“Don’t judge me… Don’t you dare judge me”: Women and Sex in Eighteenth Century Period Film and TV Back

The modern “bodice ripper” has recently become something almost guaranteed to prompt critical dismay. The Tudors, Outlander, Versailles – we’ve recently seen a deluge of historical dramas offering us scenes of lust and passion only suitable for Sunday evening dramas, remarkably all done without a single bodice even being awkwardly undone, let alone ripped.

Joking aside, eighteenth-century “bodice rippers” and other films and television programmes depicting sex within the past have of late received almost automatic condemnation from some corner or another. Could it be something to do with the quality of sex hitherto unknown by an affronted British public, who write their letters of complaint against Versailles and then tune in the next week? We are admittedly a nation who reads newspaper articles entitled “What happened to sex?”, as though it had gone on an over-long holiday. Or could it be the way that women in particular within these dramas are portrayed?

After all, the ways women are portrayed, especially within the context of sex, may seem to conform to the Madonna/Whore complex: either the saintly, inexperienced Camillas or the wickedly lustful Marquise de Merteuil. Sex appears in this context to be the great divider between heroines and the anti-heroines, whilst it remains the preserve and the power of the nattily dressed gentlemen.

However, to say this is either to condemn such films and television to ‘easy history’ (where everything was simply black and white) or to continuously uphold a Hollywood standard of female sexual identity as unimportant compared to male protagonists. That’s not to say that Hollywood is unfairly criticised for its portrayal of women in a variety of situations and eras. But to say every “bodice ripper” or movie and television programme that portrays women as sexual beings has no merit at all would overlook the fascinating ways in which women’s sexuality and sexual desire are explored both on the silver and small screen.

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The very idea of women and sex is handled with difficulty within eighteenth-century period film and television. Sex is either left out completely or applied as liberally as sun cream on a Spanish beach in summertime. You have it all or not a thing.

This tendency leads us back to academic film theory and whether the viewer’s gaze is genderless or not. In her discussion of the viewer’s gaze, E. Ann Kaplan describes how women in film tend to become objects of male sexual desire, with Kaplan going on to say how a woman’s sexual pleasure, both within the film and in viewing it, is constructed around her own objectification. This may seem an outmoded piece of feminist criticism, but it rings true even today. Until recently, James Bond films made it an unsubtle part of their charm; the Twilight series made it a virtue for its protagonist not to do much and not to be allowed to initiate sex or even take control of her own body; and many other films continue to be guilty of allowing their women to be little more than objects of other male characters’ desire, instead of being humans with their own desires who create the ‘sexual action’ onscreen.

This romanticised objectification is something that may seem to be the unfortunate lot of eighteenth-century women onscreen, who couldn’t vote, own property or have sexual desires without being branded whores or deviants. However, one of the films that seem to challenge the romanticised objectification of women as sex objects and the idea of the male gaze is Sofia Coppola’s often lambasted Marie Antoinette (2006).

This film, with its snazzy pink DVD box, seems to be a perpetual source of feminist eye rolling and historians groaning at how history became a chick flick. In fact, Roger Ebert was one of only a smattering of critics to give this film a good review. Cole Smithers wrote off the film as “style over substance”; Jake Euker bewails how “Coppola [has] disconnected her character from history to achieve this glittering surface and there’s nothing else to which a viewer can hang on”; Jack Garner tuts and writes, “Coppola fails to define what made Marie Antoinette especially unique or deserving of such a lasting reputation.” Finally, Richard Roeper wrote how the film is “very pretty and occasionally amusing but also dreadfully dull for long, long periods of time.” I’m not sure whether these reviews deliberately misunderstand Marie Antoinette or her role within Versailles – do they know that she was expected to be pretty and amusing, but not to actually do much in the grand scheme of French politics?

The film is a fascinating piece in the way that Marie Antoinette is cut off from the world of French politics and France itself, with only the glittering court of Versailles as a backdrop to her life – just as it would have been. Last time I checked, Marie Antoinette didn’t ride into battle with Washington shouting ‘Vive La France!’ and didn’t make impassioned speeches to the Parlement. Whilst a fascinating character in the context of our hindsight, she was as the film portrays her. And that includes the ways in which her sexuality is explored.

