Assigning powerful women masculine qualities to negate their femininity was commonplace in the Tudor period
The actress Natalie Portman has attacked big budget Hollywood films for interpreting a feminist story as one with a ‘kick ass’ female character. And how right she is to do so. It is ridiculous and insulting to see 100lb women, barely strong enough to lift an egg cup, beating up extremely fit and muscular men. We can’t do that. It’s a lie. And how can that possibly help women?
The truth is these kick-ass characters reflect not feminism, but misogyny and ambivalent feelings towards real women who wield real power. Historically it has been considered unnatural for women to hold any position of dominance. It follows that women who seek power are also unnatural. This is signalled when you give such women masculine qualities that negate their femininity, and it is no coincidence they are frequently described either as barren, or abusive of children – a denial of motherhood.
This is commonplace in the writing of Tudor history. Take the life of the so-called Nine Day’s Queen, Lady Jane Grey, executed aged sixteen in 1553. From the eighteenth century her mother Frances Brandon was used as the counterpoint to the eroticised figure of female helplessness that Jane had become.
Elizabeth Tudor’s former tutor Roger Ascham, writing after Frances and Jane were both dead, had recorded that Jane had once complained to him that her parents – both her parents – were overly strict. This was the basis for turning Frances into an archetype of female wickedness. While Jane, (although married) was depicted as virginal, physically tiny (for which the evidence was invented) and gentle (rather in contrast to her ferocious writings) her mother was described as sexually predatory and domineering of men (for which the evidence was, again, invented), physically large (ditto) and cruel. It was said Frances’s hunger for power led to Jane’s death, a version of history that sends out a message that good girls are helpless, while bad ones are ambitious.
Similar themes are expressed in different ways in the stories of Frances’s great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and Frances’s first cousin, Elizabeth I. In the seventeenth century Margaret was accused of plotting the deaths of the Princes in the Tower with sorcery and poison, in order to clear the way for her son, Henry Tudor. After Henry was crowned Margaret, “a subtle and politic lady”, became immensely powerful, and despite the lack of evidence to support the claims that she was a child murderer this crude misogynistic version of history is being recycled – in, for example, the BBC drama The White Queen, which additionally depicts Margaret as frigid. The negative associations of that in modern culture make it the new barren.
Queen Elizabeth – a ruling Queen – had to contend even during her lifetime with rumours that her sexual organs were deformed. It was on this basis, in 1985, that a doctor went so far as to claim she was genetically male: a theory that persists, supported by such “evidence” as Elizabeth’s mental toughness. And what of our more recent female ‘rulers’? Remember the Spitting Image TV show puppet of Margaret Thatcher in a pinstripe suit smoking a cigar? These depictions have origins that go all the way back to child killing Amazons of Greek myth, and the hirsute Virago. The kick-ass heroines of Hollywood films are not examples real women can follow, because they are not real women. As the Church teaches: women are equal to men but different. In flyweight lipsticked warriors Hollywood writers and directors, far from expressing a feminist storyline, are in danger of re-cycling old misogynistic stereotypes, and thank you Natalie for voicing this at last.