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Abstract This article focuses on the representation of female authors’ lives in English-language literary biopics and how these representations relate to feminist contexts. Departing from previous research on biopics focusing on women (particularly women writers), this article identifies four categories of such films: the patriarchal literary biopic, in which the representation of an author’s life is related to patriarchal values, the second-wave feminist literary biopic, which is related to second-wave feminism, the postfeminist literary biopic, which is related to postfeminism, and finally the #MeToo literary biopic, a new category of films that has recently begun to emerge. By analyzing the films Colette (Wash Westmoreland, 2018) and Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olnek, 2019), this article shows how these films correspond to the #MeToo movement. The #MeToo literary biopic is characterized by (a) excessive attention to difficult publication processes and the disclosure of women’s words, (b) emphasizing the persistent censoring of women’s words, (c) deconstructing the myths surrounding female authors, and (d) underscoring (female) solidarity and empowerment. literary biopics, female authors, feminism, postfeminism, #MeToo INTRODUCTION The recent female biopics Colette (Wash Westmoreland, 2018) and Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olnek, 2019) have been vaguely linked to the #MeToo movement in a few reviews (including those by Beck, Steinberg, and Weisel-Barth). In promoting the film, Colette’s director, Wash Westmoreland (in Colette. Production Notes, 17), linked his film with #MeToo explicitly: ‘I feel like there’s an inspiration in it that’s very much in tune with today’s #MeToo movement. It’s about a woman overcoming oppression and claiming her voice—the parallels are obvious’. Investigating the onscreen representation of female authors’ lives, the current article explores this connection more deeply by explaining the precise elements of Colette and Wild Nights with Emily that can be linked to the #MeToo movement. First, however, we examine the representation of female authors’ lives in English-language literary biopics throughout film history. The literary biopic is a subgenre of the biopic that Elaine Indrusiak and Ana Iris Ramgrab define as ‘biographical films in which lives of writers are told’ (92). Departing from the previous scholarship on biopics about women, we aim to ultimately define four categories of literary biopics about female authors, namely what we call the patriarchal literary biopic, second-wave feminist literary biopic, postfeminist literary biopic, and the most recent #MeToo literary biopic. As these labels indicate, the corresponding categories are each related to a different feminist context. While we acknowledge the shortcomings of such classifications—when used in absolute terms—these categories can be valuable as a tool for analyzing biopics of literary women. Notably, our conceptualization of the final category, the #MeToo literary biopic, diverges from what are generally called #MeToo films, such as Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019), The Assistant (Kitty Green, 2019), and Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020). In our view, the #MeToo literary biopic does not necessarily address sexual harassment, but it is characterized by a focus on #MeToo-related notions, such as ‘getting the word out’, empowerment, and solidarity. In other words, #MeToo literary biopics often relate to the #MeToo movement more subtly, on an underlying level. #MeToo literary biopics are not directly influenced by the #MeToo movement but, rather, shaped by the climate of fourth-wave feminism that also gave birth to the #MeToo movement. (LITERARY) BIOPIC STUDIES AND FEMINIST FILM STUDIES The first monograph in biopic studies was George F. Custen’s Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, a survey of some hundred Hollywood biopics produced during the studio era (1927–60). Custen defined biopics as films ‘minimally composed of the life, or the portion of a life, of a real person whose real name is used’ (6). Although his work has been highly influential, this definition has been problematized since it is rather narrow and, for example, excludes biopics that deliberately circumvent real names. More recent studies, such as those by Bronwyn Polaschek and Dennis Bingham, developed a definition that allows for a wider range of films to be classified as biopics. Building on Raphaëlle Moine’s idea that a biopic is a film that takes the ‘biographical route’, Polaschek points out that a biopic ‘narrates, exhibits, and celebrates the life of a subject in order to explore that person’s cultural significance’ (49). Questions about the biopic genre’s scope remain, however. Deborah Cartmell articulates many of them: Does a biopic have to be focussed on a single person? How do you distinguish a biopic from an historical film? Can a film based on a fictional character concealing a real person . . . be labelled a biopic? Why is it not appropriate to refer to a Shakespeare play adapted to film . . . as a biopic? Why do we not include ‘events’ films . . . as biopics? Is there such a thing as a fictional biopic, . . . a biography of a fictional character? Is it possible to label films biopics that take a novel and turn it into an ‘I film’, a concealed biography of the author? (‘The Hollywood Biopic’, 93–94) After this series of questions, Cartmell constructively suggests that biopics can be understood as ‘adaptations of real people, not bound by constraints of “fidelity” to a source’ (‘The Hollywood Biopic’, 94). In the same line of thought, Claire Perkins writes that biopics, similarly to adaptations, have a ‘necessity of transformation’ (183, see also Haiduc, ‘Books on Biopics’). What, then, are the characteristics of the biopic genre? Márta Minier and Maddalena Pennacchia concisely recapitulate some of Custen’s most important findings on the classic biopic, which usually started in medias res, thus excluding family as a causality principle while focusing instead on the self-madeness of the person of genius. Backed only by a patient and