Every once in a while, someone will an episode of Black Girl in a Big Dress and ask me: “Sooo…. Do you really do this stuff?”
And to them, I submit this photo as evidence.
Then I usually start talking about the joys of English Country Dance and they stop asking me questions after that.
Since we’re rolling into production on a new season, I’m getting this question a lot more than usual. And it got me thinking: Yes, I do do this stuff, but why? Why did period dramas grab my imagination so?
I think there are five main reasons.
Beautiful Costumes, obvs!
My goodness. Put this many clothes on anyone and they will look amazing! A corset or a cravate flatters every single person who has ever been or whoever will be. If I could get away with wearing a hoopskirt or bustle dress every time I went to Trader Joe’s, I would never leave Trader Joe’s.
Simple But Effective and Universal Stories
Listen, I have no problem with a Tinker Tailor Soldier Cerebral story. But I can’t help but love the simplicity of most period dramas. Sure, there may be the odd twist here or there (What? He was a peer the whole time??) but the driving forces of the stories are straightforward and something everyone can relate to. Characters want to fall in love or save their homes or find the object or get to the place or get home from the place. And all of us have those same basic, big shapes driving our own lives.
Characters you can happily releate to and enthusiastically root for
There’s a lot to be cynical and frustrated about these days. It’s very easy to look at the news, or read anything, or check social media for just 5 seconds and discover a world of pain and disappointment. And I have no problem with art exploring these pains. It’s an important function of art and storytelling to do so.
But I have always longed for stories that make me feel good when I watch them, despite what may be going on in the world.
Period dramas are often set in challenging times or characters are dealing with challenging things, but the characters meet those challenges with strength and determination. If these protagonists push love away for instance, it’s because of real fear or real obligation. These leading ladies and gentlemen tend to be honestly trying to do what they think is right. They are characters it’s easy to feel good about supporting without wondering if relating to them means that you hate yourself as much as they do.
There are some just straight up villains (I’m looking at you George Warleggan!), but often when characters are annoying or making things difficult, they’re still doing it from a good place. Mrs. Bennet for example may be hella pushy about her girls getting married, but she knows that if they don’t, they will lose their home and no mother wants to see her daughters turned out on the street.
The shows themselves also seem to want the best for the characters that are in them. I love contemporary rom coms, but sometimes, it feels like the films delight in seeing their characters as humiliated as possible (yes, I understand that from humiliation can come redemption...I know how character arcs work)...and there’s so much unnecessary pain in the world that I sometimes grow weary of watching someone get hurt, physically or emotionally, just for a laugh. There’s so much information thrown at us every day that it’s easy to quickly dismiss a pain or suffering or a joy; so I like finding stories that indulge us in characters’ happiness and present real empathy toward their sadness.
My first favourite book was Fear of Flying, which has a very ambigious ending, so I don’t mind an unsettled conclusion. However, I sometimes I do just long for a final shot that shows our characters absolutely and unapologetically happy. I could join the cynical chorus and say that Happy Ever After doesn’t really exist. But I don’t want that to be true, so I actively choose to believe that Happy Endings are possible. Here’s to period shows for giving them to us more often than not.
They're all about breaking out of boxes
Whether the story is about love across class lines, having a career despite your sex, choosing love over inheritance or pushing back against the duties of your title, these stories tend to ultimately be about breaking out of the boxes that society has shoved us into.
As a woman, a person of color, and a woman of color, I can certainly speak to this idea. I have spent my life being told that I’m not black enough, that I’m not feminine enough, that I’m too feminine, that I’m being too outspoken, that I’m not standing up for my people enough, that I need to stop standing up for my people and listen to others, that I can’t like certain things, that I should like other things, that everything is terrible and that everything is fine. It’s exhausting.
So I love watching stories where people stand up to what the world tells them they should be and then blow those parameters away with inner strength, focus, and determination.
And, finally...yes, I'm totally a feminist, but....
Those longing looks...much smoldering...