The appeal of nostalgia seems to be a common explanation whenever a historical narrative (on film or television in particular) becomes successful among the public. But what if in some cases it’s more complicated than that? What if, with a bit of conscious consumption of popular television, we get to make interesting discoveries about the present and past of our society?
Lazy Women contributor Lazy Lily has already written a thought-provoking piece on the dangers of popular feminism, specifically on postfeminist ideology and its (negative) effects on impressionable young women. The role of social media in the transformation and degeneration of feminist ideology was mentioned as well as the influence of the film and television industry on our society. I would like to delve into the latter a little bit further, and recommend a few feminist TV series that (subtly, even unintentionally perhaps) draw attention to specific challenges, dilemmas and changes women experience in contemporary society.
One of the interesting trends in contemporary television culture is the (re-)emergence of historical narratives that present hyper-feminist ideology – ideology that did not exist in the mainstream cultures depicted in those particular periods; making these narratives relatable and appealing for contemporary viewers. Our hopes, fears, dreams and achievements are reflected on screen – we see them through characters that are spending their daily lives in 18th century Russian castles, dancing the Charleston in Berlin in the roaring twenties, or preparing briskets in 1950’s New York – I am referring here to the following series: The Great (in which Elle Fanning plays the infamous tsarina, Catherine), Babylon Berlin (Germany’s biggest hit series from the past few years), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest masterpiece). However, many more could be added to the list, including the Australian Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries or the Italian L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend).
What is it that makes these historical narratives about women so appealing now to (mainly female) viewers all around the world? What generated this world-wide trend to revisit historical narratives from a feminist perspective? Is it simply good old nostalgia? A collective search for a golden age? If so, what exactly are we running from in our present, that these narratives can provide “shelter” from?
One look at the screen is enough to realise the series’ historical inaccuracy. This inaccuracy is, however, not due to lack of attention from the costume designers, or caused by mistakes of the shows’ historical advisors. The works are intentionally set in a mythological, rather than the actual past. The Great even states, in the beginning of each episode, that it is “an occasionally true story”. The creators made a fantasy era in each case, which reflects today’s perceptions of the particular past period rather than creating a factual capture of historical times. The sets, the costumes, the characters’ personalities and aspirations are appealing to us, because they present perhaps how we now imagine, even wish, the 18th – 20th centuries looked like.
Lynn Spigel argues that it is not nostalgia that makes these stories appealing to today’s audiences, but “a longing for a past that looks like a better future than the one they [women] will achieve”. What does she mean by that? I believe she refers to the fact that we still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality and as a matter of fact, we are a little bit behind with improvements on this front, given how promising the feminist movements of our ancestors have been. Or do we just imagine that those movements were so promising? Were they even anything like they are portrayed today in pop culture? Let’s just think about that for a moment.
In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we see the main character, Midge, juggle her duties as a mother, her career as a stand-up comic, and her 9-to-5 job as a make-up counter assistant successfully, while always maintaining a conventionally attractive and feminine appearance.
In The Great we meet a real idealist in Catherine, who works ferociously on delivering the Enlightenment’s groundbreaking ideas to the Russian people, despite the obstacles put in her way by her idiotic husband and the backward-thinking, sex-obsessed courtiers. My Brilliant Friend tells the story of two friends growing up in a small industrial town near Naples in the 1950s, focusing on the hardships of being women in an impoverished and overly-traditional environment, which has just started to transform into today’s modern Italy. In Babylon Berlin we follow Charlotte as she makes her way up from being a starving prostitute to working for the Berlin police as their first female detective. Finally, the Australian Miss Fisher solves crimes, while maintaining a financially and sexually independent life.
These shows present a utopia, in which women are not constantly judged for their appearance, in which if there is a gender pay gap, it is easy to overcome, in which women can be mothers and have careers if they choose to without having to feel shame. These shows depict environments and scenarios in which women have a chance to win. It is definitely appealing to the contemporary viewer in today’s reality to get lost in those worlds, pretending that gender equality actually governed these historical settings and providing hope that we can apply the same idealistic thinking to the modern world.
The modern, postfeminist woman is often confused (I certainly am) about her role and place in society due to the conflicting expectations cast upon her, and due to the fact that she is still a constructed “other” in the eyes of society. She can still hardly exist in her own identity, and seeing women from past eras on screen who can, and do, is definitely empowering and pleasurable. I believe it is the reason behind the series’ popularity. In all, the episodes’ sunny undertones, the colourful, happy images, the characters’ uncomplicated relationship with feminism lure us into believing in an idealised past that we want our present to look like, but that never existed in the first place.
Think of the national origin myths that present ancestors in the brightest light. Despite the magical, and clearly false elements of the stories they are still appealing to us and in a sense we believe – if not in the actual events, but in the “spirit” they capture. Feminism (a movement without borders) seems to be reaching back to its own past through popular culture. Just like those national origin myths, the TV shows (created by contemporaries) present progressive, post-feminist women in a glamorous past, that is pleasurable to watch even for the conscious viewer that knows how little truth there is in those portrayals.
I am a strong advocate for consciousness and socio-political awareness when it comes to consuming popular culture. However, occasionally I am definitely up for a good, empty-headed binging of films and television series. In this particular case, I recommend the series discussed here because they are funny, witty and entertaining. But, I’ll remind you, while these shows are appealing, educational, and inspiring from a feminist perspective, they are not enough for real change! After watching for example Mrs Maisel, I would suggest you look up actual female stand-up comics from the 50s, like Jean Carroll and Joan Rivers and learn something about their lives and their participation in the feminist movements of the time. The work done by women in the past to achieve further gender equality is never as simple as depictions in television series suggest; while feminist media representations of women are important, they are only a fraction of the work that still needs to be done.
Written by Gréti Csernik.
Gréti is a cultural journalist interested in fine arts, languages and feminist theory. She holds a BA in History and an MA in Film and Television Studies, from the University of Warwick, she is starting her PhD at LMU Munich. In her free time Gréti enjoys reading, going to the theatre, playing sports and having exciting discussions on philosophy with anyone open to it.