The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Pride & Prejudice & Ableism

Monster mashups of Jane Austen novels appear to be quite the pop phenomenon these days. Adaptations of Austen's classic Regency works spiced up with the addition of violence, zombie mayhem, and sea monsters are flying off the bookstore shelves, and appear to be spawning their own miniature literary genre.

People have been adapting and playing with the works of Jane Austen for decades, whether they're bringing them to life on the big screen and staying true to the novels, or taking the plots and characters in entirely new directions. Janeites, as they are known, produce Jane Austen fan fiction and even make Jane Austen-themed tea cookies. Heck, Stephenie Meyer names Jane Austen as an influence. Clearly, though Ms. Austen is almost 200 years gone, she's a pop culture phenomenon in her own right.

Austen is noted for for her deft prose, incisive social commentary, and, well, a feminist response to pop culture all her own. Her works turned literary tropes on their heads, introduced new and engaging female heroines, and marked a transition in English literature and a radical departure from sentimental novels. Often light in nature, her novels also managed to depict very real issues for women, and they still feel fresh today.

One might reasonably ask where the room for improvement might be. As it turns out, an editor at Quirk books seemed to believe that Jane Austen's books could be reworked for the modern audience with the addition of some now-familiar pop culture figures, like zombies, pirates, ninjas, and a sea monster or two. Clearly, this is an editor who knew his market, since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was being talked up months before its release, especially online, and rumour has it that it's about to become a motion picture starring Natalie Portman.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the recently released Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters both keep much of the original text intact, adding in new elements which are designed to spice things up a bit. There are a few deviations from plot in the interests of driving the story, and the books are clearly intended to be quirky, playful, and fun. They can be appreciated by fans of Jane Austen as well as people new to her work, and they play neatly into the larger pop culture phenomenon which appears to be creating quite a lust for zombies, vampires, pirates, and similar characters.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that clear notes of ableism were introduced into both of the monster mashups released in 2009. Ableism is not really necessary to the plot (original or new), and it certainly doesn't add anything to the books. It pushes both books from being playful romps into being something different entirely as they subtly reinforce ableist social and cultural values.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, George Wickham is punished for his misdeeds by being so badly beaten that he develops quadriplegia. The book dwells lasciviously on toileting issues, reinforcing the idea that Wickham's state is supposed to be viewed as deplorable, and the book also makes it clear that the character "deserves" his punishment. This ableism is accompanied with a healthy dose of slut shaming as the readers are reminded that Lydia is now "trapped" in a marriage with the incontinent Wickham.

Given that Jane Austen herself suffered from chronic illness at the end of her life, I think she might be discomfited to see rank ableism introduced into her books, especially as a trivial plot element. Seth Grahame-Smith could have opted to explore the Lydia-Wickham plot a bit more, perhaps even updating it for modern sensibilities, but instead he opted to retain the slut shaming of the book and add a bit more on top, just in case readers missed the message.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters also gives us a wallop of ableism, right at the start of the book, when Colonel Brandon is identified as an especially undesirable suitor because of his "facial deformity." The character has been modified with the addition of a few facial tentacles which fill Elinor and Marianne with repulsion. Again, it's not an addition to the plot which really adds to the story in any way, serving primarily as an opportunity for Ben H. Winters to ramble on for several pages about how revolting Colonel Brandon's face is, to reinforce Austen's original gibes about how perhaps a moldering old maid of 27 might be forced to settle for him but no young, able woman should have to. Better yet, a visually impaired 27 year old is identified as the ideal partner for Colonel Brandon.

There's only one good reason to add blatant ableism to not one but two Jane Austen monster mashups: Because you know that the audience will appreciate and enjoy it. I certainly wouldn't accuse either Grahame-Smith or Winters of vast cultural sensitivity, not least because of the horrific racism which runs rampant across the pages of Sea Monsters, so I think it's fairly clear that the ableism was not introduced in an attempt to be wry. It was added because, quite simply, the authors thought it was funny.

As do readers, evidently, judging from the rave reviews. It may have slipped right past a number of readers, but others clearly identified it and enjoyed it. Certainly neither book did anything to challenge or confront social norms about disability, leaving readers in a comfortable space to find disability an acceptable topic of mockery and humour.

These books reflect larger social attitudes about disability. Ableism isn't only acceptable socially, it can be used as a vehicle for humour, and it will be defended as "satire" to those who suggest that it is in poor taste. Indeed, those who confront ableism in works like these are informed that they "aren't getting it" or are "missing the point" or "can't just relax and enjoy a little humour."

Fun fact: When the humour is based on you or people like you and how ludicrous your very existence is, suddenly it doesn't seem quite so funny.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Another Possible Issue?

