In this episode, host of the podcast The Sacred Now, Jay Jackson and Episcopal priest, Reverend Rachel Kessler aka @nerdypriest on TikTok, join me as we discuss the different places were faith and science fiction meet. We discuss faiths within sci-fi universes as well as how our collective interests in science fiction has complimented or contradicted our beliefs. But ultimately *spoiler alert* this conversation is about the ways that science fiction can continue to give a us hope for a better future. In this episode, we discuss everything from Star Trek, to Blade Runner to Children of Men and more. I hope you enjoy it.
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What do you do when you have a crisis of faith or you’ve lost hope? This is the question that most of the new Trek series ask of their characters and of the audience in their series premieres. In Discovery, Michael’s faith in herself and her future have been shattered. She’s gone from being the golden child, molded for command into a mutineer; scorned, rejected and dealing with the fact that she has to rebuild her trust in herself and her reputation as a whole. In Picard, we see Jean-Luc Picard after he has lost faith in Starfleet and the Federation. He feels that they have turned their back on their ideals and doesn’t know how to fight for ideals that no one seems to be believe in anymore. Even in Prodigy, we see children who have been told time and time again, that there is no reason to hope for something more than what they have. They are abandoned and forgotten, according to their everyday reality. In the series premiere, we literally see Dal reach for the stars, just to have his hopes dashed away.
Now in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, we have Captain Pike, literally running from his future, trying to figure out how to have hope when your fate has already been written… and you’re terrified of it. In Pike’s character, you have one version an ideal leader, a man of unshakable integrity and a sense of humor, and yet when we meet him, he’s trying to run his future by hiding in the past.
When it comes to the mission of Star Trek as a storytelling legacy, it is a story ultimately about hope. The original series theorized on a time where an American, a Scotsman, a Russian, a Japanese man, an East African woman and a being from a different world could work, learn and affect positive change in the galaxy together. It’s important to remember that in September 1966, when the show premiered, a crew such as the one on the Enterprise was utterly radical. In 1966, the United States of America was still deep into what we should probably call the 1st Cold War with the Soviet Union and almost everyone in the cast and crew would have come into adulthood during World War 2 and the nuclear arms race that followed. President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was still a recent and raw memory as well as Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just passed to both great joy and to great backlash as tends to happen with civil and human rights gains. The Vietnam War was in its 11th year with no signs of stopping anytime soon. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., facing violence and opposition that he would later say was worse than what he had faced in the south, had been hit by a heavy rock in Chicago while leading a protest against housing discrimination the month before Star Trek’s premiere.
This was the world that Star Trek was birthed into. It was against this historical backdrop that Star Trek dared to tell stories about coming together despite racial and ethnic differences, challenging and growing past a history of violence and the power of communication, connection and empathy. Now Star Trek is not a perfect series by any means. As hard as it tries (and succeeds) at being forward thinking, it is also a product of its time and subject to the imaginative limitations of its creators. But the ambition to hope and strive for something better than what was… than what is, is a fundamental building block of what has helped Star Trek maintain its relevance for over 50 years.
In the Interspectional episode linked to the top of this post, “Sci-Fi and Spirituality”, Episcopal priest, Reverend Rachel Kessler, podcast host of “The Sacred Now”, Jay Jackson and I talk at length about Star Trek and other sci-fi properties as they relate to faith. Ultimately, one of the conclusions that we come to is that one of the things that we love about science fiction is its ability to help us imagine a more positive future or at the very least, give us a vision of how to hold on to a sliver of hope even when things seem the darkest. These are lessons that Star Trek teaches us again and again. In the Strange New Worlds premiere, this lesson is taught in a new way. The premiere asks the question: When your fate has been written as Captain Pike’s has, when you can see your own destruction barreling toward you, how do you have hope and faith for the future?
