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?