I am an out and proud feminist. To me, this simply means that I believe in equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment for all human beings, including those who identify as men, as women, and as other (yes, those people do exist, and more power to them). Simple, right? Most feminists would like to think so. But it’s far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, consistently and without contradiction, in a world that’s determined to cater to women as consumers yet remains terrified of their (buying) power all the same. As Roxane Gay reminded us last year, being a Bad Feminist is relatively common. But it is still far better than being no feminist at all.
Which brings me to the book I just finished reading, the TV series I just finished watching, and the alarm I felt as they collided one day a couple of weeks ago.
Like many theatre geeks I love a good costume drama. Lucky for me there are rather a lot to choose from right now. Costume dramas are A Thing these days – it must be all the bad economic news (no, really) – and I don’t just mean Downton Abbey. Over the summer I became obsessed with Poldark, the BBC remake of its own 1975 series based on the novels by Winston Graham. The 2015 series is slick and gorgeous, and stars the impossibly smouldering Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark alongside the glowing, crimson-haired Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Poldark’s maid turned primary love interest.
The plot is pure Harlequin Romance meets Capitalism 1.0: Ross spends his time alternately fighting to save his copper mine from the evil banking family up the road and fawning over Demelza so obsessively that it’s hard to work out if he’s Henry Higgins or some kind of Dexter Morgan. But the series leaves us in no doubt that his love for her is true, and thus, despite the creepiness of Poldark sleeping with his teenage maid and then “making it right” by marrying her, they become an entirely likeable pair of old married lovers somewhere around the third episode.
Yes, it’s a bit obvious and a touch tawdry. Yes, the plot jumps and jives – Demelza is a farm girl with a dog for a BFF one minute, a bride the next, and then whoops! she’s pregnant/gives birth/the baby dies. But Demelza is also framed as strong-willed and big-hearted, a firm believer in her own convictions. She defies Ross to help his cousin to marriage with a man the family deems beneath her; she insists on caring for ill relations despite the risk to her own body. She works as hard as anyone. Having never learned the elite’s rules around women’s silence, she says what she thinks and what she feels. Never mind that she’s plainly making choices in line with gendered expectations – matchmaking, nursing, devoting herself to her husband against the odds. It was the 18th century – options for women were limited. It’s costume drama, so we can’t expect 20th century feminism to be on the table. Right?
Fast forward to August, and having drunk the hell out of Poldark I turned my attention to Outlander, based on the historical sci-fi novels by Diana Gabaldon. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a WWII combat nurse on holiday with her doctor-husband in 1945; they are celebrating the end of the war and the return of married life with a jaunt in the highlands. Curious about the standing stone monument they encounter at Craigh na Dun, Claire returns to it later and alone, only to be transported magically to the very same spot – but in 1743. The first several episodes are a rich historical puzzle as we, along with Claire, try to reason out where she is and how she might get back home again; she is constantly on guard as she adopts the script and manner of an 18th century British lady and tries desperately to fit into the role long enough to save herself. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Claire is falling for the young highland warrior James Fraser (Sam Heughan, another buff smoulderer), and it’s just lucky that, to prevent her from being taken into custody by British redcoat fighters, the MacKenzie clansmen with whom she is traveling need to marry her to a Scot. To the series’ credit Claire is presented as appalled with this forced-marriage option, drinking heavily to try to avoid an inevitability she finally can’t outwit. But once the rings go on and the clothes come off, well, things start getting predictable.
If Poldark is a fun, sexy, largely unthreatening series about a pair of gorgeous people galloping bareback through the stunning Cornish countryside, Outlander is a smart show about a smart woman in a truly compelling fantasy-grade fictional world. Claire survives by her cunning, her generosity of spirit, AND her encyclopaedic medical knowledge. She earns her captors’ trust with her professional nursing skills. She drinks more wine than Tammy Taylor and still has room for whiskey. She stands up to badass guys in kilts and insists on her human rights despite the fact that she is both out of her century and often enough out of her depth. She’s a pro.
(Caitriona Balfe as Claire Bishop, kicking ass…)
And yet, just as I’d been convinced of Claire’s feminist cred, Outlander slowly started letting me down. What’s worse – I barely noticed. I barely noticed when Claire made it, against the odds, back to the stones at Craigh na Dun and hesitated just long enough to be captured by the British army, skirts flailing as she was dragged away. I barely noticed when, returned to the stones by Jamie (who rescues her from the British, natch) and offered another chance to go home to the 20th century, Claire chose to give up her life, and her career, for her new man. I barely noticed when, in the (on their own terms fascinating) final two episodes, the series turned our attention squarely to Jamie’s experience of rape and torture in prison and relegated Claire to the job of bringing him back to (heterosexual) life.
