By Eva Dieteren | 29 April 2019
After another stressful week of studying, it was time to reward myself with a trip to the cinema with my friends. As a student in Scotland, this week’s choice seemed simple: Mary Queen of Scots. As a fan of period dramas, I was ready to sit back and enjoy what one can typically expect from a big-budget period drama: beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes accompanied by dramatic music. And whilst the film certainly ticks all the boxes, its depiction of female sexuality provides a new – and literal – perspective on the term period drama.
Following the turbulent life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and her relationship with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), the film does not fail to deliver thought-provoking scenes that detail the cruel reality of 16th century life. Particularly shocking scenes include depictions of violent sex and the brutal murder of Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio. However, two other scenes particularly stood out as controversial and received opposing responses. They center upon elements of female sexuality that are not often featured in film: menstrual blood and oral sex on women.
The film delves into the personal lives of Mary (and Elizabeth). As Mary’s ladies-in-waiting are undressing her one of the ladies holds up a bloody cloth and informs the Queen that she is ‘early.’ The close-up shot of the cloth was unexpected as menstruation is rarely discussed in film let alone blatantly depicted. The second memorable scene features Mary’s fiancé Lord Darnley. He arrives in her sleeping chamber to, well, perform cunnilingus (let’s keep the language classy, she is royal after all). I could not believe what I was seeing: most period dramas I have seen merely depict a modest kiss and if it does include more heated passion, it rarely strays from ‘traditional’ reproductive/penetrative intercourse.
It might sound strange, but these scenes made me very enthusiastic. Finally, a film that does not shy away from aspects of the female body and sexuality generally regarded as ‘taboo’. However, my friends did not share my enthusiasm. One comment I heard over and over: “It felt like they were trying to shove a progressive, feminist agenda into a period piece. It all seemed a bit unrealistic to me, especially the sex scene.” This made me wonder: were these depictions unrealistic? Menstruation and cunnilingus are rarely openly discussed today, so it is no surprise that we have little information on historical attitudes towards these topics.
The depiction of menstrual blood can be interpreted as more than just a gimmick added by director Josie Rourke to push forward a feminist agenda. The scene is very significant to the plot, symbolising Mary’s fertility. Menstruation meant that she was able to produce an heir, which made her an even bigger threat to Elizabeth, who remained unmarried and childless. Conceiving a child is an important goal for Mary.
The same logic does not hold for the intimate scene between Mary and Lord Darnley. Yes, it could be argued that the choice of portraying cunnilingus makes sense because it was not morally acceptable to have penetrative intercourse before marriage. But is it realistic to assume that cunnilingus was a thing in the 16th century, and that a royal would partake in it?
It might be difficult for us to realise, but numerous sexual acts that are outside the realm of reproduction and we might consider as purely modern have been around for a very long time. One particular example of this can actually be found in the Roman city of Pompeii. Amongst the ruins, a series of frescos were discovered depicting non-penetrative sexual activities, such as cunnilingus (Clarke 1998).
This obviously does not tell us whether a Scottish royal would engage in such sexual escapades. It does, however, show that we should not dismiss these scenes as unrealistic or a mere push for progressiveness.
Why are these scenes seen as unrealistic or controversial? Is it because we assume that female sexuality has always been repressed? I am a big fan of period dramas, but I don’t think that these films should be stuck in the past purely based on the argument of historical accuracy. They can elaborate on themes that might appear more contemporary and that one might not expect in historical settings. Another way in which the film does so is through diverse casting of historically white characters. Mary Queen of Scots is an interesting example of a film that does not shy away from contemporary and controversial topics solely because it is a period drama.
I am from the Netherlands and currently studying MScR Gender and Culture at The University of Edinburgh. My research focuses on the representation of gender, sexuality, and race in contemporary popular culture. I am currently researching the performance of Muslim masculinities in European film. My brain is 50% movie and TV references and 50% coffee. I also write poetry but will only share this after a glass of wine (or two).
Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, 1998.
Edited by Elise Walter and Kiefer Holland