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The White Queen: Strong women are in store for fall TV

One of the more instructive moments on this press tour was my introduction to the MTV series Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, a production that had previously been off my radar. I knew that Ke$ha is a popular singer and all, but I figure life's too short to know about all the sub-Madonna and wannabe Lady Gaga types.

Anyway, Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life is a hit for MTV and is being renewed. Thus, to accompany this announcement, we were treated to "a special message" from Ke$ha, who is currently on vacation in Greece, apparently. In the ensuing video, Ms. Ke$ha, on a boat, leered into the camera and said, "We have crazy, beautiful lives and we can't wait for you to see more!" Then the camera moved downward as Ke$ha hollered, "Look at my boobs! Yay!" At that point, obviously, I made my excuses and left.

Not long afterward, Chris Albrecht, who runs the Starz Channel (Boss, Magic City) and put some fabulous dramatic TV on HBO earlier in his career, was introducing the new series The White Queen, a lavish adaptation of the popular, pseudo-historical novels by Philippa Gregory. By way of introduction, he said, "Women are underserved in the premium cable space."

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This is true. It is now emphatically understood that the wave of great cable dramas – from The Sopranos to Mad Men, Breaking Bad and others – are focused on men and, while there is a female audience watching these shows, there is a lack of female-centric stories about strong, complex women. I know that at this point everybody mentions Nurse Jackie, but the exception proves the rule.

As Albrecht spoke, I was put in mind of Ke$ha and it occurred to me that on a lot of your serious cable series, the essential role of women characters is this: "Look at my boobs! Yay!"

The White Queen (it comes to SuperChannel on Sept. 6) has been called "a more female-centric Game of Thrones" or, more colloquially, "Game of Thrones for girls." Don't take offence, I didn't say "girls," someone else did, but we all get the point and it's the centrality of female figures that makes the series interesting.

It is set in England in 1464, during what is known as the Wars of the Roses, which involved various families fighting each other while claiming the throne of England. Mainly it is about the real Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), from the Red rose side of the war, who indeed became White queen after marrying Edward IV (Max Irons) from the White side of things.

Phillipa Gregory was here with the cast and producers of The White Queen and declared herself mightily proud of her books and the TV production, because the stories of important women in history are being told.

"There's almost nothing written about most of these women," she said. "In the case of the character Janet plays, Jacquetta, there is no biography at all. The White Queen, although she's so significant and important, there's only one biography, and it's out of print. To find the material about these women is really a detective job and you have to go into the historical documents looking for them. You can find their husbands. You can find their fathers. You can find their enemies if they're men. What you can't find is really anything about these women. And one of the reasons I'm so pleased and proud of this series is that we're telling women's stories."

I was perfectly willing to go along with this. I was even willing to ignore the scathing reviews of The White Queen in Britain, where it has been airing in recent weeks on the BBC. And scathing they are: "My dears, I was so amused I laughed until my drink (tea; milk, no sugar) actually snorted out my nose," said one review.

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A constant bugaboo for British reviewers is a perceived lack of historical authenticity. The clothes are wrong, the characters' teeth are too clean. In the case of the tea-snorting reviewer, she said she had spotted "modern drainpipes" on buildings used in The White Queen.

It is ever thus in Britain, a contrarian fetishizing of accuracy in costume dramas while delighting in the implausible, nonsensical plot twists of Downton Abbey.

Where I depart from The White Queen and the strong-women aspect is in its use of witchcraft, magic spells and the jiggery-pokery that arises from a coven of women, including the White Queen and her mom, being descended from a river goddess or some such eerie figure. The series thus becomes silly and not about strong women manoeuvring for political power in a male world.

Gregory explained the jiggery-pokery with this: "Women had the power to tap into forces which were of the other world and, you know, this is a world before science. This is a world before the Enlightenment. All people have is herbalism and spells and hopes. There's no proper medicine. There's no concept of contagious diseases. I want to be inside the medieval mind, and the medieval mind believes in witches. So for the duration, so do I."

Oh no, no, no. There's magic and such in Game of Thrones, but it's a fantasy, not based on real history, and there is brutal strength and formidable men. In The White Queen, the main female characters essentially declare, "I'm gonna put a spell on you!" or "Hey, look at my witchcraft! Yay!" And that doesn't further the cause of strong women – in the premium cable space – at all.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the allegiance of Elizabeth Woodville during the Wars of the Roses. She was from the Red rose side of the war, but eventually became White queen through marriage.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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