The Importance of Critical Thinking: Costume Dramas

Imagining England, Italy, France, Germany or other relevant centres of power from the Western World usually drives us to social imaginaries encapsulated in flamboyant garnish and gowns. We also see bucolic landscapes, an elevated aristocracy chose for heaven’s sake, romantic and dramatic love stories, and men discussing science, art, and poetry.

Museums, monuments, and historical landmarks present the stories and characters of a glorious national past. Nonetheless, I aim to point out that media productions should be considered one of the most powerful tools that can shape the collective visions of a specific historical period, and why that can be an issue.

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For example, in the English case, heritage cinema was successful in the 1980s and 1990s, during Margaret Thatcher’s mandate. These productions had a major focus on the representation of the national past in an exemplary manner, embracing traditional values – it could be from Edwardian times to Victorian times.

According to Claire Monk, professor of Film & Film Culture at De Montfort University, as stated in her article “The British “heritage film” and its critics”, during Thatcher’s government, these types of films “were seen as part of the enterprise of marketing and reinvention of the nation” (p.116).

Then, it becomes important to consider what symbols and values this heritage film leverages. Why are the hegemonic symbols of Englishness important to such an extent that they are being commodified by the State? Think about the typical picturesque places to enjoy afternoon tea, all the bucolic country landscapes or grand properties that are tourist attractions.

Where is this fetishised nostalgia coming from? According to professors Niall Richardson and Frances Smith, in their second chapter of the book  “Trans Representations in Contemporary, Popular Cinema: The Transgender Tipping Point” (2022), they express that in Thatcherism’s case, this nostalgia comes from a desire for making Britain prosperous (or great) again. That is to say, returning to the supposed golden days of the British Empire that was at the forefront of her mandate.

Following this line, films such as A Passage to India (1984) produced by David Lean or A Room With a View (1985) produced by James Ivory were relevant to bind the nation during historical moments that could cause a wreck in English identity. For example, the joining of the United Kingdom to the European Union in the 70s or the continuing independence processes of British colonial territories after the Second World War.

Other films such as Chariots of Fire (1981) directed by Hugh Hudson could be read as a production that openly aligns with Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda, locating private enterprise and self-improvement as the core of the plot (Richardson & Smith, 2022). Consequently, we conclude that the State can leverage and democratise the past by commodifying it.

The ideology behind classic heritage films is echoed in recent releases like Bridgerton (2020 – present) and Queen Charlotte (2023), both produced by Chris Van Dusen, although they differ in many ways. Despite their visually appealing mise-en-scenes, both shows do not simply reflect a nostalgic past; they also speak to contemporary anxieties.

Both shows attempt to deal with race, albeit in a dangerous way. The feature breaks away from the classical costume white drama.  In this way, recent post-heritage dramas are produced in a different framework. According to Will Stanford Abbiss in his article “Proposing a Post-heritage Critical Framework: The Crown, Ambiguity, and Media Self-consciousness” (2020), core elements in the plot of these shows are enunciated.

These are related to the interrogation of societal issues and typical identities. It challenges narratives that are used to exalt that desirable English country lifestyle, which involves the viewer’s reality with the relevance of the story.

For those who haven’t watched either show, they imagine a different type of royalty than the one we are accustomed to. The aristocracy, includes black people and people of mixed race, leaving aside the merely white Britons in power. There is even a black Queen Charlotte. Both shows are colour-blind, which means that the cast was cast without regard to their ethnicity or race. This tactic should be treated with a fine-tooth comb as it is rooted in structural violence and racism.

The problem of trying to make these shows strive for diversity and inclusion in a forced way is that it does not confront the legacy of colonialism perpetrated by the British Empire for over a hundred years or make its aftermath visible. Neither show mention the situation that caused colonialism at the time, such as the transatlantic slave trade, the spread of plantations in the colonial territories, and other power imbalances caused by imperialism.

It is clear that the directors wanted to create characters that challenged the typical white aristocratic identity. Is it worth building subjectivities that fade away from colonial relations, though? In what way does sexualizing Simon Basset pose a danger and reproduce social constructs made by the system of slaves and settlers?

“We were two separate societies divided by colour until the king fell in love with one of us,” stated Lady Danbury in the first season of Bridgerton and again in Queen Charlotte. This apparent societal division is explained in more detail by the strategy of “The Great Experience”. In this strategy, Queen Charlotte was not only forced to marry King George III but also chosen due to her ethnicity.

Critical Thinking - Bridgerton

Again, the white gaze pervades the fact that Queen Charlotte may have had a mixed heritage descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family. It manipulates this in favour of Eurocentric heroism and closes it with a flourish. It uses romantic love as the most profitable excuse to halt the ultimate inequity division of social life. The royal world conceals colonialism and embraces the benevolent favour done by the white Britons.

It may be true that both shows try to drift away from the average English past that only wanted Victorian morals back. However, I want to propose that it may possibly create a story that is not always pursuing the hegemonic white roles of history. Instead, we should create characters and collect memoirs of black history.

Perhaps, this would be a form of media production that is intersectional and not a liberal one. We can construct historical fiction and post-heritage productions that challenge a memoir written to focus on the ethos of those who have always held power. We can seek and depict insightful stories of those whose lives have been historically marginalised, without using historically white roles to tell their stories.


Abbiss, W. S. (2020). Proposing a Post-heritage Critical Framework: The Crown, Ambiguity, and Media Self-consciousness. Television & New Media, 21(8), 825–841.

Richardson, Niall, and Smith, Frances. 2022. Trans Representations in Contemporary, Popular Cinema: The Transgender Tipping Point. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed June 4, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Monk, C. (1995). The British “heritage film” and its critics. Critical Survey, 7(2), 116–124.