How to Create Feminist Stories in a Historical Setting

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We recently got ranty about The White Princess, specifically, the fact that at least one bit of publicity was touting it as being “feminist” since it featured a bunch of female leads. Trystan laid out her take on how to ACTUALLY create feminist stories: “all you need is for the female characters to have as much agency as the males.” And this got me thinking, and wanting to add my own thoughts about this issue.

First of all, yes it’s a dead horse but sadly it’s one that still needs beating:

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Secondly, as we’ve been very clear to state, Frock Flicks is a feminist publication. That means that we’re interested in women’s stories, and that we analyze the gender dynamics in both stories and filmmaking.

And as Trystan laid out so well in her rant, simply making a film about women does not make that film feminist.

So how, you may be wondering, DO you make feminist historical stories, whether fictional or based-on-reality? Because, of course, history wasn’t feminist, was it? At least looking at Western civilization, I think we can safely say that since the ancient world, women were (to a larger or smaller degree) in inferior positions to men. And hey, since American women still earn about 75% of what men earn, not to mention a list of other inequalities, I think we can safely still say that we don’t live in a period of gender equality.

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005)

Women’s lives in the past sucked, right? Just ask Mary Bryant

It may seem to some people that asking for “feminism” and “history” to be combined together is in itself a contradiction, because any film (or other media) depicting history is going to show women in shitty situations or roles and expectations. I mean, Queen Elizabeth I of England was a badass, but she still lived in a period where she had to apologize for being a female queen!

Well, you’ve got three options, and I’m going to lay them out for you:

 

1. Give us stories about literal feminists

You can go super literal, and choose to film stories about those who actively fought for women’s rights:

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

Iron Jawed Angels (2004) focuses on American suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.

Suffragette (2015)

Suffragette (2015) shows the fight for women’s votes in the UK through a fictional character.

Or you can make stories about women who took on traditionally-male roles, or otherwise stepped outside the box, although you need to be careful to actually address this aspect of their lives. If you turn Queen Elizabeth I into just a woman who can’t make up her mind which boy to marry, you’re missing the point.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Joan of Arc (seen here in The Hollow Crown) literally DID put on the pants and take on a man’s role!

Becoming Jane

Jane Austen (fictionalized in Becoming Jane) wrote novels in an era in which women were just barely starting to be published.

Bomb Girls shows a fictional account of women working during World War II.

 

2. Insert anachronistically feminist women (and/or men) into history

And now, the one that peeves me: write a fictional female character who takes on a traditionally-male role. Make sure she’s modern and spunky in her outlook and thinks and speaks like a 21st-century woman. Have her point out ALL the patriarchy, and throw some zingers at the men, so that the audience can feel superior that THEY live in a more enlightened time.

You’ve got your:

A Little Chaos (2015)

“Lady gardener” (A Little Chaos)

Versailles (2015- )

“Lady doctor” (Versailles)

Lady Oscar (1979)

“Lady guardsman” (Lady Oscar)

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

“Lady actor” in an era in which women didn’t act (Shakespeare in Love)…

Why do these peeve me? BECAUSE IT’S NOT THE REALITY OF WOMEN’S LIVES. I’m not saying EVER — if you can find me a real woman who joined an army regiment during the 18th century, HELL YES I want to see a movie/TV show about her! But 99.9% of women were constrained to specific social/gender/cultural roles. Some of them tried to change that, some of them were happy with their lot, others probably didn’t think much about it. But most of these “lady X” films ignore the fact that putting on pants and doing Man Stuff just WASN’T AN OPTION for 99.9% of women, historically; it might not even be something that would cross their minds!

Which brings me to:

 

3. Show the frickin’ reality of women’s lives

Apparently this one is rocket science, but let me lay it out for you: SHOWING THE REALITY OF WOMEN’S LIVES (okay, today but certainly historically) IS FEMINIST.

Why?

Because that’s what women had to deal with. That’s the roles they were born and grew into or made for themselves. That’s the lives they lived. That’s the limitations they endured or embraced. That’s the obstacles they negotiated around.

A Woman's Life (2016)

A Woman’s Life (2016) perfectly captures the joys and sorrows in a mundane life (and makes it entertaining too!).

What’s more feminist than better understanding how women REALLY lived and how they managed to find agency and self-fulfillment within those systems? What’s more feminist than better understanding those women who WERE beat down by the system, or enthusiastically embraced a narrow worldview despite it not actually serving their own self-fulfillment, or who managed to find self-fulfillment within society’s expectations? What’s more feminist than watching a woman fight the system in a way that’s actually true to her era? What’s more feminist than watching a woman who manages to find happiness despite the limitations put upon her (or embraced by her)?

Not a whole hell of lot.

For one thing, the audience gets to see how REAL historical women ACTUALLY dealt with societal limitations, not how a modern woman would approach them. One of the most fascinating things about history is how people’s mindsets really do change from era to era. Approaching the past with our modern outlook misses the point entirely. A woman in 1066 would use very different methods to get what she wanted out of life than a woman from 1966.

