Historical films say more about the era in which they’re made than the era in which they’re set. During the November ratings sweeps, CBS aired a miniseries about the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Ostensibly about the rise and fall of a rock star, the film dwelled incessantly on race and gender discrimination, showing just how much these issues dominate not only the way we see the world today, but the way we see our yesterdays. As more special-interest groups come to the table of public debate, a struggle ensures over how the past is interpreted, while in the background a gloomy shadow of guilt looms over the American psyche.
When a writer embarks on a piece of historical fiction, he immediately encounters the nasty problem of America’s former racial segregation and limited opportunities for women. If the writer avoids addressing these issues, because they are extraneous to the plot, he can be accused of somehow endorsing the way things used to be. The safe alternative is to hammer hard on social issues, usually at the expense of the human drama.
True, American society was formerly less englightend than today, but rather than congratulate ourselves on leading the world in civil rights for women and minorities, America has a first-rate guilt complex and can’t stop flagellating itself over its chequered past. And so fiction appears as a convenient and therapeutic way to rewrite the past to suit the needs of the present. In our TV miniseries, the minority lead is draped in the robe of martyrdom, while the female lead is an uberfemme so accomplished I’m surprised they didn’t give her X-ray vision. Our white male lead, on the other hand, winds up a self-absorbed has-been.
The 1950s are the Victorian era of the 20th century, and whenever they are brought up, cynical intellectuals start sharpening their claws. One need only mention the Eisenhower era’s good things — its strong economy; solid nuclear families; basic civility; and lower rates of crime, substance abuse, and illegitimacy — to be accused of “idealizing a mythical paradise of a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ lifestyle that never really existed.”
But in much historical fiction, a kind of reverse idealization occurs in which the flaws of the past are corrected to harmonize with the attitudes of the present. This act of tweaking history through the medium of fiction is just as pernicious as the unconditional glorifying of the past that it seeks to counter.
By making race and gender supersede human interest in a work of fiction, a story actually trivializes these issues by unintentionally exposing them for what they are: plot gimmicks aimed at creating contemporary relevancy. Take the case of black female judges on television, which are often joked about for being about 2 percent of real judges, but 10 to 20 times that on television. While such distortions no doubt have noble intentions, their glaring obviousness makes them backfire as utopian dreams for the land of Oz.
Nowhere is the battle over the past more contentious than in the hallowed halls of academia, where the Center for Grievance Studies (formerly known as the Humanities Department) takes race, gender and sexual orientation as its holy trinity. Here texts aren’t so much studied as shredded for their role in supporting Western imperialism. It’s a kind of intellectual witch hunt in which white male historical figures, who where perfectly normal by the standards of their time, are torn to pieces (or else outed as closet homosexuals). Less than 20 years ago I was taught Columbus was a hero; today he personifies everything we should be ashamed of.
And the battles wage on. When A&E’s Biography ran its much-anticipated show on the 100 most-influential people of the millennium, Gloria Steinem was quoted as saying that the women and minorities included (which some would argue was a generous selection) constituted an act of tokenism. The task of the next millennium, she said, will be to “uncover the truth about the last [one].” Surely this ranks as one of the millennium’s most ignorant statements made by a person of obvious intelligence.
There is a quote by Jorge Luis Borges that goes, “You cannot escape the past; everything eventually comes up again. One of the things that comes up is a plan to destroy the past.” Today, both sides of the culture wars accuse the other of distorting history to serve its own agenda. Somewhere in between, lost in the contentious hullabaloo, lies the truth.
From the Sonoma County Independent, November 18, 1999.