Peaky Blinders, Allied, and the Problem with Steven Knight’s Female Characters

Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Linda Shelby, Esme Shelby, Lizzie Stark, & Polly Gray, Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Yes, there are spoilers for Peaky Blinders and Allied.

The female characters are strong and central.  They are main players within the whole thing.

— Steven Knight in Daily Mail

The consensus is that Steven Knight writes strong female characters.  First, consider these statements from Peaky Blinders actors:
  • Helen McCrory:  “He really enjoys writing women and he does it very well.”
  • Charlotte Riley: ‘The women can be, with male writers, left on the sidelines but with Steve he really enjoys writing women. . . . He does it very well.  So for us ladies we were all like ‘Yeah.'”
  • Cillian Murphy:  “Steve Knight has always written strong women characters and in this season I think he’s done it again.”
  • Annabelle Wallis:  “When I read Grace—I think I had the first two episodes— I was like, ‘She is for me.  She is the only woman I want to play in my career: strong, rich, dynamic, many shades of grey.’ Steven Knight is so good at writing women.  I liked how she was equal to the men: she was fearless, she was brave beyond common sense.”

Critics agree.  PopSugar points to the show’s strong female characters, while in Decider, Olivia Armstrong observes:

The women of Peaky Blinders . . .  [are] ruthless in their own unique ways, in addition to being far more tactful than the men who run the streets of Birmingham.  The men of Peaky Blinders are obsessed with status, while the women each represent a future free of the muck.  Though they don’t always get along, each heroine is a feminist role model all on her own and transcends her place in time.

I’ve said it before, but to reiterate the point that the supporting cast, particularly Polly, could keep the show running if Tommy were to be offed.  That’s how important her and the rest of the dames are in this series. Cheers to you, Steven Knight, for giving the media landscape strong, realistic, intelligent female characters we can’t wait to see next season.

Allied
Allied

As I’ve written before (here, here, and here), I no longer see Knight’s female characters as especially well written, and Series 3 left me particularly skeptical.  But I recently stumbled onto a Knight interview with Collider in which he discusses Allied, a “sweeping espionage thriller ” that was “inspired by the real-life story of two undercover WWII spies who fell madly in love, only to be set mortally against each other when their true identities were exposed.”  Knight wrote the screenplay, Robert Zemeckis directed, and Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard starred.

According to the interview, Knight was 21 when he first heard the story, which stayed with him until he was able to make the film.  Here’s the passage that struck me:

Just the idea that someone is married and they’ve got a kid, and he reports for work one morning and his boss says, “You’re wife is a spy. Shoot her.”  In the real story, he just went back and did it, which would have been a short film.  Therefore, I had to spend some time exploring what you would do.  And over the years, as you get experience of life, you wonder, “How would that feel?”  I thought, “What an amazing thing to have happen.”  It’s a betrayal, but it’s not a betrayal, in that sense.  It’s a different sort of betrayal.  So, I wanted to explore that by giving him time to find out more about his wife.

If you’re a Peaky Blinders fan, this all sounds familiar because it essentially repeats the relationship between Tommy and Grace:  They fall in love, have a child (Anna for Max and Marian; Charles for Tommy and Grace), have the truth revealed to them (though at least Tommy never demanded Grace play the piano to prove who she is), and both women die (Marian shoots herself to save Max from doing it; Grace is shot because of Tommy’s arrogance).

Tommy, Grace, and Charlie, Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Tommy, Grace, and Charlie, Peaky Blinders, Series 3

And both heroes go on to raise their children:  Max on a ranch in Canada while Tommy’s experience as a single parent has yet to be revealed.  There are more parallels, but you get the idea.

This doesn’t suggest parodic self-awareness on Steven Knight’s part.  That is, there’s no sense he’s trying new things in terms of writing women; rather, it’s just repetition.  Here we go again:  Another woman who makes the hero fall in love with her only to betray him for country and then to be shot as punishment, allowing the hero to both suffer and assume her role in addition to his own.

Tommy and Charlie, Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Tommy and Charlie, Peaky Blinders, Series 3

So, I’m just not getting the “strong female character” praise.  The female characters are not “strong and central.”  These are women caught in a plot cycle as old as Genesis that does nothing to give their characters nuance or agency.  They’re just props in the oldest story in the book about women betraying men who manage to persevere anyway.

That brings us to Steven Knight’s writing for Taboo.  Will the cycle repeat itself?  We’ll know soon enough.

Publication date:  18 December 2016

Return to A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Blog

Peaky Blinders 4.1 Review:  Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  The Series Changes Focus — It’s About Masculinity

Peaky Blinders, Ada Shelby Thorne, & Resistance

Peaky Blinders, Tommy & Grace, and “Making Things” Stories

Peaky Blinders Review:  Tommy, Grace, and the Symbolism of Framing

Peaky Blinders:  Some Thoughts on Steven Knight’s Remarks at the Writers Guild Foundation

Peaky Blinders Review:  Mirroring — Tommy, Arthur & Grace


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One thought on “Peaky Blinders, Allied, and the Problem with Steven Knight’s Female Characters

  1. I really like this article. I’m from Argentina, and here, there are discussions about female movements and feminism and my perspective has really change these past few years. I do not consider Steven Knight to write strong female characters, but maybe they are more strong than other women characters we’ve seen in tv history. Still, we have a lot to learn and it’s great to see other women defending this point of view and not reppeting the male sexism (machismo) that so many times I have read and seen in blogs. Sorry if my english is rusty.

    Like

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