The Dairy Queen used to reign supreme over the Arundel Mills shopping mall. But last month, a new ruler ascended the throne: All hail Doña Maria Isabella, who presides over a kingdom of knights and squires, horses and falcons, rotisserie chicken, middle-schoolers wearing paper crowns and Honda Odysseys in the parking lot of the fake castle it shares with a Best Buy next door.
History is being made at the same time it’s being reenacted at Medieval Times. It’s the first time a female ruler has presided over the equestrian jousting dinner theater experience in its nearly 35-year history in America. Gender equality and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are still making progress in politics and the C-suite, but at least here, in this version of 11th-century Spain, cultural forces have unseated a long-ruling monarch.
Lest you think this campy re-creation of Ye Olden Days is some kind of subversive matriarchal utopia, Medieval Times’s corporate leaders say they began planning the change two years ago, before the #MeToo movement. The clash between nostalgic pageantry and contemporary ideas about gender has come with a few red flags — and not just the kind that bear the queen’s royal crest.
Before, there used to be a king and his daughter, a princess, who presided over a joust. When a lord from a neighboring kingdom asked for the princess’s hand in marriage, she didn’t have a say in her future: Her father responded on her behalf.
That isn’t going to fly in 2018.
So the company has debuted a new script at its 10 locations in North America. The daring horseback stunts, ring jousting and high-drama swordfights to the death have remained, except it’s all presided over by Doña Maria Isabella — who, despite being modeled after a Spanish queen, has a Portuguese title and speaks with a British accent.
Now the two-hour show revolves around a banquet hosted by the queen, full of jousting and merriment — until an impetuous knight questions her authority.
On a recent Thursday night, before a small stadium filled with kids celebrating birthdays, couples on dates and one particularly boozy row of men celebrating a milestone at work — all of whom paid as much as $60 per ticket — Maria Isabella rode in on a white horse.
Serfs walked around selling light-up swords. Everyone feasted on oversalted chicken, potatoes and corn. A drink menu advertised strawberry daiquiris and piña coladas or, for the bravest knights among us, a 26-ounce serving of Southern Comfort and fruit punch, to be drunk out of a horn (“YOU KEEP THE GLASS,” the menu notes).
Triumphant music swelled. A royal court member who functioned as a sort of emcee opened the dinner with a rousing toast: “My lords, my ladies, raise a cheer for the queen’s royal household, the captain of the queen’s guard, the brave squires to your knights of the realm, and all of your serfs and wennnnches!”
Come again, my lord?
Yes, in some ways, Medieval Times is still in the Dark Ages. The women who serve food and drinks are called wenches. They wear corset-like uniforms.
“It’s just part of the job,” said one wench, Tabitha Gill. “Some of the men want to call me that. They’re like, ‘Grab me a beer, wench!’ It’s in a playful way.”
Other wenches weren’t as agreeable: “It’s a little degrading,” said Taylor Feehely, a gift-shop wench.
Like the dressage moves performed by the court's royal horses, progress is two steps forward, one step back.
Maria Isabella does get to tell off the male members of her royal court. “The power to wage war or to allow death as the price of defeat at this tournament lies . . . with the queen, and the queen alone, and I am queen here!” she said, to cheers from the women in the crowd.
But the knights of her court still hand out flowers to the women in the audience, and at the end of the night, Maria Isabella doesn’t even get to be the only queen of this castle. “Ride forth champion,” she tells the winner of the joust, “and choose from among the ladies of the court one whom we shall call the queen of love and beauty!”
A cheap plastic crown is bestowed upon a lucky woman.
“I love you, queen!” yelled the middle-aged men in the front row, by now several horns of ale into the evening.
The code of chivalry was established for medieval knights. It taught them bravery and honor, but also courtly manners and a respect and a graciousness toward women. But chivalry, critics say, is at odds with gender equality.
“It’s just another form of objectification, isn’t it? To claim that putting a woman on a pedestal gives her power just means that she’s standing somewhere where she can’t get down without help,” said Linda Mitchell, president of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship and a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If [Medieval Times] wanted to be more authentic, she would be surrounded by women, her ladies-in-waiting. The women around her would be active and engaged.”
Amy Parochetti, 35, used to play a princess at Medieval Times and was thrilled to get a promotion to become one of four actresses who play the queen.
“I think it sets a really good example, a role model for boys and girls and everyone to see a female in charge, but who’s also kind and compassionate and understanding,” she said.
As for the use of the word “wench,” the queen demurs. “It’s a historically accurate title,” Parochetti said.
Mitchell has some thoughts about that. Yes, it’s historically accurate, but the word “wench” was just as insulting then as it is now — it means a stupid woman or a prostitute.
“The word wench is definitely not something that medieval people would use for a woman, especially in public, because that was a really insulting thing to call her,” Mitchell said.
Another point of contention: The cast of the show is overwhelmingly white, but the actual medieval times were “more diverse than the very white, very male-dominated notion of medieval culture that the Victorians promoted,” said Mitchell, who has never been to a Medieval Times (“I try to avoid things like that").
As for the next step for gender equality in Medieval Times, Parochetti thinks that would be “maybe a Lord Marshall — a female knight.”
Wouldn't that be a Lady Marshall? A Lady Marcia?
“Maybe my daughters” will be the ones ring jousting and hoisting battle axes in a future iteration of the show, she said, laughing, and then excused herself: She had to perform a knighting ceremony. She was whisked away to the lobby, modeled after a castle’s great hall, where a special area was cordoned off for a photo opportunity available for an extra fee. Tonight’s knight was one of the boozy middle-aged men from the front row. He knelt before Maria Isabella and gazed up at the queen.
“My Lord Brian,” said Maria Isabella, tapping his shoulders lightly with a sword before congratulating him on his many years of service to a professional organization. His friends snapped cellphone photos.
“Hey, give her your phone number,” one of them called out.