The Piano and Feminism
Jane Campion tells the story of how Ada McGrath, a widowed pianist, is sent away by her father in a marriage with a New Zealand colonist named Alisdair Stewart. This film provided a clear depiction of society during the mid-19th century and its message is relevant even today. Campion’s critique of social issues in The Piano promotes the idea that women should be treated fairly bypassing social status or gender. She presents the negatives of social inequality through Ada’s interactions with Alisdair and the consequences of a patriarchal culture. Ada’s relationship with Baines displays the reverse and reinforces why this is the better approach. Baines’ letting go of Ada’s piano and consequently Ada herself, allowed Campion to portray Baines in a positive light and highlight the positive aspects of social equality. These key features are what makes it a ‘feminist classic’.
Campion reinforces the social issues seen during the 19th century by portraying the negatives of a patriarchal society. In The Piano, Ada is depicted as a resolute character being repressed by a cowardly and awkward Alisdair. Through this, Campion provides a clear contrast in how we would think the dynamic between them would be and it actually plays out. During the film, Ada is stubborn and independent, as shown through her insistent desire to possess her piano which is also the driving conflict pushing the film. However, despite this strong will, Ada was still unable to bargain with Alisdair on equal terms because of the lack of social status in his eyes, being powerless to change his opinion. This is evident when Flora translates for her mother in the quotes “We can’t leave the piano!” and “Mother wants to know if they could come back directly for it?”
Because of this, Campion portrays Alisdair in a very negative light shown through his casual tone when he calls Ada a “dumb creature” and his lack of empathy for her when he trades the piano with Baines for a spot of land. Through the dynamic between these characters, Campion defines the perspective of women and these social issues plaguing the 19th century while stating her criticism of them.
Campion portrays those who respect and treat others as equals as a better approach compared to the patriarchal society for women. Baines’ recognition that the arrangement for the Piano was an unintended result and his giving up the piano was a key reason why Ada loves him rather than Alisdair. This is shown in this quote by Baines where he explains, “I am giving the piano back to you. I’ve had enough. The arrangement is making you a whore and me wretched. I want you to care for me, but you can’t.”
Baines eventually learns to approach Ada as an equal and understand that she does not want to continue with this kind of relationship. As a result, we can see that Ada begins to form an affection for him. This is evident when Alisdair is confused, stating “Why won’t she play it? We have it back, and she just wanders off!”
This quote clearly showing that Ada is distressed about Baines leaving her by showing that Ada is unwilling to play her piano despite all her efforts to get it back. Because of this, we can see that Campion depicts equality as a concrete belief that women should be treated fairly, the same way Baines impacted the life of Ada.
Although men are shown to abuse their power and control over others throughout the film, Campion implies that this is wrong. In the climax of the film, after being rejected by Ada, Alisdair cuts off her finger while Ada realises the consequences of her previous actions and is paralysed in fear. This is a definite misuse of power and Campion conveys this opinion by having the tone and characters react negatively towards this action. This is shown through the setting of the scene which is dark and raining symbolising unhappiness and tension whereas the characters react through words such as Flora who tries to dissuade Alisdair. Another example of this is through Baines’ initial agreement with Ada and her reaction towards that. This is eventually reverted when he gives her the piano back however, it does take away from the fact that it was the wrong thing to do. These examples are a clear example of what was wrong during the 19th century and its issues with patriarchal societies and sexism. By demonstrating these in her film, Campion does not promote this behaviour, but denounces it and implies that it is wrong.
In conclusion, The Piano should be considered a feminist film. Through the depiction of a patriarchal society during the 19th century, Campion was able to highlight social issues that are relevant in the present day. Portraying characters with good intentions in a positive light draws the focus towards a better approach where women are treated fairly and equally. She did this through the relationship between Ada and Baines and contrasted it with the marriage of Ada and Alisdair. Despite the fact that she does depict sexism and colonialism throughout the film, she never endorses these actions and only criticises them. In short, due to the reasons above, I firmly believe that The Piano is a feminist film and Campion should be celebrated for her ability to portray and critique the social issues of a patriarchal society.
`Silence, Sex, and Feminism: An Examination of “The Piano’s” Unacknowledged Sources. By: Hoeveler, Diane Long. Literature Film Quarterly. 1998, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p109. 8p. Abstract: Examines unacknowledged sources of the motion picture `The Piano,’ directed by Jane Campion. Review of the novel `The River,’ by Jane Mander; Controversy over the similarity of the story between `The Piano’ and `The River’; Comments on either works.
Brady, T. (no date) The Piano: A feminist classic? 25 years on it doesn’t look like it, The Irish Times. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/the-piano-a-feminist-classic-25-years-on-it-doesn-t-look-like-it-1.3527987 (Accessed: 8 June 2021).
Campion, J. (1993) The piano. CiBy 2000, Jan Chapman Productions, The Australian Film Commission.
Celik-Norman, S. (no date) ‘Two feminist classics revisited: jane campion’s the piano and sally potter’s orlando’.
Mattia, J. D. (no date) ‘The heart asks pleasure first: economies of touch and desire in jane campion’s the piano (1993) — senses of cinema’. Available at: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/the-piano/ (Accessed: 8 June 2021).