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Tell It Slant

The Rise of the Feminist Anachronistic Costume Drama

ISSUE:  Spring 2021

There is a heady scene from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette—near the end, when the titular character, played by Kirsten Dunst, is pining for her new lover, Axel von Fersen (Jamie Dornan), a swaggering and libidinous Swedish count. Von Fersen has recently departed Versailles, and in his absence, Marie Antoinette is agitated, chafing against the humdrum quotidian of the palace drawing room. 

Retreating to a corner window, she daydreams of von Fersen on horseback: His face is smudged with soot—fetchingly so—and he looks at her with bedroom eyes, like an oversexed eighteenth-century popstar. Before long, the heat of the reverie makes Marie Antoinette impatient, and she asks her husband, the comparably effete Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), to be excused. 

The sequence that follows is exhilarating. Overcome by longing, Marie Antoinette flees to the relative privacy of her bedroom. The soundtrack—the Strokes’s “What Ever Happened?”—assumes a quicker, palpitating pace. Its opening bass line flutters with a heartbeat’s cadence, as if our ears are pressed against the queen’s chest.

Then, as the chorus hollers its arrival, Marie Antoinette collapses on her bed, beatific and steeped in languorous desire (she shouldn’t be able to hear this music, but her every movement reacts to it); the song rushes Marie Antoinette into the room and lays her flat, the dogged, aching thrum of guitar urging her, once more, toward fantasy. A royal’s wistful boredom never looked so hip and candy coated. 

When I first saw Marie Antoinette, in the fall of 2006, this scene left me breathless and giddy, as if a Versailles fireworks display had erupted inside my rib cage. It is not Coppola’s only overt anachronism—the film opens clamorously, with Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It,” and draws on a steady diet of new wave and post-punk amid more period-appropriate musical selections. Perhaps, too, you’ve heard about the blue Converse sneakers that time-travel into Marie Antoinette’s sitting room. Blink and you’ll miss them: They appear briefly, amid a tumble of satin slippers; against the sonic backdrop of Bow Wow Wow’s impish “I Want Candy,” they hardly seem out of place. This detail is part of a more general temporal promiscuity. In Marie Antoinette, anachronism flounces, rather than slinks, across the screen. It’s a playful wink of a technique, a science experiment: What do you get when you mix the House of Bourbon with a New Order concert? As a multisensory medium, film invites all manner of possibilities for thwarting historical boundaries and imagining new timescapes. 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Marie Antoinette because I’ve noticed a curious archive building around it. Over the last couple of years, film and television have grown enamored with anachronistic costume dramas centered on the lives of white, royal, or otherwise well-to-do women—among them, Queen Anne of England, Emily Dickinson, and Catherine the Great. Rather than cultivate an illusion of historical authenticity, these films and shows pair raw biographical material with temporal irreverence. Anachronism is integral to their architectures, to their modes of world-building. They exploit the artificiality of any history we attempt to reconstruct and envision alternate realities in which the women we’re focused on are granted more agency than is strictly accurate. Emily Dickinson throws a rager where she, her siblings, and her friends grind like college students at a frat party and dose themselves on opium as if it were a club drug. When she’s ordered to fetch water at four in the morning, she mutters, “This is such bullshit.” Catherine the Great responds to rumors that she had sex with a horse by joking that the horse rebuffed her, and, you know, “neigh means neigh.” She delivers the now-expected crowd-pleaser about the “inhumanity” of corsets. Surely these are the fantasies of contemporary minds, but what does it matter when we can know so little for certain? From speculation comes art. 

This genre of what I’m calling the feminist anachronistic costume drama is relatively young, but it has yielded a crop of spirited, artful achievements. In 2018, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite delivered the tale of another eighteenth-century court—this time, France’s great rival across the English Channel. The film imagines a love triangle, at the center of which is England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)—who is infirm, irritable, and trivial—and two scheming cousins, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who jockey for her favor. The film is tempered in its anachronism, if not in its tone, which is deliciously raucous and filthy. Nevertheless, its humor depends upon a contemporary sensibility (see: Weisz and a bewigged Joe Alwyn pulling off cartoonishly acrobatic dance moves despite the considerable constraints of eighteenth-century attire). The Favourite’s blackly comic alchemy delighted audiences and critics. Colman won an Academy Award for her turn as Queen Anne, and the film was nominated for nine more. Following The Favourite, Alena Smith’s 2019 series Dickinson debuted on Apple TV+, rendering the life of American poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) with riotous license. Dickinson sneaks out of the house for nighttime rides with Death, eerily embodied by Wiz Khalifa; pines after her best friend, lover, and eventual sister-in-law, Sue; and grapples with how to be a female poet in nineteenth-century America. And last year, Tony McNamara, cowriter of The Favourite, fastened an idiosyncratic lens on Russia’s royal lineage with a series tracing the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) called, reasonably, The Great. (Each episode includes a title screen, in which an asterisk specifies, cheekily, that The Great is “an occasionally true story.”) Catherine, like Emily, would rather read philosophy than gossip at a tea party; each recognizes the reach of her own brilliance and, in her less generous moments, condescends to those lacking similar intellectual inclinations. And like the Duchess of Marlborough, Catherine pursues political power: The Great chronicles the empress’s efforts to organize a coup d’état against her husband, the tyrannical libertine Peter the Third (Nicholas Hoult), after determining that she possesses the savvy and progressive ideology to usher Russia into the Enlightenment.

