Critic's Notebook: The Obsession With Female Royalty Is Really an Obsession With Female Trauma

Liam Daniel/Focus Features
Saoirse Ronan in 'Mary Queen of Scots.'

Stories about queens saturate both big and small screens far more frequently than those about kings, because we love tales of traumatized women.

In the almost-words of Mel Brooks: It sucks to be the queen. In 2017 and 2018 alone, pop culture's queens were neglected and gaslit (The Favourite), raped and beheaded (Mary Queen of Scots), patronized and belittled (The Crown) and impregnated and infantilized (Victoria). At this rate, it feels like a kindness that Elizabeth II was pretty much ignored altogether in The Windsors' cheeky royal wedding special this past May (though Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are fair game in this barmy antidote to The Crown's cerebral graveness).

Stories about real-life female monarchs tend to be more popular and prolific than those about their male equivalents. Despite the fact that history has featured a number of filmable male sovereigns, from Charlemagne to Mansa Musa, only a handful of kingly narratives remain steadily in our cultural consciousness outside of Shakespeare. But the various ways historical monarchies have shaped — and been shaped by — gender indicate that even screenplays about royals can never be equal across the gender binary. Patriarchy is still the default power structure in our society, so stories about entitled princes claiming their birthright or Machiavellian kings vying for power will never hold the same weight as those about empowered women; the latter is much rarer and more precious to behold. More importantly, female rule almost always implies some form of tragic circumstance.

Historically, European princesses were pawns in vast games of marital chess across the continent, their reproductive organs sites of familial wealth, status and dominance. Few of them ruled directly. Thus, the reigns of female queens onscreen showcase the anomaly of female power, the drama of women struggling for independence and the traumas real-life women endured for their thrones: their bodies wrangled and twisted in constricting bodices, their looks consumed and critiqued, their sexuality oppressed and manipulated, their wombs venerated or denigrated. After all, we're much more interested in the heartbreak of despairing women than the victories of those who are confident in their power. (Just look at the past several years of Best Actress nominations and you'll find rape survivors, devastated widows, battered wives, racially abused women, kidnapped mothers, vengeful mothers and tragic lesbian mothers.) As a society, we like our women characters wrung out like bloodied rags.

Female royals are a cultural obsession. Don't believe me? Take a glimpse at the last decade or so of cinema. Beyond witnessing Olivia Colman play sexual mind games in The Favourite and Saoirse Ronan duke it out with Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots this year, we've seen Kirsten Dunst frolic to indie pop in Marie Antoinette (2006); Helen Mirren steel herself to scandal in The Queen (2006); Cate Blanchett invigorate her troops in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007); Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson battle for sexual supremacy in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008); Keira Knightley fight for autonomy in The Duchess (2008); Emily Blunt rise to power in The Young Victoria (2009); Julie Delpy bloodlet her female subjects in The Countess (2009); Q'orianka Kilcher combat the colonization of Hawai'i in Princess Kaiulani (2009); Alicia Vikander conduct a torrid romance in A Royal Affair (2012); Diane Kruger face the guillotine in Farewell, My Queen (2012); Camille Rutherford plot her ascension to the British throne in Mary, Queen of Scots (2013); Malin Buska reject the gendered expectations of 17th century Sweden in The Girl King (2015); and Judi Dench befriend a young Muslim servant in Victoria & Abdul (2017).

Queenly stories have also dominated the small screen beyond Netflix's The Crown and PBS' Victoria, from Anne Boleyn's downfall in HBO's Wolf Hall (2015) to the plights of scorned women in Starz's War of the Roses trilogy The White Queen (2013), The White Princess (2017) and the upcoming The Spanish Princess (2019). CW's four-season Reign was a popular fictionalized series about Scotland's teenage Mary Stuart and Televisión Española's three-season Isabel was a hit show focused on the female half of infamous Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Following Helen Mirren's turn in miniseries Elizabeth I (2005), she'll play yet another queen in HBO's limited series Catherine the Great. And FX's Princess Diana v. Prince Charles season of Feud may be canceled, but you know it won't be long before another prestigious Diana-themed event series comes along again. On Broadway, Anastasia, an adaptation of the 1997 animated fantasy musical inspired by the youngest Romanov, has been nominated for a number of Tony and Drama Desk awards.

Go ahead, try to think of a recent high-profile film about a real-life prince or a king that isn't The King's Speech. I'll give you a minute. (Hint: The Madness of King George came out 24 years ago; The Lion in Winter came out 52 years ago.) Even BBC's luscious soap Versailles, about France's grand Louis XIV, lasted only three short seasons with little public fanfare. And let's not pretend our lasting interest in England's notorious Henry VIII has anything to do with the numerous sociopolitical legacies of his reign — it's the tragedies of his six wives (divorced, beheaded, died in childbirth, divorced, beheaded, widowed) we're in love with.

When we think of history's real-life political heroes, we don't seek the lives of fascinating kings and wannabes such as England's James VI and I (who was openly queer), Russia's Peter the Great (who expanded and modernized the Russian Empire) or Jacobite icon Bonnie Prince Charlie (who tried to regain the British throne for his ousted Stuart father). Instead, we reserve our adoration for legendary rogues, outlaws and underdogs à la King Arthur, Robin Hood, Rasputin, the Man in the Iron Mask and superheroes who totally don't wanna take over their inherited kingdoms from ruling baddies until they find their inner strength. Yeah, Scottish warrior William Wallace is a cultural idol after Braveheart, but Robert the Bruce biopic Outlaw King sure just came and went, didn't it? Kings, particularly strong ones, just don't seem to intrigue us.

The female subjects in the above biopics have enduring pathos in common that keep us coming back for more. Elizabeth I grew up the marginalized child of a tyrannical king, the mother she never knew beheaded after being accused of witchcraft and incest. (Plus her own sister imprisoned her in the Tower of London for fear of overthrow.) Queen Victoria spent her childhood in near total isolation, domineered by her mother and the woman's "advisor" so they could puppeteer her when she came to power. (She promptly straightened them out once crowned.) Undereducated Queen Elizabeth II was left to modernize the British monarchy throughout the 20th and 21st centuries following the upheavals of World War II. Britain's Queen Anne experienced debilitating health problems while her power-hungry best friend (and likely lover) emotionally abused her. Queen Christina of Sweden controversially loved women and dressed like a man before abdicating her throne. Marie Antoinette was a foreigner to France who lived lavishly while her kingdom burned...until she paid the price with her head. In fact, film subjects Mary Stuart, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard all lost their heads for daring to taste a semblance of power. Other women in these tales, neglected by their royal husbands, found brief solace with courtiers and then suffered the pain of exposure. Many of them were child brides, used as stakes in political games.

Female authority is still a novelty going into 2019. (I mean, Americans couldn't even elect a woman president just two years ago.) Onscreen, their regality entices us, but as viewers we'd rather see woman ache with power than triumph from it. As filmgoers and TV watchers, we'll never get enough of young beauties in colorful frocks looking forlorn while surrounded by riches (but only feeling loneliness). Off with their heads.