While I was laid up after surgery last year, I tore through Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on the recommendation of half the known world, and I could see why everyone was so into it. If you haven’t seen it, you really must: It’s about Phryne Fisher, a ferociously independent Australian woman living in Melbourne in the 1920s, and she solves a series of mysteries, and she has a fantastic maid named Dot, and a smouldering love story with a detective inspector, and really, it’s just lovely. The frocks are amazing, the sets are impeccable.
I love period pieces, and I love it when they’re done well, which this definitely is. Phryne is an incredibly distinctive, wonderful, and defiant heroine: A true woman of the jazz age, not interested in taking orders from anyone. She has loads of lovers and doesn’t care who knows about it, nor does she give a fig for their opinion if they do. She’s wealthy but not a snob, happily associating with dockworkers just as much as the upper crust of Melbourne society. There’s a lot to love about all of the characters, and I am so impatiently waiting for the next installment, you don’t even know.
But there’s something about Miss Fisher that we need to talk about, friends, because I’m not seeing it widely discussed and that troubles me. It’s part of a larger trend about nostalgia that people don’t talk about because it makes them uncomfortable, namely, who these stories are nostalgic for. Whose stories are being told? From whose perspective? We watch things like Miss Fisher and Downton Abbey because we love the costumes, the pageantry, the gloriousness. But these are things that belong not just to the wealthy, but the super-wealthy, of their respective eras. These are the stories that most often get told in nostalgia pieces, or people are telling narratives of crushing, horrific poverty, as though everyone was either a baronet or the occupant of a poorhouse. Reality, of course, is more complicated.
The reality is that Miss Fisher isn’t set in Melbourne: It’s set on stolen Kulin Nation land. And to the show’s credit, it doesn’t completely erase Aboriginal Australians from the landscape — there are episodes where they pop up and there’s some engagement with issues like racial profiling and the theft of children from their families. But the show doesn’t offer very much context for these things, and given the circles Miss Fisher moves in despite her best efforts, she’s unlikely to run up against very many Aboriginal Australians.
Which is a reminder of the tremendous separations and gaps that endure to this day not just in Australia, but everywhere. Australia has a very specific and complicated cultural and racial history that I am not even going to pretend to be an authority on, because I am not. I’ve interacted with a lot of (mostly white, because, racism!) Australians, and I’ve read some Australian history, and I follow Australian politics, and I try to keep up with Aboriginal news specifically, but I lack a lot of the nuance and independent knowledge to really pick this issue apart.
That said, we never (to my recollection) see an acknowledgement that Melbourne, right down to Miss Fisher’s lovely little home, is on stolen land. We don’t see a discussion of reparations and an attempt to restore the rights and resources of Aboriginal Australians. Instead, there’s almost a bit of a white saviour sense in which it is Miss Fisher who has to rush to the rescue for the justice of individuals — but there’s not a lot of structural engagement.
Here’s what was happening to Aboriginal Australians in the 1920s, though: After centuries of being harried off their land and herded into controlled spaces, they were being called a ‘dying race,’ with Australian settlers rather chuffed about that fact for the most part. Separated from land deeply tied to their cultural identity, people were struggling to retain traditions that were thousands of years old, even as settlers were generously volunteering to put them up on ‘reserves,’ like animals.
Europeans were also very big on the notion of assimilation — that is, ‘assimilation’ of the Aboriginal community into those of settlers. Stealing children from their families to raise in a more ‘respectable’ environment was a big part of that, with the goal of extinguishing tradition by separating people from everything they knew, and everything their culture was. The law specifically banned activities like drinking and ‘having sex across the colour line,’ let alone intermarrying. In 1928, settlers shot 32 people in retaliation for an alleged attack on a trapper, and this was deemed perfectly reasonable and okay. At the same time, those special designated reserves were being leased out from under their occupants — yes, settlers stole the stolen land they ‘gave’ to Aboriginal communities.
Miss Fisher’s world, of course, is one of overwhelming whiteness, because that’s the class and culture that she lived in. She would by nature have been separated from the Aboriginal community, which makes it a bit remarkable that they come up at all, let alone in an episode that at least sort of attempts to talk about the horrors visited on Aboriginal communities by settlers. But this ‘product of its time’ and ‘historical accuracy’ malarky doesn’t really cut it, for me — there could be more and there should be more.
But there’s a bigger question to ask, as with so many of these nostalgia pieces: Why are they always so white? Why, when people of colour do appear, are their stories being told by white people? Why aren’t we seeing a 1920s period piece starring a Wurundjeri lady detective being a badass and taking on the man?