This is not to excuse or justify ableism in any way, but there is another possibility: that the authors simply assumed that the portrayals "fit" the (alternate) histories they were depicting. While I am not as familiar with Jane Austen as many others, I have friends that write historical fiction set in later periods (ca. 1880s-1890s) that have trouble dealing with issues of ability, race, class, and gender in their work. When does portraying the "mindset of an age" turn into modern prejudice?

Admittedly, I have only skimmed through <i>Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,</i> but is it possible that the authors thought (however falsely?) that they were reproducing an attitude that would be acceptable for the book's historical and social settings?

I also realize that it might be ridiculous to discuss historical accuracy in novels about zombies and sea monsters, but still...

In general, what have other readers noticed about ableism (and other "-isms") in historical fiction? What's your response to these issues?

Some Authors Are Trying. Not These Though!

I only read P&P&Z because I found it so problematic, but there was possibly more gratuitous racism/ableism than gore. Maybe historical accuracy is how they justified this, but Jane Austen wasn't flaunting her racism/ableist prejudices like these guys wrote. The attitudes on display in P&P&Z bear more in common with mid-20th cen pulp fiction than with either Austen or her time period. (Why are samurai swords and ninjas the norm instead of anything from the wiki article on Western martial arts? Why are the only Asian characters nameless ninjas? Why all the hating on people who are less able-bodied, given that even without zombies countless people in Austen's time were being maimed, disfigured, etc by disease, war, etc?)

Basically, even giving the authors leeway for trying to imitate the prejudices of times past, they completely and totally fail. They're not accurate, they're not thoughtful- They didn't even take the Unusually Progressive Protagonists route to avoid the whole mess like they should have done if they only wanted to write something benign and entertaining. The idea has possibilities, but Naomi Novik these guys ain't.

the best part of reading

is reading between the lines.
How much thought do you think goes into a parody of a romance novel? I'm surprised Brandons face wasn't covered with penis tentacles and an extra anus or two.
How long have you dreamed of being a literature professor?

not the issue

How much thought goes into the parodies isn't the question. The point is what attitudes and assumptions underlie the decisions made (with however much or little thought) while writing and how similar assumptions guide the positive responses of readers.

Austen's Transgressive Humor

I didn't make it far enough to get to Wentworth's "punishment" - _Pride & Prejudice & Zombies_ just wasn't funny enough to continue. I like Austen's humor much better than Graham-Smithe's, he just didn't bother to learn anything about the historical context, making stale jokes even flatter. For instance, despite reading Austen, he apparently did not pick up on the fact that both she and her readers thought sex was fabulous and not even a little bit wrong or shameful. They weren't Victorian. Victorian morality wasn't even a twinkle in it's mother's eye yet. *yawn* I can talk to almost anyone on the street and encounter historical ignorance, I don't need to pay for the experience.

Though I might give S&S&S a chance based on your telling. Referring to an actual sea monster as a deformed human isn't ableist in my view (as a disabled person) - it ridicules euphemism rather than disability, which is downright Austeny. Likewise, joking that a blind person would not be able to tell a sea monster from a human is not necessarily ableist when the able characters can't tell a sea monster from a human. The implication mocks sighted characters, not blind ones. It gives me some hope for the book, is the author different?

I don't think Austen herself would have a problem with ableism just because she was ill though, given her own sense of humor. She mocked other people mercilessly herself, she was a consummate transgressive comedian. You laugh at her jokes, but you feel like you're going to hell for laughing. This is much more apparent in her personal than published writings, but it's there in her books too. We *are* talking about a woman who joked her neighbor was delivered of a stillborn child after looking at her husband's face. This was not a more acceptable joke in Georgian England. Similarly, jokes about sodomy weren't considered exactly lady like, but Austen used one to play with narrative conventions in _Mansfield Park_, her most under-rated and mis-read novel.

Jane Austen could just be an asshole. I LIKE that about her. She mostly confined her humor to behavior under a person's control, but she didn't let propriety or kindness stand in the way of a laugh either. In short, she was human.

Oh, and Austen was an equal opportunity slut shamer too! She thought extramarital sex was wrong whether men or women engaged in it, but again it is behavior and not the desire that's shamed, with seduction clearly more worthy of contempt than lust. Lizzie is lustful toward several guys in _Pride and Prejudice_, no shame attached. She portrays Lydia as foolish, but Wickham as evil. And Georgianna Darcy she simply portrays as sheltered and innocent, not wrong for lusting after Wickham, which God knows every other woman in the book also does. *grin*

Now I feel an Austen binge coming on. Thanks for inspiring it!

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