Men Go to Battle, Women Wage War

“Mer morte et montagnes de Judée, Palestine” By Félix Bonfils (1867) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Men Go to Battle, Women Wage War: A Review of The White Queen on STARZ


Kurt Baumeister


Following an established pattern on premium cable, The White Queen (Saturdays at 8 PM EST on STARZ) combines breathy, bodice-popping romance with hints of war, intrigue, and just enough period history to convince you your night hasn’t been a complete intellectual bonfire. Based on Philippa Gregory’s series of historical novels, The Cousins’ War, The White Queen’s milieu is England’s civil strife of the Late Middle Ages, otherwise known as the War of the Roses. As the Houses of Lancaster and York vie for the English throne, everyone from the French to the Scots looms off-screen, promising to make trouble in coming episodes.

As far as The White Queen’s history is concerned, there’s plenty in spirit; but never so much attention to canonical accuracy that you’re sure what’s going to happen. Taking a cue from genre forerunners, The Tudors and The Borgias, the thrill and latitude of dramatic license come before the facts. And maybe this has been the point of period dramas like The White Queen all along. Maybe these high-end soaps are designed to show us just how malleable history can be; how easy it is to take dramatic half-truths; sex, skulk, and bloody them up; and turn them into the stuff of reality, or, more than that, legend. Maybe…but, then again, probably not…

After all, even if there aren’t any actual “commercials;” this is commercial television. With the supposedly more scholarly History Channel running everything from Cajun Pawn Stars to Ice Road Ax Men to Mutant Neanderthal Strippers (2015?), we can hardly expect a network that calls itself STARZ (with a Z!) to act as some sort of PBS Premium. All the ingredients for high ratings are there with The White Queen, except perhaps for its timeslot.

Rather than sticking with Friday night for the airing of its original programming (a successful recipe for Spartacus, DaVinci’s Demons, and Magic City) STARZ will show The White Queen on Saturday nights, opposite the first-run movies on other premium cable channels. While this doesn’t amount to the kamikaze mission of going up against the likes of Homeland and Boardwalk Empire on Sunday nights, the change doesn’t entirely make sense. Maybe programming executives at STARZ have done their homework and see an opportunity. Only time, and ratings, will tell.

With a breathtaking number of scenic transformations and costume changes sprinkled between bouts of vigorous soft-core, The White Queen focuses on the love of King Edward IV (Max Irons, son of Academy Award winner/Borgia Pope, Jeremy) and his future Queen-Consort, Elizabeth Woodville (Swedish beauty, Rebecca Ferguson). In the first one-hour episode alone, the action roves from woodland picnic to secret nuptials to a hunting lodge honeymoon that literally goes on for days. Tresses of hair flow, fields of flowers bloom, and there’s no shortage of bare, writhing flesh.

There are, of course, moments when love takes a back seat, when intrigue rears its toothy head. For that, Irons and Ferguson give way to older sub-leads, most notably in the first several episodes, English actor, James Frain. Sneering from horseback, stalking through castle and field, issuing fiery pronouncements to his nephew the King; Frain (The Tudors and Elizabeth) plays Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Known as “the Kingmaker,” Neville has been responsible for putting Edward on the throne. With courtly manners, a simmering will to power, and facial expressions that seem always to be hiding a scheme, the Kingmaker’s machinations promise to be a dramatic driver early on.

The meat for a “real life” version of the game of thrones is definitely there, the history behind The White Queen covering a conflict Shakespeare himself devoted four plays to (Henry VI, 1-3 and the more famous Richard III). As the future Richard, Welsh stage actor Aneurin Barnard appears in only one scene of The White Queen’s first episode; however, the bemused malice he shows suggests a villain in the making, one ready to accept the mantle of principle antagonist from Uncle Kingmaker. Both history and The White Queen’s first season plot synopsis promise more of a role for Richard as the series unfolds.

Beyond the usual genre conventions of beauty vs. ugliness and good versus evil, The White Queen seems to be looking for thematic resonance in its exploration of gender roles. As its advertising tagline reads, “Men go to battle. Women wage war.” Though this suggests grand ambition, the question remains as to whether there’s any “there” there. Thus far, women’s only real realm of dominance seems to be “magic,” a power that may or may not be real within the show’s cosmology.

Early in the first episode, we see Elizabeth having misty, potentially prophetic dreams. We later learn that her mother (played by Janet McTeer) fancies herself a bit of a witch and seems convinced she has passed her powers along to her daughter. Spells are casts, mirrors are gazed into, and things seem to work out as “magic” suggests they will. Still, enough ambiguity is maintained that the viewer can’t be certain this magic has any potency at all. In this, magic stands in opposition to the very real political and military power we see wielded by men. This difference points to the fact that, “Men go to battle. Women wage war,” may be nothing more than a marketing ploy; that in The White Queen magic may become the stuff of imagination, religious persecution, or perhaps even “feminine madness.”

