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.

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