Is Peaky Blinders a Feminist Masterpiece?

If you’ve clicked on this article after reading its title and have not seen this show, please be aware that I will be sprinkling in some pretty heavy spoilers. This is your final warning to click away if you’re still looking to be blissfully unaware of the graphically violent cinematic genius that is Peaky Blinders. 

If you’ve clicked on this article after reading its title and are wondering to yourself how a show that predominantly consists of a bunch of angry British guys slashing people’s eyes out is a feminist masterpiece… fair enough. But, in my (non-slashed out) eyes, it is! Here’s why:

Peaky Blinders is essentially an amazingly-produced, incredibly-acted, perfectly-executed gangster movie turned five—soon to be six!—season tv series (if you can’t tell by now, I love myself some Peaky Blinders). And if you know anything about gangster films, you know that feminism is not necessarily a top priority of the genre. The gangs covered in some of our favorite movies today—The Godfather, anyone?—primarily take on a patriarchal structure, in which one ultra-powerful family operates in a hierarchy in which power is distributed in various degrees to its male relatives. In other words, the men are running the show. This delegates very few roles to the women of these movies, who are oftentimes cast as female relatives, love interests, or secondary villains of some nature. The domineering and violent nature of many of the male gangster characters, whether hero or villain, is perfectly offset by physically beautiful and soft-spoken female characters, bolstering the effectiveness of the characteristics defining the male leads. So, female roles in gangster movies essentially serve as glorified counter-agents to the alpha male leads. 

cup in front of tv with Netflix logo Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

At first glance, Peaky Blinders reinforces this formula. The Shelby family at the center of the show is run by a group of brothers, committing egregious acts of aggression (try saying that five times fast) and plotting almost exclusively amongst themselves to take over Birmingham and, later, much of England. The female characters in the show seem to follow the tropes above as being simply relatives or wives to the series' male stars; as it progresses, however, arguably it’s the female characters that run the show. Polly Shelby, the aunt of the three brothers at the head of the Shelby family, uses her intellect to challenge and guide leader Tommy Shelby at every turn. To be honest, out of all of the show’s most sinister and powerful villains, I’d argue that Aunt Polly has given Tommy a run for his money the most. Polly is an outspoken proponent of the idea that the Shelby women have far more common sense than its men, and is the owner of, frankly, bad-ass quotes such as “I’m twice the man you are” and “sometimes the women have to take over”. It seems that Polly has sway over almost every one of Tommy’s decisions, making it highly possible that she’s the true leader of the Shelby family after all. Take that, sexist gangster movies!

Shelby sister Ada isn’t exactly what you’d call a pushover either: She married her brothers’ worst enemy, dabbled in Communism, and calmly walked into the middle of a gunfight between rival gangs in order to essentially chastise them for their violence. I don’t even think I need to unpack that one. The brothers’ eventual wives resist gangster tropes as well. Tommy’s first wife Grace is a quick-witted spy; his second wife Lizzie is a former prostitute who essentially runs all of the lucrative Shelby family businesses while raising their child. Arthur Shelby’s wife, Linda, is a highly religious woman who to me somehow presents as both the perfect villain and one of the most intriguing of the show’s characters. Linda uses her powers of manipulation to consistently get her way when it comes to her less, um, intellectually gifted husband (sorry, Arthur!), making her the more dominant of the couple despite Arthur’s extremely menacing reputation. She also maintains a staunch spirituality despite the sinfulness of her family-in-law’s lifestyle, providing her character with a belief system and internal conflict that has rarely been afforded to the surface-level wives of gangsters in prior films. Oh, and John Shelby’s wife actually tried to rob the Shelby family vault to fuel her love of cocaine. In terms of character development, you really can’t top the drama of that. 

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Based on this string of examples, you might be thinking one of two things. Either that I’m way too into this show and shouldn’t be able to recite this many quotes or anecdotes at the drop of a hat, or, that there’s actually some riveting characterization and progression of female characters when it comes to this show! I really hope it’s the second option, but if you’re resonating more with the first, I wouldn’t blame you. All I really want to say here is that, sometimes ridiculous examples aside, there’s something so incredibly liberating about seeing the female characters in this gangster show being treated by its writers as just as full of potential, just as impactful, just as worth developing as its male characters. Plus, in my humble opinion, the women in Peaky Blinders are probably collectively smarter, more interesting, and come from more diverse upbringings and ideologies than its male characters. The fact that this was all done within the backdrop of a genre practically designed to push female characters to the background makes me think that the show’s writers purposefully attempted to spin the popular tropes of gangster wives, female relatives, and villains on their heads. And I can’t thank them enough for it!