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Against “Historical Accuracy”

Sleepy-Hollow-Fox

Historical accuracy. God, I’ve come to hate that phrase. It is used to cover all manner of sins. Have a historical narrative that treats its female characters as objects? Historical accuracy. All your characters are bigoted jerks but we’re supposed to sympathize with them? Historical accuracy. Have racism or sexism in your fantasy series? Historical accuracy!

Of course, “historical accuracy” is sometimes a good explanation for a character’s attitudes. I cannot sit through an episode of Downton Abbey without wanting to punch Lord Grantham in the face, but his sexist attitude is realistic. The key thing is that the narrative never makes you think he’s in the right. He’s the old-fashioned one unable to cope with the changing world, and his mother, wife and daughters, who argue against him, are the ones you root for. It’s very different from a show where the script, the direction, everything actually places female or minority characters in an inferior position, or supports their exploitation or dismissal. And it happens all the time. It’s as though a “historical” setting (or something like it) gives writers and creators free rein to embrace as many old-fashioned and bigoted views as they like, for viewers to enjoy whatever messed up portrayals they like uncritically, and for everyone to wave it away as “it’s not us, it’s history!”

This is especially frustrating on fantasy shows like Game of Thrones. The story is set in an entirely made-up world. There is no “historical accuracy,” because there is no history. And even if we literally took Westeros as middle ages England, there are enough dragons and snow zombies hanging around to make “accuracy” a bit of a moot point. Yet cries of “historical accuracy” crop up every time anyone criticizes the show’s problems. It’s historically accurate that Brienne thinks all women are weak. It’s historically accurate that Tyrion (at least book Tyrion) is a complete misogynist, so we should be sympathetic to him. It’s historically accurate that the show has random naked brothel scenes every episode. “Historical accuracy” becomes a catch-all cover-up for “you can’t be PC here, because it’s NOT THE MODERN DAY!” Anything can be excused if the reader can shrug and say “oh well, it’s only history. That’s how it was.”

Which is why I’m so thrilled that Sleepy Hollow has decided to do away with the whole thing. It’s a show where the Headless Horseman is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a time-travelling British revolutionary soldier and a modern day cop must fight all manner of demons to prevent the coming of the end of days. In that context, terms like “accuracy” no longer completely apply. Of course, it’s fun when a show gets actual tidbits of history right (the Georgian nerd in me was a little thrilled to hear Ichabod refer to “Miss Mill’s” little sister as “Miss Jenny,” as an 18th century gentleman would), but it really doesn’t matter when you already have witches and monsters and undead creatures hanging around, especially when the show takes place in the modern day.

Is it historically accurate that Ichabod Crane, an 18th century British soldier, was friend to Native Americans and opposed to slavery and is more accepting that many modern day people of equality between different races and cultures? That, apart from one congratulatory comment about Abbie’s “emancipation,” he accepts the idea of women and non-white people being cops and being in charge absolutely without comment? That he is ready to start another revolution over the taxation of donuts, but women wearing trousers is no big deal? Probably not. And I could easily imagine a show where Ichabod’s ignorance is used as a source of comedy, or even where he’s treated as refreshingly un-PC. But in skipping that whole nonsense, the show gets to both be a generally progressive genre show and focus on the important things. Like its really diverse cast. And fun, non-offensive banter. And scary demons. And really hot British guys in wigs.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

5 thoughts on “Against “Historical Accuracy”

  1. Another thing that bugs me is when people cite “historical accuracy” as a reason to hate a particular casting choice (usually when a POC gets a role in a period film). Mixed-race Angel Coulby for example played Guinevere for five years in “Merlin”, and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the amount of people who became sticklers for historical accuracy overnight.

    Of course, they didn’t have a problem with the presence of tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, plate-armour, matches, sandwiches, gumboots, beer cans, high-heeled shoes, eye-shadow, and the concept of “homework” (not to mention the talking dragon and other fantastical elements) but a woman of colour as Guinevere…? No, that’s just too much!

    So yeah, my kneejerk reaction to anyone who trots out the term “historical accuracy” is an eye-roll.

  2. True, historical accuracy doesn’t make sense in a fictional story. But some people idealiced some things while at the same time justify enjoy that discrimination with that argument. It’s about not feeling guilty themselves, not about convincing anyone.

    Some of the people who complains about “historical accuracy” do it because that really matters to them. But those people usually are more bothered but other inaccuracies like technology that didn’t exist or dates, customs or little details. The cast is not as important to them that the writting, the clotes or settings. One of my friends usually complains that all the actors have good teeth when in mid ages people didn’t have dental care. Also, complains about everything being too clean. I mean, not even queens and kings bath frecuently… Yeah, disgusting but historically accurate.

    So whenever someone try to pull historical accuracy as an excuse, I’ll ask them why the man has all his teeth. Or why there’s no sifilis. I mean, Kings use to have that a lot! hahaha

  3. It may be uncharitable of me, but I suspect the current vogue for shows set in earlier periods of time (“Mad Men,” “The Newsroom,” “Game of Thrones,” etc.) is partially to do with the fact that writers and audiences can get away with enjoying racism and sexism unimpeded. “Oh, we’d like to see/show those people in a better light, but can’t, because historical accuracy! And I love the costumes!”

  4. I never disliked Robert, he seemed like Lord Mace Tyrell to me: naive, weak-willed, but good-natured and well-intentioned. Mary and Violet were who reminded me of folk tales’ caricatures of spoiled, sheltered aristocracy, at least in season 1.

  5. I am all for liberalism and political correctness but I stopped to wonder even when playing Game of Thrones Ascent, how my medieval character can have such a 21st century mindset.

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