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Friday, June 24, 2016
The Women of Penny Dreadful
There are many positive things to be said about Penny Dreadful. It’s easily one of the most artistically beautiful shows that I have ever seen and had the ability to deliver a strong punch to the gut that would leave me speechless. Like many, I was saddened to learn that this years season finale actually was the series finale. Though Penny Dreadful had many characters, it was always Vanessa who led the way. Without the brilliant acting of Eva Green, Penny Dreadful would not have been the same. As much as I loved Vanessa for her triumphs and her courage, her character was not without it’s problems.
From a very early age Vanessa was a haunted woman. It began when she seduced her best friend’s fiance. Certainly in the present time that would be a great violation of trust but in Victorian England, it also amounted to behaviour that would be deemed decidedly wanton and worthy of isolation. The sexual woman simply wasn’t socially acceptable and so it would have been a real twist had this congress happened out of desire but instead it was motivated by evil forces. Much of Vanessa’s time from that moment on was spent trying to make amends and fighting off the darkness inside of her.
The battle for Vanessa’s soul would not only consume her but anyone who came into intimate contact with her. Vanessa became less than a person in many ways and simply became a victim in need of constant saving. We watched as Ethan, Victor, Sir Malcolm, and Lyle devoted themselves to the protection of their precious Miss. Ives. For Miss. Ives they would risk their lives repeatedly and the revelation of their deepest darkest secrets. I will admit that it would have all been several degrees worse had Vanessa not been active in her own defense. Vanessa actively attacked the witches and matched them spell for spell and while she depended on her circle of supporters she never lost sight of the fact that this was her battle.
The complexities of Vanessa are never ending and this is why her demise in the series finale so undercut all the work that Penny Dreadful had done for three seasons. To watch as Vanessa gave up and simply accepted that she was predestined for darkness was sad. To accept that there was something about her intrinsically evil was quite simply defeatist. It was further toxic to the messages of agency that that episode in particular told - here was Vanessa being seduced not even by darkness or a beautiful man - but by the seductive promise of being and accepting herself. An acceptance that was not only toxic for her but quite literally the entire world. Considering the themes of resisting conformity, especially for women, that Penny Dreadful showcased, this narrative is exceedingly destructive.
Sure, some might say that Vanessa death was a way of freeing herself from a struggle that would never end and was thus an act in affirmation of agency but at the end of the day, regardless of how you try to spin it, Vanessa died. Vanessa died like so many female victims leaving the men behind to wallow in their manpain. Vanessa was created and lived and died as the perpetual victim.
Think of all of the suffering that Vanessa went through in three seasons. She was placed in a mental institution, force fed, and had electroshock treatment. She was slashed with a knife on numerous occasions, attacked psychically and was left bowed over in agonising pain. We watched as Vanessa literally ripped out her nails and bled from grievous wounds. Each time Vanessa was knocked down she got back up determined not to be defeated. As I watched her struggle with the supernatural it did not escape that at times Vanessa’s life amounted to torture porn. What’s worse is that this torture porn was positioned as entertainment for the masses.
In our recent recap of Penny Dreadful, we looked at the parallels between Vanessa and Lily, because both read as cautionary tales for what happens when a woman is empowered. In some ways, it’s an especially toxic form of Spunky Agency. There we see a woman making decisions - terrible terrible decisions - and trying to tempt the reader into wishing they would never make a decision again. This tv show shows the watcher the consequences of what happens when a woman has power - she ends the world or tries to gather an army of rather ineffective murderers.
There’s little talk of rescuing or saving women - only of recruiting them. There’s no real plan to address the structural inequality they face or even challenge it to any great degree (indeed, there’s not even a consideration of how they can exist without Dorian’s deep pockets) - their entire feminist philosophy is basically “stab the men!” And no matter how beautiful Lily’s speeches, how awesomely she sums up oppression or how utterly tragically she describes her pain, she’s still that most pernicious of caricatures - the man-hating feminist.
I think it’s that “ineffective” especially cringeworth - the extra cherry on the shit sundae. Lily gathers her army with an excellent series of speeches and they’re all prepared to go to murder the menfolk who have abused them; and then they all kind of leave because Dorian tells them they’re done. And Justine effectively commits suicide. Yes, all beautiful and tragic - but this is how quickly the female strength of Lily’s army of furious, vengeance driven women collapses.
