Don’t dwell on the Past, they say. Pshh: Don’t dwell in the Past, that’s my advice.
What’s the Past got? Plague, feudalism, no Netflix. Medicine is bugs eating you and/or “the robed man frowns.” Birth control options that range from “convent” to “death.” Some Johnny Rufflesleeves mansplaining the luminiferous aether. “Less pollution sometimes,” that’s about the best we can say for our friend The Past. (The Past is not your friend.)
Sure, patriarchy thrives in the 21st century and Progress is a dubious construct. My high school world history text made that clear when it argued that women in ancient Rome had more liberties than most (non-slave)women would enjoy “until the 19th century.” Who are you trying to impress, ancient Rome? Some freeborn Victorian broad? I’ll take my chances in this here temporal realm, where I can be president of the Latin club and have hobbies beyond the loom.
My time-travel fantasy is guiding a Ye Olde tourist who arrives in the present. When performing basic tasks — driving, purchasing groceries, gadding about unescorted — I’ll picture how impressed my visitor would be. That’s right, Margwainnea, I bought this bottle of wine myself. It’s called “second wine,” and is customarily drunk “next.” I’d scan my debit card like a pro, and not drop it or do it backwards like sometimes happens. How Margwainnea’s eyes would shimmer…
Anyway. What makes some women cross to the nether-centuries is beyond me. Here is an ordered list, from Horrifying to Most Horrifying, of women who have traveled to the Past.
1. Susan and Lucy Pevensie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
“Narnia’s not the Past! It’s a parallel wonderscape breathed into being by a holy lion!” TRUE. But the Narn is still a preindustrial society without like, public school or trains or tampons. It’s cool they have enchanted healing cordial instead of leeches, but remember in The Horse and His Boy where Queen Lucy says, “the High King has so strictly charged me not to carry it commonly to the wars”? So we’ve got a) limited supply of useful medicine controlled by the elite b) brotriarchy, c) “the wars,” commonly, d) fancy wars, presumably?
Narnia gets points for magic, and because being queens is a good deal that Susan and Lucy could not have come by in 1940s England. Perhaps the most disturbing “back in time” aspect is the return to their 20th-century childhood bodies. As a YA reader I found no greater horror than the idea of growing up, overcoming puberty, and then winding up a 9-year-old again.
2. Aubrey Plaza’s character in Safety Not Guaranteed
This is that indie rom-com in which time travel is a metaphor for feelings…or more. Debatable whether she “goes back in time.” I sorta liked this movie, which annoys me, and that is how I imagine Aubrey Plaza feels about liking this dweeb who wants to build a time machine to be with Veronica Mars.
3. Reese Witherspoon in Pleasantville
She decides to stay in fake TV alt-’50s cause colleges will accept her, and that is not a bad reason! But what if you took the lessons you learned about literature and character and returned to a post-Civil-Rights era, Reese?
4. Amanda Price, aka the chick from Lost in Austen
In which a Pride and Prejudice fan straight trades lives with Elizabeth Bennett. This yikes of a choice is mitigated by the fact that original Lizzie has the good sense to stay in the 2000s and Amanda marries rich. Remember when I gave up voting for you, babe? This egg cup needs encrusting, rubies should do.
5. Women on Doctor Who, I think
Some time ago, I mentioned to a guy that I did not like Doctor Who, and his friend, a guy to whom we were not talking, turned and rage-bleated: “Yeah well JON SNOW DIES.” I have never and will never get over this, no matter how many times Jon gets Willow’d. I will carry this slight to my grave and bring it back with me every time I myself get Willow’d; I will nurse this grudge like a changeling babe that has tricked me into believing it is flesh of my flesh. Anyway, those Dr. Who companions probably had reasons for going back in time but I don’t have to like ’em.
6. That trashy romance novel my sister and I found at the church garage sale
The moon takes a lady into Olden France and she falls in love with a hot lord, and he mocks women’s rights and is very impressive at feudalism, and that was the beginning of my brief and uncomfortable “reading trashy romances from the church garage sale” period.
7. Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Bends the fourth dimension to her will so she can do more homework. This could be the saddest thing in Harry Potter, counting all the deaths and Neville’s mom’s candy wrappers. My god, Hogwarts, get an academic adviser on staff.
8. Claire, S1 Episode 11 of Outlander (and the Outlander books, I guess)
Outlander is about a 20th-century Englishwoman who must choose between a sex kilt and a life without witch-burning. Claire is condemned to the flames in what is approximately the 734th attempt on her life in Erst Highlands. Sex Kilt rescues her and she gets the chance to go home — where her burned-at-the-stake risks falls from Imminent to Zero — and she’s all “nah, I’m good.” CLAIRE, THERE ARE HIGHER DEGREES OF GOOD THAN “WASN’T IMMEDIATELY TORCHED TO DEATH, JUST THEN.” That’s the last episode of Outlander I ever watched. Claire, how can I care about you when you care so little for your own self-interest? Don’t give me “love,” you can love wherever, there is only one timeline here in which “witch hunt” is a metaphor.
Related: Has there ever been a story where a woman has a choice between “anything” and “a man” and the man was the better choice?
Related further: Should I watch Outlander again?
9. Victorian Lady, Real Life / Your Weekend Hate-Reading
Thinks a time before Lemonade is a time worth living in.
10. Kate, Kate & Leopold
Remember when you were a kid, and all movies were an inherent pleasure because going out to the movies was a treat? Kate & Leopold is the first time I remember leaving the theater afroth with loathing. This is a “rom-com” about a woman who hurled herself into the East River until feminism froze long enough to let her marry some sentient epaulets.
Kate realizes my fondest wish — a Past Traveler joins her in the future-present to sputter in bafflement at her trousers and career! Except it’s not Margwainnea, it’s some white dude (yo, already have my fill of guys grappling with a lost monopoly on privilege, thanks!) and he has to get back to his stupid time or else elevators will kill everyone. But Kate loves him! Oh no! What’ll she do? Live her life, accepting that sometimes the laws of physics don’t serve as our matchmakers? Oh, no! She jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s either “no human rights or hygiene forever” or death. Margwainnea and I are out.
Special Mention: Dana from Kindred, Who Gets It
Octavia Butler doesn’t care about your corsets and sex kilts and fancy wars. She knows white supremacy and patriarchy are more than ornamental doilies at the antebellum costume ball. Butler’s novel sends Dana, a black woman from Los Angeles c. 1976, back to a Maryland plantation so she can protect her slave-owning ancestor and safeguard her family’s existence.
Let’s go over some ways Dana is BAMF. She: 1) figures out the parameters of the time warp immediately; 2) ties on a survival kit; 3) focuses on integration and alliance-building; 4) is ready to leap into the future by any means necessary. She opens her own veins. She stabs a guy. Her arm gets crushed by the weight of walls and history and she does not look back, because it’s time to get the fuck out of the Past. My hero.
Not willing to leap into the Future either, that’s just reckless. Please send all dissatisfied women-of-Yore to me; I’ll be a gracious host. Thank you for your time.