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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Immortal, Ever-Shifting Appeal of Anne Boleyn

From a recent appearance in Spencer to an upcoming show starring Jodie Turner-Smith, the doomed queen remains as relevant today as ever
Image: AMC Networks
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Anne Boleyn—the late queen of England during the 16th century—is all over the place lately.

In Spencer, the enigmatic Englishwoman who reigned briefly as Henry VIII’s second consort from 1533 to 1536 is portrayed by Amy Manson as a ghost haunting Kristen Stewart’s Princess Di, who relates to Anne as a fellow victim of the crown’s ruthlessness. And in an eponymous new three-part series currently running on AMC+, starring Jodie Turner-Smith, Turner-Smith’s Anne similarly diverges from the common hyper-sexualized depictions of the queen. This iteration of Anne focuses on her humanity in her final days before her execution, and her anxieties as a mother who will leave behind the not-yet-three-year-old Princess Elizabeth.

These two adaptations are only the latest additions to a centuries-long legacy, one that reflects a broader, ongoing cultural struggle to pin down, correct, and perfect society’s often conflicted feelings about complex women. Anne has lived a thousand lives since her death, in varying historical texts and fictional works, each shaped by their era’s religious beliefs and attitudes about gender and sexuality. She appeals even to modern audiences because of the numerous, seemingly competing personalities and narratives she embodies: Anne was the other woman in one of the most notorious and consequential divorce cases in history, and also a young woman with notable political ambitions. Famed for her wit and her sexuality, she was intelligent and determined in a way that defied the prescribed gender roles of the 16th and perhaps even 21st centuries. In Spencer and Anne Boleyn, Anne is different from any of the numerous familiar caricatures of her—she’s excitingly modern, and uniquely represents a 21st-century sort of feminism.

The modernization of Anne Boleyn

From the Victorians, who saw her as a hapless, virginal victim without political goals or ambition, to the numerous 1930s and 40s historical novels that nod to the coexistence of her sexuality, intelligence, and victimhood, Boleyn’s story has been the stuff of pop culture legend essentially since her death. Merle Oberon captivated audiences with her romantic portrayal of Anne in 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII; Boleyn is currently on Broadway as a vivacious, 21st-century pop-star incarnation in the musical Six. She was an unlikely fixture of entertainment in the late 2000s and 2010s, with Natalie Dormer breathing new life into her story on The Tudors and author Hillary Mantel enshrining the doomed queen as a shrewd yet sympathetic villain in her popular trilogy about Henry VIII’s equally doomed henchman, Thomas Cromwell. Thanks to the influence of the YA Royal Diaries series, I myself grew up an avid follower of all things Tudor and something of an Anne Boleyn super-fan, falling into a Tumblr-fueled obsession with Dormer’s portrayal of her.

Each portrayal of Boleyn has held up a mirror to contemporary gender anxieties and the varying rubrics and checklists women are required to meet in order to be sympathetic. Susan Bordo, a professor at the University of Kentucky and the gender scholar and cultural historian who wrote The Creation of Anne Boleyn in 2013, attributes Boleyn’s long cultural lifespan in part to the enduring fascination with the world of the Tudors at large. “The Tudors are all soap operas, they’ve got all of the narrative archetypes of doomed love and power going for them,” she said. “Almost all of the individual stories, like the six wives, have a rivalry between women, which is a major archetype that people just adore—that love of audiences to see women like Anne and her rivals fight it out. Their story is sort of pornography of the cat fight.”

A prime example: the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, which ushered in an era of popular Tudor obsession, made writer Philippa Gregory one of the world’s biggest historical fiction writers, and inspired the 2008 movie of the same name, starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson trying their best at British accents and engaging in one petty cat fight after another. Showtime debuted The Tudors around the same time, cementing this period in popular Tudor fascination as perhaps the horniest of Anne’s many pop-culture lives.

2021 notably marks the 20th anniversary of Gregory’s iconic, historically inaccurate, and often nakedly sexist novel. The Other Boleyn Girl spared nothing when it came to dragging Anne’s name further through the mud, at times at the expense of logical storytelling. In just one glaring example, when Gregory’s Anne struggles to conceive because of Henry VIII’s impotence, she solicits her brother George, who was executed for falsified incest charges with Anne, to impregnate her. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Gregory that had this really happened, an impotent King Henry would probably have questions about how his wife had conceived without his help.

As Bordo notes in her 2013 book, it wasn’t necessarily the myriad inaccuracies that made The Other Boleyn Girl and Gregory’s other, numerous historical novels so frustrating, but Gregory’s insistence on the book’s accuracy and supposed feminism—all while relying on enduring, sexist tropes about Anne to drive the story. Gregory’s Anne is an ambitious and therefore evil woman, in contrast with her sweet, domestic sister Mary, who is decidedly the story’s heroine. Without historical evidence, Gregory represents Anne as a serial poisoner of her enemies, and the Controlling Girlfriend™ who pushed Henry VIII to become his worst self, despite how he was objectively terrible both before and after Anne entered his life. Bordo wrote:

“What seems most offensive to historians are not Gregory’s distortions of fact, but her self-deceptive and self-promoting chutzpah. ‘Because I am a trained historian,’ she wrote in 2008 (in fact, her degree is in eighteenth-century literature). … It’s Gregory’s insistence on her meticulous adherence to history that most aggravates the scholars.”

