Historical figures are never people we passively encounter, we respond to them with the interests and attitudes of our present day which is ever obvious through Cleopatra and her changing portrayals on the silver screen because of the Feminist movement.
Cleopatra's debut into Hollywood was at a time where women were increasingly entering the workforce and demanding a vote. Maybe that's why director J. Gordon Edwards thought she was a protagonist relevant to a 1917 audience. The movie presented the threat the Romans felt of a woman in a traditionally male position, and how it changed the dynamic of what they were accustomed to – much like the change's society were going through at the time.
Then, around two decades later, women would yet again challenge what was expected of them. With the growing commercial power and influence of films, a production code was put into place which demanded movies promoted marriage in the home since the thirties was a time where women had growingly began questioning conservative morality in relationships. Cleopatra's suicide in the 1934 depiction played by Claudette Colbert was presented as a warning of the dangers of adulterous behaviour, in response to the changing attitudes of the thirties however she was no longer portrayed as a threat to male spaces.
Fast forwards to the sixties and to arguably the most famous depiction of the Pharoah played by non-other than Elizabeth Taylor, yet again Cleopatra would be transformed in accordance with feminism.
The sixties was a decade of demands for social equality. Taylor played a character of both an extravagant queen in tune with her sexuality as well as a leader of people with intelligence and thoughtfulness, much like the intelligence of Sirimavo Bandaranaike the world first female prime minister, elected that decade. Once again showing that what we think of our historical figures, and more specifically our female ones, are merely just a reflection of the attitudes of our times.
Third wave feminism brought about our most current interpretation. Whilst previously Cleopatras use of sexuality politically was shunned, women now saw this as a smart use of gender and something to celebrate. In 1995 Lucy Lawless portrayed Cleopatra famous introduction to Julius Caesar, arriving in erotic bondage (an addition added to the traditional story) rolled up in a carpet in Xena: Warrior Princess. Cleopatra had now become an icon of female empowerment who used her sexuality as a legitimate tool to survive in difficult circumstances.
More recently Feminism had begun to be challenged by women of colour for its exclusive interest in the advancement and equality of white women and the exclusion of women of other races. This criticism would be acknowledged by television, and we would slowly begin to see actresses such as Adele James of Jamaican heritage portraying the Egyptian Queen.
So, where do we think Feminism will take Cleopatra next?