Romanticising Passion

book-spines

Fiction is a breathing, unpredictable creature. It is created by one human being (or several) and consumed by many others (or just a few) but it certainly is something that cannot be controlled. Once it has left its nest and seen the light of day, it will take whatever shape and form it takes, and there is nothing that can predict what that will be. There are so many elements at stake (from media, to society, to historical context, to audience) that will influence it, and it is truly difficult to determine what path each creature will take. Because of the status of fiction, there are stories that become extremely popular (for whatever reason) and that begin to take a form (or, say, a reputation) that creates and feeds a different idea and that result in a different product of what it was originally planned.

         It is safe to say by now that we live in an age where fandoms heavily influence and determine the path of fiction. Fandom is a blanket term I will use to describe “readership” or “viewership”, et cetera. Television shows are not only influenced by ratings (more so than by criticism and awards), they are now sometimes even funded by their targeted audience as well. The way fans respond to particular storylines will determine the direction of those (something I personally find terrifying and that I wish would stop: let’s stop killing these authors), and with that, the readings that the spectators choose to give each specific fiction product, will take a form of its own, one that will be very difficult to shake off. Not to mention the fact that the way these fictional products are created has changed as well, fanfiction is now being acquired by big publishing companies, the concept of self-publication does not sound so crazy anymore, and television shows are not only being funded by spectators but are also being distributed by a wide number of platforms (from paid services such as Netflix, to more public platforms such as Youtube).

             What am I trying to get at? Think about Romeo and Juliet. What do you think about when you think about Shakespeare’s famous play? Do you think about romance or do you think about the demise of two families? Do you think performed theatre? Written text? Film? I mean, Romeo and Juliet were two twelve year olds that met at a party, fell madly in lust, married the following day and died the next. That’s the extent of the story. You can perceive its theme as one thing or the other, but when you look at the facts, you have to wonder what happened for society to take a product about adolescent infatuation and death and turn it into a tale of star crossed lovers. I have obviously heavily reduced the true themes explored in the play, but I am trying to get a point across: Romeo and Juliet is a popularly known product, and most of the time it is inaccurately perceived.

Image4There are a few specific cases which have always struck me particularly, because they seem to have taken a form that detours so greatly from what it is that it continues to shock me that they can be interpreted so differently. For instance, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina* is a very long and rather in depth analysis of the different forms of relationships held within Russian society. It clearly establishes the line between three different marriages (Oblonsky & Dolly, Levin & Kitty, Karenin & Anna) at the same time that it deals with how these marriages deal with extra-marital relationships (Oblonsky and his many lovers, Levin and Levin (sic) and Anna and Vronsky). Each relationship is different, it deals with social disaster and defiance differently, and each example is a further proof of the difference and the uniqueness found in the human being. The novel focuses on all of these relationships and how they both intertwine and affect each other, and it does it almost in equal parts. Vronsky and Anna’s relationship is at the center of the novel and it is clearly a contrast to the rest of the relationships in the way that it deals with something perhaps different to love. It is a tale of obsession – an unhealthy and maddening obsession. An obsession that drives both parties mad, that from the very first moment, starts to deteriorate, destroying more than it can actually take. Whether if these characters willingly and consciously defy society, and how that is explored in the novel, is another story, for another day. What is clear is that Tolstoy clearly deconstructed these relationships to attempt to understand and contrast the nature of love and infatuation, as well as the nature of compromise and commitment. However, one can’t help but thinking about how differently this story seems to be perceived by the popular masses, and one can’t help but wonder if it is all a matter of advertisement or a matter of perception. When did Vronsky and Anna’s story become a tale of cross-star lovers? When was a 900 page long novel about Russian society reduced to the passion between two of its characters? Was it the way it was advertised and sold to modern audiences? Was it the reading it obtained from certain readers, or the reading it failed to obtain from other reading circles? What makes a tale of an emotionally destructive relationship turn into a love story?

                  Image3Another of the most misinterpreted stories of all time, in my most humble opinion, is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is the story about a broken home with very broken characters that experience all kinds of abuse and despair, where its main characters share one of the most terrifying emotionally destructive relationships ever written, and yet it continues to be perceived, by modern and older readers alike, as one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. As a young and very impressionable literature student, I was horrified when we read the novel for class and I got to know these characters – mainly Heathcliff. I had always perceived him (by what  I had heard other teachers say or what I had gathered from popular culture) as the epitome of the romantic hero, the epitome of the tortured lover… when in reality Heatcliff was the clear definition of an abuser (an abused abuser, no doubt, because Brontë’s work is complex, I am not attempting to deny that) who kept destroying everyone around him, not only those who had not treated him rightly in the past, but especially those who attempted to love or help him in any way.  After reading a lot of critical work on Wuthering Heights, I feel strangely weird writing such a short paragraph and such finalising sentences on one of the most complex characters (in one of the most complex works) of literature, but I believe it is necessary to acknowledge Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship for what it was: a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, which was self-destructive, composed of two characters so self-absorbed in their own obsession for the other, that they failed to see the reality of their context. Still today Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship continues to be sold as the story of a passionate love affair, and I find it sickening and worrying that we continue to believe in the idea of love as a painful act. What Heathcliff and Cathy felt for each other was not love, it was an unhealthy need for the other, an unhealthy need of possession. Love is about equality and respect and possession should never be a part of such equation.

                 I believe our society has made a special effort in glorifying the pain in love to the point that the lines between love and abuse have started to get blurred. As a society we have a duty to learn to discern between extreme emotion and obsession. It seems to be a very small barrier, but we have to be able to realise what composes each. Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights are not studies on love, but studies on how destructive an obsessive emotion – which might have stemmed from love – can turn out to be.  It is true that art is what we make of it, and we might read whatever we want to read in both these pieces of literature, but I always found it particularly harming that two stories that clearly attempt to point out problematic relationships, have ended up being icons for that which they attempted to denounce.

* I would like to point out Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of the novel, which was an incredible effort and which has been, I’m very sad to say, strangely overlooked by critics and viewers alike. It is an astounding deconstruction of the novel, done in a refreshingly metaphoric way, and I cannot recommend it enough. This adaptation is very objective in its portrayal of these relationships and it does not glorify the love affairs or the tragedies of its characters.

You can read Cristina’s latest article here.

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The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope: The Case of Ruby Sparks

ImageThe term “manic pixie dream girl” is not a new one. Critic Nathan Rabin coined it in his review of the movie Elizabethtown back in 2007 where he explains that a “manic pixie dream girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

You know the MPDG, you have encountered her many times in movies. From Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in “Elizabethtown” to Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State and to a more recent Sam, Emma Watson’s character in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”*. You will recognize her easily. She is free-spirited, quirky, mysterious, likes indie music and her sole purpose in these movies is to make the male protagonist’s life less monotonous and sad so they can figure themselves out. They are female-shaped epiphanies if you will. They are usually created with the idea of making the male protagonist rethink his life choices, this MPDG will teach our hero how to be more easy-going, how to enjoy the little things in life and take himself less seriously so at the end of the movie he will have become the MAN he was supposed to be.  Basically the MPDG is the woman as an idea.

ImageNow, the case I want to discuss today is something different. I watched Ruby Sparks some months ago and I haven’t been quite able to keep it out of my mind. Although I feel (and this is my opinion) that the movie ultimately fails at going all the way through with its message, I think it’s an important movie with a great idea at its core. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a “one hit wonder” writer who wrote a great book at a very young age and has been trying to write another one and live to everyone’s expectations (and his own) ever since. While trying to come up with this book he starts dreaming about a girl- beautiful, quirky, free spirited…well, you get the gist, right? Calvin thus proceeds to write about her and make her the heroine of his new book. In the process he becomes so enamored of this dream girl that he believes he is falling in love with her. Until one morning he wakes up and his creation, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie) herself, is there on the flesh, living and breathing in his living room.

At the beginning everything is perfect. Ruby is everything Calvin dreamt of (because he actually wrote her that way). But little by little Ruby starts to want more. She wants to get a job, she wants her own friends, she wants to test herself…in sum she wants to live her life the way she pleases. But what she doesn’t realize is that she is trapped by Calvin’s idealized version of her so she cannot move forward. She cannot escape it and when she tries to do so things get really messy.

ImageSomewhere in the movie Calvin says about Ruby: “She is complicated. That’s what I like best about her.” He likes her being complicated as long as it’s the cute kind of complicated, you know? He likes the kind of messy that is endearing. Not the real fucked up one which all real people experience. He likes her being complicated so long as it doesn’t actually interfere with his perfect idea of her. She can build play forts, act child-like and jump into beautifully lighted swimming pools at night but she cannot be assertive and make decisions for herself that he does not agree with.

