Fictional History through Popular Film: Consuming the 1960s

1960s Revival

Within the past decade or so, an onslaught of 1960s-inspired films and television series has swept our screens, bringing with them an assortment of characters that have gained popularity with the younger generation. From the mysterious life of Don Draper from Ma

tthew Weiner’s Mad Men (2007-present) to the humbling experiences of Aibileen Clark from the film The Help (2011), audiences around the world are becoming increasingly interested in observing history and historically-inspired stories through popular culture. While one would imagine that historians would be pleased that the everyday viewer is interested or at the very least entertained by history outside of an academic environment, many believe that recent historical films and television series have sacrificed significant historical accuracy and relevance for the sake of entertainment. Films like Mona Lisa Smile (2005) and The Help don’t usually claim to be on the same wavelength as historical documentaries, or to eve

n maintain intensive historical accuracy, but it is feared by some within the historical discipline that films such as these are the most appealing sources of history for the average audience. The main criticism from historians in regards to these films and television series is that while they are obviously and inherently interpretative, fictional and dramatic, they also walk the walk and talk the talk of the 1960s, through costume, design and character, and this can negatively influence and indirectly educate audiences on what they perceive to be history.

Cast of Mad Men. Source: The Feminist Wire

Prosthetic Memory

American historian Alison Landsberg notes that with consuming history through popular culture, the viewer can develop a prosthetic memory; we’re able to “remember” an event or historical period through nostalgic material like film – despite the fact that we may never have actually experienced the event. The younger generation has become increasingly historically conscious about the 1960s era, and it has achieved a wider revival in music, fashion, aesthetics and interior design. Historically-inspired characters like Don Draper and Aibileen Clarke impart their stories and experiences indirectly into our subconscious memory of history, we’re able to empathise and connect with a character on a personal basis, and this allows us to subconsciously believe we’ve almost experienced the provocative gender politics of a 1960s New York advertising agency, or that we can almost remember the tense socio-political climate of the Civil Rights era in 1960s Mississippi. These examples may sound dramatic, but they have legitimacy.

The Help. Source: Jantungotakjari.com

Remembering Gendered History

The revival of the 1960s in film has brought with it a series of crises about the way in which we understand and connect to facets of history, most notably the gendered history of the 1960s. Mona Lisa Smile and The Help are two films that have been released within the past decade that both subscribed their plot and female characters to traditional representations of women in the 1960s to secure historical legitimacy. What was problematic about these two films in question is that they both then actively allowed for the main female protagonist and supporting characters to ‘rise above’ and challenge the gendered constraints of their historical contexts and determine their own futures. This outcome is not impossible for a 1960s context but it is very unique and uncharacteristic, and it is clear that the writers of both films designed their specific stories to be relatable and contextually relevant for the contemporary audience. But this uncovers a few questions; firstly, are we unable to connect to or even understand gendered history unless there is an emotional link, and with regard to that idea, should we even consider trying to understand broader history if we only employ our emotions?

Mona Lisa Smile. Source: Jotting.com

Role of Fiction versus Role of Fact

This idea sparks a controversial debate about how history is created and consumed outside of scholarly institutions. Australian historian Michelle Arrow notes that many of the criticisms made of film and television histories are based on misrecognition of their role and purpose. She argues that television histories and written histories are dramatically different forms of historical narrative, produced for different audiences and constructed in different ways. We cannot criticise a historically-inspired popular film for not being a complex historical documentary when it never claimed to subscribe to that genre; its primary objective was simply to entertain. With this in mind, Arrow argues that historians need to go beyond simply critiquing film and television histories for their failure to do what academic histories do, and instead engage with them in ways that takes into account their distinctive modes of production and consumption.

What we can be certain of is that the film and television industry will continue to respond to the demand for more historically-inspired films, and more historical events and periods will become somewhat fictionalised and re-produced. While we need to consider the processes that are influencing our understanding and perceptions of the 1960s, we also need to recognise and make distinctions between the role of historically-inspired films and the role of historical documentaries in educating the wider audience on the historical period.

Further Reading

Landsberg, A. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. USA: Columbia University Press, 2004

Arrow, M. “Broadcasting the past: Australian television histories,” History Australia, North America, 8, April 2011. <http://journals.publishing.monash.edu/ojs/index.php/ha/article/view/649>. Date accessed: 20 Nov. 2012.

