POC and Period Drama – Interspectional
The second episode of my podcast is called “POC and Period Drama” and in that episode, historical costumer, Ayana of the Vintage Guidebook, pop culture journalist, Amanda-Rae Prescott and I talk about the period dramas we love with great excitement. The summer that 16 year-old me borrowed the Pride and Prejudice (1995) boxset from the library, it was OVER for me. I was in love and there was no turning back. At that point in my teenage years, I was already an active reader and a lover of romantic relationships in television and movies where the female character was smart and witty and the male character was able to keep up. Mulder & Scully of The X-Files, B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris of Star Trek: Voyager, Max and Liz of Roswell; those were my ships. So when I discovered the cleverness and wit of Pride and Prejudice (as well as having already taken a liking to Shakespeare), I was taken in by everything in this fictional world. The costumes, the grandeur, but, for me, especially the language.
As I grew older, I sought out more and more period pieces, but particularly, those based on literature; this included all of the Jane Austen adaptations, North and South, later Poldark, Copper and Ripper Street. Now it surprises no one that very few of the 1990’s and earlier period drama adaptations had people of color in them unless slavery was the main subject. The 2000’s through the 2010’s saw more representation until the huge watershed moment that was the musical, Hamilton opened the floodgates in 2015. With Bridgerton being the phenomenon that was in the winter of 2020, the conversation around people of color in period dramas has expanded to previously unseen proportions. But also the conversation around the presence and safety of fans of color in both physical and online spaces that celebrate these works has been brought to the forefront as well as the authors and writers of color who have previously been rejected or ignored in the historical drama space.
A quick summary of the racist drama in historical fiction/period/romance space includes that time they tried to blackface classic literature to get children to read it, when racism caused the Romance Writers of America association to implode, that time with the Jane Austen Society of America also imploded due to racism, when the Charles Dickens’ Christmas festival ignored the safety of their black castmates, and fans of Sanditon wanting to use an emoji with racist connotations to support the show.
Also, there was that time that the former plantation that had been hosting a Jane Austen convention for years want to include more explicit discussions about race, power and slavery during Austen’s time and the fans decided to shut down the event instead of learning and the time that Jane Austen Museum in England also wanted to expand the discussion around race and slavery (which Jane Austen wrote about in Mansfield Park) and some people were not happy. These are some, but not all of the racist controversies that have happened over a less-than five year period.
But despite all of that, money, viewership and social media engagement talk, and by those metrics, producers have figured that having people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in period dramas sell. And some producers, apparently feeling the call of conscience, also decided to address slavery, racism, and colonialism directly in their historical drama adaptations. These decisions also caused their fair amount of controversy. But despite the presence and concerns of people of color “invading” some white folks’ self-insert historical fantasies, the inclusion of people of color and the diversity within the fandom is here to stay. However, the historical drama fan and criticism space has been almost exclusively focused on white people for so long that all of the BIPOC participants who are now and have been vocal in this space know better than to expect that racist people, actions and commentary will go quietly into that good night.
So when the Bridgerton-inspired reality dating show, The Courtship (which features a Black female lead), Bridgerton, Sandition, Call The Midwife and Outlander all announced that they were premiering their seasons in March 2022, I sent out this tweet: