“Those Poor People:” Penny Dreadful’s Secondhand Approach to Marginalization

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This essay was commissioned by May Walsh, who requested an essay about Penny Dreadful season 1. You can learn more about commissions here

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young woman buys a house. It is haunted, perhaps by a ghost or only by the heavy guilt and terrible misdeeds of those who came before; the difference is ultimately inconsequential, as the prose has already wrapped its way around you and started strangling. That’s gothic fiction. Of course, the misdeeds might just as well be crimes of existing while queer or mentally ill, depending on the author. Gothic fiction is a genre preoccupied with looking at the “other:” other than male, other than white, or straight, or able-bodied—and finding them frightening.

Over time those parameters began to involve. Those who were defined as Other began to make their own entries into the genre. It became a place where writers could depict characters like themselves, whether that meant being able to push against their accepted societal roles or being allowed to exist at all. As long as it ended in a neat cap that reassured the audience that proper order could be restored, any number of things were possible in the meanwhile.

Crossing the genre over with the concept of fanfiction seems a natural fit, given that fanfiction (at least in its modern incarnation) also sprang from women, queer folk, and other marginalized identities looking to write themselves into texts that excluded them. And so we have Penny Dreadful, a show gleefully intent on elbowing you in the ribs with its references while also solemnly assuring you that it has something to say. While the first season frames its plot through a discussion of women and the various ways in which they’re abused, it’s muddled by clumsy execution.

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