Caro is a 20-something Lit student with a tendency to ignore the world in favor of books and coffee, prone to having far too many projects going on at once, and destined to become a drunken cat lady. She blogs about books over at Wuthering Reads and writes TV recaps at NoWhiteNoise.
We live, for the most part, in a largely patriarchal society – so it’s not surprising to find that many storytelling tropes ooze sexism. A conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, articulate and socially aware friend re: this sort of trope and its subversions got me thinking – what sexist tropes did Jane Austen deconstruct and subvert in her novels?
Entitled to Have You and Nice Guy™
The Entitled to Have You trope presents a man who, because of whatever reason, feels entitled to a woman. If she rejects him, the man in question will usually show remarkably selective hearing and interpret her “no” as a “maybe” and keep harassing her with invitations, convinced that his relentlessness will eventually pay off. And the worst part is that, in most cases, it does.
Austen presents this trope in Pride and Prejudice, through the one and only Mr. Collins. Elizabeth very clearly tells him that, while she’s flattered by his interest, she doesn’t feel the same way. Instead of taking it at face value, Mr. Collins assumes that she’s playing hard to get. Now, in many other works of fiction, his perseverance (see harassing) would have paid off and Elizabeth would have eventually ~seen the error of her ways and married him – but not in an Austen novel. No, Mr. Collins isn’t portrayed as sympathetic for his insistence, but rather as pathetic, annoying and incapable of taking a hint.
Another trope, often closely linked to Entitled to Have You, is the Nice Guy™. John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey is the perfect example of this. Thorpe believes that because he’s such a Nice Guy, he’s entitled to Catherine’s love. When she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, he sulks forevermore and decides that her rejection stems from Catherine not Appreciating Him Like She Should, instead of realizing that hey, the lady has the right to want whoever she decides.
Bad Boy Woobie, or Jerkass Woobie
This is another particularly annoying trope, especially because it’s everywhere lately. Writing the Big Bads as, you know, bad, and still going out of their way to make them sympathetic is something that narrators everywhere do all the time; and after over two decades of being exposed to storytelling, I have no patience for it anymore.
Apparently, neither did Jane Austen. The Jerkass Woobie was not at all woobified. We’re not only not expected to excuse his faults because of his Daddy Issues, but we’re actually encouraged to hold him accountable for his actions, as we would any functional adult. An example of this is Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham, whose lies, manipulations and tendency to prey on young girls are by no means excused by the trauma of losing his father as a child.
One Special Girl
This one’s tricky, because at first sight, it doesn’t seem sexist. What’s wrong about portraying a woman as a human being worthy of respect, after all? But scratch a little under the surface and you’ll realize that there are few things as insulting as a normally assholish man suddenly wanting to be ~good and ~different to a woman he perceives as The Paragon of Right Womanhood. This is problematic because it implies that certain women are ~deserving of being treated horribly, unlike the One Special Girl who makes the otherwise horrible guy want to respect her because She’s Not Like The Other Girls. That One Special Girl is usually also a Madonna, never a Whore.
Austen subverts this trope in Sense and Sensibility, through the relationship between Willoughby and Marianne and the fact that he’s not magically redeemed by her love. Being a serial player is part of who Willoughby is, and somebody’s personality is not about to change because The Right Person entered their life. It’s one thing when a person wants to change – but placing the responsibility of somebody’s change on an external party is not the way to go, partly because it’s too much responsibility and partly because it quite simply doesn’t work.
Thanks, Caro, for the excellent guest post on sexist tropes. A lot of food for thought! What do you all think? Have you noticed anything similar in Austen’s works? Can you give other examples, from other texts?