No More Frocks: Emma Thompson and Reclaiming Space for Stifled Women

No More Frocks: Emma Thompson and Reclaiming Space for Stifled Women

Emma Thompson came onto the film scene during a time that left little space for women to feel and act beyond what was already set out within classic literature. To combat this, she started rewriting these characters herself. Anna Galbraith looks back on the actor and screenwriter’s influence over the past three decades.

The 1990s, and the third-wave feminism the decade has come to be celebrated for, offered young women an antithetical medley of messages. Sex-positive slogans challenged suffocating taboos, in the same years that toxic body standards were being set with the glorification of some kind of heroine chic aesthetic. We were crying “Girl Power!” as we skipped our meals; we eschewed our inherited gender roles, laughing, as we waxed away every wisp of prepubescent body hair. It was the decade that rightly sought to celebrate the women history had relegated to cautionary tales of scarlet letters — Eve stepped into the spotlight; the Madonna had had her day. Put simply, this seemed entirely the wrong decade in which to set about breathing new life into the well-behaved heroines of classic literature.

And yet, it was during this defiant decade that Emma Thompson made her name as a performer for bringing to life the likes of Austen’s Eleanor Dashwood, Forster’s Margaret Schlegel, and Ishiguro’s Miss Kenton. Characters who forgive men their inconsistencies, counsel their younger female relatives against scandal, and who seem — on first reading — to bear the injustices placed upon their sex with an infuriating placidity. Thompson’s own shorthand for this niche which was carved out for her was 'good woman in a frock', but it would be a mistake to consider this as clumsy or unimaginative typecasting. Indeed, the roles that saw Thompson nominated for five Oscars (and winning two) between 1991 and 1996 were the roles she chose, or wrote for herself. With the benefit of almost three decades’ hindsight, I would venture that during this time — as both a Cambridge literature scholar and experienced comic performer — Thompson was putting forward her convincing case for a re-examination of the characters we had relegated to the annals of cultural history as dull.

There is a popular, brilliant, emphasis amongst fourth wave feminists today on the importance of space — taking, shaping and making it available for action. The hand grenade of the Weinstein revelations and ripple effects of #MeToo have done much to shine a spotlight on the dire need for the voices of women everywhere to be amplified — for the doors of boardrooms and audition halls alike to swing open and embrace the other half of our population. Three decades ago, smarting from a commercially and critically panned comedy show Thompson (which one can’t help but feel would have been more warmly received today), the actor set about carving a dramatic career which would not come at the expense of her individual voice and signature wit. Space then, as now, was of paramount importance — but for Thompson, a ‘room of one’s own’ came by entering the well-trodden rooms of the books she knew so intimately, and throwing open their doors for a fresh conversation about their heroines. Let us not forget that it is Eleanor Dashwood (once described by Thompson as “honour personified”) who is entrusted by Colonel Brandon to relay the details of a property contract to Edward Ferrars; it is Margaret Schlegel who earns her rightful inheritance of Howards End. They enter into the conversations historically reserved for men, and they play an equal part in the dialogue.

But it was not simply in her adaptation of existing literary narratives that Thompson strayed from the traditionally feminine tropes –it was also in the scripts she wrote for herself. Look closely, and you’ll find that Nanny McPhee (both starring and written by Thompson, and the film in her canon she claims to be her favourite) follows the narrative arc of a Western. Having grown up watching Clint Eastwood films, Thompson explained in a lecture she gave to BAFTA in 2014, “the Western follows the anarch, as he [inevitably a man, we must accept] comes into a situation where order of some kind has broken down. He then restores this order using unorthodox methods, and then must leave. The vital thing is that he must leave or be killed — he remains an outsider. I realised eventually that what I was doing as I wrote Nanny McPhee was placing the elements I learned as a young child of the Western, and domesticating them by putting them into a nursery. A nursery, after all is where we keep our most precious feelings and our most precious beings — the place that we would defend with our lives were it to come to it.”

But of course, all this would count for little if the performances themselves were not of Thompson’s acclaimed calibre — the two disciplines inform each other’s  brilliance, and she remains to this day the only person to have won an Oscar for both writing and acting. Her greatest gift, considering this extraordinary success, is an intense, compassionate empathy. One has to wonder, for example, whether Joni Mitchell feels gratified or disgruntled that Both Sides Now has become synonymous with that devastating scene in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually. “I think it resonated because we have all in some way been there,” Thompson explained to The Telegraph; “I knew what it was like to find the necklace that wasn’t meant for me.” And the Thompson Tears™ do not begin and end with Alan Rickman’s infidelity – she has drawn myriad characters, both on paper and screen, which inspire such immense sympathy that her IMDb page ought really to signal a trigger warning and gentle recommendation that viewers stock up on tissues before viewing.


But this too is yet another stereotype that Thompson has worked to tear apart. She might well reduce her audience to a mucosal mess, but control is at the centre of every portrayal — sometimes to the detriment of her protagonists (Fiona Maye in The Children Act comes  to mind).  These women  might feel familiar, almost matronly, but they can never be decried as hysterical. The key to Thompson’s direct tap into the nation’s tear ducts comes down to something she has always understood so well: it is not watching another human cry that breaks an audience’s heart — it is watching them try so desperately not to.

It feels fitting to close with the words of that ultimate good woman, Jane Austen, who Thompson claimed in her Desert Island Discs saved her from “going under in a nasty way” in the face of depression, and whose voice she adopted in the acceptance of her Best Screenplay Award for Sense & Sensibility at the 1996 Golden Globes. In perhaps her most underrated novel, Persuasion, Austen’s (terribly good) heroine laments, “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Thank goodness, then, for this fine writer, performer and feminist —who beat against the current to turn the tide for the heroines of classic literature. They have more to say today than ever.

Anna Galbraith (@acgalbraith) is a freelance writer based in London. She loves all things literary and theatrical, and currently works as a features writer for Gentleman's Journal, where she contributes pieces covering everything from wine and fine dining, to actor profiles.

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