selfless lover as well as by very few selected friends (all ‘mere’ supportive roles), the exceptional individual eventually rose to gigantic stature during a ‘trial screen’ where an on-screen audience . . . awarded the hero/ine the title of ‘the great one’. (3) These characteristics of self-madeness and genius are, however, much less applicable to biopics about women. Custen observes that women’s stories are defined by their gender, rather than talent. In the same vein, Bingham insists that biopics about women follow different conventions than biopics about men. Instead of following the upward male path that Custen describes, for instance, women tend to spiral downward. Bingham even proposes that male and female biopics differ to such an extent that the biopics about men and women should be distinguished as different genres. While Bingham’s binary take on the subject excludes any other gender diversity, it is beyond doubt that there are indeed differences between biopics about men and biopics about women. In his examination of female biopics, Bingham subscribes to a strand of feminist film studies that investigates the possibility of ‘progressive’ or ‘feminist’ films (cf. Polaschek 16, 21). However, this strand’s theoretical approach raises pressing questions, such as those articulated by Anette Kuhn: ‘Is the feminism of a piece of work there because of attributes of its author (cultural interventions by women), because of attributes of the work itself (feminist cultural interventions), or because of the way it is “read”?’ (8). The meaning of a film is hard to define. To solve the problem of polysemic films, Christine Gledhill (121) productively presents an alternative way to look at cultural texts from a feminist perspective. She proposes moving away from evaluating a text’s meaning (in terms of ‘reactionariness’ and ‘progressiveness’) and, instead, analyzing how a cultural context relates to a cultural text. While the aforementioned biopic scholars study biopics that focus on women with miscellaneous occupations, the current article specifically concentrates on female authors. A landmark study on authors in films is The Writer on Film: Screening Literary Authorship, edited by Judith Buchanan. Buchanan observes that writing processes are generally considered to be largely uncinematic for a simple reason: they predominantly constitute mental processes. For writing processes to be depicted onscreen, they are externalized. According to Buchanan, this externalization is usually achieved through aestheticized views of desk, quill, parchment, inkpot, typewriter, the writer in a moment of meditative pause, the evocatively personal oddities that adorn the space of writing, the view from the window as a reflective space that feeds the imaginative process. (5) Objects related to the act of writing are shown to portray authorship. Hila Shachar additionally notes that these ‘paraphernalia’ are ‘emblematic of authorial subjectivity and identity’ and, thus, symbolize the author’s recognition as an author (17). Shachar also emphasizes that, rather than attempting to represent biographical or historical ‘truth’, literary biopics ‘seek the terrain of contemporary culture and concerns’ (169). This observation once again points to the significance of sociocultural contexts in relation to biopics. Considering women’s representations onscreen in general, Jane Sloan argues that these representations are likewise affected by ‘specific production contexts and theoretical questions about authorship, . . . the contemporary social position of women, and other broad sociopolitical conditions’ (xix). The current article subscribes to this shift in both (literary) biopic studies and feminist film studies. Rather than only concentrating on text-based analyses, it also considers the wider sociocultural context of biopic production, thereby aiming at a more comprehensive understanding of literary biopics. The next sections focus on how the sociocultural contexts of patriarchy, second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism, postfeminism, and fourth-wave feminism relate to biopics’ depiction of female authors. This analysis leads to conceptualizations of the patriarchal literary biopic and three categories of feminist literary biopics: second-wave feminist, postfeminist, and #MeToo literary biopics. The feminist wave paradigm on which this categorization is based has been subjected to debate since it suggests moments of feminist inactivity and a rigid separation between different waves. Therefore, acknowledging the lack of definite separations between the different branches of feminism, which often overlap, is important. Likewise, our literary biopic categorization, based on the different waves of feminism, should not be interpreted in absolute terms. While the films we have chosen to analyze exemplify their respective categories, these films may also fall into different categories to varying extents. Our categorization should first be seen as an analytical tool with which to better understand literary biopics’ representation of female authors’ lives, which also reveals findings on films’ representation of women in general. THE PATRIARCHAL LITERARY BIOPIC The patriarchal biopic was first identified by Bingham. While he calls this category the classical female biopic, referring to its heyday during the classical Hollywood studio era, we find that the term patriarchal biopic covers the category more accurately. Its conventions indeed showcase close links to patriarchal values—as Bingham also briefly indicates. Moreover, since Bingham demonstrates that the conventions of this female biopic category have remained largely ‘intractable’ until long after the classical Hollywood studio era—until the 1990s, and even after—(10–11, 23)—we think the term classical female biopic, referring to the classical Hollywood studio era, does not reflect this timespan. The characteristics Bingham attributes to the patriarchal biopic, which display patriarchal society’s privileging of men over women, also manifest in the patriarchal literary biopic. One of these characteristics is that the female protagonist—a writer in the literary biopic—is always positioned in relation to men. The sole literary biopic