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With HOWARDS END, Hayley Atwell Continues to Subvert Female Characterizations

With HOWARDS END, Hayley Atwell Continues to Subvert Female Characterizations

The days of the one-dimensional female character are, hopefully, falling to the wayside. After collectively reaching our limit as one half of the current dominant species on this planet, the demand for moving beyond long-held female tropes has resulted in a new crop of women being portrayed on-screen. And that is largely thanks to the likes of Hayley Atwell and other actresses like her who simply demand more. The woman who brought Peggy Carter to life in the Marvel universe has consistently looked for roles where the women aren’t simply damsels in distress or Strong Female Characters (SFC), living in the much more nuanced in-between, and her latest role—playing Margaret Schlegel in Starz and Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of the classic E. M. Forster novel Howards End—is exactly that.

For Atwell, it’s all about looking for more. It’s something she and the original Margaret (from the 1992 adaptation), her mentor Emma Thompson, discuss regularly. “Emma Thompson still remains a mentor to me—we worked together ten years ago—and she’s so great, so real, so whole and individuated as a person,” Atwell relayed to us giddily in conversation back in July. “She’s very bright and we were talking the other day about a female-led play about suicide. I emailed her and I was like ‘it’s really good, it’s really, really good, but why—when I think about all the parts I really want to play on the English stage—in the canon of great parts, why do pretty much all of them involve women who are either suicidal, having a nervous breakdown, or hysterical in some way? Or a villain?’ And she replied, ‘Yes, and all these finding myself stories—I mean for fucks’ sake I’m right here!’ And it’s so true.”

There’s more to women than our victimhood or ability to rise above such, and it’s something vitally important to Atwell and her career.

“People say to me, ‘you play such strong women,'” Atwell explained, clearly annoyed at the backhandedness of the compliment in 2018. “Well, why would you say that as if women aren’t strong? It’s really reductive, because it gives more credence to strength and tells us that vulnerability is therefore a weakness or something to be ignored or bring shame. That women have to be masculine and male to be considered strong.”

For generations, the “damsel in distress” model was the de-facto way to represent women on screen. In the late ’90s and early aughts, however, things began to shift to the polar opposite: the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Strong Female Character—think Ripley in Alien or Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones. It’s an idea as toxic as the damsel: forcing women, again, to exist in relation to the male interpretation of what it means to be “strong” or “weak,” making women either devoid of or hyper-emotional. Which isn’t to say there aren’t women that are more masculine Ripley or Brienne types, but it’s just as harmful as portraying them as only weak and in need of rescue. One looks at a woman purely as heart (damsel), the other as mind (SFC), and both limit the realities of what it means to exist as a woman.

And Atwell agrees. “There’s actually a bigger conversation to be had there about strength as just another way to categorize or reduce women to one thing or another.”

The women of Howards End are a bit of an anomaly to their time. They are, for lack of a better word, getting woke to the injustices thrust upon the experiences of the lower classes and trying to figure out how to live in a world where “what’s proper” is being questioned and redefined. Atwell’s character, Margaret, is a woman who leads with her heart and mind together—an idealist seated comfortably in the upper middle class, alongside her sister Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard), the more brash and, arguably, less grounded of the two.

Both women, however, revel in the fire in their bellies, which isn’t exactly what one would expect from a period piece set in this time. That fire sets this Edwardian piece apart from its predecessors; the women don’t merely exist, they question, they reconsider, and fight for something more. “That’s really sort of unusual, to have women of that class at that time, checking their own privilege and realizing that they are indirectly responsible for” the things that happened to others in lower classes, Atwell relayed.

In “archive footage and images of Edwardian women, when you see them they seem very stilted and ghostlike–and it’s almost like a lot of period dramas acted like that, quite stilted and mannered,” explained Atwell. “One of the reasons they looked like that is because it just took a long time for a photograph to be taken.” So when the team creating the film happened upon a bunch of street photography, everything opened up and became more three dimensional and real. “We found these action shots of these women—smoking cigarettes, carrying books, laughing with friends, walking through the streets—and we thought ‘let’s use all of that in our performances; let’s make it feel like it’s real.'”

And just like that, women once considered far more tempered and mannered are rocketed into fully realized life, whole and complicated, idealized and the idealizers, existing in more than one dimensional realms—leaping forth from the images of the time. It’s a similar feel to another Atwell character: Agent Peggy Carter. And like Margaret, Peggy, too, was shaped by Atwell’s desire to bring more of the reality of the female experience to the screen.

“It was so important to me. Like, can we make it so that her and Angie have a nice relationship? Can we see two women who like each other? Can we see Peggy as a woman who likes other women?” Atwell posited. “Because that’s my experience. Let’s see more of what it’s really like, without the reductive cattiness.”

Though Howards End is, according to Atwell, “ultimately about Helen and Margaret,” it’s also about how Margaret, who is “aware of her hypocrisy and her privilege, wants to know, she wants to understand, she wants to connect” beyond that, and the cost of such awareness in that era. “There’s a cost to being awake: when we realize our own hypocrisy, or we discover we got something really wrong, the emotional sobriety or feelings of shame and guilt that might come through that can also be too scary for people to want to live a conscious life.”

Thankfully, “Margaret is very modern [in that regard], but she also reminds me of the celebrities that think they’re now experts in how people should live their lives. They become lifestyle brands and inspirational speakers. And it’s really all about manipulating people to fuel one’s own narcissism. That power can be abused.”

And it’s something that translates into her real life. Atwell explained to me she regularly considers, “What’s my part in terms of my public voice? And am I checking my privilege here? How can I live a life that’s acceptable and tolerable to me but keeps me in touch? Well, it comes from doing work like Howards End, which encourages these types of conversations. This is who we are.”

Howards End premieres on Sunday, April 8 on Starz. Are you going to be tuning in? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Starz; ABC/Marvel

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor, creator/host of Fangirling, and resident Khaleesi of House Nerdist. Find her on Twitter!

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