Harlots (2017)

While Harlots (2017) is — entertainingly — showing the positives AND negatives of women’s work in the sex trade in mid-18th century London.

Also, the audience can better understand social and gender roles in the past and take pride in how far various societies have come — and how much we still have in common. One thing I will ALWAYS argue is that you can’t understand our modern society without understanding where things come from. Sexism, racism, imperialism, capitalism — all of these things have their roots in the past. Nobody was just born inherently anything, they had to be socialized into their outlooks. So understanding the roots and permutations of history allows us to better understand our own modern society.

 

What’s your take on feminism in historical TV/film?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

100 Responses

  1. Saraquill

    I have so many peeves when it comes to feminist portrayals. One is that the major female characters, if not all of them, must be An Example and thus hypercompetent at everything. Others include Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses and the apparent non existence of intersectional feminism.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Omg, yes! Even Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Lady Catherine de Burgh has to wear pants to fight zombies. Sure, it’s a fantasy riff on historical, but earlier, the Bennett girls are wearing dresses & wielding swords. Just Lady C is a *real* badass so she wears pants — the eyepatch wasn’t enough.

      Reply
  2. Penny H

    “One of the most fascinating things about history is how people’s mindsets really do change from era to era. Approaching the past with our modern outlook misses the point entirely.”

    Hear, hear! <3

    Reply
  3. Veronica

    Yes and yes! I cringe when I read a novel with a woman protagonist who is basically a 21st c. woman. They go about flouting norms with very little opprobrium. Ha! My Grandmother divorced in So. America in the 1920’s and went to live in the convent where she had gone to school, taking her kids with her, to avoid gossip and ruination. Consequences.

    Reply
  4. E

    What about the women in Turn:Washington’s spies? I’d like your take, or that of the commenters on that one. I think they are strong characters while still showing women in the roles that they needed to play during the revolution. They were under the men’s dictations, but we had one woman try and save her husband multiple times, and still be that “soft” woman of the period. As well as Anna who became a spy in the show. When shown to Washington she was reduced to just a woman again. It was very interesting.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Kendra — get on it! Now you have a reason to review that one (maybe it’s not all dumb boys; also, I keep running into pix from it & the costumes don’t look too bad!)

      Reply
    • Lady Hermina De Pagan

      TURN!!!! BRAW!!!! Sorry, I live where the show takes place and know the actual history of the people involved. First Anna Strong should be about 15 years older than Abe and there is no evidence that they were knockin’ boots. She did assist in passing messages to Brewster but there is little evidence she was in fact Agent 355 and they are not showing what Mary Underhill, Abe’s sister did for the ring.
      Abe was NOT married at the time of the revolution, he was the oldest living son and actually served in the NY militia for a short time. He was radicalized by the death of his cousin Nathanial Woodhull at the Battle of Mastic Beach. He married his cousin Mary Smith in 1881 and had 3 children with her. The ring only really netted Benedict Arnold and after his exposure and the death of Major Andre the ring fell apart.
      Another fact was John Simcoe formed the first regiment of freedmen, he was the LG of Canada, helped found Toronto, and fought in the Hatitian revolution.
      The Masonic Lodge that they are showing is wrong, my S/O is a mason in the actual lodge and I have even seen stuff that belonged to the Woodhull’s. The water is all wrong for Port Jefferson Harbor( at that time called Drowned Meadow) we have BROWN WATER NOT BLUISH, the Pine Barrens have Pine Trees not scrub oak, and The Old Church shown still exists holds services and denomination is completely wrong.

      You want a better idea of what happened watch the documentary The Culper Spy Adventure. It got much closer to the truth and is shot, you know, where it actually happened.

      Reply
  5. themodernmantuamaker

    This post deserves a major pink drink toast!!

    I am so effing tired of historical productions shoe-horning women all over the place into roles they 99.99% were unlikely to occupy. What I find really insidious about this is that by continuing to do this it perpetuates the (sub/conscious) belief that these traditionally male/masculine-oriented positions are the only kind that can be interesting, exciting, worthy of notice. It also perpetuates the inaccurate idea that most women’s lives were unutterably boring/domestic (the feeling also being that domestic=boring – which so many modern dramas/soap operas have proven is totally untrue!). So it actually undermines the feminism these productions are supposedly trying to suggest!

    Even within comparatively circumscribed spheres women’s lives were varied, quirky, unusual and certainly highly active. So thank you so much for this post! And now I’m going to go look for “A Woman’s Life” since this is the first I’ve heard of it!

    Reply
    • Kendra

      “traditionally male/masculine-oriented positions are the only kind that can be interesting, exciting, worthy of notice” — YES THANK YOU!!

      Reply
  6. Kathryn MacLennan

    There is a very famous case of a woman joining the army disguised as a man in the 18th century: Hannah Snell. Her service was recognized, and she received an army pension. She also wrote an autobiography, and someone should totally make a movie about her.

