Interspectional Rewind: Who belongs in Historical Fantasy?

Star Trek As Period Drama Interspectional

While Star Trek takes place in the future, so many episodes either take place in the past or have a time-period-specific aspect to them. These "bottle episodes" have a tendency to pose complex questions around sociology, psychology and ethics. Focusing on episodes from Star Trek: TOS, TNG, Voyager and DS9, we'll look at these period dramas in space, the themes that can be examined from these episodes and how science fiction makes these stories unique. This is a recording from Women At Warp's IDIC Podcast Festival. For this panel, my returning guests were Bianca Hernandez  (@bookhoarding) for the season 1 finale: Building Communities in Fandom and Dr. Luz Rosines (@LuzXRayMD) from the S1:E3 – Latinx Representation in Space.  — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/interspectional/support

Hey Everyone! Welcome Back to the second post of Interspectional Rewind! Continuing some of the themes from last week’s post, I want to invite you to talk a listen to the episode “Star Trek as Period Drama”; particularly listening to it through the lens of historical accuracy vs historical fantasy.

Keri Russell and JJ Feild in 2013’s Austenland

The historical fantasy vs historical accuracy debate has been the source of much controversy across many media genres. Whether it’s regency costume dramas, American westerns or high fantasy epics, there is a tension around who does and does not “belong” in those spaces. On one hand, there is the urge to protect the version of history with which people are most familiar. The American Western, for example, as portrayed by 1950’s television shows like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and The Long Ranger, shows a version of the 1870’s and 1880’s almost solely made up of white faces. While we now know that the West was significantly populated with Indigenous peoples, Black folks, Mexican residents and Asian immigrants, it can be hard to shake the “reality” that was shown in those earlier films and movies. At the same time, there is also this drive to gatekeep who has access to historical fantasies. The world of “high fantasy”, for example, as imagined by J. R. R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, has often been portrayed in media as having a solely white population. When the casting for the prequel, Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power came out in early 2022, it was revealed that there would be black dwarves and elves in this series. Many white folks on social media were in an uproar over that fact that this fictional world was no longer solely populated by humans and human-like species that “looked like them”. While others have defended this choice citing the nature of a fictional world, the fact that medieval Europe was a multicultural place and that J. R. R. Tolkien did mean for the story to be continually expansive.

Sophia Nomvete plays the dwarf princess, Disa and Ismael Cruz Córdova plays the elf, Arondir in the upcoming series
Lord of Rings: Rings of Power

Now if I turn this over to the world of romance and period/costume dramas, we see very similar dynamics play out. Historical settings have long been romanticized by being framed in an idealized and easy-to-digest fashion as well as being the backdrop for epic love stories. This tradition of using historical backdrops to tell both our heroic and romantic flights of fancy is one of the reasons why it can be really challenging to separate fact from fiction. A biographical picture can have fictional elements, but the ultimate goal of the story is to tell the story of someone’s life as accurately and as entertainingly as possible. The biopic is bound to the historical record and is often a gateway to perceive actual historical events.

Historical fiction/fantasy, on the other hand, is bound to no such timeline. Instead, actual history is a backdrop upon which modern people’s hopes and dreams can be painted. Depending on the piece of media that is created, the historical backdrop can be more or less prominent, but it is still ultimately secondary to the narrative and world that is created around it. There is also a certainty that most of us feel around what we think we know about history, then there’s the fear around learning new perspectives that challenge that viewpoint and finally, there’s the disorientation that can happen when new people play in our fantasy worlds that we have made from our own history.

With this in mind, when we look at historical fiction media, it becomes important to ask whose fantasy is being projected on the backdrop of history and what are their goals in telling this particular story? Equally as important is the understanding that even when a person is creating a fictional piece about their current reality, they are still projecting their views, perspectives and prejudices on what will become history as time passes. The nature of fiction is that its portrayal of reality is graded on a curve. 

