A Historical Dilemma

Oftentimes, the stories we engage with challenge the line between honesty and progress.


images courtesy of istockphoto.com, historyextra.com, ncph.org, and kissthemgoodbye.net

The way that authors or producers present a historical narrative can widely vary.

My favorite thing to do after a long week is to immerse myself in some kind of a story. I love getting into a compelling TV show or picking up an interesting book and being taken away to an entirely new world. Although I know fiction can often have significant and everlasting impacts on our real lives, I usually turn to it as some kind of escape, which is why fantasy stories and historical and period dramas have always been my guilty pleasures. 

A few weekends ago, I did what I usually do– plopped myself under a big blanket with some take out food and turned on an episode of the show I was currently binge watching. This time, it happened to be Outlander, a romantic, political period drama about a woman who time travels back to 18th century Scotland.

I really enjoy the show, but, at times, it’s hard to watch. It is brutally graphic in its depictions of violence, racism, sexual assault, and rape, which you can expect is fairly prevalent in a tale that takes place in the seventeen hundreds.

After watching an episode that day where a beloved character is raped, I got overwhelmed. It occured to me that the show had had almost every one of its female characters almost or fully sexually assaulted. It was supposed to be just another aspect to show how challenging life was in that time period. It made sense. But while I understood it, I didn’t necessarily appreciate it.

So, I turned off the show and went to pick up a book I had been looking forward to reading. It was essentially a paranormal murder mystery set on a pirate ship in the 17th century. Much of my anticipation turned to exhaustion as I read the first chapter, which featured an oppressed wife and an abusive husband. 

It seemed like I couldn’t travel through time or venture off to other lands without facing the fact that this was how certain people were treated throughout history.”

I rolled my eyes, sick of having to see or read about women and similarly, people of color, in horrible, destitute positions. It seemed like I couldn’t travel through time or venture off to other lands without facing the fact that this was how certain people were treated throughout history. It’s a common trend in many period pieces.

A large part of me understands the importance of including these certain aspects of the narrative. After all, it’s the truth. Women were assaulted and treated like they were lesser. They were beaten and bloodied and, oftentimes, helpless. Racism took the form of full-on slavery, and the mistreatment of people of color was common, if not encouraged. We cannot erase that, and hiding it makes those transgressions even worse, as it negates the reality of what people really went through.

But, like I said earlier, understanding why something is done doesn’t mean I have to like it. I know that violence against women was very prominent throughout history, but there’s something about constantly showcasing it that rubs me the wrong way. I may be biased since I engage with stories mostly as a way to escape, but at some point, such depictions do more harm than good.

By constantly casting women in roles of oppression, even when it is true to the time period, we limit our stories. Oftentimes, these female characters’ narratives become only about breaking out of their systems of oppression or trauma. If they are able to display any strength or tenacity, it’s implied that they gained such traits because of their hardships.

While surviving trauma can strengthen us, that’s not always the case. Contrary to what most of the entertainment industry seems to believe, not every character has to be beaten or assaulted to prove they are worthy.

There are so many kinds of female stories that have nothing to do with escaping abusive husbands or surviving an attack, and I like to believe that was at least partially true in previous centuries. There are other ways to depict a truthful female experience without showing so much violence that you risk normalizing or even glamorizing it.

This is especially dangerous if the story does not handle the traumatic experience well. If the characters brush off the event as just another day in the 1700s, it encourages a far too casual approach to incredibly sensitive, nuanced situations.

Putting aside all of the factors we have to consider when we remain historically accurate, is it so bad to occasionally just crave complete fabrication? What if I want to see a woman captaining a ship in the early 1600s or leading an army into battle? The enjoyment of stories is valid, too.

The issue of historical accuracy versus overindulgence also apply to race and sexuality, and the entertainment issue has addressed the topic more with those kinds of inclusivity in mind.

Netflix’s most recent hit TV show, Bridgerton, features several Black figures in its tale of early 19th century English court. The show made it possible to have a more diverse class by depicting Queen Charlotte as Black. Many historians assume that the queen may have been of mixed race, but the English throne never acknowledged it. In the story, Queen Charlotte’s race allows other characters of color to be royalty.

Hollywood, a Netflix mini-series that premiered last year, actually aimed to completely disregard historical accuracy to showcase the value that inclusivity can have. The story takes place in Hollywood in the late 1940’s, and it explores what movies would have looked like if actors of any sexuality, race, or gender were included in the industry.

Perhaps the most prominent example of historical inclusivity for our generation is Hamilton, the musical that took the world by storm in 2015. The production has cast non-white actors to play white historical figures, stressing the fact that diversity is what makes up America. Writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda ties Hamilton’s casting back to the lack of roles for people of color in the industry.

While I cannot personally relate to either Black or queer representation in the media, I can appreciate the effort, and I imagine that it is empowering. At some point, having stories that depict powerful, capable, and strong diverse characters is more important than historical accuracy. As long as the story still revolves around that world, it’s okay to overlook certain bigoted views in order to make all viewers feel more welcomed.

The truth is that there is always a place for important subjects and people in stories. Even if they’re occasionally hard to watch or digest, they’re necessary. Pretending as if they didn’t happen only diminishes the suffering that marginalized people experienced.

Just as fiction teaches us lessons and forces us to reflect upon our own lives, it also allows us a momentary reprieve from them. There is a certain value in that, too.”

But there also need to be some entertainment spaces that do allow for an escape from our own morbid realities. Just as fiction teaches us lessons and forces us to reflect upon our own lives, it also allows us a momentary reprieve from them. There is a certain value in that, too.

Perhaps most importantly, if a story is going to focus on realistic traumatic events or practices, it needs to do so with care, and it needs to present an optimistic outlook in some way or another. There is no reason to show women brutally beaten or Black slaves horribly mistreated if there isn’t going to be more to their stories. 

It’s fair to expect a certain darkness to that subject material, simply because the situation warrants it. However, allow some of the characters who were cast into the roles of victims to grow and heal. That’s a way of being honest about hardship while still sending a good message to viewers.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia still run rampant in our world. So, treating these events like they were just signs of the times is entirely irresponsible. It encourages us to view similar practices today with nonchalance.

Truthfully, I don’t know what the right answer is, and thankfully, it’s not my choice to make. The entertainment industry will continue to craft the stories it always has, and consumers will continue to watch what intrigues them for whatever reason.

But it is important to be aware of what types of media we’re consuming. Stories only mean so much to us because we invest ourselves in them. What we listen to and watch and read affects us– whether we like it or not. That means we need to take stories, and the potentially violent content in them, seriously.