What do we expect when we’re watching period dramas?
Part of me thinks that we’re drawn to them because we see glimpses of our modern selves developing through the characters that stick with us most. In Pride and Prejudice (and even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I finished this morning), a good number of people want to identify with Elizabeth Bennet. I include myself in this number, and not just because we share a name. In my mind – and I’m sure many others – we share common behavioral traits, worldviews, and the ability to be completely socially awkward. But Elizabeth Bennet gives us hope. She’s outspoken, stubborn, independent, and the distant handsome guy in the neighborhood seems to love her (and can’t stop loving her) for who she is. Yes, he finds her sort of blah when he first meets her and she’s fully aware of his opinion when he expresses it in front of her (and even holds it against him), but rather than go the route of Seventeen magazine, or more locally, her mother, and learn how to change herself so that boys like her, she remains basically who she is and wins Mr. Darcy’s heart nonetheless. We ignore the parts about how she’ll only love someone superior to herself and those moments when she does rely on male authority and holds Darcy above all others because we want to believe that she is our spunky, modern selves, just written a little before we arrived. And, in some ways, she is. A good number of us are awkward, imperfect, and seem to stumble into someone’s affections quite haphazardly. (And while it is easy to look at Bridget Jones and see how one can draw a parallel between the past and the present, I abstain for the moment.)
All this brings me to what we expect from period dramas nearer to our own time. In a Jane Austen novel, we expect our heroine to tame some of her ways – it was olden times, the 19th Century, for goodness sakes! But we want more from our dramas on the cusp of the social movements of the 20th Century. More specifically, I wonder how disappointed people are about the first episode of the third season of Mad Men. I’ve gone out of town, so I’m two episodes shy of finishing the second season and my season premiere awaits me on my TiVo. While I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say soon about the women – because they fascinate me the most – I wonder what viewers think about their choices as we begin the third season. The second season gave us so many glimmers of modernity – Betty asserting herself, Joan’s complicated sexual relationship with her fiancé, Peggy being Peggy – that I wonder if modern viewers will be able to accept them if they fail to be as radical as we hope they could be.
The women of Mad Men have moved in the directions the 1960s are pushing each of them and they’re striking because those paths are so very dissimilar. But I wonder if we, those of us who love the show and who are beneficiaries of the movements and cultural shifts of previous decades, will have trouble seeing the women we have found so complex and relatable unable to reach what we might think of as their “full potential.” They are, after all, bound by their time (and, in other realms, by a faithfulness to the story and the characters as they are drawn) to act in ways that may fall short for those of us who see the other sides of their experiences and who have the luxury of looking back.