On costume dramas, redux: girls to the front*

(*A reference to Sophie Mayer’s terrific new book, Political Animals. Get it here. Read my review of it here.)

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.


Farman, Gee, and Jones in Strange Empire.

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.


Taryn Manning as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, in one of my favourite promo images for OITNB.

(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.


Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley as Soso and Washington on OITNB.

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.

Outlander Season 2 2016

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser. Genuinely killer outfit. (Shame about the prerequisite male gaze.)

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).

Strange Empire, Ep. 107, Day 1 of 7 - August 15, 2014, Langley, BC

Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman, right) gives in to her one true passion. With Joanne Boland as Morgan Finn (centre), and Marci T. House as Ruby Slotter (left).

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!




On being seduced – by enlightened sexism

I am an out and proud feminist. To me, this simply means that I believe in equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment for all human beings, including those who identify as men, as women, and as other (yes, those people do exist, and more power to them). Simple, right? Most feminists would like to think so. But it’s far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, consistently and without contradiction, in a world that’s determined to cater to women as consumers yet remains terrified of their (buying) power all the same. As Roxane Gay reminded us last year, being a Bad Feminist is relatively common. But it is still far better than being no feminist at all.

Which brings me to the book I just finished reading, the TV series I just finished watching, and the alarm I felt as they collided one day a couple of weeks ago.

Like many theatre geeks I love a good costume drama. Lucky for me there are rather a lot to choose from right now. Costume dramas are A Thing these days – it must be all the bad economic news (no, really) – and I don’t just mean Downton AbbeyOver the summer I became obsessed with Poldark, the BBC remake of its own 1975 series based on the novels by Winston Graham. The 2015 series is slick and gorgeous, and stars the impossibly smouldering Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark alongside the glowing, crimson-haired Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Poldark’s maid turned primary love interest.


The plot is pure Harlequin Romance meets Capitalism 1.0: Ross spends his time alternately fighting to save his copper mine from the evil banking family up the road and fawning over Demelza so obsessively that it’s hard to work out if he’s Henry Higgins or some kind of Dexter Morgan. But the series leaves us in no doubt that his love for her is true, and thus, despite the creepiness of Poldark sleeping with his teenage maid and then “making it right” by marrying her, they become an entirely likeable pair of old married lovers somewhere around the third episode.

Yes, it’s a bit obvious and a touch tawdry. Yes, the plot jumps and jives – Demelza is a farm girl with a dog for a BFF one minute, a bride the next, and then whoops! she’s pregnant/gives birth/the baby dies. But Demelza is also framed as strong-willed and big-hearted, a firm believer in her own convictions. She defies Ross to help his cousin to marriage with a man the family deems beneath her; she insists on caring for ill relations despite the risk to her own body. She works as hard as anyone. Having never learned the elite’s rules around women’s silence, she says what she thinks and what she feels. Never mind that she’s plainly making choices in line with gendered expectations – matchmaking, nursing, devoting herself to her husband against the odds. It was the 18th century – options for women were limited. It’s costume drama, so we can’t expect 20th century feminism to be on the table. Right?

Fast forward to August, and having drunk the hell out of Poldark I turned my attention to Outlanderbased on the historical sci-fi novels by Diana Gabaldon. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a WWII combat nurse on holiday with her doctor-husband in 1945; they are celebrating the end of the war and the return of married life with a jaunt in the highlands. Curious about the standing stone monument they encounter at Craigh na Dun, Claire returns to it later and alone, only to be transported magically to the very same spot – but in 1743. The first several episodes are a rich historical puzzle as we, along with Claire, try to reason out where she is and how she might get back home again; she is constantly on guard as she adopts the script and manner of an 18th century British lady and tries desperately to fit into the role long enough to save herself. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Claire is falling for the young highland warrior James Fraser (Sam Heughan, another buff smoulderer), and it’s just lucky that, to prevent her from being taken into custody by British redcoat fighters, the MacKenzie clansmen with whom she is traveling need to marry her to a Scot. To the series’ credit Claire is presented as appalled with this forced-marriage option, drinking heavily to try to avoid an inevitability she finally can’t outwit. But once the rings go on and the clothes come off, well, things start getting predictable.

If Poldark is a fun, sexy, largely unthreatening series about a pair of gorgeous people galloping bareback through the stunning Cornish countryside, Outlander is a smart show about a smart woman in a truly compelling fantasy-grade fictional world. Claire survives by her cunning, her generosity of spirit, AND her encyclopaedic medical knowledge. She earns her captors’ trust with her professional nursing skills. She drinks more wine than Tammy Taylor and still has room for whiskey. She stands up to badass guys in kilts and insists on her human rights despite the fact that she is both out of her century and often enough out of her depth. She’s a pro.

