Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper: Women Who Write for Freedom in Modern Media
Stranger Than Fiction | Columbia Pictures, Jane the Virgin | The CW, Bridget Jones’ Diary | Universal Pictures,
13 Going on 30 | Columbia Pictures, The Help | Walt Disney Studios
This article contains spoilers for the movies Set It Up (2018) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2018). Plus, a host of other movies and tv shows from the last few decades. Deal with it.
“I don’t know why I should write this.
I don’t want to.
I don’t feel able.
And I know John would think it absurd.
But I must say what I feel and think
in some way—it is such a relief!”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman | The Yellow Wallpaper
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is a woman who describes to us her gradual descent into madness. She believes that she is sick, but what her husband (a physician) prescribes for treatment is anything but helpful. Luckily, we’ve come far from nineteenth-century “rest” prescriptions a la The Yellow Wallpaper. In that story, as was so often the case at the time, the narrator was told to abstain from intellectual life, namely writing anything at all, in order to recover from what would be known as post-partum depression. Gilman herself was afflicted with this disorder, and was prescribed rest from writing. After three months of following that advice, she almost went insane, but then, “using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again… ultimately recovering some measure of power” (Gilman, qtd. in Gorelick 70). She literally wrote her way out.
According to Catherine Golden, “[Gilman] defied her doctor in 1890 not only by writing ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ but also, more specifically, by creating a protagonist who also writes.” (qtd. in Gorelick 71). In the story Gilman writes, the narrator is desperately trying to write in secret, forbidden to do so until her doctor give her permission. She writes:
“Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” (Gilman).
The narrator writes in secret, knowing instinctively that the mental release will help her. Because she can’t control her own situation by changing the mind of her husband or family, she represents those frustrations with her inability to control the wallpaper. That is her projected struggle—she sees herself trapped within it, struggling to escape, and that is what she writes about. Soon, writing itself becomes a struggle:
“I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.” (Gilman)
“I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.
But I find I get pretty tired when I try.” (Gilman)
Confining her to this large room with ugly, twisting, haunting wallpaper, her doctor/husband has taken away her autonomy. She is stripped of everything but her own demons and is not allowed the one way she has to exorcise them: writing.
A few weeks ago, two new movies appeared on Netflix, and it seemed like everyone I knew was talking about them. Texts and social media posts directed me to watch Set It Up and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, referred to as just Guernsey for those who could spell it. “They’re great!” said my friends. “They have happy endings!” said more. I was convinced – I needed some lighthearted romantic comedy movies to get me through the weekend.
After I watched them both, and then again when I showed them to friends, I noticed a trend. In both movies, the female lead was a writer. I thought, great, this is why I liked the stories so much. I can see myself in the motivations of these characters because I’m a writer too. But what exactly made that compelling, and why were both of them writers? What is inherent in the act of writing that allowed these women the freedom of their own happy endings? In this post, I’m going to examine why these characters needed to write, and explore how women writing has been a trend for years in movies, TV shows, and books, all the way back to “Reader, I married him,” in Jane Eyre.
First let’s dive in to Set It Up. In the movie, two overworked CEO’s assistants, Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell), devise a plan to ‘set up’ their two insanely demanding bosses so that they can have more free time. Appropriate shenanigans ensue, and it comes down to what the next step is for the careers of the assistants. I’ll focus on Harper, here:
“I work for Kirsten because I wanna write the article that made me cry when I was a little girl, and Kirsten’s the best sports journalist there is… I haven’t written anything or finished writing anything. My days are so long and so exhausting it’s like when I have time, everything I write is…bad.” (Erbland)
Harper’s ultimate dream is to become a sports writer like her boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu), a “pioneering sports reporter who has struck out with her own site that Harper desperately wants to write for someday” (Erbland). Harper has been unable to follow in the footsteps of her boss because she’s been overworked, or that is at least her excuse. Yet, now that she has the free time, she hasn’t been writing. It is not until her friend points out:
“You’re not a bad writer yet. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and just write something bad.” (Erbland).
This, among other incidents in the movie (fights with Charlie, for instance), spur Harper to finally write the first draft of an article she’d been planning for months.
“I’m gonna write…the shittiest article ever written.” (Erbland).
