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Mary Queen of Scots Is Actually a Story About the Damage Done by Terrible Men

Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots Movie

Mary Queen of Scots has almost everything you could ask for in a period drama. Its story is centered on two famous historical women who buck the system of the time in which they find themselves. There are beautiful costumes and lush scenery, an amazing cast, and promotional posters that declare the film’s female leads—the titular Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England—“bow to no one.”

In a world where women are still fighting to be taken seriously in the realm of politics, the idea of a film that gives us not one but two powerful female rulers who fight to determine their own destinies feels like a balm for the soul.

Only, that’s not exactly the story Mary Queen of Scots is telling.

It’s probably the story most of us want to see, if we’re honest, and the film certainly gives us multiple moments where both Mary and Elizabeth are allowed to embrace their own power, and the audience is encouraged to root for their success. However, for all that Mary Queen of Scots is framed as a proto-girl power epic, it does nothing so much as remind us all that even the most extraordinary women are too-often stifled and frustrated by the men around them.

Instead of a telling a story about the triumph of an exceptional woman, Mary Queen of Scots gives us a much darker, more depressing tale. In this film, even the most extraordinary of women are subject to the whims of men who are less than they are, and who frequently wish them ill. Grumbling misogyny and toxic masculinity are the real heart of the story, and the acknowledgement of these problematic elements helps reframe Mary’s—and, subsequently, Elizabeth’s—reign in a more modern context. After all, misogyny is a still a tale we know well.

Both Mary and Elizabeth were women ahead of their time, to be sure, but they were not women out of time, and they both still had to exist within a patriarchal framework that not only didn’t want to see them triumph, but actually viewed them as a threat. Though these women are held up as early paragons of female success—and, to be clear, they were to a considerable degree—their lives were still largely hemmed in by male interests and influences. Even their stories have come down to us secondhand, their histories framed and given context by the men who came after them.

Anchored by two blistering performances at its center, Mary Queen of Scots clearly depicts the ways in which these two women were similarly unique, and why we’re still so fascinated with them both, hundreds of years later. It encourages us to question the generally accepted historical truths we’ve been taught, and to ask who has been insisting we believe them.

The same men who were so eager to bring down both the Scottish and English queens? Those who found the idea of submitting to a woman so abhorrent that they constantly tried to set them at each other’s throats? Is this a story about complicated—even problematic—women, or the ways in which men could not bring themselves to allow those women to be great?

At the end of the day, the story of these queens is one of tragedy as much as one of triumph. They do the impossible—stand as heads of state in opposition to a world that wants to deny them the opportunity to do so—yet their every success is used against them. Once Mary cedes power to the men around her—be it her husband Henry Stuart or the council of Scottish lords that advise her—she loses all ability to make her own choices unimpeded. She is not even allowed to tell her own story honestly, and even her seemingly “correct” decisions are used to undermine her public image.

Her determination to produce an heir for Scotland—she must basically force her maybe-queer husband to have sex with her—is used as evidence that she possesses an unnatural love of the flesh. She is blamed for both her husband’s murder and the fact that she is forced to remarry against her will, and she’s publicly labeled a harlot. Her husband and council even orchestrate the public murder of one of her BFFs—a courtier named David—and then blame Mary for allowing a foreigner to have such influence in her court.

In England, Elizabeth’s disinclination to marry is often thrown in her face as selfish, petulant, or unnatural. She is forced to continually give up pieces of herself—her affection, her femininity, her desire for a child—to hold on to what she considers hers. The creeping pageantry of her state of dress is the most obvious signifier of this, as she uses increasingly dramatic makeup and wigs to further separate herself from her subjects, her advisors, and from the idea of herself as a woman at all.

By the end of the film, even Elizabeth herself admits that she has basically become a man, which is, in a way, as much of a loss of life as Mary’s beheading, even though, technically, Elizabeth is the queen that “wins” (if by “wins” you mean “lives”).

Despite their royal power, the two women are never given a real chance to forge their own solutions directly. Even when they do sort of hammer out their own version of an acceptable compromise on the succession question at one point, the men around them immediately slash and burn it. Because … they’re the worst? Even the queens’ correspondence is generally done through male proxies—a faceless sea of messengers, ambassadors, and other official figures speak for, and to, Mary and Elizabeth.

The one scene they share—which Mary Queen of Scots had to invent, as the queens supposedly never met in real life—is electric, precisely because it’s the first and only time the two are allowed to communicate directly. Their shared frustration is palpable, as is their mutual understanding of the difficult position they each find themselves in.

By this point in their lives, both women seem to know that no matter what they might each desire—or what they should be able to do, given who they are—it’s the men around them who will not only forge the shape of their destinies, but the history that remembers them. And the true tragedy of this film is that we still know exactly how that turns out.

(image: Focus Features)

Lacy Baugher is a digital strategist and writer living in Washington, D.C., who’s still hoping that the TARDIS will show up at her door eventually. A fan of complicated comic book villains, British period dramas and whatever Jessica Lange happens to be doing today, her work has been featured on The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Flicks, Culturess, The Tracking Board and more. She livetweets way too many things on Twitter, and is always looking for new friends to yell about Game of Thrones with.

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