As a feminist, I have noticed a disturbing trend in recent historical productions. Since writer Emma Frost defined The White Princess, an adaptation of a Tudor novel by Philippa Gregory, as a “feminist story,” I feel it’s fair to point out the behaviors exhibited in it are not “feminist.” I also want to use the ITV series Jamestown as another example of a similar warped mindset and definition of feminism.
Feminism’s definition is, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Or, a central belief men and women carry equal merit and should have the same rights. In historical times, this means the right to an education as a woman or to be queen; in our great grandmother’s time, it meant the right to vote; in modern times, it means the rights to an equal wage. It means politics accepts women as equal to men; society accepts women as equal to men; and economy accepts women as equal to men.
For this to work, the men must be equal to the women. In fiction, they must be as strong, intelligent, moral, and determined as the female characters. If they are not, the men are being “diminished” to make the woman appear superior. This suggests women can only be superior to weak men (thus, they are inferior in the first place). The second definition of feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights,” which means the true feminist believes in, supports, and assists toward the overall welfare of women.
In The White Princess, not only do the female characters not support or assist one another (every one becomes another’s “rival” before the end), but it makes the men weak and inferior. Henry VII is a weak mama’s boy who cannot make a decision without a woman telling him what to do, how to think, or what to feel. When he has a meltdown over whether he has a right to be the king, Lizzie must tell him what “right of conquest” means.
How much more feminist might the story have been, had Henry and Lizzie met as equals? Instead of a power-hungry, psychotic, delusional murderess in Margaret Beaufort undercutting every woman she can find and making the “hard” decisions because all the men are weak, emotional twits, how much more impressive would a truer to life depiction of Margaret Beaufort have been? Where she and her son stand on equal ground, and make hard political decisions together (as it likely happened in real life), because each brings intelligent points to the discussion?
Instead of a ridiculous subplot where Elizabeth Woodville tries to put “her son” on the throne, choosing Perkin Warbeck over her daughter’s position as queen, a feminist twist would have the truth: the politically shrewd Elizabeth negotiated the marriage between Henry and Lizzie with Margaret Beaufort, to forge an alliance to end the War of the Roses. Feminine advocacy would have been her further securing her daughter’s position.
Instead of Maggie Pole siding with Warbeck and scheming against Lizzie, might it have been more feminist for them to stay friends? And support one another? If this is a great feminist drama, why do all the conversations, all the political maneuvers, and all the choices these women make revolve around men? Why does little Margaret Tudor (future Queen of Scotland) have zero lines and almost no screen time, while her sister Mary does not exist? Why do only Princes Arthur and Henry have dialogue?
Not a single woman in this series cares about the welfare of any other female (in fact, one sets up another to be raped); most of them act to serve the weak, inept men in their life; and all of them become bitter adversaries. That is not feminism.
Jamestown shows a different brand of feminism not immediately apparent on the surface: only the women have moral ideals. The men are corrupt, passive, short-sighted, drunkards, weak-willed, emotionally inept, or brutal. I suspect this is to highlight the superiority of the female characters in understanding complex emotions, maintaining relationships, being able to put aside their personal feelings for rational decisions, and in showing greater capacity for forgiveness and tolerance than the men.
Again, “feminism is equality to men,” not “the women shall be smarter, wiser, and morally superior to the men.” Endless examples abound: Verity being smarter, wittier, and bolder than her drunkard husband; Alice being more sensitive and rational (from knowing how to save the tobacco crop to putting aside her rape to enlist the rapist’s help against a bully) than Silas; in Jocelyn being more intelligent and politically savvy than Samuel; and in the governor’s wife being less greedy and hypocritical than her husband.
Female moral superiority (women are moral, men depraved) feeds chauvinistic ideals. If you put a woman on a pedestal, she is not the equal of her husband; and many men used this as a basis to oppress women. Plus, if women are superior beings, God obviously sent them here to redeem men. Which means… women still serve the men’s needs. That’s not feminism!
Since the series ends by introducing slavery to Jamestown (and the horror on all the women’s faces), I suspect next season will find a division among the men (some for, some passive, and a few against, but unwilling to stand for what is right), with the women all standing on the side of “slavery is bad,” because it continues the trend of these women having superior ethics over their male counterparts.
At least these women support one another. Alice tries to help out Jocelyn, and Verity offers to defend Alice. Even the Governor’s wife overlooks Jocelyn’s crimes in England out of a shared sense of understanding in how some “men abuse us [women].”
My personal idea of feminism means women have the right to choose the life they want, whether that means in business or in being a mother, without censorship from men or other women. Women should be held equally accountable to men in their words, actions, motivations, and deeds. Women should get paid the same as a man, if they perform the same job. Women are neither superior nor inferior to men in any way, and men are just as valuable and respected as women. I want to see more of that on screen. Some of these on-screen problems come out of a recent trend in feminism which is not true feminism: to hate men and all they stand for.
Equality is not hatred. The best stories present equally strong, manipulative, flawed, weak, or good characters of either sex, because that is the truth of the world.