Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sexual Empowerment and the Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, almost certainly was a virgin. That likelihood may not please the feminist viewer, but it hardly matters. In contemporary portrayals of the queen, notably Shekhar Kapoor's Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, she nearly always engages in a sexual liaison of some sort of another. The reason is not terribly complicated: "strong women" to use the Hollywood parlance, or liberated women, are expected to have an exuberantly enjoyed, orgasmic sex life in order to qualify as a feminist figure. This is considered a signifier of feminism, one of the most visible and obvious, but it is in fact the imposition of a standard as rigid as any imposed by patriarchal structures.

While I wholeheartedly reject the notion that feminist characters must fulfill the most aspirational and utopian models in order to qualify as feminist, the imposition of contemporary standards of feminism - essentially the yin to traditional femininity's yang, given the inexorable stringency of idealistic impositions of definitional qualities - onto historical characters obfuscates the true significance of transgressive figures such as Elizabeth. This does a disservice not only to history, but to feminism.

Of course, there is no way to actually know whether or not Elizabeth ever actually had sex, but the evidence that she didn't is significant. Most obviously, she never married and never had children. That may sound like an absurdly unnecessary point to make, but it bears repeating. Elizabeth was a monarch, one of the greatest of England, who ruled for forty five years, making her one of the longest reigning monarchs in the country's history. Her reasons for refusing to marry were many and still hotly debated by historians, but at the foundation of any of those reasons is a consolidation of her power. Marriage would have meant a significant loss of her actual ability to rule. Her sister, Mary I, was married to Philip II of Spain and he became a co-monarch, thus able to wield equal power with his English-born wife. Most importantly, because he was male, Philip held control of and directed the English military. Elizabeth was brilliant, unusually so, and she cannot have failed to consider the effects of marriage on Mary's reign, all the more so given that Mary was the only example in of a queen inheriting the crown in contemporary English history that Elizabeth could study. Mary died childless, which allowed Elizabeth to ascend the throne.

Mary's reign was characterized both by her fervent religiosity and her desperate, eventually almost paranoid, struggle to conceive an heir. This could almost be said to be a family tradition. Henry VI was the only child of Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort; this is likely because Margaret was only thirteen when she gave birth and may have suffered permanent injury as a result. Henry VI had four children who survived to adulthood: Arthur, Henry, Margaret, and Mary. Arthur died at fifteen, having been married mere weeks, making Henry VIII the heir. Henry VIII's difficulties obtaining a male heir continue to provide gossipy fodder for films, novels, and television shows, but he did have a son, with Jane Seymour, Edward VI. Edward died without issue. In other words, Elizabeth's family history had been darkly marked by the need for each successive monarch to beget an heir who would survive long enough to continue the line. It must have seemed, at times, a quixotic undertaking, as baby princes and princesses died and queens failed to carry their pregnancies to term.

This should be qualified by pointing out that any heir had to be legitimate. This would have been an especially sore point for Elizabeth, whose detractors would charge that she was illegitimate until the end of her reign, claiming that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn had been bigamous. If Elizabeth had conceived a child out of wedlock, say in a romantic relationship with the married Lord Dudley - the fan favorite - it's highly unlikely that Elizabeth would have remained on the throne at all, and the resulting child would have been the locus of civil war. It's difficult to imagine that a woman as shrewd, crafty, and intelligent as Elizabeth would have allowed the possibility of losing power over an illegitimate child, all the more so given her own painful history of being disowned by her father and acknowledged only because there was such extreme urgency of establishing the Tudor succession. It is also worth noting that the Tudors always had detractors, who felt they had no claim to the throne at all, favoring the claims made by the Pole family.

Much has been made of Elizabeth's guardian Thomas Seymour's alleged advances. It's difficult to establish a definite interpretation of these events. Records indicate that he tickled and groped her in her bedroom and that his wife intervened only when she discovered them embracing, but the vocabulary used gives little indication of what Elizabeth's attitude was to this sexualized attention. Some scholars believe that this behavior - which today would be clearly defined as the sexual abuse of a minor, given that she was fourteen and he was nearly forty - can be faulted with traumatizing Elizabeth and making her pathologically afraid of sex. That's possible, but it's impossible to establish, all the more so because Elizabeth remained silent on these incidents. It's also possible that she didn't consider these incidents traumatizing so much as foolhardy. The age of consent at this period was twelve. Though Thomas Seymour would eventually be executed, partly as a result of scheming to marry Elizabeth and gain a controlling interest in the crown, whatever actually occurred remains unclear.

In any case, no child resulted and given the lengthy period over which these attentions supposedly occurred, it's unlikely that the abusive behavior came to intercourse - not least of all because a resulting pregnancy would have meant a charge of treason against Seymour, his wife (dead in childbirth before the abuse came to the attention of the king), and, possibly, Elizabeth herself, whose position was none too stable.

These incidents are not the focus of modern-day fantasy, however. Today, we prefer to imagine that Elizabeth enjoyed a sexual relationship with Dudley, and it's absolutely the case that he was a strong contender for her hand once his wife died, in unfortunately suspicious circumstances. The nobility was against the match and the threat of serious unrest, even revolution, made the marriage untenable, though he remained a significant figure until his death. Evidence suggests that Elizabeth did love Dudley, as she continued to promote him even when he married against her wishes and kept his last letter to her among her private things. It's important to note how strong the opposition to a marriage with Dudley was, as it's further evidence that any illegitimate issue would have been grounds for civil war.

The fact that must be faced is this: sexual empowerment is of very limited utility, if it can even be said to be possible, in a world in which women cannot control their own reproduction. Sexual empowerment is enabled by reliable forms of birth control, the most efficient of which are recent in invention, and safe childbirth - mortality rates have fallen, but even today, it is worth recognizing, childbirth is a life-threatening process for both the mother and the child. Elizabeth was a queen, an unusually competent ruler by any standard who faced enormously greater challenges than any king because of her gender. It's hard to believe that she would have made the mistake of risking her kingdom and her life in order to have sex out of wedlock. In a fictional rendering, the inconveniences of biology can be sidestepped, but in reality, Elizabeth had access to few means of birth control, none of them reliable. She also was painfully aware, as was any woman of the age, that childbirth meant risking her life - and risking the life of the queen of England meant risking England itself.

When contemporary filmmakers and novelists portray Elizabeth as sexually active, they fail to understand not only the historical context in which she lived but also what made her such a powerful monarch in a time and place in which queens were expected to occupy themselves with charity, religion, and peacemaking and leave governance and military matters to kings and councils. A sexually active Elizabeth is a frivolous, foolish, irresponsible Elizabeth. It treats her as a private person, which she was not. Better to give her her due: if Elizabeth I could be called a feminist figure, it's not because she was an empowered woman in the twenty-first century mold. She was an empowered woman, an empowered queen, that transgressed the bounds of sixteenth century queenship to become as great as any king. Governor, general, religious reformer, diplomat, even scholar: Elizabeth was all these things and more, but she was not a feminist and she hardly lived by the rules of twenty-first century feminism.

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