Autumn de Wilde’s ‘Emma.’: The Representation of Gender and the Female Gaze
An aristocratic 19th century room. Our character is being undressed by a servant, leaving their body exposed. Cut to their legs being dressed carefully and tastefully in white tights, their servant arranging their neckline before putting on their coat. It is a fairly typical adaptation of the scene we’ve all seen of the woman getting ready for the ball in period films. Except it is not a woman, it is a man - our romantic hero for the film, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn).
We have all seen enough Jane Austen adaptations to know the characters; the strong willed girl who is just sweet enough to fix the hardened, masculine man that has come into her life and turned her world upside down. It is not that there is something inherently wrong about that type of storytelling; after all, it is what women had at the time. However, it is most definitely outdated.
What a complicated thing, then, to adapt a Jane Austen novel and give it current cultural significance. Yet somehow, Emma. (2020), written by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde, brought something different. Critics praised the colourful Anderson-esque aesthetics of the film as what made them feel it was a fresh take, but it runs deeper than that. What this version of Emma is packed with is something none of the others (except maybe Amy Heckerling’s Clueless in 1995) had done before, the female gaze*.
Jane Austen was a fairly feminist author, writing about smart women that even dared consider not marry and sometimes-sensitive-men were not common in the 1810s and became a lot more popular straight after Austen’s publications. Yet male filmmakers (Emma has been adapted by the likes of Douglas McGrath, Diarmuid Lawrence and Jim O’Hanlon) have taken charge of writing and directing her classics. It is not surprising that they had all shied away from certain aspects.
Emma was always represented as a very likeable character – manipulative, sure, but sweet and always well intentioned. She was not allowed to be mean because that would make her unlikeable, which is something only male characters could be, because the woman would fix and redeem him (Mr. Darcy in the Pride and Prejudice adaptations, anyone?). Yet with a leading woman, it was unimaginable, we need to root for her – we cannot allow her to take on the “bitchy” qualities of her adversaries. Catton’s script and de Wilde’s focus turned that on its head, Anya Taylor Joy’s Emma is highly dislikeable, we only truly get to see her vulnerability in the second act of the film, a device nearly always reserved for male protagonists.
Emma in this film is constantly poised and dominant; her romantic lead is almost lost in her shadow of confidence – not the other way around. Mr. Knightley is represented as the vulnerable party: he is the one that cries, shouts and opens up. Most of his role in the film does not convey the traditional expectation of masculinity. This is not to say Emma is presented as the manly figure, she does not shy away from her femininity – but it is a femininity that exudes typical masculine power (her introduction is the perfect example: ordering people around in order to pick beautiful flowers for her).
It is not a coincidence that this adaptation has been so compared to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019). Not because they are period adaptations, but because both filmmakers unapologetically plastered their female gaze on the screen. From Mr. Knightley’s introduction scene to Laurie’s (Timothée Chalamet) first scene in Little Women (shot by Gerwig in slow motion purposefully to introduce Female Gaze into the film) .
These are the real reasons why Emma. reads like a fresh adaptation. It’s not the colours and styling –as beautiful as it looks-, it’s the complete yet subtle turning of the tables on what is viewed as typical nineteenth century gender. Here is to powerful women and sensitive men being at the centre of our period dramas, it was about time.
*The Female Gaze in this piece is understood as the perspective that a female filmmaker (in this case both director and screenwriter) brings to the film, as opposed to how it would have been had it been made through male eyes.
Cover photo is property of Focus Features.