With the Supreme Court opinion leak and the epic rollback of civil rights protections that could come down following an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the question posed by the premiere episode of this series seem oddly prescient, especially when you consider the fact that the episode was written over three years ago. How did they know that we might need this kind of story? One that reminds us that the utopic future of Star Trek was birthed out of pain and suffering. One that doesn’t skip over the hard parts and reminds us that we have to work for the future that we want and that it won’t come easy. People forget that World War III, nuclear fallout and the destruction of 30% of Earth’s population was established in Star Trek’s canon decades ago. It is the history of the future. It is the destruction that we see coming our way, a darkness that might have seemed inevitable from where Gene Rodenberry was standing in the 1960’s. But even in that, there is a sliver of hope that is worth holding on to. There are lives that you will affect and change in the meantime. There are children whose lives you save and whose future will be brighter because you kept fighting even though it felt like end.
The lesson that we learn by the end of series premiere is that it’s not about believing that you won’t die or hoping against hope that destruction isn’t possible; it’s about believing that while you are here, you can make a difference. You can make a change and that your influence can last far longer than the thing that scares you. It’s about accepting death and defeat as a possibility and leading with integrity and vision anyway. It’s The Kobayashi Maru and realizing that the fight matters, even if it doesn’t end in an easy victory. It’s another chapter in the sometimes complicated story of hope.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Jasmine La Fleur, the founder of Black Fae Day (her picture is at the top of this blog post). It was so great to not only learn about the events and people that inspired her, but also how #BlackFaeDay itself became an inspiration to so many people across the globe. And now, after much preparation and excitement, Black Fae Day and Black MerMay Day (which was created by cosplayer Tranquil Ashes) are coming! Are you ready? Black Fae Day will be the weekend of May 14th and May 15. Black MerMay Day will be on May 28th. All in all, it’s looking to be a Fantastical, Magical May 2022! I feel like both Black Fae Day and Black MerMay Day make two important statements:
That Black people have the right to be as whimsical and magical as they want to be. That Black existence is not solely defined by struggle, trauma, pain and “trying to get over”. Sometimes we can just be.
That Black people have a place in fantasy worlds. The realm of fantasy is not solely restricted to a European-American construction. This also means that magic, monsters and myth as well as swords and sorcery has a place for all unlike many movies, television shows and books would have you believe.
In looking at the first statement that I feel these events are making, I’m reminded that for generations, the Black experience in America has been centered around survival. During “slavery times” as my grandmother used to call it, it was about surviving work conditions in unforgiving heat, family separation, beatings, assaults and having almost no control over their lives. Survival required “remembering your place” and many were punished or killed for reading, talking or even trying to dream for something more in their lives; for a different reality from what they saw day after day. For those enslaved people who ran away, bought their freedom, developed skilled trades or defiantly learned how to read, we rarely give them credit for the incredible level of focus, imagination and determination that they must have had for those goals to be accomplished. They were dreamers. Even in places were slavery has been abolished, Black success and aspiration were tempered with the understanding that at any time Solomon Northup’s kidnapped-and-sold-into-slavery story could become theirs.
In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, America saw an explosion of Black businesses, Black congressmen and Black education. The first round of successful Black towns were built across the nation. Historic Black Colleges like Clark Atlanta University, Bowie State University and Fisk University were founded. And Black men voted for the first time in US History. These eight years were full of dreams, whimsy and aspirations. But then much of it was taken. Burned out, drowned, paved over and flat out destroyed in many cases. Many dreams and dreamers were decimated for daring to try to be great, fantastic… magical.
And so the cycle continues in America, of dreamers who make it and those who are defeated. Those who are able rise to great heights and those who are crushed by the limits society places on those who dare to dream. For every Jackie Robinson, there were hundreds of Troy Maxsons whose dreams had been dashed and who used that disappointment to limit the aspirations of their own children. Sometimes it’s out of jealousy, sometimes it’s out of protection; but the question in the Black community for so long was who has the time and energy for dreams, self-care, whimsy and really doing anything outside the norm when it is a struggle to just survive?
But with every generation, there have been dreamers and innovators that had to not only defy convention, but also defy a world that was ready, willing and able to “put them in their place”. The defiance is in the dream and the whimsy. In the poetry and the art. In the dance and the song. In the music and in the theater. The defiance is to dare that there is more than just survival. And conversely, that we need to hold on to the dream in order to make survival worth it.