The film does a fantastic job in showing how Marie Antoinette was objectified by the court around her as a stupid, pretty thing who was only there to have a brood of children and to be nice to the fishwives. This is shown stunningly well when we are shown into her chambers as she gives birth to her first child, Marie Therese, where the event is treated as a spectacle and not even the queen fainting will stop people scrumming for a better look. The film also shows what the failure of sexual intercourse with her husband means – not only are the political and domestic repercussions explored, but how Marie Antoinette personally must have felt. Kirsten Dunst portrays this well, with her looks of depression bordering somewhat on self loathing when she seems to fail at exciting her husband.

Her later affair is also an interesting addition to the typical story of Marie Antoinette. Whilst this affair probably never happened, it is interesting within the context of the film. Whilst Marie Antoinette is the centre of this film’s universe, she never seems in control – she is dressed in the morning like a doll, she attends parties that she would have to go to even if she didn’t want to, and not even her words are her own. In a scene which must have made many French historians cheer, she is appalled that the infamous line of “Let them eat cake” is credited to her. Her affair with Axel Fersen then, in this light, is something that she takes full control of – she leads Fersen by the hand, she initiates everything, and, it would seem, she ends it when she has had enough. As the end of the affair is not dragged out on screen, we can fairly assume that it ended on her terms instead of on the terms of a jealous, blackmailing lover.

It is also interesting to note that as a result of this affair, she produces the longed for Dauphin. However, this doesn’t end well. In fact, the death of the Dauphin is shown on screen, with the royal family looking on heartbroken. Not only is Marie Antoinette experiencing the death of her son, but she is also experiencing the end of any kind of control she had. She may have experienced control in her brief affair as a sexual being, but she cannot protect her children, her husband or indeed the entire artifice upon which they depend.

Another fascinating, but somewhat disguised, source of discussion concerning female sexuality is Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice (2005, dir. Joe Wright) is a film that at first glance attempts to copy the 1995 BBC television series (dir. Simon Langton) – even down to the choice of Chatsworth as Pemberley. However, the way in which the 2005 film treats its characters and how they are portrayed makes it superior to the television series, I believe. One of the main reasons for having such a scandalous opinion is the way that the romance, in particular between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, is played out. Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley portray the characters in a way that many people would be too afraid to do – they don’t try to be Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. And in doing so, they manage to show the palpable sexual tension between the two characters that was bleached from the television series.

One such scene is after Elizabeth discovers that Mr Darcy was instrumental in dividing Mr Bingley and her sister Jane, where Elizabeth runs in the pouring rain to a secluded spot only to find herself in the company of Mr Darcy, also suitably drenched. Whilst it looks ridiculously akin to a similar scene in the tear-jerker The Notebook, I rather like the scene as when a character in Jane Austen got wet in the rain they ran a high risk of becoming terribly ill, normally to the point of almost dying. Basically Mr Darcy is so enamoured that he put himself in the Jane Austen equivalent of a tuberculosis ward just to tell Elizabeth he loves her but he thinks her family are pond scum.

As the scene progresses and Elizabeth gives Darcy what for, it takes a tone of two passionate people arguing instead of the very staid encounter between Firth and Ehle. This tension is built upon more when the two get closer and closer whilst still shouting at each other, and leads to some very interesting looks – in particular, Darcy’s rather enchanted look at Elizabeth’s lips after she resoundingly rejects him. The sexual tension is fantastic in this scene and this adaptation – and I for one am glad that the writers developed the story to include this. It makes the overall love story a bit more believable to a modern audience. The BBC adaptation in comparison, although closer to the book and the general time period, seems to lack that romantic chemistry. Yes, Jane Austen didn’t write it like that, nor did she write the scene at the end of the film with Darcy calling Elizabeth ‘Mrs Darcy’. But this is natural progression for viewers who expect to see something of themselves in these characters and want to experience escapism to the ‘good old days’ when romantic heroes were swashbuckling and Byronic. (And she also didn’t write the infamous lake scene either.)

This is a trend particularly among female viewers who want to watch female characters who have professional success and romantic fulfilment. Antje Ascheid has dubbed such movies as “woman’s heritage films”, which she defines as:

“[depicting] the trials and tribulations of a proto-feminist heroine to entertain the postfeminist audience, a demographic group that, by and large, thinks of feminism as a historical struggle, a movement that preceded their own life experience.”[1]

The continuing popularity of Jane Austen adaptations is testament to that.  The viewer’s gaze therefore is constructed as feminine with the heroine normally being modern-minded or even radical compared to her peers, but caught in a world of social confinement, so she can only be released through the love of man (and the ensuing sex within wedlock). Whilst this seems like a contradiction, the female gaze in this scenario demonstrates how film and television are reaching out to female viewers who want it all through fictional characters – by showing independence, intelligence and proto-feminist status; as well as the handsome partner who is their equal. Granted, not every female viewer wants to have these things or be shown these things, but Elizabeth Bennet’s unwavering popularity among female viewers and writers – and the popularity of all her various ‘offspring’ such as Bridget Jones – is a case in point.

