Women's Lives on Screen

New Women’s Biopics: Performance and the Queering of Herstor/ies





performance, postfeminist biopic, metabiography, queer


This article revisits the debates about the postfeminist biopic in the 21st century through the films Wild Nights with Emily (Olnek, 2018), Florence Foster Jenkins (Frears, 2016), The Favourite (Lanthimos, 2018) and particularly Colette (Westmoreland, 2018) to examine the ways in which new women’s biopics queer women’s histories. The article examines the debates about representation concerning the female biopic (Bingham 2010, Polaschek 2013), especially the problematic conflation of a woman’s body/sexuality with her body of work and proposes an analysis of screen biography as a filmic (that is, mediated) event open to non-normative identifications and desires. Biopics of women demand a shift in focus from representation to performance, both in relation to the actor’s function as the cornerstone of the biographical fiction and in relation to the performativity of the genre itself. Drawing on Landsberg (2015), I argue that new women’s biopics stage encounters between the spectator and the historical figure through different forms of mediation. In this respect, I examine the modalities of reflexive performance in connection with queer bodies and subjectivities in the first three films cited above, before moving on to a case study on Colette.

Colette largely plays in the mid-Atlantic idiom of the postfeminist biopic (Polaschek 2013), including a non-imitative star turn by Keira Knightley, whose star persona is briefly analysed, yet the film’s queerness entertains a complex relationship with this postfeminist framework. While queer identities risk becoming diluted into the standard trajectory of female emancipation proposed by the film (a narrative invested with added urgency in the post-#MeToo moment), performance inflects this narrative differently: the intermedial mise-en-scène (particularly photographic posing, theatre, and dance) makes Colette a biopic equally concerned with the retrieval of women’s histories as with the production of the queer female self against the backdrop of patriarchal cultural industries.

Author Biography

Belén Vidal, King’s College London

Belén Vidal is Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London. Her research focuses on the historical film genres in contemporary European cinemas, and on Spanish film historiography. She is the co-editor of The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture (Routledge 2014) and the author of the monographs Figuring the Past. Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic (Amsterdam UP 2012) and Heritage Film. Nation, Genre and Representation (Wallflower/Columbia UP 2012).





Women's Lives on Screen