Thursday, April 02, 2009

Question from Marilyn R. - "Feminization" of history

What does anyone think of this in the Daily Mail?

Women Turn History into a Bizarre Soap Opera:

Women historians have feminised history by focusing on the 'soap opera' of key figures' love lives rather than their achievements, David Starkey claims. The TV historian said his female counterparts concentrated on 'big box-office' subjects such as the six wives of Henry VIII instead of major political events of the time.

Where's Lady Antonia Fraser when we need her?

[Ed. note - I was debating posting anything about this latest Starkey screed over on the news blog, but since it was submitted here, I guess I shouldn't keep avoiding it. :) ]


Anonymous said...

I think its odd that Starkey is blaming women for The Tudors t.v. show and other programs that dramatize the Tudors. For one, The Tudors was produced by Michael Hirst, a man.

And to say that Elizabeth is not a female icon is ridiculous! What, does he believe that she was a man or something?
I would argue that she was a more successful monarch than her father. For one thing, her reign is known as "The Golden Age." Henry's reign was wrought with political turmoil. Elizabeth died (for the most part) beloved and was known as the "Faerie Queene." When Henry died, he was fat, bloated and feared. At the end of his reign, people called him "Old copper nose" because he brankrupted the country. So, a women was a better ruler than a man. Deal with it Starkey!
I just wish Elizabeth was alive so she give this guy a royal telling off!
By the way, I understand that Elizabeth couldn't be called a "feminist." However, I am very sure that she was fully aware that she was woman.

Kathy said...

I lose more respect for Starkey almost every time he opens his mouth.

PhD Historian said...

I think regular readers of this Q&A page probably know that I have no love for Dr Starkey. But I will be charitable and say that I think I understand why he said what he said.

He is a publicity hound, full stop.

The man will say and do anything, and I do mean "anything," to sell books. And what better way to generate publicity and sell books than by starting a tempest in a teapot? Clearly it has worked, too. The tempest is in full blow at the moment.

You have to give it to him: He is an absolute genius at self-promotion. And sales of his 2-volume biography of Henry VIII have spiked upward since he made his tactless comment.

A note to Anonymous: At the end of her reign, Elizabeth was not so well loved and many were anxious to see her go. The whole "Golden Age" mythology did not develop until much later. You might read Leanda de Lisle's book on the last years of Elizabeth's reign, After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England, for a de-mythologized view.

Kathy said...

I posted this earlier when I did my report on Alison Weir's program at the Smithsonian back in February -- I think it is over in the blog.

Anyway, somebody had asked her what academics thought about Starkey. She cited one at an event she had been to not too long ago when the subject of Starkey came up. The academic said, "Oh, him. He used to be an historian."

I totally agree with the academic and with PhD Historian. The man is far more concerned with his own career than he is with fairness or even accuracy of his subject. I really try not to read anything by him or view any shows he has a part in because I know they will be slanted to make him look witty and urbane and clever at the price of intellectual honesty.

Foose said...

I think Starkey was being rather unnecessarily dismissive, but I think that the emergence of feminism as a social and academic force has generated an upsurge of interest in Henry VIII's life in regard to his wives and to 16th-century women in general. Many interesting studies have resulted. It's true there has been a trend towards minimizing the traditional narrative of Henry's reign and intead focusing on the activities and contributions of those regarded as merely marginal or incidental to that narrative. History is always being reevaluated and every generation has a new view of the facts.

If anything, he has benefited from this trend so it's rather strange of him to criticize it. However, he studied under Professor Elton, whose books are fairly void of personalities and human interest. I would say that Starkey's historical style is a reaction against Elton's but his latest comment perhaps reflects something Elton would say.

Gareth Russell said...

As opposed to his book "Six Wives," which focussed on what exactly?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a super admirer of Starkey, so I am writing with one hand and applauding points in the other posts with the other, but I must admit that his comments are probably being misinterpreted.

I have heard some undergraduates claim to be inspired in their studies because of these works, but their academic work and arguments seem very limited to the personal aspects of the lives of the more "dramatic" participants. I realise that these figures capture the imagination, and I am happy to see interest sparked in the subject. However, students who attempt to view them in a sort of vacuum, without the context of the other historical figures, events, and ideas, not only fail to grasp the larger picture, but come no closer to understanding the person they presumably wish to study. Often, they only look to what supports the image they hold of a certain person, based on this "soap opera" or romanticised presentation, and it difficult to get them to look past this mindset and grow into a thinking, questioning learner. I can "feel his pain" on that.

I disagree with his comments on women historians. I wouldn't say it is "women historians" so much that are doing this--but I concede that some non-fiction writers are injecting modern ideas and philosophies into the past. I won't name names, since this is about Starkey, but there is one in particular who is banking off the Tudors series now--or trying, anyway. These writers use the "big box-office" appeal of certain subjects but demonstrate little understanding or depth. Being non-fiction, they have a veneer of objective truth that someone like Hirst or Plaidy does not have, as writer of fiction, and I find this more confusing for the general reader and harder to combat in academic discussion.

kb said...

Hmm... I just left an academic conference in Warwick where an historian asked me why I didn't seem to like Starkey and I answered that I thought he was more interested in his 'brand' now than in moving the historical debate forward. I thought that was diplomatic of me.

After reading the Daily Mail article (thanks for the link), I would have to say that I just don't respect him anymore because he contradicts himself too often.

In the article he says that Henry's six wives have taken over center stage. Yet he has written "Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII".

He laments focusing on the "soap opera" aspects of history yet in his "Elizabeth: Apprenticeship" he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Elizabeth's budding sexuality, the revealing nature of the neckline of her dress in the portrait on the cover and even complains about how some members of his audience moan and groan when he says Katherine of Aragon was unfeeling about an early miscarriage. Hmm....

He has unfortunately begun to turn into a caricature of an historian. As Foose has pointed out, Starkey was a student of Sir Geoffrey Elton who worked on the development of government institutions instead of personalities. When establishing his own reputation, Starkey did some interesting early work on the Henrician privy chamber. Then he had an infamous and public fight with Elton in the pages of the Historical Journal. I tell my advanced students that the back and forth between the two in the pages of the Historical Journal, especially the comments in the footnotes sounds an awful lot like the old Saturday Night Live bit between Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin where she would present a commentary and Akroyd would respond with 'Jane you ignorant ____'.

See D.Starkey, ‘Introduction’ in Starkey (ed.), The English Court: From The Wars Of The Roses To The Civil War (1987) pp.2, 11; G.Elton, ‘Tudor government ’ and D.Starkey, ‘A reply: Tudor government: the facts?’, Historical Journal 31 (1988), 425–34 and 921–31 respectively.

The most succinct version of Starkey’s thesis is his introduction to English Court, pp.1-24. For Elton’s reply see his, ‘Tudor Government’, Historical Journal 31 (1988), 425-434.

However, Starkey has lost the plot and drunk the kool-aid of the entertainment industry. Alas poor Starkey!

Anonymous said...

I disagree, although Starkey has self-promotional tendencies, this comment definitely has substance and i believe it to be true.

Throughout history, there have been few women rulers, thus the modern feminist ideal tends to focus on Henry's reign relative to a woman's place within society in regards to a modern context. This is an unfortunate occurence which some historians are inevitably guilty of.