Pride And Prejudice And Zombies And Sexism

By Natalie Wilson

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a film consisting of a female-centric cast will be in want of critics taking it seriously. Alas, a single lead actor who has the good fortune of being popular will often find himself in the possession of accolades, nominations, and awards. Similarly, pictures featuring scores of lady-killers, fops, and men about town, or even men being mauled by bears, embroiled in Wall Street warfare, or acting drunkenly unruly, often become hot property.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, being a female-centric film that pays irreverent homage to Jane Austen’s 1813 classic, is not so felicitous. Based on Seth Graham Greene’s best-selling mixture of Austen and zombies, the film remains true to Austen’s focus on the strictures of both class and gender, doing so in a witty, well-costumed, finely acted way.

Austen is known for her clever dialogue, understated use of irony, castigation of class-climbing busybodies, endearingly flawed heroines, and subtle, non-Byronesque leading men. The film stays true to these attributes while also giving viewers action-packed fight scenes, many accompanied by verbal jousting. Add in decaying, infectious 19th-century zombies, Lily James as perhaps the most feminist version of Elizabeth Bennet yet, and Matt Smith as wonderful comedic relief as the obnoxiously prejudiced-against-women Parson Collins, and you’ve got yourself a jolly good zombiefied Austen flick.

So why do critics hate it so much?

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Alan Scherstuhl of LA Weekly writes of the film, “This gung-ho but cruddy-looking mashup fails from A to Z: It’s neither good Austen nor good zombie flick,” while Jordan Hoffman in his Guardian review quips, “Representing the lowest form of mashup, Burr Steers’ ridiculous adaptation is, to be fair, a fascinating example of an idiotic culture gone horribly wrong.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone laments how the film “lives up to the one-joke punch of its title,” while Andrew Becker of Variety calls it “moderately entertaining,” and Rotten Tomatoes shows it as “rotten” at 44%. Barry Hertz of The Globe and Mail calls the film “a failure across multiple fronts” that “doesn’t know how to die.”

You would be faulty to assume this castigation is coming only from gentlemen, though they do admittedly still make up the majority of film critics. Ladies are also chiming in with derision, with Manohla Dargis of The New York Times charging Elizabeth Bennet is so “radically transformed” that she is unrecognizable. Christy Lemire of Roger Ebert gives it a tepid review, arguing the film is predicated on a simple, single gimmick and filmed in such a way that it’s “impossible to become engaged.” Meanwhile, one of the more positive reviews of the film, by Kimberley Jones of The Austin Chronicle, notes condescendingly, “It’s a lot more fun than you’d expect.”

Herein lies the rub — it was not expected to be fun, or good, or worthy of audiences. It would be one thing if such expectations were related to the seemingly impertinent and cheeky premise: Austen with zombies. But, if you consider how often cheeky, dumb films get a pass from critics, or go without scrutiny, one wonders if there is some prejudice against the female-laden story — could it be, gasp, that films focusing on women, derived from a classic female author, and missing the requisite male superheroes or lotharios are perhaps more prone to censure?

If we note that much hand-wringing was made of the forthcoming all-female Ghostbusters, that studios are still reluctant to back women-centered films with the same sorts of budgets they grant action, superhero and adventure movies, and that female-driven superhero movies were largely written off after infamous failures such as Catwoman and Elektra, it seems there might be, as suggested by many a female in the industry, more than a wee bit of sexism going on. Purse strings are not clutched tightly when it comes to the 900th comic-inspired film (even after Green Hornet). Nor does the same critical concern circulate around male-centric films, even when they bomb with audiences and at the box office.

Alas, films that are dubbed “chick flicks” are allowed their space in the industry, but lo the woman-centric film that dares to dip its toe into male movie waters! To be safe, such films need to incorporate key male actors and characters (Bridesmaids), throw in a famous athlete for good measure (Trainwreck), or have a lead female surrounded by scads of males (the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series). A female western or road movie? Forget it, unless you’re Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) or Callie Khouri (writer of Thelma and Louise).

As for the camp horror and mash-up B-movie genre to which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies belongs, well, there seems to be a “keep your knickers out of our terrain, ladies!” atmosphere. When populated with men, as they almost inevitably are, B movies are praised for being unabashedly entertaining. But throw women into the violent, blissfully schlocky morass, and suddenly, the film isn’t good fun, but a misguided disaster. Would people have reacted differently to This is the End if the post-apocalyptic shocker had a female cast? What about a B-movie monster narrative like Super 8? Granted, it’s hard to imagine this, since such films are always testosterone-fests, but it’s worth considering how adding females to such films would change one’s judgment of them.

Women, as zombie killers, in a costume drama that dares to combine action, verbal jousting, and hordes of the undead? No thank you. That is just TOO much. Or, as Schertstuhl puts it, it’s a “pointlessly violent waste of everyone’s time, a style-less, no-joke slog.” Huh, I could say the same of many an action flick and superhero film, yet these often are the tentpoles of the summer blockbuster season.

To be sure, the movie is far from cinematic gold, but it does not deserve the rotten, condescending barbs it has amassed any more than Hot Tub Time Machine deserves a sequel. Please. I will take women from 200-year-old novels in mash-up camp to insubstantial sausage-fests anyday.

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Images: Wikimedia Commons and YouTube

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