Giving Voice to Emily Dickinson’s Quiet Passion

Many Tuesdays before the film screening I sit outside the theater with Dana Baker, the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema Coordinator, and greet patrons as he tears their tickets.  This past Tuesday, we were awaiting the start of A Quiet Passion, a Terence Davies film about the life of Emily Dickinson. As we stood by the door, a woman in her fifties asked Dana whether he liked the movie.  Before he could offer a complete answer, she added, “Or is this more of a woman’s movie?”

The question was innocuous enough, but the assumptions underlying it always make me cringe. The woman who asked it wanted to know whether we might dislike the film (if we did) because it’s not really for men.  In fairness, there are films that we might be socialized to enjoy based on our upbringing and the way we identify ourselves by gender, race, class, etc.  The problem with the phrase “woman’s movie,” however, is the way it has historically been (and continues to be) an alibi for men to dismiss out of hand films that are about women.  Similarly, the more common classical Hollywood term, “woman’s film,” and its descendant, “chick flick,” denigrates stories of women and the real women who watch them.

Undermining films about women isn’t just a matter of individual viewers making plans on a Friday night.  It impacts the film industry’s decisions about what stories get told, how they get marketed, and who gets to tell those stories.  If women are reduced to a specialized niche, it perpetuates the idea that women are “Other,” outside of the norm.  Beyond the film industry, such thinking affects interactions between men and women at work and in relationships.  It even affects public policy concerning women’s lives.

With its limited release and meager box office returns, A Quiet Passion won’t have the cultural impact of the more profitable Wonder Woman or The Hunger Games on the question of whether women’s stories are worth telling.  As a reflection on the life of Emily Dickinson, however, the film does speak to the frustrations of contemporary women marginalized by male-centered culture and politics.  For instance, even when the protagonist sees her first poem accepted by a local newspaper, it is with the publisher’s backhanded praise.  We hear the narration of his acceptance letter, in which he insists that the “genuine classics of literature” are written by men, not women.  In the film’s portrayal of her later years, Dickinson hears her brother read aloud an editorial, written by one of her publishers, mocking the work of women like her.

As forthright as the film is about sexism in 19th-century America, the film does not define Dickinson strictly in terms of her victimization.  Cynthia Nixon offers a gloriously complex portrayal of this reclusive legend.  Her Emily is achingly tender, wickedly funny, righteously angry, desperately yearning for approval and, at times, fearful for her soul.  She delights over her baby nephew as she recites “I am nobody” to him.  She engages her friend Miss Buffam in witty, satirical banter worthy of Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde.  She covets the affection of a minister married to a humorless wife in vain, and later condemns her brother for his affair with a married woman.  Her heart breaks as she loses her best friend to marriage and sees her parents pass away.  In short, she is allowed the intricacy of character that male authors and artists are more typically granted in biopics. 

After the talkback, a woman in the audience walked up to me.  She told me that she had just turned 73 and that the movie and our conversation made her think her college days in the 1960s.  She remembered how frustrating it was not to be listened to and respected the way her male peers were.  But rather than using that memory to suggest that such problems have been forever solved, stories like hers and that of Emily Dickinson remind us to be vigilant and assertive when the voices of women are undermined, ridiculed, or ignored.

I didn’t have a pithy, stereotype-crushing answer for the woman who asked me whether A Quiet Passion was “a woman’s movie.”  I just told her that I liked it and that I found the story and performances moving.  As good as the movie is, however, it’s not going to work by itself to persuade the most skeptical or unsympathetic viewers that women’s stories deserve our attention.  It falls to us, the women and men who watch this film and hear her narrated poetry; we must speak loudly and passionately in support of women-centered films.

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