Honoring the Heroine: Penny Chenery

Why is it that most movies which feature a female lead are based on real life events? If there are enough real live examples to make for compelling stories, why is it so difficult to create fictional story around a female protagonist? Though, in this case, Penny Chenery is only half the centre of the movie which features her. The real topic of “Secretariat” is, like the name suggest, the race horse “Secretariat” which broke all the records as is to this day considered the greatest race horse of all time.


Nevertheless it is also the story about a woman who decides to rescue her fathers legacy (as always, I will discuss what is in the movie and not what may or may not be true). I once read a review concerning this movie which claimed that it’s biggest failing is that it tries to create an underdog which never really was there in the first place. And I get where this is coming from. “Secretariat” certainly was not an underdog, not more than any other high-breed racing horse is, and Penny Chenery grew up privileged, got a good education and finally married rich. To qualify as an underdog, there should be some sort of seemingly impossible task before one. What Penny Chenery does in the movie is not really “impossible” it is more “difficult”.

But to understand the level of “difficulty” one shouldn’t forget the time it is set. We are talking about a time during which there simply were no woman at all in the Jockey Club, the general attitude towards a married woman (especially one with four children) was that she should take care of the household and leave the “complicated stuff” to the males in her life. It is an attitude which hasn’t died out even today, and which has been not only enforced by men, but also by woman, and even worse, mothers, who basically tell their daughters to look out for a good man who will take care of them.

Ignoring the question of gender, can you imagine you to have a nice, orderly life. And then you suddenly stand before the decision to take over a money-sensitive operation, hoping that your knowledge will be enough despite your lack of experience, or just sell it and going back to your nice orderly life. I think a lot of people would take the easy way out. But Penny Chenery goes for risking everything in order to preserve what is important for her. And that’s what makes the story so interesting. And underdog has nothing to loose. But she has everything to loose, but knows that it is impossible to win anything if you don’t take risks.

Thus said, her struggles are beautifully understated. At no point in this movie there is an outright feminist message. It is more the general attitude which makes clear that what would already be a risky undertaking for a man, is doubly problematic for her. More or less the first thing her brother tells her is that “he is a professor, she is a housewife” and neither of them are equipped to deal with the estate, totally ignoring the fact that her sister does have the education if not the experience to take the task on. Her husband, while he doesn’t earnestly try to hinder her, is not particularly supportive either, leaving her mostly alone with the task of struggling family and the job to turn a struggling stable into a business which writes black numbers again. She often has to deal with employers who carelessly dismiss her, partly because she is a woman, but also because she is very new in the business. And then there is BS like Gentlemen’s Clubs.

Her closest alley in all this is her secretary, who formally worked for her father, and I have to say, it is refreshing to see a movie which not only passes the Bechdel-test, but does so with flying colours. I also love the way her relationship to her oldest daughter, who becomes increasingly involved in the hippy movement, is portrayed. Penny is breaking down barriers by simply walking through it, hoping that the gamble will pay off. Her daughter does it by protesting and pointing out social problems. Both approaches had their place in the history of feminism, and it is nice to see them portrayed as coexisting beside each other and not, like it is sometimes nowadays, as something to fight over.

But naturally most people don’t watch this movie because of feminism, and I really don’t think that a feminist message was even the intention of the writers, they simply wanted to tell a story about a famous racing horse. But in doing so they did manage, accidentally or not, to capture a moment in time, in which old attitudes were slowly breaking down. And it is hard not to admire Penny Chenery for the risks she took when she paved the way for other women. She is not a flashy character. But she certainly one with an iron will.

Quote:  “My father’s legacy is not his money. My father’s legacy is the will to win.”

What really strike me was how quotable this movie is. It is full of inspiring messages, for female and males equally, which are nevertheless never cheesy. I had a hard time to pick only one, because the whole movie expresses a sense of “you’ll never know if you don’t try” which I really appreciate. It is not flashy or a big drama. But if you want to watch a simple “feel good” movie, which is nevertheless thoughtful, give this one a try. Disney’s live action movies are pretty much hit and miss, but this is one of the good ones.

20 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Penny Chenery

    • You know, I was thinking exactly the same thing when I was writing this review “I hope this movie is discussed soon in the live action Disney project”. It is certainly one of the better ones. I have watched it multiple times now, and I never get tired of it, even though there is seemingly not a lot happening. But it is like a very long and uplifting peep talk.

