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Set in the 14th century, "The White Queen" follows the many fascinating royal and noble women caught up in the dynastic struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York. If you enjoy settling down to a period drama, but are tired of watching various actors parade around as the murderous and lecherous Henry VIII, then this fun drama that celebrates the mixed up, disrupted lives of ladies could be just what you’re looking for.

The White Queen, an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s "The Cousin’s War" series, provides an easy viewing experience for anyone, like me, who is unfamiliar with this period of royal history. I knew a little about the period in general and a little about Elizabeth Woodville from reading Emma Darwin’s "A Secret Alchemy". Beyond that I was approaching this period as a total newbie. A quick historical refresher for anyone in a similar position: Edward IV, a member of the house of York, becomes England’s king by deposing the ailing Lancastrian king Henry VI and his queen Margaret of Anjou. At the beginning of "The White Queen", Edward IV woos and marries Elizabeth Woodville, a noble-woman and a widower. Elizabeth’s family becomes royal through the marriage and in this version of events this displeases just about everyone. Edward’s political supporters, his family and his Lancastrian enemies are all opposed to the match – ‘It’s like a man from the Apple store dating a girl from Maplins’. Elizabeth’s elevation to queen sets the stage for major upheaval and conflict.

Having previously read Emma Darwin’s novel helped me to place Elizabeth’s life in its historical context. However, I knew nothing at all about the other interesting women who played a part in her life, for example Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor – the boy who would eventually take back the throne for the House of Lancaster. Anne and Isabel Neville, the Earl of Warwick’s daughters who went on to marry Edward’s brothers George and Richard (yes that Richard), were also unknown to me. In fact, I was unfamiliar with a whole host of women who played important supporting roles in this drama: Jacquetta Woodville (Elizabeth’s mother); Elizabeth’s daughter (who is also called Elizabeth because that’s just how the royals do things), and Duchess Cecily (Edward’s mother). And then there’s the magnificent, battling Margaret of Anjou. I knew just enough about her life to work out how it tied in with the major clashes for royal power1. However, judging from this adaptation she has the potential to be an obsession of mine and yet here I was having my first substantial encounter with her at the age of twenty eight.

Unacceptable behaviour self. I’ve been missing out on cool, historical women all these years!
After having watched so any costume dramas which make the men the only big players, I found The White Queen’s focus on female historical players exciting. Kameron Hurley recently wrote the fabulous "We Have Always Fought" which sounds as a rallying call for people to recognise women’s military involvement. Her post also serves as a good reminder that women have always been present, and that whenever a historical period is reduced to its men half of its action is missing. In order to counter the bizarre perception that women really didn’t contribute to history until the 1950s, we need more historical drama which reminds viewers that women did things all the time. "The White Queen" is such a drama; full of female characters that talk, act and have interesting lives filled with plots, court politics and significant relationships. Their stories are easily as entertaining to watch as yet another retelling of Henry VIII’s life would be (yes, I enjoyed The Tudors too but perhaps we could rest this king for a few years now).

Now, "The White Queen" isn’t some kind of feminist, historical drama cousin to "Scott and Bailey" – it still contains lots of men. Male characters like Edward, George, Richard, and the Earl of Warwick drive much of the plot in the early episodes. Edward marries Elizabeth in secret and this match does not serve the political ends of Warwick, the Kingmaker, whose support put Edward on the throne. The marriage causes a schism between him and Edward; Warwick becomes less able to influence Edward and so switches his support to George. Warwick’s decision to back George’s campaign begins a chain of complicated and bloody political conflicts, which have lasting repercussions for relations between the House of York and the Woodvilles. Once she has married into the royal line, Elizabeth and her family must constantly respond to threats thrown up by male action, and while men don’t often control Elizabeth, thanks to her status as queen, their actions do determine the course of her life.

