I watch a lot of TV and movies, as any reader of this blog knows and I enjoy period dramas, but in recent years they’ve begun to worry me. Where they show the realities of society at “the time” they show racism, homophobia, violence against women, women and people of colour as inferior and almost every other kind of social attitude/behaviour that (most) of us want to see gone for good. Any consumer of drama is exposed to far more of these negative visions than positive ones. This is both because we look back to previous periods in history and because of the weight of literature and film made in days where such attitudes/behaviours were the norm.
Can we give young people (and older people) clear ideas of respect toward women, for instance, and sexual equality (or gender equality) when they get a diet of images that show the opposite? Most people, of course, aren’t influenced by a single image/book/movie/show, but repeated exposure can have a normalising affect.
I’m no wowser suggesting we need to tidy up the canon, only have “politically correct characters” or re-invent history to exclude the truth, but I worry that every time we make a Downtown Abbey, Peaky Blinders, The Village, Harlots, or even something like Westworld, which puts history in the future, we are putting some pretty awful “social norms” in front of people again… and again.
One of the attractions of sci-fi for me is that you can imagine cultures with different social norms… mind you much sci-fi doesn’t do that and repeats – often unconsciously – the inequalities of the past and present. I’ve always seen this as a failure of imagination.
Of course fantasy has, to a large extent, modeled its societies on old earth social structures so it has the period drama problem in a different way again!
I’m aware there is enough contemporary drama – particularly on screen – which uses racism, homophobia and (my least favourite) sexual violence as easy ways to create conflict and erect barriers for characters. I have a whole other problem with that.
In a way I think the fact we aren’t writing “aspirationally” in work set now makes the weight of all those period pieces greater. It’s a shame really, because I think some period dramas are among the finest bits of TV out there in the last decade or so!