On the Issue of ‘Inclusive’ Casting in Fact-Based Historical Dramas

The entertainment industry has recently begun using a supposedly blind eye in its casting decisions when selecting actors to portray historical figures. This essay challenges the practice of ‘inclusive’ casting.

The issue of the race or ethnicity of actors cast to portray historical figures arose briefly in my recent review of Amazon’s My Lady Jane, but I did not delve into it in any depth in that instance so as not to ruffle too many feathers unnecessarily. But then I watched the first three episodes of Mary & George on Starz, and now I feel compelled to speak out in my capacity as a historian.

The entertainment industry has recently begun using a supposedly blind eye in its casting decisions when selecting actors to portray historical figures. I say ‘supposedly’ because it is abundantly clear that such casting is anything but blind. It has become positively trendy to cast actors of color proactively (affirmatively, deliberately, consciously, but not ‘blindly’) to play known historical figures who were themselves White. Proponents of so-called ‘inclusive casting’ argue that its use “can help us see the world through different sets of eyes, through narratives that are inclusive and representative.” ‘Inclusive casting’ is itself defined as “the practice of providing fair and equal access to people from different genders, races, ethnicities, ages, abilities, and sexual orientations in order to strengthen diversity within acting roles.” (See The Right Fit.) And certainly all of that is a laudable goal … when casting totally fictional characters in totally fictional works.

When, however, that practice is adopted in the casting for historical dramas, even heavily fictionalized historical dramas such as My Lady Jane and Mary & George, I believe the practice is grossly misguided and potentially counterproductive. I would even call it ‘gaslighting,’ or the deliberate use of a false narrative intended to manipulate and to mislead the audience into believing something that is not factually correct or true.

It is a historical fact that King Edward VI of England and Ireland was White, not Black as he is portrayed by Jordan Peters in My Lady Jane. No amount of ‘inclusive casting’ will alter that basic factual reality. Likewise, any bookkeeper that Mary Villiers of Mary and George may have employed in England in the 1610s would most assuredly not have been of Indian descent (Ankur Bahl as Xander the Bookkeeper in Mary & George). Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was not of Latino/Hispanic descent, as the actor portraying him, Matt Barkley, appears to be. Neither did Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset have a Black cousin, a role played by the young actor Dylan Brady, who identifies as Black. Nor would there have been numerous Black African, East Asian, South Asian, or any other non-White races and ethnicities milling about at the English/British court as is depicted in the last scene of Episode 3 of Mary and George. Some of those races and ethnicities were indeed present in London in the 1610s, but they did not appear at court in the numbers depicted in that specific scene, if they appeared at court at all.

The ‘inclusive and diverse’ casting of Amazon’s My Lady Jane, Starz’s Mary & George, Netflix’s Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn, and a steadily growing number of others is all pure ‘gaslighting,’ plain and simple. In turning a supposedly blind eye to race and ethnicity in casting for historical dramas, the resulting depictions subliminally teach the audience that persons of color were indeed present and ‘represented’ in pre-modern Northern Europe in numbers equivalent or nearly equivalent to the modern era. That is a lie.

And it is counterproductive if one is concerned with ‘giving voice’ to minorities and to marginalized groups of any kind. The particular newly-popularized practice of casting non-White persons to portray White historical figures may potentially result, for example, in the stifling of current and future research on the conditions faced by non-White persons in Northern Europe before the modern era. Rewriting the historical past as an era of widespread inclusivity and diversity removes the apparent need for any debate on conditions in that same past by reconstructing exclusivity and non-diversity as themselves historically new and entirely modern phenomena. That is the very definition of ‘gaslighting.’

It would be far more productive, in my opinion, for those concerned with promoting inclusivity and diversity to produce media programs that highlight the authentic attitudes, beliefs, and practices of the distant past and the positive changes of the more recent past and present. Show us what was together with what has changed as time has passed and how that change was achieved, not what you wish the lived past had been.

As a final illustration of the absurdity of regularizing the practice of ‘blindly inclusive’ casting in historical dramas, allow me to ask, “At what point do we draw the line?” If we are to be truly blind in “providing fair and equal access to people from different genders, races, ethnicities, ages, abilities, and sexual orientations in order to strengthen diversity within acting roles,” then we must not place any limits of any kind on the practice of blind inclusivity. True and complete, “fair and equal,” blind inclusivity requires an ability to cast a 12-year-old Black trans-gender man to play Anne Boleyn without any hesitation or repercussions whatsoever. Such casting would, after all, be undeniably ‘inclusive.’ It would similarly require that the casting of a 75-year-old deaf East Asian man to play Sally Hemmings, the hearing Black slave and mistress of Thomas Jefferson, be entirely unremarkable, unworthy of any notice or mention. Casting a South Asian female quadriplegic to play Mike Tyson in a bio-pic of that famous boxer would have to seem mundane. Those castings would all be inarguably ‘inclusive,’ and inclusivity is more important to inclusion activists than historical accuracy, is it not?

Historical facts are written in stone, one might rightly say, and those facts cannot/should not be altered or misrepresented in some misguided attempt to impose ‘inclusivity and diversity’ on the lived past. ‘Color-washing’ (and gender-washing, and age-washing, and ability-washing, and sexual orientation-washing) the past in historical drama as a form of proactive social engineering is gaslighting and dishonors persons of the past. It teaches audiences that diversity and inclusivity in the areas of race, gender identity, age, ability, and sexual orientation were the norm in the distant historical past and have become issues only recently. If I may paraphrase the Spanish philosopher George Santyana, “Those who choose not to remember the past accurately are condemned to repeat it.” Actively choosing to gaslight the past and to transform that past into a utopia of diversity and inclusivity does a grievous disservice to those who suffered real marginalization in the past due to issues of race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, ability, and/or sexual orientation as well as to those who continue to suffer such marginalization in the present.


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD
An Elderly, White, Disabled, Gay Man
30 April 2024