Zoe Strimpel

Most-read 2021: The Netflix generation has lost its grip on history

Most-read 2021: The Netflix generation has lost its grip on history
Bridgerton, Image: Netflix
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We're closing the year by republishing our ten most popular articles in 2021. Here's number four: Zoe Strimpel writing in February about how popular portrayals of the past are being changed to fit the present. 

The first thing you notice about Bridgerton, Netflix’s big winter blockbuster set in Regency England, is how bad it is: an expensive assemblage of clichés that smacks of the American’s-eye view of Britain’s aristocratic past. The dialogue is execrable, the ladies’ pouts infuriating. But bad things can be good, especially when it comes to sexy period romps. Bridgerton is no different. The story follows the elder children of the Bridgerton family as they look for love in a utopian sprawl of courtly landscape and sociality. Based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling novel and adapted for Netflix by Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of multi-season binge classic Gray’s Anatomy), the invitation to let one’s hair down and enjoy the ride – dialogue be damned – is a powerful one. Over 80 million households have accepted it so far. 

But there is more to Bridgerton than sex, corsetry and calling cards. It is the most audacious example yet in a growing pantheon of historical drama that peddles a vision of the past crudely shaped by present-day preoccupations. People worry about fake news. I worry about fake history. 

Popular representations of history have always bent to fit contemporary tastes and, to some degree, ideologies. But there are ways to do this with verve or subtlety; the BBC’s uproarious Gentleman Jack is a good example, which was based on the private letters of the 19th century lesbian estate owner Ann Lister. The first few seasons of Call the Midwife did at least try to capture the feel of post-war Britain, although recent seasons have gone the way of the times: sentimental and clumsily woke. The same became true of Downton Abbey, which distorted the realities of class to show an Edwardian Earl agonising about the comfort and feelings of his servants. 

Feminism started it. Everywhere one looks, notable women are portrayed as justice-demanding swashbucklers – and sexy too. In Dickinson, a 2019 drama about the New England poet Emily Dickinson, historical fact gave way to a message of ‘empowerment’. Dickinson was presented as irreverent, noisy and sexually fluid. She even twerked to Taylor Swift. 

The Great, Hulu’s 2020 take on Catherine the Great, had no discernible interest in anything remotely factual, while an HBO miniseries on the Russian queen expected viewers to welcome a 70-something Helen Mirren playing a 30-something in perpetual fury about everyday sexism. Jamestown, Sky's eight-part drama about early English settlers in America, included feisty young women taking a stand against being forced to have sex with their husbands. 

But Bridgerton takes historical revisionism further, by focussing on racial politics, the flashpoint of our time. The apparently colour-blind casting is refreshing and fun. But viewers who make it to the fourth episode learn that it is not just a defiant exercise in itself. A revisionist dream underpins the show in which people of colour have been lifted to the upper echelons of society because King George III fell in love with ‘one of us’, as Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) says. ‘Bridgerton has ‘restor[ed] people of color to imagined all-white spaces like Regency England’, said one critic for New York magazine’s entertainment site Vulture. That ‘one of us’ is Queen Charlotte, who is black in Bridgerton’s fictional world, but also, we are made to believe, in the real world too. This particular storyline seems to be based on a claim made by an obscure historian called Mario De Valdes y Cocom who has suggested that Charlotte descended from a Moorish concubine in the Portuguese royal house. This might well be so, but as David Williamson, former co-editor of Debrett’s, put it: ‘There is a lot of Moorish blood in the Portuguese royal family and it has diffused over the rest of Europe. This hardly means the Queen was 'black'. 

The past is increasingly being massaged to fit the present fixation with diversity. For those committed to exposing Britain’s racist, colonialist past, an overhaul of what counts as historically significant is the first step. Statue toppling is one approach, ‘decolonising’ the curriculum another. Museums are under pressure to ensure their collections fit with the contemporary narrative. Is it silly to worry about the part played by trashy romps in all this? I don’t think so. History is picked up unconsciously. Over time, assumptions about the way things were come to shape mass understanding of the way things are. Fiction becomes fact. With its hundreds of millions of viewers, what Netflix decides is history matters. 

Basic historical knowledge, after all, is not strong. A recent survey found that one in ten millennials thought Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister during world war one. Nearly half thought it was Churchill. The Crown is Netflix’s jewel of fake history. It is spectacularly convincing. Amazing efforts were made to evoke the past convincingly, which gives the show the aura of history. But it strays from the past whenever it suits the creators. How many viewers would have known that Thatcher’s decision to go to war over the Falklands wasn’t in fact an emotional response to her son Mark going missing in Africa? It doesn’t take much to swing the balance of historical knowledge further and further away from the truth. 

When Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, asked Netflix to add a disclaimer stating that The Crown was only based on real events, it refused. Viewers were instead warned about upsetting scenes of Diana’s bulimia. But the rise of fake history on our screens should disturb us too. 

Listen to Zoe Strimpel and Tom Stammers discuss Bridgerton and diversity trends in TV on their culture podcast Hyped!