(Public domain image used via)
How much of a story about life in the good old days is fact and how much is fiction? In the HBO miniseries John Adams, a mob of Patriots attack a British customs officer, strip him naked and cover him in tar and feathers. The scene shows the victim slathered in asphalt tar – a substance that did not exist in the 1770s. Mobs instead used pine tar, which is brown instead of black, but filmmakers of course knew that modern viewers would not recognize it as easily as they would asphalt.
Such artistic license is arguably negligible and John Adams deserves distinction as a period drama that is predominantly accurate, rendering its characters and indoor scenes as gray and as musty as life was before electricity and indoor plumbing. Most filmmakers prefer to embellish period dramas, opting for audience appeal over historical accuracy. In the 2002 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Victorian protagonists serenade their beloveds with an upbeat jazz number, which is the equivalent of playing disco music in 1945. And for most of the story, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett look like they always do – that is, clean-shaven and donning boyish coiffures they previously wore in romantic comedies set 100 years later. While parasols and top hats abound, no one in the film is flaunting the glistening hair gel and heavy handle-bar mustaches of the play’s original stage production in 1895.
Directors almost always decide that lovers and heroes in period pieces should adhere to contemporary fashion rules from the neck up, lest audiences be less likely to swoon. Thus pretty much any film set in Ancient Egypt, Rome or the Early Modern Era pretends that men never wore eyeliner or lip rouge. (And that all the good guys looked white.) Films set in the Victorian era correctly leave cosmetics off the men but wrongly apply it to the female characters, who would have been insulted by anything more than face powder. (Makeup was for actresses and prostitutes, and Victorians didn’t see much difference between the two.) Even though Queen Elizabeth II is the most famous woman in the world, the actress who portrays her in the award-winning series The Crown has a far daintier nose and jaw, with eyebrows plucked to evoke the cover girls of today. Filmmakers who wish to forego such historical inaccuracies face an uphill battle, according to John Adams director Tom Hooper: “Wherever possible I wanted to do things that weren’t about making people beautiful. The truth is there’s a whole machine of filmmaking that’s all about making people look great. And you have to really intervene in every department to sort of say, ‘No, I don’t want that. I don’t want people to wear any makeup. You’re not allowed to wash people’s hair.’ ”
Hollywood takes such liberties in the hopes that the audience will barely notice. Viewers watch period dramas in order to oo and ah at the finery, and imagine that they could easily slip into an earlier era and have a grand old time. They can imagine this because they are protected from unpleasant information such as the fact that the powdered and painted aristocrats of Louis XIV’s courts regularly relieved themselves in the gilded corridors and behind the velvet curtains of the palace. Horace Walpole noted the stench at the time, but Hollywood has yet to. The audience’s comfort comes at the expense of the opportunity to learn that standards of attractiveness, cleanliness, and morality are far from universal, shifting continuously throughout human history. Likewise, it is an opportunity to learn that our feelings of disgust are often not innate but a product of where and when we grew up.
A handful of films and plays have thrived by underscoring the changes between then and now. Mad Men earned critical acclaim and a loyal following not only for its meticulously authentic fashion but for subtly laying bare the secrets of everyday life in the early 1960s that TV shows of the era had omitted: rampant infidelity, casual racism, sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, misogyny, covert homosexuality and vicious homophobia, legal date rape, domestic violence, and health hazards as far as the eye can see. Hamilton has been a Broadway sensation for deliberately altering the facts and urging the audience to take notice – wanting all to be fully aware of the historical significance of people of color portraying national heroes who owned slaves.
Mad Men and Hamilton have garnered attention precisely because they deny audiences the escapism so commonly peddled by period pieces. Escapism can be innocuous, but not when it warps our sense of reality and the world as it is, once was, and should be. When wildly popular stories like Gone with the Wind and Song of the South portray plantation life as merry, influential social conservatives argue that African-Americans had no complaints before the Civil Rights Movement. When populist politicians inform voters who pride themselves on a lack of “elitist knowledge” that they can make their countries “great again,” difficult truths about the past remain problems unsolved. Too often our glorious history as we like to think of it is more fantasy than fact – which is why sociologists call it The Way We Never Were.