Interview with Cultural Historian Susan Bordo about Anne Boleyn



As part of our Anne Boleyn series, History Behind Game of Thrones is extremely proud to present this interview with cultural historian and philosopher, Dr. Susan Bordo. Susan is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of five books and editor of two. Her most recent book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, is a fascinating and entertaining examination of not only Anne’s life, but also her cultural impact. Why does Anne Boleyn still capture our imagination 500 years later? And, do we project ourselves into how we seen Anne Boleyn?

  1. You’re a revered philosophy professor. Why write about Anne Boleyn? What about Anne is interesting to a philosophy professor? What was the reaction of your colleagues?

René Descartes (far right) with Queen Christina of Sweden.

I don’t know about the “revered” part—but thank you!! Actually, at this point I hold a professorship in the humanities, and it’s an interdisciplinary position, so I’m not in a philosophy department anymore.  But even when I was a philosophy professor, my work hasn’t stayed within the boundaries of the discipline. Traditionally, philosophers have seen history as a conversation about ideas among philosophers, theologians, and (later on) scientists—a highly rarefied conversation among privileged men who were (mostly) detached from the necessities and pleasures of everyday life. I’m interested in the history of ideas, too, but I view intellectual developments in the context of events, movements, crises, transformations that are happening in politics, art, gender and racial relations, and changes in everyday life, including those pertaining to sexuality, beauty, and the body—topics that philosophers typically avoided or deemed inferior and unimportant.  I remember the first time I said the word “thigh” in a session at a conference there was an audible gasp in the room! And when I first interviewed for jobs, I was often told that what I was doing (a cultural, feminist reinterpretation of Descartes and mind/body dualism) was “fascinating—but not really philosophy.”  Over the last 30 years, however, those attitudes have changed dramatically—largely due to my generation of feminist philosophers (Judith Butler, Sandra Harding, Sandra Bartky, Iris Young, Alison Jaggar, to mention just a few) and the influence of post-structuralist innovators such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, who made studying “the body” respectable, and who brought the practices of everyday life to the forefront. That’s been so gratifying to me—especially when I see how liberating that transformation has been for current graduate students, who can now do feminist and cultural dissertations, write interdisciplinary articles that “count” when they apply for jobs, etc.  Now if only they would just get rid of the jargon!!

For a cultural philosopher such as myself, Anne is a dream subject, because her image and reputation have changed so much depending upon the biases, historical context, fashions in representation, etc. of those who have written about and depicted her.  In a sense Anne—the Anne that we have come to know through popular histories, movies, paintings, novels (as opposed to the historical woman, about whom we actually know very little)—is an “idea” (or actually, many ideas.)  And those ideas were just ripe for deconstruction—that is, showing where they come from, how and why they came to be, how much is mythology, and so on.


  1. History Behind Game of Thrones has a nearly even split between male and female readers. Why would men care about how Anne Boleyn is constructed?

Anne_boleynIt’s true that many devotees of Anne—and by “devotees” I mean those who see themselves as members of a sort of fan club, often inspired by The Tudors or historical novels–are overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) female. But that’s Anne Boleyn the romantic fantasy or fictional villainess, it’s not the Anne Boleyn that we find when we deconstruct those images.  Any historian or student of history—male or female—who has kept pace with intellectual developments over the past 40 years knows that the old view of history as a chronicle of individual men’s exploits (in war, politics, etc.) with the women in their lives functioning only as love interests, is outdated and inaccurate.  History must include the study of the active role played by women in the politics, intellectual life, religious movements of their day–and also, if it is to be critically rigorous, in the mythology, stereotypes, and biases that have often shaped traditional views, especially those that have persisted to the present day.  History has a history, it’s not just a transparent set of “facts” but a record of how we have shaped and re-shaped those facts over the centuries.  And the construction of Anne is one of the most fascinating examples we have of that process.  Even if all you are only interested in is the male “players” in the Tudor drama–Henry VIII, Cromwell, Wolsey, More, et al—you are going to come up against ideas about Anne that you will have to either accept at face value or examine more critically.   Traditionally, male historians have taken those ideas at face value—but that’s changing!  Tudor studies have been a bit slower to catch up than, say, 19th century studies, where the influence of historians of gender has had a more powerful impact, but Tudor studies are getting there—in the work, for example, of Amy Licence, Suzanne Lipscomb, Leanda de Lisle, Elizabeth Norton, Susan Doran and others.


