In Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Katharine “Kay” Graham—played by Meryl Streep—is a regal force.
As America’s first woman newspaper publisher, Graham was no minor player in the printing of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed decades of government secrets and paved the way for a Supreme Court ruling that better protected press freedoms and the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down President Nixon in 1974.
Yet Graham is nowhere to be seen in an earlier Hollywood movie about that era.
In the 1976 Oscar-winner All the President’s Men, she is “all but airbrushed out of history,” as journalist Kati Marton, a friend of Graham’s, characterized it in the December 2017 issue of Vogue. Graham is unseen and mentioned just once.
Now, some four decades later with The Post, Graham is getting the credit she deserves.
And she’s not the only woman collecting belated dues.
In the same way that O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, once the butt of jokes, was redefined as a feminist icon of sorts after the 2016 television series American Crime Story, the past year has seen more women’s stories rewritten by film and television.
Tonya Harding, the disgraced ’90s figure skater whose name became synonymous with kneecapping (a verb even invoked by Barack Obama), is finally seeing her side of the Nancy Kerrigan “incident” told. I, Tonya—a new film starring Margot Robbie as Harding—explores what was going on behind the scenes in Harding’s life and how that played into the public’s perception of Harding and the events that made her infamous.
The late Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, seen for decades as little more than a chain-smoking, hard-drinking “royal rebel,” has recently become the sympathetic fan favourite and victim of the monarchy on The Crown. These new multidimensional depictions, though not always flattering, come at a time when women are increasingly being given a much-needed voice, in an effort to right a system that diminished their stories for too long.
The Marcias, Katharines, Tonyas and Margarets of today set the records straight and provide new context for stories that were ignored or warped by a history that didn’t value their nuanced complexity.
Tonya Harding’s redemption tour
For The Post’s Graham and The Crown’s Princess Margaret, the rewrite is a little late; both women died in the early 2000s. But for Harding in particular, redemption is proving sweet. I, Tonya is a Goodfellas-like figure-skating mockumentary that mostly positions Harding as victim rather than the villain, created by the media after she was connected to the violent assault on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The award-winning film presents enough conflicting accounts to question whether she had anything to do with the 1994 assault at all.
“I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused all over again,” Robbie says as Harding in the film, equating the public pile-on to the years of abuse she allegedly took from an irredeemably bad mother and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.
And for months now, Harding has been on a redemption tour of her own. She has promoted the film with the cast, attended the Golden Globe Awards (where Robbie was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Harding—and will reportedly skate in an exhibition at Rockefeller Center later this month. Self-proclaimed fan singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens even wrote a song about the Olympic skater called “Tonya Harding”—a tune which, apparently, Harding doesn’t actually like.
Even though not everyone, including Piers Morgan, is buying Harding as “the victim,” the movie lands squarely on Harding’s side, as do its actors. “Everyone was just so quick to call her white trash and turn her into this monster in the media,” Robbie told Entertainment Tonight. It’s still unclear how deep Harding’s role in the incident was, which the film makes clear, and while she’s a more polarizing and problematic figure than The Post’s Graham, the Harding of I, Tonya is a heroine given more dimension than we’ve seen before. Even if she did do it, there’s more to her story, and that’s what the film brings to light.
Millennial queen, Princess Margaret
While audiences remain divided on Harding, there’s much consensus regarding The Crown’s Princess Margaret; a quick Twitter search yields the fact that social media users have dubbed her the “millennial queen.” Among her biggest fans? Matilda’s Mara Wilson, who tweeted in December that a hungover Princess Margaret is her “aesthetic.” Vanity Fair, too, recently dug up some of the princess’s most “epic disses” that made her “a queen in the best, gives-the-least-fucks sense of the word.”
Ten years before she became a Netflix fave, Margaret’s official biographer Tim Heald wrote in the Daily Mail that her image had gone from beloved to the most “notoriously rude, hard-drinking and unpopular member of the Royal Family.” It would seem that her image has returned to the former, thanks to the more sympathetic character written by Peter Morgan and portrayed by Vanessa Kirby on The Crown. Kirby’s Margaret certainly drinks, smokes and lives a life of leisure, but in the 21st century that’s more ripe for Instagram #goals than a cautionary tale. (OK, maybe minus the smoking.) Plus, it’s her internal life that is given new weight in the Netflix drama. This Princess Margaret lives in the shadow of a sister so devoted to the monarchy that the crown often comes before family. Between her *ahem* complicated family baggage and the fact that she was told she couldn’t marry the love of her life, the Netflix series makes it easy to sympathize with Princess Margaret’s rebellious tendencies.
Why these stories are coming out now
These new portrayals come during a period of major change in Hollywood that reached a crescendo at the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Oprah Winfrey said during her stirring acceptance speech after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award. For Clark, Graham, Harding and Princess Margaret—and for so many women in this era of “Me Too” and Time’s Up—their truth is finally being told.
Women earning seats at the Hollywood table is a major part of the shift. The Post was written by 31-year-old first time screenwriter Liz Hannah and produced by Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger. Without giving too much away, in the film’s final act, Streep’s Graham goes against the advice of powerful men, ensuring truth is paramount in journalism. And the film, brought to the screen by women, is ensuring her truth is finally told—a far cry from Graham’s own era, when women were diminished and discarded—because it’s about time.
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