Friday 6 July 2012

And all of us here have been here all the time: Historicism, non-normativity, and People Like Me

Posted by Galatea

This is prompted by an epic debate thread that, at the time of writing, seems to be just kicking off over at Shakesville (ETA: The discussion thread has now closed). In the midst of a rather interesting post about stereotyping of Scottish people in the upcoming Disney/Pixar film Brave (link contains spoilers!) several commenters have also begun a discussion about the representation of non-white people in medieval-themed fantasy writing. As the link isn't good for anyone who wants to stay spoiler-free for the film (*shakes fist in the direction of movie Powers That Be who have proclaimed that UK viewers shall not be allowed to see it until August*), I've excerpted a couple of comments below:

(discussion below the cut does NOT include spoilers for Brave: please do not post any in the comments!).

I don't really have a dog in the fight re: McEwan's stance on stereotyping of Scottish people in the film, particularly as I haven't seen the movie yet (again, damn you Pixar!). And I do have some problems with the ways that people who self-identifed as Scottish were not listened to in the original onthread discussion, but that's off-topic for this post. The strand of the argument that I want to talk about here is this one:

The clothing, architecture, and athletic competitions were all researched and are designed to fit the time period of the film. The lack of people of color as we conceive of that phrase today makes sense in the historical context of the film.
- Nighthob1

I can think of numerous historically plausible ways to include people of color in a film that bills itself as full of factual, historical research.
I cannot think of a single historically plausible way to include fantasy-style magic in such a film.

ETA: I will add that this argument is nearly identical to one that I often see employed in fantasy fandom/gaming about why women cannot be protagonists, especially heroic protagonists, in a fantasy-historical setting. It is problematic for the same reason in any case. It not only erases real oppressed people of the past and present, it presumes that it's okay to completely fictionalize aspects of history that don't challenge Patriarchy--including the laws of physics and whatever else fantasy magic totally transgresses!---but that including oppressed people would be "unrealistic." Just, no.
- aphra_behn

 As both a history-nerd and a person who loves her swords-and-sorcery just a leetle more than is entirely compatible with sitting on the cool kids' table at lunch, I've heard the former argument (butbutbut it wouldn't be historically accurate to include PoC fully-rounded female characters PWD queerfolks people like you in our happyfun medieval fantasy storytimes!) an awful lot. I don't have a lot of time for it. And the thing that infuriates me the most is the fact that it's often not even the case, historically speaking!

This was my contribution to the thread:

I haven't seen the film (yet), so don't have anything coherent to say on its use of stereotypes.
However, I do want to contribute a datapoint -- while it's true that a medieval Scottish setting seems to suggest that most of the characters would be white, there *were* people in medieval Scotland who would probably be read as PoC by a contemporary audience. For example, there are records of a group of North African entertainers who lived at the court of James IV (1488-1513), and they seem to have been reasonably well-treated and well-respected members of court life. Here is a starting-point reading page from the UK National Archives: (CN: link uses language taken directly from historical documents, which might be offensive/inappropriate for modern usage)

You can also read more about them in
Fradenburg, L.O., City, Marriage, Tournament: The Arts of Rule in Late Medieval Scotland (1991).
Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984).
McDonald, J.G., Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (2002).
James' court does seem to be somewhat later than the society being drawn upon for Brave -- however, I'm very keen to get people to critically address the idea that 'there were no Black people in Europe in the Middle Ages', as that tends to elide the complexities of inter-culture and inter-continental trade and migration that were actually going on during this period. 

 / medieval geek 

- kittenofthebaskervilles

(NB: Do I have the best Disqus handle in the business, or what?)

The last time this business went around was the fuss over the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor movie, and it was just as annoying that time too. And the time before that, it was Angel Coulby in the BBC Merlin series, and so forth and so on. The fact that the 'but there weren't any Xpeople in Xtime, thus there shouldn't be any Xpeople in Xfantasy world, wahh, stop trying to make everything POLITICALLY CORRECT' argument is still being made in 2012 makes me believe more strongly than ever that both further critical historical scholarship AND further popularisation of said scholarship are incredibly important! Why, exactly, are kids in school not being filled in on many of the exciting discoveries about the presence of non-white-dudefolks in history that have been made by historians over the past 30 years?

(like the fact that the Vikings made raids to southern Spain and North Africa -- so stick that in your horned helmet, racist Thor fans -- or that Malory's Morte Darthur, written in 1469, has three Muslim Knights of the Round Table named Sir Palomides, Sir Segwarides and Sir Safir, which really makes the BBC Merlin look a bit monocultural!).

I remember learning about Christine de Pisan at the age of 23 and being delighted, but also furious -- where had information about this fierce, single-mother, own-bills-paying, misogyny-baiting medieval scholar and poet been all my life? Where had news about the woman who wrote

Si la coustume estoit de mettre les petites filles a l'escole, et que communement on les fist apprendre les sciences comme on fait aux filz, qu'elles apprendroient aussi parfaitement et entenderoient les subtilités de toutes les arz et sciences comme ils font.
If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons.
The Book of the City of Ladies, Part I, Ch 27  

in 14-0-fucking-5 been when I needed to hear it most? I really, really don't want to pin this on teachers themselves, many of whom are doing the very best they can with not a whole hell of a lot of support from government and society. A lot of it does seem to come down to poorly-designed history textbooks and curricula -- check out the excellent Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen for a US-centric but interesting discussion of how the way we teach history impedes kids' ability to learn it, and teachers' ability to teach it. A lot can probably also be pinned on historians them/ourselves -- making clearer connections with those outside the academy needs to be further prioritised and rewarded.

(This is all quite apart from the fact that I also have serious problems with any narrative that says 'yes' to (for example) dragons, magical powers, immortality, gods and goddesses that speak directly to human beings... but 'no' to PoC, three-dimensional female characters, QUILTBAG people or characters with disabilities, on the grounds of alleged 'historical accuracy'. Given five minutes alone with the Dictionary of National Biography, I can probably make a better case for queers, PWD, PoC and active, politically important women in any period of history than you can make a case for direwolvesanthrophomorphic transformations or sparkly vampires!).

This history problem is what I was trying to get at when I wrote one of the newest Lashings songs, 'A Brief and Eurocentric History of Western Queerdom'. This, if you haven't seen/heard it yet, is a mighty beast of a song -- an account of almost 30 notable figures from mostly-European QUILTBAG history in under three minutes, beginning with Gaius Valerius Catullus and ending with (naturally!) Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, all set to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Modern Major General'. I'm still in complete awe of Rob, Lil and kabarett for memorising it all, and slightly dreading what will happen if I ever have to try to perform it myself!

The first half of the title of this post is taken from both an Ani di Franco song (Everest). It also echoes a line in Diane di Massa's Hothead Paisan:

The distance shows your silhouette to be a lot like mine 
And like a sphere 
And all of us here have been here all the time.

To me, that is one of the most comforting things to hear, particularly at times when it feels as though the world is especially down on all those people like me who don't really belong or get a voice in Middle Earth, or Sparta, or 1920s Oxford, or wherever happy fun fantasy/historicist/nostalgia geektimes are being had this week.

I've always found that one of the more stressful things about being people like me is the sense of being 'the first of one's kind', or one of the first, anyway. A new thing, a thing that people can't quite make sense of, that doesn't fit into existing patterns. In some cases, it comes with an obligation to explain oneself over and over again (ask many trans* people I've spoken to), or with a vague feeling of having to prove oneself against people's expectations (my accent doesn't make me stupid any more than your RP makes you intelligent!), or just with an odd sense of discomfort, a feeling that nobody quite knows what to do with you.

I have a friend who went to a very upscale Oxford college, and one day she was walking on the lawn when an elderly gentleman stopped her. He was an old member of the College he said, on a visit, and didn't she know that only members were allowed on the lawn? She explained that she was a member, and he spat back that well, in his day they didn't let HER SORT in the front gates. The punchline of the story? To this day she still doesn't know whether the dear old chap had his flannel trousers in a knot because of her nationality (clearly apparent from her accent) or because of her gender.

[CN: Next paragraph contains mention of slavery, forced marriage, misogyny, classist oppression]

And my working-class female immigrant queerbait self has a lot of sympathy with that, and I wonder whether you do too? Have you ever felt that sense, even when people aren't being openly nasty, of 'We didn't used to let people like you _____' (get married, not get married, read, write, attend university, own property, avoid being property, reach the age of thirty without contracting black lung disease, etc)? So often, even when it's delivered politely ('Wow, your family must be so proud of you!') or under a facade of humour ('Bet you're glad this isn't 1962! Now make me a sandwich! Just kidding, LOL!'), that sentiment seems to come with the vague unspoken implication that 'you' should be grateful that 'we' are graciously allowing you to _____, and that at some unspecified point in the future, 'we' might decide to stop.

[CN: Some of the links in the following passage contain cissexist and ablist assumptions and language, but I've included them because I feel that they give useful information]

 For me, learning history is the best way ever to zap that feeling straight back to the pit of ignorance from whence it came. It's strange and new for women to think and write, because medieval women were all silenced nuns or horribly oppressed babymachines a la Game of Thrones? Tell it to Christine and the Paston ladies! The idea of men having sex with other men disappeared with the Ancient Greeks and didn't return until Oscar Wilde? The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials say otherwise! [CN: Link gives church-law punishments for male/male intercourse in the eighth century]. Black people weren't a part of Britain until the Windrush landed in 1948? Well actually (miserable though it is) Sukhdev Sandhu writes about how the eleventh century equivalent of the BNP was already complaining about the non-white population in London back then! People with disabilities have never made significant achievements*? Harriet Tubman and FDR might have something to say about that! Ladies don't belong in combat situations? Margaret of Beverley says 'nuh-uh!'. Polyamory was tried out in the 1970s and didn't work for anybody? Oh look, it's Leonard and Virginia Woolf! The idea of people not living in strict accordance with their assigned-at-birth gender is a new-fangled notion? Meet Eleanor Rykener and Anastasius Beurlein!

* except possibly Helen Keller, who as we all know was famous just for being Deaf  and blind, and certainly wasn't an amazing socialist feminist and NAACP supporter who ended up with her own FBI file...

We don't always have as much data as we'd like on these people, and sometimes the histories get exaggerated or distorted. And of course we can't ever know the full details of these people's lives. Can we really talk about, say, Catullus as 'gay' or 'bi' when his culture had absolutely no reference points for either of those concepts? Was Septimus Severus' experience of being a person of African descent in Roman Britain in any way like that of a modern-day Black British person? But sometimes just knowing that they were there, that these people who didn't perfectly fit the straightwhitedudenorm existed, is enough for me.

Every so often, y'know, it just feels so good to be able to set down the burden of having to be a New Thing. It would be nice if happyfun medieval fantasy storytimes could be a place for that to happen too.

I know there are lots of people who don't need to connect closely with history to feel secure and confident... but personally, I feel that my engagement with modern historiography has given me a past as well as a future. I like making new pathways and coming up with new ways for us to interact with each other, hopefully better and more respectfully than before, but I'm also so happy not to have to always feel the weight of being the first of my kind, and so, so grateful for all the amazing non-normative people who have come before me.

If you'd like to, I would be very happy if anyone reading this wanted to share some of their favourite historical people like you in the comments.


  1. You. Are. My. Personal. Hero. Just sayin'.

  2. There are examples of male-bodied practitioners of Freya's magic, who lived as priestesses of Freya in Anglo-Saxon times. They were considered a lower class of people then (as can be told from comparing the weregild (fines) for killing one etc), but we defiantly be considered trans* today. Infact Odin was taught and used Freya's "women's magic", which is an interesting gender-role variation from the leader of the gods.

    There was also a recently discovered late stone age/early bronze age burial of a male skeleton buried with all of their cultural signs and grave goods of a women. The way this was reported in the press? "First gay caveman found".

  3. @Goblin *beams* :D

    @Ginger Drage: Aha! I think I remember hearing a little about this a few years ago from a SCA-doing friend -- fascinating stuff! If you have any links, etc., I'd love to learn more abouit it.

    *facepalm forever* at the 'First gay caveman' headline. Popular media misrepresentations of non-normative figures in history is something that I didn't even get around to touching on in this post... another rant for the future, I fear!

  4. @Galatea Unfortunately there appears to be very little about this that is easy to find. My knowledge really just comes from a small section in an obscure Neo-Pagan book.

    However despite its sometimes problematic language this post here appears to have some quite good info (haven't had to chance to read it all yet) especially in the section titled "Transcending Gender in the Edda" about half way down the page. If I come across anything else I'll let you know =)

  5. I thought Sir Palomides, Sir Segwarides and Sir Safir converted to Christianity? In which case it's not strictly correct to say that Malory has three Muslim knights of the Round Table -- they are Saracen but not Muslim.

    And I'm not sure the Woolves are the best examples of polyamory you could have chosen. IIRC Virginia's affairs with Vita Sackville-West et al upset Leonard very much.

  6. @Anonymous - Palomides does convert at the very end of the Book of Tristram -- I'm not sure whether Malory tells us whether or not his brothers convert too? This book has a really interesting reading of Palomides' refusal to convert until he has accomplished the requisite number of 'great deeds' as an act of resistance/attempt to maintain his self-determination for as long as possible.

    I suppose what I'm really trying to point out with these examples is not necessarily that all of them are good or happy or positive portrayals of non-normative folks, but just that people who argue 'BUT THERE WERE NO XPEOPLE IN XTIME' are often talking manifest rubbish.

  7. A bunch of friends and acquaintances of ours go up to Southsea castle in the summer as part of 'Tempus Fugitive', time-travel-adventure themed history lessons for kids as acted by a bunch of live action roleplayers and reenactors.

    The guy in charge has had to field complaints about the black guy playing the mediaeval noble so frequently that he started to put his research on the subject into the packs for teachers. There were black people in the UK consistantly from at least Roman times onwards. Which means, since before the Anglo Saxons...

    Yes. Good post. SO BORED of the 'but it wasn't historically accurate' argument...

  8. @anotherusedpage: Oh, blarghWHUT. SERIOUSLY, people would actually have the front to out-loud complain about the perceived ethnicity of one of the actors in a re-enacted kids' history lesson? *applies head vigourously to desk*