Last year around this time I wrote a post about enlightened sexism, framed by my viewing of the sci-fi-driven costume drama Outlander and the more straight-up bodice-ripping Poldark. (Both showed their first seasons last year; Outlander season 2 is now available, and Poldark season 2 began Sunday night on BBC.) In that post I talked about how easily I was seduced by the pleasures of both shows (hot guys! amazing views!), but also about how both, in their plot lines and also their female characters, slid an awful lot of patriarchy-as-usual into the mix. Too much, for me. The pleasure I took in their superficial attractions, I suggested, papered over this problem, and led me to become frustrated with myself – and with their writers and producers – by seasons’ ends.
I took some flak for that post from friends I admire – notably my colleague Bridget Escolme, a costume historian and lover of the costume drama genre’s complexity, and feminist film heavyweight Mayer. Both reminded me, helpfully, that historical costume drama is a genre like any other, and that means it is neither good nor bad, sexist nor feminist. Rather, it holds all kinds of potential – for politics across the spectrum; for pleasure and delight and disgust. As with any genre, it’s all about how it gets used in practice: the stories individual dramas choose to tell and the means they use to tell them.
This year, then, I’ve decided to write in celebration of three historical costume dramas currently surging among Anglophone viewers (and beyond, I expect): Outlander (yup, season 2 gets it another chance); Orange is the New Black (contemporary costume drama is still “historical” – it’s a history of the now); and Strange Empire (which has been cancelled by the CBC but given new life on Netflix).
All have strong feminist chops, and together they reveal how much historical fiction can offer feminist spectators, teachers, and students.
Mayer opens her terrific chapter on costume drama in Political Animals with commentary on Belle, the 2013 film directed by Amma Asante about a free black gentlewoman in 18th century England. She reads Asante’s use of costume drama for-and-against itself, “simultaneously drawing the viewer in and critiquing the ‘chocolate box’ style of the genre and its literary sources by revealing the bitter ingredients on which they depend” (this quotation comes from Mayer’s review of the film for the BFI, available here). In other words: while Asante’s camera revels in the styling of the period and the love affairs always central to such dramas, she finds key ways, Mayer argues, to “[intertwine] love and justice, private and public, personal and political,” allowing the film to comment on the ways in which women’s dependence on men, and black people’s dependence on white (racism), shapes but does not fully limit the lives of the characters nor the framework of the film itself.
Historical dramas always face one key problem for non-cis-male viewers: our shared human history is largely a history of patriarchy, and there’s just no getting around that. What can we do within those constraints, though? The smartest costume dramas, like Belle, charge the genre to face its limits and prejudices, and to highlight, in their complexity, the compelling stories of characters usually cast as no more than romantic interests or plot devices.
There are lots of ways to play both with and against costume drama and its patriarchal histories; herewith, three strategies I’ve noted this summer while watching Outlander season 2, Strange Empire (only one season was made, sadly), and the latest from the blockbuster OITNB.
1. Fuck the Bechdel test.
It’s patriarchy, boys and girls; that means lots of times women talk together about men, and it ain’t got nothing to do with romance. A much better measure is this: how large is the group of women talking together? In what depth are they talking about the issues – related to men or not – at hand? Are they given opportunities to support and strengthen one another, as well as to challenge and rival one another? (IE: to be humans together?) Basically: are more than two women allowed to speak together at a time, and are they allowed the full run of human intelligence when they do?
Strange Empire, hands down my favourite of the three shows I’m addressing here, is a feminist Western created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and set in the middle 19th century on the Alberta-Montana border. The premise is deceptively simple: a wagon train is attacked by the men of one John Slotter, who owns a nearby mine; only the women are left alive, and they form the fulcrum of the new town that emerges around the mine’s labour. They also, ultimately, author its demise, when they go after Slotter in revenge for the killing of their husbands. As you’d expect from a program driven by the survival of women alone, there are lots of rich roles for the girls here, in no way limited to Cara Gee as Kat Loving, mother to three adopted children and the town’s Sheriff; Melissa Farman as Rebecca Blithely, an autistic doctor with a penchant for gore; and Tawtianna Jones as Slotter’s wife Isabelle, a Hapa woman with twice Slotter’s business savvy and no love for the other women in the town.