Harper, struggling to write and finally achieving her goal. | Set It Up | Netflix
Harper sits down, writes the draft, and it seems as though the solutions to all of her life’s problems were riding on finally writing what she has always wanted to. Let’s bring out the tally. After completing this draft, she: reconnects with her boss/hero who becomes her mentor, is able to open up and forgive Charlie for their fights, has the freedom to pursue a relationship with Charlie, and leaves the audience with the feeling that we "really can have it all,” like any good rom-com hero should.
All in all, a fairly standard ending to a romantic comedy. However, it was not until I watched Guernsey and did a little thinking that I noticed anything interesting about Harper’s chosen profession.
Let’s get into Guernsey, a “crumbly oatmeal biscuit of a movie” according to a review from Variety (Lodge). The female lead named Juliet is an author in post-World War II London. After her parents were killed in the bombings, Juliet found a career in writing that blossomed after the war. This summary from Forbes sums up the beginning of her authoring journey well:
“In 1946, author Juliet Ashton (Lily James) is on tour promoting her latest book, which she penned under the pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff. Immediately, we catch her strained smile as she presents herself in a bookshop...The public instead fancies polite stories from her; her audience laughs heartily at her new collection, English Foibles: A Miscellany of English Absurdity, while she grimaces. Only her onlooking publisher, Sidney (Matthew Goode), detects her weariness, her mounting frustration that she must write trivial essays under a male name, doubly reminding her that a woman’s authenticity doesn’t sell copies.” (DeShong)
Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, the “knockout handsome pig farmer” (Turan) living on Guernsey Island, who came across her address in an old book. He introduces himself as a founding member of the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” and she instantly becomes hooked on his story. Juliet journeys to the island, excited at the prospect of writing about this mysterious Society, leaving behind a fiancée and her soured career commitments in London.
“What books, what… reading did for these people. Finally, I’ll have something serious to write.”(Newell)
Grudgingly accepted into the circle of friends, Juliet interviews each member, trying to solve the mystery of the one who is missing. However, the Society forbids her from publishing her account. Reluctantly back in London and back with her estranged fiancée, Juliet realizes that she is with the wrong man, dumps her fiancée, and writes about the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society like her life depends upon it. Relishing in her completed project, Juliet sends the manuscript to the Society along with a letter.
“Know that this manuscript is yours alone to do with what you will. I will not publish it. That’s not why I wrote it.” (Newell)
Juliet presenting an Izzy Bickerstaff novel at Foyles, Juliet finally writing about the Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society | Netflix
Finally released from writing in a male voice, from writing only her publisher believes will make money, Juliet writes the truth and sends the only manuscript to Dawsey. He reads it and, of course, realizes he’s in love with her. This release of tension gets her several things: a new family in the Society, a husband, an adopted daughter, a home, and a fresh change to her career. These two instances may seem insignificant, but placed in a continuum of media from the past few decades, a pattern begins to emerge: women who write to gain freedom. Freedom in their career, their autonomy, and most significantly (to hold true to the rom-com medium) freedom in their love life.
I asked friends to help me come up with a list, as “female characters who write” is not a valid search term, and the results were surprising. Titles came from the top of their head, as well as mine:
13 Going on 30, where adult Jenna (Jennifer Garner) has new and creative ideas for the magazine she works at, putting her into more contact with her almost-beau Matt (Mark Ruffalo).
The Bridget Jones’ Diary movies (and books) are narrated from the pages of her diaries, in which she figures out her career and love life while writing.
Jane Gloriana Villanueva, (Gina Rodriguez) in the CW series Jane the Virgin, finds creative and sexual freedom while writing romance novels in the show.
In The Help (2011), a young, white, aspiring journalist Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan interviews black maids, namely Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Skeeter eventually gets offered a job in New York City for her anonymous success, and Aibileen looks to start writing as a career.
In Stranger Than Fiction (2006), the entire plot is controlled by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). In all the books she had written thus far, the main character dies. In the movie, she has a revelation and changes the story, releasing her from her murderous authorial trap.
Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) writes the story of her life with her mother in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016). This move seemingly allows her to escape the ill-suited job of journalist so she can move forward with other career and family plans.
This is not by any means a complete list. In the past few decades, dozens of movies and TV shows have featured women in various writing professions, and in most cases with similar story arcs. Write the thing, get the rewards.
