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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gender Bias Today & In Jane Austen's Lifetime

In another online venue, a good friend just posted the following link:

I urge you all to read it. It is a brilliant, outspoken rebuttal by the English classical scholar Mary Beard to an obnoxious, sexist review of her most recent documentary about the ancient world, a review in which the misogynist male critic, A.A. Gill, focused inordinately on Prof. Beard's physical appearance---specifically, her obvious and principled refusal to conform to prevailing norms for female public presentation, implicitly insisting on her right to keep to a natural look which does not hide her age or other non-conforming features,  and to be judged solely on the merits of her performance as a scholar and public speaker. But, to her full credit, Prof. Beard at the same time being herself respectful of women who do choose to conform as Prof. Beard does not. In other words, Prof. Beard rips this jerk apart in very blunt terms, and one cannot help but cheer, because he so thoroughly deserves it.

I also took a look at Gill's Wikipedia page, and everything there is consistent with what Mary Beard wrote about him.

And I also found this article from yesterday written in support of Beard's polemic:

So what does this have to do with Jane Austen? I think, a great deal. I mention it here because I thought of Jane Austen immediately as I read Beard's comments about how some men respond with hostility and fear when in the presence of intelligent, outspoken women. It is not hard to find even intelligent creative men like Henry James and EM Forster, let alone pretenders like Naipaul, to find examples of how threatening JA's writing can be to men.

And Beard's example made me reflect again on the perpetual fascination amongst nearly all Janeites wondering what Jane Austen actually looked like, and how she presented herself to the world. My impression is that she did conform to prevailing norms for female presentation, but of course this did not in the slightest degree interfere with her ability to express herself creatively exactly as she wished to do.

And I thought again how it would have been suicidal for Jane Austen to respond to the AA Gills of her world (of which there must have been a staggering number) the same open direct way that Mary Beard did, because, imperfect as the present still is in terms of gender bias, it is obviously a good deal better than it was two centuries ago in Jane Austen's England.  A woman today can safely speak her mind, and defend herself directly against misogyny, whereas JA's strategy of covert sarcasm and mockery of male sexism was the only safe option for JA to express her strong feminist views.

But most of all, I see in the character of Mary Bennett a prototype of Mary Beard, a modern "Bluestocking". A woman who values intellectual achievement and who does not worry about most of the norms of superficial female public presentation and beauty, which these days passes for "accomplishment" in the minds of many MCPs.

The key to understanding JA's attitude toward Mary is to realize that the narration about Mary is entirely filtered through the mind of Elizabeth Bennet, and that Lizzy, with her many gifts, does not understand, or appreciate, her younger (and much better self-educated) sister Mary. And because of Lizzy's prejudice against Mary, the reader also is infected with Lizzy's prejudice.  And I remain utterly convinced that this was all entirely intentional on JA's part, as both Lizzy and Mary represent sides of JA's own Protean personality.

And I have also noted that Miss Bates is another self portrait of JA, in which JA plays with the stereotype of the verbose and foolish spinster (who actually knows what is going on better than anyone else in Highbury).

And JA goes even further toward the edge, when she makes Mrs. Bennet such a figure of fun and derision for her husband, a sadistic jerk, and draws the reader into Mr. Bennet's point of view by making him so witty. It takes some effort to pull back and say, as many Janeites have eventually said, that Mrs. Bennet is the one who is dealing with hard, cold reality that threatens to leave the Bennet women high and dry if Mr. Bennet dies, while Mr. Bennet fiddles heedlessly in his library.

JA was a teacher, and she recognized that one effective strategy for awakening readers to their own prejudices was to first draw them into feeling those prejudices, and only then to provide a small splash of literary cold water, to make the reader perhaps regret their initial enjoyment of laughing at others unfairly.

And the best example of this in all of JA's writing that I have found, which I mentioned last year, is the scene when Elizabeth experiences a bit of karma, as she induces her father to step in to stop Mary from singing and playing, only to witness Mr. Bennet subject Mary to total humiliation. At which point we read:

"Mary, though pretending not to hear [Mr. Bennet's thinly veiled insult], was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth, sorry for her, and sorry for her father's speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good."

A small but significant awakening of conscience in Elizabeth vis a vis Mary, realizing that Mary had been sacrificed on the altar of Lizzy's attempt to make her family look better to Darcy and the Bingleys.

Cheers, ARNIE
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