Once every thousand years, the internet, in its infinite wisdom, brings to my attention something so awful and unexpected, that my immediate need to rail at that awfulness is the only thing that will keep me from gouging my eyes out with a teaspoon.
Catherine of Aragon wearing a breastplate molded around her very pregnant belly for Starz's second season of The Spanish Princess is one of those "somethings". And it's been haunting me ever since I first laid eyes on it.
For those fortunate souls who have no idea of what I'm talking about, let me explain.
The Spanish Princess is the latest Starz "historical drama" based on Philippa Gregory's awful "historical" novels. It is meant to be a sequel to 2013's The White Queen and 2017's The White Princess, and centers around Catherine of Aragon, the eponymous Spanish Princess who became Queen of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII.
The show premiered in May 2019 and its second and last season was aired between October and November 2020.
Like most of these shows, the general aesthetic and the costume design are made to match the general tone of the show and its approach to history: cheap and shoddy. This is why I tend to ignore them. There's no sense in analyzing these designs because their only directive is to make them look as modern and sexy as possible as an excuse to say they are being bold and edgy.
But on the second episode of the second season, something happened that was just too stupid for me to ignore. Catherine of Aragon showed up in plate armor. But not just any kind of plate armor, no. She's wearing maternity armor.
The mere sight of this monstrosity left me feeling a deep loathing that I don't often experience and that is still, to this day, simmering within me. So I'm going to proceed and share this hatred in excruciating detail by explaining all the reasons why this is a very bad decision.
REASON Nº1: It's deeply historically inaccurate
Which, obviously, because we are talking about a Starz show and all of them love to ignore history both costume-wise and story-wise. But this goes way beyond your usual making-the-period-sexy inaccuracy.
Let's put this piece of design into context, story-wise. The episode in question deals with Catherine's most triumphant moment as regent of England. While her husband, Henry VIII is in Europe attempting to win a war against France, she must deal with an attempted Scottish invasion. Undaunted, the very pregnant regent rallies her troops and rides north in full battle armor, leading the charge at the Battle of Flodden.
While the historical Catherine did in fact face the northern thread head-on and rally her troops while visibly pregnant, she did not participate at the Battle of Flodden. As was the custom when a female figure found herself leading an army (and sometimes even male rulers did this).
As for the wearing armor part... well it might be a myth resulting from people having very poor reading comprehension. As this article from the UK's National Archives explains, in preparation for the battle, the Queen ordered a bunch of armors and weaponry to be brought up north to support and supply the remnants of Henry's Army that had not marched to France. When she rode up north to support her troops, she did it alongside that shipment. Thus, she went to the battle carrying a shipment of armor for the soldiers, not wearing it herself.
So, story-wise it's completely inaccurate. No surprise there. But, if you had still any doubts, costume-wise it is also inaccurate.
Because I do not want this article to be overly lengthy, if you want a deeper breakdown of why it is inaccurate, read this very funny article by Frock Flicks. But, as a general rule of thumb, women did not wear armor. Most historical images you can find of women wearing armor tend to be representations of either mythological or allegorical figures. Most commonly, some Amazon queen or some Greek Goddess. This means that these images are not historical representation, but what amounts to old-timey fantasy.
Much less commonly, there have been representations of female monarchs partially wearing male armor. Most historians can't conclusively say if these are truthful representations or merely propaganda.
These two images, for instance, illustrate the problem quite well. On the right, there is an image of Isabella of France created during her son's reign. In it, she leads an army wearing no armor. On the left, there is a representation of her created nearly 120 years after the event in which she is partially wearing armor. It is safe to say that either the artist was making it up or working from hearsay, as there is no contemporary evidence that she did indeed wear armor. It is also worth noting that, by the time the image on the left was created, Isabella had garnered quite a reputation as a foreign princess overstepping her powers. Also of note, she's pictured with her lover in that second image. Painting her wearing armor might have been more of a diss than anything else.
Be it true or false, fashion-wise, it is important to underline that she is shown wearing only the top half of an armor, clearly having her visibly wearing a dress at the same time. It is clearly a woman taking on male attributes to inspire power.
Something that, according to many descriptions, would later do Queen Elizabeth I during her very famous Speech at Tilbury on August 8, 1588: “The Queen appeared in the guise of ‘some Amazonian empress’ in a white velvet dress with a shining silver cuirass, and preceded by a page carrying her silver helmet on a white cushion and the Earl of Ormonde bearing the sword of state" (The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir, 1998).
This, if it were true, is clearly a propaganda move. It's a clear and premeditated attempt by the Queen to inspire her men by presenting them with an image of power.
So female rulers using items associated with men and war as propaganda tools is a generally more or less an accepted possibility, but what is clear is that they would still have to present themselves as female. Women wearing full armor would probably have been seen as crossdressing and unnatural, which would have backfired on the monarch.
Let's not forget that Joan of Arc was indeed charged with cross-dressing accusations only 82 years before the Battle of Flodden took place.
This leads me to my last point. In the rare case of females going into battle, the historic records make quite an effort remarking that they went to battle dressed as men. And why is that? Simply because there was no female armor as females were not meant to go to war, so armors were not adapted to the female body.
What all this proves is that costume wise, if they had wanted Catherine to wear armor and respect historical accuracy, they would have had to settle with her partially wearing a male armor as a statement. But that statement makes no sense the moment you have the breastplate adapted to accommodate a pregnant belly because it stops working as a military symbol. So, no armor for you Catherine dear.
Makes you wonder why, with such little regard to history, Starz insists on centering so many of their shows on historical figures.
REASON Nº2: It's a cliché on top of a cliché with a WTF on top
Women in battle gear, while awesome when well done, have more often than not become an easy and lazy storytelling device to make your story feminist and marketable, making the trope more of a bad cliché than a brave new idea.
On the top of my head, we've seen this in Elizabeth the Golden Age, Mary Queen of Scotts, 2010's Robin Hood, and 2004's King Arthur, to name a few.
I'm definitely not against having women be soldiers and warriors in my fictional stories. When well done, it's amazing. Such is the case with Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, Mulan in the Disney 1998 animated movie, Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings, the Dora Milaje in Black Panther, Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok or Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Note that all these characters belong firmly in the fiction/fantasy realm. Both the story and the design have much more leeway in creating believable warrior women. It is quite different to take a historical character and decide that she's going to be a literal warrior now.
Because when you are dealing with a historical character that was already brave and bold and extraordinary in her own way, maybe consider not using a tired lazy cliché to make her look awesome. Do the actual heavy lifting of creating a compelling character without turning her into Xena Warrior Princess.
And that doesn't even mean that being historically inaccurate is innately a bad thing in fiction. It is just that if you are going to be historically inaccurate, at least understand the period you are working with and be realistic about your inaccuracies.
I think Braveheart is a good example of "realistically" ignoring history, at least when it comes to the character of Isabella. The movie ages her up and moves her arrival to England and wedding to Edward a good 12 years earlier and then proceeds to have her cheat on her husband with William Wallace and be impregnated by him. I don't need to tell you, but historically, it is bollocks. And yet the character doesn't behave anachronistically, and her strength is pretty well-established without having her don a breastplate and engage in combat. Her final scene with the king is, to me, so incredibly satisfying that makes me not care about the inaccuracies taken to reach that point.
All in all, deciding to put Catherine in full plate armor and having her charge head-on into an army is the cliché part of the equation, which is bad enough in itself. But I do question the creators' sanity when they thought, "yeah, let's do that, even though she's pregnant, it'll be badass". That's the WTF part of the equation.
Deciding that heavy metal plate armor is what a heavily pregnant woman needs to make her look badass is just mental, which leads me to my next reason for hating this.
REASON Nº3: It's a terrible idea that considers itself a great idea
Which is the worst kind of idea because it's so completely unaware of its hideousness that it hurts. Not only did they think, while working on the script, that this sounded like a good idea, but later on, on the day of fittings, they looked at the actress decked in this monstrosity and thought "yeah, that's awesome, I want that onscreen".
And to add insult to injury, moths later, they looked at the final edit and still thought "wow, this is such a striking image, let's make it the core idea of the promotional images for the whole season!".
Not only did they turn the image of pregnant armor-wearing Catherine into the main promotional for the show's second season, no. They looked at the lumbering deformity based on a 16th-century plate armor that the character wears in the show and thought, "you know what would make it better? Add boobs and make it gold!".
They basically took what the costume designer did with their awful idea, stripped it completely of any real historical features (no arm plates, no elbow protection, not even using the right metal), and turned it into a fantasy armor worthy of a 90s show. Amazing.
This was a string of bad decisions that leave me baffled. The level of unawareness it all transpires is absolutely mind-boggling to me.
REASON Nº4: It makes no sense
Making no sense seems to be a recurrent theme for this thing, to be honest. But allow me to explain: it might seem like a stupid question, but why do you wear armor? To protect yourself. Obvious as it is, armor is a protective garment. So how does it protect the wearer?
In the case of plate armor, which happens to be the type of armor the character is wearing, it protects not only by the mere virtue of being a piece of metal. The shape of the breastplate evolved into this very specific shape for two reasons.
