But Is The King’s Speech Good For Women?

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.

Helena Bonham Carter embraces Colin Firth
The Queen and Her King

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.

By Sissy Larue

30-something, mother-of-two, former rock 'n' roll reporter, currently into retro house-wifey things, bad TV and any movie that I can sneak out of the house to watch.

7 replies on “But Is The King’s Speech Good For Women?”

I disagree. Every single female character in that movie (and there were really only two or three worth noting) only existed in relation to a man. Of course, the same thing could be said for The Social Network, but it does mean in my mind this is hardly a step forward. We get to see a man cry? Good. But the overall message of this movie was very stiff-upper lip. Plus I feel like the message only works if you believe that there’s some kind of dignity or honor in being royal.

Perhaps I’m the only one who noticed this, but it also seemed like there was a bit of the old madonna/whore complex in how the film contrasted Elizabeth with Wallis Simpson. And something else not entirely feminist in how it contrasted Elizabeth and Queen Mary. Sure, Mary was a cold person and not a great mother, but in real life she was perfectly willing to go to bat for her son and help him when he needed her.

I’m not saying it was a bad movie; it was wonderful and one of the best films I’ve seen in years. But we can’t act like it’s feminist or modern when it’s just the same thing Hollywood always churns out. I would love to see a period drama on the royals that was more innovative and better written. When will the Mad Men crew take on the House of Windsor?

“Well, if powerful men are given the chance to break down the stereotypes and be real on film…then it opens the door for female characters to be more “real” as well”

If this is the main argument that you’re making, then, well, I’d say you’re out to lunch. First of all, sure, we’ve seen lots of silly movies with 2-dimensional men but canonical literature and many famous films have ALWAYS been about the complexities of the male character and/or male relationships (solidarity, rivalry, among others). We can all probably rattle off a dozen famous films and novels off the top of our heads that feature multifaceted and vulnerable male characters. Flawed men are such a mainstay in any cultural product simply because we project universal human-ness onto the man and use him to explore issues that presumably all of us deal with.

This standard has never AUTOMATICALLY enabled women to be featured more complexly though. Thats why that damn Rabbit keeps running his stupid male drama into our college reading syllabi (and that’s why I have always hated his guts). Hemingway, Fitzgerald all featured vulnerable men and their insane, harpie females.

Perhaps what moved me and seemed like a break-down of stereotypes was the fact that the men are middle-aged. Yeah, there are a million indie movies about younger dudes being vulnerable, and of course lots of war/gang/boarding school movies about male solidarity, but something seemed different about this one. But you’re right, this doesn’t naturally translate to better depictions of women.

Though, when I mentioned the middle-aged aspect to a friend he retorted “yeah, it’s called a mid-life crisis.” So perhaps I am out to lunch, but I still think it’s an interesting discussion to have.

I think you’re absolutely right that men have always been portrayed as complex and complicated characters, but I disagree that this extends to vulnerability. As Sissy pointed out, we rarely see men break down on screen because of anxiety or lack of self-confidence – but rather because their wife and kids were just killed to set up a totally awesome, bro-tastic revenge narrative, or something equally inane. Masculinity and Femininity can both be destructive stereotypes that people try to fit inside of, and I would applaud any movie which attempts to break them down.

I subscribe to many stuttering listserves, and from what I’ve read, this movie has encouraged many people–including many women–to reach out to other people who stutter. There was amazing camaraderie on Oscar night as people celebrated a positive portrayal of stuttering. “We have a voice” was one of the mantras. The film might not pass the Bechdel test, but I think providing some inspiration for people with disfluency is one hell of a benefit for everyone.

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