Against "Historical Accuracy"


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.