Period dramas are the pride of British cinema. They are addictive, entertaining, and oftentimes endearing. The servants are written as funny, the women seem to transgress societal norms, and the men are just adorable in their slowly changing misogyny. The smallest gesture of rebellion is a revolution. Yet this is precisely where the danger lies. As Ken Loach said about BBC dramas: ‘Don’t bother your heads with what’s going on now, just wallow in fake nostalgia. It’s bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep.’
Jane Austen’s heroine walking through a field holding up her dress is seen as an act of rebellion; women learning to drive is seen as rebellion; women standing up for their fundamental rights is an act of rebellion. And while it’s true that these were all acts of transgression, and oftentimes acts of bravery, the way they are now romanticised as the ultimate display of feminism holds back the development of a true rebellious spirit.
The transgressive characters in these stories are ultimately selfish, helping only themselves and their own social class. The romanticisation of British history shows a blatant disregard for its real history. Even in dramas that supposedly deal with the industrialisation of Britain, such as North & South, the capitalist owner of the factory, who exploits his workers and treats them appallingly, is given a redemption arc, and finally gets to be with the girl (who, of course, helps poor people). Loach is right in saying that these dramas put our brains to sleep – they enforce the belief that society is perfectly fine as long as people are ‘good’, that there is not something inherently wrong with its system, and that all our problems can be blamed on a few evil characters.
The current middle class loves these stories: they keep us comfortable in our idea that, as long as we are minimally transgressive, we are changing the world. The fact that the middle class was constructed on dirty, imperialist money is overlooked in this narrative. Instead of changing the system, we are encouraged to try and make it ‘better’: real change is hidden behind shiny colonial diamonds and ‘the good old days’.
The aesthetic of these dramas is perhaps the most deluded aspect of them. The scenery is clean and flowery; everyone looks healthy and beautiful; the reality of gruesome medical methods, hygiene, and poverty is not shown. The characters in films like Bright Star die in polished ways, such as from illnesses that cause a light sweat but are not too unpleasant to watch.
This genre being named ‘costume dramas’ alone alludes to the fact that the romanticisation of the clothes the characters wear is central to their popularity, and subsequently a crucial part of the problem. The national nostalgia for an entire era of British history being based on dresses and top hats is an issue that relates to society’s current obsession with fast fashion – escaping from the problems that surround us in the real world by burying ourselves in material possessions and constantly chasing after new things to wear, in an attempt to define ourselves through our wardrobe.
Perhaps we find something calming in the fashion of period dramas, in the slow countryside and the conversations free from politics. But this is pure denial: the world of the 20th, 19th, or 18th century was never still, and was certainly not peaceful. The ballrooms of Jane Austen’s novels are as far removed from reality as the living rooms we consume them in.