Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Mr. Rochester Effect

Reader, I married him.
- Jane Eyre

Last week, Alyssa bemoaned
the frustrating predictability of romantic comedy [which feature] the idea that someone, often a woman, needs to learn a lesson in order to find love. Terminal disease seems like a particularly vindictive way to deliver that education. Dying of cancer isn't cute, it's not fun, and it's not kicky.
That post extends a similar theme she looked at before (briefly: a lot of TV shows feature women with trite complications, such as promiscuity or substance abuse, and call that psychological complexity), and both of them are part of one face of women in contemporary culture, which I've been thinking about lately, especially in terms of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Quick recap: a governess rises out of poverty and falls in love with her employer, a mercurial landowner, but can't marry him because of their class differences -- that is, until he becomes disfigured in a fire and she comes into a sudden inheritance.

The classically feminist reading of this relationship notes how Rochester has to be physically damaged before he and Jane are on sufficiently equal social standing to properly marry, and this relationship defines the contours of a lot of contemporary film and tv that center on professional women. Of course, for the modern tv girl, Rochester is abstracted (say, as a series of lovers) or internalized (the woman has some personality defect) that enables her to be successful at her jobs but terrible at managing her private life.

Abstracted or internalized, this new Rochester Effect is unavoidably moralistic, as if the makers of a given text feel that if a woman is going out into the workplace -- and what's more -- is succeeding there, then she deserves to be punished in her private or interior life to re-balance The Way Things Should Be. (It's sort of the Women in Refrigerators of tv/film, though, I suspect, not nearly as endemic as it is/was in comics.) Super-competent women like Temperance Brennan or Brenda Leigh Johnson have aspects of their characters that nearly debilitate them in social (or, in the case of The Closer, LA freeway) situations. I should further mention that in the case of Brennan, the Bones moral universe suggests that her current relationship status -- you know, the one where Booth has moved on -- is her of her own doing, and in fact, is an outgrowth of her fear of emotions and attachment. (On the other hand, as much as I disliked her, I kind of liked how (relatively) uncomplicated Fauxlivia was on Fringe, especially when she was on the Other Side. Interesting, though, that one of least psychically and socially damaged/fragile female characters I can think of is so squarely villainous, and is eventually maneuvered into submission to her emotions.) The Rochester Effect is pervasive enough that it's easy to see it everywhere (River Tam of Firefly, Echo on Dollhouse, Sydney Bristow on Alias, Patty Hewes in Damages, everyone on Battlestar Galactica) even when the characterizations are actually justifiably complex (as opposed to merely complicated). (Personal admission: I have not watched all episodes of all shows I've mentioned.)

An obvious retort is that male characters also have their psychological shortcomings, which are, in fact, necessary for dramatic tension or psychological depth -- House, for example. However, women and men don't come to tv or film with anywhere near the same baggage -- men have the benefit of not inhabiting gender politics, so to speak (we're the default -- hey high fives), whereas women in the media are far more inextricably bound up in gender politics, so it's harder to see the characterizations of women as innocent drama and psychology, even in the Golden Age of television.

1 comment:

momo said...

I am going to have to reread Jane Eyre in anticipation of the new film coming out, for which I have seen the previews. Good thing I've already read it because the previews are all spoilery. I HATE it when they show the whole story before you see the movie.