  1. When I began re-researching Anne Boleyn for this series, I was quite surprised to learn that, in Britain, the heritage industry contributes £26.4 billion to the economy. Presumably much of this revenue stems from the two most prominent histories: the Princes in the Tower (at England’s #1 tourist attraction, the Tower of London) and the Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII story. Has Tudor history become a commodity, and if so, what is the effect?

One example of Anne Boleyn merchandise: an Anne Boleyn watch.

I would say Tudor history is not just a commodity, it’s an industry.  And that industry ranges from “cottage” sites on the internet, selling jewelry, calendars, etc. to the major tourist attractions you rightly point to. And then of course there are the books and plays—from the proliferation of self-published historical fiction to the churnings out of the Philippa Gregory machine to the mass genuflection to Hilary Mantel’s work—and the television series (not just about the Tudors, but any historical subject with enough potential sex and violence.) On the positive side, this has all kept interest in English history alive and thriving.  (I’m smiling now, recalling eight years ago, when I was talking to prospective editors about my book, and one—from a major press—said skeptically “Do you really think there’s still interest in Anne Boleyn?” But that was a U.S. press, and The Tudors—the main pop source of the frenzy—had yet to take off.)  The downside is the downside of consumer culture in general: when the ability to sell to a mass audience becomes the standard, a lot of junk floods the market.  Compared to Reign, for example, The Tudors was a masterpiece of historical accuracy.  And in this “postmodern” age, our ability to sort out fact from fiction has become increasingly diminished.   Serving those threatened critical skills is a big motivation for my work.  Not that I expect my work to have a mass audience—it’s more like “I gotta do what I gotta do.”


  1. I was surprised to read in your book that many of 12-26 year old women you surveyed noted Anne as an “inspiration.”  What is Anne Boleyn’s appeal to us today? Do we project ourselves into her story? Is there an aspirational quality to her – that is, do we want to be like her?

Some of the most influential descriptions of Anne—most significantly, those of Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who viewed Anne as a scheming interloper who destroyed all that was good about Henry, plotted to poison Katherine and Mary, and did her best to spread the “scourge” of Lutheran heresy throughout England—have emphasized her inability to stay “in her place.” According to this old (but amazingly enduring) view, she “interfered” in politics, used her sexuality to lure Henry from his devout first wife, was demanding and unwilling to tolerate what good wives were supposed to endure in silence (e.g. Henry’s straying), and in general was way too ambitious, vocal, and “in your face” for her own good (and the good of England.)  It’s impossible to assess the accuracy of most of this, because it comes from the pen of political enemies and we have virtually nothing in Anne’s own words to corroborate or refute it.  But what this view of Anne has done is create a vivid, provocative “template” which later generations have responded to in different, often highly polarized ways—and much of my book is a exploration of this “creation” of ever-changing Annes.

anne-thousand-daysBefore the 20th century, defenders of Anne (such as the Elizabethan polemicists and Romantic artists) tended to idealize Anne, portraying her as a virtuous martyr to the Protestant cause who had been viciously maligned by enemies of the Reformation.  Anne the ambitious, sexually aggressive, unscrupulous vixen was simply replaced by Anne the angelic, devout, ill-used Mother of Elizabeth.  It’s only in the 20th century—with novels like Margaret Barnes’ Brief, Gaudy Hour and plays like Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days—that Anne begins to be portrayed in more complex, human ways, as a mixture of good and bad, like all of us.  It no longer became necessary to deny her ambition, her sexuality, her passion and volatility in order to create sympathy for her—because these qualities were no longer seen as quite so unacceptable in a woman.  Indeed, in the movie of Anne of the Thousand Days, Bujold’s Anne could tell Henry off on no uncertain terms, eyes flashing, spitting anger and righteous lies, and have audiences cheering for her. By the time we get to Natalie Dormer’s Anne—an Anne whose sexuality AND intelligence are prominent (some would say the former a bit too prominent)—we have all the ingredients that young women today aspire to.  She’s beautiful, sexual, flirtatious, yes—but she’s also a wonderful mother, she’s smart and ambitious, she has political commitments, she’s any man’s equal.  To put it in current jargon, she “has it all”: beauty and brains, ambition and maternal devotion, masculine energy and feminine appeal. And what destroys her is precisely what earlier generations despised her for:  she doesn’t stay “in her place.” For young women today, this signals an Anne who was “ahead of her time,” one of their own but born into the wrong century. Is this Anne as much a “creation” as the others?  Of course, which is a central point of my book: Anne has always been a screen for projections, good and bad.

  1. You write about the shifting image of Anne – that is, how she has moved from being a victim of a king’s tyranny in painting and early films to epitomizing the rebellious 1960s in Anne of the Thousand Days to the “mean girl” power feminist celebration of female competitiveness in The Other Boleyn Girl and, finally, to the diverse female experiences of third-wave feminism in which Anne is “too smart, sexy and strong” for the constraints of her sixteenth-century role. Is Anne a cultural looking glass? Do these shifting images reflect the evolution of how we understand ourselves as women?

Yes, they do—and I like that phrase “cultural looking glass.” Very well put by you!  But the catch is the “we.”  Ours is an age of many conflicting views about women and feminism.  Anne may be a complex individual to many young women, but the nasty schemer remains, too: e.g. in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  My own view is that Mantel is consciously responding to what she sees as the “feminist” idealization of Anne by insisting, in her (fictional) depiction, on what I call our “default Anne”:  the ruthless, cold bitch of Chapuys’ letters and other Catholic propagandists.   It’s a disappointment to see such a cartoon caricature of Anne in an otherwise subtle, beautifully detailed work! And although I’m sure Mantel would deny it, it’s just as “political” a projection on her part as any other.

  1. In The Tudors’ showrunner Michael Hirst’s own words (in your book),the show had “too much sex in the beginning” and “the sexual overkill was ludicrous, historically inaccurate, and turned all women, save hair-shirted Katherine, into mindless tarts.” I believe both you and Michael Hirst acknowledge the tension between trying to produce interesting broadly appealing popular history and maintaining historical accuracy. Could one argue that the narrative historians construct in non-fiction books is potentially more damaging than soaped-up history?

the-tudorsI love this question, because it’s precisely my criticisms of the narrative historians like Starkey and Weir that have got some readers up in arms against me, claiming I’m “bashing” other historians.  In fact, I had no interest in bashing anyone, but in demonstrating that it’s not just novels and popular culture that “fictionalize” Anne but accounts that we think of as “factual.”  Starkey and Weir are full of dramatic flourishes and narrative threads that make their books (and in Starkey’s case, videos) extremely audience and reader-friendly but that are pure speculation as history.  Since we think of them (rightly) as historians rather than novelists, and because they don’t make a clearly contentious argument (the way, for example, Bernard does), their accounts don’t rouse our suspicion.  As a cultural philosopher, it’s my job to call out the unnoticed or unexamined slippages into ideology, fantasy, bias, etc. wherever I find them.  I’m sorry that fans of Starkey and Weir were offended that I dared to do this to respected historians (few people minded my critiques of “The Tudors”) but in my view, it would have been without integrity and rather sucky if I had kept esteemed or beloved writers off-limits.


  1. You discuss the criticism leveled against The Tudors, which I believe you argue occurred because the Tudors was accessible enough that the lay person could easily criticize it (in contrast with the more historically obscure Wolf Hall). Like other historians, such as Alison Weir, you also note the damaging impact of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. If all historical fiction is make-believe, where’s the line between dramatic liberties and harm? Why is there a line? And, do fiction writers have any moral responsibilities towards historical accuracy?

other-boleyn-girlAnother great question.  Hard to answer though, because the line between dramatic liberties and harm keeps moving! In the days before advanced technology, when the illusion of historical reality was not really aimed at—such as, for example, with Korda’s Private Life of Henry VIII, which has such obvious comic effects—viewers would have to be very naïve to think they were getting a factual account.  Earlier novelists, too, would sometimes preface their books with a explanation as to what they invented and what is based on fact, so their fictional status was made clear.  Other novels are so clearly based on imaginary premises—for example, Robin Maxwell’s Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn—that readers know what they are getting.   Things started to get more troubling when creators (of movies as well as books) began to deliberately blur the lines—Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Oliver Stone’s JFK immediately come to mind—between documentary and fiction.  Sophisticated production values and digital technology made the line even harder to discern, because film-makers were able to recreate historical detail with so much more precision. By the time we get to the film of The Other Boleyn Girl, the screenwriters and actors are spending more time getting the details of costuming, manners, architecture, etc. right than they are doing historical research into the characters they are depicting, and truly believe that if they learn to ride a horse the way Anne did, they’ve done their homework. And then, too, novelists sometimes make grand claims for the historical accuracy of their inventions—Philippa Gregory is a prime example, but Hilary Mantel has also at times invoked “the facts” to justify her fictional choices—which further befuddles readers.

