I mention this because, apart from the entirely white washed casts, or else casts where people of colour are relegated back to being servants or slaves, these stories also have an impact on how we see women. Under the guise of ‘historical accuracy’ women in these shows often have very few moulds to fit within. These include: the bitch/harridan, usually depicted as thus because firstly she is over 40, and secondly because she has a mind of her own and will not submit to male correction. The good girl, who is kind, sympathetic, always on hand to sort out the problems of the men. She is the moderating influence to the authoritarian male role, but is clearly submissive to him. In The Halcyon, she is doubly under his authority, as both his junior manager and his daughter. The femme fatale, is obviously the embodiment of male sexual desires, with little to recommend her beyond the worth of her physicality. She is partnered with the Lush, an older woman whose worth according to men’s desires has been used up, and now seeks solace in alcohol and ‘embarrassing’ flirtation, with the men who used her up. Finally there is the femme fragile, the delicate creature who the men feel the need to protect at any cost. These are very old stereotypes, better suited to an age when women were relegated to playing old woman after the age of 35, and yet here they are in a 21st century production.
Why does this matter? You ask. Well it matters, because how we see women in film, on TV in books has an impact on how we negotiate our lives in the real world, and in turn how we as writers depict women. Once you corral women into a very narrow set of stereotypes, the possibilities for female action and agency are curtailed. Women thus depicted are forced to relate to each other only as their relation to men allows. Thus, competing for male approval through tearing each other apart becomes their sole function. This way of depicting women, as powerless and reinforcing old prejudices of women as hating other women for the scraps of approval they receive from men, was decried as restrictive in 1929 by Virginia Woolf. She proposes a remarkable notion of women in fiction being friends with no mediating man or rivalry to stand between them. Why is this idea still radical?
So as writers what should we consider when writing women, especially historical women?
- Firstly, that women are people first and women second, by that I mean that as much care should be taken in creating women as is taken in creating men. They must become well rounded characters with their own individuality, not tropes and stereotypes to decorate the story.
- Secondly, behaviour that has been historically ascribed to women, ie catty, bitchy, nagging etc, all have their roots in the economic circumstances of women in the past. Jane Austin magnificently skewers the marriage market she and her contemporaries were subjected to, it wasn’t the men themselves which were the prize, but the economic security they provided. Were this not the case, Charlotte Lucas would never have married Mr Collins, nor would he have been seen as an eligible bachelor. It is very important to remember the economic insecurity of women in even the recent past. When independent bank accounts, loans and the basic economic security of a liveable wage are denied to a person, that person, regardless of sex will be scared, angry and frustrated. Always remember and take into account the social and economic context of the characters you are creating.
- Finally, it is important to think about why you are telling a story from the past. Are you trying to speak to today, and using a story of the past to illustrate a point about our contemporary world? Or are you writing from a nostalgic place, imagining the world was better once and that we have lost our way? I believe that this post has made clear which side of the divide I work from, so I will leave you to ponder where your work sits and to interrogate your motives. Such work is essential for a writer. For writing does not descend from the heavens in the form of the muse, but comes to us from within ourselves, our experiences, our attitudes and the attitudes of the societies we live in. You are not a passive receptacle, but a dynamic agent when it comes to writing, and you are accountable for the work that you put into the world.