Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Byronic Heroine

I finished reading Atara Stein's The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television last night. And, well, I have to say I was very disappointed in the book. So disappointed I went looking for other reviews and—having not found one—wrote my own for Amazon (here and below). I wanted to be able to direct my students to a recent account of some pop-culture Byronic Heroes, but I am going to have to keep searching.

The main problem with this book is probably the inability of essentialist feminism to deal with characters who disrupt gender stereotypes, but the most obvious problem is the fact that Stein is never clear about who is responsible for either the characters and actions or responses she is making observations about.

Stein tends not to talk about authorial or directorial intention, she criticises characters and plots as if they came into being independent of authors, publishers, producers, studios etc and there is no discussion of genre expectations in cinema even, though the book is about genre expectation in literature. Stein also tends to be silent about reader/viewer response, though the essentialist arguments she quotes depend on this.

If a female character uses violence to protect herself, is she necessarily masculinised/de-feminised? If a character is briefly depicted in her underwear, is she necessarily feminised/sexualised/weakened? The critics quoted here believe, yes necessarily, and that the female character briefly depicted in her underwear is thereby shown to be vulnerable: that a (male) viewer cannot help but have a sexual response to this depiction, and that his response re-inscribes the character's position as object/victim of the viewing male.

The possibility is not considered that a female viewer may have a sexual response, a male may not have one, or that such a response from either a male or a female does not necessarily inscribe the character in a position as object/victim, that the fictional female concerned may be indifferent—in her fictional universe—to the response of others, seeks, welcomes or is empowered by the response or is perfectly capable of defending herself from any form of unwanted attention or aggression. In the context, some of these are even more implausible than the arguments that Stein presents, but the fact is that only one possibility is considered.

If we are not talking about the character's fictional universe, then the argument must be articulated that briefly depicting a female in her underwear cannot help but lead to a sexual response in viewing males, and that this response re-inscribes the position of all real women as object/victim. Again, the possibility is not considered that a female cinema-goer may be indifferent to the response of others, seeks, welcomes or is empowered by the response, or is perfectly capable of defending herself from any form of unwanted attention or aggression.

When I read this sort of criticism I find myself wanting to ask the writer: how is a fictional female to protect herself—as a female and in a way that does not inscribe her in a position as either object/victim or masculinised/de-feminised? In fact, how is a powerful fictional female to be depicted at all?

And how can any sort of feminist criticism value the male response (assumed to be sexual, and assumed to be violent and predatory) over the female one? Do a few seconds of (hetro-male) "fan service" negate the overwhelming Grrl-power message of a film? In the case of the Alien franchise, a Grrl-power message that was enthusiastically embraced and has subsequently reappeared many times over. Is the ultimate argument, that the good these film do over-balanced by the evil that they perpetrate?

Stein's answer seems to be yes, the good is over-balanced. Which brings me to Stein's broader argument: that escapist cinema makes film-viewers into drones who are more obedient and accepting of their lot, that escapist cinema drains our collective bile. That the portrayal of characters like Ripley is intended to re-inscribe conventional gender roles and keep women passive/weakened.

The problem is, this argument really only works if you can establish that characters like Ripley are either intended to be, or are perceived to be, unappealing, or that their fate is either intended to be, or are perceived to be, an object lesson in how not to behave. Since neither the intentions of the film-makers (broadly considered) nor the response of the film goers (broadly considered) are considered at all then Stein's argument simply cannot be successful. She does not even articulated her argument this clearly.

* * * * *

My Amazon review:

First up: this book is *full* of typos, outrageous ones, ones that every text-editing program (like Word) would pick up. This suggests that nobody at SIUP was paying any attention when this book went to press … which may explain how this book got published at all in its present form.

I am intensely interested in this topic, so I found the first couple of chapters useful, even though I disagreed with many of the arguments and claims.

However, I was simply bored by the sections on The Crow and Anne Rice’s vampires, and bored to tears by the sections on Neil Gailmon's Dream and Star Trek's Q. The chapters on these characters do not have a clear over-arching argument and there is no over-view of the characters and plot-lines, just an endless series of observations, some of which are contradictory, some of which are implausible or wrong-headed, and many of which are simply repetitive.

The wost section is undoubtedly the one I was most interested in -- the one I bought the book for -- on the Byronic Heroine. Stein wants to mount a feminist argument against the Terminator and Alien films, but seems unsure how to do it, so she simply attacks the film from every direction and quotes -- approvingly -- some of the asinine arguments I have ever read.

The nadir is reached on pages 199 and 200 where Sarah Connor, from the Terminator films, is criticised because she "emulat[s] her culture's icon of heroic behaviour: the violent male outlaw …. It does not occur to her to adopt a creed of nonviolence." (199) [Well, *that* would be a short action film!] And when Ellen Ripley, from the Alien films, returns to her hyper-sleep-bed-thing at the end of one film, we are informed that this brief glimpse of her in her underwear:

[1] re-feminises her;
[2] makes her “a vulnerable sex object”;
[3] and therefore “a potential victim for men”; a potential realised in the mind of one critic
[4] who fantasises “sexual violence can bring the uppity Ripley down” and therefore concludes
[5] that the scene is intended as “a warning to female viewers.”

That’s right: simply show that you have legs and you inscribe yourself as an inevitable rape victim. Apparently this message is so loud and clear that the simple act of showing Ripley’s legs drowns out the you-go-girl message implicit in depicting a woman who has saved herself (and human kind) by single-handedly annihilating a nest of the most terrifying aliens ever imagined.

Oh, and note that these two films are related (thematically?) to Catherine from Wuthering Heights and Eustacia from The Return of the Native. I believe the phrase is “drawing a long bow.”

Whatever merit some of these arguments have—and as a card-carrying feminist I do agree with some of the observations on inscribing gender—it annoys me to see such sloppy thinking, contradictory, implausible or wrong-headed arguments, masquerading as “feminism.”

I will not be recommending this book to my students.

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