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
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.
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?
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.
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.