In the opening moments of “Genius: Aretha,” Cynthia Erivo’s Aretha Franklin is seen on stage as her career begins to skyrocket. The scene then cuts to Franklin in a gaggle of reporters, peppered with questions, one of which comes from a man asking whether her children were in the audience. Franklin responds, “It’s past their bedtime.” To which the man snickers in reply, “Weren’t you a mother at that age?”
“Genius: Aretha” is one of several recent series, in both the scripted and docuseries space, that offers nuanced and unapologetic portraits of female historical and pop-culture figures. Telling their tales now, and under the careful influence of female leadership, allows these projects to reflect the cultural awakening about sexism and gender stereotypes that existed in film and TV since the days of silent movies.
With “Genius: Aretha,” the deft female hands behind-the-scenes include Courteney Monroe, president of National Geographic Global Television Networks, and Suzan-Lori Parks, who penned the scripts for all eight episodes. Nowhere are their sharp eyes more evident than in the show’s handling of the fact that Franklin became a mother at the age of 12. Rather than making it a source of shame — other than showing glimpses of how outsiders instantly judged her — Franklin’s early entrée to parenthood is dealt with as part of her journey.
“One of the laws of writing is, write what you know. One of the advantages of having been a 12-year-old girl myself is that I know what that was like,” Parks says.
The reconsideration of how prominent women have been treated by history hit a fever pitch earlier this year when the Samantha Stark-directed “Framing Britney Spears” documentary, an episode of FX’s “The New York Times Presents” series, sparked some soul-searching for the media establishment. The level of misogyny displayed in mainstream media coverage of Spears’ public trauma a decade ago was shocking when viewed through a post-#MeToo lens.
Similarly, Netflix’s “The Crown” has excelled in delivering three-dimensional portraits of iconic women. In Season 4, Gillian Anderson made Margaret Thatcher come alive beyond her “Iron Lady” image and helmet of teased hair, while Emma Corrin’s knockout performance reinforced how young and vulnerable Princess Diana was when she walked down the aisle with Prince Charles in 1981 — and how clueless she was about her husband’s true love.
“We’re very aware that, after getting more and more closer to the present day, there is obviously a very emotional sense of responsibility and [the need to] conduct ourselves as well as we possibly can, whilst allowing people the freedom to find the drama, and to find the stories that connect and that feel truthful,” says “The Crown” executive producer Suzanne Mackie. “I think people will bring to it their own memories, their own sense of ‘Gosh, I remember what it felt like when…’ The drama has to reflect that emotional connection.”
Emily Carman, associate professor of film studies at Chapman University, stresses the importance of that personal perspective. “There are more female directors and writers working in Hollywood and that means you’re getting that point of view in a more multi-faceted way than ever before,” she says. “It’s finally coming through in the way these stories are told and which stories are greenlit. It’s making us think about how we can revisit how we tell the [true] stories of women’s involvement in history.”
The women behind “Genius: Aretha,” Lifetime’s “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” and Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” undoubtedly helped shape those eponymous leads’ stories so that they showcased more than just home, family and romantic relationships. Specifically, all three of these bio projects focus heavily on women striving for professional success and achievement.
Alena Smith, creator and showrunner of “Dickinson,” says part of her goal with her comedy is to counter the conventional wisdom that the titular character was morose and isolated for most of her life. Smith says there has been a steady stream of scholarly research, based on Dickinson’s letters and poems, to demonstrate that young Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) had more control of her 19th century life than history has presented.
“Our version of Emily is never a victim of circumstance even though her circumstances were difficult, especially because of her gender,” she says. “She’s a very paradoxical, very mysterious figure, which invites reinterpretation.”
Linda Berman, an executive producer of “Mahalia,” says that film’s storytelling focus was firmly on the titular Mahalia Jackson’s determination to use her voice as a spiritual vessel.
“She spoke to people through her music,” Berman says. “In her mind, God was speaking through her. She was so magnetic and determined to reach people.”
For “Genius: Aretha,” Franklin’s story was rooted in her outsized talent as a musician from the start. Although she did not formally read music, Franklin’s raw talent and instincts helped define the sound of her generation. “Lady singers were for so long looked at as ‘Oh, she has great pipes,’ but not as musicians,” Parks says. “It was very important to me to show her as a brilliant pianist. She was the one in the studio crafting her sound.”
The question whose stories are told and why is particularly fraught when it comes to the stories of women from underrepresented backgrounds.
“Historically, Black women and other women of color haven’t had a lot of biopics. The question is, why do we prioritize some stories over others?” says Roxane Gay, author and cultural commentator. “When women’s stories are told from a male point of view, they tend to tell such weird slices of the story.”
Parks credits Erivo and a strong supporting cast for bringing depth and nuance to the relationships that were most important in Franklin’s life. During the filming of Episode 2, Parks recalls Erivo and Patrice Covington, who plays Franklin’s sister Erma, questioning the nature of the conversation in the script between the two of them about the men in their lives. The actors suggested that the sisters would be more likely to drink wine and trade a few barbs. Parks recalls ducking behind a curtain on the set to do a lightning-fast rewrite.
That moment of female collaboration stands out to Parks because it embodied the spirit of striving to find the authentic core of both women.
“We’ve been trained to see women in a certain way just like we’ve been trained to see Black people in a certain way,” Parks says. “As artists we have to endeavor to look at each other and find who we really are.” Manori Ravindran contributed to this report.