That’s Ruby Spark’s message, I think. Ruby, like everyone who begins a new relationship, starts off as an idea but little by little she becomes real. The first stage of a relationship is obviously going to be great but the natural progression of things dictates that little by little you will get to really know the person you are with. The greatest case against the MPDG is that they don’t grow, change or evolve. They are just a catalyst or a male fantasy in which the woman is forever stuck in that honey-moon phase of the relationship.

ImageNow, while I was halfway through writing this piece I stumbled upon an interview of Zoe Kazan in which when asked about the MPDG trope she said this; “That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. […] I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.”

While I do understand what she is saying and where she is coming from I don’t fully support it. I agree 100% on the fact that not all original and quirky women found in movies are MPDG and we should not try to group them all together. The cases she mentions (and the ones I have previously discussed) have been labelled so without really considering the many complexities of said women. You can be quirky, endearing and original AND be a complex and real woman. One does not exclude the other. But I also think that the trope exists because we’ve seen it in too many movies. It’s problematic and thus it should not be ignored. The problem doesn’t lie with the term, the term in not misogynistic.  What is misogynistic is that female characters are so predominantly featured as nothing else than plot devices.

SprklsAt one point in Ruby Sparks Calvin, struggling with his success as an author and the idea the public has of him, says, “Women aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me.” Well that’s really what it’s all about for the MPDG.

Now, while I think that Ruby Sparks creates a great case against the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope, I don’t think it was written with that idea in mind (and the words of Zoe Kazan are a testament to that) and thus that’s why I think it ultimately fails at it. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but for me, it kind of invalidated the whole premise of the movie and the message that it had so strongly made a case of. At the end the movie ends up being a tad too forgiving of its male protagonist and the viewer is supposed to just forget how poorly Calvin treated Ruby. This is Hollywood after all and romantic comedies do get their happy endings.

*I want to analyze the cases of Summer in “500 Days of Summer” and Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in a more in-depth article further down the road. While I agree that they would fit into MPDG trope at first glance but I think they are set up to subvert it somehow because we are not meant to fully trust the views of the male protagonists of said movies. After all, the first thing Clementine tells Joel in Eternal Sunshine is “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”

 

You can read María’s latest article here.

Jane Austen and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

This year marks the 200 anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Because of that, I come with a confession.  This might be social suicide, but I will risk it:  I think Jane Austen is terribly underrated. I truly do. I think that even Jaenites underrate Jane Austen. This isn’t a typo.

             What’s my deal? Do I live in a cave? Am I unresponsive to the events taking place in my surroundings? Look, no. I’m aware Jane Austen is probably the most talked about female classic author. There are so many adaptations of all of her novels that sometimes you wonder if they’re truly necessary (and the answer is YES, by the way: every adaptation is necessary, every reread is necessary, do not ever let the world tell you otherwise). I was about to affirm that Jane Austen is the most adapted author of all time, but a quick Google search told me it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, I think that had I told you Jane Austen was, you would have believed me, because it simply makes sense. It simply feels right.

              So why on earth would I say Austen is underrated? Well, nine times out of ten, I will get strange glares whenever I proclaim to the world I LUV JANE AUSTEN. Nine times out of ten, people will believe Jane Austen wrote “those romance novels” and will go away thinking their snarky remarks are… acceptable. Nine times out of ten, a news article or whatever we call it these days will describe Jane Austen as the writer that “knew all about romance, despite being a maiden herself!”

The-Lizzie-Bennet-Diaries

 

And that is why it is with great sadness that I said goodbye to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries last week. Because The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is not merely an adaptation of Austen’s work, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries takes Austen’s work a step forward and that is, in my humble opinion, what adaptations should be all about. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has not only adapted Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting successfully, creating a narrative that is both fluid, relevant and realistic, but it also has incorporated the 2.0 era into it, retro alimenting itself, in a very post-modern way (the show exists thanks to the wonderful mediatic world of Youtube, so the show is a big and long love letter to Youtube as a platform as well). It has also managed to adapt the novel culturally and socially into this day and age, and what is more, it has done it right.