    Reply
    • bshaurette

      Seconding this! I caught a lecture about her at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich once, then went right out and read the Matthew Stephens biography. I can’t believe no one’s made a movie about her yet.

      Reply
      • J Lou

        According to the Civil War Trust, a conservative estimate of women who dressed as men and served in the Civil War runs from 400 to 750.

        That’s a lot of wonderful stories! At least one woman was discovered when treated for a chest wound at Antietam, treated by Clara Barton.

        Reply
        • Erica

          One of these women an African American woman named Cathay Williams who disguised herself and served in the Union Army posing as a man named William Cathay during the Civil War. She got found out because when she got sick her secret was discovered.

          Reply
          • velvetpanic

            I actually just read her biography by Philip Thomas Tucker, and to elaborate and clarify, she was freed by the Union Army but conscripted as a cook and laundress for the army. She survived the war and apparently liked army life enough to join the Buffalo soldiers on the frontier as William Cathay. The author speculated she got tired of army life and faked sick (this is after years and years of soldiering) in order to be found out–she went on to live an independent life on the frontier. And I agree stories about these women who fought for both the Union and the Confederates make fascinating stories. :)

            Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Mary Read falls into this category. She was raised as a boy and even enlisted in the British Army as a man, was discovered to be a woman after she fell in love with a Dutch soldier, married him, went to the Netherlands, he died, she went back to her male persona and enlisted in the Dutch army as a man, got bored with it and then took up piracy.

      http://www.frockflicks.com/pirate-women-movies/

      The downside is that what we know of Read is really heavily embellished, so it’s no telling how much of the above was factual, and how much was fictionalized over the centuries.

      Reply
  7. Alba

    Great article!! I particularly agree with you on your last approach, unfortunately it’s the hardest one to find even though it’s the best. Also, it would help enormously if they gave the same treatment to female character as the one they give to male characters and stop writing female characters as props, unfairly relegating them to very basic roles that have no agency and that completely revolve around the “more important” male protagonist: the love interest, the rebel…
    But, until the industry starts giving more screenwriting jobs and directing jobs to women, I’m afraid that is not going to change.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “But, until the industry starts giving more screenwriting jobs and directing jobs to women, I’m afraid that is not going to change.”

      Me, me, pick me!!! Seriously, it’s my dream job (other than turning Frock Flicks full time — or in addition to, I’m not that choosy).

      Reply
      • Alba

        I wish I could give you a job. Because If I could I’d give myself a job as well. But it’s a tough world, and it’s still so male dominated… As a female director you need to do everything twice as good as your male coworkers to even be considered… argh it’s frustrating.
        Sorry for the rant… I got carried away

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          *FIST BUMP* Working in the man’s world is tough, no matter what industry & what rung you’re at, truth! (She typed, sitting in her cubicle, about to run off to another tedious meeting *sigh*)

          Reply
  8. brainybrunette20

    Dear Magazines:
    Stop touting that the White Queen is in any way feminist! You can’t say something is feminist because it features an abundance of females! Stop approaching everything from a 21st century standpoint! Actually show medieval women having hard lives and thinking “Hey, Maybe I am the weaker sex.” Show medieval view points on Womanhood!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      We know you mean White Princess, no worries, & OMG I AM SO WITH YOU. These articles have been showing up daily & make me scream. I think I need to make a meme that says “3 women in a TV show does not automatically mean it’s feminist!”

      Reply
      • Alba

        It’s actually rather worrying that the simple fact that there are more than two women with lines in a show is rare enough as to be considered a change from the norm and worthy of having articles written about it.

        Reply
      • Susan Pola

        And it’s about as historically accurate as …(fill in the appropriate comparison). Elizabeth of York and Henry, by all historical records, had a happy marriage. No rape before wedding, etc.
        Henry VII’s advisor in a lot of situations was his Mom, Margaret Beaufort Countess of Richmond.

        Reply
    • MoHub

      Or for a more accurate true-life portrayal of medieval women, keep in mind that the highest-paid worker on Chartres cathedral was a woman: a master mason named Marjorie. And many women worked beside the men in the building and agricultural trades.

      Reply
    • Susan Pola

      A miniseries based on the Paston family of Norfolk. Several women of the family wrote letters detailing their lives.

      Reply
  9. Fran in NYC

    Look up Isabella Andreini on Wikipedia. She was the top actress in the Italian comedy of the 16th century. Yes, women acted in those companies! She and the company, the Gelosi, toured all over France & Italy. They performed before royal courts. She was celebrated for her beauty, intelligence, learning and talent. Her life would be a great movie or mini-series. The city of Lyons went into mourning when she died there in 1604 in childbirth.

    Reply
  10. Bea

    It shouldn’t be that hard for people to find interesting stories about women with agency. Rejected Princesses is FULL of them.