about a woman made in the 1930s, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), exemplifies this convention. It is about the Victorian English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Barretts of Wimpole Street opens in medias res with a doctor scrutinizing Elizabeth and forming an opinion about her. This opening scene reflects Bingham’s observation that the female biopic often ‘opens at the moment where the opinions of others toward the female subject are first formed’ (315). While Custen’s characterization of the classic biopic genre suggests that an in medias res opening denotes self-madeness, Bingham indicates that this connection does not apply for the patriarchal female biopic. Opening in medias res positions women in relation to men. The main characters of Devotion (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), the famous nineteenth-century Brontë sisters, are similarly positioned in relation to men. An early scene in the film, for instance, shows the three authors—Anne, Charlotte and Emily—spending time outside on the moors. Anne is shown as dependent on her brother, Branwell, who holds her in his arms. Branwell has the power to throw Anne into the river whenever he wants to—which he eventually does. In this same scene, remarkably, the authors roam through and align with nature, whereas their brother carries his painting equipment through the moors. Standing behind a painter’s easel and surrounded by nature, he is connected more with culture than nature. Additionally, the female authors portrayed in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Devotion are constantly related to their love interests. Rather than their writing careers, their romances are placed at center-stage—another convention of the patriarchal literary biopic. The Barretts of Wimpole Street exclusively portrays the romance that develops between the writer and her husband-to-be. As Cartmell (‘The Golden Age’, 150) notes, ‘the focus of the biopic of one of the leading poets of the nineteenth century is not on becoming a writer but becoming a wife’. Indeed, the film ends with Elizabeth and Robert’s marriage. Likewise, the patriarchal literary biopic’s convention of centralizing a romance story is prominent in Devotion. The film quickly indicates that the Brontë sisters are famous because of their writing, but, as Siv Jansson notes, further treats them as a vehicle to ‘forge a familiar story of unrequited love’, including a fictitious love triangle between Emily, Charlotte and curate Arthur Nicholls (35). At a certain point in the film, Emily is distressed when she is told that Arthur tried to kiss Charlotte at a party. The prioritization of romance over careers is striking here since Emily is distracted by this news to the extent that she pays no attention to Charlotte’s telling her that two of their poems will be published in a magazine. Devotion acknowledges the Brontë sisters’ literary production and relative success, but it completely ascribes their inspiration and genius to their male partners. Emily’s publisher, Thackeray, for instance, explicitly suggests that Emily could only conceive her novel Wuthering Heights (1847) after experiencing ‘so great and tragic a love’ herself. At first, Anne does not believe Emily ever had such an experience, but when Arthur later tells her, ‘Miss Emily offered me a love I could not return’, she realizes that Emily had indeed experienced such a love. The film emphasizes that Emily’s unrequited love for Arthur inspired her book by replaying Thackeray’s remarks in a voice-over during this scene. Thus, the film denies Emily’s individual artistic genius and recognition. Often, the patriarchal literary biopic’s penchant to prioritize a romance story completely downplays the female author’s literary activity and accomplishments. In The Barretts of Wimpole Street, for instance, Elizabeth’s poetry is—as Deborah Cartmell (‘The Golden Age’, 147) observes—hardly at issue and diminished to a mere ‘means for bringing them [Elizabeth and her lover] together’. Although Elizabeth is the film’s subject because of her fame as a writer, she is never shown composing literature. Elizabeth’s brilliant mind is less important to the film than her sick and yearning body. In other words, if a patriarchal literary biopic pays attention to the woman subject’s public ambition or achievements, which is not always the case, it commonly attributes her accomplishments to male partners and direct experiences of romance. Thus, Bingham’s observation that patriarchal biopics ‘are produced in a cultural framework that sees marriage, not public or artistic accomplishment as a woman’s ultimate fulfilment’ (222), is certainly prominent in patriarchal literary biopics. THE SECOND-WAVE FEMINIST LITERARY BIOPIC While the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s reached new heights with the emergence of second-wave feminism, this period’s biopics seem unperturbed by these social changes. The conservative climate of the (Hollywood) film industry at the time is important in this respect. According to Bingham, a corresponding shift did not occur until the 1990s. Alongside biopics that were still very patriarchally oriented, he notices the appearance of what he calls feminist biopics that broke with the patriarchal biopic’s stiff conventions (25). The films in this category use feminist strategies that critique, revise, and redirect patriarchal tendencies. Polaschek (2013, 3) further explains that the feminist biopic represents second-wave feminist narratives about historical women. Since the films in this category thus offer a late response to second-wave feminism, we call them second-wave feminist biopics. Second-wave feminism rejects the femininity enforced upon women by patriarchy (Schippers and Sapp) and fights for sexual independence, women’s subjective experience and women’s career-related visibility (Humm; Zimmerman). Although the literary biopic is often considered the least progressive subgenre of the female biopic, from the 1990s onwards, several literary biopics exhibited characteristics related to second-wave feminism. Let us take a closer look at two examples, An Angel at My Table (1990), Jane Campion’s biopic about the New