By Guest Contributor Kendra James
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.
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?
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.