I think that, if anything it even damages the awesome part of Lily’s storyline. Her speeches, her epic, amazing, passionate speeches about the injustice they faced, about the abuse they suffered; even before she fully realised what she was, she spoke passionately of the oppression women face, from the clothes they had to wear to the eternal need to please men. Her speeches were legendary - the ways she highlighted misogyny, the way she raged against oppression and the way she and her followers had suffered was incredible. And then Dorian says “boo” (yes the not being stabbed to death is a little intimidating) and they go home - we have no follow up. They don’t move somewhere else: they leave. They quit. Lily quits. Their revolution becomes a quickly abandoned hobby.
Of course then we have the ending. Lily’s story does not end in victory, or even tragic defeat. It doesn’t end in an epic struggle against her captors. It doesn’t end in her going down in a blaze of glory. It doesn’t end up with her female army being victorious - or even defeated in tragedy. It doesn’t end with ANY focus on Lily, her actions or her achievements at all. Dorian literally says “yeah I’m done” and that’s it, her storyline ends. Dorian has spoken.
The closing image of Lily’s story is her walking away - and us focusing on Dorian. Let’s be clear how important this is - Penny Dreadful is a show that is almost defined as much by it’s powerful images, as it is by its powerful speeches. But the last image is Dorian and the last words are his, as he stands there, alone, making a powerful speech about the cost of being an immortal. The focus is on Dorian, alone in the wake of Lily leaving him, in the wake of his lecture of how lonely being an immortal is. Lily joins Angelique and even her pre-incarnation of Brona as just being a brief diversion in Dorian’s immortal life. Her struggle, her passionate fight for freedom is just another diversion in the life of the perpetually bored and jaded.
And, yes, I’m drawing direct comparisons between them because that is the role they both served. Yes, we had a lot more focus on Lily this season, but this is what it comes down to. Both women were used as a footnote in Dorian’s long life. Both were used to make a point about how jaded Dorian is. Both were there to show that Dorian aims for the shocking and new, treating his lovers as interesting diversions rather than actual people. Both Angelique and Lily’s stories were ultimately reduced to tools in Dorian’s stories. Both are there to tell Dorian’s greater story, their losses, their tragedies and their struggles are basically there to tell us about Dorian. No matter how their storylines progressed during the season (though, it has to be said that Angelique’s storyline was pretty much all about how shocking and outrageous Dorian, typical of how Penny Dreadful has treated LGBT people), no matter how much Dorian appeared to be the background presence behind Lily’s speeches and gathering army: ultimately the ending confirms that all of this, all of Lily, is still all about Dorian.
While these are the most prominent women in the story, there are certainly other female characters who leave their mark - and some are disappointing enough to be actually bemusing. Can anyone explain Hecate Poole? Anyone? I can kind of get the storyline of her betraying her mother (because female infighting is A Trope, especially young vs old) but her infatuation with Ethan? His fast-forwarded “I’m evil Rawr! Nope good again! REDEMPTION!” in which she was hastily pasted in? Honestly, Hecate seemed to exist in much the same way as Ethan’s dead sister: something to provide Ethan motivation in a plot line that was too short and too ill thought out to really establish any kind of coherent characterisation. Bad enough when a woman exists solely to define a man’s moral progression and character development - but when that character development isn’t even well done that’s just tragic. Of course, like any good woman who exists only to develop a man, she’s promptly disposed of when she’s no longer useful. Clearly Ethan took lessons from Dorian. Nothing like a disposable woman to truly build a character arc
It’s almost sad that this show has clearly shown it can do better. Lily’s speeches are truly epic. Vanessa’s endurance is beyond impressive. Some scenes - particularly the amazing, unparalleled story of the Cut Wife - are glorious in their power and their messages (though, again, it ends in female death and tragedy)
Perhaps the most tragic female characters are Dr. Seward and Catriana Hartegan. I have seen characters with wasted potential before but ye gods nothing like on this scale! How can you introduce these two and NOT have them dominate? How can you introduce these two and have them do so little (Catriana was little more than a walking sword). How can you introduce these two and then focus on the dreadfully dull Victor for episode on episode? I just can’t even picture the thought process that would think this is a good idea… it’s like looking at some terrible alien intelligence that is scouting humanity before the invasion.
Seriously, Penny Dreadful creators - if you create a spin off centering Catriana Hartegan and Dr. Seward then ALL IS FORGIVEN. We’re begging here! Make it happen! Please make this happen! We’ll totally take it all back and offer fandpoodles!