On History's Place in Pop Culture
[This is an old opinion piece from 2014.]
Let’s talk about that argument of historical accuracy for a moment. History's cool, I think it’s valuable to study and understand where we came from, and one of the few ways we can truly move forward. But I am not interested in recreating history, especially as an artist. Why? Because things were fucked up “back then,” which is why they are outdated modes of existence, and why we study them: to learn from our mistakes, to analyze the ways in which we so horribly fucked up, and to attempt, insomuch as we can, not to make the same mistakes again.
“’True Detective,’” said so many people, “changing the face of television!” I watched it all. There are things that I love about the show, mainly its gorgeous cinematography and willingness to make TV a long-form, beautiful art. “Mad Men” does something similar, I’d say, and both certainly take their time and space in making complexly bad good guys out of their protagonists. But the women, much more so in “True Detective” than in “Mad Men,” are vapid, mechanical plot points in the roles of wife and lover. But what could I expect, said most people. “It’s a show about a Louisiana police force in the 1980s!” Believe me, I understand that there were few women in the police force in the 1980s, though I also know they were there, and yes, they were probably still mistreated and oppressed—they are still, now, after all.
But please tell me why we’re recreating the experience of being on the police force in Louisiana in the 1980s when we already know what the fuck that was about? “True Detective” is a story about two men who have to work together, and they don’t like each other, and then, through hardship, they come to understand and respect each other better. Spoiler alert: that story's been told before, in countless time periods and places throughout history. What new information is it adding to that scene? Nothing. More than just continuing to exhibit the same tired, white, male story we’ve all seen a hundred, thousand, million times, it does not even begin to hint to the worlds of oppression that we’re still struggling against—race, gender, class. It's not doing it's part to revisit history and learn from it. It's lacking in the learning department. Times were bad, not that they aren’t anymore, but why would we want to spend our time reinforcing the ways that we were bad, unless we’re going to add something new to the conversation?
Another new trend is to let white male artists craft stories about white men sitting around talking about the things that need changing. Like Lincoln, did you see Lincoln? There’s a work of art that was literally a room, a set, a movie full of white men talking about an issue like race, oppression. And it was boring as hell. You know why? Because who gives a fuck! White men have had the ability to sit in a room and talk about things like race, gender, oppression, rebellion, for as long as white men have existed. And yet they still seem to learn nothing from revisiting their history, still seem to only want to relive their glory days, still seem hell-bent on retelling the same stories over and over again and refusing to move forward with their lives. I’m sick of seeing that, no matter what “new element” it might be adding to the scene of white men sitting around and talking about shit. You know what would be revolutionary, historical, progressive, truly astounding? To see a movie with a cast full of black women set in the Civil War era, where the only places a camera shows you are the spaces that white people did not inhabit. That’d be something Hollywood had never seen before. Or to show the 1980s Louisiana Police Force, but only through the eyes of the female dispatchers, secretaries, the few women who were actually serving on the force. Or, if you, as an artist, really love the aesthetics of the 1980s, try something trippy: write an alternate universe detective story, set in the 1980s in Louisiana, where the police force was run by women! What would that look like?
If it means white men have to write those things, so that we can see them in popular, mainstream media, then they should fucking write those things. I understand that they’ll get a lot of flack, a lot of kickback, a lot of shit for thinking they have the right to write those things. I understand that they’ll get a lot of shit wrong, and they’ll make a lot of assumptions, and I’ll probably be angry with them for what they might believe that experience to be. But that’s a move that forces us to break through the monotony of our popular culture. It would force us to at least begin to have the conversation about an experience outside of their own dominant one. And, maybe, by exploring that, they might be so inclined to introduce more women, more people of color, more minorities on whatever spectrum, into the realm of popular culture. If I were a man, and I wanted to write a female character, and I felt nervous about it, you know what I’d do? I’d bring in a fucking woman writer to help me. If I were a man and I wanted to write a whole show about women, maybe I’d do something crazy, like get a whole staff of female writers! If I, as a white woman, wanted to write anything about people of color, I’d consult any human resource I could get my hands on, and that might be difficult at times, and I might reveal myself to be ignorant, and I might be confronted with my own inadequacies in understanding the human experience, but at least I’d be trying.
This is not to say that a staff of female writers is guaranteed to write a TV show that depicts women in a complex, three-dimensional way, with the kind of attention and exploration that we’ve seen devoted to men throughout time and history. But a staff of female writers would be a rarity in and of itself, and that’s also fucked up, and if it were a staff of women of color? Even rare. The thing about humans is that we’re all fallible and biased and short-sighted and incapable. But, goddamnit, we’ve got to try to offset those things, to change them, to fight against them at every turn. It’s been too long, and we’re too aware of the problems, and we’re too unwilling to do the difficult things we need to do to push past them, or even start to push past them. We have to start somewhere, and it’s going to be messy—but it’s better than nothing.