This article has once more been making the rounds, and as 1/3rd of Frock Flicks, and a QEI fangirl, I feel contractually obligated to quibble with its premise. To whit: Modern depictions of Queen Elizabeth I go overboard with making her appear grotesque in old age, rather than sensitively presenting a realistic aging woman. While I agree with the author’s premise that our culture finds old women scary and tends to de-sexualize them once they hit menopause (see Amy Schumer’s brilliant “Last Fuckable Day” sketch which tackles this issue head on), I disagree with the use of QEI to illustrate this point.
My argument is that there have been far more depictions of QEI as a young/middle aged woman, often times over-emphasizing her sexuality than not, particularly in the last 40 years (I will address “age erasure” a bit in this context, but it really is a separate issue than the one Maltby is railing against). This trend carries over into depictions of post-menopausal Elizabeth, as well, and there’s something to be said for glorifying an older woman who knows she’s still got command over the opposite sex well into her “old age”. So, let’s take a look at the, in my humble opinion, more plentiful depictions of Elizabeth I as personifying beauty and power, before I talk about my issue with the “grotesque” Elizabeth argument presented in Maltby’s article.
First of all, I bring forth for consideration Glenda Jackson who portrayed Elizabeth from age
20 14 to her death at 69. (Thanks, Bess, for the age correction!) The bulk of the series took place during her “sexual peak” years in Elizabeth R (1971) and did not cut corners when it came to showing Elizabeth’s skilled use of her sexuality both within her court and outside of it.
And of course there’s Cate Blanchett, who is so gorgeous that even with 9 years between the two films, she doesn’t look a day over 30 in either one of them. Yet, in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), she’s playing an Elizabeth well north of 40, but because the film is intended to be allegorical, Blanchett shows nary a wrinkle or waddle, only perfection. You may argue that this is evidence of “Age Erasure”, and yeah, I agree. But this QEI doesn’t fit into the “old and gross” category by any stretch. Also, I direct you to Exhibit A: Age Erasure in Elizabeth’s Portraits from 1580-1603. If I give props to anything about this film, it’s that it plays the allegorical Gloriana to the hilt.
Even when Helen Mirren was cast as an “older” QEI in Elizabeth I (2006), a series that takes place the last 15 years of her reign, there was NO denying that Mirren was playing her with the sexual power at full tilt.
The older films like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) starring Bette Davis and Fire Over England (1937) with Flora Robson (who many consider the definitive QEI prior to Jackson’s portrayal) were played by both actresses with an unsettling seductiveness that couldn’t be less subtle if it rolled up wearing gold lamé bootie shorts and 8″ come-fuck-me stiletto heels. Where Maltby lumps Davis’ role into the “grotesque” category, in my opinion the only thing garish about her Elizabeth is the fact that she was filmed in Technicolor. You think Bette Davis would have let herself be put out there as a “grotesque old woman”??
And while it’s admittedly satire, Black Adder II (1986) has an undeniably gorgeous Miranda Richardson playing a QEI caricature, Queenie, whose favorite pastime, when she’s not tormenting Edmund with the threat of execution, is watching him squirm while she flirts relentlessly with him.
There are only two Elizabeth portrayals that I could see falling into the “grotesque” category, and those are the depictions of her in Orlando (1993) and in Shakespeare in Love (1998).* Orlando’s Elizabeth was fairly subversive at the time, played by veteran character actor Quentin Crisp, in a casting decision that was meant to juxtapose Orlando’s male incarnations being played by the female Tilda Swinton. Crisp’s Elizabeth, seen only in the first few minutes of the film, is at the end of her life, weighed down not just by her magnificent robes, but her own impending mortality. This Elizabeth is old, yet still has enough sparkle to captivate the young Orlando. Crisp treats the role with dignity and respect, and avoids veering into the less-celebrated trope of a lecherous old woman, even as she clearly desires Orlando (or is it his youth?). But Crisp’s Elizabeth is not beautiful, at least not in the sense of sexual attractiveness. She is, however, undeniably awe-inspiring.
The same could be said for Judi Dench’s portrayal of Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Her portrayal is couched in the declining magnificence of the late-Elizabethan Age while the next evolution in English history waits impatiently in the wings. Dench’s Elizabeth, like Crisp’s, is not beautiful, nor should she be. She is “Gloriana” at this stage in her life, the virginal demi-goddess who has transcended the mortal world. Does that desexualize her? Perhaps. But I’d argue that if we are talking about desexualizing old women, turning her into a mythical being while she’s still alive is a far, far better treatment than simply erasing her.
I think the issue isn’t that Queen Elizabeth is portrayed as “grotesque” in film and television, but that modern expectations of beauty are unequipped to handle a middle aged woman in sixteenth century makeup, in a weirdly proportioned gown that exaggerates odd parts of the body. It’s not that QEI is “always” portrayed like a bizarre old hag in clown makeup in order to strip her of her sexuality; it’s that modern concepts of beauty are pretty much diametrically opposed to sixteenth century concepts of beauty.
This was an era before face lifts, mind you. The garish white makeup employed by Elizabeth I was the best thing her era had to cover the ravages of age (compounding the issue is that it was made from toxic white lead, so it likely did far more harm than good). It’s also part of what makes Elizabeth such a fascinating character study — how does a woman in power cope when her sexual desirability begins to wane? How does she navigate a terrain that is, still to this day, something that women grapple with as they transition into old age and our culture decides they no longer are appealing/useful/desirable?
After all, we see in shows like The Tudors (2007) and Reign (2013-) what happens when period beauty ideals are thrown out in favor of modern ones. I’d argue that it detracts from the story, while others would say that it makes the characters more “relatable”, and we could have that debate forever (and probably will, thus ensuring Frock Flicks will always be relevant). In any event, modernizing a historical character with such an iconic look as Queen Elizabeth I means stripping an essential element of who she was out of the narrative. Wouldn’t it simply be better to educate oneself on the history of this particular woman and try to appreciate the differences in beauty ideals over 500 years as part of what makes that character so iconic rather than accuse the entertainment industry of making Elizabeth into a gross old woman, because Patriarchy?
- I am aware that Vanessa Redgrave recently portrayed an old QEI in Anonymous (2011), but I haven’t yet seen the film, so I’m reserving judgement. You’ll certainly hear from me one way or the other about it, at some point!
What do you think about Sexy Elizabeth vs. Grotesque Elizabeth? Share with us in the comments!