Period Drama Discourse: Fandom Bias Against Open Door Sex Scenes
I’ve been a member of Facebook period drama/Anglophile TV fan groups and followed Twitter discussions on and off since 2015 and have documented via Twitter a lot of observations about current trends. One of the many things I’m going to use this blog for is to have more space for the discourse/analyzing fandom threads.
One of the most persistent arguments as new movies and TV shows premiere revolves around viewers who prefer closed door dramas and romance (no sex depicted/fade to black/no nudity) to open-door (nudity/sex depicted) drama and romances. These viewers often turn their personal preferences into weapons to attack the production as “trashy”, “pornographic” or “dirty”. In many cases, they also attack people who gave the production a chance and enjoyed it.
Some may wonder how I’ve reached these conclusions or if I’m reading too much into comments. My day job has given me extensive training in comment moderation and detecting patterns of dogwhistles (coded language) to evade rules against expressing various forms of bigotry. I can’t turn off my brain when I detect patterns of speech after hours in fandom.
Bridgerton is getting a lot of those sort of comments at the moment as the show premiered on Christmas Day. Here’s an example of a thread which began as someone’s opinion but as it went on turned into a chance to bully open-door romance fans. (Click each image to reveal alt text. Spelling errors are not corrected to retain the tone of the original post.)
Some people who don’t like Bridgerton’ sex scenes have gone as far to complain on threads where plot discussions or reviews were not the main focus:
There were 3 other review/opinion articles posted in this group that day, so this negative comment about the sex scenes was clearly an attempt to push their unwanted 2 cents when people wanted to talk about their past UK vacations.
Quite a few past productions have come under fire for open-door sex scenes. Some commenters have reasoned reactions to shows such as this person who really didn’t like The Great.
Other commenters are far less measured with their moralist tones such as this Outlander critic.
This Harlots critic went all the way in with the classism for no reason. At one point you couldn’t go on a UK TV group on Facebook without seeing at least 1 post daily complaining about a show portraying sex work actually showed the sex.
Shows with LGBTQIA+ characters such as Grantchester, Gentleman Jack, and The Favourite also attract commenters who are OK with heterosexual open-door romance but do not want to see any LGBTQIA+ characters expressing affection. Here’s an example of what I call a “low key homophobe” who uses the dogwhistle of “what about the children!!!” to disguise what they REALLY wanted to say.
Other times people go all in with the bigotry and often get away with it because absentee mods don’t delete comments like this on posts:
The Favourite was a popular target for scorn, especially after the movie won the Oscard and other awards. Homophobes in fandom were livid professional critics and movie reviewers as well as the cast/writers didn’t share their point of view.
There is room for both closed door and open door fans. Fans are free to have a personal preference and choose media in a way as to avoid personal discomfort. Here’s what fans are NOT free to do based on previous trends:
- Imply moral or religious superiority compared to other fans.
- Express covert and overt bigotry and moral judgements towards the LGBTQIA+ community if period dramas depict non-heterosexual relationships.
- Disrespect survivors of rape/assault/domestic violence for asking for trigger warnings and choosing to avoiding period dramas that will trigger their PTSD.
- Use conversations about open door romance to preach or impose their specific religious/moral belief system on other fans.
- Excessively demand screenwriters of open door must conform to their specific moral/religious belief system or advocate censorship of non-compliant works.
Period drama fans come from a wide variety of backgrounds in terms of race/ethnicity and religious beliefs. and one of the top ways to appear unwelcoming to other people is through perpetuating this bias against open-door romance scenes.
First of all, there is an assumption among these commenters who perpetuate these arguments that everyone in fandom is white. Many Black and POC fans resist anything implying their culture’s treatment of human sexuality is inferior when it is different. In addition, there is a history of racial and cultural bias in “family friendly” networks and content creators in regards to Black/POC talent creating closed-door period or romance content because race is falsely correlated with increased sexuality or because non-white actors are perceived as “too political”. The assumption that Black people in particular are more sexually active is steeped in the history of slavery in America and these are stereotypes fandom as a whole has a responsibility to unpack. Fandom also needs to unpack stereotypes based on colonialism and slavery in countries outside the US and UK.
