QAB Interview with Feminist, Cultural and Gender Studies Scholar, Susan Bordo, Ph.D.

December 28, 2013 in News, QAB Guest Interviews and Chats by Beth von Staats

Susan Bordo (left) and Natalie Dormer as Queen Anne Boleyn

Susan Bordo (left) and Natalie Dormer as Queen Anne Boleyn

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Susan Bordo, Ph.D is a professor teaching Humanities and Gender Studies at the University of Kentucky. Susan’s Pulitzer Prize nominated research contributes to a body of feminist, cultural and gender studies, linking modern consumer culture directly to the formation of gendered bodies. Although much of Susan’s published works focus on her research and frank critiques of modern culture in relation to subject, gender and body formations, Susan published in the United States her second detailed research of historical cultural and gender studies in The Creation of Anne Boleyn, A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen in 2013.  Susan’s fascination with Queen Anne Boleyn and how history in created resulted in a thought-provoking look at how our understanding of Anne Boleyn was ultimately shaped. With some minor adaptations, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, In Search of The Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen will release in the United Kingdom on January 2, 2014.

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1. Susan, many QAB members and browsers are long time lovers of The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen, since it’s release in the United States last year. You must be very excited that your work will finally release in Great Britain! For browsers in the United Kingdom who may not be familiar with your work, what would you like to say to introduce your study of someone so iconic to their history?

First of all, prospective readers should be forewarned that the book is kind of an odd bird. It’s neither biography, “straight” history, or fiction. It’s a cultural history of ideas and representations of Anne Boleyn: how she has been depicted, from the poison pen of Eustace Chapuys to the many delicious but sometimes absurd fictional portrayals to mass media productions like Anne of the Thousand Days and The Tudors. Certainly, there is history in the book—I tackle a number of what I think of as the most intriguing questions that remain unanswered about Anne’s life and death—but if a biography is what you are looking for, try Eric Ives’ masterful Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. If you are interested in when and why Anne has been depicted as she has been, and—as Derek Wilson put it—exploring the history of history, then I think you’ll enjoy the book.

I’m tremendously excited—and a little nervous, too, about its UK release! I’ve had gratifying responses so far from other authors who write about the Tudors–Suzannah Lipscomb, Derek Wilson, Amy Licence, Susan Doran, Leanda De Lisle and Elizabeth Norton, among others–but some readers have taken offence to what they see as my ill-treatment of David Starkey, Alison Weir, G.W. Bernard and Philippa Gregory. Partly, this has been due to my intellectual and writing style, which tends toward the irreverent. But also, I think that some readers haven’t understood the “deconstructive” point of the book, which requires taking down tradition when it is based on mythology and stereotyping. It’s my job in the book to remove the protective armor of encrusted but unfounded “wisdom” and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I deferred to any icons, past or present.

Boleyn is one of those magnetic, elusive figures whose fascination has spread across time and culture—although in very different guises depending on the who, where, and when of those depicting her. And although she was a real woman who actually lived and died, she is also something of a cultural Rorschach test, who tells us more about ourselves than we ever will be able to find out about her. That’s what my book explores—and I couldn’t turn my back on any of what I discovered, even though it meant some strong criticism of writers that I admire. I wasn’t always happy about this—I had hoped, for example, that Hilary Mantel’s Anne in Bring Up the Bodies would be less of a caricature than the Anne of Wolf Hall, because I admire Hilary so much—but when I discovered that the Anne of both books was the same feral, manipulative schemer, I had no choice but to either write about what I found—an oddly cartoonish stereotype in otherwise subtle, creative work–or ignore her books completely. The latter choice would have been a truncated and dishonest cultural history.

Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys

Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys

2. In your book you very convincing lay out a cultural timeline of how historians, fiction writers and people in general viewed Queen Anne Boleyn. How do you believe this dynamic took hold? Do you see any significant parallels in your research in both the cultural demonizing and in contrast the cultural iconizing of Queen Anne Boleyn with other female historical figures?

Anne’s enduring fascination has to do with several factors: First, the fact that she was the first English queen ever to be executed—an event which was shocking even to her enemies. We are chewing over Henry’s motivation to this day, and it still remains difficult to grasp. How could he do it? It’s a question I seriously consider in a chapter of the book.

Second, it’s so easy to construct a juicy archetypal triangle out of the Henry/Katherine/Anne story: There’s the discarded, menopausal first wife, the larger-than-life King blinded by passion, the younger, bewitching interloper. And he pursued her for seven years, willing to split his kingdom in bloody halves for her! What was so special about her? It’s ready-made for soap opera of all sorts.

Third, there is an obdurate mystery about Anne that can never be solved, because we actually know so little about her (few letters, little information about her childhood, her time in the European courts, nothing dependable known about her feelings for Henry,) but nonetheless we want so hard to figure her out. In that respect, her fascination for us is similar to that of Marilyn Monroe. We sense that despite the thousands of words, the portraits, the pop media attention, she has not yet been fully understood, fully known. There is much for the imagination to “fill in,” and historians, novelists and filmmakers have eagerly tried their hands.