These loose biographical narratives are all, in their own way, interrogations of long-reified histories of preeminent political or cultural figures. They also comprise one highly particular subgenre within a slew of recent, explicitly anachronistic costume dramas, all of which claim the same, broad project: to illuminate the lives of historical women and the patriarchal pressures to which they were subjected. And to the extent that screenwriters have mined the biographies of extraordinary women like Emily Dickinson and Catherine the Great for anachronistic opportunities, they’ve done the same with fiction. In December 2020, Netflix premiered Chris Van Dusen’s Bridgerton—a lusty, densely populated Regency drama based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn committed to both the spirit and the act of bodice ripping. Produced by Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton rivals Marie Antoinette in aesthetic opulence: Rather than the chaste muslin gowns that crowd Jane Austen adaptations, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick opted for a rowdy color palette, lavish hair accessories, and coquettish necklines. (There is, most strikingly, nary a bonnet to be seen.) Theseflashy riffs on Regency dress pair harmoniously with the show’s mix of jaunty pop music and airy violins. At balls, characters spin to the Vitamin String Quartet’s arrangements of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” and Shawn Mendes’s “In My Blood.” And many of the women, from the well-heeled debutantes to their ruffled mothers to those who earn a living by trade, approach their circumstances with a baseline awareness of gender oppression.

It’s the heroine, of course, whether a genre-bending poet or a gutsy empress, who assumes the burden of contesting these social inequities. After all, moxie and a distinctly modern sensibility are two of her defining traits. She pushes and prods at boundaries and often wonders aloud at the tragedy of life under patriarchy (though she doesn’t call it that). She’s probably funny, or at least charismatic, and she wields a savvy that is infuriatingly absent in her less evolved contemporaries. 

These tenets hold true in The Favourite, Dickinson, and The Great, stories featuring deft, magnetic women who are aggrieved by the demands of feminine politesse. We might even regard the success of these dramas as a modest triumph for sexually representative storytelling, particularly because The Favourite, Dickinson, and The Great manage to be thoughtful in their incorporation, rather than cloying. Both The Favourite and Dickinson foreground queer women’s desire without self-serious fanfare, and The Great also nods to it with welcome nonchalance through the character of Czar Peter’s aunt. To be sure, romantic love is a fraught enterprise for most of the women depicted, and so too are their intellectual and civic objectives. Each narrative surmises the shape and velocity of female ambition within hostile, male-dominated contexts. And in keeping with the feminist anachronistic costume drama’s central conceit, these ambitious women behave as if they split their time between our present and theirs. They ably navigate the antique cultures to which they belong, yet possess a fluency in a lexicon that, to varying degrees, seems tethered to our century. This idiosyncrasy seems to fit each woman’s predilections, and in each case, anachronism complements characterization. Catherine, Emily, and the The Favourite’s love triangle appear all the more bombastic, emotionally tangled, and piquant because they are temporally out of step. Time-travelers without cultural vertigo, each woman reacts to her milieu almost, but not quite, as if she knows better. They might be guided by different ethics, or none at all—Abigail Masham reveals herself to be ruthless and cruel—but each relies on her singular gifts in order to cultivate a life she can bear. 


What have women borne, and how did they bear it? And where did joy and possibility and even genius thrive, in spite of patriarchy’s grip? These are the prevailing questions of most any woman-centered costume drama. Feminist anachronism’s overt mixing of past and present carries with it a more vigorous and explicit appeal to the viewer’s empathy than a conventional period piece. These dramas suggest that history is more enlightening when it is packaged with an eye and ear for contemporary resonance—when, say, Emily Dickinson is both a nineteenth-century spinster poet and a wisecracking millennial who wears killer red lipstick. Even in 2021, a tenacious assumption endures: that mainstream viewers will find feminism more palatable when their historical precedence is expressed by way of chic, pithy relatability. Overt anachronism translates the culturally obscure into something more legible—and, perhaps, fosters a more textured understanding of humanity.

