Historians and Cultural Criticism of Popular Media

I believe that cultural and political critiques don’t need to offer workable solutions in order to be valid. The act of criticizing is valuable in and of itself. I remember one time, for example, when a National Park Service official visited my place of employment and argued that “if you come to me with problems without offering solutions, you’re just whining and complaining.” I thought at the time and still believe today that that line of thinking is absolute crap. A problem doesn’t go away because there are no foreseeable solutions. Sometimes problems require teamwork, dialogue, and extended time for workable solutions to be implemented. Demanding that the critic bear the responsibility of solving the problem at hand is, in reality, a subtle defense of the status quo.

I mention this belief because we historians are a criticizing people. We interrogate the meaning of anything and everything, and we formulate interpretations of past and present events in ways that can elicit heated debate between members of the profession and between historians and their many publics.

Some of the most interesting and passionate conversations within the historical community occur when new films, performing arts pieces, and historical literature about the past are released and gain widespread popularity beyond the boundaries of the profession. Whenever something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is released to critical acclaim, historians are always quick to throw their voices into the discussion and wag their fingers about historical inaccuracies and potential problems with the interpretive thrust of these cultural artifacts. Oftentimes they present thoughtful critiques that refrain from offering workable solutions that would enhance the historical accuracy of a given production, and that’s okay! But I must admit that I sometimes wonder what good these sorts of critiques really do for anyone besides making the reviewer look like a grumpy curmudgeon. Don’t historians realize that mediums like film, theater, and children’s books are not the same as academic scholarship and therefore require a different form of communicating the stuff of history to audiences? What would these historians do if they were tasked with writing a film, play or piece of literature? How would they interpret something like the American Civil War in ninety minutes as opposed to four-hundred pages?

The latest examples of historians-as-cultural-critics are taking place around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton and Ramin Ganeshram’s children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

Hamilton focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton and the politics of early American history. The show has consistently sold out on Broadway and is slated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as it prepares to tour theaters across the country. In recent months, however, historians have been pushing back against some of the musical’s themes and interpretations. I see Lyra D. Monteiro’s review in The Public Historian as a catalyst in pushing these critiques towards a larger discussion with Hamilton’s viewing audience. In the musical Manuel employs people of color to depict the founding fathers, partly as a way of showing how contemporary Americans of all backgrounds have the power to take ownership of American history. Monteiro, however, rightly points out that no actual people of color from the time period are depicted in the musical, and that while Hamilton is billed as “the history of Americans then, interpreted by Americans today,” such a distinction is actually hurtful in that it suggests no people of color were around during the Revolutionary Era. She also takes issue with the themes of individualism and the glorification of the American Dream that are prevalent in the musical. Meanwhile, William Hogeland and David Waldstreicher take issue with Hamilton’s portrayal as a leading progressive thinker, Jason Allen calls the musical “a color-blind Stockholm Syndrome,” Nancy Isenburg argues that Hamilton’s arch-nemisis Aaron Burr was actually not that bad a guy, and the front page of the New York Times on April 11th includes an extended discussion with other historians who have weighed in on the musical’s accuracy.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington was pulled from the shelves in January by its publisher, Scholastic, after intense criticism about the ways it allegedly depicted slavery in a benign fashion. Ganeshram discussed the banning of her book in the Huffington Post, arguing that she wrote the book under the “reasonable assumption that understanding the overarching horror and criminality of slavery was a given — and that parents and educators would share that context in a way that was most appropriate for their young listener,” but the essay has not brought her book back to the shelves at this point. One of the most vocal critics of the book was living history interpreter Michael Twitty, who, writing in The Guardian, argued that “our society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children,” and that A Birthday Cake for George Washington represents a larger truth about America’s inability to deal with its history of slavery. But curiously, Twitty acknowledges that while he knows Ganeshram personally, he has never talked with her about the book, nor has he even read the book itself. And while Twitty is certainly right to point out that we need to do a better job of discussing slavery, especially with young children, his failure to further explain how he proposes to solve this problem leaves readers wondering how future authors can improve upon the messages conveyed in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Perhaps we really don’t have a solid blueprint for discussing slavery with children, which in turn opens the door for historians to start discussing solutions for writing better historical stories about slavery rather than constantly critiquing each children’s book that comes out about the topic.

Again, I think it’s important that historians contribute their voices to larger conversations about the ways history is depicted in popular media, film, and literature, but I also wonder if and how we can add legitimacy to our viewpoints by going beyond the “historians say ______ is inaccurate” model. Historical interpretations in an artistic, entertainment-based medium are not going to meet the exacting standards of someone used to having books published by an academic press or someone working in a professional public history setting for a living. Historians should acknowledge that and act accordingly when critiquing popular media.

Cheers

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11 responses

  1. Great stuff, Nick. I’ve written about this in the past and one aspect I think we can use to go beyond” Historians say ______ is inaccurate” is to highlight how a certain piece of popular culture can be used to further public understanding of the real history it’s depicting. These films (even if unintentionally so) are basically big chunks of public history that lots of people see. If we don’t like something about them (or better yet, if we do!) let’s use that as a starting point to engage the public online and in person at historic sites, talks, museums and the classroom. These pieces can be used as gateways and really any of them can be effective for fostering discussion if used properly.

    1. I agree 100%, Christian. Let’s use these forms of popular media as starting points rather than hopelessly flawed artifacts that can teach us anything about the construction of history and historical memories.

  2. Historians complain about declining interest in the study of history among young people. However, they fail to make good use of popular history entertainment as a way to draw the public in to more serious study of the past. Proving you are a better historian than Tony Kushner isn’t proving much.

  3. I’m citing this article in my dissertation! Love it!

    1. Thanks, Andrew! Hope you’re doing well and that your dissertation is almost complete!

      1. It’s coming pretty quick here lately! 🙂

        1. Awesome! Good luck as you finish everything!

  4. This is great and ties in with a lot of what I argue in my thesis. Hopefully you’ll be able to read it sooner rather than later.

    1. Thank you, and yes, I look forward to reading your thesis soon.

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