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The Women Of “Peaky Blinders”: The Strong Presence Of Female Characters In The Series

Throughout its five seasons and eight ongoing years of production, the Peaky Blinders slowly made its way to become one of the biggest and most loved British television drama series, conquering countless fans during its journey to the top. Bringing a theme little explored before, the series talks about a group of gangsters that calls themselves “The Peaky Blinders”, run by the Shelby family in the middle of the Industrial Revolution’s most important city, Birmingham, right after World War I.

Initially targeted for male viewers, the series found a great way to represent their female characters that perfectly mix with the story and doesn’t seem historically inaccurate, showing that women can be just as strong and able to lead as men.

The Aftertaste Of Freedom

Remembering that the show is settled after the first big war, it’s important to know where we are historically speaking at the beginning. When men left to fight in the war, women had to take over the workplace, since they didn’t have many people left to work in the factories, especially in Birmingham, considering the city’s importance for the industrial sector and the presence of the working-class, that needed money to maintain themselves during a dark period. 

When things finally started to go back to normal and men started to come home, women were not ready to give up their place of work and the freedom they’ve wanted for years. Even if legislation was passed to give preference to men while hiring, women were still taking their part in the workplace, as later was represented by Jessie Eden, a female factory worker that was a part of season five. We can also see that with Grace Burgess working as a barmaid (and an Irish spy) in season one, May Carleton as not only the owner of racehorses but also as a race-horse trainer, and Polly Gray (née Shelby), who managed to keep the family business just fine at the absence of her four nephews, Thomas, Arthur and John. As she once reminded Tommy Shelby, the leader of The Peaky Blinders, “sometimes the women have to take over, like in the war”.

Mastering The Manipulation Game

Their ability with manipulation has always helped the Peaky Women survive in a hostile ambient and, consequently, become an active part of the gang when it came to making decisions, especially when talking about Polly. She was able to make Luca Changretta, one of the most important men from the Italian mafia, believe that she would easily give Tommy Shelby away in exchange for her son’s protection. But when talking about manipulation, we cannot leave Grace behind, once her whole story evolved around a lie and a secret identity that got Tommy Shelby not only to trust her but to also fall in love with her. Her role in the series might’ve started by seeming that she would be only the naive pretty girl that was there to give the main character, a cold-hearted man, a love interest. But in the end, Grace was so much bigger than her story trailed for her to be, turning her into one of the biggest characters of the series.

Linda Shelby, Arthur Shelby’s wife later in the series, also has a huge influence over her husband. He almost always does everything he can to protect his wife and satisfy her wishes, ending choosing a Christian life after meeting her and after a history of substance abuse and aggressive behaviour. 

Later, the newest character, Gina Gray’s character – known as Michael Gray’s schemed wife – evolved around her active participation on Michael’s part of the Shelby Company Limited, more importantly, on how she manipulated her husband on betraying Tommy Shelby as taking control of the company’s last business of shipping pure opium.

Picking Their Own Battles And Speaking Up

If there’s one thing they don’t do is keep their mouths shut. All the women of the Peaky Blinders have, at least once, spoken up in moments of injustice or whenever was needed, and the men tend to lower their heads when they speak. Even though Polly is most known for being verbal of her decisions and opinions, we can say that all of the women need their credit in this part. Grace has confronted Polly and Tommy constantly during her brief participation in the series.

Ada Shelby is more than just this spoiled girl that came from a family of wealthy gangsters. She was the first woman in the series to speak about her political choice of being a part of the Communist Party, which has put her in jail danger multiple times. She’s actively critical of the Shelby lifestyle and was the first Shelby to not be involved with the Peaky Blinders from the beginning. Another woman that was actively involved with the communist was Jessie Eden, on season five.

Linda and Lizzie Stark also tend to speak about their wishes and thoughts to their respective husbands, Arthur and Tommy Shelby. Before Lizzie was even married to Tommy, they’d communicate a lot as she was his secretary and old “affair”, but she would never take his bullshit with her head down. Linda also never takes silent treatment from her husband and she always looks him in the eyes to know exactly what they are doing.

Part Of The Family, Part Of The Gang

Once you’re involved with a Shelby, you are automatically part of the Peaky Blinders. Even though the gang is run majorly by men, the women have a lot of power over the group, including in the decisions and actions. They are rough and cold-blooded, which helps a lot during the countless conflicts the gang goes through.

Even though Grace died before taking any part on the Shelby Company or the Peaky Blinders, women like Esme, Linda and Lizzie are a perfect example of wives that eventually became a part of the business. Esme’s marriage with John was at first only a peace statement between the Blinders with the gipsy family, the Lees, but she eventually became an active member of the family, taking part in their decisions with her husband. Linda got to sit down at the table in some of the family meetings and Lizzie got to get closer involvement after Tommy offered her a job in their company. 

But in reality, the women they listened to and took their opinion into consideration the most were Ada and Polly. Not only were they Shelby by blood, but they were also the ones with a more active voice in the gang. They always knew the right thing to do and to say, turning them into an important key for both the family and their business.

Aunt Polly

Undoubtedly, Elizabeth Gray (née Shelby) is one of the highlights of the series as a whole. She is the matriarchy and the mother figure of the family, given the fact that she’s the only grown woman left in the family. Everyone seems to be quite fond of her, especially all the Shelby siblings, especially Tommy and Ada, who always go to her for advice in life and business. Michael, her son, also seems to have a special connection with her, even if he grew up away from his biological mother. Once they met again, when Michael was almost eighteen, they became an inseparable mother-son duo that would do anything to protect the other.

Polly knows who to be tough, how to stand up for herself and her family. It’s common to see her taking every problem with her head held high and a loud clear voice. She doesn’t need any of the men, not even Tommy, to make a decision for her, turning it into her biggest personality trait. And she never takes anything home with her, preferring to resolve the situation right away. She’s expressed her untrusty and dislike for Grace once she found out about her betrayal. She seduced Aberama Gold and manipulated Luca Changretta to protect her son.

And most importantly, she’s not afraid to get messy. The first scene with Polly in Peaky Blinders was with her holding a gun to her nephew’s head, already showing all of her power from the very first time. Polly killed one of the series’ biggest antagonists, Chester Campbell, in cold blood. 

She was played by Helen McCrory, who died in 2021 after a long battle against cancer. Helen will always be remembered by the Peaky Blinders fans as Aunt Polly, the strongest woman in the show and one of the best characters ever seen on drama television.

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The article above was edited by Larissa Mariano.

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Rafaela Bertolini

Casper Libero '23

Journalism student with a dubious taste in series, books, movies and music. Oh, and please send me a picture of your cat!
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