In recent years, we have been spoiled by some truly terrific female-driven historical dramas on our TV screen. As someone who is obsessed with TV and with gender history, I have devoured many of these series, and have written extensively about them in these blogposts. There is a definite turn in the way that historical dramas are being produced, they are no longer stuffy, moody, or constrained to deeply accurate portrayals of history. There is now an opportunity for more playful interpretations, ones that incorporate a diverse cast, finally play around with the idea of queerness in the past, and begin to address some of the many inequalities and prejudices that women, people of colour and the queer community faced throughout history – not just in present day.
Not only is this type of historical drama refreshing, but it is important. The representation matters. And I want more of it. The popularity of shows such as Dickinson and The Great allows an opportunity for more stories to be told, for more histories to be ‘uncovered’ – as creators and producers are so keen to say they are doing. Whilst there are problems around this rhetoric, I do believe when done well, that these Public/Gender Histories can be brilliant. And there are so many more stories I want to see get made.
Below are 3 Historical dramas that I think should be in the production pipeline…
1) The adventures of pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny – Queer, female pirates who were potentially lovers, and most definitely shipmates during the golden age of piracy. Can you IMAGINE the potential???
I first read about Mary and Anne in a history magazine (either BBC of History Extra though sadly I cannot remember), when I was 18 years old, and I was instantly obsessed. This was long before I discovered queer history, and my sweet little mind was blown at the thought of Mary Read and Anne Bonny’s relationship. Little is actually known about Read and Bonny, and most of which is taken from the 1724 biography of pirates ‘A General History of Pyrates‘. It is through this book we learn that both Mary and Anne dressed as men to gain access to pirate ships, that they both sailed and fought with Calico Jack aboard his ship, and that they were potentially lovers themselves. Records indicate that Anne remained dressed in male attire the majority of the time; whilst Mary lived more openly as a woman at sea, and appeared to have a relationship with Calico Jack as well as Anne Bonny. There is tragically little that has been written about these two women, aside from a few articles following the unveiling of their commemorative statue last year, which is an utter shame as their story would make brilliant TV.
Anne and Mary represent a wonderful example of gender and queer history. Although not enough is known about either of them to say for certain, my interpretation leads me to believe that Anne displayed several traits that are similar to the modern day definition of non-binary, or at the very least a gender-nonconforming female, likewise descriptions of Mary portray her as far removed from the feminine norm of the period. On top of that, the notion of the two of them having a queer romance (even if it cannot be proved as historical fact) is just too good to miss. In an age where the entertainment industry is attempting to improve inclusivity, and employ a diverse range of actors, a show such as this could be an fabulous opportunity to present this story through a queer lens, using non-binary characters at the forefront in a way that could be spectacular for representation. Given the divergent way in which pirates led their lives in the eighteenth century, this story could have endless possibilities for breaking stereotypes and providing young queer children with incredible representation of their own history – for me that is much too good an opportunity to miss.
How I would like to see this Public/Gender History: As a limited series on Netflix, preferably 10 episodes portraying both Anne and Mary’s lives just before they meet in 1715 up until their arrest and Anne’s death in 1720. I’m actually already feeling sad that this isn’t coming true, COME ON NETFLIX PLEASE MAKE THIS HAPPEN!
2) The Oversteegen Sisters – I must thank the My Favourite Murder podcast for bringing these women to my attention, as it is quite possibly one of the most interesting stories from World War II.
The Oversteegen Sisters, Freddie and Truus, were 14 and 16 when the war broke out in 1939 and they were some of the youngest members of the resistance against the Nazis in the Netherlands. The sisters helped to hide Jewish families, smuggle children across the border and, most incredibly, as they got older they would seduce and kill Nazi soldiers who entered the town. Riding around on bicycles they went undetected and were perceived to be harmless, which allowed them to corner members of the SS and shoot them. As they got older they graduated to picking up Nazi soldiers in bars and taking them to the woods where either the sisters or other members of the resistance would shoot them dead. Real-life teenage-Nazi killers. Can you actually believe that.
There are many things I love about the sister’s story, obviously the fearlessness and the sheer bravery are enough to warrant a movie, but actually, it is the interviews from after the war that I think is most telling. Both women went on to live long and seemingly happy lives, but they were clear that their actions during the war were not ones they enjoyed, but that they felt were necessary; with Truus saying “We did not feel it suited us — it never suits anybody, unless they are real criminals. . . . One loses everything. It poisons the beautiful things in life.”
The Oversteegen sisters were children forced to fight in a war because they knew it was the right thing to do, that they could help. They witnessed other children they were trying to help, young children, drown in a river and they could do nothing to save them They used their innocence and perceived feminine weakness (and let’s not fool ourselves – that would have played a massive part) to kill German soldiers and aid the resistance in the Netherlands. That is nothing less than extraordinary.
I would love to see their story told on the screen, I think the complexities of their situation, the gender politics at play, the trauma that they endured could be told brilliantly in the post-MeToo entertainment industry, especially in discussions of using young and seemingly ‘pure’ female sexuality for inherently evil acts.
How I would like to see this Public/Gender History: As a feature-length film. I think that would be enough time to do justice to their story, and as both sisters remained relatively private about their life in the post-war years a film that focuses on their immense war-time efforts seems ideal for this story.
3) Justice for Katherine Howard
Now I know I have harped on about this before, I actually think anyone who knows me would be rolling their eyes at this final suggestion because I speak about it so often, but oh wow does K. Howard need a redemption story.
For those unfamiliar with Katherine Howard and her life and downfall at the hands of husband Henry VIII, then please feel free to read my blogpost on her that I wrote for IWD 2020. Howard has always got a bad rep, and in almost every historical drama on the Tudors she is characterised as young, naive, and usually a cheater – which I strongly and wholeheartedly believe she is not.
Now I know there are enough TV shows and films on the Tudors to keep us occupied until the end of time, honestly there is probably enough on Anne Boleyn alone to do that. But I will defend Katherine Howard until the day I die, and I would love to see a documentary doing the same.
I think the main problem with what the general public know about the Tudors, is that it is based on Public History that is severely outdated, and quite frankly lacking in a lot of the nuisances and complexities that Gender History and the History of Sexuality and Sexual Assault bring into the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, in her documentary on the Six Wives, Lucy Worsley gave a reasonable and much fairer overview of Katherine Howard’s life, but I still think we could go further. I think we can change people’s perspectives of this young queen. More importantly I think there is an excellent story to be told about the way sex has been viewed throughout history, including sexual assault and the age of consent. I am pretty confident that none of that was ever covered in David Starkey’s telling of Tudor England. It really does enlighten the story of Katherine Howard, and the sexual politics of it all are not only timely but also genuinely interesting.
I personally would love to see it happen, and if Lucy Worsley isn’t available I would be happy to step in and present my view on things – though I can’t promise I will be as demure and calm as her when talking about the various ways the male species abused and manipulated Katherine Howard.
How I would like to see this Public/Gender History: A one off BBC One Documentary. I’m not asking for a lot here am I?! I think people know the story of the Tudors enough to not need several episodes of a documentary, one should be sufficient if it is done properly and told well – again BBC if you are looking for volunteers I will happily oblige.
Some further reading on these stories can be found here, please read up so you can understand my NEED to see them made into a TV drama / historical film!
- The Tale of Pirate Queens Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Smithsonian Mag, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/if-theres-a-man-among-ye-the-tale-of-pirate-queens-anne-bonny-and-mary-read-45576461/
- Female pirate lovers whose story was ignored by male historians immortalised with statue, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women-pirates-anne-bonny-mary-read-lgbt-statue-b1725018.html
- Freddie Oversteegen, Dutch resistance fighter who killed Nazis through seduction, dies at 92, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/freddie-oversteegen-dutch-resistance-fighter-who-killed-nazis-through-seduction-dies-at-92/2018/09/16/7876eade-b9b7-11e8-a8aa-860695e7f3fc_story.html
- Her war never stopped, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/23/freddie-oversteegen-dutch-teenager-who-resisted-nazis
- Connor Byrne, Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen, (Stroud 2019)
- Josephine Wilkinson, Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, (London 2016)