Desperately Seeking Films About Real Women

The Cannes Film Festival is known for fashion, parties, and film, usually in that order. But this year–the first edition of the festival in the #TimesUp era–something more happened. To no one’s surprise, women made some strong statements, including jury president Cate Blanchett’s brief but direct call for gender parity, equal pay, diversity, and safe working environments in a speech made on the steps of the Palais des Festivals.   

Remarks like Blanchett’s are necessary and important, but it remains to be seen whether they lead to any lasting change in the film industry. In the meantime, some actors are making change themselves. Jessica Chastain is one. As noted on LaineyGossip, Chastain is “…not waiting for people to bring her starring vehicles, she’s making her own starring vehicle and bringing a diverse group of talented women with her.” Her film, 355, is about a group of female spies. Like the upcoming Ocean’s 8, it includes a diverse, all-female cast. Chastain brought it to Cannes in search of funding. I imagine she’ll succeed, given her star power and studios’ desire to appear proactive in (finally) addressing the lack of female-led films.

It’s undeniably cool to see women carve out their own space in the action/adventure genre as they take on the spy and thief roles traditionally performed by men. While female protagonists are far from the majority in this genre, progress is being made with high-profile, female-led films generating buzz and critical acclaim. But there is another category of films where things look less promising: biographies. Just ask Diane Kruger, another actor seeking to make a film with a female subject. Unlike Chastain’s spy fiction, Kruger wants to focus on a real woman: actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr. In an interview at Cannes with The Hollywood Reporter, she said every studio she approached in the four years she had the project told her: “‘We don’t want to make a female biopic. Who wants to see that?’”

Kruger also noted that the success of 2016’s Hidden Figures has given “momentum” to her project and created an appetite for stories about real women. Although she has secured a deal for a TV series about Lamarr, I fear Kruger’s optimism may be misplaced. Film development takes time, but Hidden Figures was two years ago. Surely some change should be seen by now, even among projects in development, but I saw little evidence of it in my research. Recent news pertaining to biopics being released this year or securing deals for future development showed a very lopsided state of affairs. Among the offerings were 36 films featuring men and only 9 about women. (See the list at the end of this post.)

This is not to dismiss the stories of the men profiled in these films. For the most part, their stories deserve to be told.* But so do those of women.

Consider one example from a book I just read. The Woman Who Mapped Labrador recounts Mina Benson Hubbard’s trip through an uncharted area of Labrador in 1905.** The closest parallel on film in recent years might be The Revenant, a wilderness adventure of sorts that is more fiction than fact, despite being sold as a true story. As I read about Mina, I kept asking the question: “If The Revenant  was made, with all of its exaggerations and embellishments, why not a movie about Mina Hubbard?” There is no need for Hollywood enhancements; Mina’s story has it all, just as it is:

  • A compelling protagonist. Benson Hubbard grew up on a farm in rural Ontario in the late 19th-century. She worked as a teacher and nurse and would later go on to become an adventurer, amateur cartographer, author, renowned public speaker, and suffragette. (Hubbard, p. 62)
  • Romance. She fell in love with her future husband, Leonidas Hubbard, while caring for him at the S. R. Smith Infirmary on Staten Island. He was a journalist and adventurer who had dreams of exploring the area of Labrador where Mina would later travel. The two eloped and spent their honeymoon on a camping trip in the southern U.S.
  • Tragedy. Leonidas Hubbard and his friend Dillon Wallace would go to Labrador, but Hubbard died there in 1902, before completing his journey.
  • Conflict. Mina agreed to pay Wallace to write a story of the expedition. Reading the manuscript, she felt it demeaned her late husband. She demanded Wallace rewrite it, but he refused. From this point on, she sought to discredit him. Some months after learning that Wallace intended to return to Labrador to finish what he and Hubbard had started, she decided to complete the journey herself “in her husband’s honour.” She and Wallace would set out at about the same time, but she would finish first. Along the way, she would also create a “surprisingly accurate” map of the area. (Hubbard, 44, 95)
  • Adventure. Mina undertook the Labrador journey in 1905, accompanied by four native men, chosen for their “experience in the bush and their skill in a canoe.” It was an unorthodox trip for a woman, especially given the prevailing stereotypes of native men as “savage [and] prone to uncontrolled acts of sex and violence”–a myth born of the racism of that era. Mina went anyway and developed an enduring friendship with one of her native guides. (Hubbard, 10, 21)
  • Accomplishment. Mina Benson Hubbard completed the journey her husband had laid out, in a far shorter time than Wallace. Despite having no training in cartography, she managed to use a sextant and artificial horizon to map the previously unmapped area. Her map would serve as the basis for official maps of the area until the advent of aerial photography in 1930.
  • Scandal. Mina’s story does not end with her Labrador trip. She got married again, to a wealthy Englishman with whom she had three children. He later left her for another woman. His Quaker family considered his actions a “disgrace.” (Hubbard, 389) The disgrace would linger as Mina did not go quietly. She fought for years for a fair divorce settlement.
  • Activism & Celebrities. Mina joined various suffragist organizations and was remembered by her children as independent–a “feminist of a kind that was very tiresome to a lot of people”–and a pacifist, socialist, anti-imperialist with “Russian sympathies.” (p. 384, 392) Always seeking intelligent conversation, she used her home as a social centre, hosting gatherings for guests like Emmeline Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells. (Hubbard, 384, 392)
  • Family Drama. Mina was considered “difficult” and had strained relations with her in-laws. She even had “bitter rifts” with her two oldest children. (Hubbard, 404)
  • Shocking Death. Mina was killed by a train at the age of 86 while taking a shortcut on one of her daily walks. (Hubbard, 432)