Now for better or for worse, historical fiction is also used to educate. Historical fiction can make history come to life in a way that facts and figures simply don’t. It can help immerse the reader or viewer into various truths of the period. In both the United States and UK educational systems, historical fiction media, be it books, movies or television shows, have been used to supplement the teachings of historical facts and shaped our concepts about what a certain time period was like based on literature. No matter your race, background, gender, socio-economic status, ability or sexuality, if you were taught within these educational systems, you received a very singular view of what history was, who belonged in it and HOW they belonged. 

In most tellings of U.S. and U.K. history, it is white people and white men, specifically, who dominate the majority of the narrative. And all children, white children, Black children, East Asian children, Latino children, South Asian children, Indigenous American children, West Asian children, all get the same message when taught the historical record through both fact and fiction, that Western European/White American history is of utmost importance over other historical perspectives. Also, the majority of canonical and “important” literature and history requires white people to be the center of the story. People of all ethnic backgrounds also learn from their education that white people are the most common stand-in for all of humanity, so no matter your race, ethnicity or background, you must always find a way to relate to the white people in the story in order to succeed. However, it is rarely the case that the white children in your school must relate to someone that looks different than them in order to succeed in their literature and historical requirements. 

So with all of that in mind, the selective history and literature we’ve been taught in school, the history of historical fiction media and the nature of modern-day projection onto the past, we come to what this blog post is really about: People of Color and Period Dramas.

Nicole Remy in NBC’s The Courtship

I, as a Black woman, have been a long-time Austen fan. I devoured so many period dramas in my late high school and college years. I’m a huge Shakespeare fan as well, admirer of Charles Dickens and have the utmost respect for Upton Sinclair. I do not claim to have read all of the “western canon” classics, but I’ve read enough to be considered well-read in many circles. My education also introduced me to Hemingway and Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I say all this to say that I, and many others like me, have had decades of practices relating, connecting, understanding and empathizing with characters that look nothing like us, that don’t reflect our lived experiences and whose realities are far removed from our own. And yet, these are stories I’ve come to love and appreciate. The practice of connecting to characters who have a different lived experience extends into the general practice of consuming media because for many years the majority of books, movies or television shows featured the majority of white people in the most important roles. I, like many other people of color, consumed this media which both told us interesting and compelling stories and also implicitly told us that people like us don’t belong in the story. 

In the past ten years or so, there has been a much louder call to include BIPOC stories, actors and producers in more historical fiction media. And more specifically, to also highlight stories that feature our joys as well as pains. For longest time, if a person ever wanted to see a Black person is a historical piece set before the 1950’s, you were restricted to see a Black person whipped, beaten and brutalized because people’s imaginations for a black person could be in the past was limited to being a slave or servant. Going as far back as Gone with the Wind (and even Birth of a Nation, but we don’t talk about that one) to as recently as 2019’s Harriet , we get black people serving or/and suffering as the main narrative. The history that had been taught and media that was provided showed that there were no other possibilities available. But the historical record actually says that Black lawyers, doctors, sea-farers, teachers, nurses and businessman were around long before slavery ended in 1865. But it is hard to picture that reality if it has never or rarely been seen in historical books, television shows or movies. 

This is Virginia Hewitt Douglass (1849 – 1889), a black suffragist in Boston and daughter-in-law to Fredrick Douglass. This photograph and many others like it can be found here as the digital collection of the Boston Athenaeum.

In 2015, when Hamilton came on the scene, it was both bound by the historical record as a biographical performance piece and was a modern day projection onto a historical background. What Lin-Manuel Miranda did was project modern-day New York City onto Alexander Hamilton’s life story. Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that the musical Hamilton was inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow that he read while he was on vacation. In the origin story of what would become an international phenomenon, we go back to the practice of a person of color using skills of connection and empathy to relate to a person from the past who has a completely different lived experience than they do. For me, and I would guess Lin-Manuel has a similar process, when I imagine myself in the stories that I read, I don’t change my skin color, hair texture or features in my imagination. In the world of my imagination, the world of the book bends around me, so that I can seamlessly fit in and be the hero or heroine of the story. What Lin-Manuel Miranda did was take the world of imagination, the internal story that allowed him to relate to Hamilton’s life, and make it a reality for all of us to see. When Hamilton premiered, audiences saw that you could have an actor of color in historical garb living a life free of ancestral struggle. You didn’t have to see an actor of color present some kind of pain in order to find their portrayal of an historical era compelling. 

