Period Pieces Promoting Diversity

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

With beautiful backdrops, fantastic costumes, romantic storylines, and intrigue, the period drama has captivated readers and watchers all over the world. I mean who can resist a tale where debaucherous villains threaten to overthrow the current regime or the unraveling of a plot against the hero and heroine that keep them from professing their love? Throw in a moderately accurate historical timeline, some notable names, and lots of gossip and sex, and a genre is born. Period dramas have been around for years with several classics like “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility” and even “Downton Abbey” having multiple iterations in cling to. These telling and re-retellings throughout cinema, theater and television have historically featured all-white casts to represent the main characters and supporting players. The justification for this “whitewashing” has always been “historical accuracy”. But the modern interpretations of the same period, like “Hamilton”, “Bridgerton” or “The Great”, have shown us that historical accuracy isn’t necessary for the culture to embrace the story. In fact, in many cases, the modern period drama is sparking renewed interest in this historical period and bringing these quasi-accurate stories to a much broader audience. Is the diversity of the modern period drama changing the way we embrace and view this history?

In examining this question, we need to look first at why we love this genre. “Period dramas tend to focus on the aesthetics of the past rather than on its real hardships (although some of those are thrown in to keep the story moving.),” (Eschner, 2016). We as a society tend to gravitate toward the beautiful. From a hoop skirt, corset, or tuxedo to a gorgeous castle or plantation on a sweeping, unfettered landscape, the aesthetic beauty of the non-industrialized world provides an inviting escape to the reader or watcher. This is a world that the modern engager has never known, never experienced. I mean when was the last time you saw miles and miles of private untouched lands where the spoils of modern civilization have not had an effect? How many of us have been put in the situation where how we dress at what time of day was an actual commentary on our social standing and situation. The majority of the period dramas we so embrace revolve around this type of outward display of beauty, social standing, and success.

However, our devotion to the period drama goes beyond just the aesthetics. According to UKTV, we can actually break down our devotion to the period drama into 7 core components: “The immortal characters, the revelations of lost times, the nostalgia factor, the love stories, the intricate intrigues, the sheer epic sweep and of course, the clothes,” (UKTV, 2016). Our fascination encompasses not only the clothes and landscape but also the stories themselves. These period pieces expose us to things we may not have known about before regarding the Victorian era, the Colonial times, or the Civil War era. It is an easy education about the time period wrapped up in a love story or story of intrigue that ignites enough interest to keep us engaged enough to swallow the history lesson with our romance or war story.

What has been problematic about the period dramas prior to even the year 2010 is the fact that the majority of these cinematic contributions have had largely white casts. Although there was some minority representation, they were usually presented as “the help” or as another side character like Hattie Daniels’ “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. Hanna Flint from the BBC believes part of the problem lies with the stories chosen to produce. “One of the major limitations… has traditionally been the industry’s obsession “with constantly doing Dickens, Shakespeare, and Austen”, …productions based on how they were originally conceived by the author will only ever have other ethnicities in minor roles… or in no roles whatsoever,” (Flint, 2020).

If the industry’s intent was to strive for historical authenticity or to represent the time period as it had been or thought to have been has culminated in this “whitewashing” of this time period as it is represented in movies and tv. Much has been explored and written about in regards to this phenomenon and one needs to look no further than the basic tenets and definition of the genre to find support for this mindset. “All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage the audience with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction,” (Twinkle.com). This struggle, not to distort the truth, has largely contributed to what we continue to see and how we see it.

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

What carried this lack of diversity even further was the seeming lack of interest or responsibility from the producers of this genre to change the cultural landscape. Although more and more diverse representation was showing up across all other genres of TV and in films, it appeared that the period drama was still an untouchable bastion of cultural change, immune from equal representation or diversity. In a Parrot Analytics study, they assert, “For a long time, period dramas weren’t expected to discuss issues of race or proactively participate in diverse casting. ITV’s Downton Abbey started airing in 2010 when most mainstream shows already included minimal diversity in the cast. Although beloved, the classic period show received criticism for its lack of racial diversity. At the time, a producer of the show justified the lack of diversity by arguing that the U.K wasn’t multi-cultural at that period, therefore having diverse characters wouldn’t be realistic,” (Parrot Analytics, 2021).

As our culture has continued to shift and embrace diversity so has the call for these predominantly white representations to shift and embrace diversity. Once thought of as impossible to be done has now so has now exploded onto the airwaves, theaters, and cinema. The first notable example is the stage play “Hamilton”, Lin-Manual Miranda’s groundbreaking exploration of the life of Alexander Hamilton and our Founding Fathers with an almost completely diverse cast. He not only made history palpable by using Rap music to weave his tale, but he also cast people of varying diversity to represent our white founding fathers; A black Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom Jr., Chinese-American Philippa Soo to play Eliza Hamilton, and of course, Lin-Manual Miranda himself of Puerto Rican descent to play Alexander Hamilton. He also let the cast visually represent themselves with their natural or textured hair, braids. Miranda threw out the tenant that you must look like the written character and people loved it! Hamilton is one of the top-grossing Broadway shows of all time. People have bought the soundtrack, seen the movie, gone to the play, and embraced it all.