Only as the series evolves will we learn whether the show’s pretensions to fresh thematic territory are sincere or, like the treatment of history so common to its forerunners, easily dispensed with in favor of ratings. Either way, The White Queen’s top-notch cast and large production budget have produced something exciting to watch; a worthy successor to The Tudors and The Borgias, at least on a visceral level.


A former international finance professional, Kurt Baumeister holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His first novel, a satirical spy thriller entitled PAX AMERICANA, is forthcoming. He is currently at work on his second book, LOKI’S GAMBIT, a modern fantasy told from the viewpoint of the diminished and fundamentally misunderstood Norse God of Evil, Loki. Kurt Baumeister lives in Virginia.

“Close to Home”: Film Commentary by Karim Abuawad

A few months ago, as I was looking for a good film streaming on Netflix, I came a across the Israeli film Close to Home (2005). I rarely watch Israeli films (after all Israel isn’t famous for its filmmaking industry) but after reading the little description one gets on Netflix, I was sold. The film was advertised as the story of Mirit and Smadar who “are both serving their mandatory terms in the Israeli army, charged with the mundane task of checking the papers of Palestinian civilians.”

After watching the very first scene of the film, I began to see the disconnect between the film itself and its advertisement. In that scene, a Palestinian woman, in a little booth slightly bigger than a fitting room, is asked by a female soldier (Smadar) to undress so she could be inspected. As a new soldier in the IDF, Smadar is accompanied by her commanding officer who instructs her on how to search the Palestinian woman’s belongings, from inspecting the woman’s lipstick to sending a random piece of paper Smadar finds in her purse to the “censor.” Right from the beginning, I realized that there’s nothing “mundane” about this. In fact, within a few minutes, with very little dialogue, the film shows how an extreme version of Foucauldian biopolitcs gets normalized. So much so, that when the commanding officer leaves the room, Smadar can only think about telling her officer that she was given the wrong boots, asking her how she should go about fixing this mistake.

In Israel’s Occupation, the Israeli Foucauldian scholar Neve Gordon (professor at the Ben-Gurion university of the Negev) uses Foucauldian biopolitics to examine the control mechanisms put in place in the Occupied Territories. He writes:

“By means of control I do not only mean the coercive mechanisms used to prohibit, exclude, and repress people, but rather the entire array of institutions, legal devices, bureaucratic apparatuses, social practices, and physical edifices that operate both on the individual and the population in order to produce new modes of behavior, habits, interests, tastes, and aspirations. Whereas some of the civil institutions, like the education and medical systems, operate as controlling apparatuses in their own right, frequently attempting to further the project of normalization, they are simultaneously sites through which a variety of other minute controlling practices are introduced and circulated.”

Thus, these mechanisms of sorting and controlling individuals always go hand in hand with a “process of normalization,” where individuals under control as well as those who control them become so accustomed to the situation that they can’t conceive of it being any different than what it is. The effect isn’t just a stalemate, but also a society in which institutions of control gain an almost holy status; they become off-limits to criticism.

What is interesting about Close to Home is that the film does conceive of a form of resistance to these mechanisms. While Smadar goes on with her work, doing precisely what the officer asks her to do, in the next booth, there’s a sign of resistance, as we see another female recruit arguing with the officer saying she refuses to go on with that kind of work. When she repeats her protestation saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” her officer tells her, “you have no choice!” The soldier is later disciplined, but she proves the officer wrong: she does have a choice.

The film doesn’t dwell on this form of explicit, conscientious resistance. When Mirit and Smadar are assigned on patrol around Jaffa Street in Jerusalem (basically looking for Arab-looking pedestrians, asking for their ID cards, and then registering them) the focus shifts to mere boredom. While Mirit tries to do her job properly and register every Palestinian she sees, Smadar shows an interest in hanging-out, going into stores, chatting with people, etc. Smadar’s boredom and her neglect of her duty puts her in constant danger as she tries to avoid being detected by her commanding officer who drives around in a patrol car making sure the new recruits are doing their job properly. It’s clear that putting individuals under control and those who control them on the same plane would be simply wrong, but as the sequence of scenes where Smadar hides in alleys from her officer shows, institutions of control tend to swallow even those who run them.

This film, I think, falls short of explicitly criticizing the status quo. However, it does a great job in showing the efficacy of state apparatuses when it comes to normalizing extreme measures taken against a by and large civilian population. As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short story “The Tunnel” shows us, you only need to turn on the lights in order to make people forget that their train is going through a never-ending tunnel.