It might seem foolish to see all of this meaning in a day where Black people are encouraged to put on wings and glitter and frolic in a meadow or put on a tail and bikini and swim in the sea. But you see, there are so many days when we are still fighting for survival. It would be foolish to think that because we seek out moments of whimsy or days of being carefree, that we forget about voter suppression. Or that we don’t remember the tragic maternal mortality rates in America for Black women. We know. We just also know that pain and struggle and strife isn’t all there is to us. We know that many of our ancestors didn’t get the chance to rest or celebrate. We know members of our older generation who never had the chance to put on their fairy wings and wanted to do so, oh so badly. We know generations of Black people who were terrified to swim because fear of the water was beaten into them. By embracing our dreams, we break generational curses. By dancing and daring, we invite others to do the same. So whether it’s arts, writing, costuming or giving yourself a little dance party, I invite you to embrace your whimsy this May, and know that we will all be dancing and singing alongside you.
So you’ve answered the call to be an active fan. You’ve fought the trolls and won. You’ve stood by your friends when they fought their own battles and together you are all standing strong. But now, they come to you, saying that they need last thing from you. As these are the friends that have become your family, of course you reply, “Anything.” And then they say one of the scariest things you have ever heard.
“We need you to lead us.” I, myself, have never answered that call, although I do trying to be responsible with how I use my voice and share my opinion. In the last episode of my first season, I wanted to interview people who had answered that call and built fandom spaces that were open to difficult conversations around mental health and social justice as well as explicitly sought to protect its members of marginalized identities.
One of the most interesting things about fandom leadership is that it’s a job that many have had, from ages as young as 12 or 13 and yet it is a responsibility no one expects and a job few can prepare you for. One minute you are nerding out with your best friends, the next minute you are building a website, creating community guidelines, handling interpersonal conflicts and someone asked you to be the moderator at a con. You are no longer just a fan, you’re a Big Name Fan (BNF). And being apart of the fandom is no longer just about seeing the movie, buying the merch and scouring the internet for sneak previews. Now people are LISTENING to you, your opinions have lasting consequences and there is a pressure to protect those who have sought safety in the community you built as well as the power to unleash your fans and followers at a target if necessary. And as any comic book fan knows:
In this world of influencers, social media gurus and viral TikTok stars, it seems like a person can gain a platform and an audience nearly overnight. But unlike actors, directors and professional writers, the personalities on interactive platforms have a more intimate relationship with their audience. Traditional celebrities have never really had to ask themselves about their responsibility to the public or the image they create until very recently. As a child of the 90’s, I have vivid memories of celebrities often claiming that they “weren’t role models” in an attempt to distance themselves from the impact of their influence. Corporations like Disney, Paramount or Warner Bros. have largely stayed out of the communities that have evolved from the content that they have put out the public. But those aren’t the rules in the fandom space. As the public has grown more accustom to having a level of intimacy with the people that create their entertainment, the lines of separation have blurred in the traditional media space as well, especially with celebrities and creators becoming a presence on social media platforms themselves. So the questions becomes when a community is built around yourself or something you create, are you responsible for leading them?
On the TikTok and Twitter-verse, I’ve seen two responses to this. One response is that as people starting gaining followers, they put out a PSA or community guidelines along the lines of “Hey. This is what I talk about. This is what I expect from your engagement. This is how I expect you to engage with each other. Violate this and you will be blocked/dismissed from the conversation.” While this response is responsible in my opinion, time and experience have shown that this is not the way to get a million followers overnight. It seems like gaining an audience while trying to maintain a level of integrity is a quick way to a slow trickle of notoriety. To be fair, it can be done as shown by the creators such as TheBlerdGurl, Women At Warp and Angry Asian Man. But as the algorithms of social media sites tend thrive on controversy, the content creators that get a large platform fairly quickly tend to sound more like, “Do what you want. I don’t care. Wanna watch me start a fight?!!”, when they address their community.
