Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman And The State Of Period Dramas

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

Principal cast of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

Late in the second season of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, there’s an episode where the Klu Klux Klan comes to Colorado Springs in the form of a bank official peddling a “social club” for men. “Like the lady’s quilting circle,” the women claim, unknowingly sewing uniforms for the men to use during their first outing.

But when they put those uniforms on and Grace, half of the show’s one Black couple, is cornered by three Klan members, the situation takes a disturbing turn. The Klansmen grab her in broad daylight and hold her down against one of her restaurant tables. At first it seems an act of rape is imminent. Yet, somehow, when they rip her hair down from the carefully constructed bun she wears and begin to slowly carve it away with a barbershop razor while she screams, it seems almost worse–more intimate–than what could have been.

Jonelle Allen as Grace on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

That episode, “The First Circle,” aired during a season where the show averaged 13.46 million viewers per episode for CBS–an incredibly strong showing for a family-oriented show that aired at 8:00 on Saturday nights. As the 49th most watched show in America, it was up against the 104th and 113th most watched shows from ABC, NBC, and FOX, and was outperformed only by another CBS Saturday-night show, Walker, Texas Ranger. Dr. Quinn, which starred British actress Jane Seymour, had a relatively family-friendly facade and–since “family-friendly” often goes hand-in-hand with a sugarcoating of American history–the topics it chose to handle are always a welcome surprise.

Episodes like “The First Circle” were an indication of not only how good Dr. Quinn could be, but how much television has changed and what our current period television dramas often fail to do and acknowledge. In its own way, the show regularly dealt with issues like racism, immigration, and gender equality, but often touched on more nuanced subjects as well. The white encroachment on Cheyenne lands, mob lynchings of African-Americans, marital rape, and domestic abuse were only a few themes explored throughout the series. Unlike many period dramas, Dr. Quinn never shied away from dealing with the difficult realities of its setting laid out.

It’s certainly possible to have the social discussions Dr. Quinn presented outside the medium of family television. If a CBS of 1994 (hardly the most progressive of networks) could do it while employing Chuck Norris at the same time, it can’t be that difficult. Yet, while we now have a television landscape full of period dramas, I can’t see this show or its subject matter fitting in to a 2012-2013 lineup.

One of the few things the show had in common with its modern counterparts is a traditionally attractive white couple in the romantic-lead spot in Michaela “Mike” Quinn (Seymour) and Byron Sully (Joe Lando). While Michaela struggled to be accepted as a forward-thinking female doctor in the frontier west, Sully was a “mountain man” and “friend to the Cheyenne.” Despite many of the townspeople thinking that Sully is at least half Native American, the fact that Sully is a white man is never forgotten by the writers or Sully himself. His character often negotiated with the United States on the behalf of the Cheyenne people (he’s even an Indian Agent for a season), but the show is careful to toe the line of him speaking as anything other than a white man.

When Sully approaches the government about the Cheyenne, it’s usually after consulting his best friend Cloud Dancing. Larry Sellers, who played Cloud Dancing, was also credited as a “Native American consultant” for most of the show’s run, a role that developed after he turned down a part in Dances With Wolves:

Sellers returned to Los Angeles and got a call from the executive producer of “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.” They talked and the part of Cloud Dancing was offered to Sellers. He immediately began to flesh out the sketchy character written into Dr. Quinn scripts.

“Cloud Dancing was originally called Black Hawk,” he said. “They just wanted a representative American Indian, not a character. I came up with Cloud Dancing and became the technical adviser for Native American concepts and thoughts.” His technical adviser role gave him a chance to present American Indians of the past as regular citizens in a town. “One of the things never represented in movies or TV is an interracial relationship between a white woman and an Indian man,” he said. “Indian men treat their mates with kindness.”

Sully and Cloud Dancing’s relationship would fit well under the modern definition of television bromance that every show has to have, but could a Native character be created with as much thought as Cloud Dancing?

Instinct–and the craft shop crow sitting atop Johnny Depp’s head in trailers and stills for The Lone Ranger–say, “probably not.”

Dr. Quinn used Cloud Dancing and Sully to tackle a variety of issues not limited to the troubled formation of reservations and the Custer-led Indian Wars (notably, the show portrays General Custer as an unquestionably villainous character). The episode “Hearts and Minds” focused on the forced Westernization and education of Native American children–which features another uncomfortable scene depicting that forced behavior–emphasizing the show’s efforts to present a different American narrative.

Gender roles played a large role in that alternate narrative. While the show fit in well with the 1990s trend of shows about Women Doing Things (a la Murphy Brown, Xena, Ally McBeal, and the like), and more often than not passed the Bechdel test, there were missteps here and there. The show was radical not only in the confines of the show’s world for being an unmarried female doctor, but in the world it was airing: she was a 35-year-old-virgin, and it took three seasons of chaste courtship and a marriage for that to change.

