The long-gestating Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, garnered significant critical acclaim upon its release in 2016, with Terence Davies's direction, Cynthia Nixon's performance, and the film's overall 'poetic sensibility' earning especial praise. Whether one likes this film or not depends heavily on the viewer's tolerance for a distinctly artificial cinematic structure, far closer in feel to a theatrical performance in a stuffy, small room than the usual sumptuous opulence of a period piece. I could easily imagine an Emily Dickinson biopic remaining fixed within the four walls of the Amherst home where she lived, eventually, as a recluse, but in fact, Davies's film follows Emily to a concert and a schoolroom.
Rather than attempt to recapture the texture of everyday life, the fairly unruffled and uneventful unfolding of a unmarried woman's life in a small town, nineteenth-century setting, the film is made up of a series of tableaux vivants, scenes that function as miniature, but complete, dramas. For instance, the conflict of Dickinson's brother's desire to enlist during the Civil War and her father's adamant opposition plays out in one, long, elegantly structured scene. These dramatic set pieces are book-ended by interludes of montages of sunshiny flowers and bees, the narrow staircase, a pen scratching across a scrap of paper, and gauzy curtains, with Nixon narrating Dickinson's poetry.
I personally found A Quiet Passion all but intolerable and was frustrated by this greatest-hits approach to a poet who somehow both staunchly and elliptically resists definition. But, an antipathy to style, while it can have a solid and critically argued basis, largely comes down to a matter of taste. Davies's screenplay has a bigger problem and it becomes apparent with one historically absurd vocabulary choice.
In a scene in which Dickinson establishes her belief in proto-feminism and the abolitionist movement, Davies has her say, "Every fight about gender is a war." In part, such statements are symptomatic of a common rehabilitation of figures from the past. Dickinson, constantly misquoted or misunderstood, a beloved mainstay of literary Instagram, is folded into an easily digestible, twenty-first century feminist and anti-racist ideology. By putting twenty-first century into her nineteenth-century mouth, the need for mediation is side-stepped. It's undeniable that Dickinson was unconventional and rebelled against many of the strictures that held women captive to the whims of their male relatives. It's equally undeniable that she would never, under any possible circumstances, have said, "Every fight about gender is a war."
That's because Davies, politically correct to a fault, has Dickinson say "gender" instead of "sex." This piously panders to millennial feminism. The word "gender" did not acquire its current usage until the 1970s and the definitive split between "gender" as self-identity and "sex" as biology is even more recent. Although Judith Butler's extraordinarily influential Gender Trouble questions the rigidity of those definitions, her assertion that gender and sex are constructed rather than inherent has become increasingly accepted, at least in liberal communities.
These are ideas that have not place in Emily Dickinson's world. In that world, the nascent feminist movement operates on an assumption that sexual difference - undifferentiated from gender difference - entitles women to certain rights and protections. Later generations would make the claim that women are entitled to rights and protections, regardless of sexual difference. The distinction between gender and sex is incoherent gobbledygook in the nineteenth-century context.
One could say that I'm nit-picking, that to claim that the use of one word demolishes the integrity of the whole film is an overreaction. Perhaps. But, this kind of usage collapses all of history into two categories: acceptable and unacceptable and presumes that what is current is somehow always fundamentally more correct than what is past. In order for Emily Dickinson to be politically acceptable, she has to be a soothsayer, capable of reading the next century's seminal works of feminist and queer theory without loosening her corset stays. This does Dickinson a disservice, this does feminist history a disservice, and frankly, it reveals a naive feminist positivism that permits the worst sort of condemnatory discourse, dividing all people into good people, who use the latest correct terminology, and everyone else, the people who good people are supposed to silence and shut down, rather than engage with and debate.
The choice of the word "gender," over the historically accurate "sex," renders A Quiet Passion emblematic of the historical blindness and hard-lining that threatens to calcify feminist discourse into a rigid set of applied standards. The poet who wrote of the past, "Her faded ammunition/Might yet reply," the poet who insisted that "To fight aloud, is very brave/but gallanter, I know,/who charge within the bosom,/the cavalry of woe," deserves to be met on her own terms, not ours.