Altering the History of Gender Inequality

Written by: Rhiannon Breaux & Mario Lopez Gaona

Introduction

A Knight’s Tale is a 2001 historical film set in medieval times that follows William Thatcher’s quest to become a knight and win the heart of Jocelyn, his true love. Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 historical film set in Elizabethan times that follows William Shakespeare’s quest to become a master playwright and win the heart of Viola, his true love. While each film is a unique story in its own right, they have a lot in common with one another. For example, both feature action, romance, fight scenes, falling in love, a pompous and entitled antagonist, and most importantly, historical inaccuracies. Understand this, “historical fiction is expected to be inaccurate in various ways” (Fileva, 2019, p. 155) and these films are no exception. However, Shakespeare in Love and A Knight’s Tale seem to take history and rather than tweak the past, change it entirely. For example, in the musical Hamilton the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” suggests that Hamilton punched the bursar at his college when in reality his disagreement was with the university’s president (McCarthy, 2020). Overall, this small change doesn’t have any ripple effects on society at large. But in A Knight’s Tale, the main character, William Thatcher, is a peasant who becomes a noble knight which wouldn’t have been possible in medieval times because he was not born of noble birth. Overall, this major change has ripple effects on how audiences understand the social dynamics of the time. Of course, historical films are made with the intent being to entertain us and also to provide “stories that can help us ‘make sense of the past, understand it, and remember it” (Fileva, 2019, p. 156). It is perhaps because of this purpose to entertain that historical films sometimes take artistic liberties to keep audiences interested. While these changes are not inherently good or bad, they do have consequences within our society. This essay will argue, with the help of several images from each of the films, that oftentimes audiences come wanting to hear a good story and leave with an education. Historical inaccuracies in films such as Shakespeare in Love and A Knight’s Tale are subverting gender dynamics in ways that have the potential to hurt our society’s overall remembrance of gender inequality throughout history.

Masculinity in Shakespeare in Love

Lord Wessex (HiPWallpaper)
Shakespeare Chasing Viola (YouTube)

Above are two photos that come from Shakespeare in Love. The first photo features Lord Wessex. He is the film’s relationship antagonist. While Shakespeare and Viola are off falling in love, Lord Wessex is off negotiating with Viola’s father for her hand in marriage. He is the “other man” that is keeping the true love of Viola and Shakespeare from being possible. When looking at the character through the lens of gender studies, one can recognize Lord Wessex as the picture of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is the dominant ideology that is accepted and circulated in our society that defines what a masculine man should be. Lord Wessex checks nearly every box. He is straight, white, cisgender, a member of the upper class because of his title, able-bodied, assertive, confident, and physically dominating (as shown by his threatening stance against Shakespeare in the photo above). By society’s standards, Lord Wessex possesses the qualities of the ideal masculine man. However, in the film, Lord Wessex is the villain; the one that the audience is rooting against. 

It is Shakespeare, who possesses several traits that one could consider resistant masculinity (the non-dominant ideology that is often an unaccepted definition of a masculine man within society) that audience is meant to cheer on. While Shakespeare is a straight, white, cisgender, and able-bodied man, several other qualities about him place him far from hegemonic masculinity. For example, in the film, Shakespeare is a playwright (which meant he was poor and not well regarded by society), he loves poetry and wooing women with it, and when Lord Wessex suspects Viola loves another, Shakespeare shifts the blame to another man rather than standing his ground and physically dominating Lord Wessex in a fight. Overall, Shakespeare has a softer side to him that puts him in the resistant masculinity category. Perhaps the best example of Shakespeare’s resistant masculinity is in the photo above which features Shakespeare (circled in red) chasing after Viola (circled in green). This scene in the film follows Shakespeare chasing after Viola for several minutes through the town, across the river, and back to her home in an effort to talk with her. This picture of the man dropping everything he was doing and then chasing after the woman isn’t representative of the times. While there was a sense of courtship in Shakespeare’s day, the man would not typically chase after the woman and beg for an audience. Rather, the man would approach her father and the two would come to an agreement. The character dynamics of Lord Wessex the hegemonic masculine villain, and Shakespeare the resistant masculine hero suggests that since Shakespeare’s time in the late 1500s, society has championed and defended resistant masculinities. This simply isn’t true. Lord Wessex’s hegemonic masculinity would have been praised in the 1500s and even today is it still the hegemonic masculine male that is favored. 

