What’s in a name? Forrest Gump and Ben-Hur might have paved the way, but Colette, Petra, Nancy and Mari are part of the women now building a city. Nicole Davis explores how memorialisation in names makes room for some long overdue ‘woman-spreading’.
In her essay ‘City of Women’, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who were remembered; women are anonymous people who changed fathers’ names for husbands’ as they married, who lived in private and were comparatively forgotten”. Solnit affirms, however, that there are exceptions to this rule.
It holds true that naming is the easiest signifier of gender, a way of determining what something is about or who it might be for. And so the groundswell of films bearing female names as titles in 2018/9 – Petra, Maya, Lizzie, Celeste, Nancy, Colette, Soni, Rosie, Mari – suggests the locus of power, particularly in the cinematic landscape, is changing. The series of names might sound like roll call for an alternative Mambo No.5, but it also signals an unprecedented level of occupancy for women in the film industry.
It would be audacious to claim this female naming trend to be new. For every Ben-Hur, Oliver!, Tom Jones, Gandhi and Forrest Gump there has been Gigi, Rebecca, Mrs. Miniver, Annie Hall, Driving Miss Daisy and All About Eve. Where these titles are exclusively directed by men, the majority of the aforementioned films place the authorial mantle in a woman’s hands, or at the very least involve a female writer or producer to inject nuance and experience. It would be hard to imagine, for instance, a man at the helm of Mari (directed by Georgia Parris), a film which navigates matrilineal conflict, illness within a family and the burden of responsibility with deft choreography and a motif of touch, or lack thereof. The way these three women, a mother and two sisters, relate to one another – the hardness and occasional softness that define their interactions – comes from a place of knowing. A film carrying a woman’s name, particularly in a climate that is trying to be kinder to female directors, is more likely to show greater kinship with the female experience.
Many of these films depict stories of self-discovery, of soul and identity-searching, so it makes sense that these characters’ names would announce their stories. The handsomely mounted biographical drama Colette, starring Keira Knightley, charts the coming-out and coming-out-of-the-shadows of a literary superstar. Spanish director Jaime Rosales’ sixth feature Petra details a mendacious familial maze as an artist tries to identify her father. And Nancy, Christina Choe’s directorial debut, tells of a young woman (played with ambiguous intensity by Andrea Riseborough) who believes herself kidnapped and subsequently develops a tenebrous relationship with her possible birth parents.
Women as titular characters, existing to do more than titillate audiences or animate the narrative of a male protagonist, gesture towards a widening of possibilities for what female characters and stories look like, even when directed by men.
We first meet the eponymous heroine in Petra as an artist seeking creative approval from successful sculptor, Jaume. In his assertion that her work isn’t commercial enough, taken all the more seriously for his being a paternal figure, Petra begins to recede from her artistic aspirations. This transition from painting to teaching and then mothering could be read as a conventional and patriarchal narrative arc, but in articulating her desire to mature, she doesn’t erase her identity as a painter. Petra grants herself the agency to become more than a resident at Jaume’s studio. She becomes a creator of life. In focusing so resolutely on Petra’s story, Rosales gift us a dilatant, decade-spanning arc that allows his protagonist contradictions and changes of mind.
More than just signalling who the film’s main character might be, the naming of a film after a female character is a way for women to solicit space and leverage they have been denied for too long. Women comprised 24% of protagonists featured in the 100 top domestic grossing films of 2017 and 34% of speaking characters, as reported by the Center for the Study of Women in Film & TV. Every film that deigns to place a woman at the forefront is a quiet crusade against this crushing statistic, a battle cry against an industry that has historically given women second billing and second class treatment.
These films have the power to become a medium for memorialisation - particularly in the case of historical figures such as Nobel Prize nominee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, but physically they also create an opportunity for grandstanding, and well, ‘woman-spreading’. As when men unfurl their limbs across public transport, or hurtle down roads in a world that has rarely asked them to move, pause or minimise, films bearing women’s names allows for a symbolic and physical spreading of the female voice, and body. In a cover interview for Variety during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Keira Knightley is featured near-supine on an armchair, her arms sprawled and her hair rippled across the furniture’s fabric. It’s a space-claiming pose, the opposite of demure or diminutive. It says, “this cover belongs to me”. Equally, in the UK poster for Colette, a mid-shot of Keira as Colette – hat tilted, gaze fixed, demeanour defiant – consumes half of the page, whilst the fountain-pen-scrawled inscription of the title devours another sizeable portion. Consider this image magnified on a 12-sheet or streeliner for the world’s eyes to see. Now consider the fact this film tells a story of an androgynous, sexually fluid and artistically maverick woman who spent a fledgling part of her career published under her husband’s name. The weight of calling the film by her name – in a culture where we lay prestige at the feet of men by referring to their person in the singular (Spielberg, Kubrick, Tolstoy, Dickens) – starts to be felt.
With a film like Colette, which has the potential to enter the Oscars race (praise and buzz is already swirling around Knightley), marketing campaigns go stratospheric as distributors attempt to seduce voters. The column inches are colossal and the resounding echo cacophonous. In the lead up to their release, these women’s names will light up cinema, laptop and phone screens. They’ll be emblazoned across t-shirts, billboards, magazine spreads, theatrical trailers and movie posters adorning buses and buildings. They’ll embellish sullied tube stations and find themselves sandwiched between newspaper articles, they’ll be celebrated on podcasts, talk shows and radio stations. In a world reckoning with the revelations of recent years, it’s a way for women and their histories, their struggles and their humanity to remain at the core of our cultural conversation.
Irrespective of whether they’re low-budget dance-narratives like Mari or class-conscious Hindi indies like Soni that spotlight women’s lives in ways that might find lesser resonance with mainstream audiences, their very existence sets a new precedent for films about women that aren’t bound to commercial success to be deemed worthwhile. These films might not have the permanence of statues, but women are now telling their stories and men are seeing the value in championing them – this is a victory for a cinema of equality. Over the course of their theatrical rollout, the names that once hid behind pseudonyms, considered unfit for the purpose of alluring worldwide audiences, become visible in a vast physical and digital realm. Who wields the power now? Solnit’s warning is reaping change, as words on film restore female identities that won’t be swayed. With this upward swing, we now might just have ourselves a city of women.
Nicole Davis (@stonecoledfox) is a freelance writer based in London. She has written for Little White Lies, i-D and the BFI.