08 November 2009

Austen in Conservative Culture

My computer broke down a few weeks ago, which is why I haven't posted in so long. Also, I've been unbelievably busy. For the first time, I'm starting to wonder if I'm right for grad school. Anyway, as promised, here are some further thoughts on Austen as deployed in the conservative, anti-feminist movement:

Miriam Grossman’s self-proclaimed “college girl’s guide to real protection in a hooked-up world” has all the elements of panicky conservative writing about the so-called “hook up culture;” it focuses solely on women, contains slut-shaming language, suggests that women alone feel an emotional attachment after engaging in sexual activity, and it even suggests that young women put off getting a post-undergraduate degree until after having children. Grossman’s pamphlet, however, also has another common feature of anti-hook up culture literature: it references Jane Austen. Grossman’s title, Sense and Sexuality, evokes Austen without mentioning her, and her name does not appear in the text. On the most jaw-dropping page of the pamphlet (the first page of section six), in pink cursive writing over red paper, Grossman writes, “The rectum is an exit, not an entrance.” The cutesy handwriting and feminine colors are supposed to make the reader forget how judgmental, over-the-top, and homophobic this statement is. The statement is also part of a pattern in pro-abstinence literature, in which writers choose to write about abstinence and women’s bodies because it is in some sense titillating; the proclamation, “The rectum is an exit, not an entrance” falls squarely into the tradition of abstinence advocates who tend to imagine graphically the violations they wish to repress. The use of Austen in this context is the use of her propriety and politeness. The pink and red, the ribbon, the lace, the cursive—these elements, in combination with the Austenian title—are not only intended to make this pamphlet clearly “for girls (not women) only,” but to give Grossman’s “facts” and tips an air of gentility and modesty.

In her review of Grossman’s Sense and Sexuality website, based on her pamphlet, Suzanne Fields claims that it “draws its name from the Jane Austen novel that dramatizes the conflict of reason and feeling in male-female relationships. Jane Austen never wrote a sexually explicit scene, but her insights into the moral shadings of behavior between a man and woman give her books their remarkable staying power.” According to Fields, Austen’s popularity has to do with her ability to teach us about heterosexual romance, a romance which conspicuously does not include anything “sexually explicit.” This is an interesting statement in light of the remainder of Field’s article, most of which attempts to draw a connection between Grossman’s website and the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski. She claims that rape used to be a crime which the public treated seriously, but that it is not anymore, and uses Polanski as a prime example of this “new” moral ambiguity surrounding rape. Interestingly, she compares Polanski to an “upper-class Englishman of a Victorian novel who takes his pleasure with the upstairs maid.” She then claims that the victim’s desire to forgo a trial 37 years later indicates
“generosity impossible to imagine in a victim in a Victorian novel. Her description of the rape, as told to the Los Angeles grand jury three decades earlier, lacks the sentimentality you could find in a Thomas Hardy novel. Her plea for him to stop and take her home was not the plea of a knowing Lolita, but the plaint of a pathetic, frightened child.”

Fields’s references to rape in Victorian novels reflect that same moral ambiguity she sees in modern culture. Calling Nabokov’s Lolita “knowing” is most obvious—accepting the narrative of Humbert Humbert, Fields engages in slut-shaming a young girl who was raped and comes dangerously close to valorizing individuals like Polanski. Her reference to the “sentimentality” of Thomas Hardy novels in the best case, elides the actual rape in his Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in the worst case, excuses this rape because it is written with sentimental language, unlike the far more ugly narrative of the Polanski rape. Without removing her own complicity, Fields seems to be suggesting that Victorian novels do not, because they include those “knowing” Lolitas and rape scenes, give modern readers a good guide to behavior between men and women. Austen, historically preceding the Victorians and lacking all references to sex, does. Austen represents for Fields a pre-sexual culture, since she sees a culture of sex as the cause for rape.

Another conservative author, Wendy Shalit claims that the popularity of Jane Austen is a sign that women (again, the focus is on women and girls) are craving traditional methods of courtship and romance. She argues that
“women all around the country, women who have already had numerous sexual affairs, are descending on nineteenth-century period dramas—at the cinema, on PBS, anywhere they can catch a glimpse of Jane Austen’s Emma or Elizabeth—with a kind of religious seriousness that would be comical if weren’t so poignant” ( A Return to Modesty 94).

For Shalit, Austen represents a place in which “the facts” of sex are not “shoved in our faces all the time,” and thus women are allowed “to imagine there might be something more to hope for than all [the] dreary crudeness” of comprehensive sex education (Return 25). This, she claims, is why women “are flocking to Jane Austen movies” (25). She argues that the facts which are taught in sex education in schools “conceal the truth” about sex, which is that it creates “obligation” (25). The title of Shalit’s book, A Return to Modesty, makes it explicit that she desires a literal return to attitudes about sex and male-female relationships which the modern world has outgrown. She suggests that the popularity of Jane Austen is popularity of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sexual politics.

This type of conservative writing—pro-abstinence, pro-courtship, and anti-feminist—wields Austen in a particular and interesting way. It is not merely that Austen “has no sex” in her novels, but that the sexual politics of her novels suggest for these authors a model of desirable heterosexual romantic relationships. For these authors, Austen is pure and modest because she exists in a pre-sexual culture, unlike the Victorian era and unlike our contemporary “hook up” culture. The cultural work which Austen does for conservative writers in talking about female sexuality is twofold; she conveys a sense of propriety and modesty in talking about that most immodest and titillating topic—women having sex—as well as offering a model for romance. By evoking Austen, the conservative writer not only makes her (it most often is a woman) subject palatable and proper, but suggests the solution to the problem of the “hook up” culture—more Austen.

Works Cited

Fields, Suzanne. “Sense and Sexuality: Sensibility Has Been Replaced in Hollywood’s America.” Washington Times 8 Oct. 2009: n.p. Washington Times. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.

Grossman, Miriam. Sense and Sexuality: The College Girl’s Guide to Real Protection in a Hooked-Up World. N.p.: Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, 2008. PDF file.

Shalit, Wendy. A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.