Celebrities seems to be torn these days about what the proper response is. Some have thrown caution to the wind and let the fallout, be the fallout. It would be foolish to ignore that fact that there is a vocal section of the internet that will embrace every hateful thing that a person could put out there. And what someone loses in respect, they can gain in notoriety and to some, that’s a fair exchange. For others, being or standing up for an underrepresented or marginalize communities comes with its own challenges. In a career where your viability is often based on how “likable” you are; it can be difficult to make a decision to maintain your affable distance or make a statement that could turn the dark side of fandom against you.
Grant has stated that him being an introvert was part of his reason for not getting into the fray, but I also think that part of it is his image of being a fun, likable and non-threatening actor. Standing up for other people requires that you break the image that people project on to you and suddenly you are standing there as person with principles. And these principles might be the reason that some fans turn against you. One only needs to look at some of the comments in Grant Gustin’s Instagram post below to see some problematic people making themselves known.
And finally you have the leaders that created a community purposefully. Those who saw a need, saw people yearning to have a place to belong and took it upon themselves to make that place a reality. The kind of leadership doesn’t necessarily get notoriety, but a leader can get a level of power and influence that can be used for good or for ill. Sometimes those communities have a leader who is focused on service to the people themselves and others times a cult of personality evolve. There’s also added level of intensity that occurs when when BNFs and fandom leadership feel a responsibility to call out the prejudice, racism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia etc. that shows up in both the media that created the fandom and within the fandom itself.
The road of responsibility and leadership is not an easy one. It can be full of peril and strife, of making mistakes and causing accidental harm. It can also be one of beauty, love and putting something out there in the world that can help another person and make them feel seen. Positive leadership is challenging, complex and I respect everyone who tries to do it. We all have our role to play in making our corner of the world just a little bit better, brighter and humane. And to those of you who answer that call in the fandom space that is both highly overexposed and still massively misunderstood: I salute you.
Much like the heroes that many of us follow, the journey from Fandom Neophyte to Fandom Veteran is incredible, exciting and full of danger. It is truly a hero’s journey in and of itself. For those who don’t know, “The Hero’s Journey” is a template or pattern of storytelling that shows up in everything from the ancient stories of Odysseus to The Hobbit to Pixar’s Turning Red. The Hero’s Journey as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero Of A Thousand Faces looks like this:
So how does this apply to fandom? First, I want to mention that almost everyone has a combination of both passive and active fandoms. You can be passionate about football and only casually interested in Star Wars. Or the Marvel Cinematic Universe lives in your blood, but you’ll sit through Lord Of The Rings if someone forces you. But the journey from passive to active fan and then from fan neophyte to fan veteran is an interesting one. So we start this journey where all of these stories start… With the Call to Action
Typically, I think, something in the book we’re reading, show we’re watching, game we’re playing etc.. calls to us. Something that we are experiencing speaks to where we are in that moment of our lives or we see a story that makes us feel powerful or magical because we connect to the characters. Something about what we are seeing or doing makes us FEEL seen and valued. Suddenly, we are no longer just entertained, we’re excited, we’re involved, and we want more. Thus begins the journey of seeking out more and seeking out others like you.
Crossing the Threshold
Do you remember when you joined your first fan community? Logged into a group chat where people were talking about YOUR THING? Maybe you joined a meetup or facebook group? Or did you go to an event. No matter how you did it, at some point, we all cross the threshold into the world of the FANS. It’s loud and numerous and overwhelming. It’s a wonder to realize that there are so many other people like you. And in the beginning, it can feel like coming home.
Meet the Mentor
If you’re lucky, you can often find a veteran fan to take you in and show you the ropes. Much like the breakdown of groups in a high school lunchroom, you’ve got to learn who’s sitting where, what the feuds are and how to navigate a new space. It’s around this time where you realize that this might not be the utopia you were expecting, but it’s still exciting.
Join The Community
This is the training montage. You’re learning quickly. Laughing loudly and feeling comfort and trust among the people who may just become your new found family.
