Florence Foster Jenkins and the hijacking of female protagonists
It isn’t exactly news that our media lacks in good female characters, especially when it comes to protagonists. So when I heard that Meryl Streep was going to be Florence Foster Jenkins in a film that has her name in the title, I thought there was no way they were going to screw up. Well…
Based on a true story about a wealthy opera lover whose dying wish is to sing at the Carnegie Hall, even though she’s an awful singer, Florence Foster Jenkins had a chance to give the audience an inspiring tale about a woman who spent most of her time and money funding the arts in New York. All in all, she was a great person, and that’s the only thing we learn about Florence in this movie.
Florence’s husband and sort of assistant/manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), is easily the character who gets most screen time. Even though the couple is bonded by love and partnership, they made a pledge to never have sex because of Florence’s syphilis, so St. Clair spends his time going back and forth from Florence’s house to his mistress’ (Kathleen, played by Rebecca Ferguson). Despite having quite an eventful life, St. Clair was not nearly as interesting as Florence, and still he got the juicy bits of character development that are usually reserved to the protagonist — hence all the praise that Hugh Grant got for his performance. It’s unfair to say he stole the spotlight when it was so clearly given to him.
Things only get worse when Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory) joins the group as Florence’s pianist. Cosmé is afraid that performing alongside this peculiar singer will destroy his reputation, so we follow his journey from selfish young artist to compassionate friend. The screen time that was given to his journey took away much needed moments with Florence, a character that seemed to only be there to unify St. Clair’s and Cosmé’s unnecessarily bloated plots.
Needless to say that the film barely passes the Bechdel test. The only relevant female character besides Florence is Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda), a working class girl turned rich after marrying mogul Phineas Stark. Agnes is constantly humiliated by her peers because of her crass behavior, but she’s the one who ends up saving the day for Florence. Again, a story much more interesting than St. Clair’s or Cosmé’s.
It isn’t enough giving a woman’s name to a movie if you’re not going to allow her to own it. Florence is treated like this ethereal being, almost like a Virgin Mary, who is only there to help everyone around her. Coincidently or not, they’re all men. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision made by the filmmakers to focus so much on Florence’s sidekicks, but I believe it has to do with giving men something to identify with in a “women’s movie”, as if they were incapable of empathizing with a female character.
Florence is a perfect constant in a world where everyone else is changing and making mistakes. Hollywood needs to stop hijacking its female protagonists from their own movies and start giving them a chance to do things wrong, to make bad decisions, to hurt and be hurt. There’s no other way to grow. And to live.