for today?” she asks us. Linney’s point turns out to be that Emma Woodhouse is not Harry Potter or Edward Cullen or Wolverine. That she’s just a normal human with normal flaws. (Those magical guys all have “normal flaws” too, though.) However, the use of the word “narrow” is suspect. Ordinary? Fine. But narrow far too closely echoes another famous critic of Austen’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer is . . . marriageableness . . . Suicide is more respectable.
Oh, Ralph, tell us how you really feel!
It must be nice to live in a world where your options are wider than “marriageableness” or not. I feel like Emerson must have read the first line of Pride & Prejudice, took it at face value, and then went for a walk in the woods. The women in Austen are concerned about marriage because marriage was the only “business” they were allowed to conduct. And Austen’s characters do in fact realize the folly of bad marriages. Elizabeth Bennet would rather risk the kind of poverty that ends up befalling the Dashwoods than wed Mr. Collins. Her friend Charlotte decides that the stigma of being an old maid rates higher on the humiliation scale than that of being married to a fool with good prospects. In Austen’s novels, the onset of love goes hand in hand with the onset of respect. They are romantic within the realm of practicality. Talk about a woman’s daydream! Those were high hopes for the 18th century gal. (And if you want to read about how easily it can all go wrong, check out Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott.)
So Austen is narrow. But it doesn’t stop in the 18th century. I recently read a New York Times profile of the writer/director/producer Nancy Meyers. Meyers is famous for her women-focused domestic comedies. She writes about affluent women and their families and their romances. Sounding familiar? Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, It’s Complicated — these are hers. The first page of the long article is devoted to talking about how Meyers was asked to move from her table at a tony LA restaurant. Ha, see? Even powerful Hollywood moguls get no respect — you know, if they’re women.
Then the writer goes on to talk about how important and influential and successful Meyers is — never letting go of the fact that gosh, it’s hard since she’s a chick. In response to a complain about the number of takes she likes to do of every scene, her (male) agent is quoted as saying there wouldn’t be a complaint if Nancy was Mike Nichols. And gosh, Jack Nicholson respects her, too! I especially loved this bit:
It would be tempting to attribute Meyers’s uninflated manner to her being female — to having been trained from birth in the art of the soft sell — except for the fact that she is more straightforward than girlish, more clear than coy. “She’s just really smart and doesn’t seem to be impeded by all the weirdness that everyone brings to whichever gender they are,” says Helen Hunt, who starred in “What Women Want.”
In other words, just because she’s powerful, don’t fear that she’s that horrible, aggressive kind of female. Don’t fear that she’s a bitch.
Later, the writer, Daphne Merkin, calls Meyers’s women-centric, romantic films “retro” and “post-feminist” — tags I find rather shocking. Because they are romantic? The women in Meyers’s films are successful and (usually) wealthy from their own accomplishments. Diane Keaton’s character in Something’s Gotta Give is a hit playwright with a tenured professor (in Women’s Studies, yet!) for a sister. Cameron Diaz’s character in Holiday owns her own movie trailer production company (and a mansion in Beverly Hills). Diaz puts it bluntly in that film when she tells Jude Law’s single-dad character that she feels comfortable telling him about her success because she knows he won’t be intimidated, having been raised by a mother who was a high level executive editor at Random House. The romantic elements of the film do not detract from the feminist ones.
And the writer momentarily agrees:
“These women are self-sufficient and notably energetic. They may not have men, at least when we first meet them, but they make do with friends and children and siblings, for whom they whip up tasty dinners and homemade pies and laugh over their own situations. When men do appear on the scene, whether in the form of a babe-chasing player like Jack Nicholson’s Harry or Alec Baldwin’s renewedly impassioned Jake (or Dennis Quaid’s Nick Parker in “The Parent Trap,” for that matter), they awaken dormant desires that nevertheless have to be fit into pre-existing, busy lives.”
But then she spends a few pages obsessing over the filmaker’s focus on set dressings. She criticizes the thread count in the upholstery as being needlessly lush and overindulgent. Let us unpack the following quote:
“Whether her insistence on “softening the message” [Meyer’s quote, which I for one believe was taken out of context] through plush surroundings ultimately weakens the films — renders them more glossy and insular than they need be, even for a genre that is inherently fizzy — is a question I have debated with myself and others.”
So, because women-centric romantic comedies are “inherently fizzy” we should make doubly sure to grit them up in a visual sense? I wonder how many other filmmakers are asked not to put their characters in fancy cars or film in exotic locales in order to, you know, make something real. These damn domestic female stories!
“At worst, her films can give off an air of tidy unreality — and it is this unexamined aspect, I think, this failure to even hint at darkness, that most fuels critical ire. Richard Schickel condemns Meyers with faint praise, hinting that she and the studios have struck a devil’s pact of sorts. “Clearly there is an audience for sweet little middle-class romances of the kind she makes, and it pleases the studios to indulge a woman, whom they would not trust with more vigorous projects. It’s as if they’re trying to say: ‘Hey, we’re not sexists. We make Nancy Meyers movies.’ ””
“Sweet little middle class romances.” (First of all, anyone who lives in a house like the Hamptons mansion in Something’s Gotta Give is NOT middle class, fwiw.) But can’t you just hear Emerson’s or Nabokov’s dismissal of Austen in those words? Can’t you hear the dismissal of that roomful of critics deciding on literary awards? Why is domestic a dirty word? Why is a character driven movie about a successful person dealing with their personal lives a Best Picture nominee if it stars George Clooney, but not if it stars Meryl Streep? I think I’m inclined to agree with Meyer’s agent. An article like this would never be written if Nancy was Ned.
I leave you with this (there’s a little bit of language at the end):