Why "it's historically inaccurate!" Isn't an Excuse to Not Cast BIPOC in Western Period Dramas
an article by Cathay Lau
Dear Asian Youth,
I love Western period dramas. You know, the ones that are normally a Jane Austen or Brontë Sister adaptation full of commentary on social class, social appearances, religion, and of course (the most enticing theme to me anyway)... love. There was always a certain romanticization to these stories told by women of their time. It was as if I had evidence that during one era of the world, romance and happiness in a crowd of faceless tribulations was still possible, even for characters as headstrong and daring as Elizabeth Bennet or as freedom-loving and dignified as Jane Eyre. When I had heard that these novels had already been adapted into films, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was one thing reading fiction printed on paper, but it was a whole other thing being able to see it play out on screen. There was no need for imagination -- the main female characters that I had always visualised as myself were going to come to life on a thirteen inch laptop that I had named Tilda. I loved it. So I would press play and begin watching, only to find that absolutely no one looked like me. Not the side characters, not the town hall dancers, not even the background barmaids.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’d be lying if I wrote that even a little part of me didn’t expect it. I knew that if we were speaking about these dramas in terms of historical accuracy, it made sense to have an all white cast. Right? Like Diep Tran puts it, “Even post-2010, you still can’t cast an actor of color in a period role without someone crying out, “historical inaccuracy!”. Joking aside, although the authors probably wrote their works with accuracy that pertained to their era, it is important to recognise that these novels are fictional. A lot of the stories are written by incredibly progressive women of their time, many of which used pseudonyms due to the attitudes surrounding women who wrote and were published at the time. An example of this, according to Yohana Desta, is Louisa May Alcott, who although published her most famous work ‘Little Women’ under her real name, had been writing with the male pen name ‘A.M. Barnard’ for her smaller pieces of fiction. Another example is Emily Brontë, who published the renowned ‘Wuthering Heights’ under the alias ‘Ellis Bell’. Of course, she would later be exposed as the true writer, which I don’t think she would be too annoyed about if she was still alive today. I don’t believe that she and many other female writers of nineteenth-century fiction would be very bothered by BIPOC being cast as protagonists in adaptations of their work either. Hell, I think they would advocate for it! Why would they be against inclusion when they werekick-ass back in their day and had their works published despite the patriarchy discouraging it? The only reason they had pseudonyms anyway was so men would be tricked and subconsciously encouraged to read fiction written by women.
For decades in the film industry (particularly in Hollywood) and even centuries in certain theatre cultures, people have played roles that they shouldn’t have -- roles that they did not identify with. From actors like John Wayne, who would “tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface” (according to British-born Chinese actress, Gemma Chan), to Al Jolson’s “persistent use of the burnt-cork makeup commonly known as blackface” (written by Ted Gioia), to even renaissance England when male actors would play female roles due to women stepping on stage being illegal, practices that are fundamentally racist and sexist have been everywhere in media and entertainment history. Probably the source of the largest East Asian discourse on media representation in the twenty-first century is Scarlett Johansson, who in 2017 played a robotic Japanese woman in the film ‘Ghost in the Shell’. To this day, these practices are still being used despite the years of progression we as a society have made in attitudes towards representation. Isn’t it time that we took our own roles back? That we decide how we present ourselves and our identity as a unit of race, ethnicity, gender, et cetera? To cast an individual who is not the race of the character that they are playing is, in itself, inaccurate. Verbatim. I believe the “it’s historically inaccurate” point can be put aside given the decades of media and entertainment history that hasn’t been.
Despite these seemingly hopeless transgressions, there have been gradual signs of improvement in the media and entertainment industry. One example is Hamilton, a hugely successful musical that has been praised for its inclusive casting of BIPOC. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the musical’s playwright) stated that “this is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance- our story should look the way our country looks”, hammering home the thoughts of BIPOC actors and audiences when full white cast TV shows and film are repeatedly used as representation. Additionally, in an interview for Indiewire, David Oyelowo (who starred in the Les Misérables TV mini series) stated that “If you are an actual genuine student of history- and not just coming from an ignorant kind of purely white lens in relation to European history- you’d know that people of color have been in France, in the UK, all over Europe, for centuries, and not just as slaves”. This was in response to criticisms of historical inaccuracy. To not cast any BIPOC in periodic dramas is to, in a sense, deny that they existed in the Western hemisphere when they did.
This also disregards the struggles of BIPOC as ‘minorities’ in Western countries and the discrimination they faced as well as the hard work they put into their lives. Furthermore, the majority of BIPOC representation in Hollywood period dramas has been in support of the ‘white saviour’ narrative. A popular example of this is the 2011 film ‘The Help’ which told the story of a white woman (Emma Stone) named Skeeter in the 1960s writing a book on African American maids who work for white families. She meets Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) and they agree to be interviewed by her. Although the premise of the film was to perhaps bring light to injustices in the history of ill treatment towards African Americans, the film/novel still perpetuates the fantasy of a white woman’s actions being the only possible way to overcome African American struggles. Frankie Stein writes that “the problem isn’t that Skeeter is against racism and is willing to support these women, the problem is that the story is told in a way that seems like the reason Aibileen and Minny ever overcome their obstacles is because of Skeeter”. It in essence portrays the white character as the one who should be praised and is a hero, taking away the actual message that the film is trying to get across to the audience.
To refuse to cast BIPOC in any Western period dramas is only adding to the lack of representation in an already homogenous genre. To simply put it, “but it’s not historically accurate!” is not an excuse. Sure, if the film is a reenactment of a historical event, then it would be more understandable as the purpose is educational or to raise a message of the past to the audience. For a purely fictional period drama however, the casting of BIPOC is what I believe is needed. The power of representation on screen is widely agreed on by the majority of ‘minorities’ in the West to be hugely impactful in developing your own self image and identity. To imagine a younger version of myself watching more fictional characters who shared the same ethnicity as me feels like something that frustratingly could have happened but didn’t. I know that I would have felt moved and validated, even if I was too young to fully understand why. These are the experiences in your developmental years that stick with you until you’re mature enough to fully grasp the idea of. To even have seen a BIPOC who wasn’t Chinese like myself would have given me hope that maybe looking different was ‘acceptable’ enough to be on screen. We could have saved a lot of wasted years, confusion and perhaps self-hatred if we embraced an inclusive world, including something even as seemingly insignificant as a genre of film/novels like period dramas. To end on a positive note, I would like to recommend a taste of a short period drama set in nineteenth century England by the channel Refinery29, starring Gemma Chan and Sope Dirisu.
- Cathay Lau