The convex shape of the breastplate is designed to help deflect a blow by sliding the point of an attacking weapon away from you, but also to avoid a direct impact to the rib cage (it is basically full of padding to help absob the blow). Why? Because in the case you are indeed struck by a heavy metal weapon, your rib cage won't take the whole of the blow, the metal and the padding will, thus softening the blow.
So, why would she wear a version of a breastplate that fits anatomically to her pregnant belly in what is clearly a very tight fit? If she took a hit wearing that plate, the force of the blow would go directly from the breastplate metal to her belly.
This brings me back to my point. Why would she wear a garment meant to protect her that does the exact opposite? It makes no sense for a queen to risk pregnancy unnecessarily. This leads me to my next point.
REASON Nº4: It makes her look dumb
Like really dumb. Owner-of-one-single-brain-cell dumb. As Queen of England, her main political duty is to secure the throne by giving the king a son, something she hasn't yet done. And yet thinks it a good idea to charge into a battle head-on while pregnant?
Emma Frost, one of the two showrunners, said the following about why they needed to have Catherine donning a full armor and charging in front of a battle: “I think the mere fact that she had armor made when she was heavily pregnant, she rode north to give this speech to the troops. If you then follow that up, in a drama, with a scene where she sits on her horse and does nothing — you’re appearing to say a particular thing about that character that is the opposite of what all of those actions that preceded that meant about her at the time. She defied gender. She absolutely risked herself. She was completely dedicated to the king, and to her country, and trying to stop this invasion. So in modern parlance, I think you have to go to the end of the line with that. Otherwise you appear to be saying in the end, ‘Oh, but actually, she was scared’ or ‘Oh, but actually, she was passive,'”
Sure thing, Karen, but that is such cheap reasoning. No one in their right minds would think a heavily pregnant woman passive or cowardly for choosing not to involve herself in the fighting. They would think her normal as it is quite a reasonable thing to do. No one chooses to charge with an army when they can barely walk without waddling.
What the show makes her do isn't badass, or feminist, it is really dumb. So there's that.
REASON Nº5: It's a choice rooted in misogyny
Going back to Frost's quote, there is a rather telling and toxic frame of mind at play. She is linking strength and character value to a typically male activity (war and violence) whilst saying that the smart, logical choice for a pregnant human is "passive and cowardly". This is very common in mainstream media, but it is also stupid and deeply rooted in a misogynistic view of the world.
Having a female character doing and wearing typically male things is not the only way to have her demonstrate strength. Physical strength is not the only trait that can make a woman strong. And using this very trite trope is the laziest and worst way to try and point at a character's strength and value.
Read this article if you are interested in a more detailed approach to a similar situation
There was an undeniable strength in the real-life historical figure of Catherine, even though she never charged headfirst into a battle while heavily pregnant. And it would be much better and much more feminist to write better scripts that would reflect that instead of having to force her into a female warrior fantasy headcanon and thusly save your costume designers the titanic struggle to try their best to make work such a horrible idea. This brings me to my final and most definitive reason for why this is awful.
REASON Nº6: It's just plain ugly
Which is just the cherry on top, the tiebreaker, the final straw that truly makes this design unforgivable. It could have been terribly inaccurate, or a really bad idea, or kind of cliché, but as long as it was interesting to look at, I would have been indifferent to it. But when it comes down to it, the design is too f**king ugly.
The first thing in this never-ending chain of poor decisions is the fact that the design is weirdly proportionated. This is not helped by the terrible choice of having the breastplate molded to the body like a spandex suit.
Honestly, having it be such a tight fit doesn't help sell the idea that this is not a fake pregnant belly. The tight fit highlights her lack of chest in a way that makes her upper body look way too skinny for a pregnant woman. To put it bluntly, where are her boobs? Pregnancy tends to have an effect on a woman's body beyond the growing belly.
And I'm not saying they should have molded the breastplate to her boobs as well (please, no) all I'm saying is that the curvature of the breastplate shouldn't have started on top of her belly, because there is no space in there for pregnancy breasts.
Also, the two-type metal breastplate is awful. Having the metal on her lower half be gold highlights just how big her belly is. It pulls so much attention towards it that makes the ridiculousness of the whole concept stand out like a sore thumb.
So, not only is it historically-inaccurate, clichéd, and dumb, it is horribly, hideously ugly. Bravo.
So thanks Starz, I hate this.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support the blog,
consider buying me a Coffee? 💛💛
If you want more content like this, subscribe! Or come say hi on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and help us grow!
DISCLAIMER: I claim no credit for images featured on this site unless noted. Visual content is copyrighted to its respective owners, and inclusion here is under fair use for criticism, comment, and news reporting purposes. If you own the rights to content here and wish it removed, please contact me.