Monday, August 22, 2011

My Inner History Geek is Not Amused*

Once upon a time, I worked at the Renaissance Faire. And when I say “once upon a time”, I mean “back in the days when an accurate portrayal of documented historic events and persons was actually considered important to the overall production”.

Back in once upon a time, we had a wardrobe mistress who had been seen drawing thick-lined black Sharpie X’s on the exposed body parts of performers when those body parts were not supposed to be exposed. We had live chickens that we carried around with us all day. We had ale, not Budweiser. And we had a woman playing Queen Elizabeth I who was actually... a bit homely. At least when she had her full “I Am the Queen” makeup on, she was.

Which was good. Because, you know what? It’s been pretty well documented that Elizabeth I had one foot on the fugly side, and the other on Ye Olde Banana Peele.

Yes. This is a portrait of Elizabeth I, as a teenager, when theoretically she was at her most attractive, painted during her lifetime, when the artist would have had to hear about it from her personally if it didn’t look good

and this was still the best he could do and have it be believable.

As you can most likely tell from the above portrait, Queen Elizabeth I was not pretty.

Flash forward past many a Renaissance Faire where the organizers, for whatever reason, felt like they had to find more

and more

attractive redheads to play the queen, and when I saw this one

taken by a friend at a Faire she attended with her daughter, I finally snapped. And when I snap, I blog. I used to buy shoes, but this is much cheaper.

So let me repeat, with caps lock on because that seems to be the only way some people on the Internet understand that other people on the Internet are serious, QUEEN ELIZABETH I WAS NOT PRETTY.

Striking? Maybe. Regal? Yes. Well dressed? Hell yes. Pretty? Not even close.

Guess what? She didn’t have to be pretty. We should all be so lucky as to ever have such a lack of need to be pretty. It’s like the old joke about not needing a Porsche if you have a big dick. Just substitute “pretty” for “Porsche”, and “control of the British Empire” for “big dick”.

But the times, as Mr. Dylan so astutely noted, they are a-changin’. So, Renaissance Faire Powers-That-Be, let me offer you a small bit of advice. If you insist on hiring progressively hotter redheads to portray one of the least hot women in the history of civilization for the sake of peddling as much cheap beer and mutton curry as is humanly possible in the course of six summer weekends, consider this:

Gia Genevieve is the chase, and you should just cut to it. Put her under permanent contract to play your Elizabeth I and call it a day. If you’re going to do it wrong anyway, you might as well do it wrong right.

*Yes, I know that was Victoria, not Elizabeth I. The difference between me and most of the people running historical reenaction events is I know that.

Gia Genevieve photo by Varga Photography

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the woman in the third photo is actually portraying Mary I of Scotland, not Elizabeth I.  But I still think those first two Elizabeths are way prettier than they should be.


  1. Random Brian Blurbs:
    History will always will be perceived how they want to, mostly due to the fact that people learn about famous people from the accompanying biopic. Hell I once showed a picture of Jessica Rabbit to my cousins and they thought it was Christina Hendricks!

    BTW while I will agree that Ms. Gia Genevieve is a gorgeous woman, she's no Harlean Carpenter!

    So does this mean I don't need a porsche?

    I always wanted to works at a ren fair (as a champion knight, of course) but they told me I would be too scary to kids and women, and that they didn't want anymore ogres... People suck sometimes.

  2. Yeah, I know. That's why I'm really not fighting this one too hard, just making a suggestion that will hasten them along the path they are already frolicking merrily down.

    And while I thank and love you for your support, and agree she and I are both good examples of our own types, I am not even fit to pretend I can sign up to qualify to compete in the same Hotness Arena as Gia Genevieve.

    Apparently, no, you do not.

    I only wish you could have worked Ren Faire back in my day. It was awesome and you would have loved it.

  3. Apologies, but I'm going to be a total nit-picker in this instance. The portrait of QEI shown (called "The Darnley Portrait" in the NPG, London) was painted around 1575, making her 42 years old at the time. If you wanted to show what she looked like as a teenager, the best portrait for reference is the one in the Royal Collection of her at age 13 painted by William Scrots.

  4. No apologies necessary, I appreciate your pointing out the error; I had two images with almost identical file names and I grabbed the wrong one when I posted this. Fixed, and thank you.

  5. "And while I thank and love you for your support, and agree she and I are both good examples of our own types, I am not even fit to pretend I can sign up to qualify to compete in the same Hotness Arena as Gia Genevieve."

    My Dear Ms. Carpenter,
    You will always be leagues better. Even I can admit that as a flesh and blood male, attraction can be from many things (read: boobs) but my love and devotion are not so easily acquired. One's mind and soul can intensify beauty by leaps and bounds.

    "Apparently, no, you do not."
    :D Second greatest thing a woman can say to a guy...

  6. So, as I was reading this I thought of the last time I worked the Agoura Ren Fair...well over 10 years ago, and even then I thought the queen was a bit too hot and not just because of her seven-layer dress.

    Even then there were men with short hair and no hats with no, "Just got outta prison, guvnah!" explanations. I had short hair, but I had an excuse as a buccaneer and always had a rag around my head to keep the tar from the gunwale off it.

    Anyway, I sympathize, empathize, and relate as my inner history geek is constantly being assailed for no good reason other than laziness. I under transgressions to improve a story, like the Battle of Stirling Bridge would make a lame Hollywood long shot...but a man has limits.

    As apparently does a woman.


  7. Ack! "under transgressions"? Try, "under transvestites" would've made total sense.


  8. You worked the Agoura Faire? Really? That's the one I worked at! Considerably more than 10 years ago though, back in the 80's to be exact. You don't remember Louisa Puig by any chance, do you? Now THERE was a repro-queen. She was lovely, but she hid it really well ;)

  9. No, that was a little before my time. I was living in San Diego when I worked Agoura, so I wasn't in contact with a lot of folks up north. My job was as an archery instructor/hawker.

  10. Hi! First off I would like to say I think your blog is really fab. I agree that Elizabeth was not a looker especially in modern terms. She lost what looks she had in her early thirties and remained very vain her entire life. I also want to say thanks for the complement. I am the actor in the first picture you posted. I've been playing QE1 at the Northern California Renaissance Faire for nearly a decade and thanks for calling me attractive. Believe me, there are days when harsh outdoor lighting just is not your friend and it's nice to be caught on a great make-up day! LOL!

    It is especially hard for mature actors to compete in a society that does glorify youth and beauty. I am a few decades older than Victoria Hanlon (below me) and Melissa on the bottom (who is actually playing Mary Queen of Scots in Washington State and is age accurate for the time they were playing).

    I will say that it is especially challenging for a more mature actor to be able to play Elizabeth older as more and more festivals want to cast "young" and many do go with the "Disney Princess" type. Actors are hired to not only play a character but to play it the way the producer (festival) envision it.

    I'm very lucky in that our faire does strive for more and more historical accuracy (I hand embroidered the entire gown I am wearing in that picture for example) and as the faire is primarily run by women, they are aware of representing all types of women and not just young attractive ones.

    You are right, it would be great if we could have all portrayals of various historical personalities be more accurate in appearance as well as behavior. I would also point out that I don't think any man playing a similar character like Henry 8 would be under pressure to look like Brad Pitt. It's sad and I have no answer for the problem of our perception as a society of beauty and how it is unevenly applied.

    1. Hi Deirdre!

      Thank you for understanding that "you are WAY too attractive to play E1" really is meant as a compliment ;) I'm sure you do a wonderful job, and I'm sure Ms. Hanlon does as well, I in no way mean to cast aspersions on either of your performing abilities. I'm just kind of a stickler for history not being prettied up in ANY way, even for the sake of entertainment; not the people involved, and not the events themselves. It creates a two-fold problem. Actually, it exacerbates one problem and creates another; the first a worsening of the already too prevalent double-standard with regard to women and the general insistence on physical perfection in any form of entertainment, and the second the presentation of a skewed version of history that a television-minded generation is all too eager to accept as truth.

      And thank you for the clarification on Melissa's photo. I must have misread or misinterpreted the caption on my friend's album, I just remember seeing "we went to Ren Faire and here's the Queen!".

    2. I totally agree. I can't even tell the amount of "just because you saw it on The Tudors or Dangerous Beauty doesn't mean that is the way it was or the way people looked or dressed".

      I see portrayals of Elizabeth by young actors with flowing locks, over flowing bodices and behaving like they should be working a bawdy house rather than ruling a country and I shake my head. I figure all I can do is concentrate on myself.

      I'll only believe we have a fair playing field as women when either the producers start insisting on a middle aged to old Henry (or any King) as a romance novel cover model or embrace the look of the characters being portrayed.