"Why do we think that gentle and kind people can’t be passionate and interesting?" –Karolina Żebrowska
The release of Persuasion, the latest Jane Austen adaptation directed by Carrie Cracknell, has caused quite a stir in some circles. Released on Netflix in mid-July 2022, the film has so far garnered a 32 percent approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes and a 5.6/10 on IMDB’s rating system.
Though its lackluster performance may come from a variety of factors—including the use of contemporary language like Anne describing Captain Wentworth as her “ex” and claiming Mr. Elliot is a “10” in terms of attractiveness—I believe, along with others, that the film suffers most because it does not stay true to the nature of Anne Elliot. Further, I believe that this stray from the character as written reflects a larger cultural perception that women who are kind and gentle, with strength that’s more interior than exterior, don’t have a place in today’s entertainment.
A woman who has known suffering
Anne is not one of Austen’s more fiery heroines. She doesn’t wage witty verbal battles with prideful men like Lizzy Bennett, nor does she get into scrapes by trying to create matches between her acquaintances like Emma Woodhouse. Unlike her sister Mary, Anne has created space for solitude, and unlike Sir Walter and her sister Elizabeth, she makes room for people and experiences besides those that will increase their rank and importance. Therefore, she isn’t crushed when, in her usual callousness, Elizabeth declares Anne should visit Mary because “nobody will want her in Bath”; instead, Anne willingly goes to visit her younger sister and cheerfully tells a pouting Mary who is once again fancying herself ill, “Well, you will soon be better now. . . . You know I always cure you when I come.”
These details show a woman with great inner resources. Though sometimes ill-used, Anne is still glad to be of use, and though some may feel Anne a doormat for putting up with some of the ridiculousness her family brings with their demands and orneriness, she reveals herself to be not just resilient, but the only one among them with a demonstrable ability to grow beyond herself. Therefore, she’s not only beloved by just about everyone else who knows her, but also respected. Extended family turn to her because she offers a sympathetic listening ear; she’s able to comfort an afflicted sea captain because she, too, has suffered loss; and she’s better able than her father and sisters to determine persons worth seeking deeper acquaintance.
A different Anne Elliot
Cracknell’s Persuasion offers a stark contrast to the Anne Elliot of Austen’s novel. This Anne often mocks her family. Instead of meeting her sister’s imagined illness with her typical kindness, this Anne says, “Mary is preferrable to Elizabeth in that she’s a total narcissist. So, conversing with her requires very little energy and can be great fun.” In a later scene, Anne demonstrates this fun by responding to Mary’s conversation in Italian to underscore the fact that Mary is so incredibly self-centered that she doesn’t even notice the language change.
In a later scene shortly after she first meets Mr. Elliot, Anne responds to the statement, “You must hate him for all the embarrassment he’s caused your family” with, “Actually, so far, it’s his most winning quality.” At one point in the film, Elizabeth says to Anne, “I’m never quite sure whether you’re insulting me or not.” But for the audience it’s quite clear—she is.
Because of the fact that this Anne’s kindness and “elegance of mind” are pretty submerged, other characters must tell us how capable, kind, and gentle Anne is. In a random scene on the beach at Lyme—one that never occurs in the book—Wentworth tells Anne, “You’re always best in an emergency. Anticipating the needs of others. Direct and focused, calm and thoughtful. Equipped with more intelligence than does you good [whatever that means]. No, you’re an exceptional person.” Mr. Elliot points out another of Anne’s virtues: “You have a gentle soul. You feel deeply for those around you.”
Though these are nice sentiments, as a viewer I realize these gentlemen had to spell out Anne’s good qualities for us because they weren’t quite obvious in the story. This is due to the fact that the Anne of this story is made to carry extra personality traits that weren’t part of her character in other film adaptations or the original novel.
A more relatable—or just more familiar—adaptation?