(…and again, giving in to the heterosexual imperative)
But when, in the final moments of the final episode of series 1, on a boat bound for France and fresh adventures in series 2, Claire turned to Jamie to announce she was pregnant (against the medical odds, no less!), I saw it coming. And I was shocked – because it had taken so long for me to wise up to the fact that I’d been had. What the hell was going on?
While I was busy binge-watching Turner, Tomlinson, Balfe and Heughan, one of my bedtime reads was Susan J. Douglas’s The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us From Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (2010). It’s a bracing book from a popular feminist cultural critic, and its subject is the music, TV, internet memes and other pop culture phenomena that purport to represent (and treat) women equally and yet, curiously, manage to reproduce a familiar series of timeworn myths and tropes about who women are (and who they ought not to be). From Survivor to America’s Next Top Model, Sex and the City to The Closer, Beyoncé to Martha Stewart and beyond, Douglas does an admirable job of demonstrating the ways in which representations of women in today’s mainstream manage to pass off “empowering” images of feminine strength and resilience as somehow feminist enough, while also reinforcing long-held (and completely ridiculous) beliefs about us ladies: that powerful ones are just plain bitches, that we mostly hate each other and will claw each other to death for A Man, that we really *do* prefer shopping and child rearing, and that we thus probably aren’t cut out for that top gig anyway.
For Douglas, Outlander could be a textbook case study. Claire has brains and loads of power – within the limitations created by the sci-fi costume drama setup, of course. And there’s the rub. It’s costume drama; we can’t expect Demelza to be more than a wife and mother, and we can’t expect Claire to maintain control in a situation in which women are systemically, culturally subordinated. But when Claire chooses not to choose freedom, the series shows its cards: it’s much sexier, and thus more bankable, for her to stay with the soft-spoken, beautiful Jamie in the highlands than to return to the challenges of a complicated, 20th century urban life (in which, by the way, she would be fighting on feminism’s front lines). From that moment of “choice” onward something in the series shifts; suddenly, it’s all about Heughan’s Jamie, and Balfe’s Claire becomes his helpmeet. Yet how, the enlightened sexists might ask, can we say this is an unreasonable or unjust move? After all: Claire makes her own choice to stay behind as Jamie’s wife.
In a Guardian article that appeared earlier this week, June Eric Udorie anticipates the new film Suffragette with this valuable reminder:
the idea of “choice” feminism has become really popular. I obviously support women’s rights to make their own choices, but the idea that I have to support every specific choice, just because a woman made it, is something I think we need to do away with. By all means, get a boob job, but don’t try and justify it with feminism.
It turns out we are, indeed, living in something of a “post-feminist” moment, because post-feminism is the lie neoliberal capitalism tells us in order to convince us that simply by making our own choices, women are exercising their hard-won feminist freedoms (and therefore feminism is no longer required. Or: we’ve got some stuff, isn’t that enough?). Neoliberal capitalism also loves costume dramas: they present a chance to escape temporarily from our immediate financial, political, and social difficulties, while also offering us lessons in the benefits of hard graft and helpful reminders about how well we’re all doing today/how little is really left to fight for. Witness the outrageous success of the insufferable Crawley family on Downton Abbey. In the final season currently airing in the UK, Lady Mary is working as the Downton Agent and Lady Edith has taken on the role of publisher, moving herself toward a life in London’s Bloomsbury. These women are meant to stand as (rich!) exceptions that prove the rule: life for women is improving at a rapid rate, and soon we’ll all reap the benefits the elite enjoy now! For more proof we need look no further than Daisy, whose foot-in-mouth confrontation with a wealthy landowner over working class rights has left her to be saved by the business cunning of Lady Grantham. Or Anna the lady’s maid, whose reproductive disorder is about to be cured thanks to help from Mary. Trickle-down feminism is alive, well, and living in Yorkshire, it seems.
Sure, I could just watch something else – House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Homeland… lots of strong, contemporary women to choose from. But the mainstream costume dramas aren’t going away; they are stock-in-trade TV, and they are hugely popular when times are tough. Exhausted from my own work, settling into a precious hour or two of quiet with a glass of wine and my laptop screen, I was all too happy to let myself fall into the subtly sexist yet wildly seductive world of Claire the time traveller. Which is all the more reason to be vigilant about what these fantasies are selling, even as they peddle the tyranny of lady’s choice.
To the barricades!