Re-becoming a Virgin in “Elizabeth”

In our free love age, where more and more women seek empowerment through “having sex like men” (AKA have one night stands and hookups, having as much sex as they want, not getting emotionally attached), the portrayal of virginity as empowering in the movie “Elizabeth” makes for an interesting contrast.  As queen, Elizabeth is expected to marry, produce an heir, and submit to a husband.  As a sixteenth century woman, her sole function is to have babies.  Her lover, Sir Robert Dudley, is a threat to Elizabeth’s strength.  He almost convinces her to take him as a husband, an act that would mean giving up her autonomy.  The ideology of the time says that women’s power and purpose comes from having babies, but Queen Elizabeth takes power in swearing off men and refusing to produce an heir.  Hair has long been seen cross-culturally as a symbol of female sexuality.  At the end of the film, Queen Elizabeth has her hair chopped off.  Her face is painted white, which emphasizes her purity.  She re-becomes a virgin.

In depicting herself as a virgin, Elizabeth likens herself to the Virgin Mary.  Throughout the movie, she is criticized, put down, and doubted for being “just a woman”.  In drawing a connection between herself and the Virgin Mary, she raises herself above the common, sinful, human woman, and touches the world of the divine.

Today, women are oppressed by the contradictory standard that they should look sexy, but act virginal, as if they are uninterested in sex.  The idea that women can be judged and devalued based on their sexual choices, and that the way to be seen as a “moral” and “respectable” woman is to just not have sex, is misogynistic and repressive.  What makes Elizabeth’s decision to re-become a virgin an empowering one is the fact that it is a choice–a choice that defies norms.  She is not a “virgin” because she has never had sex.  She is not a “virgin” because she has given herself to God as a nun.  She is a “virgin” because she chooses to be one, so that that nobody can rule her and she can escape the societal norms that would otherwise imprison her.

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One thought on “Re-becoming a Virgin in “Elizabeth”

  1. Evelyn, interesting post! I really enjoyed your interpretation of Queen Elizabeth’s virgin status. Her choice of becoming or re-becoming a virgin subverts the cultural criticism of women who are neither mother nor wife. I love that she redefined what it means to be a powerful woman–while society tells her she can be a wife to a king or the mother of an heir, and therein, her only power is in the service of men–submitting to a husband and producing a male, she removes herself entirely from this gendered definition of power. Queen Elizabeth’s virginity subverts the conventional value of virginity, in that it ensures her autonomy, whereas virginity was traditionally viewed as a commodity used to facilitate a respectable and/or advantageous marriage. Queen Elizabeth’s power comes from remaining alone, whereas other women can only attain power through marriage and motherhood.

    I can’t help but think, despite Queen Elizabeth’s feat, it doesn’t differ too much from the current pressure on women to sever themselves from their sexuality or femininity in order to be taken seriously in the public sphere. A simple example would be the fashion styles of female politicians versus politicians’ wives. In a way I think Queen Elizabeth’s reclamation of her virginity simultaneously works to desexualize her (especially when paired with the imagery in the film of chopping off her hair), because it’s not just virginity, but it also represents a commitment to remain abstinent.

    It’s also worth noting that this whole virginity/transformation aspect of the film is an artistic liberty. The inaccuracies include: Queen Elizabeth cutting her hair to appear virgin-like and Elizabeth swearing off men and marriage in her youth—she entertained marriage proposals well into her reign (1580s).

    It’s also strange to think that ultimately the public accepted Elizabeth’s virginity as a virtue and strength, because she was not woman, but Queen. In equating her to the Virgin Mary or a goddess, she was exempt from the conventional criticism of women. The public had to elevate her above the female status to make her virginity an asset rather than a liability—in reality, such a woman would be considered an old maid. Another way of spinning her unwed status was the assertion that, in fact, she was married; she was wife to her country and subjects, whom she called, “all my husbands, my good people”.

    Thanks again for posting!

    sources:
    http://www.rmg.co.uk/explore/sea-and-ships/in-depth/elizabeth/representing-the-queen/elizabeths-image

    http://crht.ca/queen-elizabeth-i-1558-1601/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_(film)#Inaccuracies_in_personal_demeanor_and_relationships

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