Sexism and Racism in Living History?

13 Jan

This is a very touchy topic, and I honestly haven’t seen it come up much in living history, although the thought has always been there.

If your group is trying to portray a time period / group of people as accurately as possible, what do you do about people who want to join who are of historically inaccurate sex/race? I mean, lets face it, women and people of color did not have all the opportunities back then that they do today. It was not normal to have female knights, there were no black archers at Agincourt.

So what do you do about this? I don’t know of any woman who’s tried to be a knight in one of the more accurate medieval living history groups. There are a handful in the SCA and larp, and that’s cool, but those groups aren’t going for accuracy of portrayals.

I know of one WWI combat group that says right on their website “Sorry, but this group is exclusive to males, not trying to be sexist, but that’s how it was” (I can’t find their page in my bookmarks for the life of me)

But this brings up another question, should even white males not portray another ethnicity? I’m 5’6 white male with English/German decent, I’d look off if I tried to play a viking, Italian, or Saracen.  I think the one thing that sticks out the most is when a white guy, especially a fat white guy tries to portray a samurai. The result just makes me cringe every time I see it. I know people are obsessed with samurai, but if you’re a western male it just doesn’t work!



11 Responses to “Sexism and Racism in Living History?”

  1. ktjia January 14, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Somewhere, somehow, Hollywood has told us that there was ‘in fact’ a living samurai of English origin.

    I believe that Hollywood has produced two different stories based on English men being Samurai – each claiming to be based on historical fact.

    If you know your Japanese history perhaps you can clarify. A long time ago there are a movie called ‘Shogun.’ A beast of a movie, ringing in at 12+ hours (14 if memory serves) it depicted the story of an English man being taken prisoner. He won the respect of the local Shogun and eventually became one himself.

    The second of course being Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai.”

    Kevin Tjia

  2. Dave January 17, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    I’m of the opinion that anyone can participate in a re-enactment, regardless of ethnicity or gender.

    Even though we get dressed up in uniforms, armour and garb, we all realize that we live in 2009, and that such eras of history are long gone. I think we can suspend our disbelief and collectively admit that we do this for personal pleasure, and that the exclusion of others based on the historical record is unacceptable.

    If we’re writing about history, that is an entirely different matter. We can be prescriptive in our thoughts on the demographs of Mediaeval armies, or the ethnicity of feudal samurai, but when we come together to celebrate that history in costume, it’s far more enjoyable for all parties to ignore the racial/gender barrier, and simply have some fun!

    That *is* why we do this, right?

  3. S.S. April 9, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    You bring up an very important topic. My reenacting group recently self-imploded over the issue of whether a person of the “wrong gender” should even be allowed to be considered for membership. A lot of people felt they should not, but when similar issues of how to deal with people in roles they wouldn’t have been in in the past were brought up, they swayed the other way. (Such as, but not limited to: different ethnicity, physical deformities, mental handicaps, etc.) Why such the big deal about gender not able to be over looked when someone with an ethnic look that wouldn’t have been in place X can be, or someone with a visible disability that wouldn’t have survived can be overlooked? It really made me question the motives of some reenactors.

  4. Dominic December 3, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    I’ve been around the circuit of living history through reenactments since I was a much younger man, and I’ve seen the worst and best that’s out there (God this is an old journal post. Sorry mate, just got back from the sandbox). I’ve seen the svelte young ladies wearing union uniforms with their hair done up in a bun, but I’ve also seen women that pad themselves, hide their hair and wear fake facial hair so real I couldn’t tell the difference at about a foot away wearing full armour and moving like a man. I also saw no problem throwing a young black man into confederate uniform at a national event, but he was the only one in uniform with skin that specific shade. Little and rare differences are accurate. If you can hide your various inaccuracies (Such as contacts, period enhancements, good makeup or concealment) I don’t see a problem. But it’s important that your group have some kind of standard and then stick to it. It will also help cut down on the politics. Live the dream man.

  5. Tetsu March 31, 2010 at 5:40 am #

    I would like to point out that he is not a good example of a person re-enacting another ethnicity. He is wearing colours that don’t suit and grinning like a maniac.

  6. Puddingpie November 15, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    I’ve always had more of a problem (as a spectator, since I’ve never done this stuff) with grotesquely fat warriors than with the wrong gender or ethnicity. For me, living history is like theatre. It’s understood by convention that the woman dressed like a man IS a man, or that the black archer IS a vanilla English longbowman. The same way that thirty year-old actors play teenagers, or those black-clad stagehands changing sets and props don’t actually “exist.” As long as it’s not in the “script” that Jane the Heroine has Run Away From Her Arranged Marriage Dressed as a Boy, or John is the Only White Samurai.

    It’s in movies, where the visual element is much more important, where the budgets are bigger, and where they are casting from a pool of professional actors, where mindless political correctness becomes a bigger problem.

    I’m an Asian woman who attends the Renaissance Faire. If I were to only dress up as what was accurate to my background, I wouldn’t even be there. I got plenty of crap growing up about “acting white” for various other reasons, which is hard enough. A love of history shouldn’t have to also be on that list. The purpose of living history is to educate, especially young people. There’s already enough crap going around like, “I’m not white, Western history is completely irrelevant to me, why should I bother with this stuff in school?” which is an attitude I find incredibly sad. We don’t need any more well-intentioned reinforcement that “white history is for white people.” If it requires the audience to suspend their disbelief a little, that’s okay. God forbid children have to use their imagination.