    Reply
  11. ladylavinia1932

    I don’t ‘know if I would count “Shakespeare in Love” in that category about anachronistically feminist women in movies and TV. Especially since Gwyneth Paltrow’s character had to pretend to be a man in order to act on stage. She nearly got arrested for acting on stage and she ended up becoming Colin Firth’s wife anyway.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yeeeeeah, but still, you’ve got a woman who is pretending to be a guy in order to do something that in her era, only guys do. To me, that still counts as the trope of “I wanna do what the BOYS do!” Which is not to say that women never wanted, or did, what the boys did. I’m just arguing that endless stories of the (usually fictional) .0001% is so overdone!

      Reply
  12. Mari

    This is probably my favorite post I have ever read on Frock Flicks, and I read your posts almost daily. Would love to see more “lives of real women as they actually were” in films.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Dawww, thanks! We do regularly write about historical people (esp. women) that deserve movies to be made about them — I’ll be making that a more obvious category soon :)

      Reply
  13. picasso Manu

    Totally agree!
    The “spunky” heroine has me frothing at the mouth in ten seconds flat… Since you can spot her even before she’d opened her mouth, usually.
    She’s the one with her hair down, without corset or no chemise under corset (’cause chafing is for wussies). She usually throws a temper tantrum or slaps some guy in the first five minutes, to show she’s a “strong” woman…
    *facepalm*

    So, let’s recap: Looking like a floozy, with a mouth on her and aggressive tendencies… THAT got some women burned at the stake or locked up in asylums in later days. Patriarchy is not staying in power by playing coy.
    And to be perfectly honest, I want them to get it. Not because I’m not a feminist, I am, but because they’re stupid, and that usually fetch a high price in real life.

    Also, do not get me started on social class: Women have worked, and hard, for centuries. They HAD to… From the lowest farm maids to wealthy merchant wives. Even the aristocrats did not live a life of pure leisure.
    But the spunky heroine touting our 21th century prejudices are really favored, probably because it eases the viewers into the history… And of course, lately, there’s the obligatory “feminist token”: secondary role with woman in a man’s job! Shock! Gasp! We’re soooo progressive!

    *grumble*

    Reply
    • Kendra

      YES. OTOH, I did like Lost in Austen for showing how a modern woman WOULD react to a historical setting. But that makes sense, because the lead character IS a modern woman. At least she’s not supposed to have been born & raised in the period.

      Reply
    • Erica

      “Women have worked, and hard, for centuries. They HAD to… From the lowest farm maids to wealthy merchant wives.”

      *BINGO*

      Reply
    • Elizabeth

      YES. This is why, in my research, and in my living history/costuming, I always focus on the ordinary woman. It’s people like her who actually make up most of what we call history; none of the “big” things could have happened if everything depended on the upper classes, or (as seen in movies) the people who were ahead of their time/prematurely endowed with 21st century opinions. I want to see the reality of the past portrayed at least semi-accurately, and not have an “enlightened” (i.e. 21st century) character sail in and rescue those poor, quaint, ignorant people of the past, like some deus ex machina.

      What I find amazing is what actually *was* accomplished, under much less favorable conditions than exist today. That speaks of much more personal drama, more individual character development, more strategic planning and work, which would make a more interesting movie in my opinion, although it wouldn’t allow for as many explosions and as much swashbuckling, I guess. All of those queen-mothers who did the real ruling, down to the working-class women who ran the farm or business, and kept the family from starving — or even improved their financial situation — while the men were away, or when the husband/father died. Their stories turn up all the time in the primary sources.

      As an unmarried woman myself, I would also like to see stories that feature women who have power (not just brute force or violence) and wield influence *without* any love interest (with any gender of person) or marriage in the middle of it. I’m also tired of seeing female characters “sexed up” in order to make them more interesting. They and their stories are already interesting!

      Reply
      • Susan Pola

        You hit the nail on the head.
        A 21st century liberated woman in the medieval, renaissance, baroque periods would either be a) tried as a witch, b) put in an asylum for the insane, c) fined for flaunting sumptuary laws, behaving inappropriately, d) treated as a ‘loose woman’ etc.
        I remember reading a mystery series by – I believe- Candace Rabb, the first being The Apothecary Rose. The female protagonist was a widow wh inherited and ran her husband’s apothecary shop in York during Edward III’s reign. It was well written.

        Reply
  14. Charity

    I’ve seen the first episode of “The White Princess,” and it was every bit as bad as I anticipated. The screen writer knows nothing about actual sexual consent (she asserts that the rape scene isn’t one; well, when a woman who has no choice BUT consent, chooses to consent just so she isn’t violently assaulted, she’s really not consenting, now is she? she’s just consenting not to be HELD DOWN for the inevitable rape) and… while it IS nice to see women foremost and center in the narrative, it’s pretty damn not-feminist to have them all backbiting each other like a bunch of squawking hens.