Interestingly, the control the male characters exert over events and women in this program is actively criticised by the female characters. Anne and Isabel find their lives routinely subject to the service of their father’s royal ambition and they make their displeasure about this situation clear to the viewer by talking about how unhappy they are. Isabel is naturally upset to find that her marriage to George was not arranged to further her own fortunes, as she assumed, and she expresses her feelings openly. Once married, Isabel’s body becomes the site of a dynastic battle - she’s expected to produce sons in order to make her husband’s line of future succession look secure. Again, Isabel openly talks about the unfairness of her situation and she calls out George for, as she sees it, causing the death of their first son. Anne is briefly under George’s dangerous control too as he plots to disinherit her. Again, the viewer sees the female character’s point of view about George as Anne expresses her suspicion and fear. The audience is made to see that the way George controls Anne and his wife is inhumane. Other female characters talk about the general way that women’s lives are controlled by men, and again the audience is led to understand that this control is negative. Feminist commentary all over your screens.

Although Elizabeth has made a love match, once married, she is in a similar situation to Isabel as she is pushed in particular directions by male desires and forced to focus on male actions. Surrounded by machinating males, she has to pay attention to their plots, her husband’s doings, and the importance of conceiving sons. She focuses on these matters to ensure the safety of her family. Despite being constantly pre-occupied by men’s work she too calls out the unfairness of inequality. Her criticisms of men are usually personal accusations made against individuals, like the devilish Earl of Warwick. And she largely avoids criticising the power Edward holds over her as both her husband and her king. However, throughout the series the viewer sees Elizabeth angrily rail against Edward’s power when he seeks to rob hers, by sending her son away to Wales.

Obviously though, despite any criticism she may aim, Elizabeth has to make it all about the men in order to survive. This is the same for all the women around her. The men have so much power and influence over these women’s lives that much of the talk among the female characters is unavoidably about men. Even the supporting female characters, who aren’t as desperately concerned with their husband’s need to retain power, are pushed to take an interest in what the male characters are doing. Elizabeth’s mother has to worry about Edward’s intentions and actions all the time to ensure the security of her daughter. Duchess Cecily is often dependent on her son’s favour. And Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beauford advance their sons towards power, even though you can imagine them capably taking the crown for themselves in different circumstances. Men shape the lives of these women because they hold power over these women and the people they care about, or because they hold the potential for an association with power.

While the women are controlled by male power, and never quite escape its grasp, these female characters often work hard to exert a partial control over their lives. Maybe I’m arguing against something that doesn’t exist, but I think there’s an easy school of thought going around that if a character is always responding to a situation then they are a passive character without agency. I agree that it is annoying to see media constantly place women in a position where they have to respond to male actions. And I would love to see the action of female characters drive more situations that other characters (male, female and inter-sex) have to respond to. However, I don’t think the very act of responding to a situation created by male characters instead of creating a situation makes a female character passive. Female characters sometimes find themselves being ‘saved’ from responding when a male character takes their agency out of their hands and responds for them. This is terrible, although often not the female character’s fault. However, I think when a woman responds to the machinations of a male character it is a way of taking back the power his actions, or his patriarchal control, seek to steal from her. It’s similar to a male character responding to the actions of a more powerful male character.

How do the women of "The White Queen" respond? Well, they often use the power of the men around them to get what they need. There’s a danger that by showing women ‘acting through their husbands’ The White Queen might fall into the trap of reinforcing a prejudiced, historical idea that royal and noble women were controlling nags who manipulated their husbands or sons for their own gain. The poor, unwitting mens! Oh the darlings, so harried by hard, scheming women! This is certainly how The White Queen sets Margaret of Anjou up. Some characters say she usurped the throne from her husband and ruled (badly) in his stead and the program seems bent on implying that she is ruling her son through a “very close” *wink, wink* relationship. That’s what being a French character in a British drama will get you.

Still, for much of its run "The White Queen" does an admirable job of avoiding such misogynistic reasoning. Margaret of Anjou may appear to use her son for her own gain but Margaret Beauford’s plots are all for the advantage of her son2. Elizabeth generally works on Edward for noble reasons (his safety, her family’s safety, her genuine desire to be legally married to a man who loves her). And Isabel and Anne are first pushed into plots by their father, then find themselves unable to influence their husbands3. By presenting so many different women, who interact with male power in different ways, "The White Queen" knocks down the idea that all women attached to powerful men are bent on distorting male ambitions for their own female gain.