This ‘happily ever after romantic/sexual scenario’ is obviously not always the case in period films and television, and the opposite situation is normally deployed to show that reality wasn’t always so kind. Back to Pride and Prejudice and the character of Charlotte Lucas (played by Claudie Blakley). Whilst the BBC adaptation has Charlotte (played there by Lucy Scott) speak the words of the book, I always found her decision to marry Mr Collins in this version as almost bordering on Odd Couple territory. She doesn’t seem resigned to her fate or even upset that Elizabeth thinks she’s making a terrible mistake – in fact she seems almost ready to burst out laughing, or reveal it was all a ruse and point out all the hidden cameras. Flipping back to the 2005 film, the scene with Charlotte and Elizabeth has a very different feel. Charlotte’s lines really demonstrate how isolated she feels, both from society and from a disapproving Elizabeth, and how the idea of being unmarried is no longer a prospect she can live with:

“I am twenty seven years old. I’ve no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to my parents. And I am frightened.”

Whilst we can fairly assume that Charlotte is frightened by the prospect of becoming a mocked spinster within society, I interpret the line to also include her terror at being married and the implications it brings. Yes, she will have a comfortable home with Mr Collins – but she will also have to be his wife in every sense, and this is a time when she needs her friend to support her. Her parting line of “Don’t judge me, Lizzie. Don’t you dare judge me” demonstrates how Elizabeth cannot judge Charlotte until Elizabeth is no longer sexually desirable and unable to trade on her young sexuality to get herself a less ridiculous husband than Mr Collins. It is a heartbreaking scene in both the friendship potentially fragmenting and reality creeping in – spinsters were mocked in popular contemporary culture, women’s marriage prospects could be damaged depending on their age and their attractiveness, and sex was always a present and sometimes unwelcome aspect of betrothals and the abstract concept of marriage. Again, this is very much a female gaze scenario – Charlotte is not objectified at all and her fears are given enough air time to show the terrible reality that Elizabeth Bennet herself didn’t consider. Whilst Elsa Solender argues that “Jane Austen’s world like Shakespeare’s, need not be constrained by time nor place”, the 2005 film demonstrates a tendency towards satisfying female viewers’ needs for feminist heroines and handsome, sensitive heroes in the days of yore, as well as highlighting the very real problems contemporary women suffered through, even if Jane Austen herself never explicitly addressed the subject of sex in any of her novels.

Another film that tackles this issue of marital sex within the eighteenth century is A Royal Affair (2012, dir. Nikolaj Arcel). Following the married life of George III’s sister Queen Caroline of Denmark (played by Alicia Vikander), who dabbled in Enlightenment rhetoric and embarked on a romantic affair with the King’s own doctor, the film deals closely with the various sexual encounters of the young queen. Her marriage to the King of Denmark, who is soon found to be on the brink of madness, is something she tries to make work. She is unable to do so as a foreign woman in the Danish court and as a queen who like Marie Antoinette, is seen as little more than a womb for hire. Indeed, in one of my favourite scenes in the film, when she gives birth to her first child and is screaming with pain, she is told by the doctor that gentlewomen do not make so much noise during labour – which makes her scream even louder in defiance. The scene would be comic if it weren’t so tragic.

The film does not shy away from the fact that the central marriage is doomed to failure, even before the two young aristocrats are even married. Christian VII of Denmark (played by Mikkel Folsgaard) makes it clear early on in their marriage that he doesn’t much care for his wife and proceeds to treat her with all the disrespect normally only reserved for fellow passengers on the London Underground, with many mistresses being flaunted in front of her while he withholds marital sex and humiliates her as a queen, wife and mother. Though she may be seen to be escaping the awfulness of non-consensual sex with an increasingly demented man, it also takes any sort of power away from her. She cannot influence her husband or be seen to be a consort, or even try to make her marriage work. Her husband holds the power over her sexual activities and sexuality – whilst her depression is evidently due to her humiliation, it is also owing to the lack of companionship, legitimate sex and common courtesy that were being lauded as the basis of the late eighteenth century’s ‘companionate marriage’.