    ANYWAY…

    If you like “feminism plus how they really lived” — check out the new “Anne” on Netflix May 12th. There’s a totally female-driven story (Anne Shirley, but for a modern audience) whose writer decided to explore it from a historical perspective, so she gets into the nitty gritty of how these people lived — what Marilla goes through, as an “old maid” in a society that values men; how people treat a redheaded orphan girl, etc. I’m actually PROUD of what they’ve done with it. THAT is how you do “feminism” in a historical film.

    I don’t mind feminists even though they are anachronistic to the period, provided the audience is aware of it. I enjoy “The Last of the Mohicans” despite her sass, but I also appreciate that Charlotte in “The Patriot” is more “feminist WITHIN the period.”

    Reply
  15. Abby

    Deborah Sampson, disguised herself as a man to fight during the American Revolutionary War.

    Reply
  16. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Molly Pritcher!!!! Her husband get killed and she takes up his position as the loader and swabber of the cannon. She loses an arm and then fights congress for the pension that she owed.

    Reply
  17. Susan Pola

    Abigail Adams wrote letters to her husband, John. Several have a ‘feminist’ bent. I would love a miniseries a la John Adams that stressed Abigail’s side. She ran the farm, cared for the children all while John was in Philadelphia.

    Reply
  18. janette

    Option number 3 YES Yes Yes. Exactly. I have been saying essentially the same. Women did find agency within the confines of their lives. We still are confined by society, finances, location, our own capabilities. ie I couldn’t aim at science or engineering because I don’t have the maths skills so I resigned myself to studying what I loved, (literature, history, film) knowing that it did not lead to a profitable career. WE all have “agency”. Our agency determines how we manage within the confines. Few do break free of those confines and deserve to have stories written about them, but those that don’t are equally as interesting.
    Men too were confined by parental expectations and social position. It is how we as humans operate within those confines that is interesting and all too often it is assumed that because women were mostly overlooked by historians that they were non existent. They weren’t. They were active, thinking, suffering, and achieving things. To overlook those achievements which is what option 2 does, is to say that because women lived different lives to men they were irrelevant and can only be made relevant by modern rewriting of history and invention.
    (another common trope that annoys me is the oft repeated view that only single women can achieve things or maintain “agency”. When women marry they relinquish all capability of independent thought or action. I find that deeply insulting and sexist and historically wrong. Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Elisabeth Gaskell all wrote their most famous novels while married/in relationships.)

    Reply
    • Kendra

      “to say that because women lived different lives to men they were irrelevant and can only be made relevant by modern rewriting of history and invention” — ALL THE FIST BUMPS!!!!

      Reply
  19. Melinda

    In Hungary there was a revolutionary woman, Lebstück Mária, who served during the 1848-’49 revolution as a man, she was promoted lootenant and other formal honours of that time, but during a victory ball appeared in female clothing with her fiancé, the leader of the hungairan army charged her with betrayal and spying, but her fellow officers saved her reputation and from death. She continued to serve successfully thru enormous difficulties, once she got trapped in a swamp, 3 imperial soldier attacked her but she managed to shoot 2 and the 3. ran away :D Other time her company had deserted and only her steadiness saved the day… During a battle by herself saved 86 wounded soldiers! Got married at the battlefield, both her and her new hubby wounded in action, lived in captivity after the fall of the revolution and gave birth in prision :( She got expelled from Hungary, returned to her native croatian village, where she had faced enormous hatered (even her own brother wanted to throw her and her child out of the window!) At last Jellasics offered protection for her. Her first marriage got annulled, married again to find safety and a home. After the death of her second child, all depressed moves back to Buda in Hungary, for a living teaches French language, but her first hubby patronized and helped her and his kids’ living in every way he could (he was sentenced to life-timer after the revolution, but in ’67 gained freedom with several others, and became a successful businessman, he got married again too, so no chances were for the two to live together ever again). She only wore female clothing at home, in public always appeared in her uniform. Once her brother came to visit, and asked her to deny her past, she got so angry her brother’s life was only saved by the low ceiling lumber, her sword got stuck in :D She died in huge respect after all in 1892. Even an operett was composed inspired by her life!

    Reply
  20. Clara

    And the thing with the actresses in Shakespeare’s time… I know that crossdressing is too tempting to use in a story that has to do with Shakespeare. But what could have been incredibly interesting was to make the love interest not a noblewoman-turned-actor, but take any of the women that worked in the theatres and make her the LI.

    Because there were women in theatres. Not as actors since acting more or less followed the guild system of masters and apprentices, but in places like the costuming departments and selling the tickets. And what is even more interesting, they sometimes worked in the plays themselves as the 16th C equivalent of film extras (learnt all this in a course with the Shakespeare Birthday Trust). Of course, no chance for the ladies for reaching to better roles until our boy Charles II decided they could and should.

    (A really funny thing is that English travellers to Spain and Italy, where the lady characters were performed by women, were really impressed by the fact that women could perform the roles of women so well in stage!)