Despite a large female cast and a female-centric focus there are still problems in this program. That’s right, the magic. You see, in "The White Queen" the Woodville women are witches. They can see glimpses of the future and they can cast spells which influence certain elements of the present and the future. Elizabeth and her mother work several spells to further Elizabeth’s interests. Some are pure of heart (a spell to conceive a boy) and some are malevolent (a storm spell ends up causing Isabel Neville to miscarry). You should assume I am making a face much like this about the Woodville’s magic:

Taylor Swift waves her arms and forcefully says No

Ok, Elizabeth’s magic does sort of serve the plot. It sets up an implicit thematic conflict between her and Margaret Beauford, the most pious of ladies, which feeds into their explicit on screen opposition. This theme isn’t developed to allow a direct comparison between the efficacy of choosing religion or magic. Both Elizabeth and Margaret gain power and lose heavily at different times in the series. Both commit terrible actions. Elizabeth causes the miscarriage of Isabel’s baby. And in this version of the story Margaret orders the death of Elizabeth and Edward’s sons – the famous Princes in the Tower. Placing these women on differing spiritual sides isn’t intended to knock either belief system down; what it does is emphasise how far apart they are, gives them further reason to dislike each other and I suppose shows that women could use different private tools to try to claim extra power in a male-dominated world.

It can also be argued that giving Elizabeth magic also gives her character agency. Without magic she might appear a victim buffeted by men and fates. People love to hate a lady who looks even a little bit passive, so I can see how the introduction of magic might be designed to ward off adverse reactions. It could alternately be a feminist attempt to give Elizabeth a little more control over her life – it’s hard to watch female characters disempowered by the men around them and a twentieth century feminist might be tempted to give their heroines fantastical weapons to fight back with.

Of course, several of the other female characters in The White Queen are given that agency without being given magic. Margaret Beauford’s aims are constantly frustrated by meddling men, but she continues to beat against them and work for her cause. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have been left with the commonplace agency and energy of Margaret Beauford instead of being given the magical agency she was really accused of possessing? It makes me so angry that her real life (male) accuser’s claims, which were designed to dis-empower her, might have been justified here in the name of giving a female character more agency. That’s not the kind of feminism for me.

Having spent a sustained amount of time studying the European witch trials, I am not a fan of historical story lines where witchcraft is real. Masses of real women (and some men) were accused of witchcraft. They were not witches. They had never tried to contact the devil or set a plague on a neighbour’s cow. Even if they had magic isn’t real - they were convicted and executed purely because the culture of the day said magic was real. It was never real. Pretending that there were, at any point in history, real witches who commanded magic feels like it gives license to their murderers. And, if I suspend my disbelief in order to fully enter a fictional, historical world that contains real witches, I would have to admit that in this world’s history the witch trials of the 1600s had a basis in fact.

Nope. Not doing it.

It feels disloyal to play around with thoughts like that. Witches, for me, can only exist peaceably in fantasy stories set outside real historical times. It’s just one of my many quirks of taste.

Still, aside from including the magical manipulation, The White Queen does a good job of showing that all women aligned with powerful men are not controlling harpies. At the same time, it avoids idealising these women. And it keeps up this careful creation of female characters for at least its first six or seven episodes. If you’re looking for a TV program that shows the complexity of women without making its female characters wholly sympathetic or unsympathetic, I would encourage you to try the first few episodes of "The White Queen". Pay especial attention to Margaret Beauford played by Amanda Hale, who gives a storming, multi-faceted performance of a woman. I sometimes disliked her but I always admired her drive and her passion.

The dangerous relationship between Margaret of Anjou and Anne Neville is also worth your time. Their few scenes together made me wish Verlee Baetens and Faye Marsey had spent more time on screen together. Veerle Baetens take on Margaret reminded me of the rough but fair army mentor archetype. She indelibly shapes Anne into a firmer woman by alternately bullying this scared young woman and sharing useful things she has learnt from being queen.