Despite the fact that Strange Empire pivots on Slotter, his mine, and his machinations, it is only superficially about these things – it recognises that a patriarch is necessarily somewhere near the centre of any story about survival on the 19th century American prairie, but then turns that recognition inside out by framing Slotter’s actions through the perspectives and experiences of the women who must constantly negotiate around him in order to thrive. The endgame of the series is a group of women building a community, in solidarity but also constantly in tension with one another, as they try to organise around their differences and channel their shared experiences into political energy. This is Bechdel 2.0: they might always be talking about Slotter, but Slotter is almost never the real point of their conversation.
The same thing happens with Orange is the New Black: like Strange Empire, the entire premise of the show is built on a group of very different women, many openly enemies, stuck together in one physical space that they need to turn into some kind of functioning community. Each episode turns on a series of negotiations among the women, choices made and consequences absorbed. Bad shit happens. Great stuff happens. Women love each other – openly, in what is arguably the most queer-positive space on English television right now – and women hate each other’s guts. Women have complex relationships with each other, unpredictable relationships. Alliances form and dissolve. Guards are outwitted. Men are the major jail keepers here, so, again, lots of talk revolves around them – but, again, it’s not usually talk about them. It’s talk about living and working and managing in a physical and social context in which the men exist in positions of power and therefore must be accounted for and dealt with. When it is about men as objects of sex or love, it’s complicated: by pregnancy (Daya), by rape (Pennsatucky), by feelings that exceed romance by a very long way indeed.
(Here, incidentally, is one point on which I find Outlander wanting. Claire Fraser is a remarkable woman, but her female companions are predictable and her scope for smart female conversation very limited. I’m hoping for a change in season three.)
2. Enjoy the soft-core.
Can a costume drama be sexy and still be feminist? OF COURSE. Feminists do not hate sex, and they do not hate men. They often want to have sex with men! They just as often want to have sex with women! Many feminists, also, are not gender-norm identified, and those people want to have sex with men, women, and other non-cis people! Get over it already.
My favourite recent thread on Orange is the New Black sees Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) author a sci-fi style porn serial with some of the most hilariously extreme characters imaginable (one based, notoriously, on a not-especially sexy male guard). The other inmates go mad for it, hounding her for fresh work; Suzanne discovers what it’s like to be an artist in demand and nearly packs it all in. Then copycat fan fic starts appearing! Although this plot line is primarily funny rather than sexy, it reminded me how openly the show revels in queer, as well as some straight, sex, and how instructive it can be to see love and sex outside your own desire matrix represented on screen. I am a heterosexual woman, and I’m not turned on by watching Alex and Piper or Washington and Soso embrace, but I always appreciate those scenes very much. OITNB reminds hetero viewers over and over what it’s like to see not your preferred kind of sex on screen; this is the reality non-hetero viewers live with constantly, and it’s exactly the reason we need much more work just like this getting made.
Outlander is much more straight(-laced) soft-core, with a pregnant Claire getting bigger and her breasts underneath her night shifts growing more and more visible throughout season 2. If you’re on Team Jamie, and/or you’re into Claire, then god knows there are plenty of terrific sex scenes for you to enjoy. But the real visual joy of Outlander‘s second season is the wardrobe styling, with Claire and Jamie sporting some extremely impressive 18th century French fashions while they try to game Bonnie Prince Charlie out of the war he’s about to lose. My favourite thing about this season is watching Caitriona Balfe parade around in dresses designed to show off her boobs and downplay her pregnancy, seemingly styled as no more than eye-candy, while she and Jamie work out a variety of strategies to trick the prince and beat the clock on the Highland Rebellion. Defying the costume drama stereotype – nice to look at! Wish they’d give her more to do… – Balfe gets to wear her cake and eat it, too.