What was Anne Boleyn’s personality really like?

More and more historians are in agreement that Anne was infinitely more than a king’s particularly bitchy mistress-turned-wife, executed for “failing” to birth a male heir. She was an ardent religious reformist who helped usher in the English Reformation that established the Church of England, and she went head-to-head with Cromwell at his most powerful as she advocated for redistributing the confiscated wealth of Catholic monasteries.

As Anne reenters the popular imagination yet again, it’s not to take part in any sort of Tudor “cat fight,” but to draw on her own fatal misfortunes in order to possibly save another woman’s life in Spencer. In Anne Boleyn, Turner-Smith’s Anne is a doting mother to the future Elizabeth I; per some historical accounts, she insisted on going against the grain and breastfeeding her infant daughter herself. Each project in its own way reflects stark changes in the greater cultural conversations around gender and power since The Other Boleyn Girl, The Tudors, and Wolf Hall. The oversimplification and demonization that have long characterized most portrayals of Anne are held up to increasing scrutiny.

Bordo sees hints of a modern reimagining of Anne in projects like Spencer. “Spencer absolutely takes a feminist perspective on Anne, in that she becomes this voice from the past that encourages Diana to not keep up with this loveless marriage in which she’s being abused,” Bordo said. “At one point, Diana says that that saved her life, learning from Anne.”

The complexity of Anne Boleyn’s visage

As for AMC+’s show, Bordo hasn’t particularly enjoyed Anne Boleyn, which was released on British streaming platforms prior to its recent release on the American platform. She believes the show falls short of fully elucidating Anne’s fiery personality and wit, and that the casting and portrayal of Anne by Turner-Smith, a Black actress, helped rather than hurt the show in its rendering of Anne.

In some ways, Bordo argues the casting of Turner-Smith is actually truer to the character and personality of Anne that historical texts bring to life. “It’s a way of bringing to the surface her cultural differences from the rest of the English court,” Bordo said. “They often described her as swarthy, darker-skinned—she wasn’t a fair-skinned, blushing, blue-eyed English maiden, and she was also different because she’d studied with feminist thinkers in other courts, and stood out in England.” The particular outrage Turner-Smith has received from some critics, Bordo notes, extends from colorism. “Had a lighter-skinned Black actress been chosen, probably you wouldn’t have seen the same reactions.”

If Turner-Smith’s Anne is at least true to the spirit of the late queen, that’s still ultimately a significant improvement from Gregory’s rendering. Since The Other Boleyn Girl was first published, despite recent progress in storytelling about women in power as more complex than Gregory’s Anne, Bordo still believes the controversial novel would be as much of a hit if it released today, because of how Gregory has adapted her protagonists—who have ranged from Henry VIII’s other wives to the last Plantagenet queens—to adhere to a shallow, surface-level reflection of modern feminism. “She manages to vivify, or to endow her heroines with just enough contemporary feminist power, agency, sexuality, energy, so that if one were to criticize deeper sexism in her stories, she could say, ‘What do you mean? Don’t you believe in strong powerful women?’” Bordo said. “She’s very crafty in that way.”

As a contrast to the subtle, biting misogyny of Gregory’s storytelling, if there was one thing The Tudors got right, it was the casting of Dormer. Dormer, who went on to star in the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones franchises, delivered a commendably modern, even feminist performance of Anne. Her Anne was sexual, imperious, fiery, short-tempered—but also intelligent, compassionate, and determined to do good with the power Henry VIII bestowed upon her. In an interview with Bordo for her book, Dormer revealed the extent of her research into Anne, devouring history books and demonstrating thorough knowledge of the political landscape of the Tudor era, and recalled going head-to-head with The Tudors creator Michael Hirst to do justice by Anne’s character. She told Bordo:

“Men still have trouble recognizing that a woman can be complex, can have ambition, good looks, sexuality, erudition, and common sense. A woman can have all those facets, yet men, in literature and in drama, seem to need to simplify women, to polarize us as either the whore or the angel. That sensibility is prevalent, even to this day.”

The Anne Boleyn we encounter in both Spencer and Anne Boleyn, today, hints at 21st-century progress in how we perceive and tell stories about women who, like Anne, defy cultural expectations to create their own happiness, who have ambition as well as intimate relationships as mothers and partners, and lead multifaceted lives. These are perhaps the gender politics and attributes Anne embodies that have endeared her to so many generations of women and girls, to this day.