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.