Tag Archives: historical

Making people invisible

The history we are taught, and the history we see in pop culture representations has tended to be the history of straight cis white men. It’s not accurate. Everyone else has always existed and done stuff. However, this selective storytelling has consequences. 

A lot of people – white English speaking people especially – never get further than what little history they are obliged to encounter at school plus the problematic film and cultural content that works much the same way. This means that many people struggle with the idea that anything could have happened in the past that wasn’t centred on straight cis white men. Show them any content that even acknowledges other people exist and they can be surprisingly upset.

This means that accurate content showing queer people, People of Colour, and even active women can be dismissed as ‘woke’ and inaccurate. Some people seem to be stuck in the film worlds from the first half of the twentieth century, which is grim. They are unable to imagine or accept the existence and agency of people who are not straight cis white men. You find them on social media, criticising accurate historical content and arguing with evidence because it doesn’t fit their fantasy. They also can’t handle having this kind of thing in fantasy stories, firm in the belief that even fantasy Europe can only be straight white men.

The other consequence of this is the belief that diversity is a modern invention and that diverse people aren’t really real, or don’t matter. Again, you’ll find them on social media denying the historic existence of neurodiverse people, denying the existence of trans and non-binary folk in history, denying historical female agency, and making that a basis for saying this ‘new stuff’ is pretend and does not merit taking seriously.

History is not a neutral subject. The way it is taught and represented isn’t neutral and has ongoing consequences. Many things that are intrinsically human have been left out of how we tell our history stories and that distorts cultures and societies.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?