Public/Gender History and the rise of the new ‘Historical Woman’

Over the last 18 months, I have been investigating a (relatively new) sub-genre of Public History that I have named Public/Gender History. Public/Gender History represents avenues of Public History (museum exhibits, statues, documentaries, books, films, TV shows, podcasts etc.) that are determined to tell new and improved stories about the history of gender, and more specifically about women. What makes this sub-genre notable, and worth recognising, is that creators truly believe they are doing something different and something more impactful than Public History that has come before. And in many ways they are.

The main tenants of Public/Gender History that I have observed are:

  1. The desire to tell ‘untold’ or ‘forgotten’ stories that relate to gender and/or women.
  2. The determination (in most cases) to make women the centre of the story and ‘make their voices heard’ above all others
  3. The aim to include a diverse range of participants through the creators, production team, actors, or through the historical individuals being highlighted.
  4. The acknowledgement of the influence of the Me Too Movement, Black Lives Matter Movement and LGBTQ+ Pride Movements on the production and the way in which the stories are told.
  5. The belief that they are doing something new or something different by telling these stories in this way.

I believe the rise in Public/Gender History has coincided with the rise of fourth-wave feminism (from around 2012) and the prominence of social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter. The activism that has defined the fourth-wave, and the rise of social media activism, has highlighted the very real desire for stories that are intersectional, diverse and thereby giving voices to the silenced. The result of which, is unsurprisingly, an increase in stories with complex, dimensional, interesting, female characters, who are written with the same care and in the same depth with which male characters have been written for decades. This is also (slowly) starting to include a different sort of male character as well as non-binary, trans and queer characters, alongside women.

In Academia, this trend of ‘history from below’ and the rise of black histories, gender histories, lgbtq+ histories and more, has been going on for decades. But it has been slow to reach the public domain. For the majority of those who aren’t involved in Academic History, Public History has been dominated by white/male/upper class narratives of the Tudors, the Empire and the World Wars. Though these narratives are now being challenged (especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests last June and the consequential dumping of the Edward Colston statue into the Bristol Harbour) there is still a lot of work to be done. Which is why the appearance of Public/Gender History over the last few years and its overall aims and principles, are inherently a good sign. They are challenging the dominant white/male/upper class narratives, and providing an alternative viewpoint for the public to engage with.

So far, I have identified just over 20 examples within the entertainment industry alone, that I feel represent the values of Public/Gender History. Some have been executed better than others, I have mentioned many in blogposts previously, and overall I feel as though each are making positive contributions to the field of Public History simply by starting a conversation and diversifying the type of History being told. In the last year or so examples of Public/Gender History are becoming bolder and more overt, no longer simply wanting to tell stories about forgotten or silenced women but to actually subvert many of the established notions about gender, race and sexuality that were present in the past, and in modern day. It is through these stories that a new type of Historical Woman is being presented to the public.

The new type of Historical Woman can be found in the follow 3 television shows: Dickinson (2019-), The Great (2020-), and The Pursuit of Love (2021). There are of course other examples to be found, but for now these are the three I will be focusing on. These three stand out most, due to the way they have approached the character’s speech, their attitudes, their body language, all the way through to the clothes they wear and the music that is the soundtrack to their journey through the episode. There are subtle (and some not so subtle) modernisations going on in all three series that are helping to change the way we view Gender and the lives of women in the past. For literary purists and certain academics, this may be the opposite of what Public History should be, it is after all inherently inaccurate, but it is also pretty brilliant.

Each series attempts this modernisation in a slightly different way:

1) Dickinson – not only do the characters use modern slang and abbreviations that most definitely would not be found in mid-19th Century America, but the general social cues of the society are marginally more modern than is accurate. Emily Dickinson is brazen and dramatic as a character, her body language is free, relaxed and slightly wild, she pulls odd facial expressions, does impressions of other characters, slumps around on chairs and collapses with an exaggerated flair and is incredibly quirky in her demeanour. Obviously very little is known about the real Emily Dickinson’s mannerisms, but it is fair to assume the characterisation of Dickinson was created with artistic licence in mind. And it makes her all the more relatable to young girls watching her on their screen in 2021. The other characters are similarly modernised; there is an overtly queer character in Emily’s friend-group (played by Asian-Canadian actor Kevin Yee) who is a notably out of place, but welcome member of the ensemble cast); the character Lavinia Dickinson is likewise extremely radical in her views on marriage and monogamy, and is confident in her own sexuality, all things that of course existed in the period but were not necessarily so openly acknowledged. The show is littered with modern music and some unexpected dance routines, and the characters share progressive (for the time) opinions on the slave trade, and have discussions on gender equality issues and racism that resonate heavily with the present day. They are also inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community, with their main love story taking place between the two female leads. Overall the gender stereotypes that we have seen in previous depictions of historical dramas, and that dictated the time period have been squashed and replaced with different, and more complex versions of both men and women, wherein toxic masculinity and the patriarchy (though present in plotlines and conversations) is eradicated through the portrayal of the characters. All in all a thoroughly modern interpretation on the life of a very famous Historical Woman.

2) The Great – likewise does not try particularly hard to be historically accurate. Based on the life of Catherine the Great, the TV show veers almost immediately into fiction and is very loosely based on real events for the entire season. Catherine and Peter are quite ludicrous caricatures of their historical figures but somehow it works. Catherine is wildly optimistic, a little naive, but also determined and passionate about leading Russia into a golden age, whilst Peter is quite simply insane, a little dangerous, and momentarily rather sweet. Again there is a lot of modern language and innuendo-esque jokes that would not have existed in the time period; the female characters especially are a lot more relaxed in their body language and their movement than perhaps would have been expected of them in real life, and they are given more freedom to express themselves and their desires. The show opts for colour-blind casting (with actors-of-colour portraying members of the nobility without mention of race or ethnicity ever being mentioned) which is a decision with both positives and negatives, but certainly diversifies the show for the modern audience in (I presume) an attempt to be progressive. In terms of costume, music, and set, it remains quite accurate, but the general madness of the show, the storylines and the behaviour of each and every character is what makes it thoroughly different. It is not that impressive in terms of providing a space for POC or the LGBTQ+ community, as no stories are particularly relevant or overtly inclusive, but there is great care taken in the writing and portrayal of the female characters, who are layered, complex, difficult and relatable to modern womanhood. Moreover, again like with Dickinson, the portrayal of masculinity and manhood is subverted, and the male characters are given more depth and sensitivity that previous examples of historical fiction in TV. Certainly more can be done to make The Great a better example of Public/Gender history (more inclusive to non-white, queer voices) but it is undoubtedly an example of the new Historical Woman (and Man) in action.

3) The Pursuit of Love – the most recent on the list and the one that made me realise a trend was happening! I think this show caught my attention because each character was so authentic and so brazenly themselves. I know this is based upon a book in which the characters are very similar to the ones we see on screen, so perhaps this New Historical Woman character is not as new as I have implied, however it is still a new concept in the entertainment industry and to public history, and so still counts! The Pursuit of Love is shot in a noticeable modernised, Wes Anderson style fashion, with very eccentric set dressing, popular music that was released long after the era the story is set, and a generally quite camp feel (which I LOVE). The combination of this filming style, the modern music and the characterisation is what makes it stand out for me. In terms of Public/Gender it excels in several ways; firstly, and with all 3 shows, it’s main character Linda is the perfect example of the New Historical Woman – she is utterly and unapologetically herself, she is overdramatic, naive, easily led, eccentric, in tune with her own sexuality, selfish, unkind, superbly sweet and extremely complex. Other characters also represent a turn to more Public/Gender influenced history, with Andrew Scott describing his character Merlin as a ‘fluid’ character, and his desire to use Merlin to prove that “sexual and gender identity has been explored since the dawn of time”. This fluidness of characters, and the different examples of gender expression and lives of women in the past is what makes The Pursuit of Love a fun and new example of Public/Gender History.

In essence the ‘New Historical Woman’ is allowed to be a bit more free, and a bit less perfect than ever before, and as a result we as the audience get to learn more than ever before from them. By holding the male and female characters to more modern standards you get to see a new version of gender, sexuality and race being explored within Public History. Though the hardships and oppressive beliefs of the historical period are very much present (and should be) within these works of Public/Gender History, they are being dismantled and challenged in new ways.

I am excited for the future of Public/Gender History, and for the new examples that will be created and presented in the future. I hope to see more of the New Historical Woman, but I also hope Public/Gender History will go even further than that. I think it is important that creators, and those engaged with fourth-wave feminism are attempting to create Public History that tells stories of gender from all perspectives, including non-binary, trans, queer and non-white experiences. There are still plenty of stories about complex important women that can be told, and should be told, but there are also so many more stories to discover. The character of the ‘New Historical Woman’ is essentially a character that diverges from the expectations and normalities of the time, this can be applied to a multitude of different characters and it is the responsibility of Public/Gender History to get those stories told.

I hope to be a part of this journey, or bringing Public/Gender History to the forefront of the narrative. It is a worthy and important sub-genre of Public History and I cannot wait to explore it more.

You can watch Dickinson on Apple TV, The Great on All4, and the Pursuit of Love on BBC – in the UK.

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