Zealand-born, twentieth-century writer Janet Frame, and the BBC biopic Miss Austen Regrets (Jeremy Lovering, 2007), depicting Jane Austen’s life. As opposed to the patriarchal literary biopic, the second-wave feminist literary biopic emphasizes the female protagonist’s independence and public career instead of her romantic and domestic life. This emphasis is indeed evident in An Angel at My Table. Sonia A. Haiduc notes that ‘[e]ven though, as a young woman in the midst of sexual awakening, she [Janet Frame] craves a human touch, her choice in favor of the pleasures of solitary creation is represented as natural and liberating’ (‘Here’s the story of my career’, 60). An Angel at My Table does not centralize a love story overshadowing Janet’s literary activity; instead, it celebrates her independence and successful career as a writer. Multiple characters acknowledge her talent and success. A professor expresses his admiration for her work, she wins literary prizes, and many of the people she meets admiringly emphasize that she is a published author. Furthermore, in contrast to the patriarchal literary biopic, An Angel at My Table prominently features Janet’s literary activity by allotting screen time to markers of Buchanan’s authorship, such as views of her desk and her use of a pen, paper, and a typewriter. Thus, in Shachar’s terms, Janet is granted ‘authorial subjectivity and identity’ (17). Analogously, Miss Austen Regrets is about Jane Austen’s ‘struggles and longing to become a writer in charge of her own professional career’ (Starks 304), not her love life. Rather than evolving into a romance plot (like the postfeminist Becoming Jane [Julian Jarrold, 2007], cf. infra), Miss Austen Regrets opens with Jane rejecting a marriage proposal. By dismissing marriage right from the start, the film establishes Jane as a self-sufficient woman unwilling to be restricted by marriage. Instead, she values her career. Later in the film, her work is lauded by the king’s librarian in a scene that highlights her fame and emphasizes the official appreciation of her work. While An Angel at My Table is preoccupied with Janet’s career as a writer, it also shows her to have an affair with a man called Bernard. This affair does not, however, imply that Janet loses her freedom. Bingham perceptively argues that Janet’s fling with Bernard is merely a ‘delicious sexual awakening that the heroine owns but that by no means defines her’ (374). On the contrary, the affair benefits her since it ‘marks Janet’s liberation from the puritanical and limiting conventions of her upbringing and culture, enabling her to relocate herself more broadly within the world’ (Tincknell 108). Miss Austen Regrets’ plot focuses much more on Jane’s occupation as a writer than on her position as a woman (Pereira, ‘Becoming Jane’, 114) but, as in An Angel at My Table, this focus does not imply that Miss Austen Regrets is completely devoid of romance. Jane highly enjoys flirting. Rather than the patriarchy imposing sexuality upon her, however, Jane controls her own sexuality. Affairs and flirtations with men are by no means responsible for writers’ literary creativity in second-wave literary biopics. In Miss Austen Regrets, Jane’s success is fully ascribed to her own competencies and genius. This ascription sharply contrasts with the patriarchal literary biopic, which ascribes women’s literary achievements to their male partners. Miss Austen Regrets redirects this trope. As Lisa S. Starks argues, the film emphasizes that ‘it is this choice to live without a man—not the loss of the man she loves . . .—that enables Jane to write’ (306). Jane’s deliberate choice for celibacy is the impetus for her writing. According to Jane, the perfect man does not exist anyway. About her beloved Pride and Prejudice protagonist, for instance, Jane in Miss Austen Regrets says ‘the only way to get a man like Mr Darcy is to make him up’, emphasizing that she did not draw his portrayal from real-life worldly experiences but that he fully originated from her own subjective imagination. Similar to Miss Austen Regrets, An Angel at My Table presents its protagonist’s literary creativity as stimulated by ‘solitude, not companionship’, as Sonia Haiduc points out (‘Here’s the story of my career’, 60), and it adopts her female point of view. Bingham argues that the film adopts her female perspective by avoiding an in medias res opening (Bingham 315), and Estella Tincknell (106) adds that the film establishes its female point of view by offering access to Janet’s interior life. The film starts ab ovo, with Janet as a baby, free from criticism or a dominating male perspective. The baby’s point of view first indicates the film’s penchant to portray Janet’s perspective, establishing a connection with second-wave feminism’s emphasis on female subjectivity. THIRD-WAVE FEMINISM AND THE LITERARY BIOPIC As the start of this article already highlighted, rigid separations between the different waves of feminism are problematic. While our classification of An Angel at My Table and Miss Austen Regrets as second-wave feminist biopics has traction, the fluidity of both feminism’s various waves and, accordingly, our classifications should be acknowledged. While we have demonstrated that An Angel at My Table and Miss Austen Regrets emphatically incorporate prominent second-wave issues of independence, subjective experience, and career-related visibility and can, therefore, be called second-wave feminist biopics, they do not exclusively relate to second-wave feminism. They also address issues in third-wave feminism—which is unsurprising, given their production dates’ correlation with this movement. Third-wave feminism emerged in the 1990s, some thirty years after the birth of second-wave feminism. It continued from the second wave but also critiqued the second wave’s essentialist viewpoint. In contrast to the second wave, which was convinced that femininity is a set of characteristics imposed on women by men, the poststructuralist-informed third wave argued against any single meaning of femininity and suggested, therefore, that women can choose and have different experiences and embodiments of femininity (Stone). Moreover, the third wave asserted that the patriarchal