This fall, a wide range of true stories will play out on the big screen, ranging from the exciting tales of famous men such as Neil Armstrong, Freddie Mercury, and Gary Hart to heartbreaking coming-of-age narratives, such as Boy Erased and Beautiful Boy. On the other hand, many of the biopics with female subjects coming out over the next few months highlight the contributions to society that women have made as writers. Many of the male protagonists fronting biopics this year lived public lives. Meanwhile, these literary heroines show that women often don't have that option, and cunningly find other paths. Each provide different insights into how women may use writing as a way to escape their marginalized positions in society.
One of the ways that women have been sidelined throughout history, is the way that the public so often disregards or fails to value women's voices and opinions — the recent Supreme Court confirmation serves as an example of this. Particularly in Colette and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, audiences can gain insights into the ways that female writers often must fight to sell their writing to contemporary audiences. Both movies' protagonists do so by adopting pseudonyms (though they have different reasons for doing so). The French novelist Colette (Keira Knightley) wrote her first four novels under her husband's pen name, Willy, because using a feminine name would fall prey to society's negative biases against women.
She was far from the first female writer to adopt a male pen name in order to be published. Mary Anne Evans published what now are viewed as canonical novels like Middlemarch as George Eliot and the Brontë sisters published a book of poems together under the male names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell earlier in the 19th century before Colette.
Even recently, female authors have faced pressure to mask their feminine names in order to appeal to male readers. The most noteworthy example from the 21st century is J.K. Rowling's employment of a noms de plume. In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour in 2017, Rowling said, "My publisher, who published Harry Potter, they said to me, we think this is a book that will appeal to boys and girls. And I said, oh, great... Basically they were trying to disguise my gender."
While Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn't portray a woman who attempts to mask her gender in order to appeal to a wider audience, it does tell the story of how Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) began forging letters from famous authors to pay her bills. Israel had found herself struggling to make a living following the limited successes of her published biographical books. The movie doesn't address gender too directly, but, as Variety points out, certain moments of the movie subtly satirize the often undeserved confidence enjoyed by white men.
Israel ended up serving five years' probation and six months' house arrest, per NPR, and she'd become best known not for her successful — and legit — biographies but rather her scandalous work as a forger. The movie isn't only interesting due to its complicated female protagonist; Can You Ever Forgive Me? illuminates how writing can offer women much-needed anonymity. Even though Israel's forgery is less than honorable, it's human to wish to inhabit someone else's life. That's what she did in her forged letters from wildly famous icons of the past. As Colette does too, Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows how using writing as a means of escape can provide a great deal of freedom.
A Private War follows a completely different narrative about a female writer as it stars Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, a war correspondent who died in Syria while reporting on the siege of Homs in 2012. While Colette depicts a woman who is relegated to the sidelines of French society, A Private War focuses on a woman who went to the front lines of the some of the most brutal wars of recent history. It reveals how a woman can maneuver her societal position to lead herself towards the center of history. Stories like Colvin's are often buried under stories about male bravery, despite the courage she displayed in pursuing her pieces.
In looking back at the history of literature and nonfiction writing, women's contributions are just as important as men's, though the playing field is not level. These movies explore the reasons why women are driven to pick up the pen, and in some cases, those reasons are very different than those of their male counterparts.
In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf argues that a woman deserves her own space and money in order to write fiction. Since women in her time were generally expected to stay home and focus on domestic duties, the Mrs. Dalloway author knew better than anyone how important a woman's imagination was to her. In writing, women were granted the freedom to explore and create, something that they couldn't do in their own lives.
Even though prominent female authors like Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, and many more have helped shape readers' understandings of the world they inhabit, the book industry still exhibits shameful biases. According to The Guardian, a 2016 study conducted by Vida revealed that predominant book reviews assessed male authors more often than women. In 2016 only 26% of the authors reviewed by the London Review of Books were women.
The problem continues into book stores, as a 2018 study revealed how undervalued female author's books are — literally, per The Guardian. According to a paper published by the journal PLOS One, books by women that have been released by mainstream publishers were priced on average 45% lower than books by men. Can You Ever Forgive Me? portrays a woman's struggle to sell her books in stores that quickly discount her works after sales start receding.
These all movies join a long, rich history of films made about female authors, both fictional and based in truth, such as Miss Potter, Becoming Jane, Sylvia, Bright Star, The Hours, Young Adult, Stranger Than Fiction, and Poetic Justice. Because female authors have long been celebrated in film, but it's not every year that so many of these stories come out at once. In a time when women's voices have become more important than ever, this feels significant.
As much discrimination as female writers may have faced in the past, writing in general has always offered women both an escape and an entry ticket. On the page, no one can necessarily judge you based on your sex or gender, and you can participate in shaping the narrative of your culture. Each one of these films show women at the center of their narratives. Through struggle and strife, the women in these movies — to borrow a Hamilton lyric — "write their way out."