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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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The Great Gatsby: Are There Any Feminists in the Disillusioned Jazz Age?

The Great Gatsby: Are There Any Feminists in the Disillusioned Jazz Age?

For those who live under rocks or otherwise don’t care about pop culture, a much-anticipated big-screen Baz Luhrmann version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is being released in theaters Friday. English majors and fans of Leo DiCaprio (there’s a shocking amount of overlap between the two) are already celebrating. In that spirit, here is a list of the principal Gatsby characters (sorry, English majors: Owl Eyes didn’t make the cut) complete with analyses of their feminist street cred, political leanings, and color commentary on whether they really would be as fabulous IRL.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) – Nick has the potential to be a decent feminist, but he is one of those annoyingly apathetic types who vaguely supports things (he might make his Facebook default the equality sign), but never actually gets involved (he would never go to a demonstration and might forget to vote if something came up). If pressed, he would most definitely agree that women deserve complete and utter equality, but female sexuality has a tendency to make him nervous, so he often ends up smiling and nodding along with whoever is speaking (in this case, often Jordan). He can’t quite shake the notion that women are beautiful, gilded, utterly incomprehensible creatures that are completely outside the realm of his understanding, which leads to a tendency to just allow them to do as they please without consciously thinking about it.

Nick Carroway

Though self-described as tolerant and high-minded, Nick and his Yale degree can be just as class-ist as the rest of the characters, although Nick does redeem himself somewhat by truly admiring Jay Gatsby, who embodies all the garishness that Nick would seem to turn his nose up at. Nick just wishes for a bit less moral ambiguity, which is why he abandons New York for the Midwest at the end of the novel. I doubt he would be fabulous IRL seeing as he isn’t really that fabulous in the book … in his defense, he’s the quintessential narrator. That said, if anyone can make an angsty, over-analyzing dork look cool, it’s Tobey Maguire, so the jury is most definitely out until we see what he does with the character.

In sum: Nick is half-baked with regard to his political and social beliefs. All he needs is a push in the right direction. But I don’t think I would want to be best friends with him.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great GAtsby

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – Gatsby is complicated. His is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story (a trope that is complicated and racialized in and of itself). He’s fairly tolerant in spite of that, but he does fully and utterly buy into the glitz and superficiality of West Egg. Further, he objectifies Daisy even as he loves her. Their relationship constantly puts Daisy on a pedestal: She’s not really a woman, more of a stand-in for social acceptance. Daisy is the ultimate prize for Gatsby, but is she really a prize worth having? He also firmly believes that it will be his wealth that will win her, rather than any other personal quality. That aside, Gatsby is by far the most open, friendly, generous, and genuinely nice of the main characters. He takes Nick under his arm and extends friendship to any and all who want it regardless of social status. His parties are filled with a modge-podge of all sorts of people. We’ve all met a Gatsby IRL, that guy or girl with charisma to burn and the ability to make going to the grocery store seem like an adventure.

In sum: Gatsby is hard to pin down. He’s a liar who believes in the power of honesty. He’s most definitely not a feminist, but more often than not his heart appears to be in the right place. He’s a social climber and totally buys into a commercial and superficial lifestyle, but he’s also an ardent believer in true love and the ability of that love to conquer all. He’s like Bill Clinton: awesome with ideas and rhetoric, not so great when we get down to the nitty-gritty of respecting the women closest to him.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) – There are two ways to read Daisy. The first is that of the anti-feminist. In that reading Daisy, were she real, would be like a female celebrity who publicly comes out to say that despite her unbelievable success (some of which is definitely contingent upon feminist values) she is not a feminist, no sir (oh wait, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have done that? You’re kidding!. Her famous quote at the start of the story is that she wants her daughter to be a fool, because “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” She also lacked the backbone and good sense to marry Gatsby in the first place and instead married Tom Buchanan, who is most definitely the worst character in the book. Daisy’s sexism extends beyond her commentary on her daughter to what she says to Nick about Jordan:Sshe reduces Jordan to a commodity that has to be won, and removes Jordan’s agency by telling Nick he has to do the winning. She seems unable, both in the present tense and the past, to take her life into her own hands.