In her YouTube video, “Why Does Hollywood Hate Gentle Characters - Netflix Persuasion Review,” filmmaker and historical fashion Youtuber Karolina Żebrowska cracks open a “why” behind creating an “edgier” version of Anne: “Scripts hate passive characters because the whole point of a protagonist is that they’re supposed to push the plot forward, and when they’re just standing by and observing, it’s so much harder to make that script work.” The character Austen created for Anne operates largely on the interior and she often needs time to recollect herself in solitude. As Żebrowska points out with a little irony, this kind of character doesn’t sell: Anne’s character was “spiced up to make her more interesting because of course someone shy and quiet is probably boring.”
But this is the film’s flaw. Along with Żebrowska, I, too, am wondering, “Why do we think that gentle and kind people can’t be passionate and interesting.” Why must Anne become someone who is able to easily externalize her feelings?
Żebrowska relates to Anne on a personal level: “The reason I love the book [version of] Anne so much is because as someone who spent a good portion of my life moderately shy and anxious about interacting with people, I could relate to her . . . there’s a side of me that could relate to being an observer, to being passive sometimes, to being quiet despite having lots of things to say.”
What’s lost in this remake of Anne is the diversity of feminine representation on screen. It’s easy to equate strength to external characteristics—to confidence, capability, power, and the desire to share big emotions. But what happens to those women who don’t exhibit these characteristics externally or in so obviously external ways as the Anne of this film? We are told we should be strong, but are often only shown characters who are strong in certain ways. For Żebrowska this lack of representation is problematic: “it's infuriating because I know for a fact there is a lot of viewers who are shy or observant or delicate or introverted that would love to see some representation on screen. So, when you already have a character like that, a character which is beloved and it’s a classic piece of literature, why, oh why, do you try to put some edge on it?”
In a recent Atlantic article entitled “Jane Austen’s Persuasion Meets the Girlboss Era,” Helen Lewis attempts to answer this question. Anne’s representation is perhaps in part due to the desire to make her relatable:
This Anne Elliot tells people her weird dreams about octopuses, and hurls herself onto chaise lounges to scream into eiderdowns. She asserts in voice-over, “I’m single and thriving,” while the audience sees ironic images of her swigging straight from a bottle of wine. In other words, Netflix’s version of Persuasion demonstrates an iron-hard determination to turn the quietly melancholic Anne of Austen’s book into a far more modern figure—the aspirational yet relatable “hot mess.”
Though Lewis largely enjoys the rewrite, I find myself wondering if the attempt to make Anne a more discernibly empowered character was the best choice. I wonder if we are able to unironically write about—and respect—women who are most themselves when they are gentle and consistently good to others? If not, we need to be asking ourselves why.
Introverted heroines exist, too
When we adapt films in ways that change the nature of female characters, we risk narrowing the expression of femininity to the bold, the loud, the witty, and the extroverted woman who gets things done. Being introverted, gentle, quiet, and pondering aren't second-class ways of navigating the world, and they certainly are not qualities characters need to shed in order to grow or become self-actualized.
As Netflix rewrites the personality of its heroine, revealing a bias for what women are “watchable,” Persuasion 2022 loses the heart of Anne’s most marked characteristics. At her core, Anne Elliot is a character who is suffering, who believes she was led in a direction that hurt her happiness, and who doesn't necessarily expect that she’ll find happiness again. And there's something very interesting about that that's worthy of pause. There’s no need to make her more forward, more sure of herself at the start. Such a move overlooks the fact that Anne is incredibly strong as a gentle, kind character, and the fact that the novel reveals this shift toward self-assurance within the context of her kindness and gentleness.
As we look to better diversify films and the stories we tell about women, representation of the diversity of the feminine personality also deserves attention. Without it, our ability to see the wide spectrum of female personalities diminishes, and we risk devaluing those who don’t fit the mold. Not every woman needs to be Lizzy Bennett, and not every character needs remarkable wit and easily perceivable passion to be a character worth knowing. Good thing we still have Austen to refer back to, to enjoy as many personalities as there are characters.