Victoria gives an empowering spotlight on a woman surrounded by controlling men
In case you were wondering, yes, you need to start watching Victoria. Immediately. It's doing something for television that we desperately need in the television landscape, which is to say that it's a pure revelation. It's not only putting a spotlight on a female character (hello, that's a given from the title), but it's focusing on her challenging political and personal relationships with men. Victoria (Jenna Coleman), it would appear, is not about to deal with mansplaining and I am here for it. All of it.
Even if you're familiar with one of England's most prominent monarchs, Victoria aims to compound your knowledge of her by highlighting the true political and personal struggles that come with both being a fledgling monarch and a woman surround by men who believe they know better. It becomes evident very early on that the men in Victoria's orbit — her mouth-breather of an adviser John Conroy (Paul Rhys), the liberal charmer Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), her uncle Lord Cumberland (Peter Firth) and various politicians — see her as nothing but a pushover when it comes to getting approval for their political gain. The delightful reveal that Victoria is not only stubborn in her ways, but knowledgeable enough to see that they are trying to use her as a puppet makes for refreshing character development.
This push and pull between male dominance and female intelligence becomes the key narrative of Victoria's premiere episode, "Doll 123." From the very beginning, Victoria is a step or two behind. The show opens with the death of William IV, Victoria's uncle. She is awakened by her governess, Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), who informs her of the death as well as her new position. A realization solidifies. Victoria is now the queen. But from that moment onward (we're barely five minutes in, mind you), it becomes evident that Victoria is yearning to break free from the ties that bind and establish herself as a living, breathing, independent entity capable of ruling of her own accord.
This means breaking free of her toxic mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming), and Conroy. Both seem intent on keeping her in a doll-like state, unable to govern without their own deeply self-serving suggestions. But Victoria's first act of resistance, and crucially, her own establishment of agency, is distancing herself from them as much as possible. Sometimes that is quite literal. She gives her mother and Conroy the North Wing of Buckingham Palace, while she goes to the South Wing. Take that, Mom.
Interestingly, Victoria keeps a distance from its eponymous character for a majority of the premiere. This makes the contrast in vulnerability vs. toughness stand out more. When we see Victoria take a stand for something, we are in close-up, and she is breathing quickly, ferociously intent on making herself known. When we, the viewers, are left to play outsiders and wonder what is going on inside her head, we're literally kept at a distance. This kind of hot and cold only serves the episode's theme of independence; Victoria is tough to pin down, if only because she is still trying to decide what kind of monarch she wants to be. She was only 18 when she became queen, so it's understandable she feels she's on shaky ground.
But the most fascinating moments of Victoria are when she does flex her young monarchy muscles. She is mostly unaware of the men in Parliament conspiring against her, including Cumberland — truly, her own family can't handle her potential for greatness — but she does occasionally strike back at those conniving to control her.
Whether it's subverting prime minister hopeful Robert Peel, who cannot form a government unless Victoria adds in some conservative-leaning ladies-in-waiting (she absolutely will not) or shooting down Conroy's demands for a new title or certain secretarial privileges (is this guy off his rocker?) or simply standing up and demanding that her confidant Melbourne actually govern with her, we see Victoria in all her fierce glory. Even when she is moderating her tone and approach to ruling with her ladies-in-waiting or her dressers, there is a truth in her (slightly shaky) resoluteness. It makes her more relatable, more accessible, more exciting.
So it becomes the key focus of Victoria that we watch as she navigates a world dominated by men — quite literally dominated. Watching her navigate the choppy waters of voicing personal desire and political aims to men older and more politically entrenched is, for working women of any era, a deeply relatable quandary. The sexist overtones are more stark in Victoria (not that the show has any misandrist leanings as a means to glorify Victoria's choices) because it is a period drama. This conflict between woman and man, young and old, liberal and conservative, all makes for truly intriguing watching.
Sure, I can sit here and sing the aesthetic praises of Victoria. It's a sumptuous piece of television for the eyes and for fans of Brit hits like The Crown and Downton Abbey, who'll find this is right up their alley. But what Victoria does best is something The Crown touched on too (perhaps this is a running theme with the British monarchy?): Watching a woman who is in charge overcome the sexist ways of thinking that govern the society of her time while she tries to lead successfully makes for truly compelling television.
Trust me. You don't want to miss this one.
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