Costume Drama

Dear Millicent,

Our old town got smashed yesterday. Tuscaloosa is a real disaster. Final exams have been canceled, water is being conserved, and people are doing things like picking shards of glass out of their living room walls.  The place, and the reality of what it faces now are too surreal for more words from me. I never loved the city. It deserves homages, and kindness, and repair.

What I want to write to you about today, aside from the terrifying weather of Tuscaloosa (weather that convinced me that all Nature wanted was IN. By way of roof, window, or wind, the outside wanted its shelter back), is, of course, movies.  A certain kind of movie.  A lady’s movie.

This movie is historical, and it tells of how hard it is to have a vagina in history.  These movies are about constraint, voice, and 37 different kinds of fabric.  They are also about teacups, sunlight, moments of natural happiness, and moments of rigid repression. The eye drowns in fabric and rolling land. These movies are sumptuous, sensuous, and all about a woman’s world.   The world in which she is real.  Thus, they are laden with women’s work (more fabric), women’s conversations, and women looking out of windows. There are also seasons.

I’m not bagging on these movies. I happen to love them. I’m not just a sucker for them, I am The Sucker for them.  Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Agniezka Holland’s Washington Square,  Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, all grand costume dramas, mostly directed by a woman, with the original story often by a woman.  We have a new spate of these kinds of stories to goggle: Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, Bertrand Tavernier’s Princess of Montpensier (from a novel by Madame de LaFayette), and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. 

This incarnation of  Jane Eyre captures the nut of this genre, the austerity and sweep of it.  We have an uncompromising  heroine, uncommonly attractive, with a wit that dooms and elevates her.  We have a social structure that is thoroughly fucking her over, and we have a passion that demands a greater world.  Just like the Princess of Montpensier,  Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price et al, we have a heroine who simple needs to be seen.  We know from the beginning that if only she was seen, the world would realize the diamond she was.  This is also the plot of Some Kind of Wonderful, which might now count as costume drama out of sheer age (I believe there are jean shorts with a leather heart on the butt?).

The love story that is made in these stories is not about sex, but about voice. Our girl is always loved ultimately for her opinion and mind. Her atypical looks are beautiful, but they distinguish her from all the other dolts out there. When her love finds her beautiful, we know she has been truly seen, and in a way that the other women of the surrounding society are not. The beloved offers agency, a heat, a story, that the mostly female audience adores because it means that we too don’t have to be typical.  It’s proof (or a comfort) that the male gaze can be interrupted, that some other sense organs are used.

Especially because the men chasing our women usually like the sound of her voice.  Her words challenge him, and again separate her from everybody else. He can suffer her company, gladly.  She speaks, and he listens.

Both Jane and the Princess (who is more of a hot dish than an “austere oddity”) have to tackle the truth of love vs. men’s worship.  They have to maneuver in a society that completely controls them. The Princess is always an object foremost, as her father inspects her naked body before her wedding night (which makes for an incredible scene of the kind that only historical dramas can offer), as her husband is outraged that she has learned to write.  Jane has no control over her future (until she does), and often laments how she would like to be a man.  And even when their men are good, they are kind of shitty, because the system is so rotten.

With Meek’s Cutoff, we have a costume drama of different sorts–there is fabric and stitching, and plenty of full skirts blowing in the wind (more rolling hills, too), but the women are not as grand. Their hands are dirty, but the same system is fucking them over. The  men don’t tell them much, they are at complete mercy of their environment, and are often together as they stitch and wash and cook.  It’s a beautiful movie, and the word that mostly comes to mind is exposure.  It is not about love, but it is about the same thing that Jane is feeling as she runs on the moor, and what the Princess feels in the one brief horseride she gets to have by herself.  There are not many lines in Meek’s Cutoff, but in one of the longer strings of dialogue, a character says that women are made of chaos, and men of destruction.  The movie ends in a balance of both, with Michelle William’s character claiming a kind of voice (she is recognized as a leader of the group), and an unknown, wild outcome.

We often talk about messy women here–about narratives where women are allowed to be chaotic and not punished for it.  We have also talked about corsets here, and I wonder if these costume dramas often rely on all the bustles and whatnot because they shape the chaos–the cliche of a woman clawing at her corset and becoming “uncaged” is old.  And an unempowered soul is in an existential chaos.  As Jane tears at her wedding dress, I thought of all the other gowns in the wild, and why the image of a running bride is so pleasing.  Her particular dress means capture (her wedding bonnet is the most captury hat/cage ever), and by outrunning it, she escapes her first life with Rochester.  And when we see a bride running away, we see a woman taking on the system.

And this is why I think I love costume dramas of this particular variety. The world they create has such a clear definition of the suckball of patriarchy (women don’t get to choose their husbands! women don’t get to talk! they aren’t allowed to travel alone!), and they provide so many fascinating accessories to time and class that we get to enjoy the dissection of something that, closer, would be uncomfortable.  We can watch an Elizabeth Bennett or Jane Eyre rebel against their world, and we can watch them be heartily rewarded for their steadfastness (hello long lost rich uncles! hello Pemberley!).  We know they are held back (look at their skirts for goddsakes), but it’s kind of nice (peau de soie!), that we can languish in the frustration and its dismantling. As they are seen and heard, we get to play with the restraining structures that are still around today (which all of these directors have done, heavily, and often beautifully).  It is a fantasy, but not as much of love, as of agency.   Of borders. Of corsets, time, and swathes of meadows. I think we love watching people get forcibly married because the tension it brings up is scary, and fascinating, and usually, very well-dressed.

Which brings us to the Royal Wedding. I’m not saying this is a Queen Margot affair, as much as the fact that it is a real live costume drama. Why should we watch it? First off, the fabric. There will be mounds of it, and it will be a delight to the eye. It will provide us all the silhouettes and gatherings of tulle we have ever wanted. And then, we get to watch the system, a ritual of the same stuff that all those costume drama movies are talking about, in its real and most public form.  Royalty still exists, and we get to watch them in real life.  Monarchy isn’t delightful, but it is a system of built on the benefits of patriarchy and colonization and empire and overall oppression.  It’s weird, and full of the stuff of movies.  I think of the Princess of Montpensier (set in the 16th century) and then the history of Diana, less than a generation ago.  How the aim for these stories, the ones that we watch over and over again, is the same.  Our heroine is no longer an angel, an urchin, or a saving grace. She has no pedestal (but does have lots of cash), and is celebrated as a real, pulsing, speaking thing. “Altogether a human being.”

Here’s to the happy couple, and to all the happy heroines,