WHY ARE PERIOD DRAMAS SO POPULAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

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 WHY ARE PERIOD DRAMAS SO POPULAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY?


Although the term “period drama” is often believed to describe all of those movies set in the 18th or 19th century, it actually refers to any film production that takes place in a historical period with drama in it. That is why The Crown (2016-present) is considered to be a period drama as well as Persuasion (2022) or Peaky Blinders (2017-2022). However, what it is most surprising is that historical romantic movies are becoming more popular nowadays than they were before. Bear in mind that the famous Netflix TV series Bridgerton only came out three years ago, in 2020. What is it, then, that makes them so appreciated in the present era? 



ROMANCE


First of all, romance is the key to gain the audience’s attention; as a matter of fact, the way the love story is told is crucial. According to many psychologists, the idea of forbidden love is very appealing to our brain, because it is linked to the unconscious desire for what we cannot have. It seems that everybody is looking for an impossible something or someone due to personal dissatisfaction or lack of confidence. It is common to believe that buying an expensive object or having a partner can somehow fix ourselves, filling the missing parts of our souls. 

In period dramas there is always an obstacle that hinders the two lovers from being together, which represents the desire for the impossible that lies somewhere within all of us, and that is what keeps everyone attached to the screen.


The romantic archetypes have an essential role too; the slow-burn romance makes every step of the relationship more significant and captivating. The so-called “hand scene” by Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), in which Mr. Darcy flexes his hand after touching Elizabeth’s hand without gloves for the first time, is an example of the importance that short moments have in the story development. The audience feels pleasure in these little body contacts and slight demonstrations of emotions. 



“Pride and Prejudice”, 2005



Moreover, the slowness of ancient times contrasts the necessity for speed in the modern world. Today everything must be quick, which is a consequence of the 20th century technological revolution, with an increasing development in the 21st century. Thanks to the internet we can have everything we want with a click: food, news or clothes, but also social interactions and a partner. In seeing the slow-approach system of those ancient times, it comes natural to romanticize that process. The public sees beauty in each movement, in each conversation, in each meeting, since nobody is used to experiencing this kind of interaction. 


Furthermore, another famous trope, which seems to be really appreciated by the youngest audience, is the enemies-to-lovers one. Thinking about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe (Anne with an E, 2017-2020), or Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightly (Emma 2020), it is easy to understand why this trope is so loved. Showing that love can be found where you least expect it, provides a motivation to have a closer look at our surroundings in real life. 




“Emma”, 2020




ESCAPISM THROUGH AESTHETICISM 


Although romance is perhaps what makes period dramas so recognizable, it is not the only reason why they are now so admired. People often decide to watch a movie in order to escape reality; escapism provides a chance to forget about a boring world and live in a different one.

Somehow romantic period dramas succeed in portraying the best part of past periods, yet they forget to show the bigger picture. The aesthetic created by the dresses, balls, old houses, and rich lifestyles helps the viewers to imagine a better reality than the one we live in, but was it really so perfect? 

Usually, these films don’t mention the enormous flaws of that age: the absence of important human rights, the presence of wars, the great poverty and a corrupted society. As films they must build perfect realities where people can easily see themselves in and, indeed, this is exactly what the audience aims to watch. 


Another aspect that helps create an aesthetic and idealized reality is the representation of masculinity. The adjective “written by women” has been often used to describe main male characters in these films, because they behave exactly how women would like them to do. Thinking about Vronskij (Anna Karenina, 2012) or Mr Darcy himself it is clear that they may act toxic at the beginning of the story, but then it turns out that there is always a reason behind their decisions. Moreover, they are rich gentlemen who demonstrate key values such as loyalty, kindness, and devotion. In short, fictional men are described exactly as women would like them to be in real life. 




“Pride and Prejudice” cast, 2005



WOMEN AS CENTRAL CHARACTERS 


“Instead, it is the male lead who the camera lingers lovingly on: the women are important as characters … but it is the men who are the main objects of lust.” – Dr. Kate Byrne, on  the Cosmopolitan  


From the 1980s until today many films have objectified female characters and few of them have shown women’s desires and their taste in men. In period dramas, women own the leading roles and they gain what they wish for themselves, hence why these stories were so appreciated by women around the 18th and 19th centuries. For the first time, females had their own space in literature, books started to tell stories about their everyday lives as well as tales about heroes and famous battles. 


Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I am so sick of it.”    – Jo March, Little Women (2020)

For instance, “Little Women” is a timeless story for young women trying to discover themselves. Even though it does not seem to have a strong relevance, it has been an important book for women in the 19th century and it continues to help girls today.
However, the importance of women does not exclude male viewers, since everyone seems to be interested in gossip and drama.



“Little Women”, 2020


In conclusion, classical love stories continue to be appreciated by modern viewers for many reasons, but the main one is that these stories survive over the years because they always have something to say. That is what makes them classical tales.

by Costanza Alberti


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