To the surprise of no one except the upper-middle class white guys aged 25-35 who thought that The Social Network was speaking directly to them, The King’s Speech walked away with the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night. This was clearly a win for England, a win for classic filmmaking and, of course, a win for the always dapper Colin Firth. But was it a win for women?
So, the movie about the British super-rich middle-aged white guy beat the one about the American super-rich young white guy. Big deal, right? On the feminist scale, The King’s Speech is obviously not as woman-positive as The Kids Are All Right or Winter’s Bone, which are both driven by female protagonists (not to mention female directors), but I would argue that it’s better for gender stereotypes than say, Inception, or certainly The Social Network. Because while The King’s Speech doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel Test (I think the Queen Mum and Lionel’s wife share a few words but I wouldn’t count it as a “conversation”) and there weren’t a whole lot of women on stage when the cast and crew went up to accept the Best Picture award, the film offers a look at masculinity that is fairly complex for a mainstream film.
Stay with me here: Firth portrays George VI with a combination of stiff-upper-lip manliness and rare vulnerability. He respects his wife and adores his daughters. While he is initially reluctant, he is willing to admit that he felt unloved as a child and that his early experiences have resulted in long-term scars. He openly cries in front of his wife. When was the last time you saw a man in a mainstream film cry over his own insecurity and anxiety rather than some kind of dramatic tragedy or death (and even then, it’s rare)? This may be a stretch, but I see this as a breakdown of traditional cinematic gender stereotypes.
This really comes home with the king’s relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. The two men at first share a doctor and patient relationship but eventually become close, loving friends. I think of other male friendships in movies like The Town or The Social Network and they seem more like tenacious brotherhoods, filled with rivalries that are left to fester. Lionel and Bertie, as he calls the king, have real intimacy and truly come to trust each other. I don’t know how often I’ve seen that with men in the movies.
So how is this good for women? Well, if powerful men are given the chance to break down the stereotypes and be real on film (and honestly, I think the cinematic King George, with all of this regality, is more representative of the men I know well in my life than most of the macho dudes in the more “manly” movies), then it opens the door for female characters to be more “real” as well. If the men don’t have to have all the answers, all the strength, and all the power, then maybe some of that power can be transferred to the female characters. If we break down the definition of what you, I, or the king of England are “supposed” to be, we all win.
Case in point, George’s wife Elizabeth (a.k.a. the Queen Mum), as played by Helena Bonham Carter. We all know that Bonham Carter doesn’t take any shit in real life, and neither does her character in this film. She and her husband are equals, she supports him and helps him find a speech therapist, and she is willing to help him through a monarchy gig that neither of them wanted. She and George are not only equal in their marriage, but they are equal in the impact that they have in the context of the film.
So, Persephoneers, am I out to lunch? Is the only benefit that The King’s Speech offers to women another chance to gaze into Colin Firth’s liquid-y brown eyes (for those of us who are into that kind of thing)? Or is this stuffy period drama really a step in the right direction?
Both photos from The King’s Speech website.