The First Challenge
You’ve gone through the training montage of your fandom experience. Your mentor has shown you the things that they love. You’ve been introduced to your first community. You’ve observed the trials and the trolls that your new friends have fought and conquered in this new fandom realm. And suddenly, it’s your turn. Either you have been called out or you found a battle that you cannot ignore. Either way, you feel ready to ride into the fray!
The Work Continues
Whether or not you succeed in your first battle, the result is the same. You have now become KNOWN. Some other factions might start to see you as a challenge to conquer or target practice. Either way, their goal is to push you into silence.
The Abyss and the Dark Night of the Mind
The days you wonder if the fandom is worth it. You are challenged again and again. Battle after battle. You’ve seen friendships break. Trolls attack and maybe even a traitor or two in the community. What once brought you hope is now painful. There is no way that it is worth it.
Your mentor tries, but can’t quite convince you that it’ll all be okay. Your community wants to support you and you’re grateful, but maybe it is still time to hide.
But then you get a message:
“Hey. You don’t know me, but I wanted to let you know that your fic really meant a lot to me.”
“Thank you so much for standing up to that person. The fandom can be a trash-fire, but it helps knowing that people like you are around.”
“I’m OBSESSED with your fanart. Please tell me you have t-shirts or posters!”
Suddenly you realize that it’s not just the movie, the book, the tv show, the sport that is affecting people, you are too. In your tiny sphere of influence, your work is special to someone, maybe many someones. And maybe the positivity that you get from the media, the sport or the activity and the positivity that you put in the world as a result is more important than the negativity that you receive in between. Maybe it is worth it to get up and keep on going.
You’re ready to teach what you have learned. And keep on learning yourself. It might even be time to find your own mentee or take an even bigger leap, and move on to leadership yourself. And THAT is its own journey.
Before I had the chance to properly watch the Disney/Pixar movie, Turning Red, I came across the following tweet:
With in a few hours, this tweet went viral with thousands of people sharing the summaries and links of the original novels, fanfiction, and fanart that helped to shape their preteen/teen years. People shared other fun, but unglamorous shenanigans that were apart of their teen experience like trying amateur witchcraft or forming wolf packs or creating new languages. As someone who was a fangirl in the late 90’s/early ’00s (with the fanfiction.net account to prove it), this tweet was confirmation that Turning Red was a film that I would relate to on a visceral level. I may not be Chinese or Canadian or turn into a big red panda when I get emotional, but I did have a diverse group of friends with whom I traded manga, attended Renaissance Faires and went anime conventions with during my teen years. Feeling shame for my interests and/or joys at time, was not apart of my vocabulary.
Being that the film was set in 2002, a time before social media took over the world and when TRL was EVERYTHING, I was definitely hit with waves of a nostalgia for the time period. But also watching the girls of Turning Red going through epic and creative lengths to see their favorite band live, I was also hit with sense that this movie captured the experience of fandom in its purest, most joyful form.
It’s hard to remember a time when fandom wasn’t so heavily commodified. When the MCU didn’t take over our lives, releasing new media at rate nearly impossible to keep up with and everything wasn’t its own cinematic universe. A time when access to your favorite celebrities or writers was restricted to magazines and possibly an autographed picture if you were lucky. This also coincides with the period of time where being called a “geek” or a “nerd” was still considered an insult instead of a badge of honor. That was the fandom era that raised me and the era the Turning Red takes place in. Even though the massive events were often well-attended at the time, as observed in the movie, it was the day-to-day, smaller in-person and online interactions that really kept the fandoms going.
