First Vanity, Now Insurrection: Jane Eyre, That Girl, and Miley Cyrus

Scene from

Jane Eyre (1944)

directed by Robert Stevenson with an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor.

It shouldn't be a surprise that 2011 has brought us yet another film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 proto-feminist novel Jane Eyre. The story of a young girl shaped by hardship, taking control of her destiny in an oppressive brutal world, is as modern as anything contemporary literature and film has to offer in this century. The issues Brontë wrote about, including the subject of free will, are as real today as they were when the story was first written.

Free will is scary. Exercising it can lead us to the very fringes of society and sanity. Scary yes, but what's the alternative? Servitude. Lack of creativity. An uninteresting life that by example gives a tacit "yes" to those who accrue their power thanks to people who don't ask questions, have no imagination, and are afraid to follow their heart. The questions Brontë's protagonist asks are questions that any modern young woman will at some point have to address either privately or, especially in this day and age, in the public eye.

In the United States, years after Brontë's novel was published, many supposedly enlightened males involved in mid-'60s counterculture and political activism rallied their troops with a promise of "Free grass, free food, free women..." as bounty to be enjoyed after "the Revolution." Robin Morgan's famous essay "Goodbye to All That" cited and decried the prediction from the less sensitive male soldiers in the ranks that "men will make the Revolution - and make their chicks." She and plenty of other women involved in anti-war and equal rights causes found it ironic that their brothers in arms embraced the sexist attitudes that perpetuated the poverty and violence they sought to eradicate. Fortunately, the Revolution was televised, and the role of women in contemporary society was reconsidered thanks to the momentum of the women's movement and some truly innovative representation in the mediums of music, film, and television.

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An unmarried woman living on her own while pursuing an acting career? Circa 1966 this was revolutionary stuff for network television. We might roll our eyes at the opening sequence of the television show That Girl where the star Marlo Thomas runs around happily bewildered by the skyscrapers, fountains, and storefronts of New York City. Or, we may instead smile in recognition at her joy because we have ALL taken that journey that includes leaving the nest, traveling to unknown lands, and attempting to realize a dream other than the one society has imagined for you. Perhaps it's a stretch, but Thomas' character Ann Marie, although admittedly a lot giddier, probably owes a debt to Brontë's 19th century heroine.

Which leads us to Hannah Montana. Or rather, her real life counterpart, singer actress Miley Cyrus ("Normal by day, rock star by night.") In her opening monologue for a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Cyrus described her TV show Hannah Montana as the Disney Channel's version of Black Swan. Then, after a series of not-so-bad jokes, Cyrus delivered a faux-Broadway number with lyrics cataloging her supposed unforgivable missteps and the not-exactly-sincere chorus: "I'm sorry I'm not perfect!" Which is to say, get over yourselves, folks. I'm 18! I work really hard. My voice is sounding pretty good and only getting better. And yes, I'm an attractive woman. Why the judgmental attitude? Why the hate?

Miley Cyrus' SNL monologue and song "I'm Sorry I'm Not Perfect"

"Who owns my heart? Is it love or is it art?" are questions that could have come from any of the Brontë sisters. But it is instead posed by Miley Cyrus in a recent remix of a track from her album "Can't Be Tamed" which is unlikely to end up being played anytime soon on the Disney Channel. In spite of the track's insanely compressed, airless Tylenol-approved beats, you can still recognize the spirit of a strong, independent female artist dancing with her sisters from all artistic mediums and genres across space and time.


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