More Female-Led Biopics, Please
Cathay Williams was born a slave, and joined the US army under the pseudonym William Cathay so she could fight with the Union soldiers in the American Civil War. Freddie Oversteegen killed dozens of Nazi soldiers with her two sisters by luring them into the woods for a promised kiss. Julie d’Aubigny snuck into a convent so she could rescue the woman she had fallen in love with and won many duels with husbands of women she seduced.
You know how I found out about these women? Pinterest.
History is bursting at the seams with stories of women doing amazing, terrible, outrageous things. Let’s get more of their stories on our screens.
One of my favourite shows this year so far has been The Great, the - as the creators themselves put it - ‘occasionally true story’ of Catherine the Great ascending to power in Russia. It was up for several nominations at the Golden Globes, the Emmys, both on and behind the screen, because I don’t think I’ve ever watched a funnier re-telling of historic events, and I don’t care how much of the story was true. The Great gave us a flawed female lead, played wonderfully by Elle Fanning, who we rooted for the whole way through.
Would a show like that have made it onto the television screen twenty, even ten years ago? Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely.
The past few years have seen the start of a shift in whose perspectives we see on the big and small screen. In 2018, we saw Saoirse Ronan star as Mary Queen of Scots and her battle to reclaim her throne after returning to Scotland, and 2019 looked into the deeply engraved misogyny at Fox News in Bombshell through Nicole Kidman and Charleze Theron’s portrayals of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. We’ve now had a television show about Gloria Steinem and this year has given us a look into the lives of Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday.
It’s a gradual shift. History being told on the screen is starting to become more intersectional in the stories we want to hear besides those belonging mainly to men, mainly to white men. More stories about women, more stories about people of ethnic minorities, more stories of real people exploring their identity and sexuality are starting to be told. The playing field is starting to become that little bit more even, but there is still plenty of work to be done before this becomes a reality. ‘Studios should aim to make movies with casts and crews that better reflect society,’ Chris Lindahl states for Indiewire, ‘There’s more work to be done.’
The world has and always will be full of diversity, so why doesn’t this ring true in our media? The only part of women’s history in my curriculum was the Suffragettes, and I went to an all-girls school. Indeed, these parts of history are extremely important to tell, and without films like 2015’s Suffragette, we wouldn’t necessarily be as aware of the struggles people went through, and are still going through, to achieve a world that treats people equally.
As important as those moments in history are, however, much of television and film still treat it like they are the only moments of history that have been dominated by women. These moments in history shouldn’t be treated like a trend that everyone eventually moved on from when women in parts of the world don’t have access to education or even their own passport. Biopics highlight how far we’ve come and how much we still have left to do, but how can they do that if we only see the world from one narrow perspective?
This is not to say that the male-led stories in question are not worth telling. Leonardo DiCaprio had to go up against a bear and Benedict Cumberbatch’s next role is a businessman risking his life to pass on information to MI6 during the Cold War. Men have fought in wars throughout history; men tended to be in positions of leadership, from kings to Facebook founders, to notorious serial killers. It’s not about not telling those tales, it’s about making sure that there is equal representation in the mix, widening the image of who we see as being capable of these roles. You want to make a film about Mark Zuckerberg in his college dorm, also consider Sakiko Yamakawa, the first Japanese woman to go attend college. You want a movie about Ted Bundy, also explore the life of Elisabeth Bathory, a serial killer who’s believed to have been one of Bram Stoker’s inspirations for Dracula.
It shouldn’t take a Pinterest account to find out about wonderful people like Patsy Takemoto, the first Asian-American woman to be in Congress or Franceska Mann, a ballet dancer who distracted a guard on her arrival in Auschwitz before managing to steal his gun and shoot him. So many women that are worthy of a decent screenplay, yet we find out about them on Pinterest. I want to look at furniture for my future house and wedding decorations for when I marry my wife on Pinterest. Pinterest should be a nice little break from the political stuff, but in reality, it provides a better education in feminism than a lot of classrooms.
‘Cinema can bring audiences from different backgrounds together and help them navigate and understand the world around them’ Lindahl writes. At least half of that world identifies as female, and biopics are starting to show that within that half is ‘ethnicity, sexuality and class’. Gentleman Jack received huge amounts of praise and nominations for its telling of the life of Anne Lister and her wife, Ann Walker. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is up for Oscars this year, including a nomination for Viola Davis’ portrayal of Ma Rainey herself. Bridgerton star, Phoebe Dynevor, has been cast in a female-led biopic as ceramic artist Clarice Cliff, one of the most influential contributors to Art Deceau design of her time.
We’re on our way, but we are far from being out of the woods. Though it does show a brilliant depiction of just how brutally women were treated during their fight for the vote, Suffragette received criticism for not including Black and Asian women in the film. The 2015 film The Danish Girl, a fictional love story inspired by real people, received many nominations, but again, was criticised for offering a transgender woman’s role to a cisgender actor. If biopics reflect on how we, as a society have progressed, we need more progression both on and off screen.
If we want to keep moving in the right direction, we need to have people who have a genuine understanding of the struggles many of these figures went through in order for audience members to genuinely see themselves. If a movie about Cathay Williams was put into action, Black women would need involvement behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. A show about Julie D’Aubigny - which I can very much see Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson playing - would need the queer representation looking over scripts and scenes, so a gay relationship isn’t seen off-camera through a straight gaze.
Shows like The Great prove how well female-led biopics can do, and people deserve to know about the women that can’t be found in school textbooks. Films and television helps to widen that lens; we cannot let the plethora of real female role models for future generations to look up to be forgotten.
Cathay Williams suffered smallpox and still fought for as long as she could before her true gender was discovered. As well as assassinating Nazis, one of Freddie Oversteegen’s first assignments in the Dutch resistance was to set fire to one of their warehouses.
And if whoever reads this has Eleanor Tomlinson’s number, please mention Julie D’Aubigny, because she dressed her employer's hair with radishes before quitting her job as a lady’s maid, and I think the world needs to see that on screen. I’d be more than happy to write up a pilot episode.
Words: Amy Knott