I love history and I truly appreciate that people who run television networks think historical characters are worth putting on T.V., but why must it all be inaccurate? Can it not be spectacular and real and massively viewed, all at once? Why did a show like “Reign” make it past the first season? Sensationalism. Targeting young viewers. On the other end of the spectrum, “Outlander”, a fictional, but very respectfully constructed show based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, proves that real historic details can make a show more loved and more respected than skimming over those facts. It’s set for season two, and I’m among the thousands of fans who will be humming the theme song till April 2015. Because Claire Beauchamp is our protagonist, because she is strong and sexy and brave and intelligent. Because she makes mistakes, but she moves between two very real times as a hopeful fiction for us viewers who love how she was made: in the image of what any protagonist, but so often not female protagonists, should be.
So, why, with characters like Claire, is there a running tendency towards sensationalism is when the real world of history is brimming with saucy, sensuous, scandalous behaviors of common folks, royals, and rebels, alike? If it’s exciting enough to be based on history, why not do some research and give people more than just romantic get-ups and half-accents? Using historical people and circumstances, rearranging and taking them out of context does no one any good and it isn’t as deeply entertaining as knowing something is. So, how could anyone doubt that giving viewers, especially students, what their teachers can’t from history -the true tales about lust and romance, violent uprisings and the old-world mysticism that sifted through the ages- would be profitable? Apparently it doesn’t matter, and the reasons for processing and repackaging true tales into fakery are depressing: assumptions about the viewers intelligence, betting on safe money, and extreme prudery.
The product of the unwholesome trifecta of entertainment values above is “Reign”, which is supposed to be “based on” history, but which is more like an expensive play put on with Barbiesque cut-outs of historical figures. I really did try to sit through the first season of this show, but there were one too many sleeveless, unstructured garments for my eyes to withstand. I know why the women characters are dressed in less than are what a 15th Century prostitute might wear in a brothel and the reason highlights all that is wrong with the ideas behind the production of this show. The characters on “Reign” unnecessarily plastic, and their motives are always unresolved repetitions because the story is so far from any interesting outline of events that it clearly got lost in the re-creator’s imagination. Including The Lumineers in the soundtrack is one thing, pawning off Nostradamus as a young mystic is another, turning Catherine de Medici’s offspring into romancers is yet another, but using modern, ill-advised forms of sexualization to grab the attention of teenage viewers is (well, should be) unacceptable. History has more substance to offer. I wish our society was so sober that I could say it was beyond our logic to make up fluff in place of gold, but that isn’t the case.
Call it petty that I’m majorly bugged by seeing Queen Mary baring everything but her then very acceptable bosom at French court (though she didn’t bare anything. Look it up.), but let me put this in perspective: the act of sex was not a subject of extreme prudery in any English court until Victoria ruled in the 19th Century. The body was not viewed as it is today. This historic attitude towards the physicality of being female could be a valuable key to understanding the current trend of sexualized prudishness. How great would it be if the people who took the initiative to recreate Queen Mary’s story used their platform to hi-light the difference between the teenager Mary and the teenage audience: 1- she was expected to remain a virgin and in all likelihood she did, 2- she would not have shown her natural form by going without a tight bodice- it would have negatively impacted her fragile reputation, 3- she would not have been alone with men often- it didn’t happen, 4- and most importantly, she only lived as a queen to the ripe age of 44 because she was extremely intelligent, unlike the portrayal she gets via “Reign”. “Reign” could have at least given us the cunning, devoted queen of two nations, and in doing so, shown thousands of viewers that this type of woman existed in history. We haven’t seen that enough, yet. We must.
Thank all that’s good that Starz had faith in the protagonist Claire Beecham, who, though she’s no queen, reigns her show like a true royal. The audience of “Outlander” is restricted. The show contains nudity, gore, and naughty language (if you can understand just what the heck the highlanders are saying, and even then, you might have to Google it…consider it concealed, then). The show is as fictional as “Reign”, but it stays true to the full atmosphere of both the 1940’s and the 1740’s. The fashion, the customs, the accents, the attitudes are adjusted only to the strength of the protagonist’s wit in navigating her own presence in either period. Surely, a lone woman found wearing only her undergarments in a foreign forest would cause a stir in 1743. Rape was probable, and not just under the gaze of the sinister sadist, Captain Black Jack Randall. See, this is the serious difference between fiction and fictionalization: the latter intones ownership, whereas the former remains respectfully guided by certain principles, much like a gentleman. This is the divide we have to reckon between the believable protagonist, Claire Beecham, and the brazenly ignorant CW image of Mary Stuart. One can take on her own nature: she can be naked, she can command another’s body. The other can only imply her nature using tricks like showing what would’ve been considered private parts, like arms and a loose waistline. Claire, a common lady, can talk down a captain, while Queen Mary often uses her wits to get herself into lofty drama, which can usually only be resolved with her being saved by someone else. Unnecessary. A violation of free thought. Ugh. How can we do better?
What does the character Mary Stewart have to learn from Claire Beauchamp? The time traveler, well-versed in history, well-trained in nursing, well-versed in herbal medicine and very prepared for hardship as a result of living through the second World War, shows viewers what it means to be a woman of wit and strength in a time closer to our own as well as in a historic sense. She shows us that no matter our time, our only master is our spirit. Claire’s real primary relationship is with time, though she does maintain a split heart over the men she marries between the eras. She navigates her heart by using her head and her guts to survive. Mary shows signs of being capable of this impressive independence, and indeed, she is on her own in “Reign”, but she is often pulled back into dramatics like her friend’s love affair with the king. Juicy…but not likely a good reason for such a reasonable royal to be distracted by guilt. Alas, we don’t get to know Mary as we do Claire, because she shares the stage with so many one-dimensional characters- Francis and his bleeding heart, Bash the good-hearted defender; Catherine and her vile plans might steal the stage, as her layers are so well-acted.
I wish I could tune in to season two and get past these haphazard digressions, but the feel of the world Mary lives in and the way its all portrayed underappreciates the audience it’s supposed to enthrall. Perhaps the success of “Outlander” will inspire creators to marry greater depths of worldly knowledge with what they believe about social hypocrisy. Only then can dangerously silly enactments of otherwise fascinating historical figures correct the focus of our current lens on feminism, equality, and social justice. Yeah, you read me: television can do that. And producers and writers should taking the opportunity to do it, starting now.