Caroline’s affair with the king’s physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee (played by Mads Mikkelsen), is also an interesting relationship, because of the surprising lack of sex shown on screen. In fact, the majority of their affair is based on the meeting of kindred minds, instead of a meeting of two sexually passionate people. The first stirrings of admiration and love arguably take place when Caroline discovers one of Voltaire’s books in Struensee’s collection, a book which had been confiscated from her own belongings when she arrived in Denmark. Their love affair includes them using King Christian as a puppet in order to implement their liberal views on Denmark, which had previously escaped by and large from the Enlightenment.

Whilst the affair is discovered and the film ends with political hell breaking loose, Struensee’s execution and Caroline’s banishment on the grounds of her supposedly plotting to depose the king, Caroline’s sexual experiences, and her resulting children, are not written off in the same way as in Marie Antoinette. The film ends on a note of hope, with both her children growing up to help implement and continue the work Caroline and Struensee started – and her daughter, Princess Louise Auguste, is shown within the film to be categorically Struensee’s child. Caroline does not have to watch the child of her affair carted off in a casket. In fact, her affair was the reason why Denmark developed as an enlightened country – so a woman’s sexual activities can even be seen as a proto-feminist act of taking back control over her sexual being and the wellbeing of her adopted country.

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It may seem ridiculous to ask for more from eighteenth-century period films and television when it comes to women and sex. Affairs are constantly seen as an escape from terrible marriages and situations, or as a way of gaining some authority over their lives; whilst sex within marriage is normally not shown and therefore sexual chemistry has to carry the viewer’s imagination. I’ve looked at instances of women engaging in sexual desires or the realities of sex in the eighteenth century, whilst trying not to look at films and television programmes that just show sex onscreen without seeming to understand why, apart from the shock and titillation factors. But should we ask for more from stories based on eighteenth-century literature and history than just more sex onscreen for little reason, or for us to bewail the fate of contemporary women?

The Moll Flanders stereotype with a heart of gold and a mind of steel has been a popular choice for writers and producers looking to create a woman who enjoys sex or at least actively seeks it out. But this character choice seems to be rewriting popular imaginings of the period: we are led to believe that only prostitutes enjoyed sex back then, that everyone else wrote love letters and waited for Mr Darcy to emerge from their local lake, in short, that enjoyable sex for women is a modern invention.

However, to simply accept this all as fact would be a real disservice not only to the period but to future film and television in restricting the options that contemporary women took. Catherine the Great is a figure who seems to demonstrate that films and television series can be made about women with sexual desires and drives without devaluing their political and national significance and work. Drawing from the success of these films and television series, why not focus attention on Elizaveta Romanov, Peter the Great’s daughter and Russian Empress, whose iron constitution and never-tiring sex drive marked out her reign as a continuation of Peter the Great’s and a backdrop for the young Catherine the Great? Mary Wollstonecraft is also long overdue for a biographical film, or at the very least a good television series – revolution, the beginnings of feminism, tragedy, sex, love lost, love found, the list goes on. Her daughter Mary Shelley also deserves some screen time for a lot of the same reasons. Kitty Fisher and many of her contemporaries would be fantastic loci for film and television exploring the double-edged honour of being a kept woman, whilst also showing how sex existed in the eighteenth century.

And that is before we even contemplate the many ordinary women who were factory workers, widows, business owners, servants, and from many other walks of life, who would have engaged in pre-marital sex or extra-marital sex because of their own sexual desires. To try to live within the restrictive confines of a Jane Austen novel would be to not see another aspect of women’s lives in the eighteenth century – the desire for sex. Let’s keep making films showing how women were used as sexual playthings by men in the eighteenth century, let’s keep showing the Jane Austen-esque fantasy on screen – but let’s also see women enjoying sex without needing to justify their actions or punish them from our mighty modern standpoint. After all, sex was a normal part of eighteenth-century life so why not tell stories about sex as a normal fact of life? Pillars of the Earth did – why should the medieval period have all the fun?

Film and television have started to realise that viewers do not need to watch only the societal judgment or the gendered injustice bound up in eighteenth-century sexuality. We also want to see other women outside of the sphere of Evelina and Mansfield Park who did enjoy and engaged in sex and were unrepentant. In other words, it may be time to dust off the women who were too modern for their time and show the audiences of today that sex was not just an invention of the 1960s, especially for women.

[1] Aschei Antje, “Safe Rebellions: Romantic Emancipation in the ‘Woman’s Heritage Film,’” Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, 4 (2006): 2.