The second reading is Daisy as the mover and shaker of the plot. She is aware of how she is perceived and aware of the status of women in 1920s society. Her motto is “if you can’t beat em, join em,” and so she employs every single trick in order to ensure her upward mobility, social success, and financial security. She plays the part unbelievably well, fooling Tom, Gatsby, and Nick.

In sum: There are two Daisys. One of them is sort of the worst. She plays up an image of herself as a damsel in distress and then gets upset when no one swoops in to save her. She seems unable to make herself happy, and unable to recognize how unhappy she is making Gatsby.
The other Daisy is a subversive feminist. She plays the game better than anyone else and garners social clout by pretending to be weak and in need of saving. She didn’t marry Gatsby because she thought that marrying Tom was a better deal, and recognized that running away with Gatsby would destroy everything she’d worked for.

Tom Buchanan

Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) – Tom is a misogynist, a racist, an elitist, and generally dislikable. When we (the readers) are first introduced to him, it is at a dinner party where he is loudly proclaiming his enjoyment of a book about racial superiority. If anything, this is his highest point. He goes on to publicly showcase his affair in front of his wife and his guests, even more publicly take Nick (who is Daisy’s cousin) along with him to meet his mistress, and treat his mistress badly. When she says Daisy’s name he tells her that she is not allowed to do so. He compartmentalizes his wife, Daisy, from his mistress, Myrtle, and de-humanizes both of them.

Myrtle is purely a sexual object, and Daisy is just an object to be possessed and shown off.
Beyond misogyny, he’s also an elitist who only accepts Nick because of their shared Ivy League alma mater. He looks down on Myrtle even as he engages in an affair with her, and looks down on Gatsby for living on West Egg rather than the more posh, old money East Egg.
Basically, Tom is awful in the book, and would be awful in real life. I’m sure he is embodied in some of the staffers who serve for right-wing members of Congress.

Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) – Jordan is most definitely a feminist, and she’s also most definitely unlikable. She’s glamorous, wealthy, and a fabulous golfer, but she cheated in her first tournament. She’s also not particularly nice to Nick who, for all his flaws, is fairly nice. She firmly believes in equality, in her right to play her sport, to go and do as she pleases, and cheat if she wants. IRL she’s that friend who uses a constant layer of boredom and cynicism to mask his/her feelings, but always knows about the great parties and has strong principles, though she may not always feel like sharing them.

Jordan is the epitome of the 1920s woman: boyish (drop-waist dresses DO NOT flatter curves), smart, and over it. That is not mutually exclusive with being a feminist: the 20s were the era of the suffragettes. She’s an interesting character in that she combines progressive ideals with a certain spoiled un-likeability. I actually love the combo, because it shows that being a feminist is not mutually exclusive with being a bit of a jerk, and thus that feminists come in all shapes and sizes, just like regular people!

Isla Fischer as Myrtle

Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) – Myrtle might be the most interesting female character in the book. She’s both in control of her world and completely lacking in control. She has horrible taste in men: Her husband is a wet noodle and her lover is a jerk. However, she is utterly unapologetic. At the party in New York that Tom takes Nick to, Myrtle gets drunk, loud, and inappropriate with no apparent thought to social norms or consequences. This is amazing! In the universe in which the play is set, everyone is overly concerned with appearances and social capital and Myrtle is refreshing in her lack of concern for either of those things.

Myrtle is a feminist, but not always a great one. She believes that she is equal to everyone else, man or woman. This view is complicated by her dependence on Tom, whom she looks to as an intellectual and social better.

George Wilson (Jason Clarke) – George is almost not worth including. He is a wet blanket who is constantly being beat up by life, by Myrtle, and by Tom. I feel exceedingly bad for him. His views on feminism and/or social policy are utterly unclear and eclipsed by how browbeaten he is as a character. He is subservient to Myrtle throughout the story, which, while it does showcase Myrtle as a strong female character, does little to make her likable, nor does it do much to advance equality between the sexes.

Will you being seeing The Great Gatsby, in theaters this weekend? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Written by Samantha Jaffe

  • K. Martin

    I don’t mean to flame, but your comprehension of Gatsby (and, to a lesser degree, its feminism) is astonishingly inaccurate. Did you even read the book? I’m sincerely asking.

  • Jovelynne