By Narelle Campbell
Screening the Past, Issue 26 (2009)
Abstract: This paper will consider three medievalist children’s television programmes, Jane and the Dragon, Sir Gadabout and Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, each of which grant knightly roles to their central female characters. Given the cultural power attached to representations of the past, such rewritings of the Middle Ages can offer a retrospective authorisation for active female participation in today’s society. The ‘girl power’ messages embedded in these programmes are, however, mediated by notions of caste and destiny, and by the portrayal of female heroism as an exception to ‘normal’ female behaviour. Consequently, a discernable ambivalence can be found in these programmes’ challenges to traditional gendered roles.
Introduction: Fairy story, myth, and different constructions of the medieval past are clearly staples for children’s entertainment and instruction. Given the endurance and familiarity of medieval tropes, television programmes that draw upon such imagery are easily accessible to a young audience. Conceptions of the medieval period possess affective appeal and imaginative potential with their access to magic, adventure and a romanticised past. Medievalist imaginings provide an extensive reserve of recognisable motifs, imagery and characters that can be called upon or appropriated by children’s television writers and producers. Significantly, medieval imaginings also provide an effective platform over which to lay ideological precepts. The cultural influence of representations of the past can work to cement traditional hierarchies of power as natural and authentic. Equally though, the popularity and widespread awareness of medieval imagery and fairy tale patterns can provide an easy starting place for subversion. Fixed paradigms of behaviour and power often attract a comedic or satirical response, and the unreal and fantastic nature of fairy stories also gives room for movement in storytelling. Imaginings of a medieval past, therefore, offer a raft of possibilities to one adapting or constructing a new ‘medieval’ tale.