But how did he do it? In her piece “From Bridgerton to Hamilton: A History of Color-Conscious Casting in the period drama”, Amanda Rae Prescott explores the evolving and increasing representation of minorities in period dramas. She detailed the traditional casting paths of blind casting and using “own voices” to tell their own stories to inclusive casting which evolved from Shakespearean gender prohibitive roles and led to the acceptance of actors not matching the written description. This norm of inclusive casting was the catalyst to the groundbreaking and iconically diverse productions of such shows as Hamilton and the Bridgerton miniseries on Netflix and their impact on the artistic landscape. She states “White critics may dismiss this trend as unnecessary “pandering” to Black and POC viewers, but the number of productions designed around reforming all white-casting has increased over the past 10 years — and has only added to the success of the genre,” (Prescott, 2020).

Bridgerton” has taken up where “Hamilton” left off and in its own right become one of the most notable examples of the diversity movement in period drama series tv and one of Netflix’s top-grossing series of all time. This series gave us all we loved from a period drama — beauty, intrigue, and romance all while breaking all sorts of cultural norms by its incredibly diverse cast. Rege-Jean Page, as the Duke of Hastings, Queen Charlotte portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, and Ruby Barker played by Marina Thompson, all people of color were among the leads of this multinational cast yet their race is not an integral part of their characters or the plot.

The romantic heroes were white Daphne Bridgerton and black Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings. The intricacies of navigating an interracial relationship were largely ignored and the focus was on the love story, race didn’t play into it. For one of the first times represented in this type of period drama the romantic lead of color was portrayed as sexy, desirable, and showed physical affection on the screen. This was new and notable for the genre Prescott claims “Simon having visibly African features and yet being an object of desire is incredibly subversive in a genre where white beauty standards dominate hetero and homosexual fiction”. And again, people loved it! The topic of diversity was of course included in the discussions about Bridgerton but not the main focus — it was the clothes, the sex, the intrigue, and of course, the love story.

Photo by Shayna Douglas on Unsplash

Both Hamilton and Bridgerton had diverse writers or producers (Lin-Manual Miranda, Shonda Rhimes) that helped propel this diversity but even typically white created and produced shows such as Hulu’s “The Great” have picked up the gauntlet and committed to change. This irreverent series created by Tony McNamara is based on the story of Catherine the Great of Russia. This type of story had previously lent itself to subscribe to the historical accuracy route and assemble an all-white cast. Although they did choose to cast white leads, Sebastian de Souza as Catherine’s lover Leo Veronsky, Sasha Dhawan as Orlo one of her most trusted advisers, and Danusia Samal’s Lady Antonia Svenskia as a scheming courtesan are all predominantly featured in the cast and are people of color. Again, showing that diversity in casting can be done and it can be done successfully.

But why is this diversity important and how does it shape our view and interest in history? At the base level, these types of shows “normalize” diversity. They have helped quell race singularity by creating opportunities and making diverse representation more mainstream than an oddity. It has “helped chip away at it by conditioning viewers to challenge racist stereotypes and instead focus on individuals whose very human stories are universally relatable. [It] is a valuable exercise in suspending judgment about a person and their lived experience at first glance, and the more we can train our minds to do this, the closer our society will be to being truly anti-racist,” (Connor, 2021).

The ability to suspend disbelief and judgment and no longer see color as the primary aspect of a character brings the period drama into the current reflection of our culture, into a new way of viewing and embracing our history. It addresses the “whitewashing” of our past by asserting maybe we had it wrong. Maybe this wasn’t how it was in historical times, and what does the color of someone’s skin in these roles really matter. In her article “Is it time the all-white period drama was made extinct”, Kaycee Go goes as far as to state “All-white casts are also a form of erasure. There is archaeological and textual evidence that people of color lived in England as far back as the Tudor era, and the belief that black, brown, and Asian people did not exist in historical England is simply false. Even if it were historically inaccurate, a period drama made in the 2020s should reflect society as it currently is,” (Go, 2020).

This reflection is crucial to engaging more people in embracing and learning about history. Seeing diversity in these stories, someone that looks like you, on the stage and screen has increased interest and sparked inquiry about history in a way that hasn’t been available before. But this renewed interest in period productions has not only piqued the curiosity of the minority population but also the world’s general population. These works “often give people insights into worlds that are unfamiliar and vastly different from their own,” (Horton, 1999). The modernity of these new period pieces not only from the inclusion of diversity to the cast but from the infusion of cultural music, comedy, and sex has made these productions must-see events.

Gone is the mindset that we need to remain “historically accurate” in the telling of these stories. The success of Hamilton, Bridgerton, and The Great have shown modern artists that there is the opportunity and greater chances for success by opening up this genre to the culturally diverse masses. That “the popularity of the new flow of period series proves that historical accuracy isn’t the most important element. Audiences are interested in imaginative retellings of the past…Expanding the horizon of which stories can and should be told is the key to success,” (Parrot Analytics, 2021).

This generation is looking at history from a different lens. We look at these period pieces as our “historical documents”. We google “was Aaron Burr black”, or “is the Duke of Hastings a real guy” because we are learning about history from these productions. So, is the diversity of the modern period drama changing the way we embrace and view this history? Uncategorically, yes! With the inclusive casts opening up this genre to a much broader audience and the streaming services, YouTube, and Google providing us resources to view these artifacts, our exposure to history and historical re-tellings are more easily attainable and more relatable than ever before. Our ability to suspend disbelief and remove color from character in these diverse casts as well as embrace the modernity and re-imagined stories being told in these period dramas have made a cultural shift in the industry. This change in storytelling and increased representation have kept us not only engaged but more importantly curious about history. The color of the skin of these historical figures no longer seems significant, it is the story they have to tell.

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