Stop Trying to Be Relatable

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“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!

Me, when directors/designers start comparing historical figures to rock stars.

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.

North and South (1985)

I’m sure will shock you to know that North and South was filmed in 1985.

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?”

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

If I had no other context about this film other than this photo, I would have sworn it was contemporary to the year it was filmed in. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (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!”

It took me at least half a dozen viewings of Marie Antoinette (2006) to catch the Converse All-Stars.

Whereas it was pretty hard to miss this souvenir mug in Shakespeare in Love (1998).

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.

Bad Girls (1994)

There is nothing about Bad Girls that doesn’t scream “FILMED IN 1994.” Starting with Drew Barrymore.

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.

Unsurprisingly, Kirstin Dunst makes a damn good 1920s Hollywood starlet in The Cat’s Meow (2001).

Gary Oldman, Immortal Beloved (1994)

Prepare to have your heart ripped out by Immortal Beloved (1994).

There was so much to talk about with Orlando (1992) that we had to split it up into four separate posts.

With one glaring exception (*cough*Raquel Welch*cough*), the Three and Four Musketeers (1973-74) are still top notch, despite being made in the 1970s.

Elizabeth R Darnley Gown

Elizabeth R (1970) was unapologetically historically accurate, sacrificing nothing in plot, nor costume, and still managed to be captivating.

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.

More like Prom Queen, but whatever.

 

What do you think about historical films and TV being “relatable”?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

42 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    I want Kristen Dunst necklace! I also want most of her Marie Antoinette shoes (she can keep those converse…). And one film who hasn’t aged is les Liaisons Dangereuses. One just has to compare it with “Valmont”, and we know who got the last laugh, don’t we? And yes, studios wanting $$$, but also director “Vision”… And since THEY ignore history, well…

    Reply
  2. Lisa

    I don’t know if you’ve mentioned it before, but than you so much for bringing up the “Rock Stars of…” Nothing irritates me more. So LAZY. It suggests they had money, women, fame, decadence, but those things existed before rock stars! It’s exciting enough to watch poets, nobility, famed surgeons, and artists live it up in their own way without comparing it to an increasingly outdated term.
    The ‘mundane’ is one of the things I appreciate about the comedy series Upstart Crow (obviously not historically accurate, you might appreciate the copious use of codpieces.) It makes William Shakespeare into a comedy sitcom middle aged Dad who gets into wacky shenanigans. It’s a concept that could be trite in the wrong hands, but with a clever script and a spot on performance by David Mitchell from Peep Show, is hilarious. While he has hints of the American TV dad, he performs it more as the perpetually put upon British type, an egotistical poet who steals well known lines and annoys his friends while waxing poetic and delivering the rants that Mitchell is famous for.

    Reply
    • Nzie

      That show sounds amazing, Lisa. I really like David Mitchell’s sketch comedy and panel show rants so I will definitely check this out. :-)

      Reply
  3. Maral Agnerian

    I was rewatching the 80s Sherlock Holmes series yesterday and marveling yet again at how GREAT the costumes are. The simple fact that people are always dressed in location/event-appropriate clothing, women’s hair is up, no anachronistic makeup….SO REFRESHING

    (also, Jeremy Brett <3)

    Reply
  4. Rori

    While Reign is a hot mess, i give it credits that it’s not pretending to be accurate. At least it’s self-aware of how silly they did turning part of history and turning it to a modern soap opera purely for modern fans as the clothing speaks for itself.

    With The Tudors however, it’s all over the place. They attempt to place some historical values and telling the story “accurate”, but the ridiculous costumes and the bastardization of half the historical figures (particularly JRM playing Henry VIII as a spoiled brat) didn’t do that justice. Like what is it trying to do and who are they targeting to?

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  5. Nzie

    Amen! 100% agree with this post. Most people who don’t like history do like it when it’s well-presented. It’s just stories that happen to have really happened, and humans are wired for stories. As you said, human beings are human beings—whatever technology, our motivations are largely the same. Good storytelling may require making a story more accessible (through language, exposition, performances, etc.), but good stories well told don’t need help to be relatable. Costumes really help ground a work in a period, and they can contribute to the storytelling, too. And a lot of actors find wearing the clothes informs their work on the character.

    What I notice is that people trying to make history relatable often end up not caring much about the history being historical. Sometimes for good narrative you can’t be perfectly accurate, but there’s a lot of acceptable derivations between 100% accuracy and 90s prom princess look Reign. I am not looking forward to seeing how denim historically sloppy Mary Queen of Scots tackles her story… if they don’t take care with the costumes, I don’t trust them to take care with the history, either.

