Print Project Proposal: Analyzing Historical Accuracy and Public Reaction to Historical Fiction Media

The public interacts with history not only through participation in academic study but through popular culture. Despite the common issue of historical inaccuracies, historical fiction films and television shows have allowed for an up-close and personal view of history. Through a visual medium, audiences can picture what life might have been like in days gone. It also allows for audiences to find a greater interest in the historical period or subject depicted. Personally,  history came to life for me through an admiration of historical costuming in my favorite films.

For my print project, I would like to analyze the intersections between popular culture and history through the lens of historical-fiction films and television. Particularly, I want to look at the question of historical accuracy within historical films and TV to determine whether the general public tends to take these depictions of history as full truth, be inspired by these depictions to research more about a particular period, or if they just see historical films as fiction for leisure. In the public history program, we have spent a considerable amount of time discussing Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 1994 study on the American public’s relationship with history. While the study ranks “watching a movie or television program about the past” as a less popular (and therefore less authoritative) way the respondents interacted with history, I have been curious if this has changed in the past 30 years with the rise of streaming services, allowing greater access to a larger number of historical programs in most American households. 

Streaming services such as Netflix, pictured above, have led to greater access to films and TV shows set in the past. Notable Netflix shows include The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown, and Bridgerton (the latter two sparking conversations over historical accuracy on social media sites upon their release).

To answer these questions, I plan to take advantage of online discourse surrounding these films and shows. Review blogs, fansites, and social media (particularly Twitter and Reddit) are all helpful tools in gauging who the audience of a film or show is and their reactions to it. Through these sources, I will also be able to analyze whether or not historical accuracy is important to the viewers of a particular film or TV show. I would also take note of how much a particular film or TV show is mentioned, and how much historical accuracy is a common topic amongst online discussions of each media. I think it would be interesting to see if how popular a particular film or show has an effect on how authoritative it is seen by the general public in terms of portraying accurate history. 

The introduction of social media and greater access to media via streaming services have changed how the public interacts with media. The sheer prominence of historical fiction films and TV shows in the general public’s interaction with history indicates that this subject is worth taking another look at beyond Rosenzweig and Thelen.

2 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: Analyzing Historical Accuracy and Public Reaction to Historical Fiction Media”

  1. I think this idea is great Claudia! I really appreciate how you are building off of that survey and gearing it more toward contemporary era by including areas like social media and streaming services.

    Another area of interest for this project may be TikTok as well. I know from being on there that by providing a visual, creating a cosplay, or highlighting the newest BookTok crossover with it (like Bridgerton) could also be quite interesting to tie into this. How can one minute (I think that’s the max now, but I could be wrong) be enough to tell history and what does the public get out of it?

  2. Hi Claudia,

    Overall, I think this is a really interesting project. I think your idea of looking to online discourse to find and then study discussions between fans about what does or doesn’t matter with historical authenticity around TV shows is likely to be a really rich source. If you do go this route, you might find my dissertation/first book to be useful. After doing a number of studies of discussion in web forums that project ended up being mostly about what kinds of things we need to think about when we approach records from online communities as primary sources (it’s openly available here http://mars.gmu.edu/handle/1920/8859 ).

    If you do go with this as your project, I think my one primary suggestion would be to think about picking one show, or potentially as many as two or three, that you would focus on. For example, I could imagine a whole paper just focusing on historical representation and authenticity discussions in a single show like Mad Men or Downton Abbey. If you do one individual show, then you would have a chance to draw on some more background and analysis of the show in media studies and also focus a bit more on some of the questions that come up in general about popular misconceptions about that particular historical era or context.

    Again, I think this is a great idea for a project and that it has a lot of potential.

    Best, Trevor

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