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We here at Frock Flicks watch a LOT of historical/period movies and TV shows. And when we do, we notice when the same tropes get used over and over, so much that they become obvious and stupid. Here’s five that set my eyes rolling:
1. Servants Cutting the Grass with Scissors
Okay, in my mind THIS IS A THING. There’s some shot of the fancy aristocrat’s estate, and servants are on their hands and knees cutting the grass with scissors. Sure, back in the day there was no such thing as a lawn mower. But it’s meant to be a visual cue to tell us just how over-the-top ridiculous these aristocrats are — they have people employed not just to do some menial task for them, but to do it in the most laborious way possible.
Except … I CAN’T FIND ANY EXAMPLES OF THIS!! Did I hallucinate this trope?
In my memory, it happens in the opening of Persuasion (1995) in order to demonstrate that Anne’s family are out of touch with the realities of their financial situation — but looking at screencaps, it’s actually a servant/tenant scything, which seems semi-reasonable:
I did find that there was SUPPOSED to be such a shot in The Duchess (2008), which makes sense — the Duke of Devonshire is the richest of the rich and totally out of touch with the common person. According to the final script:
“A primitive sprinkler is operated by a GARDENER spreading water across the manicured green grass making a loud and distinctive sound. Other GARDENERS are on their hands and knees cutting the grass with scissors. Time has elapsed, perhaps a month, and it’s spring now.”
Except I re-ran the scene back, and it must have gotten edited out (it’s supposed to happen between Georgiana giving up her baby and her final reconciliation with the duke, but there’s no establishing shot of the grounds). We do see this shot of the gardens through the window while Georgiana and the Duke are talking, but I don’t see any gardeners:
EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to my friend Andrew, who points out that they DO include this shot, but they moved it up to just after the wedding night scene! I’M NOT CRAZY
I even posted about this on Facebook, and the best anyone came up with is suggestions that it might happen in parody Stiff Upper Lips (1998 – which, how have I never heard of this film??), Emma does some hedge trimming herself in the 2009 miniseries but her doing it herself undercuts the point of having servants do it for you, and maybe it happens in A Little Chaos since it’s about gardening but that would make sense.
Did I hallucinate this trope? I suppose it’s possible! If you’ve got any examples, please share them in the comments so I know I’m not crazy.
2. My Clothing Is a Prison
This one I KNOW is real: an upper-class woman is being dressed by her servants; she usually holds her arms out in crucifixion pose as sign of her suffering. Yes, it makes perfect sense to hold your arms out while someone dresses you, and of course women DID have lady’s maids to dress them (which sounds delightful). But usually this scene is included when a young woman is either about to get married or crowned, and it’s used to demonstrate how their world is closing in on them: they are being forced to submit to tight, restrictive, formal clothes that symbolize their submission to the restriction of marriage or of becoming a ruler. And sure, it’s symbolism that works, but does every single production have to include it?
In Elizabeth (1998), it happens at the end of the film, when Queen Elizabeth I has supposedly decided to stop being a “woman” and instead become a “virgin” aka iron-hearted icon:
Shakespeare in Love (1998) doesn’t do crucifixion arms, but the scene is all about Viola being resigned to having to marry Wessex — and even more so, putting on female clothes and therefore giving up her acting.
In The Duchess (2008), it’s an undressing scene. Right before Georgiana is about to consummate her marriage to a cold duke she barely knows, two lady’s maids undress her while she stares into the distance.
I haven’t seen Lady Macbeth (2016), but given it’s about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, there’s no way this scene can be about anything other than her marriage closing in on her:
In Maria Theresa (2017), it’s again an undressing scene. Maria is unhappy about her husband’s philandering, and her mom is about to yell at her for not yet having had a son.
And in The Spanish Princess (2019), it was a wedding dress fitting rather than a straight being-dressed scene, but the scene moves between “yay happy wedding dress!” and “oh shit I have majorly lied to my fiancé this might not end well.”
Note there’s a variant, in which the lady is serenely and/or happily being dressed as a symbol of just how luxurious her life is, like:
3. Corset Yanking
Technically, this is a variation of My Clothing Is a Prison — but it’s specifically a girl/woman being dressed into a corset, and whoever is doing the dressing isn’t doing their job right because they’re YANKING the shit out it. This is supposed to convey to the audience just how awful and uncomfortable corsets are, and usually symbolic once again of the restrictions being placed upon the woman.
Note that one laces a corset in some ways like one laces an athletic shoe. So sure, you COULD give just one yank to tighten your laces but it’s going to be abrupt and probably not work very well.
Gone With the Wind (1939) may have originated this trope, I’m not sure:
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is probably the worst offender. Elizabeth acts like she’s never seen a corset before, let alone worn one:
And then later in the film there’s this excellent dialogue:
In Titanic (1997), Rose is being dressed reasonably by a lady’s maid, when mom takes over and starts literally yanking away.
The scene is one in which Rose’s mom tells her she has to give up her lower-class love interest in favor of the evil rich guy. When Rose says it’s unfair, her mom says, “Of course it’s unfair. We’re women. Our choices are never easy” — in other words, suck it up, buttercup.
And, of course, there’s the already infamous scene in Bridgerton (2020) in which one of the Featherington girls is having her corset yanked on by two lady’s maids AND mom, with mom bitching, “I was able to squeeze my waist into the size of an orange-and-a-half when I was Prudence’s age.”
Lots of people have taken this down — us, Smithsonian magazine: there’s no reason to be yanking away on a corset to get a tiny waist in an era in which the waist isn’t highlighted. When the waist is your underbust, there’s no point in yanking — your ribs aren’t going to get any smaller.
4. Woman Horse Riding as Sign of Her Spunkiness
Yes, life in past decades and centuries often confined women to specific gender roles. And yes, there were certain physical activities they could enjoy, and I’m sure that was a release. But it drives me CRAZY when I’m watching a period show and the totally conventional heroine decides to demonstrate her spunkiness by horse riding. I mean, what, is everyone falling over because she can ride a horse? Really? I’m not saying I’m at all a horse rider, just, that seems like a low bar. Ooooo. You go fast. Wow.
Sarah remembers that in Impromptu (1991), George Sand steals a horse that’s not been totally broken in, while dressed as a man, and it throws her off into a pond or mud puddle or something.
In Dangerous Beauty (1998), Veronica shows she’s “spirited” by horse riding with lover in their “happy in love” montage:
Anne Boleyn partially lured Henry with her spunky riding skillz in season 1 of The Tudors (2007):
Sarah has a vague memory that this happens in The Mask of Zorro (1998):
It’s been a long time since I watched Robin Hood (2010), but I vaguely remember that Lady Marian demonstrates that she’s down with the people by riding around with Robin:
Queen of the Desert (2017) switched things up by using a camel:
We learn that Catherine of Aragon in spunky in the trailer for The Spanish Princess (2019) because she rides a horse (and worse, spars with Henry).
5. “The Dung Ages”
In which the peasants or working classes are always wearing brown, no colors of any kind, and the clothes are always caked in mud. This one is such a trope that TV Tropes has created this fabulous term and listed a whole series of references. Sure, people in the past were poor, and cities and rural areas could be dirty. But some films/movies like to embrace the grit, and often it’s in a “ew the past was gross/look at how superior we are” kind of way that grates.
There are SO MANY examples of this that I couldn’t possibly list them all; here’s a few that come to mind:
And then there’s the whole sub-genre of 17th-century colonial America films. In which, sure, things were rough. But I recently had this discussion on Facebook with Sarah:
Sarah: That new 17th c. “covered in mud” show that I can’t fucking remember the name of because it’s that unmemorable
Kendra: Aren’t all 17th c. TV shows “covered in mud”? Maybe we need a FF post about this…
There are a million examples (see our 17th century category), but a few standouts for me are:
Which frock flick tropes drive you crazy?