Imitation of Life: Why Hollywood doesn’t tell stories of female pioneers

At some point while watching the “Imitation Game,” probably when Benedict Cumberbatch was not actually on the screen, it occurred to me: Joan Clarke deserves a movie of her own.

At some point while watching the “Imitation Game,” probably when Benedict Cumberbatch was not actually on the screen, it occurred to me: Joan Clarke deserves a movie of her own.

For those who haven’t seen “Imitation Game,” which is good but more serviceable than great – Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) is the sole woman on the team of cryptologists who are assigned to break the Nazi code, which changes every night and can only be interpreted via the Enigma machine.

As we see in the movie, Clarke (who was a real woman with a fascinating history), not only has to be as smart as her colleagues, she also has to outsmart her parents – who in the 1940s still believe in a woman’s reputation. As in so many other instances, the woman’s story is just as powerful as the man’s, only she has to do it while hobbled; if not by heels then circumstance.

I want to see Joan Clarke’s story. She lived until she was 79. She befriended a closeted gay man (Cumberbatch’s Turing) and believed they could make a marriage of the minds work – it would free her to pursue her love of mathematics, and it would give him the beard he needed not to face the fate he ultimately did – in England at the time, homosexuality was a crime. She was a numismatist. She was paid less than the men. She was, by all accounts, a pretty awesome lady.

And yet, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see her story. Not just because Turing’s tale trumps it (and was so recently told) but because she was a woman. Most women who get big flashy nomination-ready roles play the supports in the story – even when they’re lead actresses, even when they’re up front as protagonists. This year’s Oscar nominees are props for others – as wives, as heads of households holding it together; or they’re damaged by loss or mental issues. They are rarely creators of action, of plot, of story.


Even the woman who played Clarke despairs about the incredible paucity of female stories out there. “There are very, very few stories told,” Knightley told me when I spoke to her for the LA Times’ Envelope (full article here). “Thank God, they’re finally doing a movie about the Suffragettes – some of the most seminal female figures of the 20th Century. It’s amazing there hasn’t been a film covering that whole political movement.”

Well, one film comes to mind right away: “Mary Poppins.” Where the mother of the family is in fact a Suffragette, and is roundly considered a figure of fun because of it.

“It’s still female voices that are very often missed out on, completely,” she continued, and pointed out a new exhibit at London’s Tate Museum specifically devoted to female artists. “It’s not that there weren’t many famous female artists,” she said. “We just haven’t heard of them. Very often in every section of culture women are lost; every actress will say the exact same thing to you. We’re all looking for these interesting, inspiring, complex creatures … but they’re very difficult to find.”

Part of this is the box, of course. What box? The box of expectations. Part of the attempt to understand why the most powerful movie of the season, “Selma,” failed to score more than two Oscars (yes, it did get a berth in the Best Picture slot, but it had a distasteful tokenistic feel in light of the director, Ava DuVernay, being overlooked). Films featuring black characters and actors tend to only do well at the Oscars when those black characters and actors are victims: “12 Years a Slave,” for example.

That box transfers to women as well: Take a woman out of what’s considered her expected, traditional roles – wife, mother, daughter, victim – and give her a story to propel, well, then there’d better be a man standing right behind her or, better yet, let’s just tell the men’s story. It’s what people what to see anyway, right?

Poor Joan Clarke. A name almost lost to the ages, overshadowed by the genius of Alan Turing. He didn’t ask to overshadow her. History did that. Storytellers did that. The movies did that. All is not lost; of course, there are women out there doing good female stories – Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, DuVernay – but it is a very small drop in a very large pond.

But here’s one larger rock worth considering: “Suffragette,” starring Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan is written by a woman: Abi Morgan. And it is directed by a woman: Sarah Gavron. (Due out: later this year.) So, we start. And hope. And watch for the hobbling heels they’re still undoubtedly wearing – visible or no.

What’s your favorite female-centric film? Let us know here.

This article was originally published at Curiosity Quills.