As Don Draper so eloquently put it in his Mad Men carousel speech: “Nostalgia — it’s delicate, but potent.”
It’s the force that drives us to look to the past as a place of emotional comfort, even if, intellectually, we know differently. Nostalgia is why we suspend disbelief while watching Outlander, focusing on the romance of going back in time to meet a brawny Scottish Highlander, rather than the dangers faced by women in a time before indoor plumbing. It’s also what has kept a British puppet spectacle known for its violently sexist content popular for over three centuries.
Centering around the exploits of Mr. Punch, a red-faced, squeaky-voiced puppet who often ends his adventures by beating his wife Judy (and, in some iterations, killing their baby) and then escaping justice, the Punch and Judy show has a long, and deeply personal history in the United Kingdom. Though its roots are in Italian commedia dell'arte, its first appearances of Mr. Punch in Britain can be traced to May 9, 1662, when member of Parliament and prominent diarist Samuel Pepys recorded a sighting of an “Italian puppet play” in London’s Covent Garden. Punch soon became a staple — first of street fairs, and then, centuries later, movies and TV.
In recent years however, there have been calls to ban Punch and Judy shows because of racist and misogynistic undertones embedded in the narrative of the show. Every attempt to pull the show has been met with virulent opposition from fans, who argue that its cultural significance outweighs any concerns about its content.
My first pop culture introduction to the world of Punch and Judy dolls came from Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl, and the subsequent movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy Dunne. In the story, Amy leaves the wooden puppets as a grotesque anniversary present for her estranged husband, meant to suggest the violence at the heart of their relationship, but also as a warning that she’s pulling the strings in this story.
But its myth is now being punctured in a new film, appropriately titled Judy & Punch, written and directed by Australian filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes and starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Harriman.
“Things get passed on from generation to generation not necessarily because they’re worthy, or interesting, but because we get attached to the memory of it in some capacity,” Foulkes told Refinery29 over Zoom ahead of the film’s June 5 VOD release. “I wanted to look at why this story that’s so violent and misogynistic continued to speak to audiences for such a long time over many many generations.”
Set in the fictional town of Seaside (which ironically isn’t anywhere close to the sea), Judy & Punch opens with married couple Punch (Harriman) and Judy (Wasikowska) putting on a puppet show that mimics the characteristics of the historical show. Just as puppet Punch struts and preens on stage, so too does his human operator, who declares himself publicly to be the greatest puppeteer in the world. And even though Judy is the one with the real talent, she’s content to let her husband get his kicks — until his constant drinking and buffoonery ends in tragedy. Beaten and left for dead, Judy survives, and embarks on a quest to seek revenge on her husband, with the help of a group of other ostracized women.
The film is a quirky, semi-anachronistic fairy-tale, but with deep relevance to our modern fights for justice. Punch and Judy’s 17th century heyday coincided with a moment of immense social upheaval. England had just gone through a revolution and executed King Charles I. Under the puritanical Oliver Cromwell, theaters were closed, and public revelry like dancing, sports, and even Christmas carols were banned. By the time Punch arrived in England, Cromwell had died, and monarchy had been restored in the form of Charles II, who ushered in a new era of creativity.
“It was right around the time of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, all these huge cataclysmic things going on,” Foulkes said. Unfortunately, both of those things hit all too close to home these days, with the COVID-19 pandemic still ravaging the world on the heels of devastating fires in Australia earlier this year.
As in the United States, Cromwell’s rule also coincided with the peak of witch trials, which specifically targeted women. That’s another theme that ties into our current political climate, which has seen leaders like Donald Trump calling any criticism of him “a witch hunt.”
“Just the word ‘witch’ is so charged and political, and has a very interesting place in contemporary politics and culture. When you’re making a revisionist history, you want the themes to have contemporary relevance,” Foulkes pointed out.
In Judy & Punch, witch trials are used as a way to deter any behavior that deviates from social mores. Citizens of Seaside bearing a grudge or suspicion denounce their neighbors, who are either cast out of the town or hanged.
Likewise, the Punch and Judy show, largely considered entertainment for children, was used as a form of social control, embedding a misogynistic worldview where a man has total control over his family, facing no consequences for mistreatment. In Judy & Punch, Mr. Punch pays for three centuries worth of beatings in under 90 minutes.
“We kind of hold on to these historical stories for better or worse,” Foulkes said. “And that’s not inherently bad — sometimes handing down stories is a beautiful thing, but I think it’s important to reexamine what they mean socially, and politically.”
To quote Punch’s famous catchphrase: “That’s the way to do it!”
Judy & Punch was produced by Vice Studios. Refinery29 is part of Vice Media Group.