alias grace

The opening scene of Netflix’s series Alias Grace, another Margaret Atwood adaptation following the success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, shows Grace Marks standing before a mirror. The soft Northern Irish tones of her voice-over recounts everything written about her since her arrest and trial: she is a demon; she is an innocent victim; she is sullen; she is a good girl; she is cunning, and devious; she is soft in the head. As she describes what has been presupposed about her personality, her striking face moves and shifts to suit each description, as quick and delicate as a breeze over the surface of a deep, silent lake. Grace Marks is all of these things and none of them. She has been conveniently packaged into an image constructed by men to suit the story they wish to tell – but this is Grace Marks’ story.

Historically, Grace Marks and James McDermott truly were convicted of a double murder in 1843, when Grace was only 16, but the story brought to life on page by Atwood and on screen by Sarah Polley is a story that belongs to Grace, and which strives to give her the voice that 19th century colonial Canada would not allow. There is an irony to her treatment by the court and the press, that she would be spared hanging on account of her feminine disposition while McDermott went to the gallows. It is that ridiculous Victorian sentimentality which simultaneously uplifted the female as a gracious and kindly being while also condemning it as mentally inferior to the male specimen. This binary thinking shows a great under-estimation of women and their capability; a classic Victorian gentleman could simply not bear to think of an attractive and innocent-looking 16 year old girl as a calculating, vicious murderess.

That sense of admiring women while continuously pigeon-holing them in their gender remains ingrained in parts of our society today, and is a reminder that the journey to gender equality is still not over. For that reason it is so refreshing and exciting to have a show like Alias Grace, which gives such an unflinching and textured portrayal of Atwood’s novel. Adapted and directed by women, it follows in the footsteps of contemporary trailblazing series that have featured fascinating and flawed female characters, such as in Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards and Game of Thrones. Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett in OITNB (2013 -) is a racist, homophobic character who attempts to shiv Piper Chapman and later forgives and continues a relationship with her rapist. Robin Wright’s performance as Claire Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards (2013 -) is that of a woman with an icy demeanour and an iron will, a woman as corrupted by power as her husband. Lena Headey has been nailing the female villain role for most of this decade with her turn as Ma-Ma in the 2012 film Dredd and as the incomparably horrendous Cersei Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones. (2011 -) They are anti-heroes in that they are antagonistic and unpleasant in their behaviour, but nevertheless engaging and occasionally sympathetic characters. Particularly, and importantly, in the case of Cersei and Claire Underwood, their experiences in a high-powered, male-dominated world are such that female viewers can empathise with them on a level, even when their actions are troubling and sinister.

It is David Fincher’s 2014 film Gone Girl which gives us perhaps the most nuanced and insightful portrait of a modern female anti-hero in recent years in the titular character Amy Elliott-Dunne. Amy and Grace are alike in their realism. They are not high fantasy medieval queens, or eccentric dystopian baddies. They exist in the world and history that we recognise as our own, and that makes their stories all the more unsettling and compelling. Both characters inwardly smirk at the ridiculous rules of the patriarchal world, with Amy bemoaning how she has to adopt the ‘Cool Girl’ persona to impress and enthral her husband Nick. Grace gives a wry shake of her head when her psychiatrist Dr. Jordan remains stoically ignorant by the idea of a woman going to the toilet during her daily routine, and is also clueless about the actual details of cleaning duties, because “men such as yourself do not have to clean up the messes you make”. Grace constructs a defiant image of her toilet trip within her head, and then decides not to share it with the doctor, humorously concluding that it would be far too much for him to handle.

Alias Grace understands and describes the very rawness of womanhood; the unsightliness and the anxiety. Blood, vomit and sweat are weaved into the very tapestry of the show, as a reminder that beneath the surface of Victorian puritanism, the female body still functioned, and lower class women continuously suffered. Here is a real woman who excretes and bleeds, and who has seen and done terrible things. The real Grace Marks experienced a great deal of trauma in her life prior to the arrest and the fictional extension of Grace, like Amy, has since developed pathological ways of deceiving those around her, especially men, using the enforced gender stereotypes of the era. The men who try to help her are blinded by their goodwill and by their total underestimation of women, and so the female villain flourishes.

The addition of these stories to modern cinema and television is evidence of screen media expanding and evolving, and I hope that it is a sign of yet more high-quality female stories to come. With stories like these there are new conversations to be had, and new ideas to be shared about gender and the interaction between men and women. It is not a feminist attitude to idolise the female gender in its entirety, but rather to understand and accept that women can commit crimes, and make mistakes and seek redemption.

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