Those who read Phillippa Gregory’s novel The White Princess and watched the premiere of Starz’s adaptation of the book on Sunday likely noticed something quite different about Henry and Lizzie’s charged first coupling.
In Gregory’s work, “Henry very actively rapes Lizzie,” executive producer Emma Frost tells TVLine. “That was something that I felt wasn’t the only possible route and wasn’t something that I feel is right for a TV drama, and isn’t something a 21st century female audience is going to be okay with on any level.”
The premiere of the historical drama — a sequel to the network’s The White Queen — introduced Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary) as Elizabeth of York, a princess whose marriage to the new King Henry VII (newcomer Jacob Collins-Levy) united England during the Wars of the Roses. History tells us that Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, gave birth eight months after wedding the king, so… do the math.
“To most people’s minds you go, ‘OK, they had sex, it’s unlikely to have been consensual sex because she absolutely hated him and everything he stood for,” Frost explains. “She’s concerned his mother has murdered her brother, so she hates him.”
Indeed, the series depicted Henry as yanking Lizzie into his bedroom in anger on the occasion of their first true meeting. But the young woman — who, Frost points out, at this point in her life had already had “an intimate, loving relationship” with Richard III — quickly turned the tables, mocking her inexperienced future husband and clearly giving him consent to do whatever he liked with her, because he’s not likely to impress her. Later, a troubled Lizzie confided in her mother that the situation was upsetting, but not a matter of sexual violence.
“The show is about power, and in that scene, Lizzie uses the power that she has to humiliate him,” the EP says. “The way that I see it is that it’s Henry that comes away feeling just as raped as Lizzie does, because he’s acting on his mother’s instructions [to make certain that Lizzie is fertile]… he hasn’t really thought it through. Then Lizzie goes, ‘Are you f—king kidding me? Really?!”
Plus, a point made very clear in the series’ first hour is very much at work in the scene: Lizzie is, above all, very politically savvy.
“What she knows is, she has got to marry him,” Frost points out. “If she doesn’t make this work on her own terms, she might find it’s not on her own terms later on.”
Also of importance, the EP says: For Lizzie and Henry to work as the lead couple in the series, audiences kinda have to like him. And reconciling the book’s rape scene with that dramatic reality gave Frost pause when she was first asked to adapt Gregory’s novel.
“When you read the novel, it’s something that you go, ‘Oh OK, there’s a very, very clear rape scene in it, and we have to fall in love with Henry later, and that’s not going to fly,” she says. “And as a responsible TV producer as well, in the world that we’re in, with women’s rights being eroded, there’s no way we’re putting that on screen.”
She adds: “I do think it’s rare to show a female character using her power and her sexuality to fight back, and I think that’s very much what Lizzie does in that scene.”
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