Be Pretty and Shut Up!

Sois belle et tais-toi! Be pretty and shut up!

It’s a message that is both explicitly and implicitly broadcast to women constantly, whether it’s via film posters that decapitate us in favour of our shapely hairless legs or the misogynistic replies to a tweet where a woman was brazen enough to express an opinion.

It’s also the title of a little-seen documentary directed by Delphine Seyrig, an actress-activist who starred in New Wave classics like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and François Truffaut’s Baisers volés (1988). Seyrig also played the title role in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), Chantal Akerman’s arthouse feminist film cited by Greta Gerwig as an influence on Lady Bird (2017).

In the 1970s Seyrig joined the feminist movement in France and met cinematographer and filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos. The two would collaborate for many years on feminist film projects such as the short S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976), S.C.U.M. being an abbreviation of the ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’, and alongside fellow activist Iona Wieder founded the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Centre in 1982, the first audiovisual centre promoting and preserving women’s history.

Recently screened at the Barbican Centre in London as part of their Nevertheless, She Persisted season of films exploring the continuing struggle for equal rights around the world, Sois belle et tais-toi (1981) is a strikingly intimate and personal insight into the treatment of women in the film industry. Seyrig and Roussopoulos interviewed twenty four French and American actresses, including Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Berto and Marie Dubois, about their experiences of misogyny. Shot entirely in simple medium close-ups, it’s extraordinary to hear and see these women open up about the one-dimensional characters they’ve played and their poor treatment behind the camera. Topics range from alternative careers had the women interviewed been born male, to Hollywood’s obsession with the romanticised male friendship, to the prospect of more women working as writers and directors.

While the film is unrestored and its sometimes smudgy and overexposed visuals coupled with its poor sound quality can make it challenging viewing, the discrimination the actresses reveal remains strikingly familiar. Depictions of the bond of female friendship remain few and far between, roles for women over forty remain scarce and women who speak up on film sets are still dismissed as bossy or demanding. In the clip below Rita Renoir describes how male directors told her she castrates them merely by looking at them, and how “What they always wanted from me is the game where I say, ‘Yes, I’m so stupid, I have so much to learn from you'”. Seyrig only interviewed one woman of colour, African American actress Maidie Norman, who described the frustration of maids or slaves being the only roles offered to African American actresses.


Above: An extract from Sois belle et tais-toi

It’s particularly devastating to hear from Maria Schneider, who was raped on screen by Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Mallory Millett, who Roman Polanski attempted to rape on two occasions. Millett left acting as a result of sexual abuse, telling The SunI ended up fleeing the whole industry because all I did was turn down producers trying to get me under their desks and give them blow jobs”.

In the wake of #MeToo, seemingly a time of reckoning for Hollywood, what does being pretty and shutting up mean in 2018?

Women in the film industry are raising their voices now more than ever before. As we all know, a large number of well known actresses have shared their experiences of assault and harassment at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Angeline Jolie and Lupita Nyong’o. Time’s Up, an anti-harassment initiative that includes a legal defence fund to help less privileged survivors, was founded in January in response to the exposure of abuse and counts Jessica Chastain, Laura Dern, America Ferrera and Reese Witherspoon among its many members. Any star not wearing black or a Times Up pin on the red carpet throughout award season in solidarity was an exception.

We’re also seeing more championing of films directed by women. The ongoing #MeToo movement coinciding with the centenary of the first women in Britain getting the vote has prompted many feminist screenings and events in the UK this year. The Barbican’s Nevertheless She Persisted and the BFI’s Girlfriends season have been and gone but in June the BFI will be celebrating the work of Ava DuVernay, Agnes Varda, Ida Lupino and Lotte Reiniger. Birds Eye View have recently launched their Reclaim the Frame initiative which aims to promote films by women and Sundance London will be screening a varied selection of brilliant work both by and about women, from Jennifer Fox’s The Tale (2018), in which Laura Dern’s Jennifer confronts the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, to Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture (2018), a documentary examining the gender disparity behind the camera.

Perhaps we don’t need an update of Sois belle et tais-toi now that discussing the abuse of power by men in Hollywood is no longer confined to whisper networks and filmmakers like Patty Jenkins, Ava DuVernay and Greta Gerwig are succeeding at the box office. But the film is a clear demonstration of how overall very little has changed in Hollywood over the past forty years. Abusers like Woody Allen, Weinstein and Polanski walk free, female auteurs like Lynne Ramsay are branded “difficult” and Mark Wahlberg is worth $1.5 million for reshoots while Michelle Williams is worth $1,000, not to mention the continuing lack of opportunities for actresses of colour. Even multi award winning actresses like Octavia Spencer seem pigeonholed in either Sassy Black Friend or Magical Negro roles, two very racist tropes.

Sois belle et tais-toi ends with an impassioned speech by Ellen Burstyn, best known for her stunning performances in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2001), about the importance of women coming together to help form a better world. I was genuinely moved this week to learn that at the age of eighty five, Burstyn is making her directorial debut. As an actress deciding to transition into directing I imagine that Burstyn must have been partially inspired by the work of Delphine Seyrig. Seyrig died in 1990 and Carole Roussopoulos in 2009 and while it’s a shame that their ever-relevant film is rarely screened it’s inspiring to think that perhaps it has had a lasting impact on one of its contributors. It’s certainly had a powerful impact on me as an audience member.

Petticoats and Politics: Feminism and the Period Drama

Keira Knightley’s career is built upon the period drama; Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina. And those are just the Joe Wright roles.

