One of the first books that I picked up after deciding to become a physicist in sixth grade was A Brief History of Time. Reading it, I was struck by the elegant way that Stephen Hawking related the most intricate concepts of the universe. My appetite for learning unsated, I read numerous other books about Professor Hawking and the group of physicists who developed groundbreaking new theories about black holes. Until recently, I had solely attributed Professor Hawking’s success to his undeniable brilliance—however, after seeing The Theory of Everything, my ideas have been shifted.
I saw this film at the AMC Rosedale 14, in Roseville, the suburb that I live in. The building was built rather recently, as an expansion to the Rosedale Mall, and is well designed, with comfortable stadium seating. Tickets were $11.50, because we went to a Friday evening showing. We were not explicitly encouraged to purchase any food or drink, but indirectly, we had to walk past the concessions in order to get to any of the theatres. I went with one of my best friends, because we both deeply admire Professor Hawking’s work. Most of the people in the audience were couples in their fifties, with a few college-aged couples. The audience mostly talked amongst themselves, and didn’t interact with each other. There was laughter during the humorous moments, but it was mostly quiet. From the background conversations, it seemed like most of the audience were interested in the film because it was advertised as a romance, and were unfamiliar with most of the theories presented within the film.
The film is a biopic, depicting the story of Professor Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde. Directed by James Marsh and starring Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for his performance) as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane, it was based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by Jane Hawking. The film starts with their meeting at a party in Cambridge, and progresses through his development of ALS, their marriage, and subsequently their life together. Following the biopic genre convention of detailing a great struggle, the film depicts his inspiring journey in the face of great adversity. Despite being heavily marketed as the story of Professor Hawking, the film is much more the story of Jane—her struggles and growth mark her as a strong woman who modulates between being a feminist and postfeminist subject, and ultimately the reason behind his successes. None of the books that I had read mentioned Jane more than briefly, and ultimately the film is a refreshing success in its portrayal of an unconventional story.
Over the course of the film, as Eddie Redmayne is forced to act inwards due to the confining nature of Stephen’s disease, more and more of the outward emotional weight of the film is carried by Felicity Jones. Her portrayal of Jane highlights her changes but also resoundingly emphasizes her equality with Stephen on all counts, emotionally and intellectually.
She is a feminist character, consistently fighting for her status as an equal to Stephen, never taking anything for granted and working harder than anyone else, and eschewing the idea that a woman caring for an ailing husband and children must be confined to her household duties. Jane pursues and eventually receives a Ph.D. in Medieval Spanish Poetry despite dedicating much of her time to his care. Her anger is never suppressed, and she expresses her thoughts freely despite knowing the difficult impact that they might have on her husband. In many ways, her efforts follow the general idea of the woman’s film as Hollinger describes it, “overcoming pain and hardship in order to control [her] own fate” in a “film of sacrifice” (Hollinger 38).
She is a sympathetic character in the way that many of these films expect, as they are “traditionally associated with domesticity, romance, and sentiment…defined by the centrality of its female protagonist, its attempt to deal with issues deemed important to women, and an address to a female audience” (Hollinger 37). However, unlike many of these protagonists, Jane possesses a strength that is relatable and admirable. She pulls Stephen through many of their difficulties, forcing him to keep working because she knows he can, convincing him to use a wheelchair and accepting that he needs to adapt to his disease, and even doing much of his work for him, collaborating and helping him type when he could not. All of this is accomplished even while maintaining her humor and happiness in their relationship.
Her ability is never questioned. Jane constantly seeks to understand Stephen intellectually despite his reluctance to share with her at times. She attends his lectures, reads his texts, and talks to him in order to learn about his work. This is not an attempt from her to avoid being ignorant, but from a genuine curiosity in his work that stems from her love, despite their drastic disagreements on the subject of God and the beginning of the universe.
The camera supports the equality of Jane and Stephen, as shots are made from the perspective of the characters, but also often at the level of their faces. Even though Stephen is often in a wheelchair, there is no looking up or looking down at each other. Jane reinforces this by kneeling or bending down to speak to Stephen, but always in a way which makes them equals.
As a feminist character, she is allowed to show pain, in the end giving up and accepting everything that has been forced onto her life so far, telling Stephen “I have loved you. I did my best”. This is the summary of her relationship—that despite ending, they still remain friends, and her selflessness and love is what made it possible.
There are aspects of postfeminism that do not entirely clash with more traditional ideas of feminism, despite its purpose of seeking to rebel against it. In many ways, this makes Jane a more nuanced character. Not only does she embody the strong woman who fights for her equality, she also possesses an individuality that guides her actions.
In Postfeminist Media Culture, Gill describes the idea that “the notion that all our practices are freely chosen is central to postfeminist discourses”, while emphasizing that “every aspect of life is refracted through the idea of personal choice and self-determination” (Gill 153). This is absolutely the decision made by Jane early on in their relationship as she decides to stay with Stephen even after his diagnosis and bleak prognosis. Even as he states, “you don’t know what’s coming”, she is adamant that she will not leave, proclaiming “I want us to be together for as long as we’ve got, and if that’s not very long, well then that’s just how it is.” She is confident in her decision and refuses to let anything sway her, emphasizing the postfeminist sensibility of empowerment and taking control.
Jane is fully aware of the responsibilities and difficulties that she would be burdened with, but she makes this decision entirely on her own. The individuality that she embodies is a testament to her strength rather than lack of foresight. Although she committed to the relationship believing it to only last a few years, her tenacity is apparent and she sticks with her decision despite everything. In all of her struggles, she still remains positive and the camera supports her—the lighting is consistently bright and optimistic, with sunlight often streaming through windows. Even when she meets Jonathan in his tent and infidelity is implied, the lighting is entirely dark and her decisions are never questioned.
Despite this, one aspect of the film that struck me as odd was that despite the seemingly continuous timeline, Jane’s pregnancies were consistently skipped. The plot would jump from her announcing a pregnancy to the baby being a few months old. This almost perfectly aligns with the postfeminist narrative of never showing the difficulties of being a woman while still maintaining the ideal image.
Furthermore, Jane is always perfectly dressed, with beautifully done hair and fashionable clothes. She embodies a feminine ideal of always looking beautiful while also showing none of the effort. Never in the film is she shown dressing herself or putting together her look. Gill describes this sensibility as, “this labour must be understood nevertheless as ‘fun’, ‘pampering’, or ‘self-indulgence’ and must never be disclosed” (Gill 155). However, she is never an object for the male gaze. This is not due to her unavailability, but rather to the construction of her character by the camera and the film environment. She is the ideal woman, and strong enough to overcome the gaze to the point of being admired for her actions rather than her figure.
The duality of the film in its depiction of Jane as feminist and postfeminist echoes the duality of equally overcoming a struggle on both sides of Jane and Stephen’s relationship. The film ends happily, as Stephen and Jane look out at their children after Stephen receives a commendation from the Queen. He says “look what we made”, again emphasizing the equality of their relationship. The film then rewinds back to the beginning, echoing Stephen’s idea of winding back the clock to find the theory of everything at the beginning of time, and ends with the moment they met, the beginning of their time together.
Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(147), 147-166. doi:10.1177/1367549407075898
Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. N.p.: Routledge, 2012. 190-203. Print.