I blame my own questioning queerness on period pieces. Think “Sense and Sensibility,” “A Room With a View” and, of course, “Pride and Prejudice.” Growing up watching British-produced historical dramas, I was there for Mr. Darcy’s declaration of love to Elizabeth Bennet in that rainy pavilion (the 2005 Keira Knightley version, of course) and stood alongside Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) as her wit got matched by each of her suitors. I have wept, wallowed and fallen into bouts of rage at the emotional turmoil experienced by the heroines of Jane Austen’s imagination, women who valued their own wit over external appearances.
I personally think of period pieces set in the regency age of upper class snobbery and derogatory class attitudes, the age where women had grandiose debutante coming-out parties. I think of ballrooms filled with white silks, taffetas, pearls and feathers, a blur of jovial expressions and light laughter, all set to the sound of string quartets. The time of courtship, delicate yet determined like a game of chess, the final prize being a partnership with one of better or equal social standing. Perhaps part of the appeal was hoping for a setting completely different to my own: a fantasy of frivolity, a sense of the senseless, a complete and utter guilty pleasure of mine to escape to for two hours at a time.
However, my obsession with period pieces meant that all my romantic emotional growth developed from witnessing heteronormative, cisgender relations unravel onscreen. There lies the fault. While I am indeed still attracted to the intricate mass of storylines and battle of wits from the ornery female characters, watching these heteronormative relations only countered my own sexual identity.
In my personal narrative, I no longer have a preference for the romantic partners that the film’s headstrong heroines are attracted to — I rather prefer the heroines themselves.
And yet, it is always male characters who are romanticized.
Whenever Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley steps into the frame, light piano always seems to play while sunlight streams through a window and hits their porcelain cheekbones like that of marble statues. I now find myself falling in love with the idea of falling in love as the female leads do, except for a partner of a different gender identity.
But I do have to hand it to period pieces for capturing the female gaze in a manner unbeknownst to other genres. While I am left wishing the camera would picture the heroines in the same light as their male counterparts, we the viewers are taking on the gaze of the female heroine. And in the actual relationship itself, it is often the women who take command and set the cadence of the partnership — something I can hold onto as aspirational to have in my own life.
Alongside the abject straightness of period pieces is the complete whitewashing of history. Black and non-Black people of color were always present in Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian societies, even in the higher echelons that period pieces depict, and yet the British Film Institute of Research found that 80% of U.K. period dramas made between 2006 and 2016 had no Black actors involved. The whiteness of period pieces presents another problematic challenge to my own narrative; as I stand as a white-presenting woman of color, the on-screen romances speak to only one facet of my identity. As my race has, and will continue to, factor heavily into my romantic relationships, period pieces further distance myself from my reality.
The racialization of period pieces only leaves room for white actors to bring normative narratives to life. If these works are still to be widely received by the mainstream audience, they shouldn’t have to rely on bringing in Hollywood legends to maintain interest. Historical dramas have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a story rich in dialogue, with massive insight into a character’s own development.
Perhaps this is why I am now drawn to works such as Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” or Hulu’s new series “The Great.” Through their alternative takes on period pieces, either with a queer lens or colorblind casting, these works design a more accurate desire for my own sexuality and identity, while still offering the elements of a period piece romance I crave.
It is the smallest of romantic gestures that invoke the largest emotional turmoil within a character, set to the sound of steaming orchestral strings. This is what I yearn for: The gracing of a hand, the glance across a crowded room to be the kindling that feeds the fire of a relationship. It can be done, to produce a film rich in content that encapsulates the escapism of a period piece, while being grounded in a love story to fit all manners of non-normative, queer relationships. I will just have to patiently wait for the film industry to realize this too.