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  6. minette

    PREACH! I watched Ekaterina (the russian series about Catherine Great) the other day and loved it to bits. It was amazing and unappologetically historical, with 18th century aestethics (season 2 in particular, season 1 has its flaws in this regard) and thinking integrated in the story. Similarly Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – her artistic vision of Marie Antoinette as a wealthy socialite worked within the realm of historical accuracy.

    Reply
    • Rori

      Recently HBO announced that they gonna have Helen Mirren play as Catherine the Great in the new miniseries. I’m curious how will that turn out. It’s been a while HBO done a historical series since Rome.

      Reply
      • minette

        Well, that should be interesting… I suppose we can’t expect direct comparison with russian Ekaterina, since they obviously cover different periods in her life (HBO version will have her as an older woman, Ekaterina is only now tackling her middle age). And since it’s HBO, I expect her numerous relationships with young guys in her 50s and 60s to be fully, eh, covered (well, I suppose there will not be exactly much COVERING anything, if you know what I mean). And I guess that’s good? I mean, we don’t see much of the older women as sexual beings, especially not sexually involved with younger men.

        Reply
        • Rori

          Maybe they will cover the younger Catherine’s.I mean this is HBO, but with dicks instead – not that i’m complaining ;) They most likely announced it cuz Helen Mirren is a huge star and that would grab people’s attention to watch her playing Catherine the Great with some spicy scenes.

          Even though the woman isn’t buxom and big, Helen Mirren still looks good in her 70s, so i think she can definitely play off as the voracious and powerful female ruler.

          Reply
  7. Mari

    This is why I favor foreign films over Hollywood films, generally. It seems to me that foreign films are a lot less concerned with being “relatable” and they tell the story straight up.

    Reply
  8. Charity

    You know the true tragedy of Reign is that the utterly fantastic, mega-bitch Queen Catherine Medeici / performance by Megan Followes (who is clearly loving it) is totally WASTED amid a sea of soap opera drivel + crappy modern costumes. She is the ONLY REASON I sat through three seasons of that rot, to hear her dis everyone within shouting range.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Catherine de Medici is a fascinating woman. I loved the biography about her by Leonie Frieda. There are so many details: her rise from an unloved wife, a “merchant’s daughter” who was married for her relation to a Pope who was no longer in powe,r to the Regent of France, the strange illnesses of her sons, the forced marriage of her daughter to a Protestant, and especially the question of her role in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

      Reply
    • Rori

      This! Catherine de Medici is the only redeeming thing in that horrific show. Every lines the actress speaks is splendid and i loved it every time she snarks at Mary and her friends.

      Reply
  9. Andrew B

    “Relatable” is shorthand for “we don’t trust our script, director or actors to actually make you care about anyone or anything that does not remind you of the most up-to-date ‘cool kids.'” Sorry, but if you can’t put an attractive woman in late 18th or, better yet, early 19th century clothes and still make her hot..well, you have bigger problems than costumes.

    It is all a matter of doing things in shorthand. No hat, coat off and waistcoat and shirt unbuttoned? Must be the hero! Stubble and/or beard? Oooooo, he’s a rebel! No headgear on the ladies (except maybe a little straw hat with ribbons for the ingénue)? NOW I can tell they’re attractive! It is sad to think that Hollywood thinks we won’t be able to figure it out without he visual clues. I watched “Pride and Prejudice” the other day and, although I never saw Olivier’s chest hair, I was still able to figure out that he was the hero. Funny, that.

    Reply
  10. Saraquill

    This posts reminds me of all the times my husband and I play “Strawgirl vs Straightman.” Allegedly relatable and its cousin “in the name of sales” are well used tropes in Strawgirl’s arsenal.

    Reply
  11. Susan Pola Staples

    I wonder how Hollywood today would describe THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK? Maybe the words geeky reader, daddy’s girl, mother-daughter conflict, persecuted religon, unsure of sexual orientation would be featured.

    Reply
  12. ljones1966

    Are you referring to costumes or the actual narrative for several historical dramas.

    If you’re referring to historical drama, there is lesson I had stumbled upon in a book about writing novels . . . if history gets in the way of the story you want to tell, ignore it.

    Reply
    • ZelM

      ‘if history gets in the way of the story you want to tell, ignore it’

      Shudder

      This is one of the things that legit terrifies me, in being an aspiring writer of historical fiction: historical is the principal word in that sentence, to my mind- I’m a history buff (not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, btw, but it is important to me) & it never fails to astonish me how truly fascinating history is ignored for a re-tread of the same things, over & over (I’ve heard more than one writer/ film-maker say that they left out something fascinating or astonishing in a period piece, because people ‘wouldn’t believe it could have happened’- isn’t it the duty of people creating entertainment to SHOW the astonishing?)