Masculinity in A Knight’s Tale

William Thatcher With Adoring Fans (YouTube)

Above are two photos from A Knight’s Tale. In the first picture, we can see the protagonist of the story, William Thatcher. William represents the definition of hegemonic masculinity. Just like the antagonist of Shakespeare in Love, William checks all the boxes of the hegemonic masculinity stereotype in popular media, since he is white, cisgender, athletic, and a confident man. When William returns to England for a jousting tournament, he is received by a cheerful crowd celebrating their national champion. As the story progresses, William overcomes severe obstacles as he is disqualified for competing while impersonating a nobleman. He later is granted a pardon by the Prince Black Prince of Wales since he previously demonstrated competence and honor while competing against him. He ultimately beats the antagonist of the movie in the last competition and ends up conquering the woman he falls in love with at the beginning of the movie. By society standards, William exemplifies what a masculine man should be, a clear example of the hegemonic masculinity stereotype.

Femininity in Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare and Viola in Bed (YouTube)

Moving on from the two main men of Shakespeare in Love and the masculine ideals in A Knight’s Tale, the next character to look at regarding subversion of gender dynamics is Viola from Shakespeare in Love. She is the woman who is promised to Lord Wessex and yet whose heart belongs to Shakespeare. What is interesting about Viola is that the character shatters mythical gender norms (gender identities and practices that are considered normal or standard in our society) and the idea of emphasized femininity (the dominant idea within society that defines what the ideal woman is) in this film. While Viola is white, rich, straight, and pretty (typical characteristics of emphasized feminity), she breaks away from the emphasized femininity trope by being a character who isn’t passive. Viola doesn’t just accept that Lord Wessex is who she must marry. Instead, she tries to fight back and rebel against what society demands of her by falling in love with Shakespeare. The picture above is a shot from the film that comes directly after Viola has sex with Shakspeare for the first time. In the frame, the audience sees Shakespeare on the floor (because Viola has just literally kicked him out of the bed), while Viola sits on the bed above. This positioning is everything. Viola being placed above Shakespeare suggests that she is the one in charge of this relationship; she has the power. This power gives her agency which is something that women who fall under the emphasized femininity never have. By taking control of her own life, Viola pushes away gender norms that say a woman must bow to a man’s hegemonic masculinity.

Viola on Stage as a Man (The Silver Petticoat Review)
Viola on Stage as a Woman (The Silver Petticoat Review)

The next two images pictured above are further examples of Viola’s ability to push boundaries in the film. The first image is taken from a scene in which Viola is dressed as a man so that she is allowed to perform a role in Shakespeare’s play. In Shakespeare’s time, only men were allowed to act on stage. Therefore, Viola is taking a huge risk in donning a male costume for the chance to perform. At first glance, this may not seem like a very good example of Viola’s agency. After all, she is having to hide her true identity for the opportunity to perform. While Viola choosing to make that decision does make her a much more developed character than the typical “woman as an object” trope, she’s still playing by society’s rules. The truly remarkable and gender role-bending moment comes at the end of the film. At this point, Viola has already been found out (someone reported her true identity to the authorities) and was banned from the stage. At the last moment, the actor playing the show’s lead female had to drop out. This made way for Viola to come bursting onto the stage as Juliet without any identity hiding whatsoever. This decision (which is shown in the second image above), to break all of society’s rules and laws, is what makes Viola stand out as a character with agency, determination, and courage. While her choice would have landed her in big trouble in real life during those times, in the film, it served as a fantastic moment of female empowerment.

Postfeminism in A Knight’s Tale

William Pursues Jocelyn on Horseback (YouTube)
Jocelyn Scoffs the Priest (YouTube)

Next, we will be analyzing the two female leads of the film A Knight’s Tale and the representation of postfeminism in the film. Postfeminism was the most popular type of feminism in media culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It has long been criticized for its characteristics depicting the achievement of gender equality through past movements of feminism. Thereby making further movements and expansions of feminism obsolete since equality has been reached (Gill, 2007).

Let’s start with Jocelyn, a lady of noble birth, with whom the protagonist William falls in love. Jocelyn happens to demonstrate emphasized feminity characteristics, as she is delicate, white, cisgender, and sophisticated. However, from the start, Jocelyn comes out as an empowered woman who is not in acceptance of societal norms at the time. Jocelyn is a good example of postfeminism in film. In her very first scene, William appears to be starstruck by Jocelyn’s beauty when he encounters her on the street. As he decides to approach her, Jocelyn walks like an empowered and confident, yet delicate woman, who is used to men approaching her with flirtatious intentions. As William keeps following her into the church, he is promptly kicked out by the bishop and his assistants. The bishop then turns to reprimand Jocelyn for her actions. Jocelyn takes it lightly, laughing at the moment and even mocking the bishop’s ring on the second picture. This empowerment stance Jocelyn takes would’ve rarely happened against someone from the clergy at the time. The church is known to be the most respected figure of authority during medieval times. Furthermore, Jocelyn’s father pairs her up for marriage with the antagonist of the film, Count Adhemar. The marriage is avoided as William defeats Adhemar in the tournament and wins over Jocelyn even though he doesn’t have any land, wealth, or power, some of the most prominent factors when arranging marriages in medieval times. Such representations might obscure the reality that women were mostly oppressed during this period, creating societal historic misconceptions of gender equality.