Many more period dramas since have included more people of color with subjects ranging from biopics like Small Axe and The United States vs. Billie Holiday to historical fantasies like The Personal History of David Copperfield and Bridgerton. And with that greater inclusion has also come the backlash. In that backlash, some critics have fallen back on what their first education taught them: that people of color don’t belong in history except as slaves and servants and people of color are not main characters in literature. This belief, while common, is, as I stated before, inaccurate and untrue. Some critics when to comes to historical fantasy and literature have said when a formerly white character of wealth and influence is now played by an actor of color, questions around the source of that character’s wealth and the role that colonialism, slavery, genocide and imperialism played in that wealth come the forefront. There absolutely is a place for sources of wealth and status to be investigated in historical fiction media and acknowledging the interconnected oppressive systems that create a character’s wealth and comfort is vitally important. However, if the only time this conversation comes up is when an actor of color takes up a previous white-casted role then the conversation is not about bringing justice to people previously excluded from the story; it becomes another way to keep actors of color out or give them additional burdens that no one else has had to take on.

However, I do believe that more burden should be placed on the writers and producers since the conceits that created the comfortable world for the white character are not the same conceits that are necessary to create a comfortable world for a character of color. For instance, in Hamilton, one of the biggest conceits to make the world comfortable for a Puerto Rican Alexander Hamilton to live in is that he cannot be the only person of color on stage. Another conceit is that this version of Alexander Hamilton is explicitly against slavery in both written and spoken words, but there is no mention of how real-life Alexander Hamilton also bought and secured slaves for his sister-in-law’s marriage. 

Miranda grew up conscious that there were no lead roles for him in the musical canon: he could be a side-kick, or a bad guy, but not a hero. ”…

In Hamilton, Miranda has created a world in which this “other”, whether by ethnicity or personality, takes centre stage. Daveed Diggs is a half-black, half-Jewish man who played the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway cast. “I’m a black man playing a wise, smart, distinguished future president,” he told an interviewer in 2016. If he’d seen such a character as a kid, he confessed, it might have changed his life. “A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me might have seemed possible.”

Hooton, Amanda. “’Our Own Form of Protest’: How Linking Hip-Hop and History Turned Hamilton into a Surprise Hit Musical.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Feb. 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/theatre/our-own-form-of-protest-how-linking-hip-hop-and-history-turned-hamilton-into-a-surprise-hit-musical-20191223-p53mj8.html.
Daveed Diggs and Li-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton

The imaginary world can be and must be adjusted for people of color to live in the fantasy AND people of color have every right to live in a historical fantasy as anyone else. We have read the books, watched the movies and played the games the same as every white person that has felt so seen by the omnipresence of white folks in media that their representation has become the default expectation. What we are seeing in having people of color in period drama is the claiming of spaces that have always belonged to us and the manifestations of the stories that have been in our heads for generations. Colonization has forced us to speak the language, wear the clothes, and consume the media of our oppressors for so long that we have as much claim to it as anyone else. And it is our right to project our dreams and wishes on the past with as much or as little trauma as we choose. For those who cling the argument of historical accuracy in a fictional/fantasy world as the basis of their debate, it seems to me that the real problem is that some people are now forced to empathize and connect to someone that has a different lived experience than they do and, as opposed to those of us who have had to do that our entire lives, others are out of practice.

Lady Danbury as played by Adjoa Andoh in Bridgerton.

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