In my junior year of college, the assigned reading for my women’s studies class included Gloria Naylor’s 1982 novel The Women of Brewster Place. Finishing the book in my dorm room late one night, I came across a powerfully written, brutally explicit scene of gang rape. Deeply shaken, I couldn’t sleep for hours afterwards.
Nowadays, if Naylor’s book were on a college syllabus, it might well come with a trigger warning—a label alerting students to content that might reawaken buried trauma or, as in my case, just make it hard to sleep. Personally, I don’t have a problem with trigger warnings, any more than with the messages in the upper left-hand corner of my TV screen alerting me that the show I’m about to watch contains sex, violence, nudity, or—gasp—smoking. To my mind, content information is neutral. It’s what we do with that information that matters.
Hence the bemusement with which I’ve watched recently as the British press plays a round of its favorite game, Mock the Pointy-Headed Snowflake Elitist Woke Academics. The latest episode centers on a recent report that the syllabus for a University of Greenwich course on Gothic literature includes a content warning for that notoriously disturbing novel . . . wait for it . . . Northanger Abbey.
I will stipulate that this is pretty funny.
I will further stipulate that, while Northanger Abbey may indeed depict “gender stereotyping” and “toxic relationships and friendships,” as the content warning reportedly states, it’s hard to imagine that reading about Isabella Thorpe’s manipulations, Henry Tilney’s mansplaining, or even General Tilney’s domestic tyranny and creepy fawning over a teenage girl could traumatize any but the flakiest of student snowflakes.
But let us note the distortions in the coverage. No one has called “ ‘Sexist’ Jane Austen novel too upsetting for students,” as a London Times headline claims. No one has been “telling students Jane Austen is offensive,” as the Independent’s headline alleges. It's not even clear that anyone has been accusing the novel of "upholding gender stereotypes," as opposed to portraying such stereotypes in order to critique or debunk them. (Upholding and portraying are two different things: Gloria Naylor was surely not recommending rape when she wrote the scene that shook me up all those years ago.)
No, all the university has been doing is telling students what’s (arguably) in the book—not what they should think about that fact, much less what they should do about it. The book is still on the syllabus. Students are still reading it. The sky has not fallen.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this faux controversy, however, is the way that newspapers which often paint Austen as an exemplar of Traditional British Values—usually in order to show up the supposed idiocies of Pointy-Headed Snowflake Elitist Woke Academics (see here, for example)--are choosing, for the purposes of this story, to emphasize that she’s actually an avatar of liberalism.
Or, as the conservative Telegraph put it, “an early feminist who rebelled against gender roles in a literary world dominated by men.” This from the newspaper that, just four days earlier, had printed a column claiming that “Jane Austen wouldn’t have a chance of being published these days, what with being from the white, genteel classes and with her unconscious heteronormative bias.” *
You know what really triggers me? Seeing Jane Austen used as a political football.
* Never mind that a) Austen is repeatedly (re)published these days; b) domestic fiction by and about genteel white women is published all the time; and c) romance novels, many of which center on heterosexual relationships, represent something like a quarter of all books sold.