Crimson Peak and Female Authorship

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FULL-ON SPOILER WARNING: I am going to discuss EVERYTHING that happens in this movie, right up until the last reveals. I’m writing under the assumption that you’ve seen this movie. You’ve been warned!

“Crimson Peak” is a true gothic, and the gothic is a women’s genre. The protagonists are women, the most famous writers (Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Daphne du Maurier) are women. They are about old drafty houses (the traditional realm of women), marriage, and love.

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Yet, gothics are about men. The men are the actors, the choosers, the authors of fate. After reading Wuthering Heights, the memory of Heathcliff lasts for years. Jane Eyre’s life is destroyed by Rochester’s first marriage. When she leaves the house, she is making an active out of a passive act–departing rather than merely refusing Rochester. But it is a change in Rochester which is ultimately necessary, not a change in Jane. And Max deWinter rules his nameless new wife.

“Crimson Peak” is NOT about men. It engages with the male-centric tropes of the gothic while re-casting the women as the actors and, ultimately, authors.

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The best demonstration of this is poor Alan Cummings. He arrives more than halfway through the film, thinking he’s a rescuing hero. When he insists that he’s taking Edith away, takes out the newspaper article on the old Lady Sharpe, he’s playing out a story in his head, in which he’s the masculine savior and Thomas is the dark villain, Edith the damsel in distress. He doesn’t even pay attention to Lucille Sharpe, thinking that the only source of danger is Thomas.

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He just didn’t get it: he’s walked into Lucille’s story, and this failure to understand almost kills him, and in fact turns him into a damsel whom Edith must rescue.

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Thomas is the one who should be at the center of this story, but he is an extraordinarily passive character. Edith’s father identifies this right away when he tells Thomas “you have the softest hands I’ve ever seen.” Thomas insists that “my will is just as strong as yours,” but this is a complete lie. Thomas is a creature of reaction, not of action. He reacts to the empty clay mines by trying to build something better; he reacts to the lack of money by playing the part his sister wrote for him.

Thomas is not the author. He is a character in some else’s story, and he knows it. When he meets Edith in that first scene, he barely notices her, his attention instantly drawn to her novel on the table before him. His resistance to his sister began there, when he followed his attraction to Edith rather than the match his sister had already primed. When Edith later says that “characters change, they make choices,” he is struck, as if he had never considered that choice could change the story. He slowly builds up steam until he even burns the papers Edith had signed and “orders” his sister not to touch Edith again. But just because he has a bit of will at last doesn’t mean he has power, and he doesn’t even try to stop Lucille from murdering him. Even his ghost is transparent, insubstantial, blowing away on the wind.

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Crimson Peak is, at its heart, about the conflict between two authors: Lucille Sharpe and Edith Cushing. Lucille’s story is old, and she has been writing it for years in her generations-old house. Edith’s is young, just seeking publication, undergoing flux and constant revision. Lucille’s has given birth to ghosts, has swept up and destroyed lives. She can rewrite it, re-cast Edith and pretend the story won’t change. But those who threaten her story, like Edith’s father, she murders. Brutally.

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Edith senses almost immediately that she is in someone else’s story. When women marry and move into their husband’s home, take his last name instead of their own, they become a part of his family, his story. But Edith isn’t content to merely accept this. When she sees a ghost, she follows it. She wanders through private areas of the house, steals keys, looks for the answers and never tries to pretend they aren’t true. Early on, she tells Thomas that she “I don’t want to close my eyes. I want to keep them open.” Where others would flinch, she keeps going. And she never asks Thomas to save her, questions him only once after seeing her first ghosts, to which he answered evasively and with clear discomfort. Yet, Edith remains determined to know the whole of the story she has entered–because only then can she become one of its authors.

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Lucille is the source of power in the Sharpe house. She murdered her mother (and perhaps her father too). With only one exception, she brews the tea meant to kill Edith. The ghosts of the Sharpe home may have been Thomas’s wives, but they are her victims. She belongs in the house, she is it’s madwoman in the attic. She is an incarnation of the depraved horror to which the ancient family has sunk: she has become both her mother, the source of the familial violence, and her father, the leg-breaker (she tells Edith that her father broke her mother’s leg only hours before she herself breaks Edith’s leg).

