Movies like Pride and Prejudice (2005) have developed somewhat of a cult following; a rise in female film direction generated a period piece renaissance in 2019-20; every queer college student has heart palpations when they hear the words “hand flex scene.” A common explanation binds all these phenomena: LGBTQ youth have become completely obsessed with Victorian and Georgian-era dramas.
In my experience, gays identify with period pieces for many reasons. Whether we relate to the era’s oppressive etiquette, fawn over the campy aesthetics or find hope in the empowering characters, the obsession provides compelling insight into the struggles of queer youth.
Jane Austen’s literature perfectly portrays the severe norms that regulated upper-class Georgian society. Restraint defined every interaction; displays of passion and emotion were highly discouraged.
Queer youth identify with this restraint because our identities were restrained for most of our childhoods. As a disclaimer, not all gay kids are horrendously oppressed to the point where this is universally true. But in my experience, and the experiences of almost all my friends, growing up queer is scary as hell. Almost every adult I came out to, even the accepting ones, told me the same thing: “your life will be harder,” “don’t make this public or people will discriminate against you.” I grew up thinking it was dangerous to express love for another girl.
In a similar vein, Georgian-era couples were discouraged from affectionate expression. Romance was only allowed if it followed a period of coordinated courtship and was constrained by intricate rituals. As a result, the shortest second of contact could imply a world of love.
Subtle gestures like eye contact and accidental hand-brushing — a major theme throughout Pride and Prejudice (2005) — mean a lot to gay people, too. For some, subtlety was the only means to express affection toward a partner in public; for others, such gestures were subconscious expressions of a desire we feared, denied or hated.
When I see Darcy dare to hold Elizabeth’s hand as she steps into the carriage, I’m reminded of all the times I held hands with my first girlfriend and it felt illegal somehow, wrong somehow, dangerous somehow, just because we were in public. Longing, yearning, modest love — these are all characteristics of queer childhood and Georgian romantic norms. I can’t help but become emotionally attached to films that depict them.
Lots of gay people like drag. Lots of gay people like period pieces. These ideas are connected. Jane Austen’s depiction of upper-class society includes ostentatious fashion, garish properties and elaborately curated social events—in other words, camp.
Camp and classic literature have many intertwined roots. Scholars often consider Oscar Wilde, 19th-century playwright and literature’s most ferocious homosexual other than Emily Dickinson, to be camp’s direct precursor.
The portrayal of this garishness often varies by author and film director. For instance, many period pieces from the 90s, like 1996’s Emma (directed by Douglas McGrath), work with more uniform color palettes and focus less on artistic direction than the story. Recently, however, directors have stepped up the aesthetics of these films to greater reflect the era’s gaudiness. This change may coincide with the genre’s current appeal among LGBTQ youth.
Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, which debuted this past February, is the perfect example. It seems to showcase the flashiest outfits, hairstyles, food platters and room decor in the human imagination. De Wilde’s vision may be a starting point for other directors. As more period pieces illuminate the same insane aesthetics camp is so famous for, their popularity among queer youth will rise.
Jane Eyre, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet; Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen. The most stunning period pieces of our time feature strong female characters written by strong female authors. Often, the independence and defiance of these women gives queer people — queer girls in particular — the validation that many of us lacked throughout our youth.
Jane Eyre values her agency more than Rochester’s love. Jo March values her career more than the prospect of marriage. Elizabeth Bennet values her self-respect more than marrying for money. It’s important for all girls, but notably queer girls, to hear stories of women who stand up to men and radically declare their independence.
Women are constantly taught to curate their appearances and modify their personalities for men. Marrying a man is the ultimate endgame, the female purpose. Queer girls obliterate that trajectory by virtue of their identity. It’s incredibly empowering to see other girls — especially those in oppressive social climates — who, similarly, do not exist for men. They are able to destroy stereotypes and find fulfillment within themselves. Even if a period piece ends with a heterosexual marriage, these characters wrote their own love stories on their own terms.
But a heterosexual marriage is an ever-rarer find in period dramas. The titular Colette from Colette (2018) is bisexual and has several prominent same-sex relationships on screen. The Favourite (2018) features a love triangle between Queen Anne of Britain and two other women. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is literally a love story about two lesbians in a coastal French mansion. These films give the LGBTQ community what it wants: all the aesthetics of classical settings, plus LGBTQ people.
There’s nothing a lesbian loves more than an independent woman who rejects tradition. And it definitely helps when she’s played by Keira Knightley.