interpretation of femininity could be revised to disrupt androcentric hegemony, therefore regarding femininity and sexual appeal as sources of power (Schippers and Sapp). One’s ownership, control, and manipulation of her femininity became core issues. In An Angel at My Table and Miss Austen Regrets, Janet and Jane indeed use their female appearances as social constructs by explicitly rejecting or adopting prescribed forms of femininity when such rejection or adoption suits them. Janet, for instance, runs away after a stressful teaching session and kicks out her high heels, symbolizing her quitting her prescribed teaching job to become a writer. Elsewhere in the film, however, Janet explicitly adopts prescribed forms of femininity to reach her goals. Sometimes, when she wants to appeal to men, she consciously uncovers her shoulders, has her hair styled, and wears high heels. While the next section of this article focuses on the postfeminist literary biopic, the biopics in this category also address the third-wave issue of femininity as a social construct. As Polaschek (2013, 71) points out, for example, the postfeminist literary biopic Sylvia (Christine Jeffs, 2003) similarly ‘suggests a definition of gender as a “discursive strategy”’. Given the concurrence of the biopic’s response to second-wave feminism and the postfeminist biopic’s emergence, third-wave feminism’s shining through these categories is unsurprising. The classification of female biopics based on different strands of feminism, therefore, requires nuance. While female biopics can, most of the time, be clearly assigned to one of the categories we present, acknowledging the limitations of such categorization and the potential background presence of other strands of feminism is important. THE POSTFEMINIST LITERARY BIOPIC In her 2013 study, Polaschek introduces the category of ‘postfeminist biopic’ when she observes that many biopics produced since 2000 (e.g. Frida [Julie Taymor, 2002]; The Hours [Stephen Daldry, 2002]; Sylvia; Becoming Jane) cannot be crammed into previous categories. Her analysis shows that these biopics all relate to postfeminism, a concept that emerged in the 1990s that comprises multiple dimensions. While no consensus has been established on postfeminism’s breadth, Polaschek considers understandings of postfeminism as ‘a backlash against feminism, a double entanglement with feminism, a sensibility, a historical shift since feminism or an epistemological break from feminism’ (2). Polaschek shows how these various dimensions are represented in her selection of biopics and, as such, challenge patriarchal and second-wave feminist biopics. Moreover, Polaschek builds upon Belén Vidal’s argument that postfeminist biopics overthrow feminist narratives by returning to traditional narratives—such as narratives that centralize romance plots—but do not forget feminism’s legacy because they simultaneously comprise feminist elements that dethrone traditional constructions of femininity. The postfeminist literary biopic likewise returns to and subverts traditional constructions of femininity, combining reactionary romance plotlines with feminist elements. Superficially, postfeminist literary biopics (e.g. Becoming Jane; Iris [Richard Eyre, 2001]; Miss Potter [Chris Noonan, 2006]; Sylvia) follow a traditional, patriarchal template. The authors’ lives and works are closely tied to men, and their literary activity is downplayed. This template applies, for instance, to Sylvia, which is about the Anglo-American twentieth-century poet, novelist, and essayist Sylvia Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Polaschek (see also Dolan et al., Perkins) points out that the development of Sylvia’s story inextricably intertwines with her husband, Ted. Sylvia is constantly positioned in relation to Ted, and he is associated with all of her writing; she only seems to write when their relationship deteriorates. Overall, though, Sylvia is rarely seen writing throughout the film. She is mostly occupied with running the household. Ted, on the other hand, is often seen in the midst of his creative process. Becoming Jane, about a young Jane Austen, follows a similar patriarchal template. As opposed to the overtly feminist Miss Austen Regrets, Becoming Jane depicts the author as a young woman who falls madly in love with a man called Tom Lefroy. In the scenes in which he confesses his love for Jane and proposes an elopement, the pair passionately kiss, idyllically bathing in moonlight and bright beams of morning sunlight. The romantic relationship between Jane and her lover, Tom, not only overshadows Jane’s authorship but is also presented as her inspiration for writing, as Shachar points out. Just like patriarchal literary biopics, postfeminist literary biopics present authors’ writing as triggered by romance and direct stimulation, while skill and talent are less important. However, on a deeper level than their superficial layer, the postfeminist literary biopic criticizes its own stereotypical conventions. Sylvia, for example, sometimes suggests verbal feminist criticism to undermine the stereotypical division of tasks that it presents. In an exemplary scene, Sylvia is asked whether she is writing. She answers, ‘Me? No, no. But Ted is. And that’s really all that matters. I mean he is the real poet in the house’. Observing that the line is uttered sarcastically, Polaschek concludes that this remark implies that ‘it is he [Ted] who has defined himself as the “real” poet, while treating Sylvia as primarily housewife’ (69). At another point in the film, when Ted attempts to act as Sylvia’s mentor, Sylvia refuses his mentorship. About this sequence, Polaschek writes that [t]he dialogue . . ., combined with Paltrow’s acting, her sardonic smile and light tone of voice, suggests that Sylvia . . . treats his [Ted’s] ideas with a degree of cynicism informed by her awareness that his conception of the role of the poet is inherently masculine. (67) With such treatments, the postfeminist literary biopic self-reflexively criticizes its own patriarchal perspective. Becoming Jane also presents several feminist interventions on a deeper level than its superficial layer. Similarly to Sylvia’s protagonist, Jane refuses to let her lover act as her mentor. When Tom comments on Jane’s writing, Jane asks, ‘What qualifies you to offer this advice?’ Furthermore, as Haiduc notes, Jane ‘repeatedly voices her discontent at the boundaries that prevent her from experiencing life the way a man does’ (‘Here’s the story of my career’, 57–8). As such, the postfeminist literary biopic relates to postfeminism’s ambiguous position toward feminism: within the framework of a patriarchal romance story, the female author criticizes the misogynist conventions to which she is subjected. THE #METOO LITERARY BIOPIC As demonstrated above, how biopics depict female authors relates to cultural shifts in society. Second-wave feminism, as well as postfeminism, have specifically proven to be impactful. Unsurprisingly, then, the current so-called fourth wave of feminism, of which the #MeToo movement can be seen as a concrete manifestation, connects to contemporary depictions of female authors in biopics as well. An analysis of Colette and Wild Nights with Emily shows that a new category of the women’s literary biopic is emerging, the #MeToo literary biopic. According to Davies and Sweetman, fourth-wave feminism is distinguished by its ‘renewed and more energized social and political activism around third-wave issues of intersectionality, trans inclusion and reproductive rights’ and ‘a re-politicization of second-wave politics rejected by the third wave’, such as ‘human trafficking, socialism, anticapitalism, patriarchy, pornography, rape and rape culture, slut-shaming, body shaming, and sex positivity’ (393). Davies and Sweetman add that women’s activism today is also characterized by intimate social relationships and family. Other scholars, however, find that fourth-wave feminism mainly distinguishes itself from third-wave feminism by its medium, the internet. While no consensus has been established on the existence and conceptualization of fourth-wave feminism, the #MeToo movement—with its own distinctive characteristics—is undeniable. While the Me Too movement (without the hashtag) was already launched in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to support women of color who had been sexually abused, the #MeToo movement (with the hashtag) emerged in October 2017. Its emergence was triggered by an article that journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published in The New York Times exposing film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. This article incited actress Alyssa Milano to encourage survivors of sexual abuse to post ‘Me Too’ on Twitter. Subsequently, thousands of people—predominantly women—from all over the world started revealing testimonies of sexual abuse, using the hashtag ‘#MeToo’ on social media. While the internet is an important instrument, the #MeToo movement’s core issues are women and other people’s empowerment by sharing experiences and making hidden stories public. As the remainder of this section will clarify, these core issues can be retraced in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily, hence our categorization of these films as #MeToo literary biopics. Colette portrays the story of early-twentieth-century French novelist Colette, famous for her Claudine novels. Wild Nights with Emily revolves around nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, known for her idiosyncratic poems. Superficially, one could argue that Colette and Wild Nights with Emily are classifiable under one of the three women’s literary biopic categories we have identified. Indeed, Colette’s focus on Colette’s relationship with her husband, Willy, and her placement in relation to Willy right from the film’s start—combined with some clearly feminist elements—could indicate that this film is a postfeminist literary biopic. Wild Nights with Emily’s prominent female perspective could prompt one to classify this film as a second-wave feminist literary biopic. A closer look, however, reveals that Colette and Wild Nights with Emily depict women authors’ lives substantially differently than the previously discussed biopics and, therefore, cannot simply be assigned to one of the preceding categories. Comparing the depictions of female authors in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily with the corresponding depictions in patriarchal, second-wave feminist, and postfeminist literary biopics yields a striking observation about which aspects of the authors’ lives are centered. Both Colette and Wild Nights with Emily are extremely concerned with the publication process for their subjects’ literary works. Female literary biopics in the other categories, on the contrary, either barely acknowledge the publication process or do not give this process any screen time. We argue that centring the publication of Colette’s and Emily’s works in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily cinematically translates the #MeToo movement’s primary concern of empowering people by getting the word out, spreading testimonies of abuse into the world by literally publishing them. Correspondingly, the more pronounced visual, on-screen disclosure of the protagonists’ literary works in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily compared to the biopics discussed above is striking. Colette includes striking montages cutting back and forth between shots that frame Colette sitting at her desk, dipping her pen into ink, and close-up shots that overtly show the ink flowing onto the paper as the words of her story. In Wild Nights with Emily, Emily’s poems repeatedly are superimposed on screen. Such extensive attention to publication processes (i.e., getting the word out) is a primary characteristic of the #MeToo literary biopic. The other characteristics are related to this central issue of empowerment through publication. The second #MeToo characteristic that manifests in Colette and Wild Nights is what Mary Anne Franks calls the ‘most fundamental’ characteristic of the #MeToo movement: ‘speech by women that frightens men’ (139). Out of fear for their reputations, as well as legal and other consequences, sexual abusers tend to prevent their victims from revealing their stories. Consequently, making #MeToo stories public is not easy. Franks underlines this serious