    But you know who I would love to see as a love interest if we ever get another movie about Shakespeare, or as a main character in a movie herself? His own freaking wife, aka Anne Hathaway Shakespeare. Yes she did not get involved in the theatre world and people think that makes her boring, and that she the woman who tricked Shakespeare into a marriage which he ran away from. But for starters, she actually was financially independent (but absolutely, her parents had died and she had no tutor, she was her own woman) during their time of “courtship” whereas Shakespeare’s family was financially strained due to some shady business his father had while Mayor of Stratford. Aside from the children she had with William she helped raise his youngest brother and even if Shakespeare himself had his extra marital stuff, he always returned to her. And lbh he bought her the fanciest house in Stratford as a way to apologising for not being there when their son died, and renewed the wedding rings (at least his) as a way of showing her he loved her. And if his family life was such hell as people liked to depict, he would not have retired to live his 3-4 last years in Stratford. And the famed “second best bed” of his will was the bed where they both slept, which, aside from the sentimental value, would have provided if she had problems and had to sell it (lbh I’m pretty sure there were already people wanting merchandise by that time)

    (Just saying that Anne had to have something to keep him, at least interested, for that long)

    Plus, at least one of the sonnets (Number 145, probably composed in his youth/during the courtship) is actually dedicated to her (which makes some people, among them moi, that there might be more, and also that she is -at least partially the inspiration behind a lot of his characters). In it he says that she saved his life. (Awwww William!)

    And another anecdote: After the death of Shakespeare, a troupe wanted to perform his plays in Stratford, but Anne paid them to not do it (after all she was still grieving him and seeing his work, and probably seeing parts of her in it, would not have hurt like hell). But still, she gave permission, alongside their daughter Susanna (Shakespeare’s heir and a lovely badass in her own right) for Hemminges and Condell to publish the first folio. (Thank you Anne, thank you too Susie), and more than probably also helped in the design of his bust for the Trinity Church. And they are buried next to each other in the same church (so much for a couple that everybody thinks was supposed to hate each other’s guts)

    Sorry for the long paragraphs it’s just that I love Anne and William Shakespeare (and their whole family) very much and I am terribly tired of seeing their marriage depicted as loveless (or avoided altogether),when a lot of evidence points to the contrary. (Not a field of roses, yep, -and much of it is to blame upon William himself- but not a field of mines either)

    But yes, give me my movie about the Shakespeares (Or book, which I happen to be researching for. After all, if no one writes it for me, I will have to do it)

    Reply
      • Clara

        One good place to start is the book “The Shakespeare Circle” which gives you information not only on Anne but all the people that surrounded Shakespeare, and it’s pretty brilliant.
        Then again a lot of what I know it is from searching in the many bios I have of Shakespeare himself and even more of it thanks to a friend who is an absolute expert in the Shakespeares, specially about Anne, who helped me gain a new appreciation of that awesome woman (again if SHAKESPEARE married her, she had to have something special)
        Btw, forgot to mention, but it is pretty likely that Anne and William knew each other since they were children because their fathers had businesses together.

        Reply
  21. ladylavinia1932

    I’m a little confused about this article and the response. I’m getting mixed messages here.

    And the thing with the actresses in Shakespeare’s time… I know that crossdressing is too tempting to use in a story that has to do with Shakespeare. But what could have been incredibly interesting was to make the love interest not a noblewoman-turned-actor, but take any of the women that worked in the theatres and make her the LI.

    I think that what many people fail to remember is that if you want historical accuracy, watch a documentary or read a history book. Also you need to hope and pray that those sources of material have their facts straight. Sometimes, they don’t.

    Reply
    • Clara

      My apologies though, I tend to get quite passionate when I talk about these things (These things being my fave eras, specially Shakespeare and his time), and sometimes I either get confusing or forget that my level of nerddom sometimes is excessive. (Also part of this can be because English is not my first language, but I do try with it)

      But I do get your point, as someone who writes semi-professionally for these things (these things being theatre, tv and movies- currently trying to get a historical tv series noticed by a production company and in the research stages for a spec script, you guessed it, of historical theme), I understand that people generally do not tune in to be given a lesson in History. They tune in to be entertained by the characters and the plots and all that.

      Still, I think that when tackling an historical era, and moreso when you tackle a character of said era, you need to be very thorough with research. Specially nowadays when you have a plethora of sources at the tips of your fingers which you can compare to find the most fair portrayal to the figure you want to write about (or the one that suits your needs the most). Obviously again, we are not making a documentary here, as we both have pointed out.

      (But still, as silly as it might sound, a lot of people still take what they see in television or movies as gospel truth. So if they are not going to open a book, they might as well get their facts as right as possible.)

      The matter with making a successful historical drama/movie/etc etc etc is being able to balance both entertainment and knowledge in the most fair measure possible.