I would pay to see a movie about Mina Benson Hubbard. I bet a lot of others would too. And it’s not just Mina–I highlighted her story only because I just finished reading it. There are countless women whose life stories are equally engaging, enlightening, and entertaining. So why don’t we hear more about them? Why so few films about real women?

The short answer? Men control the industry. The people in the Times Up movement are seeking more parity, and until they have it, Hollywood will continue to abide by the stubbornly held notion that men and their stories matter more.

This belief is why we see progress in some areas–like action/adventure–but not in biographical films. Fiction is less threatening to the status quo. Portrayals of women as outlaws and secret agents–or superheroes (Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel), assassins (Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow), or vengeful vigilantes (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)–can easily be written off as unrealistic and imaginary, or pandering to capitalize on the “trend” of female empowerment.

Real stories cannot be dismissed. Real stories tell us exactly what women have done and can do. They show women overcoming obstacles, being strong and fearless, intelligent and resourceful, heroic or villainous –or all of the above. They prove that women are complex beings capable of great things, whether it be working on “frequency hopping” to guide underwater missiles, like Hedy Lamarr, or exploring and mapping uncharted wilderness, like Mina Benson Hubbard. And, perhaps most importantly, they help counter the stereotypes and prejudices that have held women back in the film industry and elsewhere for far too long.

Time’s up on waiting for these stories to be told. Get on it Hollywood.


*I say “for the most part” because I have a hard time with films about Bundy and Weinstein. They have certainly gotten enough press. Even Capone and Gotti are questionable since both have had films made about them before. Maybe studios should try a few stories about women before they rehash guys who have been filmed before.

**Hubbard, Mina. The Woman Who Mapped Labrador: The Life and Expedition Diary of Mina Hubbard. Diary introduced and edited by Roberta Buchanan and Bryan Greene; biography by Anne Hart. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, Montreal & Kingston.


Upcoming Biopics

This list is not necessarily comprehensive but does give an idea of the discrepancy between male and female biopics. Sources include Google News headlines from April 15-May 18, 2018 and MovieWeb. Some of these movies have just been announced, and some are in development and scheduled for release in 2018 and 2019.

Women

Mary Shelley

Lucille Ball (the film is called Lucy and Desi, in reference to her husband)

Whitney Houston (documentary)

Judy Garland

Chelsea Manning

Zelda Fitzgerald

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Lolita “Roxanne Shante” Gooden

Hedy Lamarr (a TV series, not a film)

Men

Ronald Reagan

Dick Cheney

Colin Powell

Leonardo Da Vinci

Enzo Ferrari

Lamborghini

Andre the Giant

Vince McMahon

Evel Knievel

Rudolf Nureyev

George Frideric Handel (a comedic profile)

Charlie Chaplin

Ulysses S. Grant

Freddie Mercury

Van Gogh

Diego Maradona

Gary Hart

Leonard Bernstein

Michael Jordan

Salvador Dali

Mister Rogers

John Gotti

Jim Thorpe

Elton John

Robert Mapplethorpe

Bass Reeves

Shia LaBoeuf

Alexander McQueen

Al Capone

Neil Armstrong  

Harvey Weinstein (documentary)

Motley Crue

Ted Bundy

Paul Walker (documentary)

John McAfee

Kimbo Slice

 

 

 

 

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