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7 comments on “Fictional History through Popular Film: Consuming the 1960s

  1. ctinworth says:

    Hi Nicola,

    I thought this was a thought provoking post which will make me watch historically inspired films in a new light. As historians it is no doubt difficult to determine whether we should consider the fact these films draw audiences attention to history through popular culture pleasing or troublesome. On that note, I think you’ve done well to identify Arrow’s point that these films were responses to demand for historically inspired films and thus ‘we cannot criticise…[them]for not being a complex historical documentary when it’s claim…was simply to entertain’.

    What I found most valuable from your post was the fact that films such as The Help and Mad Men are aimed at creating nostalgic histories. In knowing this, audiences are perhaps less likely to history subconsciously introduced into their memory, on the other hand this nostalgic history could promote empathy which may may have an array of consequences, like justification for actions or defensive for the ‘victims’ (I here am largely referring to The Help, as I am yet to watch Mad Men).

    I had a few questions about this post. What made you consider The Help and Mad Men? And what role did they have in the choice of your topic, ie. were the films the inspiration, or the topic?

    I am confident every historian has a different perspective, and your conclusion that these films are intended for popularity and therefore should not be critiqued as a historical documentary is very convincing. Overall I found it to be an ganging analysis on the representations of history through popular culture.

    Thank you for posting.
    Chris Tinworth

    • nicolajblack says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. In answer to your question, it was the films and the wider movement of 1950s/60s nostalgia that inspired me. I wanted to focus on something that was kind of unique and contemporary, and I had really enjoyed the films and TV series (despite being a typical history student and noticing all the historical mistakes and exaggerations). I also got a lot of inspiration and help from Michelle Arrow’s work, and her class ‘Popular Culture since 1945’ – her class introduced me to nostalgia and memory.

      Thanks again for your comment! Looking forward to reading your own blog post!

      Nicola Black

  2. sarahellem says:

    Hi Nicola,

    I am in complete agreement with Chris, this is a really well written piece of work that instantly grabbed my attention and held it until the end. Your topic choice is so interesting and relevant, it must have been fascinating to research. With regard to your comments on the roles of women rising up in The Help not being impossible but perhaps uncharacteristic, I personally think it is really great this film has highlighted the women of the civil rights movement! Emphasis is placed on leaders such as King and Malcolm X or even Medgar Evers but I think the roles of the likes of Fanny Lou Hamer and Rosa Parkes should be highlighted too – perhaps this film may open the flood gates to more films on this area of the movement!

    Anyway, well done again on a fantastic piece, it was immensely enjoyable – congratulations!

    • nicolajblack says:

      Hi Sarah,

      I totally agree about the The Help – there have been so many other real historical narratives and events that have always placed sole attention on male figures. I think it’s why people (including many women) are drawn to the film (and the book, it’s possibly even better than the film), it’s such a fantastic story. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Kate Fullagar says:

    “I am yet to watch Mad Men” ???? Sad face! Marks off for you, Chris!

  4. stubba12 says:

    Hi Nicola,

    Firstly let me say that this is an extremely well written post that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I was drawn to your post as my research topic involved the concept of popular culture, historical memory, film and the 1960s.
    I too focused on the representation of gender within this period using the film Forrest Gump as my film of choice. The representation of gender within this film is in direct opposition to the “the help” as the female protagonist of “Jenny” does not rise above the gender constraints of the period and any form of female or feminist involvement within the period is totally omitted from the film.
    I too found, as did Chris, that your identification of Michelle Arrows point that these films were responses to demand for historically inspired films and thus ‘we cannot criticise…[them]for not being a complex historical documentary when it’s claim…was simply to entertain’, this is a crucial point to present when discussing the issues surrounding historically inspired films.
    Another highlight of your post was the section on “prosthetic memory” as I read quite a lot on this during my research and I find it fascinating.

    Once again, this is a fantastic post
    Great work

    • nicolajblack says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! Prosthetic memory is such an interesting concept – Alison Landsberg’s work is full of really thought provoking ideas within the field of history/nostalgia/popular culture.

      Can’t wait to give your blog post a read, I haven’t watched Forrest Gump all the way through but all my friends absolutely love it.

      Hope you have an enjoyable holiday break.

      Nicola Black

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