difficulty, calling attempts to silence survivors of sexual abuse ‘modern-day witch hunts’ and further underscoring that ‘their [survivors’] speech continues to be feared and repressed rather than celebrated and protected’ (124–5). This attitude is reflected in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily. Rather than being celebrated and protected, Colette and Emily’s words are repressed. The publication of their literary works is shown to be very difficult because of male characters who constantly oppose these protagonists. This treatment contrasts with the other categories of feminist literary biopics. In second-wave feminist biopics, the authors’ works are positively received by men. For instance, in An Angel at My Table, Janet’s work is lauded and granted literary prizes. In Miss Austen Regrets, Jane starts out as an already acclaimed author and is elaborately complimented by the king’s librarian. These biopics’ protagonists are not subjected to publication difficulties, nor are the writers in postfeminist biopics. The volumes written by Sylvia (Sylvia) and Jane (Becoming Jane) appear to be published suddenly, as if their publishing processes were uncomplicated. Colette, on the contrary, faces complications in getting her work published. ‘We won’t be able to get it published’, her employer and husband, Willy, says, ‘it’s too cloying, too feminine’. Even when her Claudine novels are eventually published and become successful, Colette still experiences serious difficulty because she is not allowed to publish under her own name. Willy persistently refuses to give her recognition for her writing and denies an accusation of having wrongly taken credit for the Claudine novels. Wild Nights with Emily centralizes the extreme difficulty of publishing Emily’s poems right from its beginning. In the first scene, it is said that ‘no one would publish a book of Emily’s poems, which was rejected many times’. From then on, Wild Nights with Emily is built around scenes in which male publishers reject Emily’s writing. Notably, the publishers’ reasons for their rejection align with some of the common reactions by people whom #MeToo victims accuse. One publisher discards Emily’s poems because ‘they are devoid of any true poetical qualities’. This dismissal resonates with statements by people accused through #MeToo who attack their accusers’ credibility. Another publisher in Wild Nights with Emily is said to have ‘never acknowledged receiving’ Emily’s poems. This line is reminiscent of abusers’ most common reaction, according to Charlotte Alexander, complete denial. By depicting female authors whom men continually oppose when they want to publish their stories, these biopics—like the #MeToo movement—critique a society that refuses women recognition and actively denies them a platform from which to speak out. According to Alexander, 38 per cent of the people accused by #MeToo victims deny the accusations against them, while 46 per cent (i.e. nearly half of the accused) try to defend themselves by debating interpretations of their behavior or citing excuses for their conduct. Thus, they try to alter or distort their accusers’ stories. This distortion is the third characteristic of the #MeToo movement that surfaces in Colette and Wild Nights with Emily. Eventually, Colette’s and Emily’s works appear in print, but not until they are shown to be extensively edited (i.e. distorted) by their male publishers. To Emily’s dismay, one publisher ardently scratches out her lines, and another adds titles to and removes dashes from the few poems he publishes. Colette experiences the same distortion: her employer and husband, Willy, also thoroughly deletes and adjusts her work. Moreover, Colette repeatedly highlights that Willy’s willingness to distort the truth in general, for instance when he spends all of his and Colette’s money on sex workers or sells the rights to the Claudine novels. The biggest lie or myth that he wants to perpetuate is that he has authored the Claudine novels. Remarkably, Colette’s focal point is the deconstruction of this myth. Colette works towards revealing the Claudine novels’ true author. Wild Nights with Emily likewise deconstructs myths, namely the myths about Emily Dickinson, by revealing discrepancies between voice-overs (myth) and images (deconstruction of this myth). For instance, the voice-over narrator in Wild Nights with Emily claims that ‘she [Emily] wanted to be published posthumously’ while, at that point, Emily is shown preparing to meet a publisher. In another example, the narrator claims Emily ‘did not show her poems to a single soul’ while, at that moment, Emily is shown presenting her poems to her friend. In their overt deconstructions of patriarchal myths, Colette and Wild Nights with Emily differ remarkably from the films in the other categories of the feminist literary biopic. Instead of deconstructing patriarchal myths, second-wave feminist literary biopics generally choose to discard them. For example, the myth about Jane Austen’s passionate affair with a man called Tom is dismissed as insignificant in Miss Austen Regrets—he does not appear at all and is only briefly mentioned in a conversation. When she is asked, ‘Was he the one?’, Jane strong-mindedly replies, ‘No, he wasn’t’. Postfeminist biopics handle myths differently as well. At first sight, they reinforce these myths—the romance between Tom and Jane, for instance, is elaborately depicted in Becoming Jane. On a deeper level, however, the female protagonists voice their awareness of these myths’ unfairness. Sylvia, for example, reinforces the myth that women are destined to run a household, but the film’s reflexivity—voiced in Sylvia’s use of sarcasm and cynicism—also counters this myth. Alternatively, by means of on-screen deconstruction, Colette and Wild Nights with Emily explicitly debunk myths and lies, rather than either discarding them or subtly showing a reflexive awareness of their fictionality. While these films, of course, still create their own myths, Colette and Wild Nights with Emily resemble the #MeToo movement’s focus on disrupting commonly accepted patriarchal discourses and myths. The final defining characteristic of #MeToo to which Colette and Wild Nights with