In the Interspectional season 1 finale episode, “Building Communities in Fandom”, I speak to Bianca Hernandez-Knight of The Jane Austen Universe and Virtual Jane Con, Jaycee Dubyuh of GAPOC: Gaymer Allied People of Color and Neisha Mulchan, MPH of Diversely Geek. Each one of my guests are leaders in their own fandom communities, but before we got to that part of the conversation, I talked to them about their fandom experience. I asked them questions like: “What was it like to met your first friend in fandom?” “How did it feel to read something you really connected with?” They each gave answers that centered around the experience of feeling seen and not being alone. Connecting to a piece of media that describes an experience that you don’t have the words for or that tells you a story that you need hear can be a revelatory experience. Also the ability to connect with others in a small group based on a shared interest can give us the chance to build life-long friendships and be with people who see us without the weight of familial or societal expectation (as we see with Mei’s friendships in Turning Red).
It can give us the freedom to be joyfully ridiculous without being mocked or made to feel unworthy of care or respect. While fandom is most often based on a commodity, this friendship-focused, non-commercial aspect of fandom is something that I think can get missed in our modern of age of helicopter parent-like corporate involvement and the millions of opinions we have access to on social media. In a world where fandom has become identity and livelihood for many people, it can be easy to forget why and how we got involved in this culture in the first place, especially when trolls start coming out the woodwork or things just start getting too intense. Sometimes, it seems like we forget that fandom is supposed to be fun.
Now joyful fandom engagement doesn’t mean ignoring the things in a piece of media that you might find harmful or problematic. We can love something with all of our hearts and still admit that could be better. Or that possibly something that was just part of the lexicon of its day was just not right and is less so now. One cannot underestimate the influence of media as whole because media shapes people’s opinion about life, society, love, people whom they’ve never met and even how they think life should be. Books, movies and television shows are essentially cultural artifacts and as such, they do deserve to be examined, analyzed, placed in a cultural context and dissected as a reflection and/or critique of the society that birthed it. It’s important that look at the ideas that a piece of media reinforces and the new ideas that it promotes. I, for one, try to come at things through an anti-racist, gender-inclusive, lgbtqia+ inclusive, disability informed lens because these are the folks who have been excluded or marginalized in media presence and perspectives for decades. The critical eye can still be loving one, it just means that we see the rose and the thorns and realize that the picture is incomplete and inaccurate if you don’t acknowledge both.
So as I look nostalgically at Turning Red as it very closely reflects my 2002 world at me, I also have to acknowledge that this piece of media could only have created within the past 3-5 years. Only recently could studio executives believe that the story of a Chinese-Canadian girl could be successful which wouldn’t have been possible without the success Crazy, Rich Asians (2018), Shang-Chi (2021) and other projects with diverse, culturally specific casts that have premiered over the past few years. I have admit that with the movie’s presentation of a culturally diverse Toronto, a diverse friendship circle and even a diverse boy band, Pixar’s 2002 is a lot more inclusive and welcoming than what I grew up with. And that could have only been done with a joyful and critical look at the past.
So in this age where fandom is SERIOUS business, BNFs (Big Name Fans) can have a lot of power and there’s more direct access to creators than ever before, I want to remind you to have fun. I want to remind you that you don’t have post everything you sketch or write. Some things can be just for you. And the fandom joy that you get from talking to a friend about a movie that came out 15 years ago is just as valid a form of fandom as influencers that get to go on the red carpet. It’s all about the unabashed joy and the connection that you feel to the work that has been put out there. So go be “cringe” with pride, because we all deserve that kind of freedom. I want just to leave you with these final bits of advice about (positive) fandom.
1. Embrace your fandoms and healing hobbies
2. Find positive communities
3. Celebrate without fear.
4. And when things get intense, remember the family (found, birth, online and otherwise) that love you, just the way you are.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this episode, pop culture journalist, Amanda-Rae Prescott and historical fashion and beauty blogger, Ayana of The Vintage Guidebook, join me to discuss Bridgerton, Hamilton and diversity in period dramas. We also take time to examine the fandom community around period dramas as well as diversity of the production and writing teams. So tighten your corset and put on your best hat because we are about to take a turn about the room with this juicy conversation.
You can find Amanda-Rae Prescott's website here and her articles here.
And on Twitter at @amandarprescott
You can find Ayana at https://thevintageguidebook.wordpress.com/
as well on social media at @vintieguidebook
Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/interspectional/support
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.
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: