I like to read imdb.com discussion boards and blog postings about my favorite shows, especially when they aren't shows my friends watch. Reading other people's reactions to pivotal scenes or characters is almost as good as getting really into a show with a friend and dissecting plot holes and continuity problems over coffee.
One such show for me is Showtime's The Tudors, a 16th-century glorified soap-opera/fuck-fest that stretches historical accuracy to its limit. I love it. In this history, Henry VIII is not a fat old ginger. He's a pouty-lipped, blue-eyed, toned, sexy 30-ish womanizer guy who screams a lot. Someone is always killing or screwing someone else, and the costumes and sets are gorgeous and lavish. The show is totally wrong but totally good, in fact enough of both to attract the ire of old cranky British historian queen David Starkey.
The show is in its fourth and final season, and I went to the imdb.com boards to see how people reacted to the portrayal of Katherine Parr (the sixth and final wife, who survived Henry). Then I started poking on the other boards.
It appears that sexist double-standards are alive and well. Not that this was big news, but I was still irritated enough by something I read today to mention it.
Here's what somebody said: "I'll admit this period of European history never really interested me, but it seems to me that someone was always f-cking someone else. I mean, how many bastards did King Henry have running around the Royal Court that nobody knew about?"
I have a big problem with the way this question was phrased. Because first they talk about loose women, then refer to King Henry's sundry infidelities and the bastard child that resulted from one of them. So, who was the "loose" one again? I'm not trying to say that the women who mothered his illegitimate children were blameless (if, in fact, there was more than one), but it's pretty well-known that, in those circumstances, if the king set his eye on a woman she was better off sleeping with him than bruising his fragile ego by rejecting him. Women involved in adultery and premarital sex certainly had a choice in the matter (and most of them slept with regular men and not with kings), but they had much less of one than their male counterparts, and with far greater consequences for submitting to their carnal desires.
I guess it's a sign of our still not-so-enlightened era that so-called "loose women" of history continually get condemned for having had more sex than society deemed appropriate, while it was acceptable - indeed, expected - for a man to fulfill his urges as he saw fit (especially a man with money and a title). Henry had two wives executed for adulteries they may or may not have actually committed, all the while trying to include his illegitimate son in the succession without anyone batting an eye (except maybe, you know, his wife and a couple of holier-than-thou courtiers). But he was never to be held accountable for it; after all, he was a a man, a King, and supposedly God's representative on Earth.
All of these hypocrisies can almost be ignored or even excused given the times, like the xenophobic grandparent who in ignorance blurts out racial slurs at dinner. But what's disturbing to me is that someone is watching Henry put away and execute wife after wife while banging ladies-in-waiting and servants to his member's content (we'll just take it for granted for a moment that events in history happened exactly as they do on the show), yet they can't believe the women are so loose!? Many of the female characters featured are far from chaste, but in 2010 are you really going to hit the women harder (no pun intended) than men for it?
But to get back to the original question, yes, some women were "this loose." Like other posters also pointed out, people have been getting it on since the beginning. The only variation between back then, way back then, old times, a while ago, and now is how the culture deals with it. It seems rather naive to believe that just because something wasn't widely recorded, it must not have happened. That's like saying that, because we can't be sure of Anne Boleyn's exact date of birth, then she just wasn't born.
I mean, damn. I shudder to think of how people will view sex in 21st-century Western society. From TV one would gather that all people do all day is just fuck - never going to work, sleeping, eating - well, okay, they would know we eat. So, they would watch TV from 2010 and see sex and fast food commercials, and then commercials for supplements to help take off the weight after all the fast food to become fuckable again. And they would conclude that life in 2010 is some neo-primitive post-modern urban eat-'n'-fuck free-for-all.
But um, I got off topic again. Another thing pointed out by other commenters is that the promiscuous ones are the most interesting to portray, and if they weren't on the show no one would watch the damn thing. What about all the other women around the country at that time who waited for marriage to have sex and never strayed? They're just no fun, are they? If I remember correctly, there were no graphic sex scenes with Jane Seymour (wife #3) or (so far) Katherine Parr (wife #6), because they were the least sexy of Henry's wives. They were the "good" ones - the pious ones. Like today, some women were slutty and some weren't, but because The Tudors depicts a royal court and not a nunnery, sex=ratings. What is portrayed on this and other historical dramas (I'm looking at you, Shakespeare!) is a very exaggerated version of reality. For example, Anne Boleyn resisted Henry's advances for years, while the show wants us to believe she kind of halfheartedly murmured a "no" that really meant "yes" a couple of times and then opened up her legs soon after. In any case, she still got her head chopped off by that guy who divorced his first wife ('scuse me, annulled, because that's totally different and more acceptable), tore his country apart, and broke with the established religion more or less so he could get in her knickers. (I LOVE oversimplifying history!)
So, conclusion: 501 years after the accession of one of the biggest tools in English history (I mean, literally the biggest, the guy was really fat), the women are still going to get censured before the men do.
Henry, I hope enough of your bulk has rotted away in your gingery grave so you can roll over inside it while I call you out. The posters on imdb.com may not have realized it yet, but you were a total douche. You did a pretty good job with that whole church thing (there are still damn Episcopalian churches EVERYWHERE!), but you're still a turkey leg-eating, France-invading, wife-killing despot. Oh, and you stole shit from nuns. That's just fucked up.
I'm out like gout (which our monarch friend also had, by the way).