  1. I had mixed feelings about this movie because I wanted to root for her but I felt like she wasnt there for her family and almost too focused on the horse. No legacy can make up for a failure at home. Her daughter really needed her there. I just had a hard time rooting for her knowing she was away from them so long and much

    • That’s…kind of disturbing. Because I really don’t see a failure there. If she were male, the whole thing wouldn’t even be a question (most likely she would have simply moved her family to the stables in this case). It is hardly a crime to miss a play because of bad weather. Isn’t it more important that your children know that you stand behind their dreams?
      It is not easy to balance career, children and husband. But I think the right way to do it is not to put the children above everything or (like some woman say) to put your husband first for the sake of your marriage. The right way is to set priorities right, to find time for each aspect as the right time.

      • Missing the play is one thing but being in a different state is another. I disagree on the sex thing. There’s been a million movies where the man is consumed with work and ignores the kids, and he learns they are more important than work. Achieving your dreams is one thing but kids require quantity and quality time. You need to be there and to me I couldn’t get fully behind the picture when she’s away from her family for months on end. Balance is important but that’s tough to do when you are in another state. It’s one thing if the army calls you away but this was her choice.
        Just a different perspective. I couldn’t get behind the film because I didn’t think she made the right choice.

      • Yeah, I agree with smilinglds and wish she were there for her family more. I do believe that spouses and children come first before dreams and personal desires. And this is not just for women, I believe in this for men as well!

      • I think that raising a family is a joint efford and that there is a big difference between missing a play because everything else is more important and missing it because a flight got cancelled. As long as you are still aware what is going on in the life of your children and they know that you’ll be there for them when they truly need them, you are not neglecting them. It would be different if she had shown no interest in the play at all, or if the date had been less important and she knew from the got go that she wouldn’t made it. But as it is, I am more angry with her husband that he didn’t support her more. She clearly did her very best to spend as much time as possible with her children.

    • And if her choices were the only problem I could ignore it but I feel the pacing is off and it’s so predictable that I just couldn’t embrace it. But the performances are good and it is well filmed. So mixed bag for me.

      • Just missing the play is one thing but she is gone for months on end with the horse. Kids need parents present not just aware of their activities and interests. Like I said if you are in the military and have no control over it that is one thing but this was a choice she made to be away from her family for many months. I guess if I were her and that was her dream I would have moved the family closer to the stables. Kids need quality and quantity time not just an aware parent. If your parent is in another state that is a problem and I just have a hard time cheering on that choice. But that’s just me.

      • That’s assuming that her husband would have been ready to move for their sake, or that the kids would have been happy to have to leave their enviroment.
        There are studies which say that working mothers are often spending more quality time with their children because the time when they are around, they focus fully on them, instead of being there but being busy with something else. Plus, in the old times, parents weren’t around to watch for their children either, one family member watched out for them and the rest were working on the fields aso.
        There are a lot of angles for the issue. Parents, no matter of what gender, who always out their work over everything else shouldn’t get children imho. But I don’t think that you have to automatically give up your dreams in order to be always around your children either. It is a difficult balance, which is why it is so important that both parents see themselves as equally responsible for being there for their children, instead of following the concept that it should be the mother first and foremost who is always around.

      • You make good points and I agree. For a regular working Mom I would have no qualms. It is more the distance and her being in another state that I have the issue. If she was just working like a normal person each day than it is fine but it is hard to spend that quality time if you are so far away. Dreams are good but you need to be in the same state as your kids IMO.
        I totally agree about both Mom and Dad needing to be present for kids and finding that balance. Again just hard to do when you are so far away especially back then when communication was more difficult and expensive than it is now.

      • Working women are awesome. I’d just try to work in same state as your kids so you can be in their lives on a regular basis. But I grew up with a stay at home Mom and a Dad who worked from home so I was spoiled in that regard.

  2. I saw this movie for the first time a few months ago and although “Seabiscuit” is still my favorite horse film, I really enjoyed “Secretariat.” I knew nothing about the story going in, except that the horse is one the best in horse racing history. So, I loved Penny’s story. Very inspirational.

  3. Pingback: Secretariat (2010) | My Live Action Disney Project

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