Pop history is my gateway drug

I absolutely adore historical dramas, the more baroque, the better. I want fancy costumes and beautiful houses and people charging around on horses while they affect ridiculous accents. And I’m also well aware that they are rife with painful anachronisms and a great number of my historian friends routinely throw things at the screen when they watch them, as do I on occasion, but we still watch them. Which speaks both to their skill at marketing to pop culture consumers, but also their social role as a bit of a gateway drug. While shows like Reign do little more than borrow some vague names, places, and settings from the past, in a way, they do us a kind of interesting service.

History is fantastic, delightful, and fascinating, and understanding our history is so important for understanding who we are. We cannot function in a world without history, and we owe it to ourselves to explore not just our own, but that of other societies and cultures — North American history alone stretches back for millennia, but most schoolkids just learn about North America after colonisation, learn bits of European history, learn largely nothing about Asian, Africa, and South American history except in the context of interactions with Europeans, with a bit of a throwaway for Australia and Antarctica, usually primarily in the context of their relationships with colonialism.

Getting people interested in history can be tough for those who think it dry and dull, the very people dooming this country to repeat itself. And pop culture provides an amazing gateway drug for talking about history and getting people excited about history when it’s used judiciously. Not that it’s the responsibility of creators to provide educational experiences, but people interested in spurring an interest in history can definitely leverage shows like The Tudors, Downton Abbey, and Indian Summers to great advantage by finding their target audiences and sitting them down for a wee chat.

When I started watching Reign, I knew virtually nothing about Mary, Queen of Scots, other than that she spent her childhood in France before returning to Scotland, thence to be stuck in a prison by her Queen Elizabeth I and then later executed. I also seem to recall something fuzzy about a pet dog hiding in her skirts. That was really about it. Like scores of women in the complicated and internecine squabbles of European royal families, she’d faded to the background, really only notable for her relationship to Elizabeth, who climbed her way out of the usual feminine obscurity and into aggressive fame.

But that changed as I watched Reign. I knew perfectly well that the show was completely historically inaccurate, living under no illusions that the CW was intent on using historical consultants to make sure the story was right and there were no anachronisms on set. Costumes aside, there are obviously huge problems top to bottom with its depictions of the physicality and culture of the era, with the network playing fast and loose on a considerable number of issues. It also, of course, altered the personalities, histories, and attitudes of many of the real-world people involved, including changing the names of Mary’s ladies in waiting, aging Mary and Francis up, and so forth. Reign also outright changed known historical facts in the interest of driving specific plot lines.

Just as The Tudors did, just as Indian Summers and Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife and Miss Fisher and every other historical drama does. Those focusing on real world figures are of course the really glaring examples because we have information about who those people were, but even those with fictional characters adjust the world and the setting to meet the needs of the show. They’re drawing upon history for inspiration, not faithfully reporting it. Hopefully many viewers recognise that, and hopefully it does something else: Spark an interest in learning what actually happened, and driving people to hit the library or other sources to read more about the eras they’re eagerly consuming on the small screen. In many cases, truth is actually even weirder than fiction, and there’s all sorts of fascinating stuff to be gleaned from poring over the history of people like Mary — and yes, numerous secondhand sources I’ve found have referenced the dog that hid under her skirts at her execution, but I’m still trying to hunt down a primary one (hey, if you know of one, shoot me an email).

I watch historical dramas for entertainment because they’re fun and I like them. But I also appreciate that they push me to learn more about history so I can compare fiction and reality and see the real-world analogs to these characters (and sometimes to find out when hated characters will die, yes I am looking at you Francis). The fact that these shows sometimes introduce me to people, eras, and settings I might not otherwise see makes me wish that more networks made a conscious network to cast their nets further afield: I want to see shows set in Ancient China, classical Japan, African kingdoms, Mayan civilisation. It would be amazing to see these cultures and eras brought to life in a way that would engage viewers, pull them in, and tease them with just enough to send them out into the world seeking more history to enrich their viewing experience.

People often complain about television as a negative influence that inevitably rots the brain, and I disagree with this assessment, but the context of historical dramas really provides added emphasis on why: If high schoolers are watching Reign because it’s a fun frothy teen drama, some of them are likely coming away with the history bug under their skin.

Image: Hampton Court, Márcio Cabral de Moura, Flickr