But Lucille’s story has a fatal flaw: she underestimates Edith. When she and Edith are in her room, Lucille insisting Edith sign the papers transferring her fortune to the Sharpes, Lucille thinks she’s won. But Thomas has already betrayed her, has already saved Alan rather than killing him–because Thomas is in love with Edith.

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Lucille carelessly tosses Edith’s novel into the fire, mockingly saying “you thought you were a writer.” But Edith has already re-written Lucille’s story. When she attacks Lucille, she does it with her pen. She escapes entirely on her own steam, and even had Thomas not already turned on Lucille, he would never have mustered enough strength to actually stop Edith. And her reaction to seeing Thomas is not to weep or beg for help, but to attack him and confront him with the truth he’s hidden from.

When Thomas tries to convince Lucille that “we can be free,” can leave the house and its “rotting walls” behind, he is throwing in his lot with Edith’s story. It was Edith who first suggested they leave the house behind. And, because Thomas did ultimately love his sister, he tries to persuade her to see this new story through his eyes.

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But when Lucille understands that Thomas has fallen in love with Edith, her story falls apart. At its center, Lucille’s story was of her and Thomas (while Edith’s was of herself). When he proves to have not only veered off script, but to in fact have betrayed the story, her reaction is to excise him, to destroy what Edith had created.

In the final scene, Lucille tells Edith “either you kill me, or I kill you.” Both of the stories cannot exist together. And so Edith ends the Sharpe story, ends Lucille with one blow. She emerges from the darkness of the house into the light of the snowstorm, the only survivor of Lucille Sharpe.

 

Tauriel: Almost a Great Notion

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How could you do this to my character?

Note: Yeah, I know the movie is more than a year old. This has been sitting on my laptop for a year, so I’m finally publishing it.

A summary of Tauriel’s plot in “Battle of the Five Armies” is as follows: protect Kili by leaving Lake Town, join Legolas in a northward excursion, fight with Thranduil over Kili and love, go looking for Kili, watch Kili die, lose consciousness, mourn over Kili. This sucks.

In the last movie, Tauriel was a great warrior, a means through which to explore Elven racism, a woman motivated by curiosity about the world and desire to protect it. In this movie, she’s motivated by love of Kili. That’s it. That’s her whole motivation, the crux of her character. Love. “Was it real?”

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Look, it’s a good movie, easily the best dramatic piece of the three prequels. But they dropped the ball with Tauriel. In one interview, Evangeline Lily claims that the essence of her character is that of the warrior—but Tauriel only has two (very brief and non-flashy) orc kills in this movie, and her big fight scene involves being brutally beaten and saved by her two love interests.

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In truth, as befits a hobbit, the story being told in this movie is a simple one. It boils down to revenge, greed, and love—urges which motivate each character. Love is the strongest of these motivations, and it drives most of the characters: love of comrades (the dwarves), love of a long dead wife (Thranduil), love of friends (Bilbo), and finally romantic love (Tauriel, Legolas).

 

I try to criticize the movie that was made, not the movie that wasn’t, but I can’t help myself this time. The argument could be made that in Tauriel’s plot, this subtext of love merely becomes text. But in all honesty, the subtext could have remained subtext. I don’t have a problem with the existence of a romantic subplot, and I don’t care about the love triangle thing that bothers so many people; what I do care about is the fact that the movie’s only major female character is motivated almost exclusively by romantic love; not only does the audience know that, even the other characters reduce her to “love” rather than taking anything she says seriously. Thranduil only talks about who she’s in love with, Legolas is apparently in love with her, and Kili is in love with her. Those are all the characters she talks to in these films.

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These movies are ultimately about the power of friendship, friendships which bridge all divides and give men the strength to fight. I say men deliberately, because with this movie women are essentially excluded from the friendships of ALL of the Rings movies. Tauriel has no important friendships, only romantic entanglements. There was originally not supposed to be a romantic plot between her and Legolas, but the transformation of that relationship from friendship to romance excluded the only major female character in these movies from their central theme.

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Off to slaughter elves.

