*** I tried “Feminism and period drama”, “A feminist critique of period dramas”… the title will always be problematic. The genre has a shit name. It’s not my fault.
So, can you be a feminist and like period dramas?
Sure, but it’s complicated. It’s a bit like saying ‘Can you be critically engaged with the world and watch Today Tonight?”
I guess you can. But it’s awfully lazy.
I’ve been having an internal debate over the last few weeks about whether there is an inherent contradiction between feminism and period dramas.
I identify (strongly) as a feminist.
I also really, really like period dramas. I like Downtown Abbey, I like Jane Eyre, I like Pride and Prejudice…
…. And I like them for all the right reasons. They have strong female heroines who are plucky and smart and independent thinkers despite the overwhelming patriarchy that tries to control their autonomy, their waist size, their movements, their money, their education, their ability to speak and be heard and their reproductive decisions. The ultimate feminist underdog struggling with the shackles of the patriarchy.
I, my friends, was played.
I knew that the period dramas I watch were trash. Soap operas couched in bonnets and corsets, are none the less soap operas. However, I did think that there was at least something better about the sort of period dramas that I enjoy viewing – in contrast to those with simple, simpering ladies whose entire story arc revolves around getting the gentleman of their dreams.
Since I’ve been up north, I have been watching Downtown Abbey of a night time and unsurprisingly I think to all of you who know me, Sybil captured my heart hook, line and sinker.
I love Sybil. Sybil is your ultimate womens libber – fighting for the right to vote, sneaking out to go to socialist protests, having affairs that challenge class distinctions and (at least partially) rejecting her background of wealth for work and love.
And then she dies. In labour!
(I mean obviously a lot of women did die during childbirth in the 1920s (and still do now, though not women of Sybil’s wealth very often)) but what I learnt last night whilst sipping lemon and ginger tea and willing the beast inside my chest to be killed by the shittonne of sudafed I poured down my throat, was that this is a thing!
Killing strong, female protagonists off to further develop male characters is a thing with a name – “Women in Refrigerators” trope. And it happens all the time.
It’s so validating when some else has studied, documented and named a phenomenon that you’ve noticed but have no idea of its prevalence. You can watch a video that explains the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope on my new favourite youtube channel ‘Feminist Frequency’.
In Sybil’s case – killing her off was a plot device to advance her husband and her father’s characters. Her death created new opportunities for her bereaved husband who had to come to terms with the loss of his wife and the birth of their child and her father who must learn to cope with his guilt over his daughter’s death and rebuild his family.
Gross. But that’s not all.
I’ve been trying to work out exactly what is it that I love about period dramas – about the simple yet dramatic plotlines, about the yearning and the difficult love affairs, about the criss cross between the lives of the gentry and that of the servants…
And that’s when I realised that I am a lazy, lazy viewer and that I actually find period dramas incredibly problematic.
So why do I like period dramas, and why is it such a big deal?
The bonnets (I’m obsessed with the bonnets), the tulle, the big skirts and tiny waists, the massive manors and servants… it seems so foreign and so archaic from modern day life.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism in and of itself. But there is something wrong with escapism that turns the past into something that it was not, and uses that constructed past to create the illusion that our modern day society has come so far.
2. FETISHISING THE PAST
We love making the past into something it was not. We love constructing nostalgic images of pioneers and struggles in sepia tones. Australians are incredibly good at it – we do it with our convict settlors, with our pioneering explorers and with our rogue ‘larrikins’ like Ned Kelly. In fact we’ve constructed a whole version of history that conveniently pretends we didn’t massacre our First People, spread disease and steal their land.
That’s what period dramas do. They fetishise the past.
Take Downtown Abbey. There’s a clear divide between upstairs and downstairs. The Crawleys have everything, and the servants live simply but with dignity.
Servitude doesn’t actually seem that bad.
Characters both upstairs and downstairs are well developed and we follow the story line of Bates when he is wrongfully arrested just as attentively as we ponder whether or not Mary will ever find the partner she is looking for.
And maybe there were some households where servants always got enough to eat, days off, sufficient pay and whose well being was genuinely cared about by their employers. I’m sure there were. But, I’m also sure the class conflict of the era was rather more complicated than the benevolent caricature of Downtown Abbey allows and a life of servitude was a lot more shit than is presented in Downtown Abbey.
3. WRONGLY REASSURING US ABOUT THE PRESENT
The problem of course with all this, is that it constructs a contrast between the nostalgic past of Downtown Abbey and the present – a contrast that creates the illusion that class, poverty and servitude are no longer issues in the modern, Western world.
Because most of us do not live in manors with butlers and footmen and housemaids and cooks; Downtown Abbey gives us respite in the knowledge that we have progressed. By presenting issues of class and sex as the costumed issues of yesteryear; period dramas (and in fact many forms of media and communication that romanticize the past) create the illusion that humans have accelerated down a linear trajectory of progress, leaving those issues behind.
It allows us to pretend that the modern day, ever-prevalent insidious issues of class are simply not there. In Australia, that means that the flagrant socio-economic disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, many migrant groups, the pay gap between salaries earned by men and women and the wealth divide between many rural communities and their urban counterparts… all these issues of equity simply do not exist because we have progressed beyond the olden time concerns of class and poverty and gender inequality (and after all, there are no footmen or maids and women can vote and hold down normal jobs now.. right!?)
So that’s that. Period dramas reinforce privileged positions.
And that’s OK. I don’t think it means that I should stab myself with a fork every time I feel like veging out and watching Downtown Abbey. And there’s no way I’m giving up Dr Who (EVEN THOUGH I REALISED IT EMPLOYS THE SMURFETTE PRINCPLE. Worst.)
But it’s important, at least, to understand why we like things if we endeavor to be critically engaged with the world around us.