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The White Queen: Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

Aug 14, 2013 | Updated Oct 14, 2013

Ever since Thelma and Louise clasped hands and took fatal flight into the Grand Canyon, there's been no shortage in pop culture of fierce women willing to risk it all for their integrity, freedom, or justice. Has anyone noticed, however, how unlucky they are in love? The heroines of The Killing, Homeland, Top of the Lake -- what a depressed, driven crew! The only female detective with a cozy home-life is steel magnolia Brenda Leigh of The Closer, (Keira Sedgwick), whose successor is Major Crimes coolly contained Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell.) That neck doesn't move -- her stiffness is part of her charm -- let alone bend to receive anyone's kisses.

The twenty-first century, it seems, is power-friendly to women but cruel to their love lives. That's an old trade-off, of course; we've seen it in countless female protagonists from Joan Crawford on (usually minus the "friendly" part): the price of standing up to men or a masculinistic system is an empty bed. The difference now is that these women are no longer misogynist caricatures (for that we've got reality television.) Women like them, root for them and feel an uneasy but undeniable sisterhood with them.

For relief from this grim state of affairs, which makes for powerful television but doesn't exactly feed female sexual fantasies, we must turn, it seems, to yesteryear. Or rather, yestercentury--and a time, apparently, when the would-be rapists were gorgeous and a woman could turn a knife on one without having to pay with her life. Wait; did I say not paying with your life? It's better than that: tell him off, turn the knife on your own throat, and he'll find you irresistible and make you queen.

This is "power-feminism" Philippa Gregory style, and despite a pretty unanimous critical thumbs-down, women are loving the BBC/Starz production of The White Queen. From the first episode (the only one I've seen, as I live in the U.S.), it's not hard to see why. By any of today's standards, Lancastrian beauty Elizabeth Woodville/Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), having met with victorious Yorkist King Edward (dreamy Max Irons, Jeremy's son) to ask him to return her (dead) husband's lands to her, breaks all the rules: engages in seductive behavior that can only (political correctness be damned) be described as "leading him on," humiliates him by unceremoniously throwing him off when she's had enough, challenges his manhood, and--most envy-inspiring of all--her hair maintains its perfect crimp throughout. And, oh yes, then she gets made queen.

"But it happened!" Phillipa Gregory, who prides herself on her historical rigor, might say. Well, yes, sort of... perhaps. That Edward wanted to make Elizabeth his mistress and Elizabeth declined, inflaming the king's desire for her, is well known, if the exact details are shrouded in mystery. Thomas More and Shakespeare both recount the tale, although minus the knife; their Elizabeth refuses Edward (as Shakespeare put it) with a "good manner" and "words so well set." The knife detail comes from the Italian traveler Mancini, writing in 1483, but in his version it is Edward who brandishes the knife, and holds it to Elizabeth's throat. The knife only makes it into Elizabeth's hands in Antonio Cornazzano's "Of Admirable Women"; in that version she does not hold it to her own throat, threatening to slice herself, but uses it to hold off Edward.

Clearly, writers have been playing with this story for centuries, and I'm not here to complain about historical accuracy, but to explore the current re-creation. "Don't doubt my courage," Elizabeth declares to Edward, already drawing a bit of blood from her translucent neck, "I'm match for any man." Female strength and courage that is as potent as any man's is a theme that is trumpeted in ads for the series ("Men Go to Battle; Women Wage War"), that is underscored by Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta (descended from a river goddess, even her husband says he is sometimes scared of her) and by the audacity of both Jacquetta and Elizabeth when they meet Edward's proud and disapproving mother Cecily. Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) soundly puts her in her place by reminding Cecily of some nasty gossip about her affair with an archer, but little Elizabeth is no slouch either, telling the King's mother (!!) to curtsy to her.

Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth, was drawn to the role because Woodville "was a woman who had power. She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent"; "She's a medieval rebel." Arguably, the same might be said about Anne Boleyn, who, as played by Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, also won a large female following. But notice how differently Boleyn's refusal of Henry VIII is imagined (by Michael Hirst, whom Natalie Dormer criticized for his male "mind-set" and who later regretted his hyper-sexualizatization of Anne) from Elizabeth Woodville's "no," as imagined by two women: Gregory and screenwriter Emma Frost. Boleyn is depicted as refusing Henry in order to lure him into marriage (a ploy concocted by her power-hungry family--and Hirst, of course, isn't the first to follow this scenario); Elizabeth refuses out of pride in her own integrity. Anne (in season one, at any rate) is a sexy tool; Elizabeth is "her own woman." Anne is a temptress ("Seduce me!" she tells Henry, albeit in a dream), while Elizabeth, who is no less flirtatious with Edward, her eyes smoldering and her kisses steamy hot before she throws Edward off her, escapes any condemnation for slutty behavior. She's a post-feminist girl; she has every right to get carried away by passion and then say "no."

My point is not that this is a better show than The Tudors. In fact, although I will no doubt become addicted to The White Queen (I also haven't missed an episode of Dance Moms), I wouldn't rate it very highly among historical dramas. Nor have I ever been a big fan of "power feminism"; Philippa Gregory and I have very different ideas about what constitutes "power." I would, however, like to see Carrie Mathison of Homeland (Claire Danes) be given some time under a tree with a gorgeous, untormented, exuberant lover like Max Irons' Edward. Until that happens, I guess women will have to pay for our fantasies with a ticket back in time, where we can enjoy preposterously bold, back-talking historical heroines "having it all" with their equally preposterous, strong-woman-loving hunks.

Susan Bordo is the author, most recently, of The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)