Yesterday I attended a talk by Susan Bordo previewing her upcoming book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, which will be released in April. (Read more about it here.) My favorite part of Bordo’s talk was when she discussed her interviews with the women who have portrayed Anne Boleyn on screen. For example, Natalie Dormer, who played Anne on The Tudors, discussed her conversations with writer Michael Hirst and the effects on the ways she played Anne. Dormer said, “Our job is to be the vehicle of the text.” As a result, she resolved to change parts of the text that she felt might betray Anne’s legacy. Bordo talks more about this here. I am excited by Dormer’s explicit feminist intervention!
Bordo also discussed perceptions of Dormer’s Anne as a third-wave icon, full of contradiction and complexity. She focused on how this Anne’s intellectualism and fire resonated with popular audiences and especially with young women. Dormer’s Anne disrupts the more conventional depiction of Anne as a home-wrecking whore juxtaposed against Catherine of Aragon’s chaste and virtue. (And it is this conventional depiction, I would argue–regardless of historical “reality”–that requires feminist recoveries of Anne.) Bordo also read aloud many critiques of The Tudors and suggested that this level of critique is justified by a modern context in which audiences are increasingly unable to critically analyze visual texts at the level of representation.
I’m not sure I buy this argument. While I certainly believe that modern audiences read visual texts differently than 16th century audiences, and while I certainly believe that cultural and historical critiques of popular works are important, I’m not sure I believe that modern audiences are limited to literal understandings of visual texts. (To invoke Rudolf Arnheim’s scheme, we still have signs and symbols as well as pictures.) I’m not sure I believe that the introduction of Renaissance perspective and the modes of visuality that have arisen since have limited our readings of visual texts so much as transformed them. I’ll have to read the book to get some more context for this train of thought!
Bordo also made some interesting distinctions throughout her talk about the differences between literary critics, writers, and historians. I was left hoping for more explanation of what qualifies a person to be a historian. I hope, also, for the book to include some discussion of the validity of “historical” versus “literary” approaches to storytelling. Bordo noted, for example, that most extant primary sources about Anne were written by her political enemies, since Henry had her writings destroyed. So, how does one earn the label “historian”? And, perhaps more importantly, what are we missing because of our focus on what is “fact” and what is “fiction” rather than focusing on perspective?
Finally, I’ll end with an apparent feminist reaction to an image Bordo showed but did not critique. To be clear, I enjoyed The Tudors series immensely, but their advertising less so. What is going on in this image? Aside from the obvious fragmentation of female bodies (And, yes, I get that this is a play on Henry’s beheading two of his wives. But what about the others? And, anyway, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard did still possess heads–and personalities–during their lives.), why are there only five women depicted? What is the reasoning for rendering an entire woman’s body–and life?–completely unapparent? Is it entirely aesthetic? If so, what are the implications? And which wife is it who has been erased?