It’s a shame then that in the later episodes things go to hell. Viewers are suddenly encouraged to root against Elizabeth’s perfectly reasonable actions. Other characters, like her daughter, start talking about Elizabeth’s supposed lust for power, reconfiguring her past actions as greedy and short-sighted. Elizabeth even tells off her darling brother Anthony, who is officially the nicest man on the planet, and this can’t help her cause with viewers. Anne, as Abigail Nussbaum says, ‘unleashes her inner Lady Macbeth’ and quite blatantly pushes her “poor, unsuspecting” husband, Richard III into acting against Elizabeth. Margaret is still plotting (never stop believing Margaret – your son will be king). Meanwhile, Princess Elizabeth (for clarity that’s the now deposed queen Elizabeth’s daughter) is trying to write off her proposed marriage to Henry VII by getting into Richard’s *ahem* “good books”. Womanly schemes abound and "The White Queen" transforms into a program where all the women constantly plot and act out their own vengeful wishes through the men around them. All with nary a care for the kingdom or the men’s legacy *faints*. That doesn’t sound a million miles away from the popular view of historical women involved with powerful men.

The trouble is, "The White Queen" isn’t just interested in pushing back against traditional history by presenting a female focused version of Edward and Elizabeth’s reign; it’s got other heavy, revisionist lifting to do. It also wants to join the historical revolution and re-habilitate Richard III – the king of the car park. In order to do that it plays the long game, initially setting up Richard as the loyal brother and the dreamy boy with emo looks. Oh sure, he kills old king Henry but his brothers are involved as well, and he’s shown to be no worse than heroic king Edward4. He rescues Anne from the control of his brother George, restores her status without tapping her fortune and seems to love her ardently once they are married. At least, he does up until the creepy ending of the series. He’s a darling who couldn’t possibly have killed the Princes in the Tower and who in this version very clearly doesn’t. He’s also super fine.

I don’t have a dog in the Richard III fight and I’m perfectly willing to be convinced that he was just a hot young dude who wanted the best for his country whatever Shakespeare might have said5. The trouble is with the effect that The White Queen’s particular rehabilitation of Richard has on its female characters. He is so nice that the program has to propose other reasons for why Richard’s reign didn’t get good press after he died. It couldn’t be because darling Richard did anything wrong of his own accord. No, no. And so the program casts around for others to blame. The obvious people are dead – George *the worst bro ever* drowned in wine for treachery; Edward dead of a mysterious illness; Warwick executed long ago; most of Elizabeth’s male relatives - also dead. The only people left to blame… are the women. And so Anne devolves into a conniving wife, Elizabeth is cast as mistrustful, and Margaret orders the execution of two small boys. Lord Stafford, Margaret Beauford’s new husband, is still around being treacherous but he’s almost the token plotting man. By the end of the series I felt like I was supposed to feel sorry for Richard at the expense of the female characters. I was not really up for that pity party6.

Never mind, I’m hoping that (even with their slightly shoncky dialogue) the initial episodes will win the female characters scores of fans before they become the engines of sweet Richard’s downfall. Perhaps now that it has reached its conclusion in America more will join me in fist pumping at Margaret Beauford’s final line? ‘I am Margaret Regina!’ she shouts, after her son Henry VII defeats Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and becomes King of England. For me that sums up the delightful ethos of "The White Queen". Yes, men become kings, and that’s terribly interesting dears, but what about the women – what are they up to?


1 Helen Caster presented a TV series based on her non-fiction title She-Wolves last year and she spent an episode looking at Margaret of Anjou.

2 The two Margarets are my favourites by the way.

3 Although Anne’s fortunes change when Margaret’s of Anjou’s son is killed and she ends up marrying Richard. I’ll get to that later.

4 Actually he’s nicer than Edward. Did Richard try to rape a lady in this program? No, he did not.

5 No one really goes to Shakespeare expecting accurate historical plots anyway do they?

6 Also it is beyond inappropriate to hold a girl’s hand in your wife’s mausoleum just after she has died. Richard, you are hot but we are done after that.

Supplementary Material

"Freedom at 21" (fan-vid)

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Asking the Wrong Questions

Date: 2014-02-16 02:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Casting the ladies as the post-Richard's-reign villains seems like a very weird play! I wouldn't have thought a complicated explanation was necessary for why his reign got bad press after he died: There was a new king with a shaky right to the throne, and he wanted to legitimize his claims. Seems both mean and crazy to vilify Anne and little Elizabeth (I know she wasn't THAT little; just calling her that to differentiate her from Elizabeth Woodville).


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