Feminist Retellings of ‘Dude’ Books
Don’t put a bow on it — kill the narrative dead, bury it, and start over
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
In a recent New York Times Style Magazine article, writer Ligaya Mishan wrestles with the art of the literary retelling, when authors respond to a piece of literature by altering the narrative, adding their own flourishes, creating something altogether new. Is this plagiarism or art? It’s art, Mishan concludes, adding that “revisiting and recasting the work of fellow writers (constitutes) a sustained exploration of the human condition over time.” My favorite retellings are Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, her modern take on King Lear, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a hilarious retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Joanna Trollope’s Austen redux, Sense and Sensibility. They each preserve the original’s landmarks, while dotting their own terrains with updated characters and modern plot turns. Mishan also cites Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, an anti-colonialist prequel to Jane Eyre, which British author, Daphne du Maurier, was said to have recast in her own gothic masterpiece, Rebecca, a novel that celebrates 80 years in print.
My new novel, The Winters, has been called a “feminist” response to Rebecca, a word I bristle at only because it implies Rebecca isn’t feminist. In fact, du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of the most feminist characters of the 20th century, something for which she was horrifically punished, and which my book, in a way, tries to avenge. I’d even say that there is no such thing as a feminist retelling of a novel written by a woman. The very existence of the novel is a feminist act.
Not so with the works of our favorite male writers, I’m afraid. Retelling their best-known works, adding a feminist spin, isn’t merely to put a bow on the narrative. It is to kill the narrative dead, bury it and start all over again.
Let me take a stab at it:
The Picture of Dorian Gray
A young woman, now named Dorinda, sells her soul for a shot at eternal youth and beauty. As her portrait withers she stays the same age, much to the astonishment and horror of her L.A. friends, who have to pay a lot of money to look that good. (And even still, who’s her doctor?) Finally, sick of living so superficially, Dorinda decides to take a knife to her aging portrait and end the glossy charade. But she’s stopped in her tracks by how good she looks in the aged painting, her hair a cool flaxen gray blend, flatteringly cut to the chin, her wrinkles reflecting wisdom and experience, especially the way the outer corners of her eyes give off a knowing insouciance. It’s also great how the absence of estrogen has quieted her head to the point where she doesn’t give a shit about what men find attractive. She buys a few flattering caftans and devotes herself to causes that might turn around a planet headed towards disaster due to eons of idiot masculinist policies. It ends with a global matriarchal revolution that reestablishes the idea that the aging woman is a gathering force, that though youth is beautiful to behold, it’s fleeting for good reason, and that becoming a powerful, ethereal crone is #goals.
The female narrator and savior of a whaling expedition recounts how a crazed, vengeful captain, intent on getting back at a whale for taking off half his leg, almost dooms his entire crew. Doesn’t matter that she warns the captain about the innate godlessness of the sea and his powerlessness in the face of it. The captain is all “(S)trike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside, except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall.”
“Yes, fine, I get it,” our narrator says, rubbing her temples, “but your megalomaniacal hubris is going to get us all killed. It’s one whale, man. Let. It. Go. Plus you get around just fine with that peg. It’s an inspiration really. Consider the example you could set, bowing to the forces of nature, working with them as opposed to against them, proving, in essence, that the interdependence of humans and nature is the ultimate goal, the one true manifest destiny, not this ridiculous and outmoded notion of male dominion.”
“I guess,” says the captain.
“Good. So let’s turn this baby around and port at Martha’s Vineyard.”
“Is there a Starbucks there?”
“Dude, you know that guy wanted to kill you, right?”
Heart of Darkness
Another goddamn boat, this one creeping up the Congo to retrieve (yet another) crazed colonizer driven mad by his own racism. Our female captain, Marlo (she drops the W in honor of That Girl), makes slow progress, her journey constantly interrupted by even more ridiculous men, some clutching unnecessary paperwork designed to make them seem important, others foisting endless repairs upon her shitty boat while talking up this great man she’s supposed to extract, who’s variously called “first-class” and “a very remarkable person.” After fending off attacks and one stray Russian, she finally meets this so-called very stable genius, only to be like, this guy? This guy’s a complete buffoon. If this murderous recluse, half off his gourd on power, is the best you have to offer, we’re all screwed. She kicks some dirt over his half-dead body and heads home to tell his long-suffering fiancée that she is way better off without him.
The Old Man and the Sea
Seriously. What is it with boats? This retelling is called “Plenty of Fish,” a modern take on a long boring fishing expedition, concerning an old woman (she’s over 40) heading out to sea (hetero dating) after a long time not catching any fish (dick). Don’t call this chick lit. It’s a nightmare, with no happy ending, just endless dates with guys that look nothing like their profile pic, yammering on about their workouts, The Wire, and how Bernie would have won.
This one’s easy. A delusional pedophile moves in with a wealthy widow so he can rape her 12-year-old daughter. The widow finds a diary in which he’s written down all of his fantasies. She knocks him out with drugs, then she and her daughter, wearing her heavy metal tap shoes, kick him into hamburger meat. Of course there’s a trial, with some (men) painting the pedophile as the “real victim” in all this, who shouldn’t be blamed for something he didn’t even do (yet). Thankfully the mother and daughter are found innocent of the charges and hailed as heroines, an entire wing of The Wing named for them.
Lord of the Flies
A plane crashes near a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The survivors are a group of preadolescent girls. After crying for a while and braiding each other’s hair, they form an ad hoc society. Unlike boys in a similar situation, these girls don’t split into factions or participate in shabby in-fighting. They don’t devolve into violence and chaos. They eschew the natural inclination to dominate in times of scarcity and danger and instead show how, with a spirit of cooperation, they can form something close to a perfect society.
Oh, who am I kidding? If the upcoming movie retelling features a bunch of hungry girls with no cell reception, you just know it’s going to be a bloodbath.