      (Also I apologise if I went confusing again. But I do try not to)

      Reply
    • Clara

      Oh wait, now I understand

      I meant that crossdressing is tempting to use in a story that involves Shakespeare because in a certain way it is a reference (in Shakespeare in Love) to the plays of his that use the crossdressing of the characters as a plot point of sorts, and a way of putting the lady character in an element that is exclusively masculine (the theatres in 16thC England)

      But, as I pointed out, it wasn’t that exclusively masculine. Granted, the ladies did not have the top places as actors, but they were there.

      (Hope this helps, btw!)

      Reply
  22. Kelly

    I’ve been watching Harlots, and so far, I don’t think it’s broken the reverse Bechdel test once (two named male characters talking about something other than a woman) except maybe when the creepy judge threatens to blackmail the clerk.

    Reply
  23. Karen K.

    BEST POST EVER. I’m watching Versailles right now and the female doctor is SO ANNOYING. She’d probably be burned at the stake. I get that they want to be all modern and have “strong women” but sadly, I’m pretty sure all the strong women at Louis XIV’s court had to be sly backstabbers or use their femininity to get what they want. I’m not thrilled about it, but there it is. (I hope I’m wrong, actually, and would love to hear of examples if I am.)

    Seriously, I’m more impressed with his wife Marie-Therese who uses what power she has as his wife to influence Louis. (I haven’t finished watching yet so I’m still hopeful about the other women.) Kate Winslet’s character as a female garden designer was just silly.

    Reply
    • Clara

      The thing is that there was at least one woman who managed to make a name for herself in Louis XIV’s court by her craft as a writer and who AFAIK both “Versailles” and “A Little Chaos” omitted. I’m talking about Madame de La Fayette (not sure if she’s related to America’s favourite fighting Frenchman and if she is, in which way), author among others, of “The Princess of Montpensier” and “The Princess of Cleves”, who was the protege (sp?) and friend of Henrietta Anne of England and wrote her biography. She was quite applauded for her talent by her contemporaries if memory serves well.
      (And lbh a movie or a series with her as a protagonist would be amazing)

      Reply
  24. Caroline

    Great article! Love it.

    My main issue with “The White Princess” is that they have egregiously manipulated the historical record to further what they consider to be, a feminist agenda. In reality, Princess Elizabeth actually liked her husband, was very devoted to her children, and pretty much stayed out of politics. All this hoopla about her secretly trying to undermine her husband’s monarchy is pure bollocks. But then again, Phillipa Gregory is not known for her historical accuracy. But that’s a rant for another day.

    I do wish more movies were made about actual historical females. There are ones out there that broke the mold and/or were involved in some pretty salacious goings-on. “The Scandalous Lady W” aka Lady Seymour Worsley (man, her parents hated her!) was based on a highly scandalous criminal conversation trial in the 18th century. What was going on in that household blows our jaded 21st century minds! I’m glad that they made the movie, though I was not a fan of how it was filmed.

    As for women serving in the military as men, in the Revolutionary War, there were precious few that did. But as a reenactor of the period, I know that history has largely obscured the female role in the war. For instance, many women were on the pay roll as nurses and laundresses, and were expected to do their fair share of the work. Can you imagine following a regiment around in some chaotic times? I think movie producers have forgotten that “truth is stranger than fiction”!

    Reply
  25. Anja

    Miss Friman’s War (Fröken Frimans krig) is a Swedish tv-series. It is a clever, well-written and exiting story about a group of women from various parts of the Stockholm class community in the early 1900s. And together they start a food cooperative by women for women. The main theme is women’s liberation movement, but the show also brings up class issues, relationships, the food industry and it’s lacking health regulations.

    Reply
  26. authorjessicacale

    I think the misconception that feminism has no place in history comes in large part from the assumption that all women lived remarkably similar and mundane lives. That’s just not the case. As you point out, women don’t have to work in men’s roles to be “feminist” or have personal agency. I write books set in the 17th century and it’s generally assumed that women didn’t work in this period outside of domestic service or prostitution, but that doesn’t give an accurate picture. Women worked — in Britain, women had been responsible for brewing most of the country’s ale since the middle ages. They could own property and businesses under certain circumstances, and most women who were not wealthy by birth brought in income through odd jobs for their neighbors — seasonal work, mending, baking, selling homemade cosmetics and remedies, etc. Birth control even existed, although it was unreliable. They are well-represented in the prison records as well — of all those hanged at Tyburn for murder and theft, more than a few were women.

    They were industrious, absolutely, and you’re always going to find your outliers — Mary Read was mentioned above, and you also have spy/novelist Aphra Behn who I think would would be a feminist by anybody’s standards. There was Dr. (Miranda) James Barry who lived as a man to practice medicine, Victoria Woodhull who ran for president before women could vote, Caroline Norton who’s education and campaigning resulted in three separate laws for the rights of married women (particularly in regards to the custody of children), and hundreds of others who lived lives of their own choosing, whether that meant going into a “masculine” profession, dressing as a man, or loving other women. Look at Caroline, Countess Harrington: when society rejected her for being too “scandalous”, she formed her own kind of anti-society of notorious badly-behaved women and they held regular meetings in a brothel!