And fourth (though not necessarily finally) there is the intensity with which she has been both hated and loved. That is to say, her reputation has been both extreme and unstable, a villainess to some, a victim to others, and only very rarely, in some depictions, a complex human being. The earliest and most influential “information” (read: gossip) about Anne was already shaped in a highly inflammatory, biased fashion by Anne’s enemies (most crucially, Eustace Chapuys, about whom I write at length in the book.). That depiction was also a highly “political” one—that is, Chapuys was not merely taking sides with one woman against another, but with Catholicism against “heresy” (as Chapuys saw all species of Reformism), and with Spain against France. Because her life, death, and afterlife have been entangled within such a major polarizing drama of English history, she has been seen very differently, depending on which “side” one was on. While there are other famous female figures who have been demonized—Marie Antoinette comes immediately to mind, and so does Wallis Simpson—it’s hard to think of another whose image has been so mutable, so shape-shifting as Anne.

Hilary Mantel Slammed by British Tabloid

Hilary Mantel Slammed by British Tabloid

3. Susan, you pointedly state your disagreement with a few English historians’ views of Queen Anne Boleyn in the American release of The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen. Do you anticipate any resulting “fall out” with the British release??? Are you prepared for the common British “tabloidization” of historians and writers rarely seen in America?

Yes, I anticipate the tabloidization of my book. In fact, I’ve already encountered it. The first interview I did (when the U.S. version came out) falsely attributed David Starkey’s own description of himself as “an all purpose media tart” to me, and also claimed that I credit the television series The Tudors with greater historical accuracy than British historians! (I didn’t.) The reporter also quoted me as calling Starkey a “sexist.” It’s not my style to talk in labels like that (not in interviews, anyway.) What actually happened was that the journalist tried to provoke me by asking “Starkey is something of a sexist, isn’t he?” I didn’t take the bait, but he ignored that. The distortions would have been laughable, except that the readers’ comments that followed, believing that the story was true, had some very nasty things to say about feminists, Americans, and “non-historians” who dare to trespass across the pond. And clearly, stoking such a fire is what the journalist had in mind, and when I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he just made it up. I anticipate more of the same, but now I’m on my guard. Just two weeks ago, with the UK edition coming out, another paper asked me to write a piece on why we get Anne Boleyn so wrong, and specifically asked me to “name names.” I refused. I’m not interested in provoking hostilities, even if such controversy will sell more copies. I suspect, however, that the press will stir up trouble with or without my cooperation.

4. In your previous research of female appearance and body image, what are your thoughts as to what was the “ideal” female appearance and body type in 16th century England? Does Queen Anne Boleyn fit this mold? If not, what do you think led to King Henry VIII’s attraction to her? Do you have any thoughts beyond her inability to produce the longed for male heir that may have contributed to Queen Anne’s downfall?

On Anne’s looks and the 16th century ideal, I refer interested readers to this blog, which will give them a taste of what I write about more extensively in the book: http://thecreationofanneboleyn.wordpress.com/tag/beauty/.

Re. Anne’s downfall: My argument in the book is that “a perfect storm” of events–biological, political, atmospheric, and accidental–coalesced in a deadly fashion. It’s too multi-layered to summarize here, but here’s a bit of it: http://thecreationofanneboleyn.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/anne-as-a-piece-on-the-chessboard-of-politics/.

Geneviève Bujold as Queen Anne Boleyn

Geneviève Bujold as Anne Boleyn

5. In your book you interview at length both Geneviève Bujold and Natalie Dormer. What insights regarding Queen Anne Boleyn did these actresses provide you that you may not have previously thought of?

My interviews with Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer were high-points in my research for the book. They were both so generous, open, and warm! And what they had to say was tremendously eye opening—not so much about Anne, as about the role each of them played in the conception of Anne that emerged in their respective productions. We tend to think of writers and directors as forming their ideas and then casting actors to fit those ideas. But Hal Wallis, producer of Anne of the Thousand Days, “discovered” who his Anne was when he saw Genevieve, and to the degree that Anne was something more than just a sloe-eyed sexpot in the second season of The Tudors, that was almost entirely due to Natalie’s persistence. For Michael Hirst, Anne began as just a character “in the ether,” and in the absence of a stronger conception, in the first season slid easily into the role of seductive temptress. Natalie, who knew her history, urged him to revise that picture in season two, and the result was a very different Anne. I have several interesting backstories in the book that detail that collaboration.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

6. Susan, do you have any upcoming projects that you want to share with QAB’s members and browsers????

A number of readers of the book have urged me to do another Creation of…..and the idea is very appealing, as I enjoyed researching and writing this one so much. I’ve been mulling over Sylvia Plath as a possibility. I’ve been interested in her since I was in my early twenties, and she certainly has been created and re-created by different groups and generations. I’m also thinking about a kind of non-fiction “The Hours,” with the main characters being Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, and Marilyn Monroe as “daughters” of the fifties. My books are always as much about culture as they are about individuals, and having strayed very far away from my own life and times in the Anne book, I’m looking forward to a project that explores a cultural context that I know more intimately.

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Creation of Anne Boleyn

To Purchase in the United Kingdom Click Link Below

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors’ Most Notorious Queen

creation of anne boleyn usa

To Purchase in the United States and Canada Click Link Below

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen