Meghan, good luck with your feminist show but can I offer some tips? | Martha Gill

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Still smarting from its reckoning in 2018, Hollywood’s new politics is starting to seep out in its products. We have had a slew of feminist films and TV series and, in particular, feminism set in the past: The Favourite, The Queen’s Gambit, Little Women, Mary Queen of Scots. Last week, the Duchess of Sussex announced she would be “celebrating extraordinary women throughout history” with her own Netflix series – about the adventures of a 12-year-old girl who meets notable women from before her time.

This is of course all very welcome, yet why do so few of these titles read as feminist? Instead, turning historical events into contemporary liberal parables often seems to result in something rather unsatisfying – even unfeminist. Here are some classic pitfalls for Meghan to watch out for.

Dramas that set out to “celebrate extraordinary women” all tend to fall at the same hurdle. Eager perhaps to champion their protagonist, they can end up with the unintentional thesis that all it really takes to topple the patriarchy is one determined woman who reckons she is the equal of men. (Which rather invites the question: why didn’t any other women think of that?)

In The Queen’s Gambit, the fictional story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, Beth faces sexism at first (she is living in the 1950s after all). But as soon as she has demonstrated her skill, it vanishes. Instead, she is liked and supported by her male compatriots. When she beats an initially hostile and contemptuous male champion at an early competition, he immediately breaks into a respectful smile.Why don’t women succeed in a man’s world? This drama’s answer is that they would if they were good enough.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in Little Women. Photograph: Wilson Webb/Columbia/Sony/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“They were too nice to her,” a far more contemporary female chess champion, Judit Polgár, told the New York Times. Her own success at the game, she recalled, had actually resulted in more hostility from other players. “There were opponents who refused to shake hands,” she told the paper. “There was one who hit his head on the board after he lost.”And this was in the 1990s.

A second, related idea often unwittingly championed is that there is a surefire way to circumvent sexism in a sexist age: simply be less feminine. (How did centuries of womankind miss this trick?) Beth Harmon – confident, unemotional – is not like other girls and is therefore treated with respect (rather than, say, punished for this departure from femininity, as a cursory knowledge of 1950s mores might lead us to think). As if to underscore the point, a group of other women is presented as dating-obsessed simpletons, whom Beth is at pains to avoid.

Little Women’s Jo March is not like other girls either. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film was much lauded for its feminist “alternative” ending, which restored Louisa May Alcott’s original idea that Jo should remain single at the end of the book, and showed how it was rejected by the publisher. Yet even within Gerwig’s interpretation there is some 21st-century wishful thinking. Her Jo is more modern and feisty than Alcott’s and is in effect rewarded for this with two happy endings, one in which she meets and marries a handsome man who supports her work(unlike some of her more submissive sisters, she can have it all), and the other in which she is contentedly single. In the book, published in 1868, Jo’s confidence is battered by a difficult world, she tastes the loneliness of spinsterhood, she meets an unattractive man who criticises her newspaper stories as immoral, and she stops writing them. She then marries him.

One message of Gerwig’s film is then that even in the 19th century, women’s limitations were partly of their own making – after all, with a bit of masculine gumption they could surmount them. But within Alcott there is a yet more radical message – that even the most enterprising woman can be defeated by the social mores of her age.

A third temptation is to make it far too easy for protagonists with ideas before their time. A female character freely espousing 21st-century feminist ideas in, say Enola Holmes’s Victorian England, is presented as “feisty” or even “sexy” – “good” characters are instantly persuaded to cast aside any existing philosophies and “bad” ones respond, at worst, with a species of sexism that is so fuddy-duddy it is almost entirely benign. (But women can’t be detectives! I’ve never heard of such a thing! etc).

You don’t need to go back to Victorian England to find that treatment of outspoken women with feminist ideas is often rather more robust. Take Meghan Fox, who almost a decade before the #MeToo movement expressed the idea that perhaps women like her deserved better treatment on film sets. She was universally trashed – and by many of the men and women who later expressed approval of Time’s Up and #MeToo. The director she had criticised published an open letter on his website (he has since deleted it) from anonymous crew members, calling Fox “dumb as a rock”, a “cringe-able” actor and an “unfriendly bitch’ for whom a career in porn “might be a good option”. Her career, she later said, had been all but destroyed.

These messages from history matter because they operate to make us complacent about our own age, with their implication all roads lead to the present feminist utopia. Films such as Mary Queen of Scots might revel in vintage sexism – with the implication contemporary women should be grateful for what we’ve got – but they unconsciously betray that we haven’t got all that far. Almost every man in it, pantomime fashion, questions whether the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth, are fit to rule (shoudn’t they be interested in having babies and things instead?).

On the surface, we are supposed to see this question as ridiculous, but beneath it, the film agrees. At the film’s denouement, Elizabeth reveals her real reason for opposing Mary. It’s not political. “I was jealous,” she says, in tears. “Your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood. You seem to surpass me in every way.”

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