    Also, white in the U.S. is the default skin color, which is to say it’s a non-color. If I were to play, say, the part of a medieval monk, the themes of submission, sin, and obedience are bigger themes to my persona than “whiteness.” I’ve read that medieval society didn’t even think of itself as “white” because, as far as they knew, all of humanity was white. Racial identity is itself anachronistic. It would be like incorporating breathing or bipedalism into a sense of personal identity. I am not “pretending to be a white person,” I am pretending to be “this particular person from this particular time and place.” Yes, he/she is white. Is it relevant? No.

    That’s not to say crossing that line is never problematic. Some of the problems with a western male dressing up as a samurai is if it’s disrespectful. It’s frankly a little insulting if the intent is, “I’m a samurai because Asia is a land of mystery and ancient warrior honor!” If someone is doing that, he doesn’t have the proper approach to living history in the first place. Besides, your black archer in Agincourt presumably grew up in the United States, in a mostly Western, Christian, Anglophone culture. Presumably, if he’s in your living history group, he’s also well grounded in medieval history. That’s a far cry from the (hypothetical) reverse: a random white guy who’s never been to Africa, doesn’t speak the language, has no African family or friends, and suddenly wants to dress up as, say, a “Zulu chieftain” because it’s “exotic and tribal.” You see what I mean? Context, intent, and execution matters.

  7. godlesspaladin November 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Hey Puddingpie, those are some really good points, thanks. I see what you’re getting at, how race and gender shouldn’t be a barrier to someone who is trying to portray a historical person and themes that transcend their physical appearance.I also agree that white history shouldn’t just be for white people, and vice versa. If you’re sincerely interested in a part of history than your appearance shouldn’t prevent you from exploring it.

    I said it was a touchy subject because I do know of groups that will not allow someone to play a part if they don’t look exactly like the part. They care more about appearance than hoping the public has a good imagination.Unfortunately that brings back the past inequalities that we’ve fought hard to get beyond. I can understand if a private group wishes to limit their membership because of that, but I personally wouldn’t have a problem being in a group that focused on the more important themes.

    As for fat warriors, I’ve seen my fair share. There was one guy in this WWI group that had to be 300lbs, and I think he was supposed to be a pilot or something. I’ve also seen people who were into samurai for exactly that same insulting reason you pointed out.

  8. Puddingpie November 18, 2010 at 2:24 am #

    Thanks for replying. I wasn’t sure whether it would be completely irrelevant replying to an older post. I wouldn’t mind being turned down by a private group either, as long as it was due to accuracy standards that remained consistent, and not due to shifting favoritism. I respect that groups have different artistic visions, so to speak.

    Another thing that occurred to me as I was discussing this blog post with a friend. What it means to be a samurai in Japan differs from what it means here, because there are still painful memories of samurai propaganda used to justify militarism in World War II. It’s slightly shameful. It’s the same thing that makes it very hard for many people to enjoy Wagner over here. A westerner who just wants to be a samurai because it’s cool could easily miss all that and bring up very complicated emotions.

  9. godlesspaladin November 18, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    I never considered that angle about how the view of Samurai could be different, but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. (I took a Japanese history course in college, but it was very summary since we covered all of Japanese history) I don’t think a lot of Americans would be aware of those types of cultural sensitivities. When it comes to our own historic atrocities, like exterminating the Native Americans, most school history books ignore the topic or just briefly touch on it; thus nobody has any problems dressing up like a cowboy or a colonial settler.

    I’ve always wondered what it is like for the WWII German groups. At a couple of the events I went to there was a WWII German group marching around in the full costume. To be fair, they did constantly emphasis that they were reenacting life in the German army at the time, and in no way were reenacting or endorsing the Nazi party, but it still made me uneasy.

    I have friends who do WWI German, but that is different because they don’t simultaneously have the systematic extermination of an entire race of people to worry about.

  10. Wildbok December 9, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    I have to agree with the idea that in movies and television there is much more of a place for accuracy, due to a higher budget, for example, the amount of times I’ve watched something based in medieval england and seen black people play knights or other parts of society just in the name of political correctness, it annoys me. Not because I don’t think they have the right to play such things, but because in history it wouldn’t have happened. The way I react to props like bows which are of the wrong design, the BBC gave Robin Hood a Saracen re-curve bow about 100 years before the laminating process was invented.

    But for re-enactment I think it doesn’t matter. Yes contacts are better as opposed to glasses and watches shouldn’t be visible but those things can be changed so they should. Puddingpie was right in that you should be allowed in for a love of history not being the right demographic. Besides, I’m sure if you look back in history there will be instances of women in the armies while pretending to be men, or black people being taken as soldiers (Shakespeare would have needed some precedence for Othello after all). And some powers have used local soldiers from their empires as soldiers, Roman Auxiliaries and the French Foreign legion are two good examples.

  11. Solveig the former viking July 20, 2018 at 4:41 am #

    The fact that this conversation has to happen at all, and that it happens so frequently, is a big part of what turned me off to reenacting. That and the constant mansplaining from self proclaimed “authenticity officers” who felt they knew more than actual archaeologists and historians and would quibble over fairly trivial issues while overlooking glaring anachronisms. Almost every reenactor I have met is too old and too overweight for the persona they are portraying, but nobody would ever tell them not to participate based on these traits. Yet somehow being female or nonwhite is something that requires scrutiny and possible rejection.

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