I should point out that almost all of the women I’ve mentioned are white, middle to upper class, and conventionally attractive, but I’m not here to criticize the diversity problem in mainstream media. Writing, for women in all of these stories, is a radical act of freedom toward a more perfect and fulfilling life. Fiction writers create these meta-writing barriers for their female characters as a plot point – this is how to achieve their happiness, through creative expression in the written medium. Overcoming this obstacle (which is the only option for the characters) most often rewards in romantic freedom. Writing that perfect article or their life story releases them magically from past bad boyfriends and shitty circumstances. Other achievements include but are not limited to: sexual freedom, mental freedom, self-psychoanalysis, reclamation of their story, career advancement or change, and gaining a family.
This trend, if you could call it such, appears only in these rom-com type movies and situations, and always with female characters. Why is this trend so gendered? Is writing creatively now women’s work? Why is it in Set It Up that Harper was the one who wanted to write and not Charlie, who was at his job for career advancement only? I pose these questions because I don’t know the answer myself.
The Yellow Wallpaper frames my exploration for what is happening in stories over and over again. Women writing and rewriting and breaking past some sort of barrier in their lives until they have a finished, unique, and amazing final product happens over and over again. The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper has the opposite fate. She cannot write freely or complete her narration. This inability to do so blocks something within her, and she cannot continue to exist as a rational being any longer. She goes insane.
The modern female characters in the movies and TV shows I’ve mentioned take a different route. They eventually overcome those hurdles that allow them the freedom to live their lives, to pursue their career goals, and more evident, to have the perfect life and exist happily ever after with a man. Are these the new Disney princesses – do this one piece of writing and you, too, can be saved / validated / loved by a man?
What does this say about how writers and female creativity in the real world are expected to play out? Our career goals fictionalized somehow become less about being a normal human and more about unlocking some mystical life goal that’s allows for men to enter and correct our lives. Is our story meant to end just after our manuscript is written?
What about that next hurdle? I suppose this is just how old narratives function in our modern storytelling; we crave the Disney-esque happily ever after. Is this a new trope—the manic pixie dream girl but instead frantically desperate writer girl?
Despite my questioning, I like this trend. If anything, it’s relatable to me and other female writers out there. Gorelick’s article about The Yellow Wallpaper was one of the few pieces I found talking about female characters writing as self-expression and an of freedom. Gorelick begins by saying: “Writing has the ability to heal” (70). Writing holds significant power for women in these narratives. It has the ability to shape their entire futures for better or worse. Most importantly, as Gorelick points out in this quote, modern women writing freely and for themselves is a victory in and of itself.
“The Yellow Wallpaper was a result of a society where women were expected to be invisible and stay silent, and when they were in distress, were locked away inside their minds and homes, unable to express thought or creativity” (Gorelick 71).
Thank you to Becca, Gina, Maddi, Brianna, Tinsley, and Regan D. for the help.
DeShong, Travis. "The Quaint Delight of Netflix's 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'." Forbes.com, Forbes, 17 Aug. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/travisdeshong/2018/08/17/the-quaint-delight-of-netflixs-the-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society/#17849df3557f. Accessed 23 Sept. 2018.
Erbland, Kate. "‘Set It Up’ Review: Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell Charm in Netflix’s Best Original Rom-Com Yet." Indiewire.com, Indiewire, 14 June 2018, www.indiewire.com/2018/06/set-it-up-review-zoey-deutch-glen-powell-netflix-rom-com-1201973708/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.
Gilman, Charlotte P. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1892, www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm. Accessed 20 Sept. 2018.
Gorelick, Risa P. "Go Crazy, Girl: Breaking the Silence in The Yellow Wallpaper through Acts of Reading and Writing by Re-Examining Nineteenth-Century Rest Cures under a Television Talk Show Paradigm." Louisiana English Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, 1997, pp. 70-75.
Lodge, Guy. "Film Review: ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’." Variety.com, Variety, 18 Apr. 2018, variety.com/2018/film/reviews/the-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society-review-1202753994/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2018.
Newell, Mike, director. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. , Netflix, 2018.
Scanlon, Clare, director. Set It Up. Katie Silberman, Netflix, 2018.
Turan, Kenneth. "Review: Netflix's ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ is a pleasant throwback romance with a sparkling Lily James." latimes.com, 9 Aug. 2018, www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society-review-20180809-story.html. Accessed 22 Sept. 2018.