But it’s a tricky business to cultivate empathy when, simultaneously, one has conjured a phantasmagorical vision of the past. Feminist anachronistic costume dramas like Dickinson or The Great cast historical figures in the image of the most aspirational white millennial woman: Her beauty is matched only by her cleverness and raw talent. If she considers herself a progressive, like Emily Dickinson or Catherine the Great, then her politics, however imperfect, distinguish her as both compassionate and forward-thinking. Her taste, whether in philosophy or literature or semi-period-inappropriate frocks, is formidable. She is an eminently satisfying avatar for the white modern viewer, since she indulges a fantasy of being, unequivocally, the most exceptional person in the room. Her struggles—to eschew marriage, cultivate autonomy, or chase creative inspiration—may indeed elicit our compassion, but then, these endeavors for independence have long been earmarked as socially significant. Whatever skepticism the feminist anachronistic costume drama stirs about the inevitability of progress, its comely, brilliant heroine positions white progressive femininity as the primary beacon of modern possibility, nimbly sidestepping a history in which she, rather than liberator, is just a perpetrator of injustice—or, worse, is just irrelevant. 

In Dickinson, The Great, and The Favourite, the narrative relies on overt temporal playfulness. Then again, any film set in a bygone era is likely to feel historically flawed, albeit in ways that we might overlook. The question is one of reconciliation: What gives the impression of authenticity, even if it’s an illusion? We are more likely to abide details that reinforce our notions of a historical period, however distended they may be. Film music enjoys a generous latitude here; after all, it thrives on the shapeless force of affect rather than visual coherence. For years I have loved Jane Campion’s The Piano—set in nineteenth-century New Zealand—but only recently noticed the anachronism of Michael Nyman’s late-twentieth-century minimalist score. Even the music that Ada (Holly Hunter) plays on the piano in-film summons a contemporary, rather than Victorian, moment; her compositions evoke 1990s art-music rather than anything one might have heard in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Do we also call this an anachronism? Technically, we do. But in film we accept certain anomalies, even when the sense they make together is strictly manufactured by convention. We know little about the music of ancient Rome, but surely it sounded nothing like the neo-Romantic orchestra we hear in William Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur or the dissonant modernism that scores Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), never mind the ethereal new-age music to which Braveheart and Gladiator are set. To some extent, we have been conditioned by instrumental scores. They’re ubiquitous, no matter the setting, and so they’ve been naturalized as appropriate soundscapes. If we accept nineteenth-century orchestral suites in the context of a space epic or a modern romantic comedy, why wouldn’t it seem suited to a period piece? 

But anachronism jars us when it manifests through the signifiers of our own time, of popular culture. When blue Converse sneakers or Lizzo crashes onto the scene, they defy schematic reconciliation. We’re potently reminded that something from the world we know has slipped into another, more remote world where it ought not to fit.

That noisy temporal mélange is the point; films like Marie Antoinette and The Favourite ask us to notice their anachronisms, to find them clever or provocative or hilarious. It’s a form of asynchrony, as Carolyn Dinshaw writes: “different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now.” In fact, Dinshaw argues, time is essentially “heterogeneous”; “it is full of attachments and desires, histories and futures; it is not a hollow form.” Perhaps, by this logic, anachronistic costume dramas better approximate the pell-mell and incoherence of temporality—the sense that every moment is a palimpsest of memory and anticipation and cognitive scraps.

It’s ironic, then, that film and television often invoke asynchrony in order to argue for continuity—to suggest that the qualities of being human remain more or less consistent across history, in all its squalor and ecstasy. Directors of Shakespeare adaptations have long toyed with asynchrony for this very reason: to illuminate so-called timeless human experiences—impossible love, intergenerational rivalry, prejudice—by updating the setting of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet while sticking to iambic pentameter. But if Shakespeare offers material for temporally promiscuous storytelling, filmmakers have made similar moves with all kinds of source material. Baz Luhrmann, in fact, has forged a career out of historical pastiche, from his beachside interpretation of Romeo and Juliet (1996) to adaptations of the musical Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013), each of which weaves contemporary pop music into olden settings. Two thousand and one also saw the release of Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, a film that takes special pleasure in its anachronisms (a crowd of medieval joust-goers clap and stomp in time with Queen’s “We Will Rock You”). And most famously, the Monty Python crew made its name interpreting Western history in bizarrely asynchronous ways.

