Alias Grace is a six-part mini-series on Netflix. It is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction novel about servant and convicted murderess, Grace Marks, played by Sarah Gadon. Similar to Atwood’s classic The Handmaids Tale, Alias Grace discusses the oppression of women. It is set in the 19th century, when Victorian women had to suppress parts of their personality considered to be unfitting and vulgar, thus allowing Atwood and screenwriter Sarah Polley to investigate the multiple identities of women – the one shown to the world and the one buried within. The gender inequality at that time meant that women’s stories were often lost or misconstrued. Alias Grace is a scintillating series which unstitches the complex identities of Victorian women, and provides a chilling resemblance to the lives of women today.
The ultimate question is whether or not Grace Marks was a key player in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Audiences grow increasingly curious as the story unfolds only to find in the end that the answer does not matter. Polley intentionally portrays Grace as an unreliable story teller – she lies and twists her story to get what she deems she deserves from a life under the influence and power of men.
“The gender inequality at the time meant that women’s stories were often lost”
Told from Grace’s point of view, she recounts her life story during interview sessions with Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft). As the story unfolds, it is clear that her sorrows are caused by men’s dominance and power over sex. Grace suffered an abusive relationship by her father. After she escapes to become a servant, she forms a close relationship with a fellow maid, Mary Whitney whom she finds love and comfort in. That friendship is taken away when Mary is impregnated by the son of the house. A sexual relationship with men at the time was intolerable and a fireable offense – after he refuses to marry her, Mary has no choice but to get an unsafe abortion in secret, which kills her. Finally, once Grace moved to become a servant for Mr. Kinnear, his housekeeper – Nancy – who also happens to be his mistress, formed an unwarranted jealousy and dislike towards Grace, which led to her further mistreatment and unhappiness.
Unlike her “good girl” identity which she shows to the world, one of Grace’s personalities is the vivacious, sexual Mary Whitney. These female characters represent the two antithetical identities women could have – a virtuous maiden or a whore. Emerging as Mary, Grace has the freedom to be sexual and expressive. Whether Mary was real or just a character created by Grace to unravel this side of her multifaceted identity remains unclear. This depiction of Victorian women contrasts with historical descriptions of women of the time as “fair maidens in white frocks” absent of any sexual desires.
“The female characters represent the two antithetical identities women could have – a maiden or a whore”
Quilting is used as a metaphor throughout the story as Grace can be seen stitching in every interview session with Dr. Jordan. The act of stitching together two pieces of fabric takes on a larger meaning, representing fragmented pieces of Grace’s story which fit together to form a bigger picture. Furthermore, it represents female labour and domesticity, with the only outlet women having to express their creativity being through domestic objects.
Alias Grace is significant in a time when “women’s rights are incredibly precarious and fragile”, says Polley. Issues relating to reproductive rights, sexual abuse, and victim blaming are as pertinent now as they were 150 years ago. The recent sexual abuse allegations faced by film mogul Harvey Weinstein have proven gender inequality in Hollywood still lives on. Over 50 women have come forward with allegations spanning a period of 30 years – since the allegations, the flood gates have opened with more women and men coming forward accusing other powerful men in Hollywood, proving that sexual abuse is endemic in the film industry. “I’ve grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behaviour, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky”, wrote Polley. The stories of these courageous women are chillingly similar to those in Alias Grace.
“Issues relating to reproductive rights, sexual abuse, and victim blaming are as pertinent now as they were 150 years ago”
Under the Trump presidency, women’s rights seem to have been set back decades. A common picture in the Trump White House portrays a room full of men in positions of power, making decisions and signing bills impacting women’s lives. Trump’s bill to defund Planned Parenthood will limit access to preventive care (birth control services, cancer screenings and pregnancy tests) – the very thing that reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions in the first place. Women should have the liberty to choose when to start a family or to have children at all, and access to birth control gives them that choice – yet another disturbing resemblance to the hardship faced by the women of Alias Grace. The mistreatment of women by men in positions of power has existed since time immemorial. The similarities between the lives of Victorian and 21st century women will force viewers to question the progress made towards gender equality.
Alias Grace is now on Netflix.