Article published in Farrago Magazine, May 2016. Farrago is the University of Melbourne student magazine. Link to the original article online: http://farragomagazine.com/2016/05/16/period-drama/
When I’m not working on my thesis you’ll often find me binge watching a period TV show.
They’re history right? That counts as study?
I love period dramas, but I was tiring of the big name shows and their representation of women as merely love (or lust) interests lacking agency. Mad Men has this problem. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has a career in the misogynistic ’60s advertising world and the show deals with workplace sexism, but the male perspective is prioritised and she’s patronised by Don Draper (Jon Hamm). In short, her character is a tokenistic addition to a masculine driven show.Searching for shows to satisfy my cravings, I found some great shows with women characters who have interests outside of their love life. Yes, it’s possible!
One of my guilty pleasures is Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015), which chronicles the Crawley household. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is outspoken, fighting for the future she would have if she were a man, making remarks like: “How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?” Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) becomes a ‘modern woman’ by running a magazine and the kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) successfully pursues an education. I love the pomp and ceremony, but its success is probably more because of its surprisingly relatable portrayal of family life.
One of my favourites is Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012 –), which centres on the enigmatic Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), a witty, adventurous and fashionable ‘lady detective’. She’s a thoroughly modern woman, proclaiming marriage and babies aren’t for her and taking many lovers, with the help of contraception (it’s set in the 1920s!). She stands her ground with her pearlhandled pistol, taking down many a man in her way – including members of the constabulary. Her righthand woman Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) is the opposite, Catholic and introverted but headstrong, which makes the pairing work a treat. It also creates moments for Phryne to school Dot on life’s most important issues, like the feel of silk underwear: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure… If these things happen to appeal to men, well… really that’s a side issue”. Each episode costs about one million dollars to produce – probably why the clothes are amazing!
There are also some great period shows set in the ’50s – which happens to be one of my favourite decades! British drama Call the Midwife (2012–) revolves around a group of midwives and nuns in poverty stricken East London. There are a lot of babies and birth scenes, but also a humorous side. Uniquely, it almost exclusively focuses on women’s stories told through a woman’s eyes. Masters of Sex (2013 –), is an American drama about Dr William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), pioneers of research into sex. It makes you feel like today’s sex education is so progressive. The show also discusses sex from a woman’s perspective, as Virginia encourages using their research to investigate the female orgasm.
Then there’s Love Child (2014–), which deals with the sexual revolution of the ’60s. Nurse-turned-doctor Joan Miller (Jessica Marais) assists the women at Stanton House, a home for unmarried pregnant young women whose babies are forcibly put up for adoption. Despite this, the women fight to make their own choices and stand up to those with authority. It also stars Miranda Tapsell as Martha, a young indigenous woman and portrays her struggle to reconnect with her mother, having been forced from her as a child.
Usually reserved for masculine narratives, wartime drama and women are not a common duo. However, surprisingly there are some great examples. Anzac Girls (2014) is an Australian miniseries following nurses during the First World War, which was good but too romanticised. The Bletchley Circle (2012 – 2014) tells the story of four women code breakers from World War II who are trying to readjust to post war life, but instead take it upon themselves to solve crimes. Land Girls (2009 – 2012) follows women in the British Land Army and Bomb Girls (2012 – 2013) is a Canadian drama on women workers in a munitions factory. They follow the difficulties these women faced being taken seriously in a ‘man’s’ job, as well as the positives of new independence.
It’s encouraging to see more period shows with feminist tones, however the representation of a more diverse group of women’s stories, from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, needs to be the next step in creating a wellrounded genre. Luckily, there is plenty to keep my procrastination going in the meantime, and unsuspecting friends and family receive a little dose of feminism whenever they ask what tv shows I’ve been watching.