More Pride than Prejudice: Queering Jane Austen in Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island

9
November, 2022
Elaine Lee, Chief Blog Editor

As with many Austen retellings, the first line of narration in Joel Kim Booster’s romantic comedy Fire Island (2022) echoes the instantly recognizable first line of the novel to which it owes its plot. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” quotes the narrator and protagonist, the feisty and outspoken Noah, played by Booster himself. “Well, no offence to my girl Jane Austen,” he adds, “But that sounds like some hetero nonsense.” Obviously, Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, to whom Noah serves as a parallel, would have no idea what that means. 

I paused the movie; I felt simultaneously charmed and put off. The frame freezes at a half-second-long shot of a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, its edges yellowed and corners scuffed white. On one hand, I feel an innate kinship with Noah. As gay Asians navigating a world that seeks to erase our identities, there is something intuitively freeing about denouncing the status quo in such a flippant way. On the other hand, I am still a woman who lives in a world with men in it. Dismissing Pride and Prejudice as a mere display of heteronormative standards also seems like a myopic interpretation of the very real patriarchal standards that Austen’s heroines live under.

Fire Island is a romcom at the end of the day. Noah and his found family, in which each member acts as a parallel to a Bennet, arrive at New York’s Fire Island, known as an effervescent gay vacation spot. The film is light, relatively inconsequential entertainment, an opportunity for viewers to cringe at the endearing antics of Keegan and Luke (Kitty and Lydia) or salivate over Will (brooding, sculpted, lawyer, Asian Mr. Darcy). You can watch the movie with zero knowledge of Austen and still thoroughly enjoy the shots of vacation homes and sunsets on the beach. So does the film actually endorse Noah’s dismissal of Austen? I don’t think so. In fact, Fire Island’s faithfulness to Pride and Prejudice lends a subversive gravity to the larger systemic issues that it seeks to make light of.

Whatever Noah’s reading of Austen might be, and however skeptical we as the audience might be of his dismissal, Joel Kim Booster is open about his sincere appreciation for Austen. Reflecting upon his own visits to Fire Island, he remarks in an essay for Penguin Random House, “I couldn’t help but map Lizzy’s experiences navigating the limiting social conventions of her time onto the similarly tortured social conventions of gay male spaces. . . . In every case: a group of adults circling each other, saying little but communicating volumes with glances and body movement and hidden meaning.”

This appreciation is reflected in the film’s progression, as it increasingly undermines Noah’s initial rejection of Austen through its surprising loyalty to its source material. A tender, angst-ridden near-kiss in the rain brings to mind Darcy’s confession in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation. Most of Pride and Prejudice’s side characters are squeezed in there, too, including Margaret Cho’s endearing portrayal of an ineffectual parental figure, a sort of merge of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.

The film pays unironic tribute to Pride and Prejudice in more subtle ways, too—between effervescent pop anthems belted out by Charli XCX or Kim Petras, strings swell in tenderer moments. While there is onscreen sex and drug use, there is also letter-writing, stolen glances, and, absent the rolling hills of the English countryside, long walks on the beach instead. Evidently, Booster takes care to show a certain loyalty and respect to Austen and her long-lasting cultural impact. Fire Island does not dismiss Austen, but rather encourages you to recognize the way it imprints its suffocating social norms onto Noah and his community.

This loyalty comes with caveats. Fire Island must tread the precarious terrain between embracing all that it owes to its source material and rejecting its conservative tendencies. Pride and Prejudice sheds light on the repression of women and how both the legal and social customs of Regency-era England force many to esteem a financially beneficial marriage as the primary goal. Although many love Pride and Prejudice for the love story, the novel also excels at showing moments where class and gender collide in the subtext of conversations and minute social cues.

There is a difference, however, between showing injustice and criticizing it. Booster is pretty optimistic about reading Austen as rejecting such social norms: “What all these heroines have in common, a journey that every gay man at every level of our deeply toxic, imaginary caste system can relate to, is seeing all the ridiculous rules that were created for you, that you’ve somehow internalized, and finally recognizing them as false.” Booster’s view is largely more forgiving than that of most critics, who are not shy to point out that Austen’s fiction shies away from true radical change. Lizzy Bennet herself still ends up married to a wealthy man. In fact, Austen’s female characters who exhibit socially acceptable behaviour are usually rewarded with a rich husband, while those who don’t end up in unhappy marriages off the page or are relegated to the margins of society, without too much pushback. Lizzy may embody the less demure, more independent Wollstonecraftian femininity, but the rhetorics of the novel still gesture towards preservation of the status quo.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Fire Island is not overly ambitious in trying to upend every power structure out there, but unlike Austen, is vocal and upright about what it does critique. As previously mentioned, Booster likens the power dynamics of the Bennets’ world to the hierarchies in the queer community, especially that of gay men: “No fats, no fems, no Asians,” Kitty-coded Keegan lists off within the first five minutes of the movie, sarcastically echoing a common Grindr bio, before adding, “Noah, you still two out of the three.” Noah, like most other characters who are portrayed as desirable (desirability being the primary social currency), boasts an impressive set of abs and spends much of the movie shirtless. He simultaneously benefits from and is marginalized by such standards.

Howie, the character parallel to Jane Bennet played by Saturday Night Live writer and cast member Bowen Yang, also reminds us of the structures that oppress queer communities in the outside world. “Heteronormativity, Judeo-Christian pathology, anal,” Howie dryly suggests as reasons behind homophobia. Like how Austen’s characters exist in a world where larger forces such as colonialism operate without much intrusion into their smaller society, Booster acknowledges the existence of the larger world while permitting himself to tackle the smaller scope of the inside dynamics of an alleged but ultimately flawed queer idyll.

So gay and Asian Lizzy and Darcy might both still have abs and haven’t ended capitalism. It is too big a task for a single piece of media to shift deeply embedded paradigms of our contemporary world in an hour and a half—and such is the burden of representation of a minoritized creator. What it does do, however, is not insignificant. At the film’s conclusion, Noah and Will share a private moment together as the sun sets. Will values non-monogamy and Noah his freedom, and instead of placing a label or any kind of language on what their relationship might look like in the future, Will simply gestures at two older men slow dancing on the dock, entranced by each other. “I want that,” he says. 

Queerness at its core is not necessarily defined as same-sex relationships. It can encapsulate the broad spectrum of interpersonal relationships that, by virtue of not fitting inside heteronormative standards, defy easy legibility. Fire Island prizes queerness as a shining possibility rather than something to hide. It is simultaneously critical of racism and other structures of oppression that operate even within a marginalized community and hopeful about queer Asian love that transcends any such barriers. 

More importantly, it opens up possibilities for transformation. Even if such change is within a community that the viewer may or may not be part of, we have no trouble seeing more equitable and authentic queer spaces in the present and future. Anyone can find their Mr. Darcy, and your Mr. Darcy might not be single, maybe not even a man, hopefully possession of a good fortune, and might even be in want of some good old-fashioned queer liberation.

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