A few weeks ago the wonderful “Hark, a Vagrant” comics were brought up in class. One of the more humorous comics examined dealt with the Bronte sisters and, as I’m sure we all remember, the willingness of Charlotte and Elizabeth to be attracted to men Ann Bronte terms more than a little unsavory. Comic appears. We laugh. A room full of English students, of course, will get the joke. To a large extent, however, it’s something of an inside joke, relatable only to us or those like us. The number of prerequisites required to view and then laugh at the comic make both it and the joke it makes pretty exclusive. One must first have a computer, internet, literacy. One must also have a working knowledge of the major players in mid 19th century English literature. Possession of these things from the computer to the knowledge implies a certain level of privilege in both an economic and social sense; a privilege that is needed to get the joke even though the comic does address a universal issue: individuals’ romantic attraction to those who are all wrong for them. The universality of the issue addressed does not negate the privilege required to get the joke. In this sense, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love is one very long “Hark, a Vagrant” Bronte sisters comic.
Gilbert speaks to an understandable restlessness, an intense dissatisfaction with one’s position in life. She is stuck but she is trying to be happy and she isn’t. Sure, the universality of her discontent cannot be denied, it manifests itself in any number of ways across the human spectrum. In this instance, it manifests itself as an upper class, working, straight, American white woman. An inside joke indeed. It’s this privilege that allows her to appropriate, indulgently and shamelessly, other cultures without fear of consequence. She begins by stating, “when the medieval Crusaders drove East for the holy wars, they witnessed worshippers praying with these japa malas, admired the technique, and brought the idea home to Europe as rosary.” This, early on the recognitions section of the book, illustrates to the reader exactly the type of privilege required. The Crusaders went “east” (this must mean India! though they did not actually deal with India) for “holy wars” (a tidy means of describing the Crusades) and admired the technique of the japa mala (the Crusaders fought Muslims who are not, as it would turn out, Indian Hindus although which sect of Hinduism she doesn’t quite say. It doesn’t really matter it’s all very exotic.)
Her premise is based on indulging her privileged sensibilities and her attempts at humor, specifically early on when she states:
I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy. To which the savvy observer might inquire: “Then why did you come to Italy?” To which I can only reply—especially when looking across the table at handsome Giovanni—“Excellent question.”
The laugh track that is inevitably supposed to follow this wry observation is based on indulging stereotypes of Italian males as highly sexual beings. Stereotyping is perpetually problematic and all the more so when it results in the fetishizaiton of an entire country. I have to say, there are clearly jokes being made, and there is a human experiences being exposed but her indulgent propagation of problematic notions of cultural others, I don’t know, it’s a comic strip I just didn’t get.