The Tudors, The Borgias, The White Queen, The Young Victoria, Elizabeth: the Golden Age and Elizabeth(both starring Cate Blanchett as the titular character in two movies made less than ten years apart)—a small handful of television shows and films that constitute the veritable snowstorm (in more ways than one) of period dramas in Western media. They span different networks, different countries—in both setting and production. A few of the films have Oscars to boast of, while some of the TV shows, like Downton Abbey, are still on the air while others, like The Borgias, was cancelled after just three seasons. But there’s another defining trait that all of these—and the vast majority of period dramas that permeate our screens—share: they’re all incredibly white. A cursory Google search for “period dramas” brings up this article: “The 30 Best Period Dramas from the Last 30 Years”, only three of which contain major characters that aren’t white. It’s incredibly disheartening.
It isn’t as if there’s no historical material to draw on. People of color have been involved in Western history since, well, almost always actually. We wouldn’t even have to draw on the history of other countries, though that would bring a refreshing change to what we normally see. North American history itself doesn’t even originate with white people. Native Americans are occasionally seen in Westerns, sure, or films like Terrence Malick’s The New World
, but they are rarely seen as more than supporting characters to a white story. It’s as if people of color cannot exist without white people in mainstream media. Why not a story about Native Americans before
European settlers invaded their land? Or one that centers on Chinese immigrants during the building of the railroads, or possibly something about the Mexican-American War? These stories simply do not exist, according to our television and movie screens.
While period dramas based on countries other than the United States are plentiful, they just so happen to take place in countries that are predominantly white. Take Reign, for example. Centered on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, it’s a North American production, distributed and produced by Warner Bros. and CBS, with the main acting roles held by Canadian (as well as Australian and British) actors, even though Reign is about Scottish royalty in France. These shows are not concerned with North American history; the issue is not a matter of what may or may not be relevant to US viewers. It’s a matter of race. Just this season, one of Fox’s new dramas, Hieroglyph, which was set in ancient Egypt and generating a lot of buzz, was suddenly axed despite being ordered straight to series. Why? Supposedly, after shooting the pilot, the scripts they were getting for later episodes were “underwhelming,” which justified their reasoning. But let’s be honest, shows with terrible scripts make it every season, with some cancelled after just a few episodes. So why the decision to drop Hieroglyph?
It’s the same reason why there aren’t more television shows or films that embrace POC-centric history. It’s the same reason that novels like Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina are adapted over and over again rather than the work of say, Murasaki Shikibu (can you image a series based on The Tale of Genji—because I can and it would be amazing). It’s not that there’s no demand for it. It’s that it’s symptomatic of the larger issue of racism in Western media. Racism isn’t always as direct as something like blackface or yellowface (though that’s unfortunately still prevalent, with Topic Thunder and Cloud Atlas being recent examples). Sometimes it’s erasure—simply defined here as the lack of representation, effectively erasing POC from our screens, which goes almost unnoticed except by those who are confronted with the glaring lack of representation on their screens ever day. It’s so ubiquitous that there’s actually a blog called “Medieval POC,” which seeks to educate about the presence of POC in history. Although, despite the abundance of academic sources, the blog is constantly met under fire from individuals who wish to assert that POC didn’t exist in Europe before slavery became prevalent. These are downright racist opinions that undoubtedly stem from the white-centric media that we are spoon-fed daily.
Luckily, all hope it not lost. FX is developing Conquistadors, a series based on Kim MacQuarrie’s book The Last Days of the Inca (though it should not go unnoticed that the original title, which references the Inca themselves, has been changed to make it more European-centric, which is rather irritating—but at least the project is a step in the right direction), and Spike TV has rekindled dreams for an ancient Egypt series with Tut. But these are only two small examples which fall short in the larger scope of Western media—we need more, and on a bigger scale. It’s a pattern that needs to change, and the excuses are tired. History does not exist in a vacuum. Media does not exist in a vacuum. So let’s stop pretending it does, and demand the change we wish to see. Our history is incredibly rich and colorful—it’s time for our media to step up to its own palette.