ITV’s ‘Victoria’: An Analysis of Gender Roles and Relations
Victoria has recently graced our Sunday evening screens on ITV1. The drama, written by Daisy Goodwin, tells the story of Queen Victoria’s accession to power and her subsequent reign. The drama presents some interesting challenges for producers in the representation of varying gender roles and relations in the realms of the monarchy.
Victoria and her ‘Lord M’
Various commentators have already criticised the programme for its historical inaccuracies, especially for the portrayal of the relationship between Victoria and Lord Melbourne. The series sees Melbourne, affectionately called ‘Lord M’ by Victoria, help steer her through the difficult first phases of her reign, advising her on the correct protocol at various events and the intricacies of the British political system. Producers presented the relationship as a romantic one, yet as Jane Ridley argues, romance would have been off the cards. While producers show a rather handsome and slim Melbourne in Rufus Sewell, the reality was rather different – in the form of a fat old man with a significant age difference. Victoria refers to Melbourne as her ‘mentor’ in her diaries. In this area, producers resorted to the conventional romantic trope in a bid to entice viewers. Here is just one example of the constant battle between the need for historical accuracy and the desire to entertain and ensure viewing figures. Victoria is in the Downton Abbey slot, which never fell short of quenching the thirst of audiences for historical romance. Producers of Victoria turn platonic mentorship into telegenic romance.
Albert: One Step Behind
Yet there is something rather more interesting going on in regards to Albert’s role. Albert is always ‘one step behind’ his sovereign, which poses interesting challenges for the presentation of gender norms. We watch Albert navigate these tricky paths, initially playing the piano, taking walks – activities commonly associated with ladies of leisure. The fifth episode sees him carve a space for himself in the public political arena, as he gives the keynote speech at the anti-slavery convention held at Exeter Hall on 1st June 1840. The speech was a resounding success, and Albert gains respect in his own right, rather than for being the husband of the queen. While much of the success rests on Albert’s efforts, producers show Victoria’s deliberate decision not to attend the event, to prevent her taking the limelight. However, in focusing on Albert’s endeavours, producers do not give Victoria much screen time showing her actually carrying out the duties of a sovereign while she is married. There are still (at the time of writing), two more episodes to go until the end of the series – but I would have liked to see more of her work as monarch. In some areas, the balancing of gender roles is intricate and calculated and cleverly highlights Victoria and Albert’s unusual power relations, but her actual ‘work’ as monarch is arguably played down.
Moreover, despite the show’s nuanced portrayal of its title character, there are some causes for concern in regards to other female characters. In the lead-up to Albert’s speech, we watch dialogues between Albert and an abolitionist, former slave Mr Barrett. However, two other women are also present but given minimal attention, one of these being Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). As many American scholars will know, Mott was one of the leading women in the abolitionist and women’s rights arenas. Despite being a leading activist in her home country, like other female delegates at the conference, she was excluded from participation and consigned to a separate area. This was owing to the fear that they would ‘contaminate’ the discussion over abolition with women’s rights issues. It would have been interesting for producers to explore some of these issues in greater depth. The drama focuses on the strong female leadership of Victoria, yet when one of the anti-slavery pioneers was present, producers gave her little attention, without even a hint of her importance to the movement. Viewers with little awareness of the gender battles in the Early American Republic are introduced to a female pioneer of the movement as if she was merely an extra.
In sum, Victoria highlights the common difficulties which producers face when dealing with public history. Producers tread the difficult terrain of unusual gender relations and roles in regards to Victoria and Albert cleverly. Yet more could be done to expand upon the strong female leadership of both Victoria, in her role as Queen, as well as with respect to pioneering women such as Mott.