History remixed: the rise of the anachronistic female lead

Adrian Horton

It is a point in favor of TV’s sprawling proliferation that one gets, in the course of a year, both a lush, serious historical drama starring Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great on HBO, and its tonal opposite, Hulu’s raucous, gleefully brutal The Great, which puts an asterisk right on the title card: “An Occasionally True Story.” The Great, developed by Tony McNamara, the writer of absurd court send-up The Favourite, cares little for the historical accuracy of the 18th-century Russian monarch. Its Catherine (Elle Fanning) arrives in the backward, hedonistic Russian court as a naive 19-year-old bride in 1761. The real Catherine was 35 and a mother by then, but that’s fine – free from the constraints of biography or pedantic seriousness, The Great’s occasional truth delivers, ironically, a more lasting impression of a real, flesh and blood princess – one slowly but determinedly amassing power, enlightened but ambitious to rule.

Related: The Great review – gleefully garish new series from The Favourite writer

It’s a counterintuitive and refreshing insight the show shares not only with its clear predecessors – The Favourite and Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette – but with other recent historical-ish content such as Apple TV’s Dickinson, or the new film Shirley. In these absurd, anachronistic or downright fictional depictions of oft-biographied historical figures – women frequently defined against the restrictions of their period – it turns out that the farther one strays from the record, the more clear and accessible the window into their character.

Take, for example, one of the most effective highlights of The Great: 19-year-old Catherine, cinched in a corset and petticoat, silk shoes squelching in mud, arrives on a battlefield intending to cheer the soldiers with a flushed smile and a box of pastel macaroons. But the bloodied man she meets has lost his fingers and can’t grasp the cookie. “I’ll just pop it in your mouth,” Catherine attempts, baffled and floundering. “It’s pistachio, if that’s helpful.”

The scene is comically rich for its obscene clash of opulence and suffering – the ludicrous macaroon box, the farce that is Catherine’s sincere scheme to appear helpful. Never mind that the real Catherine was a palace veteran by then, or that cream macaroons were invented in the 1930s. The historical record is absolutely beside the point; the show’s razor-sharp reveal is in Catherine’s laughable naivety, in the archly callous disregard of life, the clash of aloof power with Enlightenment ideals. The real Catherine was, indeed, absorbed by Enlightenment thinkers and a voracious reader who nonetheless consolidated power, a point conveyed with a highly anachronistic “FUCK!!!!” as she tosses the silly macaroons out of her carriage window on the ride home. “Russia cannot continue on this path!” she exclaims, a one-stop line of self-serving earnestness.

The Great, like The Favourite, relishes the timeless comedy of bodily messes (the macaroon episode is called “Blood and Vomit”). A splotchy rash which blooms across Catherine’s chest becomes its own punchline; Fanning’s flushes as she errs or storms off feel like characters of their own. The performance draws viewers in; it’s easy to recall your own storms of emotion in watching Catherine traverse disappointment and ambition – even if her naivety is a fiction within an absurd court farce.

There’s a similar drive for relatability underscoring Dickinson, Apple TV’s riff on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, which fills a loose sketch of her biography with half-ironic #feminism one-liners, swearing and a death fantasy starring rapper Wiz Khalifa. The series, developed by Alena Smith, takes some inspiration from the show Drunk History, in which the past becomes sweetly, hilariously companionable through boozy retellings dubbed over celebrity actors. The real Emily Dickinson was an introvert who rarely published in her lifetime; privately, her poetry experimented with form, the better to capture waves in the storm of one’s mind. TV Dickinson manifests that creative radicalism externally, dispensing with the poet’s longstanding public persona – shy, reclusive – in favor of candid, barbed ambition.

Related: 'She puts you into a dream': inside a thrilling film about Shirley Jackson

As played by the excellent Hailee Steinfeld, to varying effect (I didn’t initially love the show, which felt half-baked in parts, but have warmed to it in later episodes), this Dickinson maintains an affair with her brother’s fiancee, calls bullshit on doing chores and manipulates a crush into publishing her poetry. Confronted with a no-girls-allowed rule for science demonstrations at the local college, Emily translates the era’s subtext plainly: “Maybe they’re so scared that if they teach us how the world works we’ll figure out a way how to take over.” It’s a weirdly entertaining send-up of the real societal limitations facing Dickinson, giving real talent and ambition, however unarticulated or thwarted or quiet, room to breathe and flaunt. 

Dispensing with the facts entirely can be more evocative of said talent, as demonstrated by Shirley, released on-demand this week in the US (its theatrical run scrapped by Covid), a film which rejects the biopic entirely for a fiction mirroring the work of its protagonist, the mid-century horror writer Shirley Jackson. The film, directed by Josephine Decker and based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, takes real-life inspirations for Jackson’s work – her agoraphobia, her emotionally abusive but co-dependent marriage, her imposing house in Vermont – as material for a psychodrama in which a younger couple staying as guests, and the women’s hold on reality, combusts under the Jackson roof. The film aims not for accuracy but instead to drop the viewer into a Jackson story, which does far more to dig into the truth of her genius, and to honor her work excavating the ghoulish, terrifying depths of women’s insecurities and mental prisons, than any by-the-numbers portrait ever could.

Though in an entirely different register than the two comic series, Shirley presents perhaps the best example of liberated fiction’s potential as the most effective female biopic. A life’s recounting bound to “fact” would necessarily focus on constraint, struggle or the negotiation of image and ambition in a man’s world. Instead, Shirley centers the author’s artistic brilliance, Dickinson revels in the poet’s real creative confidence, The Great trickily extricates the contradictions of the Enlightened despot’s position. It’s not fact, per se, but who’s to say that’s not closer to the truth?

  • Dickinson is now available on Apple TV+, The Great is on Hulu in the US with a UK date to follow and Shirley is released on 5 June digitally and on Hulu in the US with a UK date also to follow