Onscreen, Women Are Giving Patriarchy the Pink Slip

Posted November 29, 2018 7:06 p.m. EST

When the #MeToo movement catapulted into the mainstream more than a year ago, survivors around the globe felt more emboldened than ever before to break their silence about sexual abuse at the hands of men. Their stories not only censured the much-deserving perpetrators, but led to a reckoning about gender inequality and misogyny that continues to galvanize society.

So much so that we have embraced a new phase of the movement that is redirecting the focus to the women — like Mira Sorvino, Gabrielle Union and Padma Lakshmi — who have stepped out of the shadows of problematic men and reclaimed control of their narratives in fascinating new ways. And now, film and TV have begun to reflect that same shift toward radical female entitlement.

Take “House of Cards.” You may recall that the Netflix series’ sixth and final season, now streaming, was at first thrown into turmoil after its male lead, Kevin Spacey, was accused of making an unwanted sexual advance in 1986 toward actor Anthony Rapp, who was only 14 at the time. As a result, Spacey (who issued an apology to Rapp and said he would be seeking treatment) was fired from the show and his character, the ruthless President Frank Underwood, was killed off. These events took place after Season 5, when Underwood had resigned to take a more behind-the-scenes role (so his many offenses could remain hidden).

His wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), cunning and manipulative in her own right yet long suffering under her husband’s oppressive ego, found herself in position to seize the presidency. Even though Claire’s master plan had always been to become president, the fact that she continues on this path in Season 6 — without a man trying to pull the strings — is considered an intolerable act of defiance to Frank’s staff, which remains in place even though Claire is in charge. And like life imitating art, “House of Cards” fans and critics alike voiced concerns about how the show would go on without Spacey — and whether it should. The series’ bold final season has obliterated all those doubts. But first, Claire has to contend with that male-dominated staff, which, from the moment she steps up, makes it clear that it does not trust her authority and does everything possible to get rid of her, even conspiring to have her assassinated. So she devises a plan to remove each doubter and is equally cutthroat and unapologetic.

Although she effectively gives the patriarchy the pink slip by installing an all-female Cabinet, she’s still castigated for simply exerting power — something for which Frank would have been heralded. “Francis was a son of a bitch, but he was a talented son of a bitch,” says lobbyist Bill Shepherd (Greg Kinnear), one of Claire’s biggest antagonists, implying that her talent remains to be seen and her malice is more self-serving than anything else.

Because Claire’s ascension followed Frank’s death, her opponents determine that it is ungrounded, forcing her to work twice as hard just to be taken seriously as a potential threat. But if there is anything this final season has confirmed, it is that “House of Cards” has always been perfectly set up for Claire’s shrewd supremacy. Some people were just too busy watching the other guy to notice.

How women’s competence has been categorically underestimated and undermined by toxic men, including their own spouses, is also a major impetus for the action in “Widows.” The Steve McQueen-directed crime drama follows three women — Veronica, Linda and Alice (played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki) — whose lives are upended after their husbands die robbing the nefarious Manning brothers (portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya). The Mannings want their money back and, armed with the knowledge that these widows had nothing to do with their husbands’ blood business, come barreling into their lives, confident that they can threaten them into accommodating their demands.

But what the brothers aren’t prepared for is that the women, terrified as they may be at first, are willing to go through with what would have been their husbands’ next heist. These widows aren’t superheroes. They’re not trained vigilantes who carry weapons and run up on people inside their homes. These women are people you know who have lost children and businesses and are consistently reminded of their insignificance by men who claim they love them — to the point that they had been reduced to mere transactions. Veronica is fueled by grief and helplessness after the wrongful death of her son at the hands of the police. Linda is a mother desperate to rewrite her story so she is no longer the wife who watched as her overbearing husband tanked her business and left her with a pile of debt. Alice wants to prove that she is worth more than the cheap sex for which too many men have used her.

These are women on the periphery who are fighting the very basic and routine battle for a seat at the table. They refuse to be bullied by men any longer, and now that they’re pushed against the wall, they’re forced to react in ways outside of what is expected of them — incited by their own fury, untapped tenacity and fear of what can happen to them if they don’t fight back. Ultimately, they become fully realized characters who reciprocate the intimidation and menace that have been used against them. But for them, it’s about finally being seen as more than trinkets who can be disregarded in a world that was not built with their value in mind. It’s about being counted — and if that has to be through brute aggression at this point, so be it.

Though Claire Underwood and the women of “Widows” fall into their power and have to fight tooth and nail to hold on to it, they’re not the only women onscreen this year reasserting their value. The eponymous heroines of two other recent movies, “Mary Shelley” and “Colette,” hack through patriarchal society on their own terms — in the 19th and 20th centuries, no less. The two budding literary masters are expected to sit idly by as their husbands appropriate their greatest, most personal works, because that is their place — eclipsed by men even in their own stories.

But they soon rebel against this condition. The “Frankenstein” novelist Shelley (Elle Fanning) goes as far to leave her husband, Percy (Douglas Booth), and demand a public retraction after he tries to convince her that his name on a book so dark is more credible than her own. Colette (Keira Knightley) confronts both her philandering husband, Willy (Dominic West), and gender norms by becoming just as popular in ladies’ bedrooms as he is while using her virility to reclaim authorship of her famous Claudine novels.

These characters tackle systems of oppression in their own homes, at work and on the streets, and underscore how fundamentally capable and deserving they are without men setting the terms. They’re moving outside the limits put in place by patriarchs, and occupying spaces from which they’ve been dismissed. As a result, they’re taking back what has always been rightfully theirs: the voices that were stripped from them and the power they’ve now clenched. It’s about time.