Who dares to call the Virgin Queen a bitch? The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word bitch as “a malicious or treacherous woman.” In her time, Queen Elizabeth was readily accused of both. Yet somehow this insult has evolved throughout the centuries into a slogan for many feminist women of today. As evidenced by the song “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks and magazine titles like Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, this word also evokes the image of a woman retaking control over her identity and opinions. It is a word that is highly upheld in some circles as a revelation of the strength, power, and recognition that women have fought to possess. While some may think it extreme to consider her a bitch, Queen Elizabeth has had a tremendous historical influence on the modern day female rebel through her successful leadership, her poetic expressiveness, and her “great command for the art of rhetoric” (Payne 143). The paradoxical imagery and conflict of emotion in Queen Elizabeth’s poem “On Monsieur’s Departure” influences the modern day feminist perspective of “bitch” by revealing a woman’s struggle to conform her emotions, needs, and identity in a patriarchal society.
The adaptations of women to succeed and be respected in a male-dominated world begin with the interactions between them. Freedom of choice in the type and number of relationships a woman chooses to have is a modern concept. However, Queen Elizabeth was known to have had several male suitors to tend to her needs both physically and politically (Payne, 143). “On Monsieur’s Departure” addresses a single woman’s desire for physical companionship in a society that requires women to adhere to ideals of innocence and virtue. The reference to ice in the line, “I freeze and yet am burned” (1.5) alludes to the virgin label given to Queen Elizabeth because of her decision not to marry. The act of being burned and the later image of “melting snow” (3.2) counteract the virginal characterization by bringing its validity to question. “Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind,” (3.3) pleads for more than what society deems acceptable. The act of love calls for feelings of desire. Elizabeth asks for more cruelty in order to be rid of such feelings and therefore not suffer in the need. Modern day lyrics reject the accepted ideas of womanly virtue and present a graphic truth to their needs. A 1997 pop song declares, “I’m a bitch, I’m a tease, I’m a goddess on my knees. When you hurt, when you suffer, I’m your angel undercover” (Brooks). The disguising of angelic qualities is a reversal on the importance of feminine attributes in the way that it takes traditional images of virtue and replaces them with more passionate displays of affection. Women are no longer innocent virgins; they have adapted their personalities to include what passions may take place on under the covers or on one’s knees.
The intense desire for expression by today’s feminist artist stems from a long history
of emotional suppression. When Meredith Brooks sings the first line of “Bitch,” she purposely expresses, “I hate the world today,” without apology or explanation. This straightforward comment mirrors Queen Elizabeth’s own underlying desire to express freely her views without consequence. She publicly confronts a world in which her emotions and views are threatened or denied because of her gender. Everything that she is allowed to do is followed by the things she cannot do. The first stanza of the poem uses strong, inflicting verbs like “dare” and “forced”: “I grieve and dare not show my discontent; I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate” (1.1-2). The imagery materializes like a violent rape, or a domineering husband whose wife should do as she is told and never dare to cross him. The grief and fear combine to form a sympathetic view for Elizabeth’s state. However, Queen Elizabeth proves defiant to these orders when she admits, “I do, yet dare not say I ever meant” (1.3). Here the inflection is reversed through the revelation of her actions; the dare has been taken and returned with an uncommitted, but still pointed meaning. It becomes clear that she does in fact mean the very things that she protests, and despite the obstacles, continues to do the things that aren’t socially allowed. In the line, “I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate” (1.4), the word stark, as defined by the OED, means hard and unyielding, or violent and harsh. Being a “stark mute” holds more power in its character than just a person who “prates.” The question arises, “Is she what she seems or what she doesn’t?” To answer with, “both,” not only clarifies Queen Elizabeth’s emotions, but also reflects the harsh reality imposed by the society she faces. The angelic persona is her cover unlike the “angel undercover” in Brooks song. Her grief, love, being, and voice are denied and this brings about her discontent, hate, defiance and complaint that are simultaneously suppressed and exposed.
In the U.S., today’s music and literature seek to discover what being a woman truly means. This can be clearly seen in the chorus lines of Brooks song:
I’m a Bitch, I’m a Lover,
I’m a child; I’m a mother,
I’m a sinner; I’m a saint,
I do not feel ashamed.
I’m your hell; I’m your dream,
I’m nothing in between… (Brooks).
These lines encompass the vast expectations of a woman through their conflicting components. A woman now must be commanding yet giving, innocent yet knowledgeable. Many similarities can be found in “On Monsieur’s Departure” as Elizabeth evolves from the harsh words and curt structure used in the first stanza to softer tones and a lyrical flow in the last stanza. The first stanza is dominated by hard consonants like v, d, r and t, in words like “forced,” “inwardly,” and “prate,” giving a short and choppy feel to the rhythm. The second stanza begins to flow more rapidly with alliterations: “Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it…” (2.2). By the time the reader reaches the third stanza, the lines have become completely fluid in their ability to rise and fall like a soothing tide on the tongue. As ruler of her country, Elizabeth must remain in total control of the responsibilities that are always with her like her “shadow in the sun,” (2.1). But as a woman she also faces the “gentler passion” that makes her “soft, and made of melting snow” (3.1; 2). She is the “sinner” and the “saint”, the “child” and the “mother.” The lack of a couplet in the first stanza further marks the disunity between Queen Elizabeth’s identity and society’s expectations of her by leaving out any room for compromise or reflection. The choice must be either the “hell” or the “dream” and “nothing in between” (Brooks). It is an emotional ultimatum represented in the idea, “I freeze and yet am burned” (1.5). The modern feminist desire to embrace both extremes is echoed in Elizabeth’s plea in the final stanza of the poem: “Let me or float or sink, be high or low/ Or let me live with some more sweet content/ Or die and so forget what love e’er meant,” (3.4-6). Her wish to live in “sweet content” recalls her feminine alliterations: “Some gentler passion slide into my mind, for I am soft, and made of melting snow” (3.1-2), placing her life in her identity as a woman. Meredith Brooks is able to declare, “I can’t say I’m not alive,” because she is able to fully and plainly relate her identity to society in ways that Elizabeth could not, but neither women wishes to change herself to suit others.
Songs like “Bitch” openly rebel against the conformities placed on women in a male-dominated society. In “On Monsieur’s Departure” Queen Elizabeth uses conformity as a vehicle to mask her own rebellion. The alliterated s sounds that seem to mark her femininity also reveal her hidden character. The words “show” and “seem” overshadows what she “dare not say” and brings to question the honesty of the “stark mute” narrator (1.1; 2; 3; 4). Her admission of “I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned, since from myself another self I turned,” (1.5-6) leaves the reader guessing as to what she is truly turning to. This returning to the self opens up skepticism in the use of Elizabeth’s softer and weaker side, playing on society’s views to appease the audience with a “shadow in the sun” (2.1). The result is the image of a woman denying her capabilities as a woman while simultaneously announcing them to the world. Elizabeth’s true identity lies in the paradox of her words in an oppressive society. Women continue to adapt to society’s expectations as Brooks reveals in the line: “Just when you think you’ve got me figured out, the season’s already changing.”
Individuals have always been analyzed and labeled by the societies in which they live. The word “nigger”, a term often seen as degrading to African Americans, is now commonly used by modern, African American rap artists as a symbol of racial pride. The OED states that “nigger” is a, “…term that is strongly racially offensive when used by a white person in reference to a black person. In written Black English and written representations of spoken Black English, however, there are usually not the same negative connotations. Recently the term has been reclaimed by some black speakers and used with positive connotations in various senses…” Similar to this idea, the modern day response of women to the word “bitch” redefines these titles to better suit their ideas and needs as women. The initial deprecating nature of the word “bitch” now champions women in their expressions of emotion and their abilities to identify and overcome the obstacles presented by society. Elizabeth confronts these same challenges in “On Monsieur’s Departure” through her unique position as Queen. Her conflicting emotions and quest for identity in a male-dominated society continue on in the expressiveness of women today. No doubt Queen Elizabeth would wholeheartedly agree with Meredith Brooks when she commands, “Take me as I am…and don’t ever change me.” So, was the Virgin Queen a bitch? Used in this context, I think so.