Can Period Dramas ever be Feminist?

The last couple of years have seen an upsurge in TV and Film adaptations of literary classics, with a distinctly feminist twist. In 2018, period drama fans were treated to another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic ‘Little Women’. Then came Autumn De Wilde’s ‘Emma’, and the Apple TV mini-series ‘Dickinson’.

The latest adaptation to join this discussion is Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’, based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling romance series, set in the aristocratic marriage market of Regency-era England. Despite being Netflix’s biggest ever series, the sex-fuelled soap-opera has divided feminist viewers. To the shows’ credit, its protagonist, Daphne Bridgerton, is at the forefront of a difficult discussion about women’s limited life options and education. Daphne marries without any knowledge of how babies are conceived or what sex entails. But the show’s focus on how unfair and ridiculous this is is where its feminist merits end.

‘Bridgerton’ most significantly lets down the women of colour in its supposedly ‘colour-blind’ casting. Audiences can’t ignore that the only aristocratic woman to be unhappily married by the end of the series is Marina. It could be argued that this is a commentary on the racial prejudices of the era, but Marina’s skin colour is never mentioned, so her narrative feels like it has simply fallen into a lazy stereotype.  

For viewers who take issue with ‘Bridgerton’s sex scenes, which are male centred and often violent, Jodie Turner-Smith’s new three-part drama about Anne Boleyn will focus on Anne’s battle to protect her daughter, rather than on sex and romance. It is not known yet when the series will air, but whenever it does, there is no doubt that it will face a tough task in trying to marry the feminist ideals of the 21st century with the history of the past.

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Eliza Duckworth

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July 2021
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