A Story of Females in Power and their Sexuality in Pop Culture

This blog has been swirling around in my little head for a while now. Really, since New Year’s Eve when I had my girl-power movie theater day. What’s this you say? Oh, it’s when I went and did a double feature of Mary Queen of Scots, and On the Basis of Sex. Because that’s how I roll.

As I was taking notes through the movies (okay, really just through Mary, because the RBG movie I knew a lot more about the events), I noticed a really interesting phenomena. It’d hard to describe, so this blog is more about me working through it than anything else, but here we go.

For those of you who don’t know, let me break down the relationship statuses of the female leads of these movies.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, Dowager Queen of France

Relationship status: widowed (at the start), married to a fuckboi of dubious sexual persuasion (in the middle), then widowed again, then there was some dubious consent and married to a dudebro who ultimately lost her her kingdom. 

Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England

Relationship status: it’s complicated…aka depending on your version of history, she loved her BFF or she had all kinds of affairs with him because they couldn’t get married because of REASONS.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, professor, lawyer, Associate Justice on SCOTUS

Relationship status: adorably, wonderfully, happily married to Marty Ginsburg. 

So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way—the thing that struck me about these three women boils down to one word: sex. Yes, that favorite word of romance writers everywhere. More to the point, sexuality, though, is what comes heavily into play in all of these movies. 

I’ve listened to all sorts of biographies of these ladies (I’m weird and can only get through histories/bios/non-romance novels in audiobook form) and there’s all sorts of analysis I could do over the lens of history and who is writing about the past. BUT THIS IS NOT ABOUT LETTING MY INNER ENGLISH LIT NERD SIDE OUT.

Okay, maybe it is a little bit. For reference, MQOS was written by a guy, based on a book by a guy, but directed by a woman. OTBOS was written by a man and directed by a woman. We get both the male and female gaze on these stories. Which is good. More of this, I say. 

But what struck me most was that these were some of the first movies where I saw, essentially, three distinct sides of female sexuality in the context of literal power. And the contrast was fascinating.

On the one hand, you have Elizabeth. The “Virgin” Queen. She very much chose her own narrative and the façade she wanted people to see. My honest opinion of the real Liz is that she had no interest in having to share her power with a man—but that’s a separate blog I plan to tackle later. Within the movie, there are deliberate choices made. While we see her and Robin Dudley messing around and being intimate in the literal rather than metaphorical sense, we don’t see them actually go all the way. 

At several points throughout the movie, she defeminizes herself in order for the men who are supposed to be her subjects to take her seriously as a ruler. She can’t marry who she wants, because she’s a queen and the guy she arguably loves may have killed his first wife (probably not though), so she tries to shift the perception of her. The Virgin Queen moniker is useful, but the film plays more with her speech at Tilbury: 

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”

She slowly alienates herself from her own gender in order to retain power. She’s not a woman, but not a man. She’s the ultimate “other” in public, at least. By the time the movie ends, she’s approaching the time when it’s unlikely she’ll ever have children, so in the mindset of the time, she was useless at the primary task of her gender—producing children. Instead of giving into those expectations, she assumes her “other”-ness and re-shapes how a Queen Regnant can—and maybe should—operate. 

Mary, on the other hand, leans into her own gender and sexuality and embraces them wholeheartedly. She arrives back in Scotland after spending 12+ years in France (I can’t math right now), and she’s been a widow for several months, so she’s obviously in need of a husband. Unlike her cousin (first cousin, once removed technically), Mary let everyone get all up in her business about who to marry next—and do it successfully. Eventually, she both plays the game and “falls in love” with the fuckboi, Lord Darnley. 

The movie portrays them as having a strong physical attraction—which could be true. It all quickly turns on Mary though, and she has to engage in a struggle to be either queen or wife. It’s glossed over in the movie, but the book it’s based on spends a lot of time focusing on Darnley’s obsession with being king. This is an incontrovertible part of old skool society. Women were expected to obey husbands. Is it any wonder Elizabeth didn’t want to give up her birthright to let a husband mess shit up?

Anywho, between John Knox painting her as a harlot because she’s got boobs and is Catholic and he’s a misogynist, and the men of her court—from her husband to her brother to her secretary—causing all sorts of mayhem, Mary’s power is lost because of the focus on her sexuality. She’s the one with the right to the crown, yet they dismiss her and use her for their own goals. Eventually, a man she trusted more than others forces her hand and she has to marry him. His ambition is her downfall, just as her desire to be loved was.

In the end, her agency as a person is taken away in spite of her power because she remains firmly in the female sphere, yet Elizabeth maintains her agency because of her power. In the end though, Elizabeth is on the side of the men she likens herself to and takes away not only Mary’s agency, but also her life.  

Fast forward several centuries, and we come to OTBOS and RBG. Let’s be clear—RBG dealt with a whole lot of bullshit in her life. Some of it just as bad as Elizabeth and Mary. But there was a significant difference in her life. Yes, the times were one her side—yay Second Wave Feminism—but more than that, she got to choose who to marry. And boy did she pick a good one. 

I know it’s based on real life, but I still get all swoony over the true partnership that Ruth and Marty had. They worked together to be better, to excel. He didn’t fear her intelligence or her command of the law. He encouraged it. At least in the movie, they were compatible both sexually and emotionally. Love didn’t detract from RBG’s power. It enhanced it, because it didn’t try to supplant her power. Marty and Ruth were in it together and damn someone coming out on top.

We need to see more healthy, equal relationships like Ruth and Marty’s depicted in pop culture in general—but more than that, we need more of them for women who hold power. The positive portrayal of healthy, normal relationships for all those in power might do everyone some good. Just sayin’.

P.S. Over the next few posts, I plan to explore both real life and pop culture depictions of strong women and muse on what we can learn from them. I also want to use these posts as a way to highlight some common themes and women who time has forgotten.