Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Historically speaking, dancing, writing…

When I received my manuscript comments  I was a bit taken by one particular sentence from the agent. She seemed to hesitate at reading about a family who had traditional roles: women in the kitchen, menfolk working outside. She didn’t think it would be readily accepted. Maybe I hadn’t emphasized in my pitch that the setting is 1860s gold rush era or maybe she missed that point. Back then, women and men did function in traditional roles. Yes, we like those Annie Oakley stories, where someone steps out and does some gender bending, yet history is chock full of regular people in regularly expected roles.

I shelf my manuscript comments, but then another historical noticeable comes up on my radar.

Instead of deleting the email, I decide to take up the offer of teaching a trial rhetorical analysis lesson with Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”–yes, it was indeed a hit with my students. What proved interesting was the backlash Swift received for marketing a perceived colonialism video since the cast and crew were about 99% white on location in Africa. And here I thought she was channeling Elizabeth Taylor ala 1950s.

Once again historically the setting details were correct in that whites dominated the fifties Hollywood scene and the video would not look quite right having a multi-ethnic set.

Another recent creative endeavor got me thinking that we are becoming either enlightened to the point of oversensitivity or we’re becoming very confused. I refer to Hamilton the musical. The cast is anything goes in terms of ethnicity. And I have no problem with casting for ability rather than color, yet I see this reluctance towards accepting history as it really was. Are we uncomfortable with defined roles as they were set down in the history books?


This loose interpretation of roles has even drifted into ballroom dancing, very traditionally gender coded: men lead, women follow. A recent TedTalk revealed this is changing into what is called “liquid lead,” which I can relate to since I never know what I’m doing when dancing and end up inadvertently leading. The most fascinating implications at stake as women now have the option of taking the lead when on the floor. Except–I don’t think scenes like this would be the same…



As a writer I am aware of trends and it’s worrisome that to write a story set in a time period where men were men and the women women, makes the publishing powers uncomfortable. Do I have to ignore history to radically shape it to fit modern audiences? Does a character have to chose an alternate path to deserve notice?

What are your thoughts, readers? Are we dissatisfied with history enough to change it to reflect our contemporary concerns in all artistic endeavors–from stories to musicals to even dancing?

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7 thoughts on “Historically speaking, dancing, writing…

  1. Such a sensitive area that I wonder if many will comment. My question is: are we going too far? I can’t answer that question though. However, in terms of your ms my impression is that it’s in style to write outside the norm and not capture things the way they were for so many. That’s good for today’s children and adults as well. We learn our potential. . But is it fair to all those women, serfs, slaves, people of color who were not able to exert any power at all? I think not.

  2. I don’t have an issue with writing something to, as you say, “reflect our contemporary concerns”. If people want to attempt to rewrite history then go for it I say. But having said that, you literally can’t rewrite history and stories that reflect the past are just as important as those that tell something different.

    I actually think it’s still really important to write books that are historically accurate – I personally have learnt so much about the past from fiction books, so I think it’s a real shame that it’s seemingly frowned upon to show the past as it was. And besides that, if all books only show people bucking the trends then it’s going to get very boring, very quickly.

    I don’t know – it’s all very complex. I wouldn’t say that we’re going too far in our attempt to make the world an equal place for everyone, but I would say that I don’t see how having a ‘liquid-lead’ in ballroom dancing is going to be of any real benefit to everyone.
    I think making changes where they will make a real difference is good, but I see little point in making a change for the sake of making a change and because it’s the “trendy” thing to do.

  3. I would rather be reading historically accurate books than ones that rewrite the gender roles, people need to be of their time to draw in the reader. There will always be characters that change the norm, there are plenty of female characters who have done that throughout the history of literature and that is what creates the talking points.

    As soon as we start to tell historical stories based on the modern world then we lose the idea of having evolved from the past and the important lessons will become diminished at the very least.

  4. Yeah, I hear you. I recently did a writer’s workshop and basically had my story bashed for it being too much about the characters (aka not mainstream enough to hold interest). I’m like, this is how I write. It’s not supposed to be mainstream.

    Anyway, seems like there will always be people ready to jump on something because of their opinion—often without fully understanding the premise. Without reading the whole story, it’s pretty impossible for someone else to know what it’s really about.

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