pfi_b6ae6a73079d65ff9c582f4f582ea3e9               Pride and Prejudice is a protofeminist novel (protofeminist being understood as a text that contains feminist elements, literary wise, but that was produced in an age when feminism still had no name as such, and had no movement attached to it). As such, the revolutionary tones of Elizabeth as a protofeminist heroine have been translated into today’s settings in Lizzie as well. Elizabeth is a very revolutionary character for the times, this might come out as a shock but there are a few of her qualities as a character that make her so: consider the fact that she rejects Mr. Collins because she dislikes him, when Mr. Collins is actually the only way out of the incredibly poor economic situation of the Bennets. By marrying Mr. Collins, all of her sisters, as well as her mother, would not have had to worry about their future upon their father’s death. By rejecting him, she is refusing to sacrifice her future happiness for her family, as well as refusing to accept to play by society’s rules (those that denied women a right to inheritance, thus forcing them to attach themselves to a man as a piece of property). But that’s not the only thing making Elizabeth a revolutionary character: she is outspoken, critical and opinionated. The Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries’s Lizzie refuses a very juicy job offer from Ricky Collins in a time and age when not only her family but also herself need economic income desperately. But she does not want to “sell herself” to a kind of field she does not like, she prefers to stay true to herself and find her own way, rather than following her family’s wishes. She is also opinionated and outspoken, of course, and refuses to follow society’s rules (which is not seen as clearly as with novel-Lizzy, but can be found in the little details: she refuses to sell herself to a job, she refuses to maintain relationships, as well as forming acquaintances with people she dislikes, et cetera).

The show takes special care for making all of these characters, not just Lizzie, three
dimensional. Each character has their special purpose and even their personal subplots (as can be seen through the creation of additional secondary Youtube channels for certain characters that had a ‘back story’ in the novel but that could not be easily explored in the series). All of these characters have dreams and hopes, they have good qualities as well as flaws.

                   Lizzie wants a future, she wants a career. She moves for her family and friends but she’s thirsty (albeit slightly terrified) for change. She’s professionally driven, and extremely loyal. She’s valuable to herself and wishes to be independent, and she wishes to achieve such independence by herself. But she’s not the only character like that, this adaptation takes special care to make all characters refreshingly modern. Jane herself, who in the novel was described as a lovely creature but that was mostly exploited in regards of her love story with Bingley, is here given a very interesting career, one with which she fights for and one she puts before her love life on a number of occasions. She refuses to put up with the behaviour of those around her (as novel-Jane didn’t, in a way) and puts her own rules when it comes to forgiving and rekindling her relationship with Bing Lee. Lydia, somewhat underexplored and dismissed in the novel, considered the mindless, accelerated and promiscuous sister, is here given a different turn. The adaptation took special care to construct a back story that dealt with her romance with Wickham, giving it a frightening abusive twist (taking a look at the cheerful, lively Lydia of the first episodes, and the Lydia under Wickham’s influence as well as Lydia post-web-scandal was too heartbreaking).

VJIQw3BMyU             Not only our females have purposes, the way in which Collins, Bingley, Darcy and even Wickham are portrayed is admirable just as well. The most obvious instance is Bingley: Bingley’s proposal to Jane was revolutionary because he was marrying for love, to the woman his family somewhat disapproved of. In a modern setting, dating somebody your family disapproves of would not be enough, so what Bing Lee does it not only come back for Jane, he also refuses to confine himself to the family expectations by quitting his medical career, and decides to do things his own way, at his own pace. Only then, when both Jane and Bing have found themselves individually, then, and only then, do they decide to start something together.

               Still, and getting somewhat personal, I have to say my favourite of all is Charlotte. The way in which the adaptation has incorporated Charlotte into the narrative, allowing her to bloom as a character, creating an incredible bond between her and Lizzie and at the same time not condemning her choices, which so easily contrast with Lizzie’s, making her a very driven, loyal, independent, outspoken, successful, unique  and ultimately powerful woman, is simply brilliant.

          I’m afraid there is no short article that could make any justice to this adaptation, I would gladly write a dissertation on it, and even then I would still feel I am leaving details unexplored. But I tried to pick some representative examples to try and explain why I feel the way that I do. As I mentioned, I am a big Jane Austen fan, and as such I’ve seen many obscure adaptations of her work. But, as such a fan, not all of those have been particularly pleasing. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, however, has managed to do beautiful things with Austen’s work, and it has made me incredibly proud, week after week, to see that I am not alone in seeing her work as something other than a prolonged exploration of romance. Austen’s work was about women fighting their environment, and Lizzie Bennet is the proof of that.

          If you are so unfortunate as not having been able to follow this wonderful experiment live, you can change that right now by clicking right here, and starting from the very beginning. Be warned, though, it’s 100 episodes, and you will laugh but you will also cry (and squee, probably).

        You might also be interested in taking a look at Hank Green’s video where he explains the way the idea came to him and the reason why he chose Pride and Prejudice to develop as a web series: