Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating The Da Vinci Code

Tammie M Kennedy. Feminist Formations. Volume 24, Issue 2. Summer 2012.

When I was 10 years old, I played the part of Mary Magdalene in the Vacation Bible School play. While it was the only female part besides Mother Mary, I was furious that my friend Greg got the role of Jesus. My anger stemmed mostly from the fact that I would have to sweetly wash and kiss Greg’s feet to show my subordination and devotion. In addition to being terrified about what I might discover on my friend’s feet-I had seen his feet at the swimming pool, in mud puddles, and newly naked after hours trapped in sweat socks-it seemed horribly unfair that the girl had to perform this act. I lobbied for a rewrite: Why couldn’t one of the male disciples kiss his feet? Why couldn’t Jesus and I hang out and discuss God instead? My Sunday school teacher, the minister, my mother, my grandmother, some of the church members, and the rest of the Bible schoolers–all in universal agreement-addressed my concerns. They explained that Magdalene was a prostitute, a sinner. She had to kiss Jesus’s feet to show that she had changed. Mary was the good one. Eve was the bad one. And Mary Magdalene was the bad girl turned good.

Decades later, I wonder: How was the representation of Magdalene as a prostitute constructed? In other words, why has she been remembered this way? Why does this representation persist despite the absence of textual evidence to support this commonly held assumption? Why have efforts to move the discourse around prostitution away from issues of morality and deviance not produced more complex understandings of this representation? Why have the efforts by many scholars, clergy, and artists to argue for Magdalene’s leadership role as the Apostle to the Apostles in early Christianity not inspired an alternative representation of her that lingers similarly in the imagination?

One way to understand how the depiction of Magdalene as a reformed prostitute has endured is to examine the rhetorical practices that inscribe and misrepresent historical women in public memory. According to Kendall Phillips’s introduction to Framing Public Memory (2004), the notion of “public memory” can be traced back to Maurice Halbwachs’s argument about the social function of collective memory (1). Halbwachs (1992) collapses communal and collective memory, arguing that the needs and interests of a particular community dictate narrative frameworks that structure memory-making into the collective memories that define that community, such as the Church. These collective memories manifest themselves and are experienced in visible, material, or spatial forms that forge a relationship between the past and the future. Phillips (2004) argues that to remember is “to act as part of this collective,” a “highly rhetorical process” that underscores the “ways that memories attain meaning and become public” (1-3). Analyzing sites of memory like memorials, archives, mass media, and even tattoos offers insight into the rhetorical practices deployed to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct remembrances in public spheres that “promote a shared sense of the past” (Phillips 2010, 209). As a result, the certainty of Magdalene’s legacy as a prostitute expressed by my Vacation Bible School cohort highlights how public memory is often distorted in a way that reflects the values of dominant voices that have much at stake for preserving certain representations. Furthermore, as feminist religious scholars like Carol P. Christ (1979) have demonstrated, gendered ideologies in religion have real consequences-materially, psychically, socially, and spiritually- especially for women.

Exposing how representations of historical women like Magdalene are constructed and maintained in public memory offers a rich site of inquiry. As rhetorical scholars, such as Cheryl Glenn (1997), Gesa E. Kirsch and Jacqueline J. Royster (2010), and Jacqueline J. Royster (2000), argue, critical tools are needed that help scholars and students question the rhetorical practices and interpretive frameworks that determine what we think of as knowledge and how that knowledge is remembered. Furthermore, drawing on Michel Foucault’s (1969) theories about the power/knowledge relationship, it is important to analyze how truth-claims circulate within multiple contexts, sites, and interpretative practices across space and time. Public memories about historical women are often constructed and sustained as “facts” that support ideological paradigms and suppress alternative interpretations, or what Foucault (1977) describes as “counter-memory.” Magdalene as an historical and biblical figure has captured the imagination of people throughout history, from New Testament Gospels and Gnostic sources to Christian storytellers, medieval legends, and popular culture. However, such keen interest also exposes women like Magdalene to the politics of public memory. For that reason, it is imperative to interrogate the various contexts that inform how she is remembered, by whom, for what purpose, and with what effect.

Closely analyzing how Magdalene is depicted in public memory points to an important project for feminist work. While feminist scholars have made great strides in recovering historical women who have been forgotten or diminished from various traditions, it is also important to examine the ways in which women have been misremembered. In “The Failure of Memory: Reflections on Rhetoric and Public Remembrance,” Phillips (2010) distinguishes between forgetting and misremembering in a way that illuminates the ideological struggles inherent in public memory:

It is the prospect of remembering differently that constitutes the foundational failure of memory … [T]he cultural concern over remembrance is driven not so much by the fear that we will forget but by the fear that we will remember differently … [T]he distinction between forgetting as an act of lost (or obscured) memory and misremembering as an active process of claiming knowledge of the past that is inaccurate (or at least different) [underscores the politics of public memory]. (212)

Magdalene has not been forgotten. However, attempts to remember her (and remember her differently) in most sites of public memory have failed from a feminist perspective. While we may never fully know the “real Magdalene,” it is important to challenge the narrow view of gender and sexuality that often informs her public depictions.

In this article, I examine the rhetorical practices of remembering that inscribe Mary Magdalene in public memory. First, I present an historical overview about what has been written about Magdalene in canonical and noncanonical texts, as well as some of the scholarship that reinterprets her agency in early Christianity. Next, I examine Magdalene in a more recent site of public memory, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003a). I also analyze Ron Howard’s 2006 film adaptation of the novel. Given the huge popularity and debate surrounding both the book and film adaptation, The Da Vinci Code offers a powerful artifact for analysis to understand the politics of public memory.

Despite Brown’s intention to remember Magdalene in a new way, empowering her as a wife and mother and trying to remedy the stigma associated with her reputation as a prostitute, his contribution to public memory re-inscribes a traditional and explicitly heteronomative view of gender that truncates her agency as a woman and leader in early Christianity. Brown’s twenty-first-century construction of Magdalene illuminates how gendered ideologies are rooted in remembering practices that inform popular culture. As George Lipsitz (2001) argues, public memory and popular culture, especially mass media, are linked in complicated ways. While popular culture offers an arena for resisting the hegemony of remembering practices, the “infinitely renewable present of electronic mass media creates a crisis for [public memory]” by engaging audiences with familiar tropes that replace historical knowledge (vii). Thus, the consequences of misremembering are especially salient for those figures marginalized by gender, class, and sexuality, as well as for those who seek a more expansive, nuanced representation in public memory.

Historical Constructions of Mary Magdalene in Public Memory

Because all of the canonical and noncanonical texts are written about Magdalene rather than by her, it is essential to trace how Magdalene the prostitute emerged as a widely accepted truth-claim in public memory. Given the persistence of patriarchal power structures, it is easy to understand how the Magdalene in public memory has been subject to and has shaped the gendered ideologies that constrain and diminish women’s authority. For that reason, it is important to interrogate this memory vigorously in order to locate its origin and the rhetorical practices that sustain its resonance. Questioning the legitimacy of Magdalene’s image as a prostitute, several scholars have examined this portrayal in order to reconstruct the origin of its interpretation. While Mary R. Thompson (1995) notes that some scholars trace Magdalene’s misrepresentation as a prostitute back to a fourth-century interpretation of Luke 8:2 that juxtaposes immoral behavior with prostitution (14), most trace the inaccuracy to 591ce when Pope Gregory the Great falsely conflated her with Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8) and the unnamed sinner in Luke 7:36-50 (60). Therefore, as Karen L. King (2003) argues, once these initial identifications were secured, “Magdalene could be associated with every unnamed sinful woman in the gospels, including the adulteress in John 8:1-11 and the Syrophoenician woman with her five or more husbands in John 4:7-30” (18).

The historical emphasis on women’s sexuality within Christianity skewed Magdalene’s representation in public memory. Such ideological constraints are even more apparent once the pro-Petrine tendencies in the Gospel of Luke were adopted by Church leaders, who wanted to diminish women’s leadership roles and, as Jane Schaberg (1992) argues, “attach female sexuality to notions of evil, repentance, and mercy”-political and ideological forces that superseded historical realities (37). Centuries later, in 1969, the Catholic Church officially corrected its error, trying to erase her sinful reputation by declaring that Magdalene was one of many followers of Jesus. However, despite that effort, the conflated image of Magdalene as a prostitute lingers in public memory (Schaberg 2003, 99).

Less widely acknowledged in public memory is Magdalene’s important apostolic leadership role in early Christianity, despite the plethora of scholarship that exists. In her 1998 literature review “Memory and Re-Vision: Mary Magdalene Research since 1975,” Pamela Thimmes surmises that there have been more than nine monographs and hundreds of scholarly articles written about Magdalene, not to mention thousands of anecdotal references and footnotes. Furthermore, the array of studies is remarkable, ranging from “biblical text-critical, historical-critical and feminist studies to biographies and studies examining the art, music, drama, liturgy, piety and poetry” devoted to Magdalene (193). As I will describe more fully in the next section, the success of The Da Vinci Code since its release in 2003 has prompted even more scholarly and mainstream works that examine the role of Magdalene in early Christianity and her relationship to Jesus.

Interestingly, despite the scholarship examining Magdalene as one of Jesus’s followers and her presence at his Crucifixion and Resurrection, little is known about her before and after that time. As a result, the enigmatic elements surrounding her life “lend themselves to fictionalization” (Thompson 1995, 1). Prompted by feminist readings of Christianity, such as those of Mary Daly (1973), Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1983), Elaine Pagels (1979), and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1993), the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Library, and the popularity of Magdalene’s image in art and popular culture, historians have attempted to trace the “real” evidence of Magdalene and “restore some of the pre-Gregorian understanding of a woman who was a friend of Jesus, loyal disciple, leader among early Christians, and primary witness to the resurrection” (Thompson 1995, 9). For example, in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, Schaberg (2003) summarizes the Gospel sources that allude to Magdalene:

According to all four Christian Testament gospels, Mary Magdalene is a-perhaps the-primary witness to the fundamental data of the early Christian faith. She is said to have participated in the Galilean career of Jesus of Nazareth, followed him to Jerusalem, stood by at his execution and burial, found his tomb empty and received an explanation of that emptiness. Two texts mention that seven demons had come out of her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9). According to three accounts (Mark 16:7; Matthew 28:7; John 20:17), she is sent with a commission to deliver the explanation of the empty tomb to the disciples. Also according to three accounts (Matthew 28:9-10; John 20:14-18; Mark 16:9), she was the first to experience a vision or appearance of the resurrected Jesus. (66)

While she is as well-known as Mary (Jesus’s mother) and Eve, Bart D. Ehrman (2004) emphasizes that Magdalene’s name occurs only thirteen times in the entire New Testament, including parallel references. Furthermore, when she is mentioned, few particulars are provided (185). Yet, despite the sketchiness of some of the details surrounding Magdalene’s life, nowhere does the New Testament say that she was a prostitute, a scholarly fact that King (2003) expresses this way: “[the] portrait of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, repentant or otherwise, has no basis whatsoever in historical tradition” (18). Instead, this representation emerges from the Christian tradition.

The Gnostic texts that feature Magdalene present her in a less explicitly sexualized light, elaborating on her intellectual affiliation with Jesus. For example, the Pistis Sophia, which was discovered in the eighteenth century, presents a question-and-answer session between Jesus and his disciples. Esther A. de Boer (2004) states that Magdalene asks 39 of the 46 questions, demonstrating her leadership role (77). Ehrman (2006) concurs, adding that the text also represents Magdalene’s ability to “move beyond the [other disciples] in her spiritual perception and progress” (209). Schaberg (2003) argues that the Gospel of Mary, written in the second century, not long after the canonical Gospel of John, “presents [Magdalene] as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide of the early, post-Easter community, as a visionary, the Savior’s beloved companion, a conduit for and interpreter of his teachings” (66). While there are missing pages in the three-part text, most scholars agree that she is portrayed as an “exemplary disciple” because of her unwavering devotion and deep understanding of Christ’s teachings, despite the attempts of the other disciples to reject her authority because she is a woman (King 2002, 74).

While the Gnostic sources depict Magdalene’s spiritual leadership, they also highlight some of the inherent patriarchal biases that plague how she is remembered in the twenty-first century. As the Gospel of Mary chronicles, even while Jesus charges Magdalene with the responsibility to serve as apostolorum apostola (Apostle to the Apostles) after his Ascension, disciples Peter and Andrew take issue with Magdalene’s teachings, refusing to embrace her vision and expressing their jealousy that Jesus appeared to her rather than to them (Leloup 2002). Arguably, much of their resistance stems from misogynist views about women’s intellectual and leadership capacities, rather than from her presumed sexual practices.

Despite these biases, Magdalene perseveres as a visionary leader, defended by Jesus and her fellow disciple Levi, who honors her: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered … If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? … Surely, the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us” (de Boer 2004, 22). In fact, while Ann Brock Graham (2003) demonstrates that numerous early Christian texts assign apostolic authority to Magdalene, when “Mary and Peter are both present in the text, Peter consistently challenges her authority or diminishes her status, often in overt and blatant ways” (102). As scholars like Graham, de Boer (2004), Ehrman (2006), King (2003), and Schaberg (2003) sift-through the cultural contexts that shape the construction of Magdalene and reread the Scripture through these lenses, many are persuaded to remember her differently. Disrupting reductionist views of women’s agency in their interpretations of Magdalene’s role in early Christianity, these scholars bring attention to how she emerges as a contender in the patriarchal power struggles that ultimately silenced and distorted her. In other words, she was not bad-she was just constructed that way. Unfortunately, this scholarship has not trickled down through most mainstream memorializations of Magdalene.

Dan Brown Remembers Mary Magdalene as Wife and Mother

Despite the various public remembrances of Magdalene throughout history, she remains an enigma wrapped in hypotheses and presented as fact. Within the complex of roles she has historically occupied-Apostle and disciple, harlot and repentant devotee, saint, wife, and mother-she embodies how religious history, public memory, and gender ideology are inextricably bound. Most notably, Magdalene has been stigmatized as a prostitute and an outcast, particularly in Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. More recently, she has been revered as wife and mother in Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code. Both gendered representations are steeped in patriarchal ideology that sustains an inability to see women as anything but sexual.

On the threshold of a new millennium, memories of Magdalene were resurrected and scrutinized in light of the firestorm of debate surrounding the publication of The Da Vinci Code. The book has sold an estimated 80 million copies worldwide and has been translated into forty-four languages as of 2009, making it the best-selling English-language novel of the twenty-first century (Sage and Bishopric 2009). Its popularity has generated scores of books, articles, websites, lectures, conferences, and sermons that attempt to decode, debunk, and discuss the claims made by the book. Furthermore, Brown’s depiction of Magdalene offers a potential “counter-memory,” Foucault’s (1977) term for resistant political practices. The central argument in Brown’s plot is the claim that Jesus and Magdalene were married. Pregnant at the Crucifixion, Magdalene later escaped to France, known then as Gaul, in order to bear his child. Therefore, Magdalene, rather than some inanimate chalice, is the real Holy Grail, because she carried the royal bloodline. According to Brown’s thesis, the Catholic Church has spent the last 2,000 years trying to cover up these facts in order to diminish the role of women in the early Church—”the lost sacred feminine”—and to deny that the bloodline still exists in France today. In essence, he contests one of the central tenets of Christianity since the fourth century: that Jesus was mortal as well as divine. In the process, Brown also obliterates one of the most prominent images of Magdalene in public memory-that of the repentant whore. As one character says in the 2006 movie version of the novel, “What if the world discovers that the greatest story ever told is actually a lie?”

Brown’s truth-claims turn 2000 years of public memory on its head. Moreover, his new interpretation invites audiences to critically investigate his rhetorical practices. He remembers Magdalene differently by enacting old interpretations from new perspectives, explaining his impetus this way on his website: “Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?” (Brown 2003b). This premise, coupled with his reliance upon his own research, creates an imaginative space between fact and fiction that inspires new investigations and discussions, as well as new sites of memory for public consumption. Even though the book is labeled “fiction,” Brown (2003a) includes a “Fact Page” at the beginning of the novel that states: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” He also vets the legitimacy of his claims by sharing “Resources for Researchers” on his website (2003b). This list provides the appearance of reliability for his fictional depictions and also affords scholars and readers the opportunity to evaluate the rhetorical context of his arguments.

Given Brown’s emphasis on research that mirrors academic processes more than imaginative ones, it is important to examine the sources upon which he relied to remember Magdalene as an historical figure. While most of the scholarly sources that depict Magdalene as an Apostle or early leader of Christianity were available to the public when Brown was researching his novel, he says that he drew heavily on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail-an issue that came up later in his 2006 copyright trial. This treatise was written by three independent scholars-Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln-and first published in England in 1982. Whenever Brown’s characters talk about Magdalene, they claim to get their information from the Gnostic gospels discovered in the 1950s; Brown lumps the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls together, providing an incorrect date for these sources. To him, these lost Gospels represent not only the conspiracy to deny the “sacred feminine” in Christianity, but also the impetus to present the “real” historical truth about Jesus.

Brown’s use of historical research as counter-memory informs his rhetorical practices in the novel. The characters appear to be providing credible information based on scholarly sources, even though Brown is making uncritical use of Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s interpretations of the information contained in some of the Gnostic sources. For example, while the canonical Gospels say only that Magdalene was a follower of Jesus, that she was one of the first persons that Jesus appeared to after the Resurrection, and that the Apostles did not believe her when she told them that Christ had risen, the Gospel of Phillip elaborates on the relationship between Jesus and Magdalene. The partial passage in question reads as follows, including the gaps in the recovered manuscript: “And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene […] her more than […] the disciples […] kiss her […] on her […]” (Newman 2005, 151).

While it is understandable that one might fill in the blanks in a way that indicates a sexual relationship, especially if one inserts the word “mouth” at the end of the missing text, there is no proof that such an inclusion is accurate. Furthermore, Leigh Teabing, Brown’s Holy Grail expert in the novel (2003a), points to another passage in the Gospel of Phillip to convince readers that Jesus and Magdalene were husband and wife: “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (246). However, as renowned biblical scholar Ehrman (2006) asserts, the Gospel of Phillip was written in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic. “Companion” is borrowed from the Greek word koinônos, which means “associate” or “companion,” not spouse (215). Therefore, Brown relies upon a less accurate translation of the word “companion” to structure the logic of his entire plot and interpretation of Magdalene. In fact, most scholars agree that the Gospel of Phillip’s passage provides the same information as the canonical Gospels-that Magdalene was a spiritual associate of Jesus (Newman 2005; Schaberg 2003).

In addition to the validity problems of his historical research, Brown relies on gendered tropes in three ways to construct his plot and characters. First, in his quest to empower women whose fates, like Magdalene’s, have been “stripped of their spiritual power” within the patriarchy of organized religion (“Q & A” 2003b), Brown sanctions women’s power by tapping into their “natural” roles of wives and mothers. As numerous feminists like Judith Butler (1990) have argued, when women are linked to nature and biology, whether idealized or not, their agency is often circumscribed to heteronormative domesticity and devalued as part of the binary structures of patriarchy (namely, emotion/reason; woman/ man; body/mind). Second, Brown creates two primary male protagonists, Harvard professor Robert Langdon-an expert on religious symbology and a handsome “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” type (2003a, 9)—and Sir Leigh Teabing, a wealthy Holy Grail expert with a disability. As the protagonists, Langdon and Teabing enact the male-hero narrative, seeking to understand the clues leftbehind by murdered curator Jacques Sauniere and to expose the truth behind Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Third, even though Brown maintains that the book was written, in part, to address the plight of women, there is only one female character, Sophie Neveu, a young police cryptographer and granddaughter of the murder victim. Unlike the other main characters, Sophie is always referred to by her first name, which I replicate in this article. She functions as a secondary character, a sidekick who helps Langdon escape arrest and solve the mystery surrounding her grandfather’s cryptic communication.

Brown disrupts the memory of Magdalene as a prostitute and offers a more expansive version of her role in early Christianity. However, even though Brown speaks of Magdalene twice as an Apostle, he establishes a context in which audiences will remember her uncritically in terms of her sexuality. In fact, he replicates the Church’s focus on her sexuality, making her a wife and mother instead of, or also, a valued intellectual and spiritual disciple and Apostle. Paradoxically, by trying to elevate the status of women within the Church-arguably his intention and part of the reason for the popularity of his work-Brown constructs Magdalene from gendered ideologies that continue to objectify her, circumscribing her agency within the nature of her biology, instead of her intellect.

Ron Howard’s Film Adaptation of the Da Vinci Code

Despite the seemingly radical nature of Brown’s interpretation of Magdalene to many readers, an analysis of his rhetorical practices exposes the gendered nature of his construction of the character. These gendered tropes are further reinforced in Ron Howard’s 2006 adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, especially because most viewers are inclined to critical passivity when watching movies for pleasure. In fact, films like The Da Vinci Code may have a more powerful effect on public memory than other types of movies for three reasons. First, because the film seems like harmless blockbuster entertainment, viewers tend to overlook biases and ideological assumptions and implications. Second, films present special problems for remembering, because they appeal to the emotions in ways that have profound results on both individual and public memory that Robert Burgoyne (1994) explains this way: “Film, in effect, appears to invoke the emotional certitude we associate with memory. Like memory, film is associated with the body; it engages the viewer at the somatic level, immersing the spectator in experiences and impressions that, like memories, seem to be [what Nietzsche calls] ‘burned into'” (1). Finally, because the film uses images that read like “real” memory (for example, historical research), viewers forget that what they are watching is fictional.

In Jesus of Hollywood, Adele Reinhartz (2007) argues that when looking at “biopics”-movies that rely on fictional techniques in order to portray real life people from history-the blending of history, memory, and fiction in these types of films creates a complicated relationship between the viewer and the film: “[The viewer’s] expectations of historicity are actively encouraged by these films themselves … which imply not only that they are telling a story about people who really existed, but also that they are telling a ‘true’ story despite the viewer’s awareness of the fictional nature of filmmaking” (4). Furthermore, while memories about real people are shared in order to convey “facts” about what happened, they are also constructed in order to mean something. This “will to meaning” makes remembering practices vulnerable to ideological forces at the same time that it invites recovery and revision (Frankl, 2006). Therefore, in order to help audiences more critically assess how gendered interpretations are sustained as a cultural norm that conceals power and resists exposure, it is important to locate and name the gendered stereotypes in the film in order to re-member Magdalene.

Regardless of the backlash against the novel by both scholars and religious conservatives, its popularity has continued to soar, including the much anticipated film adaptation, which, as of 2012, has earned more than $758 million worldwide (Box Office Mojo 2012). Sony Pictures paid Dan Brown $6 million to acquire the rights to the book and hired the legendary Brian Grazer as producer. In order to offset some of the novel’s inherent controversy and ensure a hit, Sony hired Howard to direct and Tom Hanks to star, both beloved, mainstream Hollywood power-players. In addition, Howard employed award winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman to adapt the novel. According to The Da Vinci Code Illustrated Screenplay, Goldsman and Howard opted to stay true to the novel, including as much of the text in the film as possible (Goldsman 2006). While the plot revolves around the “truth” about the sacred feminine, men control most of the information and carry out the heroic deeds in the film as they had in the novel. Within the domain of this masculine narrative, Magdalene is constructed in three key ways: by the male characters’ speeches to and about her; by her brief appearance in historical flashback scenes; and by her embodiment in the character of Sophie, Magdalene’s supposed heir.

Magdalene assumes a subordinate presence within the film. As an historical figure, she is talked about throughout the entire movie-her memory serves as the catalyst for all the film’s action. However, she appears in the flesh-rather than as bones under her sarcophagus-only once in the film, making her character seem more like a cameo than an opportunity to examine how she has been misremembered. When Teabing and Langdon discuss the Gnostic gospels of Phillip and Mary, along with the meaning of sangreal (royal blood), Sophie asks how Christ could have a bloodline and then answers her own question: Magdalene was pregnant at the Crucifixion. The film goes into flashback, denoted by a washed out, overly lit palette. In a long shot, Magdalene is shown on the leftside of the screen, holding her swollen belly as soldiers cross the bridge on horseback. The viewer does not see her face within the space of the shot.

The next scene depicts her silhouette, accompanied by other silhouetted figures as Teabing’s voiceover narration indicates that Magdalene fled to France. The scene cuts to a medium shot of a woman standing on blocks; her face, downturned and veiled behind long wavy hair, is barely visible. The camera cuts to a close-up of her feet quivering under her white gown. A quick cut to another close-up on her obscured face shows her agony during childbirth and then cuts to a woman kneeling at Magdalene’s feet who gathers the newborn daughter. The next shot focuses on Magdalene, who hangs her head in exhaustion, her black wavy hair strewn across her face like a mask that hides her features. A final quick shot shows her holding the baby, Teabing’s voiceover declaring: “She gave birth to a daughter, Sarah.” The whole flashback takes less than a minute.

What is most striking about this scene is how Magdalene’s memory, to use Nietzsche’s (1969) term, is “burned into” public memory (1). Although Magdalene is not explicitly depicted as a prostitute (repentant or otherwise) in the mise-en-scène, she nevertheless remains represented as a mere body and as nothing more than a means to an end. Furthermore, this representation does not even depict a specific body, complete with distinguishable facial features or personality traits as imagined by artists throughout the centuries, but rather a pregnant body enduring both the oppressive forces that threaten to kill her and the agonies of childbirth. She is silent throughout the sequence with Teabing’s voiceover narration, her significance located only in her ability to procreate. Although she briefly holds the child, the encounter feels temporary; the shot implies that Magdalene has completed her duty. Like Sophie, who was taken in after her parents’ death, Sarah also seems motherless, sacrificed to some larger cause. While other flashback scenes show Templar Knights kneeling to worship Magdalene’s remains and generations of men waging bloodshed over the secret of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage), no one seems to remember anything about Magdalene’s being other than her ability to produce an heir. Without knowledge of Magdalene as Jesus’s intellectual and spiritual colleague that I discussed earlier, viewers are more likely to remember Howard’s cursory characterization that does little to reinforce in the public memory Magdalene’s collegial role in Christianity.

French actor Audrey Tautou, famous for her starring role in 2001’s Amelie, plays Sophie. While Tautou is certainly a very talented actor who gained critical acclaim for that role, the decision to cast her as Sophie almost guaranteed that the character would not be remembered as a powerful woman, one equal to the male leads. Tautou anticipated the problem of her appearance in the much-coveted part, remarking that while she enjoyed playing strong female characters, her age might taint the portrayal (“Biography” 2010). The majority of critics agreed with her, noting Tautou’s beauty but lamenting her acting in the film. David Ansen (2006), for example, says that “she’s been dumbed-down but not warmed up or fleshed out … she looks ill at ease.” Another critic on the Internet Movie Database said: “She’s given nothing to do except look worried and dismayed” (“External Reviews” 2006). Arguably, many viewers are likely to agree with these critics’ assessments of Tautou’s performance, witnessing her submissive objectification and diminishing by association, once again, Magdalene’s significance as a Christian leader.

Given Sophie’s traditionally gendered narrative function, Tautou’s young age and her position in the shadow of two larger-than-life actors, Sir Ian McKellan and Tom Hanks, it is no surprise that Magdalene’s agency is obscured in the film. For example, Langdon and Teabing display their mastery of historical knowledge and ability to analyze and theorize scholarly material, as well as rigorously debate contesting hypotheses. Because these “lectures” consume so much time within the narrative and are delivered by the male protagonists, it is easy to overlook Sophie’s contributions. In fact, one of her main functions in the narrative structure is to throw Langdon and Teabing softball questions like “I’ve never heard of that” or “I don’t understand” or “Why did this happen?” so that the “experts” can go into long-winded lectures that display their vast knowledge and require her to listen silently.

While Brown and Howard create an intelligent and capable female character in some regards, especially in the first half of the story, Sophie’s agency is often absorbed by the narrative of the male hero. For example, after escaping with the keystone in hand, Sophie lectures Langdon on the history of the device and shows him how to manipulate the letters. When she quickly calculates that there are 12 million possibilities to the secret code-obviously doing the math in her head-Langdon says, “I’ve never met a girl who knows that much about cryptics.” Although Langdon is obviously impressed and this scene is designed to depict Sophie’s intellectual status, it also diminishes her expertise. First, the humor of his response is steeped in the assumption that women are not as smart as men about such matters. Second, he uses the word “girl” instead of woman or police officer. Third, his statement ignores the fact that at the beginning of the movie she was introduced to him as a cryptologist. Because of this intellectual negation, viewers, like the critics, will tend to remember Sophie (Magdalene) as the female helpmate rather than Langdon’s intellectual equal.

Despite Langdon’s sexist remark and role as hero, it is important to note that it is Langdon who admits that he is “out of his field”; he seeks out Teabing, the expert on the Holy Grail. However, it is Sophie who experiences the subjugation once Teabing enters the narrative. When Langdon introduces Sophie to his expert colleague, Teabing kisses her hand. She smiles for the first time in the movie, almost coquettishly, before being placed in the background of the shot once the men start talking. As Teabing recounts the sacred feminine, he constantly refers to Sophie with a patronizing “my dear” and engages in debate only with Langdon. Given Sophie’s important role in the first half of the film, the shiftin her character after Teabing appears is dramatic. While Sophie continues to insert important questions and responses that complicate and further the film’s arguments, the men ignore her contributions. As the two experts argue about the historical facts versus interpretations regarding Constantine’s religion and his role in making Jesus divine, Sophie attempts to point out the absurdity of such dichotomies: “Who is God, who is Man?” Teabing quickly reduces Sophie’s acute insight to an unnecessary interruption. In the end, despite Brown’s and Howard’s visions of presenting a controversial and radical representation of Magdalene, they reinforce what Gayle Rubin (1975) calls a “straight-jacket of gender”-a woman trapped in the same one-dimensionality of being where her worth stems only from her biology (157).


Mary Magdalene is part of a living discourse of public memory that circulates in various contexts, subject to shifts and changes. As an historical figure in public memory, Magdalene illuminates the need to interrogate the rhetorical practices and interpretive frameworks that determine what we think of as knowledge, and how that knowledge is remembered. The profound phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s role in remembering Magdalene differently point to the importance of a feminist project that critically assesses the effects of this remembrance, traces the interpretative origins, and locates what might remain undetected in our peripheral vision. Furthermore, interrogating sites of public memory, especially popular culture, offers opportunities to examine the origins of particular beliefs and the impacts of these assumptions on the agency of women.

As the film closes, with Sophie’s realization that there is no empirical way to prove that she is the Messianic descendant and a final shot of Magdalene’s tomb buried in a secret chamber underneath the Inverted Pyramid, the viewer is left with more questions than answers. Within these questions-the mysteries of what seems foreign or fictive, outside of our own experience, or unknowable-we are prompted to interrogate our beliefs, culling through the annals of memory to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct what it is that we need to remember differently. Such an enterprise provides dimensionality to how we understand the past and future, as well as the narratives we create to share our knowledge.