Over the Christmas holiday I watched the Jane Eyre (2006) miniseries for possibly the hundredth time. It’s my favorite adaptation, and Toby Stephens is delightful as Mr Rochester even if it’s difficult to believe he’s unhandsome. I read the book for the first time when I was eleven years old and have read it at least six times since then. I’ve read it for pleasure; I’ve read it for classes. I’ve studied it through feminist, marxist, and postcolonial lenses. Somehow, through all of that, Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite novels and one of the few stories I never get tired of revisiting again and again in text as well as its numerous screen adaptations.
The thing is, it’s a pretty fucked up story. It’s problematic.
Mr Rochester keeps his mentally ill wife locked up and lies to Jane about this, all of which is further complicated by the fact that Mr Rochester’s wife is a woman of color. I can’t ignore any of that, and it would be remiss of me to gloss over those story details.
At the same time, however, I adore Jane’s story: a coming of age story so rarely given to women, where she’s allowed to be flawed, complicated, opinionated. Jane was important to me when I was eleven years old; Jane continues to be important to me in adulthood. She knows herself and is uncompromising; when she and Mr Rochester finally do come together it is, for the most part, as equals.
Again, despite that love, I can’t ignore the problematic elements. There was a time, as a freshman in college, that I wanted to because it’s normal to want the things we love to be flawless, but in confronting and questioning its problematic elements, I’ve developed a more nuanced understanding of Jane Eyre; I’ve learned how to allow the things I love about the story to coexist with its problematic elements.
My thoughts come back to this particular example any time I get pulled into discussions about fandom and the rise of what’s being called Purity Culture. Purity Culture is, as I understand it, the pressure to disavow the entirety of any media that’s deemed problematic and for creators to scrub any problematic elements from their work.
At its worst, Purity Culture expresses itself in online harassment of people who enjoy Problematic Things; it stifles storytelling in the name of protecting people and supposes a connection between what media a person enjoys and that person’s moral standing. In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t have positive feelings towards Purity Culture.
A few years ago I was dragged on Tumblr for posting something about Jane Eyre being my favorite novel. Liking it, the argument went, makes me a bad person. This was followed by condescending lectures about the novel’s problematic elements as if I had never even considered them. That holier-than-thou approach is what kills my desire to have an actual conversation. It’s not a great feeling to be spoken to as if I’m an ignorant person who doesn’t know how to consume media critically.
I would love to have dialogue about why Jane Eyre is a problematic story, and if someone absolutely hates it, I’m not going to pressure them to change their mind. That’s true for any media, really. There are plenty of things that I find problematic in personally inexcusable ways. We all have different limits based on our life experiences, and it’s a constant balancing act of knowing our own limits, respecting others’ limits, and accepting that sometimes those limits are going to be inconsistent and contradictory. Because humans are complicated, messy, problematic creatures.