'Don't Worry, I Won't Let Them Rape You': Guinevere's Agency in Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur

By Blanton, Virginia | Arthuriana, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

'Don't Worry, I Won't Let Them Rape You': Guinevere's Agency in Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur


Blanton, Virginia, Arthuriana


By examining the production and reception of Knightley's Guinevere in King Arthur, this essay demonstrates how the portrayal addresses a contemporary audience. (VB)

In Jerry Bruckheimer's production of King Arthur, the Roman leader and his band of Sarmatian soldiers face the Saxon hoard on a frozen lake, and as they prepare to fight, Guinevere insists on drawing a bow and protecting the helpless people they are escorting south of Hadrian's Wall. In a remarkable twist on the Arthurian romance tradition, Lancelot warns her that among the Saxon enemies (depicted according to stereotype as hoary, uncivilized brutes) are 'a large number of lonely men.' Guinevere's quip is the funniest, and perhaps the most provocative, line in David Franzoni's script: 'Don't worry, I won't let them rape you,' she replies.1 The reversals of gender and power in this scene, in which Guinevere is poised to kill Saxon barbarians and defend Roman mercenaries, are indicative of the film's portrayal of her character. In this scene, Keira Knightley, who plays Guinevere, wears her long, dark hair loose. Her delicate features are complemented by her slight stature, which is draped in an oversized, light-blue dress. Everything about her physicality suggests she is less than powerful, less than capable of protecting herself. Director Antoine Fuqua has staged the scene so that she appears a waif, dwarfed by the powerful physiques of Bors, Dagonet, Lancelot, and Arthur. Yet she holds a bow and arrow, a very masculine symbol of physical and sexual power. Prepared to defend not only the unarmed populace but also the heavily-weaponed Sarmatians, Guinevere indicates that Lancelot and all the others are in as much danger as she is, and while they might be men, they can easily be vanquished and subject to any humiliation the Saxons choose.2 Her posturing reduces Lancelot's hyper-masculinity (he carries two swords as symbols of his aggressive potency) by indicating that he too could be debased; in effect, she reverses their traditional roles as protector and victim, even as she positions herself as equal to the soldiers in warfare. Standing shoulder to shoulder with them, she strings her bow and waits, appearing very much like Legolas, the lithe archer/elf who is such a deadly shot in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The bow, which requires great strength to use effectively, is an iconic emblem of sexual prowess. Long associated with Cupid and his ability to inflict 'love' or 'lust' on those he elects for his army, the bow and arrow is a potent symbol of penetration and sexual congress, in essence an emblem of virility. As an instrument of death, moreover, the bow indicates the emergent masculinity of Guinevere in a film centered on martial prowess, and this scene signals that we as the audience should be prepared for surprising upheavals in the gendered order of the medieval world as it is portrayed here. This Guinevere is no passive 'damsel in distress' but a fierce defender of her people, who will penetrate rather than be penetrated, one who will defend rather than be defenseless. And while she is robed in a borrowed dress (after being rescued from a dungeon where she was tortured and, to judge by her tattered clothing, sexually humiliated), Guinevere as a beleaguered prisoner begins to transform before our eyes into a ruthless, woman warrior.3

Guinevere's transformation rests on a contemporary desire for strong female characters, ones that are integral and active agents in the plot line. Female actors have pushed for better and more central roles, and female audiences have responded to films about women's experiences. While there are plenty of 'chick flicks' in which women gather to sew quilts or share the disappointments of their hetero-normative lives, the genre has effectively allowed action films to remain the realm of the masculine, where men engage in warfare, political intrigue, and crime investigation. Audiences, young ones in particular, are bored with the female characters in action films who serve only as the love interest or who are relegated to the background whenever something significant happens (such as the leading ladies in the Indiana. …

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