It also distinguished itself by being one of the very few period dramas about the American past that focuses solely on a female protagonist–a professional female protagonist at that. Mad Men does the same, to an extent, but it’s built around an ensemble cast. While the professional woman hasn’t disappeared from modern or period television, their portrayals have changed. Shows can no longer get away with having only one “conventionally attractive” female star; Dr. Quinn went so far as to allow only Jane Seymour to wear her long hair down–the Western symbol of traditional femininity–all six seasons. And the lack of passionate romantic encounters would likely bore a modern audience so used to these encounters–problematic or not–as being necessary to move the plot along.

As refreshing as it was to see Seymour’s character as a woman in a period drama who derives power from an aspect other than her own or others’ sexuality (i.e. more Peggy Olson, less Gillian Darmody), there were times when Dr. Quinn reminded you it was “family friendly,” usually when the town’s sex workers were involved. At least two prolonged “hooker with a heart of gold” storylines find their way in through the six seasons, and it’s made clear throughout that sex work, despite being a profession, is unacceptable.

Perhaps the show felt it could get away with tackling some of these issues due to its portrayal of femininity; Michaela was established as a Boston native and part of a well-off eastern family. Seymour herself, a British national, was a former Bond girl who took her stage moniker from a former queen of England and posed for Playboy–but not in the nude.

Despite taking on touchy subjects, the show made them easier to digest for its viewers by wrapping it in privilege and traditional womanhood. Any incidents that occurred were, more often than not, far easier for Michaela to recover from than for, say, an African-American or Native-American character. With a white woman helming the show, Dr. Quinn was able to do a good thing by exploring these topics, but the effects never had to carry over and continue to have an affect on the main character. This allowed the show to jump from issue to issue on a weekly basis. The progressive portrayal of women on the show is a double-edged sword in that regard, but one probably considered a necessary condition by network executives.

Whether we realize it or not, period television concerning American history tends to situate itself in a male Manifest Destiny mindset. From acts of gratuitous violence on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood, to the technically period-accurate acts of racism and sexism on Mad Men, American takes on period television present an unapologetic view of America’s upbringing. Instead of ever trying to challenge the actions (justifiably so) of our forefathers, current period dramas glorify them.

Racism, sexism, and violence on Dr. Quinn, while not always to the level of “The First Circle,” occurs often, but is almost never unquestioned. On the more critically acclaimed western Deadwood, Al Swearengen’s problematic behavior is easier to overlook or even enjoy because it’s part of by a Shakespearean-esque local dialect and contextualized as necessary to building the American West.

And unlike on Dr. Quinn, where incidents of casual racism are almost always rebuked or at least shown in a poor light, exchanges between Mad Men’s Don Draper and Roger Sterling–”Have we hired any Jews?”/”Not on my watch!”–are meant to elicit an awkward laughter from the audience, until they realize that everyone else is laughing, too, so it’s okay. It’s all entertaining because this is, supposedly, the way things were and not the way things are. Besides, the theory goes, this is how the greatest country in the world was forged.

While ABC’s period drama Pan Am failed after one season, CBS is trying again with Vegas. Meanwhile, the most successful of recent period dramas have all appeared on cable networks, like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Deadwood along with Magic City on Starz. AMC’s Hell on Wheels, the newest period Western (which I have yet to watch), was just renewed for a third season and comes on the heels of the History Channel’s successful Hatfields & McCoys miniseries. Any social issue that goes deeper than an effect on white womanhood tends to be off limits on these shows. The History Channel’s new drama/documentary hybrid, The Men Who Built America, seems to have even decided that those men were all white. Black folk haven’t had a positive television period moment since Roots, nevermind Latinos, Asians, or Native Americans.

In her book Primetime Feminism, Bonnie Dow notes that Dr. Quinn‘s surprising success didn’t attract much attention from the popular press, saying, “Critics have called it historically inaccurate and and melodramatic” and “attacked it for its political correctness and anachronistic moralising.” Fine. If the show was too melodramatic while current period dramas are hyper-realistic, then where’s the happy medium? Where is the show that strikes a chord between the issue-oriented of Dr. Quinn and the flippant humor of Roger Sterling’s one-liners? Where is the period drama that explores the issues Seymour’s show did, but through the eyes of a person of color? For instance: instead of being a white man who identified with the Cheyenne, the show could have simply hired a Native actor and made the character a Cheyenne.

Perhaps these observations mean sacrificing something for the sake of a Manifest Destiny-fueled version of historical accuracy, but why does that matter in the end? After all, these shows are meant to entertain, and Dr. Quinn was a good first step in showing that a show can do that while still maintaining viewers. So in an era when it only takes 1-3 million viewers to keep a cable show on the air, aren’t we finally ready for something different? The audience is here; the networks just need to listen.

  • Ell Tee

    Here’s a little race-thing from Hollywood, specifically “Dr. Quinn”: My good friend was an extra in LA and frequently worked on the show. His parents are both Chinese (Shanghai). However, he was frequently assumed to be Hispanic when he was in SoCal, and on this show he was always cast as… the Native American. Or, as they say, “not white”.

  • mischa

    “instead of being a white man who identified with the Cheyenne, the show
    could have simply hired a Native actor and made the character a Cheyenne”

    THANK YOU.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Penni-Fields/1417407565 Penni Fields

    As a fan of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (watched every episode when it first aired and now own the complete DVD sets) I would like to say thank you for a very enlightening and great article. Dr. Quinn had a great balance for all ages and both genders. I, as a viewer of the television series, wish there were more shows like this it still on our screens. I now watch a show called Heartland on the Gospel Music Channel (GMC). It is about a family running a farm and the main star is a teenager who trains horses. I am glad I found this show. Yes, some may find Heartland boring, but like Dr. Quinn, not every episode has to be jump-in-your-face entertainment to be meaningful and enjoyable. I am glad Dr. Quinn has found a new audience thanks to the GMC and the INSP channels. Goes to show you that the CEO at CBS can’t keep a good show down.

  • http://www.facebook.com/winter.crawley Dara Crawley

    I would say that what has happened is a switch of gears. Until the last seven years or so the moralizing and themes of shows like Dr. Quinn, Touched by an Angel, hell even Walker Texas Ranger had some themes from time to time….all of those things would be rejected by a modern audience. The cynical nature of the modern audience often leaves people complaining of something being so fake or inaccurate. The problem is that audience doesn’t recognize that something isn’t always meant to be accurate. Thats not to say that audience should not be listened to. There can be a happy medium, but as divided as everything is this would be shocking to see on a large scale.

    I would love to see a drama about a black or latino or Chinese or Native American Doctor in a small western town. He or She being the only one there would be forced by their own standards to take racist patients who in turn would be forced to see that doctor

    • flense

      Hmm, like your latter suggestion.

      However, could it be that some of the cynicism is a bit manufactured as a ploy to make shows that promote consumerism and a lack of ethics and critical thinking more successful? Haha, loaded question, I know.

  • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

    I stopped watching during the third ep of S1 (inclined to give it another chance, but haven’t had time yet), so I’m not entirely sure. I hope that if they had they’re more fleshed out than the one Chinese character the managed to write into Deadwood.

  • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

    Man, I loved Into the West when it was airing– it was a *trial* wrestling my parents for the television for that 2 hour chunk, but I remember it being worth it.

    Unfortunately, when they released it on DVD they massively edited it down in order to make it “classroom friendly. I wanted to mention it here, but since I couldn’t find the Emmy Screener version to watch (which would have been unedited) I didn’t think it would have been fair, had I found myself criticizing it. I remember there was a white character who ran off to live with the Lakota (which, when treated like kids wanting to, for instance, wanting to run off and join the circus, is one of my least favorite tropes), but otherwise I do have mostly positive memories of those portrayals.

  • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

    Man, I loved Into the West when it was airing– it was a *trial* wrestling my parents for the television for that 2 hour chunk, but I remember it being worth it.

    Unfortunately, when they released it on DVD they massively edited it down in order to make it “classroom friendly. I wanted to mention it here, but since I couldn’t find the Emmy Screener version to watch (which would have been unedited) I didn’t think it would have been fair, had I found myself criticizing it. I remember there was a white character who ran off to live with the Lakota (which, when treated like kids wanting to, for instance, wanting to run off and join the circus, is one of my least favorite tropes), but otherwise I do have mostly positive memories of those portrayals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=850510400 Carolyn Fitzpatrick

    You should check out the show Copper, by BBC America. The first season just ended. It is set in New York City in 1864. The main character is an Irish American police detective, but his right hand is an African American doctor named Matthew Freeman who does forensics for him. There is a lot in the show about the race riots that happened a year before and the fear that they will happen again. Freeman’s wife is also suffering from PTSD due to the riots.

    • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

      I’ve heard a few good things about this show, and it’s definitely on my list. I made the mistake of trying to start watching it at work and wasn’t able to concentrate on it as much as I would have liked, so I never go past the pilot.

      It sounds pretty inclusive, and I wish our own channels could produce this kind of thing.

  • miga

    Man, I used to love that show as a kid. The whole family would watch it on Saturday nights, and I used to hide underneath the rocking chair or behind the couch at the scary parts. Thanks for this article- I didn’t realize all the nuance in the show, especially Larry Sellers’ role.

  • miga

    Man, I used to love that show as a kid. The whole family would watch it on Saturday nights, and I used to hide underneath the rocking chair or behind the couch at the scary parts. Thanks for this article- I didn’t realize all the nuance in the show, especially Larry Sellers’ role.