NEVER FORGET SMOLDERGATE
I was trying to explain Sleepy Hollow to someone the other day, and one of my major pet peeves came up—the ol’ “[Character] can’t be a good person! Everyone from [time period] was [racist/sexist/homophobic/etc]! That’s so unrealistic!” response.
It’s something I’ve run into a lot when it comes to stories either set in the past or involving time travel (in which case it’s pretty clear that realism isn’t the exactly the primary goal of the story, but that’s another issue), and it really bothers me for reasons I haven’t tried to clearly articulate until now. Was the past terrible? Yes. Were a lot of people in the past terrible? Yes. Is this trope frequently employed in order to make stories that shouldn’t be about straight white dudes all about straight white dudes, and does their characterization as remarkably progressive often ring false? Yes. I’m definitely not defending it on those grounds.
But is it automatically “unrealistic” when a character from the past isn’t an asshole? No, and here’s why I find that attitude troubling, from quibbles minor to major:
1. First of all, when we’re talking about any character that’s more than a bit player, it’s just lazy writing. We’re all products of our culture, yes, but if the entirety of a character’s personality is driven by their time period, then…that is not an interesting character.
2. The tendency to categorize large groups of people as a homogenous mass that Is A Certain Way instead of as a group of individuals with different personalities and motivations and hairstyles is one of our most harmful, as a species. It may not a huge deal in this case, because it’s not like a bunch of pleasant folks having a party in 1942 were all suddenly struck by the premonition that people in the future would think they were jerks and started weeping into their fruit cocktail or whatever, but still, it’s not probably not behavior we should indulge, as a rule.
3. Whenever this is brought up, it becomes really clear that to many, “people” actually means “straight white people.” For example:
"Everyone in the 50s was homophobic!"
"Uh, the gay people probably weren’t."
"Oh, er, yeah, right."
…is an only slightly paraphrased exchange I had once. Forgetting about the existence of people who don’t correspond with your default view of humanity isn’t okay, even when you’re portraying your default view unfavorably.
4. It’s so, so self congratulatory. “Everything and everyone was so terrible then, amirite? Aren’t you so glad it’s all better now, women/people of color/LGBT people? Aren’t you grateful to be living in this most glorious, egalitarian age? YOU’RE WELCOME.”
Yeeeah, no. All those problems? ARE STILL PROBLEMS. BIG ONES. Pretending they’re not is offensive to everyone suffering from them today AND to all the people who struggled to improve them in the past. The progress that has been made didn’t happen overnight, because we’re just so much more enlightened than every generation that’s come before. Acting like we have the advantages we have because we’re better is a very Rich Kids Of Instagram attitude. Are a lot of things better, and should we be happy about that? Of course! But let’s not pretend that it all happened by virtue of our own awesomeness.
5. And finally, I hate it because, much like believing men just can’t help themselves around scantily clad women, or that it’s okay when old people say racist things because they’re “from another time,” the implication is that people are inherently bad unless something forces them to be good, and, no. No no no. That’s lazy and juvenile and just an excuse for shitty, selfish behavior—and this is coming from someone who doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in humanity, as a rule.
Humans are capable of almost unimaginable callousness and cruelty, it’s true, but to pretend that we aren’t just as capable of incredible kindness and compassion is cowardly and destructive.
…I’m not sure how well I’ve explained myself, and I worry that I’ve made it seem like this is a trope I’m passionately in favor of, when I’m not. I want more diversity in historical fiction; the Super Special And Awesome White Guy quota is more than full. But hopefully, you get what I’m saying here, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to fish my monocle out of this snifter of brandy.
I have a very strong desire to relate this to something that was going on in the Supernatural fandom yesterday regarding John Winchester being either an abusive asshole or just a product of his time/circumstances, but I won’t, because mostly I just want to point out what a lovely writer Theresa is and how every time I read something by her there are phrases that just make me want to weep with joy. I will pick one from this:
Acting like we have the advantages we have because we’re better is a very Rich Kids Of Instagram attitude.
Also, she tweeted this yesterday, which I wish I could retweet every day for the rest of my life because I will still be laughing at it when I am 103.
Haha, as I was writing that I thought, "Nicky will like this."
You know me so well.
Theresa said she doesn’t think Jensen Ackles is handsome and now I’m reevaluating her status as my soul mate.