Outlander 2014

(Caitriona Balfe as Claire Bishop, kicking ass…)

And yet, just as I’d been convinced of Claire’s feminist cred, Outlander slowly started letting me down. What’s worse – I barely noticed. I barely noticed when Claire made it, against the odds, back to the stones at Craigh na Dun and hesitated just long enough to be captured by the British army, skirts flailing as she was dragged away. I barely noticed when, returned to the stones by Jamie (who rescues her from the British, natch) and offered another chance to go home to the 20th century, Claire chose to give up her life, and her career, for her new man. I barely noticed when, in the (on their own terms fascinating) final two episodes, the series turned our attention squarely to Jamie’s experience of rape and torture in prison and relegated Claire to the job of bringing him back to (heterosexual) life.


(…and again, giving in to the heterosexual imperative)

But when, in the final moments of the final episode of series 1, on a boat bound for France and fresh adventures in series 2, Claire turned to Jamie to announce she was pregnant (against the medical odds, no less!), I saw it coming. And I was shocked – because it had taken so long for me to wise up to the fact that I’d been had. What the hell was going on?


While I was busy binge-watching Turner, Tomlinson, Balfe and Heughan, one of my bedtime reads was Susan J. Douglas’s The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us From Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (2010). It’s a bracing book from a popular feminist cultural critic, and its subject is the music, TV, internet memes and other pop culture phenomena that purport to represent (and treat) women equally and yet, curiously, manage to reproduce a familiar series of timeworn myths and tropes about who women are (and who they ought not to be). From Survivor to America’s Next Top ModelSex and the City to The Closer, Beyoncé to Martha Stewart and beyond, Douglas does an admirable job of demonstrating the ways in which representations of women in today’s mainstream manage to pass off “empowering” images of feminine strength and resilience as somehow feminist enough, while also reinforcing long-held (and completely ridiculous) beliefs about us ladies: that powerful ones are just plain bitches, that we mostly hate each other and will claw each other to death for A Man, that we really *do* prefer shopping and child rearing, and that we thus probably aren’t cut out for that top gig anyway.

For Douglas, Outlander could be a textbook case study. Claire has brains and loads of power – within the limitations created by the sci-fi costume drama setup, of course. And there’s the rub. It’s costume drama; we can’t expect Demelza to be more than a wife and mother, and we can’t expect Claire to maintain control in a situation in which women are systemically, culturally subordinated. But when Claire chooses not to choose freedom, the series shows its cards: it’s much sexier, and thus more bankable, for her to stay with the soft-spoken, beautiful Jamie in the highlands than to return to the challenges of a complicated, 20th century urban life (in which, by the way, she would be fighting on feminism’s front lines). From that moment of “choice” onward something in the series shifts; suddenly, it’s all about Heughan’s Jamie, and Balfe’s Claire becomes his helpmeet. Yet how, the enlightened sexists might ask, can we say this is an unreasonable or unjust move? After all: Claire makes her own choice to stay behind as Jamie’s wife.

In a Guardian article that appeared earlier this week, June Eric Udorie anticipates the new film Suffragette with this valuable reminder:

the idea of “choice” feminism has become really popular. I obviously support women’s rights to make their own choices, but the idea that I have to support every specific choice, just because a woman made it, is something I think we need to do away with. By all means, get a boob job, but don’t try and justify it with feminism.

It turns out we are, indeed, living in something of a “post-feminist” moment, because post-feminism is the lie neoliberal capitalism tells us in order to convince us that simply by making our own choices, women are exercising their hard-won feminist freedoms (and therefore feminism is no longer required. Or: we’ve got some stuff, isn’t that enough?). Neoliberal capitalism also loves costume dramas: they present a chance to escape temporarily from our immediate financial, political, and social difficulties, while also offering us lessons in the benefits of hard graft and helpful reminders about how well we’re all doing today/how little is really left to fight for. Witness the outrageous success of the insufferable Crawley family on Downton Abbey. In the final season currently airing in the UK, Lady Mary is working as the Downton Agent and Lady Edith has taken on the role of publisher, moving herself toward a life in London’s Bloomsbury. These women are meant to stand as (rich!) exceptions that prove the rule: life for women is improving at a rapid rate, and soon we’ll all reap the benefits the elite enjoy now! For more proof we need look no further than Daisy, whose foot-in-mouth confrontation with a wealthy landowner over working class rights has left her to be saved by the business cunning of Lady Grantham. Or Anna the lady’s maid, whose reproductive disorder is about to be cured thanks to help from Mary. Trickle-down feminism is alive, well, and living in Yorkshire, it seems.

Sure, I could just watch something else – House of CardsOrange is the New Black, Homeland… lots of strong, contemporary women to choose from. But the mainstream costume dramas aren’t going away; they are stock-in-trade TV, and they are hugely popular when times are tough. Exhausted from my own work, settling into a precious hour or two of quiet with a glass of wine and my laptop screen, I was all too happy to let myself fall into the subtly sexist yet wildly seductive world of Claire the time traveller. Which is all the more reason to be vigilant about what these fantasies are selling, even as they peddle the tyranny of lady’s choice.

To the barricades!