As to the responsibilities of fiction writers, I don’t think that they are required to be historically accurate (I don’t even think it’s possible, since there are so many gaps in the historical record).  But I DO think they have a responsibility to acknowledge—even emphasize—the fictional status of their work.  And I wish critics would be more historically probing and skeptical when they review the books and movies.  Mantel has gotten away with a lot in this regard.  It should be possible to acknowledge her artistry but also challenge her version of events and characters. Hers is an invented world—it’s not the “real” Cromwell and Anne finally revealed—and too often, in the mass rush to deify her, reviewers have not noted, for example, that she leaves out key factually verifiable incidents and speeches that, had they been permitted in her created world, would have left a very different impression of both Cromwell and Anne.  She made those choices—which is her right as a fiction writer—but let’s not be so quick to swallow them as “history.”  Readers can’t be expected to do that kind of research, but critics can.


  1. One last question, just for fun, what do you think Derrida would say about the removed and partially removed devices of Anne Boleyn?

I think that Derrida would be fascinated by the interplay of “presence” and “absence”, not only in the “resistance” of all the emblems to be removed (that is, the workman got most of them, but not all!) but also in the fact that Anne, a wife whom Henry desperately wanted to get rid of, is in fact his most famous consort!  What we try to bury or make marginal, by its very suppression, keeps making itself known.  And Anne, of all Henry’s wives, just refuses to disappear!




susan-bordo-anne-boleyn-interviewSusan Bordo is a cultural historian known for her contributions to the field of contemporary philosophy and cultural studies.  By increasing our awareness of how we construct women’s identities, Susan succeeds in giving some measure of justice to a much interpreted and frequently slandered queen. Susan’s next book, Breaking the Surface: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought, which is co-edited with Ellen Rosenman and Cristina Alcalde, is set to be released by University of California Press in 2015. For more information about Susan and The Creation of Anne Boleyn, see the official book page, the blog The Creation of Anne Boleyn, and  the Facebook page. To learn more about Susan, including her academic background and life with her husband and daughter, see this wonderful biography page.

Buy The Creation
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From the publisher: Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first-century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and re-imagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto “mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."


  • Reply May 2, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Ms Bordo’s point about successive ages putting their own “spin” on Ann Boleyn is valid though she puts it rather more eloquently. I haven’t read any of Ms Mantel’s works so I can’t judge her. Ms Gregory’s work – the little I have dipped into – is not to my taste. Some years ago I enjoyed “The Concubine” by Norah Lofts but have learned since that there were some inaccuracies in that book (Ms Lofts based the factual element of her story on Agnes Strickland’s biography of Anne Boleyn which itself had some inaccuracies – that AB had a step-mother for example). Ms Lofts managed to treat both Mary and Anne Boleyn sympathetically though Mary did come across as a bit daffy-duck and there was no sibling rivalry in the book. I do like David Starkey’s work though but will in future bear in mind not to treat it as gospel. I was on another history website recently and was quite cross with a lady (a Ricardian) who called Shakespeare something like a “dreadful hack”. Shakespeare could hardly have written something uncomplimentary about Henry VII when he was the grandpa of Elizabeth I who was then on the throne of England. There were some severe punishments in those days for anybody who upset the ruler. I quite liked “Anne of the Thousand Days” way back when – Genevieve Bujold’s French-Canadian accent threw me at first but as Anne B spent some of her formative years in France it is quite possible she had a French accent.

    • Reply May 2, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I think I might be the only person who hasn’t seen Anne of a Thousand Days! I’m not 100% sure, but I believe Henry VII spoke with a French accent. (Sometimes historians can tell by the spelling a person used since there was no standardized spelling and people tended to spell phonetically.) Has anyone heard about his accent?

  • Reply May 2, 2014

    Susan Bordo

    Jamie, you MUST see Anne of the Thousand Days. Genevieve Bujold is my favorite Anne, and I think the movie wears better with each passing year (it didn’t get very enthusiastic review when it first came out, although critics liked GB’s performance.) Watcher on the Couch: I like Lofts’ “The Concubine” very much, historical accuracy aside. It’s one of the few Anne novels in which Anne actually comes across as a real woman rather than a caricature. Barnes’ “Brief Gaudy Hour”, Maxwell’s “Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn” and Gavin’s “Threads” are among my favorites, too.

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