      I parked my brain at the door, to (sort of) enjoy The Tudors (Henry’s brattiness grated, & it took a while for me to accept that he wasn’t a redhead, & Catherine was a ‘generic Spanish-looking lady’) & Reign” et al for what they were, same as I did for the first Transformers (but they really need to bury that horse carcass, NOW) & even The Expendables (sometimes you just want to watch some mindless action, & not really think about life for a bit… don’t judge me) – from the moment you see the trailers & read any promotional material- anyone who goes into something like that, with any expectations is asking for a migraine.
      I do agree with other comments where they believe Tudors is more- subversive- shall we say, than Reign, because it’s deceiving people into thinking it’s ‘more honest’ to history, with its’ high production values.

      I’ve always been of the opinion- & this may be the wrong opinion in the eyes of people who see $-signs (be they producers or publishers)- that you weave your story within the history, & alter YOUR story to fit history, not the other way around – history is a fascinating thing in its’ own right. There are always different viewpoints to take & you can explore certain things more sidelined/ downplayed, but history is history- you have to ultimately see the overall picture, at the end of the day.

      ”- I actually started with S2 by accident, & found the love of my life, Craig Parker, as the deliciously complex Narcisse (say anything bad about him & I will cut you!) – I went back & watched S1, & found the other love of my life, Luke Roberts (SAME).

      Reply
  13. Terry Towels

    This. I too prefer foreign historical dramas (North and South are exhibit A for ‘murican spice-it-up trash).

    I will say, my life-long interest in the Tudors and Eleanor of Aquitaine came from trashy b&w films I watched after school in the 50’s and 60’s. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction since then. Perhaps there are teen girls who will be inspired to look farther into the the wars between religion (and Catherine de Medici, that evil bitch) in the time of Reign.

    I found the lavender Converse on my second viewing– because I’m such a shoe freak that I went through all the shoe shots frame by frame on the 2nd viewing. whispers obsessed with shoes

    Reply
  14. Kathleen Norvell

    There is a reason we devour series from Masterpiece [Theatre] — Poldark excepted. They try to do it right. As an amateur historian, I love the fact that history IS SO INTERESTING. I was so lucky to have history teachers in HS and professors in college who made history interesting and sometimes even fun. Elizabeth R and Six Wives of Henry VIII are classics and deservedly so. Downton Abbey is a really high-class soap opera. Compare with Reign, Will (which I honestly tried to watch, but couldn’t), the White Princess, etc. Versailles is terrific to look at, but nothing like real history — kind of in a class of its own.

    There is no reason why historic movies and TV shows can’t be authentic. If they are real, I think they will be relatable. Human nature does not change; it just wears different clothes. I think film makers and TV show producers underestimate the intelligence and knowledge of the audience. We are only a small example of that.

    Reply
    • ljones1966

      There is no reason why historic movies and TV shows can’t be authentic. If they are real, I think they will be relatable. Human nature does not change; it just wears different clothes. I think film makers and TV show producers underestimate the intelligence and knowledge of the audience. We are only a small example of that.

      Because we’re talking about historical DRAMAS, not documentaries. There is a difference. Hell, William Shakespeare couldn’t always get it right with his historical dramas. Yet, no one complains about it.. If you want “authenticity”, then you might as well stick with documentaries. And they’re not always right, let alone some history books.

      Reply
  15. themodernmantuamaker

    This has probably become my single biggest pet peeve with the current spate of historical productions. And what I find so (infuriatingly) laughably ironic is that they all think they’re being so original and innovative – except that they’re all doing it that it’s now reached cliché level! And that they all promote this idea that actual history and historical dress is “stuffy” except that, seriously, when has historical dress really been stuffy? Aside from the early medieval period in western Europe (aka the Dark Ages) and the 1840s-1860s it reads as a parade of one kind of fabulousness after another until the jeans and t-shirt revolution when it all got so sad and boring. Not to mention that one of the most appealing features of historical productions for audiences is that actual historicity – the feeling of being immersed in a different time, the novelty and spectacle of it. This is why fantasy is also so popular, people love the escapism of it and it’s a lot less escapist if it doesn’t look much different from what you see on the street.

    Reply
  16. ljones1966

    There is a reason we devour series from Masterpiece [Theatre] — Poldark excepted. They try to do it right. As an amateur historian, I love the fact that history IS SO INTERESTING.

    As someone who has watched a good number of Masterpiece Theater productions over the years, the output from Britain doesn’t always get it right. Then again, I wonder if Americans suffer from some kind of insecurity complex when it comes to Great Britain. According to them, their movies and television productions are always better, along with their actors. And that is something I just can’t agree with.

    Reply
  17. Cate

    Is it just me, or do women get the brunt of attempts to be relatable? There are plenty of clunkers among men’s costumes, don’t get me wrong, but from about the mid-19th century on they seem to fare a little better than their female counterparts. Take The Greatest Showman, which I despise for a multitude of reasons including “…Jenny Lind? REALLY? That’s your seductress?” The men are in passable pseudo-Victorian styles and the women are in vaguely 1950s evening gowns (#vintageglam!). Because remember, women exist to sell designer fashions and titilate the male audience, and how could they do that in ruffles and corded petticoats?