Laura Fraser (YouTube)
Laura Makes William New Armor (YouTube)

Another clear example of postfeminism influence being present in the movie is with the character of Laura Fraser from the first picture. Laura is a skilled blacksmith woman who helps the protagonist William throughout his quest. During the Middle Ages, the blacksmith profession was considered a man’s profession. Although the movie is set in the Late Middle Ages (1372), a period that saw an increase in women’s rights and social changes (compared to those of the early and high middle ages), misogyny at the time was still highly prevalent. For example, women were not allowed to own their businesses (Mark, 2019). In the second picture, Laura creates this revolutionized armor that is stronger and lighter. By doing so, she adds her trademark to the armor in case another blacksmith was to imitate her trade. Adding a female blacksmith character to the story and making her do such revolutionary inventions can help create misconceptions to the audience about gender equality at such times in history. These misconceptions can be harmful to society in the sense that they establish the idea that gender inequality at the time was not as bad as it seems, which makes feminist movements after that period obsolete. Similarly, forgetting this part of history may minimize the impact of feminist movements trying to achieve greater gender equality in modern times.

Closing Thoughts

Shakespeare in Love and A Knight’s Tale are filled with historical inaccuracies. Postfeminist ideals from the 1990s weren’t really creeping into society in medieval times. Jocelyn would have married Adhemar whether she wanted to or not and the female blacksmith wouldn’t have existed. The hegemonic masculinity of Lord Wessex wouldn’t have been vilified, it would have been praised and Viola would have been dragged off the stage before she could get a line out. None of these subversions of gender roles would have existed during the times being portrayed in the films. The term gender equality would have been laughed at both while knights roamed the cobbled streets and when Shakespeare inked Romeo and Juliet. These inaccuracies are a portrayal of progress that simply isn’t realistic of either period. 

It would be all too easy to dismiss these inaccuracies as inconsequential because Shakespeare in Love and A Knight’s Tale are “just movies”. However, research studies have been conducted to correlate how misinformation in films can affect people’s recollection of history. One such study says that “research indicates that information from fiction is often integrated with real-world knowledge, which leads to learning and subsequent production of misinformation” (Butler et al., 2009, p. 1162). This study has participants read accurate, fact-checked information about a topic. Then they watch a video about the topic that contains misinformation that contradicts the information they read. The results of the study concluded that “rather than rejecting such misinformation, subjects tended to falsely recall it and endorse its accuracy” (Butler et al., 2009, p. 1167). This study proves that the historical inaccuracies in Shakespeare in Love and A Knight’s Tale can not only misinform society about the history of gender inequality but actually change what people recall to be accurate about the history of gender inequality. It’s hard to fight for gender equality now and refer back to centuries of inequality when popular media is trying to erase any history of passive females who were auctioned off like property to the highest bidder. Jocelyn and Viola were ladies of high wealth and status. They were assets to their families and fighting for “true love” wasn’t an option.

The other way that one might try to dismiss these inaccuracies is by arguing that characters like Viola and Jocelyn are creating fully realized roles for women today, so everyone should just be happy with that progress. However, it is important to note what type of movies these powerful female roles are coming from. That is to say, why are these empowered female characters placed in period pieces where the social practices within the film no longer have any consequences in our society today? Where are the resistant masculine men chasing after powerful, take charge women in movies set currently? Not very many of them exist in films because it’s not what popular media culture wants us to see. It is easy to place an empowered woman in a foreign, fictional environment to create the illusion of progress without actually championing real change. Why can we not see more representations on-screen of strong, confident, and mighty women in current times where it really matters?

References

Butler, A., Zaromb, F., Lyle, K., & Roediger, H. (2009). Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1161-1168. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40575158

Fileva, I. (2019). HISTORICAL INACCURACY IN FICTION. American Philosophical Quarterly, 56(2), 155-170. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/48570835

Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 147–166. Retrieved June 28, 2021, from  https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549407075898

Mark, J. J. (2019, March 18). Women in the Middle Ages. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 27, 2021, from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1345/women-in-the-middle-ages/

McCarthy, B. (2020, July 3). PolitiFact: Fact-checking ‘Hamilton’ the musical. Tampa Bay Times. https://www.tampabay.com/life-culture/2020/07/03/politifact-fact-checking-hamilton-the-musical/

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