Skip to main content

Representations of Women in Film & Television: Maid Marian

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

"The King joins the hands of Robin Hood and Maid Marian", from Henry Gilbert's novel Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood, originally published in 1912. The book was illustrated by Walter Crane

"The King joins the hands of Robin Hood and Maid Marian", from Henry Gilbert's novel Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood, originally published in 1912. The book was illustrated by Walter Crane

First There Was Robin Hood

When trying to understand the character of Maid Marian, we can begin with Robin Hood because he makes his appearance before her in literature. In English folklore, Robin Hood is a man of contrasts, both hero and outlaw- robbing the rich, then donating the spoils to needy families. He is a wise and fair leader of men, but his men hide in the forest where they wait to rob the wealthy. He is a character fraught with conflict, but he is unmarried and has no female companions.

Some versions of the Robin Hood legend portray him as an aristocrat, which would seem to make him the enemy in the class system of his time, but in other versions, he is portrayed as a man whose lands were stolen by King John, who assumed the position of king while his brother, Richard the Lionhearted, fought in the Crusades. Robin Hood would therefore be a wronged and angry man seeking justice and revenge. Robin Hood's story, before the entrance of Maid Marian, is completely male-focused.

The Evolution of Maid Marian

The early legends of Robin Hood reflect the positive aspects of his character, but not his great respect for women. This is not necessarily a reflection of gender bias. Prior to the 16th century, Robin Hood's story was his own, and it was the story of an angry man, not a love story.

Maid Marian was waiting to make her appearance in folklore and literature. It is believed she was part of May Day celebrations and her character evolved from French mythologies about a shepherdess named Marian and a shepherd named Robin, her lover.

The fact that both of her legendary loves were named Robin is oddly believed to be coincidental, although the characters of these two Robins are distinctly different.

It is the angry, vengeful Robin Hood who eventually pairs up with Maid Marian. Robin Hood's fierce loyalty to King Richard hints at his future loyalty to his true love, Marian. Just as Maid Marian's character evolves, Robin Hood gradually moves away from the fighting and anger to show compassion, generousity, and intellect. Therefore, we can conclude that Maid Marian did not choose the Shepherd Robin, but the gentleman who lost his land, stole from the rich, and gave to the poor.

So, what type of woman would appeal to such a man? A kind, loyal, and virtuous woman. Marian is always portrayed as possessing great virtue.

As a folklore heroine, her personal strength and importance to the community also evolve over time, reflecting the changing views of women and their roles and increasing her importance in the Robin Hood tale.

As in folklore, in film Maid Marian's character begins as a woman who is innocent, shy, a delicate virgin whose virtuous character makes her irresistible to Robin Hood.

As society begins to change its views on women and demands a more realistic portrayal, Hollywood tries to adjust. Maid Marian's film characters gradually show a bolder side to her personality, an intelligence equal to that of her lover, and eventually, the strength of a warrior who fights by her husband's side in battle.

Maid Marian begins as Adam's Eve, a woman created out of a need from the existence of her lover. She gradually becomes Elizabeth I, the virgin warrior, then the warrior who owes no one explanations and makes no apologies for her past. Her character, as portrayed on film and television, will continue to evolve along with changing societal views on the roles of women.

Movie poster for the 1922 United Artists Robin Hood film, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Enid Bennett as Maid Marian.

Movie poster for the 1922 United Artists Robin Hood film, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Enid Bennett as Maid Marian.

Robin Hood (1922)

Also known as Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, this was the most expensive movie of its time. It is also a silent film, so the actors tend to be a bit more dramatic in their performances.

In this early film version of the tale, Maid Marian is Lady Marian Fitzwalter played by Enid Bennett, and Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks) is the Earl of Huntingdon. Marian is charming, sweet, and surprisingly fragile. At the first sign of trouble, she faints and is revived when the fighting has ended.

Marian's delicate composure and virginal state are like an addictive drug to Robin Hood who behaves like a man obsessed when she is near, an obsession that drives him to perform acrobatic feats during hand-to-hand combat in order to impress her--a surprising waste of energy considering she is generally unconscious when the action takes place.

Lady Marian Fitzwalter's only apparent strength is in her ability to thwart his advances. When Robin tries to kiss Marian, she shyly turns her head to protect her modesty, so he kisses the sleeve of her gown, instead.

Olivia de Havilland in a screen capture from the film trailer for The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.

Olivia de Havilland in a screen capture from the film trailer for The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

It's the Normans against the Saxons in this Academy Award-winning adventure, and Sir Robin of Locksley is a Saxon Lord who does not return from fighting with King Richard in the crusades, but remains at home to defend the people of Nottingham.

This film is clearly an adventure, a swashbuckler, and although it has no resemblance to contemporary action films, it set the standard for adventure films for sixty years with non-stop action building in intensity to the final scene. The women are mistreated through intimidation and implied rape, which is thwarted by well-timed arrows in the chests of the villains.

The fighting between men can be compared to a John Wayne film where the men are punched repeatedly in the face and have furniture broken over their heads, but shake it off and rise to fight again. Wine spilling onto the floor is used often as a metaphor for the spilling of blood, which is not seen.

Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) is presented once again as a sweet, unattainable virgin, the ward of Prince John. There is nothing sexy or beguiling about her image in this film. In fact, she is generally covered from throat to toe in gowns that would be more appropriate in a film set in Biblical times. Her gowns are made from drab-colored, striped, or oddly-printed fabric contrasting sharply with the remarkably well-dressed Merry Men in their bright reds and deep greens, which are also the predominant colors in this film, colors that seem to pop on screen.

In spite of the dull costumes, Olivia de Havilland's remarkable beauty shines. Her character, however, is a bit of a snob in the beginning, particularly regarding Robin Hood's bold behavior, and yet, she shows an equal amount of boldness. This "maid" does not faint at the first sign of trouble, which is a pleasant change from the 1922 version of her character.

In fact, Robin and Maid Marian are clearly a fine match in this film, most often demonstrated through their witty banter. When Robin Hood crashes the party, a dinner held at Nottingham Castle, and speaks openly about the unfair distribution of labor and taxation in the kingdom, the shocked Maid Marian boldly proclaims, "Why, you speak treason!'

"Fluently," is Robin's reply.

Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Though there are many versions of the Robin Hood tale, Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights uses the Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, almost exclusively as the target of his parody.

In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio stars as Marian Dubois, the king's cousin and childhood friend of Robin Hood (Kevin Costner).

It is this film that marks the most drastic change in Maid Marian's personality. When Robin first enters Mastrontonio's castle, he is greeted by Marian's maidservant who pretends to be Marian. Robin is then attacked from behind by Marian dressed in warrior's mail. She is a skilled and agile fighter and at one point, Robin Hood cries out for his friend, Azeem (Morgan Freeman) who is waiting outside.

In the next scene, Marian has changed into feminine clothing and jewelry so Robin can present her with the ring her brother sent home from the prison cell he shared with Robin before his death. Marian admits that she has managed to hold onto her land through the chaos, but only by playing the royalty game in order to protect the people who live and work on her land.

"I can take care of myself," she firmly declares when Robin offers to protect her from Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott), who is quickly approaching the castle. She then tricks Robin, forcing him to leave, but as he turns to go he slaps her on her bottom. This playful sexuality continues throughout the film.

Mastrantonio made her film debut as Gina Montana, the pure, yet sexy younger sister of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface. Posters of Mastrantonio in scenes from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are still sold online. As in Scarface, she's not slutty in this film, but she is overtly sexy. However, in addition to her great beauty, Mastrantonio is also a fighter, which makes her performance even more appealing as the target of a parody.

Amy Yasbeck is perfect for the job as a Maid Marian parody. In her first scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, she is shown bathing in a seashell tub, an allusion to Boticelli's Birth of Venus. She is brushing her long, dark auburn, curly hair, which looks remarkably like Mastrantonio's.

Yasbeck appears to be nude when she climbs from the bathtub until the camera focuses on her cast iron chastity belt. Moments later, she makes a wish that she will meet the gentle man who possesses the key to her "heart," then glances down at her chastity belt.

Whether she is seen in her serious or comedic role, the message is clear that Maid Marian of the 1990s is sassy, sexy, and rebellious, but her revised role, almost 19 years later, focuses far more on Marian's strength of character.

Robin Hood (2010)

In the 2010 Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an archer in King Richard's army. When Richard is killed, Robert Loxley, his personal aide and closest friend, leaves for England with his crown. Loxley is ambushed, and Robin arrives too late to save him, but in time for Loxley to hand over his sword with a dying wish--to have the sword returned to Loxley's estranged father.

Robin and his friends--Will Scarlett, Allan A'Dayle and Little John--arrive in Nottingham to find King Richard's younger brother, John (Oscar Isaac), destroying the kingdom with unreasonable, cruel tax demands. Robin returns the sword to Loxley's father, who asks Robin to impersonate Loxley to ensure that Loxley's widow, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), can continue to work the land and protect the people who work there, as she has since her husband left to serve in the king's army. She is the protector--fierce and determined.

Lady Marian's first night with Robin is straight out of a romance novel as she is forced to remove his linked mail when the servants disappear from the room, but she also makes it clear that she is not the type of woman who is easily seduced.

Although Cate Blanchett is perfectly capable of playing a sexy, physically appealing woman, her portrayal of Lady Marian focuses entirely on strength of character. This is not a fairy tale, and Marian Loxley is not a virgin, or "maid." She speaks openly of her wedding night spent in the loving arms of her deceased husband.

She is also emotionally strong, wise, and courageous, joining her husband by proxy in battle, and continuing to serve by his side as they care for the outlaw community of Sherwood forest. She is the warrior.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian (poster, ca. 1880),

Robin Hood and Maid Marian (poster, ca. 1880),

An Admirable Woman

Contemporary filmmakers have revised Maid Marian's character to fit the times. Gone is the weak maiden who hides behind her veil, replaced by a bold, intelligent warrior who fights alongside her husband to save the family farm.

From Enid Bennett's Lady Marian who faints at the drop of a pin, to Cate Blanchett's warrior, Marian's progression through the years brings to mind that oft-quoted 1968 Virginia Slims Cigarettes women's liberation-themed marketing slogan: "You've come a long way, baby!"


Robin Hood. Dir. Allan Dwan. Perf. Douglas Fairbanks, Enid Bennett, Wallace Beery, Sam De Grasse. Douglas Fairbanks Pictures: 1922. Running time: 127 min.
Robin Hood. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt. Universal Pictures: 2010. Running time: 140 min.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Dir. Mel Brooks. Perf. Carey Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck. Brooks Films: 1993. Running time: 104 min.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Dir. Kevin Reynolds. Perf. Kevin Kostner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, Alan Rickman. Warner Bros. Pictures: 1991. Running time: 143 min.
The Adventures of Robin Hood. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Richard Keighley. Perf. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains. Warner Bros. Pictures: 1938. Running time: 102 min.
• Wright, Allen W.. Robin Hood: Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood. Posted 2010. Accessed December, 2011.

© 2017 Darla Sue Dollman


Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on February 11, 2018:

I thought of that one. I originally decided not to cover every film when I started this series because it can become redundant, but that film did take a different approach to the story. There's actually a dozen or so Robin Hood movies that I didn't discuss, including cartoons. That's the nice thing about the way these articles are set up--I love revision!

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on February 11, 2018:

One more film that comes to mind is Robin And Marian, that takes a look at the two as older people. Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn star, and that is a decent film as well. It adds to the evolution of Maid Marian as well.