The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousnessOctober 29, 2022
Twenty-Five years after its release Romeo and Juliet directed by
Baz Luhrmann still leaves a lasting impact on pop culture today (Conway, 2021).
Discussing the conception of the renaissance ideology of the female adolescent
seems crucial to my thesis even if it leaves me down a path that I turn back
Baz Luhrmann’s take on Shakespeare’s classic is embedded into my
own concept of ‘adolescence’ as this is one of the very first introductions to girl-gone
pop culture. The clothing, the music, the dreamy boys she was stuck between, every
party I wanted to attend, every person I wanted to be friends with everything
about this film to me as a young millennial was picture-perfect, even if the
tragedy of the story was not.
Celebrations surrounding the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary concluded
in 2021, Baz Luhrmann himself shared an epic catalogue of past footage and
archival material of the film on Instagram. I will admit that I am an avid Luhrmann
fan, as a lover of all things fashion and music his films give me a completely satisfactory
experience as a viewer, and I aim in this post, to conceptualise the experience
I speak of in relation to critical theory.
Understanding the working process of Luhrmann, he states in an
interview ‘if Shakespeare was around today, how would he tell his stories?’
(Luhrmann, 1996). Kym Barrett, costume designer of the film told NYLON magazine
in a phone interview in 2022; that they (her and Luhrmann) wanted them (the
audience) to be immediately drawn to this version of Romeo and Juliet, in our
time with these young characters that people can associate with, even in the
culture of the religion causing their division. The use of religious iconography
throughout the film, coming from an atheist has never crossed my mind as being
something that sat at the forefront of what I recognise about this film. The
fashion, the contemporary feel, and the Americanization of such a fundamental historic
literary text from British culture (albeit set in Italy) but performed as a
play at the globe theatre in London. These are the books we learn in school the
ones we involuntary read within our educational system. Yet what Luhrmann did
with his 1996 remake was make Shakespeare accessible by engraining it into the
popular culture canon of the millennial era.
Elsie Walker (2000) notes the criticism of Luhrmann’s remake (mainly
from magazine and film reviews) that they tended to dismiss the film as “MTV
Shakespeare” describing it as mindless visual candy we usually see in pop and
rock videos. The MTV aesthetic that is engrained in nineties culture is one
that will have allowed Luhrmann to connect to a viewer that he never would have
had he made a traditional retelling of the film. Like MTV videos, the film contains a hail of imagery and
music; it’s a postmodern assault on the senses, one I can confirm gives me a
complete and satisfactory experience as a millennial. The film demands further
than an unresistant response. In the viewing process, the followership may
shape the ‘raw material of the film’, as Lorne Buchman (1991) writes in her
book ‘Shakespeare on Screen’, this material is offered to us as an open
structure to be classified in the viewing process.
Walker (2000) later discusses the
roles in which we are introduced to the characters in Luhrmann’s adaptation of nostalgia
where we are introduced to each character like that of a soap opera. This
really interests me as a viewer and as an artist that intends on using moving images
as well as stills in the works that I aim to create over the period of my PhD.
The dramatised characterisation is one that I think is something I have always
done in my photographic practice in the past, yet the role in which she has
stayed stagnant in a photograph or photo frame (in exhibition format) how can I
use the soap opera concept to bring her to life? Further, into Walker’s discussion,
she discusses the use of ‘high’ culture being the work of Shakespeare and ‘low’
culture the use of pop culture two very contradictory concepts that have been
met within one film. The use of high and low culture seems to embed the
systematic work of those females working in the arts, particularly in the photographic
canon of women representing women to us for example Cindy Sherman, Juno Calypso,
et al. It is the re-presentation of the characters we already know, using
popular culture the dialogue between what we already know and what we do not. I
do not feel like right now is the time to discuss this further, I do intend to
discuss this in its own blog post after some considered research, so I will
return to the discussion of the ‘girl’ in Shakespeare.
Driscoll (2002) notes that Shakespeare changed the age of Juliet
from eighteen or sixteen to only the age of thirteen. Driscoll discusses Ann
Cook who describes the transition from age twelve to age fourteen as a ‘ripe
age’, a contemporary term for denoting physical maturity. It is very important
to understand the current legislation that we as girls live under and the historical
complexities to understanding the Renaissance era is a lot harder than looking
at a Regency and Victorian context as their laws are not as widely available as
contemporary laws. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
expressed concern about the sexual exploitation of young girls in London in the
1800s. A press campaign on the subject in 1885 persuaded Congress to pass the
Criminal Law Amendment Act. The point is, that it seems there has been an urban
myth in relation to the understanding of Juliet’s age in relation to sexual
maturity. Lawrence Stone (1977) notes in his historic book The Family, Sex
and Marriage that it is but the sheer fantasy that adolescence only became
a social problem in the nineteenth century.
This leads me to the beginning of the archival photographic
understanding of ‘the girl’ and where this research will aim to shift now is to
look at the performance in which she was presented to us within the nineteenth-century
photographic canon. Looking at how the girl has presented to us since the
conception of ‘media’ as a premise is going to give me a substantial argument to
support my PhD, evidence is not going to be easily found, but I guess that’s
why I have three years to get to the bottom of the problem at hand. Although I have
particularly kept the time frame of my PhD to the nineteenth and twentieth century
there will be elements of paths that need to be explored much to this post, I have
gained a better understanding of the historical context of when a girl was ‘available’
and when she was not.
Buchman, L.M. (1991) Still in
movement: Shakespeare on Screen. New York: Oxford University Press.
Conway, J. (2021) Director Baz
Luhrmann reflects on the 25th anniversary of his beloved ‘romeo + juliet’
storytelling, Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Available at:
(Accessed: October 28, 2022).
Driscoll, C. (2002) Girls:
Feminine adolescence in popular culture & cultural theory. New York:
Columbia University Press.
History of child protection in the
UK (no date) NSPCC Learning. Available at:
(Accessed: October 28, 2022).
Lodi, M. (2021) 14 fashion
facts from the 1996 film ‘romeo + juliet’, Nylon. Nylon. Available
(Accessed: October 29, 2022).
Stone, L.(H. (1977) The family,
sex and marriage in England: 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row.
Walker, E. (2000) Pop goes the
Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo …, Pop
goes the Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
Literature/Film Quarterly; Salisbury Vol. 28, Iss. 2. Available at:
(Accessed: October 29, 2022).