    The “feminism didn’t exist” argument does not hold water — no, it wasn’t called that, but there have always been women who did not accept the narrative handed to them. They absolutely existed and I would argue that the well-behaved, meek woman appearing in so many guides to good behavior (not written because women behaved, but because they didn’t) was more of an anomaly than the autonomous survivor history forced these women to become. The discussion shouldn’t be whether or not history can be feminist, but what history was actually like for women. You touch on this on point three, but we can take it further — once we let go of our assumptions about a buttoned-up nostalgic past that didn’t exist, we can do some digging and get to the interesting people who actually lived it.

    Reply
  27. ejcorbett2013

    Great post! I aim for the last option in my fiction. Great to see it expressed so well. :-)

    Reply
  28. Mina

    Love the article!!
    This got me thinking.. The problem I personally have with most depictions of women disguised as soldiers etc is not that they are depicted in movies because we do know that some of them did really exist. But I hate that often they aren’t really looking like believable men but like women dressed in mens clothes.. I mean, what the heck? This isn’t historically accurate and it completely undermines the actual sense of the disguise – these women dressed (and lived) as men to survive and to be save from men’s unwanted attentions. As a queer woman I also often get the feeling that some filmmakers are afraid to “go the whole way”. They want women in male professions etc in their historical movies but they don’t want to get too deep into gender and lgbt issues. That is quite frustrating!

    Reply
    • velvetpanic

      I agree–from my reading about the women who fought as men during the Civil War, these women did a lot to keep from looking female and some did get caught out by little gestures like putting on a sock or wringing out a cloth. The women studied the men around them in order to behave like them–wearing their coat collars up high around their necks in order to hide the lack of Adam’s apple–or disguised as very young men like drummers. None of them wanted to be sent home. It helped that men weren’t used to seeing women in pants in general, or with short hair or shooting and killing alongside them. I’ve read that about a dozen women were at each major battle on both sides.

      Reply
      • authorjessicacale

        That is an excellent point! You’re right, even when women cross dress in movies, filmmakers still try to make them “pretty”. Have you seen Hell on Wheels? I thought they did a better job with Mei’s character in the last season. Not too obviously feminine at all.

        Reply
        • Mina

          Yes! I watched it and can agree with you. Two other great examples are (IMHO) Morgan in Strange Empire and Mark aka Mary Read in Black Sails (although she was only on screen for like 10 seconds). But this is what I would like to see and not a women wearing pants and make-up and her long hair messily stuffed under her hat, while all the man strangely don´t notice what´s going on!

          Reply
  29. Marie McGowan Irving

    YES YES ALL OF THIS and I would add, there is a lot of documentary evidence for working class women, who always worked, and for women of colour, in things like political movements, that’s just ignored so we can have a conventionally attractive, invariably white actress who is a stranger to hairpins flouncing about like she was dropped in from the 1970s.

    I could also do without ever having to watch anything that’s not from the later half of the 20th Century that mentions ‘Battle of the Sexes’.

    The trope that really bugs me the most, I think, is ‘History happens in castles’

    Reply
  30. Helen Hollick

    Can I add a British 2p worth to the discussion? I totally agree with the topic, and it is a shame that history about women in film and novels isn’t depicted more truthfully. But there’s a few big buts… unlike most ‘ordinary’ women most actresses are pretty (if not beautiful) hence they get the parts – hence we usually get lovely-looking actresses playing the parts of women pretending to be men, but my main but is…. would the majority of audiences actually want to watch movie after movie, drama after drama, novel after novel about the reality of the past for women? Yes WE would because we enjoy history, but (I hate to say this) we are somewhat of a minority. Most TV/Movie/Book audiences want action, thrills, mystery, sex, horror, fantasy – in fact everything that isn’t real in order to escape reality! Reality, accuracy etc is for documentary. The reason why there are very few movies / novels portraying women as they ought to be portrayed is because movie makers and book publishers won’t commission them because they probably won’t make money. Look at the few accurate historical movies (are there any?) Look at the number of publishers who only want the Tudor period and female-fiesty-character led novels? Movie makers and publishers are not in the business to portray history accurately, they are in it to make money, which means a sexy hero and a fiesty woman (in or out of (often literally!) male togs!)

    Then there’s another ‘but’: the word fiction is the giveaway, it isn’t real its made-up entertainment, and sorry ladies & gents but I rather like reading (and writing) made-up entertainment. It’s fun, its enjoyable.

    I do think we could have a few more historically-accurate docu-dramas about women though. And maybe some well written novels? There is, after all, plenty of room for it all!

    Incidentally, there were a lot of women disguised as male sailors in the 17-18th century. Some were discovered, many were not. As evidence there are a LOT of sea shanties about women disguised as men aboard ships.

    So, just a few thoughts to add to the pot :-)

    Reply

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