And Strange Empire? It revels in the gruesome that is hardscrabble township life on the American frontier. Kat has some great hetero-sex. Rebecca doesn’t quite let herself have some great queer sex with the cross-dressed Morgan – but mostly because she’d prefer to caress the literal hearts of the cadavers she cuts open, to study the inner workings of the human body. Isabelle has all kinds of sex – including the kind she wants, with the Chinese immigrant Ling who helps her undermine John, and the kind she doesn’t, in which John fucks her on his terms while the camera shows us her ennui, her understanding that she must tolerate this, too, in order to progress her own agenda. Soft-core with a strongly critical eye, an eye always trained on the challenges of the female-centric world the series is crafting. Best kind.
3. Embrace the improbable.
The Greek philosopher and theorist of theatre Aristotle famously said that drama should prefer the “probable impossibility” over the “improbable possibility”. What does this mean? Roughly translated: if the choice is between 1) a town beset by a plague because of the hubris of a man and the workings of the gods – however weird it might be to have a god drop down from above to create or cure a plague! – and 2) women or slaves as main characters with complex backstories… well, he’ll take the god-given plague any day. Women and slaves shouldn’t be so overtly encouraged.
Obviously, that was then and this is now, and I do not blame Aristotle (384-322BC) for not being a feminist. But his wisdom is best, for me, when reversed: odds are, if we embrace what our culture deems improbable, cool stuff will happen and our imaginations will open wider. All three of these shows are driven by improbability in the first instance: girls come to the front! But they also revel in historical weirdness, to wondrous effect. They begin from the very premise most costume dramas like to cover up: the fact that they aren’t actually all that historically accurate. The fact that they are, mostly, sensationalised.
On Strange Empire, the murder that sets the plot in motion creates a haunted atmosphere in the town that is augmented by a handful of ghostly appearances as well as a general sense of dis-ease. The dialogue takes this further: it includes a mix of “spaghetti Western”, “literary-speak”, and something akin to modern that makes every interaction just a bit stilted, and leaves viewers constantly aware that they are viewing a historical fiction, a dream of a world in which women are given the freedom to shape their universe (and what complex freedom it is, too).
Outlander begins and ends with Claire traveling through a standing stone circle to another moment in historical time; while she’s never free in her 18th century body to be the modern woman she was, that woman is always within. And more: she is constantly visible and audible to us in Claire’s voice-over narratives, chafing against the “realism” of the show’s 18th century stylings and reminding viewers that the Claire from 1743 is as much structured by her social and historical circumstances as is the Claire from the mid-twentieth century. (And that both are, for better or worse, inventions.)
Orange is the New Black, meanwhile, turns the most improbable trick of all. It maintains that a show set in a prison full of women is the most interesting thing you’ll ever see, because the vast diversity of experiences, knowledge, and ambition shaping and sustaining these women offers more than enough fodder for multiple seasons of gripping television. I wonder what Aristotle would have thought about that!
Is it a coincidence that these three great programs are made by women? I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one I remain most uncertain about – Outlander – is the one written by a woman (Diana Gabaldon) but developed for TV by a man (Ronald D. Moore), and produced by a major Hollywood heavyweight (Sony). OITNB is the brainchild of the wickedly smart Jenji Kohan in partnership with what was, at the show’s inception, the upstart Netflix, and Strange Empire was created by Finstad-Knizhnik and produced by the CBC, a public broadcaster working with public money and a mandate to tell Canadian stories.
The lesson here? We don’t need to trust our stories to the mainstream, ladies. There are a lot of people willing to take risks on so-called improbable content – we need to look for them, and we need to trust ourselves to write that work, direct it, and produce it too.
There are, I know, a thousand different ways to make amazing feminist period drama; above are only three, and they are of course subjective. I’d love to hear from y’all about your favourites – strategies as well as series – and as always your feedback on the stuff above is very welcome indeed.
Happy beginning of the new school year!