In regards to religion, the assumption is often that everyone else belongs or should believe in to their same sect of Christianity. Many of these arguments are predicated on specifically conservative Christian interpretations of sexual morality standards. Not only are there wildly different interpretations and denominations, there are also Christians who believe in free speech/expression and separating their personal religious beliefs from fandom. These arguments also alienate atheists alongside Jews, Muslims, and other faiths. In fact, there are cases where commenters proceed to judge or preach to others where it was not wanted. Fandom should be open to all faiths and discussion of these issues should have tolerance for others in mind. Religion especially becomes an issue as many anti-LGBTQIA+ people have used their faith as an excuse to openly discriminate against others in fandom.
Some of these arguments also push false generalizations about the past in regards to sexual expression. They believe that throughout history, all cultures and eras share the same conservative ideas about sex as they do. In fact, there’s a lot more historically accurate nuance to these issues. Many of these arguments stem from not researching evidence to the contrary or applying specifically Victorian interpretations of other eras’ primary and secondary source materials. This is especially true about the long 18th Century, Regency England, and the Tudor Era. Expression of sexuality was also dependent on gender, class, sexual identity, religion and the ability of moral authorities to enforce social mores. Humans are also inherently hypocritical so the records of history could say one thing and people did something else. This is especially important when it comes to discussing LGBTQIA+ relationships as historical homophobia has muddied the waters of surviving documentation and interpretation. For example, Anne Lister’s real coded diaries which inspired Gentleman Jack from the 1830’s were almost destroyed. Anyone claiming women back in the day were not lesbians or queer people can see that’s not the case. Documentation is an overall issue for women and the poorest members of society as survival bias favors the wealthy and politically connected. Many of the pro-closed door commenters tend to argue about historical accuracy in regards to other aspects of film and TV but their personal morality replaces research when these arguments begin.
Discussions of open-door romance also become problematic when the issue of rape, sexual assault, or domestic violence surface. Trigger warnings are often conflated with discussing spoilers and shut down necessary discourse as a result. Knowing what to expect to avoid PTSD is a necessary survival tool. Fans in denial that certain scenes and works contains depictions of rape and non consensual sex also add to toxicity. Arguments of “but that’s how it was back then” ignore that novel authors already fictionalized history and ignorance of modern discourse against rape culture. Fan commentary on certain scenes Bridgerton, Outlander, Poldark, and The Forsyte Saga are especially problematic.
Demands that ALL period dramas must feature closed-door only romance are steeped in fandom entitlement, misunderstanding of different cultures, removal of free speech and expression, and misguided expectations based on past productions. Screenwriters have the freedom to choose closed-door or open-door romance and fans have the freedom to avoid what they don’t like without attacking others. Comments attacking the show/movie in question purely on the basis of open-door romance also encourage negativity and preventing fans who enjoy open-door romance from participating in fandom.
Overall, the UK is more tolerant of sex on TV/film compared to the US and many of the fan-favorite G-rated programs such as Cranford and many of the Austen adaptations are outliers in terms of content compared to other genres of UK TV. UK screenwriters are catering to their own culture/religion and are not catering to religious conservatives, especially those influenced by American religious trends.
What about the shows that are considered middle of the road between closed and open? Poldark’s approach to open-door romance is often misinterpreted and misappropriated by closed-door romance fans to attack other productions when that approach was purely based on screenwriter Debbie Horsfeld’s personal stylistic preferences. Her post-Poldark project Age Before Beauty (on US BritBox, I highly recommend BTW) set in modern day has dialogue with cursing in it but vague depictions of sex indicating the sensual but not that explicit is her style.
Downton Abbey is also used as a comparison and attack metric. Although the show has a ridgid class structure storyline and characters often struggle with social apperances, this is a completely different historical context to Bridgerton and other open-door shows from earlier eras.
Class in this instance transforms into a misleading description of production quality and not as a way to denote character social status. Although this commenter liked both, there’s also a tendency for people to conflate genre tropes and assume things that the creatives did not intend.
How can period drama fans change their commenting habits to make fandom more welcoming of various points of views? First of all, express your personal likes and dislikes for open-door or closed-door romance as purely a personal moral preference. This will help people as they’re reading reaction posts to see what others believe while not expressing exclusionary preferences. Secondly, question anyone doing anything from the bulleted list. Interpreting what others mean online is tricky, but often the sneering tone of moral superiority or dog whistle terms are easy to pick out. Moderators of period drama fandom groups have a responsibility to make sure that these conversations avoid becoming uncivil discussions. Those incapable of having a discussion about production merits without projecting bigotry to others should be removed from discussions. In fact, that topic of group or space moderation is another topic that will be analyzed in future.