Is Hulu’s ‘The Great’ really that great?

Print Proposal by Grace Conroy

Hulu’s The Great starring Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as Peter III of Russia.

I’ll be honest, I have not seen more than half an episode of The Great, so my opinion on this question is irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, I love satire, I love history, and I love Catherine the Great (r. 1762 – 1797). Unfortunately, it’s my love for Catherine the Great that made me dislike the show so much. 

To provide a bit of context on my Catherine the Great knowledge, I read Robert K. Massie’s biography in eighth grade. And again after my sophomore year of high school. I immediately became fascinated by this minor German princess, Sophie, who came to be Catherine the Great. I have such an endearment for Catherine II, that I named my pug after her. She goes by “Kitty” for short. And interestingly enough, Catherine the Great’s aunt supposedly had sixteen pugs. 

Robert K. Massie’s biography can be bought on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

All that to say, when I finally sat down to watch The Great, I instantly became annoyed with the satirical aspect of the show. I am interested in investigating how the show has been received by other Catherine the Great aficionados, specifically historians. To track historians opinions about The Great, I plan to scour Reddit, Twitter, and HNet. I will also do research on more professional platforms, like JSTOR, to see if historians have published articles about their opinions. I could also include analysis on historians view on historical satire in general, using other television shows or movies, such as Jojo Rabbit. 

My leading research questions are: 

  1. How do historians view The Great? Do they appreciate its satire? If they don’t appreciate the satire, why is this so?
  2. In what ways does The Great differ from historical truth? 
  3. How do historians view other satirical forms of history? What do they like or dislike about historical satire? How does The Great fit into their views? 
  4. At the end of the day, does it matter how historians feel about The Great?
  5. Who are historical satires geared towards and what do producers hope to get out of releasing such work? 
  6. Are historical satires potentially dangerous? 
  7. Does historical satire encourage viewers to research the true history? 

Most of my questions can work for any piece of historical satire, but my focus for this project will be on The Great. By searching Reddit, Twitter, and HNet I can assess how historians view The Great versus non-historians. Preliminary examination of the subreddit r/TheGreatHulu reveals that watchers tag r/AskHistorians about questions they have regarding the real events behind the show. This will be useful when answering question #7. If I’m lucky, hopefully in some of their responses, historians will provide insight into their view on the show. However, further research utilizing Twitter tags such as #TheGreat #TheGreatHulu #historicalsatire and a compilation of other terms should reveal some inkling of where historians stand. For HNet, I will examine past posts regarding The Great, as well as pose my own question of simply “How do you, as historians, feel about historical satire and specifically, The Great’s usage of historical satire?”

Lastly, and begrudgingly, I recognize that to accurately create this paper, I will need to force myself to watch the show. And who knows, maybe I’ll actually enjoy it! 

For fun, here is a portrait of Russian noblewoman Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna and her pet pug in 1759 by artist Louis Michel van Loo. While Ekaterina was not related to Catherine II (to clarify, this is NOT Catherine’s aunt that had sixteen pugs), she was a friend to Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741 – 1762).

2 Replies to “Is Hulu’s ‘The Great’ really that great?”

  1. Hi Grace,

    I really like this idea! You do a great job explaining the context for it and I love that you have laid out a whole series of research questions that you might get into for the study. I also like that you have zeroed in on one show, that is going to help scope things into something that is manageable.

    Of all your research questions, I think “#7 Does historical satire encourage viewers to research the true history?” is really both the most interesting and the one that you could get the best shot at getting a good study on out of this. Given that there is a whole reddit that is just devoted to the show ( ) I think it’s worth considering if you just zero in on that site and this question as a way to really go deeper on the project. I think all the other questions you have there can inform/come out of trying to answer 7. That is, if you went ahead and dove into “What do fans of the show The Great talk about on reddit” then you get into an interesting space to see how much what they discuss is actually history. Like are they going into the forums and showing that they have misunderstood things about what is or isn’t real about the show? Or are they in those forums discussing various ways that the show plays with history? Do people in the reddit talk about having been inspired to go and read more about Catherine the Great? Etc. The benefit of doing something like that is that you could likely be a bit more comprehensive about what you do analysis on. As one further note, it looks like there are three moderators for that reddit who are identified on the site, so you could probably also reach out to those moderators and ask them some questions about what they have seen happen on the forum over the last three years since it started. They might suggest some particularly interesting threads to look at.

    For some context on what a study like this might look like, I published a paper about looking at discussion forums for the game Spore a number of years ago, there was an idea out there that it might make people think intelligent design was a thing, but in looking at the forums it seemed pretty clear that people had more sophisticated reactions to it

    In any event, great idea, and I think you could really end up with an interesting piece coming out from this.

  2. Hey Grace!

    I think that this is a fascinating project idea! Historical satire is such an interesting topic because it really gets to the overall questions surrounding history media and historical fiction. How far is too far? How important, if at all, is historical accuracy in shows like The Great? Are there people watching this show and believing that the events they see on screen are historically accurate and what are the consequences if they do? These are all important questions to consider about any piece of media that “history-based.” I think that a show like The Great is a great (haha) example to use for this kind of analysis because one might not automatically think that it inspires anybody to engage in true history, but maybe it does or maybe it causes people to have outlandishly inaccurate beliefs about Catherine the Great and imperial Russia. Either way, it will be very interesting to know how audiences are engaging with this show and the historical materials that it is presenting, however inaccurately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *