Pride and Prejudice and Transphobia

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers often use LGBT characters to make well-worn storylines feel contemporary. So it should not be much of a spoiler that there is a transgender narrative at the center of the bestselling novel, Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s cheeky summer update of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen has been adapted and reimagined in so many forms and in so many mediums that another version hardly seems newsworthy.  Zombies, Renée Zellweger, and now transmen.

Critics have been quick to bestow praise upon this latest retelling, though some–including Michiko Kakutanihave found Sittenfeld’s adaptation “heavy-handed,” while others have seen it as lacking Austen’s complexity and wit. But what has gone largely unremarked upon is the book’s relentless reliance on LGBT themes to achieve its freshness as an adaptation. The novel’s use of queer characters and subplots reminds us that mere representation is often more troubling than total erasure. Indeed, Eligible’s claim to originality is rooted in a seemingly innocuous but ultimately insidious homophobic levity.

On the surface, the novel seems committed to inclusivity with gay characters and people of color adding perfunctory flavor to the upper-middle-class white family at its center. At times, it even enacts a kind of liberal pedagogy; Sittenfeld seems to be using queers as teaching opportunities and fodder for a kind of soft progressivism.

Yet, Eligible’s superficial diversity can barely conceal its regressive view of non-normative sexualities. Although all five Bennet sisters are ostensibly as heterosexual as they are in Austen’s original, Eligible relies on a range of homophobic conceits as it charts the romance between the principles, Elizabeth and Darcy. Mary, the bookish middle sister, is perpetually single, and her sisters and parents speculate repeatedly that she is a lesbian; it is a running joke in the family that Mary spends her Tuesday nights doing something gay, though the kind of weekly cabal the Bennets (and Sittenfeld) associate with lesbians remains unspecified. Indeed, what LGBT readers will notice here, in addition to the cheap jokes, is the very disciplinary work of the family, which polices and scrutinizes its members into compliance with its imperatives. When Mary’s “secret” is finally revealed, the family is hugely relieved to learn she is merely in a bowling league.

Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Jane, is on the cusp of forty and attempting to get pregnant with donor sperm, which she keeps as a shameful secret, ultimately passing off her baby as the product of her marriage. And when it is revealed that the youngest sister, Lydia, has fallen in love with Hamilton, a transgender man who runs a CrossFit gym, the family’s anxieties are fully realized. As one sister reveals to another via a frantic, sensational text: “Lydia and Ham eloped to Chicago. Turns out Ham transgender/born female!!!! M & D freaking out.”  Mr. and Mrs. Bennet find the romance “strange and disgusting,” and suggest Ham has missed his chance to be “one of Barnum’s bearded ladies.” Mrs. Bennett promptly decides to cut Lydia out of the family, lamenting the grandchildren she will never have and the “waste” of Lydia’s beauty.

For those who have not recently read Pride and Prejudice, the revelation of Ham as transgender replaces the exposure of the villain George Wickham’s gambling debts, greed, and duplicity. (Sittenfeld has split George Wickham into two characters: Jasper Wick and Hamilton).  That is, the crime in Eligible is not illicit sex with a juvenile or extortion as in Austen’s version; rather, simply being transgender itself is the crime that lurks beneath Hamilton’s friendly façade.

The inclusion of a trans character is a surefire way to update Austen. And yet, the use of the trans subplot here, alongside the novel’s rampant use of homophobia for comedic effect, reminds us that representation is not a universal good for social minorities.  On the contrary, the use of a trans character comes off as a trendy ploy and one that seems somehow to authorize a range of vulgar and ignorant responses.  For example, when Liz, the outspoken protagonist, asks “Does he have a fake penis?” I couldn’t help but feel that the novel’s desire to titillate a mainstream readership overpowers the liberal impulse behind Sittenfeld’s inclusion of a wider range of sexual possibilities.  

If the author sought to use the plot device of trans-unmasking to enlighten casual beach-readers, it is surely disappointing that the novel never even narrates the Bennet family’s full-scale acceptance of Hamilton. On the contrary, they only ever make partial peace with Lydia’s marriage by learning to see Hamilton as someone who has a “birth defect.” This disturbing explanation, tendered by Darcy, a doctor and the hero of the novel, stands as the novel’s troubling final word on how to regard trans people with a kind of pitying acceptance.  (This is the flipside of the novel’s essentialist claim that gay people are a “little more thoughtful or stylish or funny” than straights.)

Literary critics, such as Terry Castle and Eve Sedgwick, have explored how the original Austen is chock-full of queer sexualities and that the marriage plot of which she was master is actually motivated and made possible by queerness. Thus, one could argue that the adaptation of the novel to include this narrative gives needed visibility to trans people and merely makes more apparent what was always present in classic novels like Pride and Prejudice. Still, this stridently heterosexual novel poaches on a range of queer experiences and implications merely to buttress the central romance between Darcy and Liz and to give readers the familiar pleasure and relief of seeing queerness contained and relegated to the margins.   

After grappling with her sister’s relationship, Liz acknowledges that if one of her New York acquaintances had married someone transgender, she might have “felt that self-congratulatory pride that heterosexual white people are known to experience due to proximate diversity.” It is precisely this “proximate diversity” that the novel itself exploits, but it is arguably less benign than the pride to which Liz refers. Instead, Eligible uses transphobia to create a sense of urgency and importance around its the heterosexual resolution.

There is much for readers to enjoy in this parodic, playful take on reality television and social striving, and yet, Sittenfeld’s reliance on trite homophobic jokes and speculations to make her rewrite of Austen savvy and relevant to the twenty-first century comes across as strangely old-fashioned. Eligible gives straight readers the puerile satisfaction of demystifying queerness and the self-congratulatory sense of having encountered and tolerated otherness. This is really nothing new.

–Sari Edelstein: Queer J.A.P