    Reply
    • minette

      Oh, I hated The Greatest Showman for multitude of reasons, the biggest being that they took one of the most controversial figures EVEN AT THE TIME, which you would have to delve into to make him at least a plausible antihero, and made him a generic Hollywood “dreamer” character. But costumes were horrible too and I hope Trystan will get to rip them to shreds soon!

      Reply
  18. Liz

    THIS THIS THIS!!!!

    I feel like the “relatable” thing happens in part because you get directors/producers/studio VPs who have the attitude that “history was the most boring class evar in high school” and they go from there. Many of these folks have probably never, ever cracked a book about history that wasn’t a high school textbook. Which is sad, but there it is.

    For me personally, my interest in historical costume was so informed by Dangerous Liaisons and A Room With a View. Both of which I watched as a kid/teenager in the 1980s. Both films totally stand the test of time, costume-wise. (And in every other possible way, come to think of it.) Because they went with historical accuracy over relatability.

    I loved those films BECAUSE the clothes looked so different and so beautiful, yet the people in them had stories that made sense to me.

    A Room With a View: “Good girl falls for bad boy. Family drama ensues.”
    Dangerous Liaisons: “Bad people doing bad things ends badly for most everyone.”

    Tell a good story, and people will relate to it. Tell a good historical story and dress the characters in historically accurate clothing, and it will capture people’s imaginations. Even/especially young people.

    Reply
  19. Teresa

    I knew this would be a great post when I saw the title.

    I’m a history buff rather than a movie fan, but I’ve found the problem of “relatability” cropping up in historical fiction and in popular nonfiction, even sometimes in books written by university professors who ought to know better. Sometimes the result is a weird mishmash of contrived exoticism and contemporary popular culture.

    In college I had some great history professors who made people of the past come alive, who spoke of them with respect, affection, and sometimes amusement, and who never resorted to cheap tricks to try to entertain their students. But in high school I suffered through a different sort of “relatability” fad–I had several teachers who were infatuated with “relevance.” So our history lessons regularly turned into undisciplined discussions of current events, and I didn’t learn much. Worse, I thought that all history classes would be like that, until I was “saved” by undergraduate breadth requirements.

    As for “not letting history spoil a good story,” I’ve had some students who read inaccurate novels at an impressionable age and had trouble coming to terms with the actual documentation. Then there are the ones who’ve been watching the “Discovery” channel–“that’s not what they said on TV!” Novelists and moviemakers (and of course those producers of “documentaries”) do have a responsibility to be accurate. (The writer Margaret George said that she imagines her characters looking over her shoulder.) And there are plenty of good stories in history–Alexander the Great, anyone? Lord Nelson–who could invent a life like his?

    Stuffy and dull, huh? I’m thinking of the Egyptian man who climbed up on a wall during a festival, probably after having imbibed way too much beer, and threw bricks at his neighbors (ca. 1200 BCE). As Sarah said above, the same dumb stuff! (Only this man was also apparently accused of sitting on the royal sarcophagus while the king was inside, not your everyday breach of good manners.)

    Thanks too, by the way, for mentioning two of my favorites: Elizabeth R and The Three Musketeers.

    Reply
  20. Bastian Pagez

    This in its entirety.

    Mary Stuart’s life was dramatic enough for 4-5 seasons of show but they were too busy trying to make her relatable that they screwed up all that lovely drama. The love of her life being a sickly little boy who couldn’t bear children with her BECAUSE HIS TESTICLES HADN’T DROPPED, all the intrigue at court (Flying Squad, Wars of Religion-related fuckery, stuff), death (Henri) death (Francis) death (Rizzio) death (Darnley) death (Mary), real Nostradamus stuff, artists and musicians of the time, DIANE EFFING DE POITIERS (they should have hired a new actress instead of disappearing her and then killing her off), Claude Valois being an awesome little snarkmonster with a hunch back and club foot, blowing up Darnley, that time she tried to rally the troops while preggers, Bothwell, and going backward Amboise and the shite with Conde, etc.

    Waste of money that show, but it brought us Torrance Coombs so not all bad.

    Reply
  21. Justme

    For things like Tudors and Will, I get the feeling that it’s the filmmakers themselves that think history is “dry” and “unrelatable”. And if that’s the case, then why make an historical piece to begin with? If you want to make a story about a modern rock star, then make a story about a modern rock star, not a film about an historical figure, and then pretend like he’s a rock star. If you absolutely must put relateable elements into an historical film, then do like Sophia Coppola did with Marie Antoinette, and throw in nods to the present while respecting the past.

    Reply

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