With Helen Edmundson and Phillipa Goslett’s Mary Magdalene due to hit the big screen on March 16th - played with enigmatic intensity by the inimitable Rooney Mara - we’re reminded of history’s misunderstood women; women who were either misunderstood during their time or whose stories were reimagined - and not always favourably.
In popular culture down through the years. These women were portrayed as one thing - and in the case of spiritual figure Mary Magdalene it has been everything from the epitome of Christianity to a repentant prostitute - but if you read between the lines in your history books, you find they were something else entirely: brave, bold, defiant. These were women who used their voice and went against the grain, long before it was acceptable for a woman to behave in such a way.
These were the women, about whom the phrase ‘behind every good man’ came to be, but sometimes, these women stood not behind them but alongside the men who’ve shaped our story thus far. And sometimes, they stood on their own, or right in front of them. Here we look at four unforgettable women - among countless others - who were grossly misunderstood.
1. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s other half - Zelda - was famous for just that reason; being the arm candy to one of America’s most coveted novelists. She was portrayed as a fiery party girl who spent her days socialising and tending to her perfectly manicured blonde bob. The truth about Zelda is lesser known; she was so much more than this. She was an artist and wordsmith in her own right. In fact, this Alabama-born woman was also a trained dancer. Not only did Zelda inspire much of her husband’s writing - she was his muse - it’s believed that some of the best lines from The Great Gatsby were spoken by Zelda - such was her way with words. And more than that, some of her own writing was published, alas it was published under her husband’s name, so Zelda never got the artistic credit she deserved.
2. Anne Boleyn
You might think the Queen of England is always a celebrated figure but not for the woman who sat on the throne from 1533 to 1536. Anne was the second wife of King Henry VIII and at a time when there was so much shame wrapped up in infertility, Anne suffered a terrible and unthinkable tragedy. When it transpired that she would not be able to provide the King with a baby boy - and future heir, which was ultimately her role as his Queen - she was publicly accused of infidelity and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, she was beheaded. The true story goes, however, that she and King Henry were actually very much in love, but a childless King didn’t do much for business.
Only now is Cleopatra managing to shake loose the shackles of her early image, as we look beyond the superficial portrayals of such historical figures. Famous more so for her style and her looks, early tellings of Cleopatra’s story largely overlook her significance as a female ruler and a political genius. She was the last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt and an incredibly powerful woman. As part of the Ptolemaic dynasty she began ruling alongside her father before going solo. Needless to say, in movies and literature, it was her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and her portrayal as a sex symbol and a seductress - rather than her status as a great ruler - that rose to the fore. To this day, women face the same challenges that Cleopatra herself faced 2000 years ago - how to manage without appearing manipulative, or rule and lead without seeming bossy and unlikeable.
4. Mary Magdalene
Director of Mary Magdalene, Garth Davis, describes the eponymous Magdalene as one of ‘the most misunderstood spiritual figures in history.’ Throughout history, from the bible to early film interpretations, Mary Magdalene’s true character and the role she had alongside Jesus of Nazareth has been modified. Having appeared so briefly in original scripture, personalities - a lot of which were degrading and even cruel - have been created and fantasised on behalf of the woman who was said to have washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. To some she has been the embodiment of Christian devotion, to others, she was nothing more than a temptress or ‘Mary Magdalene the Prostitute’ (which, when you piece together the original testament is very likely untrue). More recently, her true story as a female who challenged social and religious norms has been empowered and by many, she is now understood as one of the earliest feminist icons in history. Even the Pope himself bestowed apostle status upon her in a 2016 speech; he described her as ‘an apostle of the new and greatest hope.’ His hope was that people would now consider Mary as a ‘paradigm of the ministry of women in the church’.
As one of history’s most understood women, learn of Mary Magdalene’s powerful story in the authentic and humanistic cinematic portrait, out March 16th. For more information and to watch the movie trailer visit www.marymagdalene.ie