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Shakespeare Quarterly 53.2 (2002) 260-279

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda:
How Shakespeare and the Renaissance Are Taking the Rage Out of Feminism

Courtney Lehmann

"More interested in equal airtime than equal rights, feminism has gone Hollywood," asserted Time magazine in its 1998 cover story about the future of the feminist movement. 1 Less controversial is that in the past ten years Shakespeare, too, has "gone Hollywood," garnering an unprecedented amount of airtime as a screen sensation. What I wish to explore here is the extent to which Shakespeare's rise in Hollywood and feminism's alleged retreat to Hollywood are related, focusing on the distinctly cinematic backlash against women in recent Renaissance-period films and Shakespeare adaptations featuring transgressive female characters. Period films such as Elizabeth (dir. Shekar Kapur, 1998) and Dangerous Beauty (dir. Michael Herskovitz, 1998) and Shakespeare adaptations and spinoffs such as William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (dir. Michael Hoffman, 1999) and Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998) purport to dramatize striking exceptions to Renaissance rules of gender decorum, presenting us with heroines who succeed as politicians, poets, and even players. However, the kaleidoscopic view of female subjectivity purveyed by these films is eclipsed by their more powerful fetishization of sex—the power to deny or to enjoy it—as the heroine's only legitimate means of career advancement. Thus, while seeming to offer an array of politically-enabling identifications for the spectator, these films reduce their female characters to so many layers of easily removed clothing and invest their costume dramas with the imprimatur of History or, worse, Shakespeare. By contrast, Artemisia (dir. Agnès Merlet, 1997) and Titus (dir. Julie Taymor, 2000), two tragedies directed by women, resonate as inspiring if ironic exceptions to these antifeminist appropriations of the life, times, or works of William Shakespeare, subscribing to a politics of representation that explores the possible futures envisioned by cyborg feminism. [End Page 260]

Before examining the relationship between these films and Hollywood feminism, I want to consider the claim that feminism is "more interested in equal airtime than equal rights." My purpose is not to diagnose the current state of feminist activism or academic feminism. 2 Rather, I will focus on the political agenda at the intersection of popular ideas about feminism, Shakespeare, and the Renaissance. Picturing an evolutionary sequence of head shots that proceeds from haggard images of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem to the fully made-up façade of Ally McBeal, the cover of Time magazine places this pop icon atop the feminist food chain. The cover art is easily decoded: fictions of collagen-lipped characters such as Ally McBeal have swallowed the reality of the women's movement. Indeed, today's feminism has been given a face-lift by our "culture of celebrity and self-obsession"—precisely the lifestyle flaunted by the narcissistic women of Ally McBeal. 3 This pop-cultural incubator perhaps explains the flightiness that Ginia Bellafonte identifies with the new face of feminism, citing not only the ubiquitous Calista Flockhart but also the Spice Girls, who touted "girl power" while identifying that power with the faddishness that spelled their swift demise. Judging from Time's provocative "then" and "now" snapshots, the answer to the question posed by the cover—"Is feminism dead?"—is painfully obvious: the bell tolls not for "feminism" now but for the feminism we knew, as Gloria Steinem's antiwar protests sit in awkward juxtaposition to Glenn Close's reading of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, and Marilyn French's The Women's Room is superseded by Bridget Jones's Diary. 4

Feminism's so-called renaissance in popular culture—and particularly in Hollywood—signals not a rebirth for women of the new millennium but a reversion to oppressive conceptions of gender. Pop feminism is not feminism; rather, it is the central agent of the backlash against women's struggle for advancement. But what happens when the new face of feminism holds up a very old mirror to the Renaissance...


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