Ah, the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and TV programmes with lots of nice hats. The autumn TV schedules in the UK are awash with period dramas again. Hearts are fluttering upstairs and downstairs at Downton Abbey; innocent girls are in danger of ruination at The Paradise and war is picturesque hell at Parade’s End.
Now, I like a crinoline skirt and bit of RADA received pronunciation acting as much as the next person. However, it does seem that television is living in the past a little too often at the moment. It’s hardly surprising with the ratings success of Downton and Call The Midwife. It seems that the audience love a little bit of vintage. The problem I have with all this history is that it doesn’t leave much room for her-story.
The lack of strong female characters on TV and in the movies is well-trodden ground. Barely a week seems to go by without one of our great actresses complaining that there are very limited roles for women and especially older women. And I agree with them. Furthermore, I have to question whether television that harks back to a time when women were disenfranchised, silenced and given limited life options is actually going to help the cause.
Of course, there are parts for women in period dramas. After all, someone has to wear the nice frocks and heave their bosoms – but sometimes it feels like that’s all they do. Period dramas often rely heavily on their own set of female stereotypes. The wide-eyed innocent girl in danger of being ruined by the rapacious employer. The bitter spinster always ready with sharp rebuke seemingly just because her hymen is still intact. The dowager insisting that things are done properly and making sure that everyone knows their place as the sun sets on the British Empire. And of course, the plain and simple serving girl popping up to drop a blancmange whenever we need a little light relief. And those characters are great fun and probably wonderful to write.
However, it seems that the drama for those women revolves around the same old issues and crises. In their fictional world, the worst thing that can happen to them is that they have sex outside wedlock, marry a poor man or drop a blancmange. Those things are simply not high stakes in the modern world (or at least one would hope not). So, the constant harking back to those simpler times is surely having one of two effects.
Either, we are condemning female characters to a life of inconsequential stories that we don’t really care about. We never see them in the trenches or in a cabinet meeting with Lloyd George or doing the important stuff. They are too damn busy dropping blancmanges on their heaving bosoms.
Or, if we do accept that to lose one’s virginity when one doesn’t have a ring on one’s finger is simply the very end; are we reinforcing ideas about women that should have gone out with the Charleston? If we see female characters in constant servitude and represented as powerless, that can’t be a good thing. Can it?
Also, side note, there seems to be a great love amongst the writers of period drama for killing women in a romantic fashion. There’s the old trope of blood in the handkerchief meaning imminent death by consumption or Spanish Flu. Or the troublesome birth that leads to our hero clutching his sweaty wife’s hand as she uses her last breath to ask whether the baby is okay. Those women are always so very, very brave and have the stiffest of upper lips. Not one of them begs for their life or rages against the dying of the light. It’s almost as if their deaths don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?
Even in shows where historical accuracy is not exactly paramount women are being sidelined. There is a new series of Merlin about to start in BBC1 and I can only pray that the women in that show get to do something other than be evil super bitches or anxious serving girls. But as Gwen/Guinevere barely features in the trailer, I’m not going to put money on it. Come on lads, you’ve taken enough liberties with the Arthurian legend, why not a bit of equal opportunities around the Round Table? I’ll even write it for you. I’m just saying, it would be nice to see a kick-ass female role model (other than Amy Pond and River Song) on a Saturday tea time. Whither Buffy?
Sure, it's all about context and it’s interesting to see how far sexual politics have come but I worry that we are consigning our great actresses to the kitchen and the corset. For example, it is the great Maggie Smith that makes the faintly ludicrous Downton Abbey unmissable. She turns a high-handed, catty remark into utter poetry. But that’s all she bloody does! Imagine if a writer had the imagination to write a part where she has real power? Maggie Smith as a Cabinet Minister, a retired spy, a diplomat, a serial killer? I’d watch that!
However, and I’m going to be tad harsh here for a moment, I think in that ideal world of women doing actually dramatic things there wouldn’t be many parts for some of the other actresses. The wide-eyed virgins who are called on to do nothing but simper and blush? They’d be on the dole (or in Hollyoaks). Because those performances and roles are archaic and dull. It’s time to consign them to the past.
But, in the interests of fairness, I must give an honourable mention to two period dramas for letting the sisters do it for themselves. Firstly. The Hour had some truly brilliant female characters working in a man’s world. And Parade’s End did something utterly brilliant by exploring the constraints on women in the early 20th century. Those characters were not happy with their lots in life, they didn’t accept the orthodoxy of their gender and it drove the drama beautifully. And they still wore nice frocks. Food for thought, but not blancmange.