“Relatable.” It’s that word that occurs constantly when talking about anything historical. How can we make history more relatable? If history isn’t relatable, then the kids won’t like it! Historical accuracy is boring, so we have to make historical movies relatable!
Fucking spare me the hand wringing, OK? I feel like we here at Frock Flicks have been desperately trying to push one single agenda the last four years, and that’s that HISTORY IS ALREADY RELATABLE. We don’t have to muck with it nearly as much as the Powers That Be seem to think. And why is history ready-made relatable? Because the human experience hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot since we invented civilization and all of the bullshit that goes along with it.
Seriously, that’s the thing you learn about history once you start to delve into it — it is astonishing how little anything changes across the centuries. The larger landscape may look different, the fashions may be weird to the modern eye, but at the end of the day, it’s humans doing the same dumb stuff they’ve always been doing and are continuing to do even now.
Now, the historical film genre is rife with tinkering to make things “relatable” to audiences out of some deeply ingrained terror that if a film it isn’t, it will tank at the box office, and the studio will lose money, and DEAR GOD WE CAN’T RISK THAT!
It was actually hard for me to think of any film that didn’t tweak something, large or small, in order to be “relatable.” Think about all of the times you run across a film from a few decades ago, and you realize how dated everything looks? It’s because someone somewhere in the chain of command on that film decided in 1983 that if all the actors didn’t have mullets, or all the actresses didn’t have feathered bangs, absolutely no one would ever want to watch that film.
Or how about those historical flicks where you watch them and think, “Wait a minute, wasn’t this supposedly set in [insert historical period]? Why does everything look like it came straight out of a Vogue magazine from 1970?”
Now, sometimes films manage to not let relatability get in the way of themselves and still include a few contemporary Easter eggs for viewers. Subtle little bits modernity will creep in, like a wink and a nod to the audience that says, “Yeah, we know it’s a history flick, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor!”
But when it goes so far off the deep end, when directors and designers start throwing around terms like “artistic vision” and insisting that history is “dry” and “boring”, that’s when you end up with flicks that don’t stand the test of time. They become dated, all right … dated to the year they were made. Kendra touched upon this in relation to hair in How Contemporary Hairstyles Affect Historical Costume Movies, and it’s still every bit as relevant today as it was in the 1920s. You might think that no historical movie or TV show made today is going ever look dated, but then I’d invite you to look at a film like Bad Girls (1994) and tell me that shit doesn’t look positively 1990s.
So, what costume flicks are out there that don’t pander to the cult of “relatability”? Try some of these out and see how “dry” and “boring” they aren’t. You will also note that not all of these films are 100% historically accurate, but they’re damn close.
I’m not saying that relatability doesn’t have it’s place in period cinema. After all, we do need stories that resonate with audiences, otherwise historical flicks won’t get made. However, throwing out all pretense to historicity in favor of contemporizing a historical figure or story because the kids these days won’t get it unless the heroine is wearing modern couture, or someone like Henry Tudor isn’t slicked down with a ton of grease and dressed in leather pants … THAT is what I object to. Keep the history historical and maybe we’ll all learn something — like history is actually pretty fucking interesting without tampering.
What do you think about historical films and TV being “relatable”?