Finally, although Kili and Tauriel are the only example of romantic love in the Hobbit films, only Tauriel’s actions are actually ruled by that love. Until the very end, when he attacks Bolg, Kili’s actions never change based on Tauriel. He shows no hesitation in attacking the elves with the other dwarves, and Tauriel never comes up when he speaks to the other members of the Company. Yet, he asks Tauriel to come with him to the Mountain and give up all her bonds to the Woodland Realm. Meanwhile, hoping to help him, Tauriel goes alone into a horde of orcs, then practically commits suicide trying to avenge him.

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Why won’t anyone give her a real plot?

Weirdly, in spite of how dick-ish he was in the last film, here Legolas’s actions come off best of the three: he’s willing to defy his father for Tauriel, he volunteers to go with her to rescue Kili, and he has big heroics fighting Bolg to save Tauriel. Yet, he ends up in self-imposed exile. In fairness, this goes a long way to redeeming him from the jerk he was in the last movie, but he still needs an attitude adjustment.

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I will admit that I found the love story between Tauriel and Kili interesting (if not well done). I liked its inclusion because it brought issues of racial politics into the LOTR movie world. But this movie pulled away from the racial issues, instead going on about whether it’s “real” love. In the end, Tauriel and Kili’s relationship isn’t about race: it’s about death.

Tauriel and Kili were not in love with each other. They were in love with the idea of each other. To Tauriel, Kili was someone removed from the confined and prejudiced world she had spent her life in. He could speak of wonders she had never seen, and he represented escape from a dying culture. To Kili, Tauriel was beauty “walking in starlight,” a representation of an ancient culture he was forever excluded from. These people had two short conversations. They did not walk through fire together, or fight side by side. They just didn’t know each other.

Only in death could this love become something “real.” By dying for Tauriel, by breaking her heart, the love was elevated. Tauriel and Kili could never have gotten married and had little mixed-race babies. Both were too embedded in their cultures to give everything up for the other (as evidenced by the lakeside conversation). Yet, when Kili died for her, he forever preserved himself in her mind. The individual was no longer important, only the representation and the final act of love.

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If Tauriel had killed Bolg in vengeance, it would have taken Legolas’s hero moment away—but I still wish the writers had made that decision instead. And I don’t think the inclusion of the love story is in itself a problem: it’s the way it took over Tauriel’s plot. Legolas and Kili both had more plot; Tauriel had nothing but romance, a plot streamlined to exclude racial politics and warrior natures. She’s a warrior who almost never fights, in the middle of a war film! In The Desolation of Smaug, she was cooler than Legolas. But in The Battle of the Five Armies, she’s not cooler than anybody.

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No one whose character climax involves crying hysterically and then jumping off a cliff can be “cool.”

A Matriarchy Would Be Anything But A Utopia: “American Horror Story: Coven”

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The world would not be a better place if women ruled it. There’s this idea that’s been around since the ’70s, and even before, that a world ruled by women would be more peaceful, just, and all around better. That is bull.

It’s bull because it’s based on the idea that women are intrinsically different than men, or that because of their femininity or upbringing they would be more resistant to power and its corruption than men. But we know from history that that just isn’t true, that women are just as complicated and multifaceted as men, just as capable of corruption, violence, and evil.

The idea of an “enlightened matriarchy” is exactly what “American Horror Story” is ripping to shreds this year. The season centers around a matriarchal, matrinlineal group of female witches, who live semi-cloistered from the patriarchal world. Men do not have major roles in their world. They are consorts, accessories. If you reversed the Bechdel test and demand that men talked to each other in each episode about something other than girls, the episodes would fail.

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Power is female in this show. Women have different kinds of power, different gradations, and among themselves have a complicated dynamic of power. But one thing they always have is power over men, because of their magic. It’s what makes their parallel society matriarchal.

A show that didn’t acknowledge how ridiculously complicated and different women are would suggest the Coven was a peaceful, hippie, wise group of women living in a better way than us. But “Coven” gives us a group of women who fight and love each other, who revolt against or embrace their powers and positions. There are women who rape, and women who murder. There are women who are kind, and women who are lonely. The women battle each other, struggle, and sometimes fail.

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There’s nothing Utopian about a matriarchy. And we all need to stop pretending there is.