Saturday, October 30, 2010

Historical Accuracy

Caution for loaded language - I apologize, and promise I only used it in context

As we know, this summer, I went on a Fantastic European Tour of Awesome. And among many firsts (first time traveling outside the UK, first time I didn’t fly direct home to Canada, first time in France, first time in Italy, first time sleeping on a train…), it was the first time I travelled with someone other than myself. I took a group tour with a really cool group called Contiki, which specializes in tours for the 18-35 age group. I really do need to check how accessible it is, because all anyone ever tells me is it’s hell flying when you have mobility issues, but I’m independently mobile, and travelled with my cousin, who also walks with some difficulty, and they didn’t even check for the handicap sign when we asked them to let us on the plane early, so we seemed to have dodged any major issues. Also, a surprising number of the places we visited were accessible, though I will say this does not include the hotel room in London, in which the elevator was so tiny that three people had difficulty getting in it at the same time. But if you can go, I would highly recommend it because, in the first place, Europe is awesome, and in the second place, they’re something like $300 a day for the trip, plus your airfare and insurance. Seriously, airfare is ridiculous.

Anyway, that’s just a heads up. What I wanted to talk about was that this was the first time I wasn’t travelling by myself, because in addition to being in a group, I was in the group with my cousin, who is just a couple years younger than I am. It was her first time away from home, and for the most part, it was pretty awesome (leaving aside the absolute weird of being home and having people calling me by my first name, which only my family and my job ever use, which was creepy and unsettling). My cousin and I have a lot in common. She desperately wanted to visit the statue of The Boy in Kensington Gardens, and we both had an amazing time at the Colosseum in Rome, and did lots of shopping. She is excellent with maps, I am okay with getting lost, so all in all, we were great travel companions. However, I don’t say this to sound snobby, but my cousin is not particularly cultured. So every once in a while, stuff like this happened:

“Hey! Let’s go to the Tower of London! It’s amazing, and you’ll see the scaffold where Anne Boleyn lost her head!”
“Wow! That’s awesome. Anne Boleyn was such a whore!”
“…uh. What?”
“Sorry. I’ve seen every episode of The Tudors.”

Full disclosure: I have never seen The Tudors. It’s one of those shows where I always wanted to see it, and I never quite got around to it. Like True Blood, and Glee. I know. I hate myself too. Only now, I’m really glad I haven’t, because that’s possibly the stupidest statement I’ve ever heard anyone make about Anne Boleyn. And yes, I am well aware she had a handful and a half of lovers, and she may have been in love with her brother, and yes, I do know that if a woman in the 21st century had seven lovers and a husband and was in love with her brother, we might call her all sorts of names, and possibly have her institutionalized for the brother thing, so yeah, maybe locking her up in the Tower makes some kind of sense. And that would be wrong, of course, but the major issue here is um, Anne Boleyn didn’t live in the 21st century. She lived in a time where a woman was called a whore for oh… liking sex. She also lived in a time where she was sold to a man who could not have sons. And how did he deal with not having sons? By killing any woman he couldn’t get pregnant. Might make a woman a little desperate to have a son, wouldn’t it?

I’m not here to talk about Anne Boleyn; there are many, many people far more educated than I am who will, if you want to learn. I’m not even going to talk about the crime of rampant historical inaccuracy present in any and all historical retellings of virtually any story with something resembling a real history. That would be the sort of redundant that borders on the ridiculous. What I want to talk about is this mistaken idea that in order to make history interesting or tangible, to make it ‘accessible’, we have to ‘modernize’ it. So let’s talk about modernizing, shall we? Writing the story of the Tudors for television, if we try to make people understand the cultural implications of the day, the struggle for power, which for men, meant wealth, property, and control of human life, and for women meant doing as you’re told, doing it well, and being sold to a powerful enough man that raping or killing you might not be in someone’s best interest. That might be too much to handle. If, however, the little whore deserved it? Oh, well, now it makes sense. If she was power-mad and would stop at nothing, including, the horrors, using her presence as a hot bod to manipulate people into getting what she wanted? If she was an ungrateful little snot with too much money and too little time on her hands? Oh my God! Those Tudors were just like us! Because don’t we all know women like that!

'Gentle visitor pause awhile : where you stand death cut away the light of many days : here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life : may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage : under their restless skies’ - Inscribed on the memorial
 The problem isn’t that we sensationalize history, it’s what we consider understandable to the wider audience. It’s how we draw people in, and keep their attention. I talked about this in Mary Sue v1 and v2, but let me just repeat myself.(I do that, y’know.) Women in fiction have two roles to play. She’s either the perfect sweet girl next door who would never do anything to harm anyone (like have sex). Or a horrible conniving manipulate she-devil who uses every weapon in her arsenal (like sex) to hurt and destroy the world, and further her own agenda.* A woman looking out for her own interests has an agenda, you see. Good women don’t care about themselves! We see those archetypes in fiction, because somebody saw them in reality, but we don’t look too close at the context. We don't think about how somebody saw them in the days when women didn’t speak for themselves, and now that we do speak for ourselves, we can’t, because those archetypes are still there, and nobody’s listening to us, and seriously, how’s that for accessible context? Again, I've never seen The Tudors. For all I know, my cousin's comment was less about what went on in the show, and more about her own reaction to it. But, as I said before, nothing goes into a story without a reason, so I have doubts.

Of course, life imitates art imitates life. We are taught to believe the power we have to withhold or wield is sex, we believe that women, other women, who have power we don’t have, or use power we have and don’t use, are evil. We believe it because everybody says it’s true, because it’s right there, all through history, it’s true. We can understand it, because it has to be true, because everybody knows that it is. (And my professors thought I never paid attention in Critical Thinking!)

History’s written by the winners. But I’ll tell you something, if I’m on a losing team, I am going to lose with a thousand people cheering and promising, we’re gonna get ‘em next time!**

*seriously, why is sex evil? I mean, I’m a card-carrying asexual, but I gotta say, sexuals can be such prudes!
** In other words, I was born a Maple Leaf fan, I'll die a Maple Leaf fan.

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