Rare is the historical TV drama that hasn’t attracted complaints about its inaccuracy. The “televisionization” of well-known historical events have become increasingly popular recently, with the blooming of various TV shows supposedly based off prominent historical figures such as Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Louis XIV. Historical fiction is by no means a bad genre if it retains at least a consequent portion of factual history. But the problem is that most of them awash in serious inaccuracies. In the last decade, the cultural landscape has witnessed a shift in its approach to representing history. The sophistication and intricacy of historical events have been almost systematically dumbed down on TV and exchanged instead for pop culture history. Yet, a perplexing paradox remains: while history has never been more popular among the youth, it has never been more distorted and trivialized. The sensationalization of history and its “embellishment” through cinema and literature has led the public to believe that the simple truth cannot be interesting enough. In watching a fictionalized TV show which sacrificed assiduity of research for glamorous cinematic effects, most viewers are aware that intellectual depths have been undermined, yet few seriously realize the extent of its falsification.
Among the historical shows that have the most veered off the rails, Reign would probably win the Emmys. Created by the same people who made Gossip Girl, Reign is more interested in focusing on romantic turmoil than getting close to any semblance of historical fact. Liberties were taken, co-creator Laurie McCarthy explained, in order to “tell stories persuasively”. But how far is too far?
The drama series follows the story of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots as a teenager in 16th century France. The first episode sets off with Mary playing soccer in a convent (soccer wasn’t brought to the UK before the 17th century and made popular before mid-19th century) with a Lumineers soundtrack in the background. From that very first episode, we already get the feeling that the show is going to let loose with the historical authenticity. In fact, throughout the seasons, the show mainly focuses on the lavish costumes and the love triangles between Mary, Francis and a entirely invented half brother named “Bash”, short for Sebastian de Poitiers.
In truth, Queen Mary was raised at the French court. She was never sent to live in a convent in France, nor did she meet Francis II, for the first time in 1557. They practically grew up together, this is far from the show starting with a 18-years-old woman. During the second season, the added storylines of Mary’s rape by a Protestant gang and her fictionalized romance with the Prince of Condé officially place Reign not only in the land of fiction, but very bad fiction. With regards to Francis, he is portrayed as a healthy, vivid, womanizing man who has endless sexual affairs with various ladies at the court and ends up having a child with one of them. In reality, Prince Francis was a sickly fragile young teen who died after less than two years on the throne at age 16. It was also believed that his sickness might have impacted his fertility. As for Mary’s ladies-in-waiting – whom were all named “Mary” and known as the “Four Marys”- are named here Greer, Lola, Kenna, and Aylee.
Perhaps the most ridiculous abhorrence comes with the evasive outfits and anachronistic clothing displayed throughout the show. Mary and her ladies-in-waiting wear prom-like dresses with corsets as outerwear (corsets were only worn as underwear in Renaissance time) and their dresses are far too colourful and sleeveless with far too prominent cleavages for the early modern period. Some of the low-cut, lacy, glittery outfits seem to have come from a futuristic Paris fashion week. But it gets even worse when at some point in the show the girls prepare for prom. Bastille is playing, confetti is raining down, and the show has officially lost whatever shred of credibility there was left. There, we get the feeling that the show is interested in historical accuracy as much as Marie Antoinette or Troy was.
But perhaps, the biggest historical lie comes with the portrayal of Catherine de Medici. Few historical figures in French history have attracted such systematic and unflinching criticism for centuries following their death as Catherine de Medici. Known as the “Florentine merchant” and chief instigator of civil and religious strife such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, it was not until the 1970s that a wave of revisionism began to rehabilitate the Florentine’s reputation. Nonetheless, the traditional scholarly approach to the Queen as a Machiavellian, poison-happy, despotic, Italian crone have long remained prevalent in the popular mentality and heavily inspired the arts.
Even the cinematic production did not spare her. Reign, for instance, maintains the stereotyped image of Catherine as the eternal intriguing murderous schemer coupled with a caricatured Italian accent. She is represented as an authoritative, churlish, and bloodthirsty Queen who murdered Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s favourite mistress, and tried to have Mary raped and killed. All of this portrayal is obviously untrue and entirely misleading about who Catherine de Medici really was.
To conclude, while some fictionalizing is to be expected in any entertainment drama (in contrast with a documentary) most “historical” series show a lack of research and deviate heavily from the historical record, from manipulating chronology and key characters to inventing events and places in order to suit a storyline. In doing so, the label “historical” loses its purpose. Making history accessible does not mean dumbing down people’s mind. Modern audience shouldn’t content themselves with the accustomed bland mediocrity and adolescent tone that comes with such shows. History should make people think and not the opposite. Promoting “cheap history” and an inaccurate portrayal of famous historical figures ultimately blemish people’s opinions on these time periods and create a misleading impression of the past that isn’t without consequences. A 2012 Duke study printed in Applied Cognitive Psychology reveals that historical inaccuracies in movies can hinder learning.
What is the key then, to get the merits of making an accurate historical drama, both entertaining and academically rigorous? Representing the past with careful verisimilitude while making a watchable TV show shouldn’t be that difficult. Some lesser-known drama series have succeeding in ensuring historical accuracy. For instance John Adams or Hatfields and Mccoys. Others, such as Downtown Abbey created a fictional storyline (as not to sell it as “historical fiction”) but took actual events of British history (like World War I, the decline of aristocracy, etc) and stayed faithful to the period about major details such as language, props and costumes, cutlery, social interactions between characters based on their social category. It is a shame that most TV-producers grounded in Hollywood flavour refuse to ensure such authenticity. Sometimes the truth is far more interesting than fiction.