Jane Austen And The Persistent Failure Of The White Imagination

Flickr / Pepa Cometa
The ‘alt-right’ is just an uglier manifestation of the white supremacy permeating the liberal establishment in Hollywood, academia, media, and other American institutions.

I t is a truth universally acknowledged that a cartoonish president and a platoon of ignorant lemmings marching in lockstep across red states provide the perfect sunset-hued filter to enhance the already very golden self-image of liberals from San Francisco to New York City.

Not only did they vote for a Black man to be President — twice — but they also watched Moonlight, and donned safety pins as self-appointed guardians of the nation.

That’s why there was a gasp of collective, artisanal horror when Nicole Wright, a scholar of Jane Austen — the author who perfected the sharp, snide critique of society’s buffoons (we’re looking at you, Mrs. Bennet) — wrote that Austen’s work has been co-opted by the so called ‘alt-right’ who view her writing as a manifestation of the ideal (read: white) society, sexuality, and culture.

As Wright observed:

“… Austen as an avatar of a superior bygone era is linked not only with fantasies of female retreat from the sexual whirl, but also with calls for white separatism…[where] the world of Austen’s novels is extolled as a prototype for the ‘racial dictatorship’ of tomorrow.”

It’s easy to feel self-righteous when faced with this shallow reading of Austen’s novels. It is the same kind of smugness that caused many white liberals to dismiss Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Indeed, in a related piece published by the New York Times, Elaine Bander, a retired professor and a former officer of the Jane Austen Society of North America, proclaims, “All the Janeites I know are rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people.” As if simply by reading Austen, one is inoculated against illiberalism.

“This notion that ‘great’ literature and art can somehow defeat systemic injustice is a problem because of the notion of ‘great’ art,” adds writer and racial justice advocate Nakia Jackson. “What’s considered ‘high’ culture is rooted in multiple forms of systemic oppression.”

The truth is, the white power structure that created the conditions that brought Trump into power includes Hollywood, the Literary Establishment, the media, and academia, as well as the liberals and conservatives who were shaped by these institutions. With their erasure, indifference, or unconscious disregard of the lives or loves of people of color, they are complicit in the propagation of Jane Austen as a tool of white supremacists, and, indeed, of propagating white supremacy itself.

This July marks 200 years since Jane Austen’s death, and her work remains more popular than ever — her books continue to be taught in high school and university campuses across the world and her seminal work, Pride and Prejudice, has sold over 20 million copies. Austen’s books have spawned a number of film adaptations from actresses Alicia Silverstone and Kiera Knightley in Clueless and Pride and Prejudice respectively, as well as modern literature reinterpretations by authors Curtis Sittenfeld, Joanna Trollope, and Alexander McCall Smith. Although centuries removed from the gowns and balls of rural England, none of these movies or books conceive of a world where the themes of Austen’s books center the lives and loves of people of color.

Aside from some diverse casting in the films Bride and Prejudice and Clueless, English-language cinema regularly dredges up an Austen or other hidebound period piece with all-white casts, focused on all-white problems. Yet, Austenesque social morés still apply to huge, thriving communities of color in multiethnic and multiracial America and Europe, and around the globe. Although modern readers reduce her work to light romances, “[Austen] reveal[ed] her beliefs, not just about domestic life and relationships, but about the wider political and social issues of the day, ” writes Oxford Professor of Classics and English Literature, Helena Kelly.

Jane Austen amplified the voices and issues of the women of her time and social milieu — she wrote candidly and bitingly about reputation and social standing; women’s issues related to sex, power, and wealth; and familial and marital relationships. Austen cared about substantive issues and also wielded a sharp, amused sense of social absurdities.

At the heart of these adaptations — and their inability to capture the ways that Austen’s writings could easily reflect the lived reality of a diverse spectrum of modern Austen fans — lies a failure of the white imagination. When institutions from primary school onward amplify white-centered stories and histories as the only “great” art, it becomes easier to imagine zombies in an Austen landscape before people of color can be inserted therein. When non-white voices and stories are erased — or, worse, in their rare depictions, consistently presented as less than, negative, or one-dimensional — white people are rendered incapable of imagining people of color as fully human, complex, and equal to themselves, living lives just as rich as (if not richer than) the white experience.

This racial myopia from liberal institutions — which fundamentally limits Austen’s universal themes — serves as a direct line to the so-called alt-right claiming Austen from themselves.

“We constantly forget that racism is not the product of ignorance,” says G. Willow Wilson, author of the Hugo Award-winning comic book series Ms Marvel for Marvel comics. “It is the product of education. If the system is racist, being educated within it will produce racists, whether they have GEDs or PhDs.”

It’s at this point that someone usually brings up “historical accuracy.” Yet, somehow, historical accuracy never limits roles for white actors. If so, we’d never have been subjected to films where white people don black- or yellow-face; to white women performing roles originally written as Asian characters (Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson in Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, respectively); or to white people populating ancient Egypt or China (Christian Bale and an all white cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gerard Butler and a nearly all white cast in Gods of Egypt, or Matt Damon starring in The Great Wall).

You get the point.

Somehow, historical accuracy never limits roles for white actors.

Instead of another all white cast (or zombies), wouldn’t it be far more interesting to see Austen’s work from fresh perspectives? What if matchmaking Emma was re-imagined as a meddling Nigerian-American aunty in the Atlanta suburbs, or if the impoverishment of a patriarch’s widow and daughters in Sense and Sensibility were seen from the perspective of a Lebanese-American family whose ancestors arrived in Dearborn, Michigan almost 140 years ago?

What if Elizabeth Bennet was a Black Latina from Brooklyn being courted by a smooth young Pakistani American Muslima from Queens with the dynamics of love, family, race, sexuality, and religion unfolding from there? Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, is a delicious look at what Austenesque themes can look like in a vivid, modern, non-white setting. One need only to look to the popularity of Hamilton to put to rest concerns over “profitability” or “relatability” when featuring a cast of people of color. (Although we do acknowledge the critique of Lin Miranda’s neoliberal re-imagining of the American Rebellion.)

We read and adapt great literature less for historical accuracy and more for cultural accuracy and emotional resonance — to learn more about ourselves, each other, and our current cultural and political moment. By sharing stories about people whose religion, culture, race, or ethnicity are unlike our own, we have the opportunity to recognize our shared universal human experiences. There are still so many stories to be told and connections to be made that reflect the increasingly diverse nature of our society.

Denying the living, breathing nature of Jane Austen’s work is to harken back to an imaginary “pure” era, an observation not lost on the alt-right. As Professor Wright noted, “[b]y comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen…the alt-right normalizes itself in the eyes of ordinary people…[and] nudge[s] readers who happen upon alt-right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.”

Perpetuating the white status quo through Austen’s work — and refusing to use it as a vehicle to further our society’s discourse — simply echoes the great rallying cry of white nationalists and white supremacists from President 45 to Hollywood.

Pride and prejudice, indeed.

Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi are Jane Austen fans and editors of two groundbreaking anthologies, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex & Intimacy. Their podcast for Muslim girl nerds, Get Lit, InshAllah debuts this summer.

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