This is all to say that while anachronistic histories are something of a niche, they are trodden territory. Even in 2006, when Marie Antoinette hit theaters, the film joined with a tradition of untimely interpretations of the past. And yet as I watched the queen of France hasten down the hall, the Strokes’s Julian Casablancas wailing after her, it seemed as if Coppola was getting away with something, and that, by extension, so was I. We often talk about anachronistic costume dramas by noting the degree to which they take liberties. This suggests that anachronism claims a type of freedom: freedom to imagine an illusory past—or freedom to adjust one’s gaze, to understand history as something so protean that accuracy is a red herring. Dispensing with temporal norms opens up new storytelling possibilities, especially when it comes to depicting someone like Marie Antoinette, who might have chafed against her milieu. Coppola’s aesthetic choices—whether to shoot a scene so that it looks as if someone is holding a camcorder, or to set a dizzying shopping spree to Bow Wow Wow—are rooted in attention to our heroine’s emotional terrain. As an Austrian teenager in a French court, she is disoriented, desperate for distraction, ravenous for pleasure that might soften the edges of her loneliness. 

Prioritizing atmosphere over teleology, as Coppola does, shapes the impact of temporally anomalous flourishes. In Coppola’s case, anachronism isn’t just a mode of storytelling, it’s an aesthetic—and a uniquely feminine one at that. Of course, there’s no artistic law binding creators to verity; a work sets its own terms. Yet the rhetoric of accuracy suggests that a historical film requires generous costume and prop budgets in order to elicit otherwise inaccessible truths. One might, for instance, speak in terms of a costume drama’s “fidelity” or “faithfulness” to the period it represents, and the most fastidious among them seem to anticipate this shade of critique: We’ve studied the facts, and we’re sticking to them. In this way, we covet the past as mourners of detail, inclined to grope and sniff after scraps, no matter how deficient any excavation might be. Time is irrecuperable, and so our awareness of history is always addled by loss. We console ourselves with verisimilitude—what was it like?—since we can’t possibly access what it actually was.

At its best, an anachronistic costume drama reflects both the impossibility of historical recovery and the obligations of any such project. It renders history as a studiously constructed simulacrum—a fantasy perpetuated by those empowered to produce it—while thwarting any outsized notions of progress, taking to task the assumption that evolution and enlightenment are inevitable outcomes, thickening with time. If we can build a narrative from a temporal palimpsest, perhaps the story we’ve been telling ourselves about past and present is mere delusion. History is written by the winners, as the saying goes, and so the project of historical fidelity is warped from the start. The stories we tell about ourselves, and about the past that we’ve patchworked together, are inevitably complicit in the same, dominant refrains, which crowd out any voice that would speak otherwise—that would counter tales of glory and deliverance with ones of imperialist cruelty. Perhaps there’s less of a difference between us and others of far-flung eras. Perhaps we’re not so very modern at all.


What do twenty-first-century viewers want from these dramas and their gorgeous, intrepid, untimely women? On the surface, our impulses seem somewhat recuperative: to give history’s heroines their due by appreciating them with nuance and considering their impact with a retrospect clarity. At the same time, we’re chasing the novelty of stories that wink at us: Their anachronisms at once surprise and let us in on the joke. When Dickinson and her siblings read Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in serial, the way it was originally published, they treat the novel like the television du jour, fussing at each other for revealing spoilers and identifying with the characters in the totalizing way Buzzfeed encourages. “I’m such an Esther!” declares Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia. They are, as Austin Dickinson tells their friends, “mainlining that shit,” just as viewers are doing with Dickinson. The nod to contemporary rhetoric seems to seek solidarity with the audience while also making anyone paying attention feel gratifyingly clever. The connection is self-evident, but noticing it feels like a small analytical achievement.

The Great, too, brandishes a kind of proleptic humor that relies on the distance between eras. In the show’s third episode, Catherine and her servant, Marial, convene in the empress’s bedroom, each having escaped unwanted sexual advances. “If anyone ever invents something easier than buttons, we are all in trouble,” Catherine remarks, blackly gesturing to the invention of the zipper. We laugh at the line’s irony not just because it pokes at contemporary fashion, but because Catherine’s comment suggests a dreadful continuity—that men will always prey upon those more vulnerable. History is not so much the story of progress as it is a record of worst impulses. And humor belies this wretched fact—that we feel just as close to the rampant misogyny of the eighteenth-century Russian court as we do to any fantasy of modernity we can perpetuate.

But for all their idiosyncrasies, these costume dramas—in which Emily Dickinson elegantly needlepoints the phrase F My Life; Catherine the Great contemplates a “cute” Russian bear for a pet; and Abigail Masham comports herself like a scheming sorority president—seem, too, motored by a desire for resonance. The allure of a historical heroine inevitably competes with the mighty urge to understand ourselves. If the fraught experience of femininity still addles, maybe women will achieve long-sought clarity by continuing to search upstream. When, in October 2019, the New York Times interviewed Alena Smith about Dickinson, she characterized her stylistic motivations with the following rhetorical question: “If [Emily] wasn’t that well understood in her time, can we understand her better in ours?” It’s a compelling argument, one that suggests Dickinson was herself a kind of asynchronous entity who can only be fully appreciated with a backward gaze. It can feel almost reflexive to discuss impressive historical figures this way; it soothes the modern ego. The project of elevating these women becomes a way of claiming likeness—a way of saying, maybe, that Emily Dickinson did not resemble her fellow nineteenth-century Americans so much as she resembled us. 


Is it really possible to understand historical figures on their own terms? Anachronisms unnerve us because they insinuate a thorny truth: All history is fundamentally fiction, and its every representation is a work of craftsmanship. The subjects of period dramas—and certainly ones as magnetic as Emily Dickinson—are known through a multiplicity of interpretations; whatever accuracy we strive to pin down will dwell in a vast clutter of speculation. Perhaps the greatest homage one can pay to these women is through the effort to comprehend them, a doomed but loving enterprise. 

Nodding to common ground, as these dramas do, makes for one reliable, if imperfect, route toward understanding. Yet disregarding power muddies the story and the stakes for those with something to lose. Catherine the Great was the empress of Russia, not a serf toiling in the bellows of the palace. Emily Dickinson enjoyed racial privilege and easy economic conditions, both of which enabled her to write poetry in nineteenth-century America. Marie Antoinette was callow and lonely—but, like Catherine and Queen Anne, she dwelled in whopping decadence, presumably giving little thought to the plight of her subjects until the French Revolution ravaged the monarchy. Still, these stories do attempt to address the privilege of their leads. Dickinson, in particular, addresses the titular character’s advantages by presenting her as something of a well-meaning white feminist: In the first episode of the series, the poet describes her life as a form of enslavement, and she is quickly chastised for the obscene comparison. Later, one of the family’s servants, a Black man named Henry, resists her tokenizing efforts to include him in a reading of Shakespeare’s Othello—and when he finally agrees to Dickinson’s entreaties, he suffers the racism of her friends. The Great does not devote the same attention to these conversations, but its casting is markedly diverse in a context where we would generally see white homogeneity. These are potent moments, self-consciously invoking contemporary discourse on racism and xenophobia, and yet they are ultimately just that: moments in the stories of the wealthy white women whom we have singled out as our historical exemplars of resilience and talent. We have, perhaps, mistaken the relative inconvenience of their lives as oppression in its own right. 

If, collectively, the anachronism of these stories invites solidarity—if it encourages us to think of ourselves as enmeshed with the past, rather than elevated from it—it does so by placing us in the same domain as ruling-class women who were, perhaps, extraordinary, but who mostly thrived in contexts conducive to personal success. Walter Benjamin’s “document of barbarism”—the prevailing historical record—is reiterated, even if these women were not, themselves, barbaric; even if, like Catherine the Great and Emily Dickinson, they imagined the possibilities of a comparatively humane world. 

Privilege does not eliminate suffering, but it does make for good melodramas. After all, visual entertainment thrives on turmoil set against comely backdrops—say, the audacious splendor of a Russian palace, or the leafy green of a New England homestead. In these contexts, pain is more digestible: It doesn’t seem absolute or unremitting; its presence doesn’t eliminate pleasure altogether. A heartbroken poet can, at least, recline in solitude beneath a yawning oak tree. An isolated queen can bury herself in sumptuous frocks. And a viewer need not imagine a milieu scored by utter deprivation, where both emotional and material respites are meager and hard-won. 

This is not to say that the lives of well-monied women across history were uncomplicated, or that they did not grind against misogynistic conventions that seem unthinkable to us today. Of course this is the case—but then, we could always tell ourselves something new about the struggles of historical white women. We could always illuminate a new, pale detail that resonates with those of us who are fortunate enough to suffer only occasionally. It is certainly thrilling to watch French queens fly down dazzling corridors and to hear one of our greatest poets sputter stylish profanities. It may, however, be time to imagine otherwise—to seek beyond the aesthetic pleasure and the cozy resonance, and bear witness to thorny, inconvenient histories that no color palette could conceal. 



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