I try to read widely, and as a result, I come across a lot of books that make me cringe, a few that make me wonder where, exactly, Western literature is going from here, and some that make me want to weep for the state of 21st century storytelling in general. This is the first time I’ve ever read a piece written in the 19th century that made me queasy about the state of woman-centered fiction in 2012.
I recently finished Marianne by George Sand, origenally published in 1875, and gave it a pretty low Goodreads rating that had nothing to do with the writing quality, or with Sand’s approach. I didn’t feel right about giving Marianne anything higher than a two-star recommendation because of its tendency to haunt me with its ideas: the tropes that I watched rise before me like specters as I read, reminding me of how far we haven’t yet come in the way that we write stories about women.
As I read I was distracted by the uncomfortable fact that this calm, elegant little story was riddled with the teeth-grindingly frustrating “romance” tropes that still plague fiction–especially fiction about women–to this day. Granted, in 1875 these things weren’t tropes; they were commonly accepted “truths” about how female lives should be lived. Even so, it still hurts my heart to see them turn up anywhere, whether it be in modern YA, a bad Rom-Com, or in otherwise lovely fiction created over a hundred years ago, and it hurts a little extra that a woman like Sands, who was determined to live out a different “life script” than the one the world had offered her, would be content to let her characters live the very script that she had rejected for herself.
This narrative opens with something really intriguing, especially for a 19th century setting: an independent young woman that is apparently content to live quietly, unmarried and childless, pursuing what she likes in an environment of her choosing. This set up left me hoping for a closer examination of Marianne’s life–perhaps a portrait of a woman living her own way, not to Make A Statement, but simply to make the most of her existence. Instead, the narrative progress of Marianne quickly devolves into a roll-call of tropes in woman-centered fiction made distrubing by thier familiarity, including:
1. A story about a man observing a woman, rather than a story about a woman ( a la Daisy Miller). Well hello, there, Male Gaze. Haven’t see you out and about this blatantly since the corset scene in the first “Sherlock Holmes” film.
2. A modern romance in the sense that we have a young woman caught between two men who: a. both want her and b. are both idiots. One of them expects her to marry him about four hours after meeting him, and the other spends a good portion of the story wondering whether or not Marianne has any real intelligence, and discouraging her desire to educate herself. How lovely. Who among us wouldn’t just fall into that man’s arms?
3. A modern romance in the sense that a woman who seems perfectly happy living independently at the beginning of the story ends up married by the end—but at least she marries because she wants a particular person, and not because “oh my goodness must have a man or I’m not complete!” That’s actually a lot more progressive than some things written less than ten years ago.
These themes and plot details would not bother me so much–would probably not even phase me–if they were relics: dim memories from a past in which women were viewed, and viewed themselves, as pretty things that needed a man’s attention and affection in order to be aware of and to embrace their own existence. No, these elements in a 140 -year -old story bother me because I’ve seen them all before–in fiction that was created during my lifetime. For example:
1. Marianne, which is basically the life of a woman told through the eyes of a man, was published in 1875. The last time I saw the Male Gaze used as blatantly as it is here was in the Sherlock Holmes film with Jude Law, released in 2010.
The way that the camera was caressing Rachel McAdams during that scene in which she was wearing only a corset was pretty obviously meant to be sensual, a move that implies two interesting assumptions on the part of the filmmakers:
Firstly, that the only people in their audience are those that would find a slow, intense pan of a woman’s body erotic: i.e. straight men. (Well, technically, that image would probably be sensual to Lesbians and Bisexual women, also, but considering how Hollywood tends to fetishize both of those groups in an attempt to titillate straightmen, I kinda doubt that the director was thinking about drawing in his Lesbian audience when he filmed that shot).
Secondly, that the female body exists in order to be admired and enjoyed by straight men, and thus it is appropriate to film this woman as though her audience were filled with male eyes viewing her solely as a thing to be looked at. In this instance, the camera was functioning essentially as a Male Eye, ignoring the fact that the movie’s audience would alsso include a large number of people who wouldn’t find the female body erotic — i.e. straight women (and, to fair, gay men). This one was pretty hard to ignore, but the Male Gaze still exists in a variety of forms in our culture, both subtle and blatant….and being reminded of how long it’s been around, as a form of storytelling, no less, honestly hit me in the gut a little.
2. Examples of single, autonomous women deciding that, no, actually, they really do need to be married by the time their stories end, abound in modern fiction. Take the protagonist of 2007’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” who makes a big deal of Embracing Her Independence after a difficult divorce…only to end up remarried by the end of the story. I’d be here all day if tried to list every example of this message to come along in the last twenty years, but I’m sure that anyone reading this that grew up in a Western culture can think of many, many more without my help. (Particularly if you happen to be female, since most fiction with a “No, really, you need to be married by the end,” plot is geared toward women).
3. A man who displays a profound disrespect for the basic competence and intelligence of the women he “loves” portrayed as a desirable partner…well, that story element has been at the center of a hugely successful franchise since about 2005. I won’t bother to name it–I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
So, in the end, maybe I’m being unfair to Marianne but I can’t bring myself to praise a piece with these themes in it too highly. It’s not simply the fact that those ideas existed in 1875; it’s the pang of being reminded that they are about as prevalent today as they ever were, a realization that that both baffles and sickens me.
i “The Male Gaze”: Essentially the idea that women exist for the purpose of being looked at by men, either in a contemplative or a sexual way, and should take pleasure in being observed and approved by male eyes.