‘My Lady Jane’ turns the tables on the damsel-in-distress trope — and history itself

<div>‘My Lady Jane’ turns the tables on the damsel-in-distress trope — and history itself</div>
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Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey and Edward Bluemel star as Guildford Dudley in

My Lady Jane raises a big, unapologetic middle finger to history. Based on the novel by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows, this swashbuckling tale — which was inspired very loosely by the story of Lady Jane Grey, the infamous “Nine Days’ Queen”— establishes itself as a radical, female-led reimagining of its real-life inspiration. It’s hardly the first project to offer up a revisionist history with contemporary flair; a few recent examples include Six the Musical, Mary & George, and The Serpent Queen, to name just a few. However, with its brash, playful script and its surprisingly nuanced take on the damsel-in-distress trope, My Lady Jane is one of the most successful so far.

In an energetic opening montage, a lively, posh male narrator recounts the known history as old time-y sketches covered in crayon scribblings flash quickly before our eyes: Lady Jane Grey was unexpectedly crowned Queen of England after the death of her cousin Edward VI. Then, just nine days later, she was executed for being a traitor. 

“Jane could have been the leader England needed, but instead, history remembers her as the ultimate damsel in distress,” the voiceover proclaims, before adding simply, “Fuck that.” 

From the crayon doodles to the sardonic swearing, this spirited introduction makes one thing very clear: This show will present an alternative story, one in which Jane gets a chance to be the hero.

My Lady Jane has a touch of X-Men politics. 

Kate O'Flynn as Princess Mary, Will Keen as Norfolk, Jason Forbes as Scrope, Brandon Grace as William, Henry Ashton as Stan Dudley, and Isabella Brownson as Katherine Grey in "My Lady Grey."

Kate O’Flynn as Princess Mary, Will Keen as Norfolk, Jason Forbes as Scrope, Brandon Grace as William, Henry Ashton as Stan Dudley, and Isabella Brownson as Katherine Grey in “My Lady Grey.”
Credit: Jonathan Prime / Prime Video / Amazon MGM Studios

In this version of Tudor England, there are two kinds of people: the Ethians, who can randomly turn into animals, and the Verities, who cannot. This fantastical take on the much-less-fun conflict between Protestants and Catholics that raged in England at the time sets up a tense political divide. In reality, King Henry VIII was a Catholic whose break from the church through his divorce from his first wife (and later his sixth wife) led to the rise of Protestantism. His son, Edward, was raised as a Protestant, while his daughter, Mary, was a devout Catholic. In this version, it’s a little more fun; Edward is half-heartedly trying to weed out Ethians (aka Protestants) from society, exiling them to the woods. Mary, on the other hand, despises the shape-shifters and would have them all killed.

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It is within this reimagined Tudor landscape that we meet Jane (Emily Bader), a headstrong young woman with a talent for creating herbal remedies and drawing the unwanted advice of menfolk. Real-world Tudor men may have instructed her to be more demure. But in this version of history, which skews closer to our own world, they simply sneer at her: “You’d be prettier if you smiled.” 

Sadly, Jane does not have the luxury of living a life of independence as a self-taught herbalist. So, her mother, the scheming Frances (Anna Chancellor), marries her off to Lord Guildford Dudley (Edward Bluemel), a handsome braggart with a rakish reputation. Despite their initial attraction to each other, they are at each other’s throats from the beginning. 

The morning after their wedding, Jane learns that her husband is secretly an Ethian. However, unlike other adult Ethians, he can’t control his transformations. So, he is effectively stuck living as a horse while the sun is up. He chose Jane as a wife in hopes her skills as an herbalist might curtail his own tail, for starters. She agrees to try to cure him in exchange for an eventual divorce. Things get more complicated when King Edward names Jane as his successor. Just like that, she is whisked off to be crowned at Hampton Court Palace. The rest is, as they say, history — but not in this show. 

Lady Jane refuses to be a damsel. 

Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey

Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey
Credit: Jonathan Prime / Prime Video / Amazon MGM Studios

On the surface, Jane’s story is, as the intro tells us, perfect fodder for the damsel-in-distress trope, which has played out again and again across history and literature alike. From the unnamed maidens of the chivalric tales of the Middle Ages to the princesses of early Disney, women have frequently been painted as helpless victims. Jane herself features in a well-known painting by Paul Delaroche. Dressed all in white, she is shown blindfolded and fearful, just moments before her execution —  the perfect, heart-wrenching portrait of feminine victimhood. 

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While the real Lady Jane Grey was historically depicted as a victim, in this show Jane is far from being a withering, simpering damsel. Instead, again and again, her actions match those of the prototypical hero. When a raid at an inn threatens her and her friend, she rejects the aid of a dashing stranger (who later turns out to be Guildford) and attempts her own rescue — a bold move that sees her captured by the raiders. When her mother announces that Jane will marry Guildford, she runs away from home. When that doesn’t work, she uses fake blood to feign an illness at her own wedding. (That doesn’t work either.) Later, she sets out into the woods to rescue an old friend from danger, all on her own. When Guildford reluctantly follows her (chivalry’s not dead and all that), she shows off her hand-to-hand combat and expertly disarms him of his dagger.

It’s not the lady but the lord who is the damsel in distress here. 

Edward Bluemel as Guildford Dudley

Edward Bluemel as Guildford Dudley
Credit: Jonathan Prime / Prime Video / Amazon MGM Studios

During a Q&A with the cast at the London premiere of the show, Bluemel said that he enjoyed playing the show’s “damsel.” It was an unexpected comment; from his first appearance, the drunken, raffish Guildford certainly doesn’t seem like a damsel in distress. In fact, when we first meet him, he’s living large at an inn, confidently flirting. However, it slowly becomes clear that it is he, not Jane, who needs saving. 

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As the show progresses, Jane is named the official heir of Edward and, upon Edward’s death, is crowned Queen. As she gains more power and agency, Guildford has less and less of his own; he’s forced to move with Jane to the palace and simply wait until she is ready to find his cure. Again and again, he finds himself in vulnerable positions as his secret threatens to become revealed. Plus, as Guildford’s relationship with Jane develops, we begin to see more of his emotional vulnerability. We learn that his mother’s death triggered his Ethian transformations and that his father actually married him off to Jane in the hopes that she would be chosen as Edward’s heir. Yes, it seems men can be married off, too! As the voiceover so aptly puts it, “If therapists were invented in 1553, our brooding tortured hero would be a different man.” Evidently, Guildford also needs emotional saving.

My Lady Jane marks an interesting new tactic in the feminist-leaning historical genre. Instead of simply refusing to let Jane become a damsel in distress, My Lady Jane goes a little further by unexpectedly assigning that role to the would-be romantic hero. It’s refreshing to see a period romance that doesn’t merely show the strength of its female characters but also the vulnerabilities of its male lead. The unexpected role reversal makes for one of the most nuanced and thrilling historical romances we’ve seen on TV in years. Throw in some punchy contemporary dialogue, endlessly energetic performances, and a soundtrack filled with thrilling pop-punk needledrops, and you’re left with a Jane Grey who really is by and for the modern woman. After all, who wants to watch another damsel? “Fuck that.”

My Lady Jane is now streaming on Prime Video.

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