Emily relate is the prominence of women’s and other people’s encouraging and empowering each other. This support is shown first through the protagonists’ romantic relationships. While second-wave feminist and postfeminist literary biopics depict heterosexual romance between cisgender partners, both Colette and Emily have queer relationships, and Colette also has a trans male partner. These relationships show fourth-wave feminism’s strong attention to intersectionality and LGBTQIA+ identities. While the male partners of women writers in second-wave feminist and postfeminist literary biopics are either dominating husbands or trivial lovers, Colette and Emily’s female and trans male partners play the role of confidantes. Colette and Emily share with them their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As Megan Murphy points out, #MeToo is indeed about ‘finding solidarity in sharing . . . experiences’ (63). Moreover, #MeToo is about women and others encouraging each other to open up their stories. Actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet incited many thousands of other people to reveal their stories, usually for the first time. Similarly, Colette and Emily’s confidantes encourage them to speak out. Emily’s girlfriend, Sue, energizes Emily to persevere in trying to get published, and Colette’s trans male partner, Missy, supports Colette in striving to have her novels published under her own name, saying, ‘These women between girlhood and womanhood, you’ve given them a voice. You’ve done something important . . . you should own up to it’. In turn, Colette empowers Missy’s non-conforming gender identity. Every time Willy refers to Missy as ‘she’, Colette explicitly replies with ‘he’. Colette and Missy do not tolerate men like Willy silencing women and gender non-conforming people. They speak up. The ways in which Missy and Colette empower each other point at #MeToo’s and Colette’s central concerns of giving women voices and recognition, as the beginning of this section explained. Thus, the #MeToo characteristics of Colette and Wild Nights with Emily consist of centralizing long and arduous publication processes, emphasizing the disclosure and persistent censoring of women’s words, deconstructing patriarchal myths, and underscoring (especially female) solidarity and empowerment. The shared characteristics of #MeToo, Colette, and Wild Nights with Emily are striking. Also, interestingly, the newest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019) displays comparable characteristics. This film might not be generally regarded as a biopic, but it does overtly link the character of Jo March to Alcott herself. Similarly to Colette and Wild Nights with Emily, Gerwig’s Little Women foregrounds Jo’s literary production, male censorship, and struggle to be published. Films like A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016), To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters (Sally Wainwright, 2016), Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2017), and Vita & Virginia (Chanya Button, 2019) even seem to suggest that a wider trend of #MeToo literary biopics has emerged. CONCLUSION While further research is needed to determine whether and how literary biopics’ cinematic style, production, and reception can be connected to the various strands of feminism, this article has shown that such films’ depiction of female authors’ lives relates to different feminist contexts. Previous literature has discerned three female biopic categories: the classical female, feminist, and postfeminist biopic, upon which we have based our categories of the patriarchal, second-wave feminist, and postfeminist literary biopic. Additionally, we defined the #MeToo literary biopic as a fourth category. In patriarchal literary biopics, female authors are (a) constantly positioned in relation to men and (b) squeezed into heterosexual romance plots that overshadow their authorship, while (c) their work and literary achievements are largely neglected or—when granted minimal attention—diminished and (usually unfairly) ascribed to their sexuality and male partners. Characteristically, second-wave feminist literary biopics (a) prioritize their protagonists’ successful careers as published authors, rather than their love lives, (b) depict authors as self-sufficient and free, and (c) show that authors’ writing is ascribed to their own subjective experiences and creative genius. Postfeminist literary biopics (a) depict female authors predominantly as love interests for men and (b) do not center female authors’ literary work, which is often ascribed or related to their male partners, but simultaneously (c) give female authors a voice to express awareness of their disadvantaged positions as women and myths about gender roles. In recent years, a fourth wave of feminism has emerged, and with it, a prominent manifestation of this wave—the #MeToo movement. This article’s central argument is that this specific #MeToo feminist context is connected to the depictions of female authors in some of the most recent biopics, leading to the #MeToo literary biopic’s emergence. The #MeToo characteristics of biopics about female authors were determined based on analyses of two recent biopics, Colette and Wild Nights with Emily, and they comprise (a) excessive attention to difficult publication processes and the disclosure of women’s words, (b) emphasis of the persistent censoring of women’s words, (c) deconstruction of patriarchal myths surrounding female authors, and (d) underscoring (particularly female) solidarity and empowerment. We conclude that #MeToo is not only a phenomenon on Twitter and other social media platforms. Rather, #MeToo’s core issues also subtly manifest in historical-fiction films set long before #MeToo’s emergence. Hence, these films are a product of their sociocultural context as much as they contribute to contemporary feminist discourses. REFERENCES Alexander , Charlotte S . “Sorry (Not Sorry): Decoding #MeToo Defenses.” Texas Law Review , vol. 99 , 2020 , pp. 341 – 88 . 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Adaptation – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 16, 2021
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