Between Queens: The Renaissance of Sapphic Divahood in ‘Six’

In his gay history of musical theatre, Something for the Boys, John Clum coins the term “the diva musical” and defines it as a genre “about a woman’s escape from the humdrum.” “In celebrating feminine strength, the diva musical also is built on masculine weakness,” Clum writes. “Diva musicals are seldom love stories…they celebrate women’s independence and survival.” Such a celebration of feminine power would of course develop a queer following, as Clum emphasizes “the drag potential of the diva musical” and gay men’s identification with the diva. Writing at the turn of the twenty-first century, Clum laments the demise of the genre in the 60s as it gave the stage to concept musicals.

Clum’s account of the Broadway musical is poignantly nostalgic. His nostalgia is, however, limited by a generational position. While the diva musicals in Clum’s time might have gone into history, Broadway continues to invent, and reinvent, diva figures for new generations of queer audience. Some shows, such as Kinky Boots, feature drag divas, while others, such as Dreamgirls and Wicked, experiment with double or triple divahood. One recent production materializes the diva worshipper’s wildest fantasy. In just one night, it gives us six divas.

Six is a museum of transtemporal divahood, a collage of female iconographies, a queertopia where divas take the center stage of history and men are nowhere to be seen. It is where Beyoncé reinvents Catherine of Aragon, Nicki Minaj remakes Anna of Cleves, and Ariana Grande resexes Katherine Howard. It is at once historical and contemporary, simultaneously marked by premodernity and modernity, driven by an earnest desire, in the words of queer historian Carolyn Dinshaw, “to touch across time.” Instead of simply juxtaposing female icons of two separate eras, such a “queer touch” merges early modern and modern modes of embodiments, showing us how the idea of female authority is a relational construct, a historical product that is written, and rewritten, by generations of historians and diva worshippers.

Only here, the diva worshipper becomes the historian. As the creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss revealed in the New York Times, Six was equally inspired by Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Beyoncé’s Live at Roseland. Such creative uses of diachronic archives lead to a historicist approach through which Tudor queens and contemporary divas highlight, instead of obscuring, the historical significance of each icon. When Catherine of Aragon sings about the king’s infidelity and her refusal to “grant [him] annulment” in her number, “No Way,” she evokes Beyoncé’s exploration of love, betrayal, and marriage in Lemonade. “You must think that I’m crazy / You wanna replace me?” the queen sings, “Baby, there’s no way.” Worshippers of Beyoncé would immediately recognize references to her legendary album. “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you,” Queen Bey sings. “What’s worst, lookin’ jealous or crazy? Jealous or crazy?” The transtemporal constructions of Catherine of Aragon and Beyoncé reshape each icon with their historical contexts, prompting the audience to rethink the meanings of marital authority in the early modern and modern periods. How should we understand Catherine’s famous Blackfriars speech and her definition of wifedom, in terms of their social, political, and religious implications? How should we, then, reassess Beyoncé’s much contested narratives about her relationship and marriage in Lemonade?

Such layered characterizations also take place in the show’s reinvention of Katherine Howard. At once an Ariana Grande and a younger version of Britney Spears, the young queen is, according to Marlow, a synthesis of “young pop stars sexualized early on in their careers.” “All you wanna do / All you wanna do, baby’s,” sings Katherine, evoking the Baby One More Time-era Britney, “Touch me, love me / Can’t get enough, see.” But Six’s remaking of Katherine is more than a simple statement of sexual empowerment, as she continues to sing, “Made me a lady-in-waiting, hurled / Me and my family up in the world / Gave me duties in court and he swears it’s true / That without me he doesn’t know what he’d do.”

The lyrics foreground not only age but also power differences between Katherine and Henry, pointing to the structural relationship between gender, age, and class in both early modern and modern societies. This retelling becomes even more meaningful when we consider the complicated legacy of Britney Spears, especially in light of the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, which came out during Six’s initial opening and its reopening. With these intertextual references, Six reimagines the past with contemporary divahood and reframes the present with historical queenship. It is exactly this “diva historicism,” in which pop divas and Tudor queens crystallize the historical significance of each other, that makes Six simultaneously premodern and modern, transtemporal without being ahistorical.

But what makes Six even more exhilarating is its revival of sapphic desire between the queens. While each queen embodies historically specific meanings, it is the homosocial relationship between them that lies at the core of the show. In one of his earliest notes, Marlow conceptualized the queens “like a girl group” doing a “reunion tour,” and some of the initial titles included “Sixth Harmony” and “Little Six,” which were obvious nods to contemporary sensations Fifth Harmony and Little Mix.

Sapphic desire has been central to the making of girl groups, especially after the rise of Spice Girls, but it is by no means a modern phenomenon. In her definitive book, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, Valerie Traub traces the history of female same-sex representations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While she adopts a somehow anachronistic term in her title, Traub is not arguing that lesbians in the Foucauldian sense already existed in the period. Rather, she seeks to “claim certain representations as, if not exactly lesbian, then as crucial materials in a genealogy of female homoerotic desire.” Such a desire was not limited to a minority group but was, instead, circulated among early modern women. “By desire,” Traub maintains, “I mean, quite simply, intense emotional investment and compelling erotic attraction—that which the early moderns referred to as love, passion, appetite, lust.”

Following Traub’s definition, it is possible to see the representations of the queens in Six as a continuation of the “genealogy of female homoerotic desire.” Like the sapphic figures Traub identify in her book, the queens’ subjectivity is defined by their relation to one another instead of a stable category named “lesbian.” The fact that they are all married to the same man does not negate, but rather intensifies, such same-sex relationality. It is precisely because of their marriage to Henry VIII that they reunite and decide to put on a show, and it is precisely because of their shared identity as both queens and wives that they collaborate with and compete against one another. But even when they compete, the center of (erotic) attention has always been women – much like their marriage to the king, competition among the queens does not cancel but rather produces their emotional investment in women.

With an absence of men on the stage, Six presents us with a femmetopia where concords and conflicts equally contribute to the making of female homosocial bonds. This is why collaboration and competition are easily translated into each other, and why sapphic desire continues to flow and flourish during the course of such translation. Towards the end of the show, at the culmination of the queens’ intense rivalry, Catherine Parr refuses to participate in the fights and announces: “I’ve told you about my life / The final wife / But why should that story / Be the one I have to sing about / Just to win? I’m out / That’s not my story / There’s so much more.”

With this announcement, the queens turn competition into collaboration, and sing, in a unified voice, the powerful anthem, “I Don’t Need Your Love.” Similar to their individual images, the queens’ sapphic divahood is at once historical and contemporary, invoking both early modern femmes and modern girl groups. It is where Spice Girls meet the Six Wives of Henry VIII, and together, rewrite the “genealogy of female homoerotic desire.”

Tracing the central position of female homoeroticism in the early modern household, literary critic Julie Crawford astutely observes that “marriage does not necessarily mark the end of same-sex relationships in Shakespeare’s comedies; indeed, it is often an enabling condition for their continuation.” Using As You Like It as an example, Crawford continues to note that “the webs of kinship and obligation in the play center on same-sex vows between women that enable and are further enabled by marriage.”

Walking out of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre along with an excited crowd, composed of mostly women and queers like me, I wondered whether it is possible to see early modern queenship as another “enabling condition” for the continuation and revival of sapphic desire. Like Shakespeare’s heroines, the Six Wives of Henry VIII belonged to a complicated network of kinship and domestic arrangements—Katherine Howard, notably, was a cousin to Anne Boleyn and a lady-in-waiting in Anna of Cleves’s household. If Shakespeare, as Crawford argues, demonstrates the importance of marriage in the making of female same-sex bonds, then Six, in turn, teaches us the significance of queenship in the formation of a sapphic genealogy.

Paris Shih is a Taiwanese writer and cultural critic based in New York. He is the author of The Power of the Badgirl: The Rise of Postfeminism in Popular Cinema, The Girl Revolution: 100 Years of Girl Culture from Flappers to Girl Power, and Sex, Heels, and Virginia Woolf: A History of Feminist Polemics. Currently he is working on a new book, Queer Historiography: Reinventing the History of Sexuality, and a memoir, Divafication. He teaches at Queens College and lives in Brooklyn.