In a recent interview with Variety she addressed how often she appears in historical roles: “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped”, she said. “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed, whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces”. This certainly seems to be true of her career whether she’s playing literary heroines like Elizabeth Bennet or historical figures like Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. She even got to swing a sword in the Pirates franchise. Admittedly, she has sometimes been saddled with the thankless woman-who-supports-male-genius role (see The Imitation Game) but largely she has played complex heroines in period films.

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In their essay All Dressed Up: Costume Drama Loosens its Corset from their book Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema So Mayer highlights that “British ‘women’s cinema’ is still tied, as far as distributors imagine audiences, to the corset strings of what is variously called heritage, costume, period and/or historical drama”. It might not be considered cool but it shouldn’t be ignored. But are period dramas really providing better roles for women? Is feminism permitted in the drawing room or in the chaise and four?

I recently attended a screening of Suffragette at the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that allowed the first women in Britain the right to vote (that is, women over thirty who held £5 of property or had husbands who did). I first saw the film when it was released in 2015 and it has a harder, more explicitly political edge to it than I remembered. Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai are all familiar cosy BBC costume drama faces and much of the publicity material promoted Meryl Streep’s rather BAFTA-baity cameo appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst. However, in following working class laundry worker Maud (Carey Mulligan) as she joins the movement the film largely shifts attention away from the far more affluent Pankhursts and emphasises the struggles of women with no economic advantages. Through Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), tasked with tracking down and arresting these unruly women, the film makes the point that the Pankhursts and other middle and upper class leaders within the movement were asking women with no financial safety nets to endanger themselves for the cause. “They know how to draw on girls like you”, he says. “Girls without money or prospects who want things to be better. They primp and the preen and they fluff you and they tell you – you are the foot soldiers of the cause. But, you’re only fodder – for a battle none of you can win”. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady, Shame) clearly demonstrates an understanding of the exclusionary nature of both the period drama and the way in which certain women’s voices have been erased from history but the film understandably came under fire for its exclusion of women of colour.

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I believe director Sarah Gavron when she says that she “interrogated the written and photographic evidence” and that the only recorded women of colour in the movement in the UK at the time were Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama, both aristocrats. While I understand the filmmakers’ emphasis on working class suffragettes why couldn’t either or both of these women appeared in a Pankhurst style cameo? And is it fundamentally sacrilegious to question how important historical accuracy is here when every character in the film except Pankhurst, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and King George V is fictional?

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But perhaps period dramas are becoming more inclusive, albeit slowly. Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle tells the real story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British naval officer who is raised as a free gentlewoman by his uncle the 1st Earl of Mansfield. The film was inspired by a painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth Murray that is “unique in British art of the 18th century in depicting a black woman and a white woman as near equals”. Dido’s search for her identity as a biracial woman in a racist society is intertwined with a love affair with an abolitionist and her adoptive father’s ruling in the case of the Zong massacre in which a slave ship’s crew threw living slaves overboard in order to claim the insurance money on their deaths.

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to Zoffany

On the surface, Belle might appear to be an elegant film that is rather devoid of passion and fury. Time Out’s Dave Calhoun called it a “good-looking and exceedingly polite film where perhaps a more complex one with less good manners would have been better”. However, I would argue that Belle is surprisingly bold in its redefinition of the period drama as an inclusive, political genre in which the ribbons and romance of Jane Austen’s world are tied to social justice. In this film two gentlewomen having their portraits painted together isn’t an expression of wealth or vanity but a demonstration of history being rewritten to include those erased and marginalised voices. The film is certainly conventional in its form and style, the cinematography never straying from what we might expect to see on a Sunday night BBC drama, but a film that places a biracial woman at the heart of a Austenian story that highlights Britain’s colonial history surely can’t be considered totally conventional. As So Mayer so eloquently phrases it, the film connects “lavish British period drama to the slave-labouring empire that funded eighteenth-century leisure culture”. Of course it’s eighteenth-century leisure culture that gave rise to the novels which provide the mainstays of British period drama.

The film might be gentle enough in its post-colonialist interrogation of the period of British history we most often experience in our living rooms that it doesn’t make the Downton Abbey audience flinch but it remains quietly subversive. Its use of familiar period drama imagery and narrative features (balls aglow with candlelight, the pressure to marry a man in possession of good fortune) identifies the film as a “rigorous deconstruction of costume drama dressed up as a perfect example” (Mayer, once again).

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The film Keira Knightley was promoting when she spoke to Variety about period dramas is Colette, an upcoming biopic of writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, author of Gigi. The film explores how her work was published and celebrated under her controlling husband’s name as well as her scandalous affair with Mathilde “Missy” de Morny. How transgressive the film really is remains to be seen but perhaps Belle, alongside films like Lady Macbeth, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and upcoming films like Mary Queen of Scots and Ophelia that retells Hamlet from his doomed lover’s perspective will continue to demonstrate that period films can be genuinely subversive. When I asked the filmmakers behind Suffragette about Keira Knightley’s comments writer Abi Morgan spoke about how women are more often allowed to be heroines in period films but also that she is currently working on several projects with female protagonists of multiple genres. 

It feels like I’ve written the phrase “perhaps after the recent commercial and/or critical success of [insert title of commercially and/or critically successful female-led film here] we will begin to see a lasting change” countless times over the past few years. But for now it does seem clear that the period drama, often with brilliant women behind the camera, is a genre ideal for interrogating the position of women’s voices throughout history and by extension society today.