May 19, 2004

Reality TV and Public History

Posted by Ed

A year ago, the online history journal Common-Place featured an article on an upcoming TV show in which historical documentary-making and reality TV would come face-to-face: Colonial House. To produce that program, 26 "colonists" spent six months in a mock settlement on the coast of Maine, talking, working, acting, eating, and thinking as if they were residents of a 17th-century community. Colonial House is going on the air this week, appearing for two hours on May 17, May 18, May 24, and May 25.

I never know what to make of programs like this, and I find them easy to mock. As Common-Place puts it,

It's easy for academic historians to take potshots at the reality-television impulse driving Colonial House and the "Mayflower Project." "They should set it in Jamestown," one colleague mused. "Then all the colonists would be young and male, and we'd see them resort to cannibalism before they all gave up and died in the season finale."

The Common-Place article then goes on to discuss a more serious objection: that shows like Colonial House will divert attention away from other "living history" projects, like Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation in America. I think this point is debatable--one could just as easily argue that historical reality TV will help build interest in more permanent historical projects--but worth considering. (My hunch is that the impact of programs like Colonial House will be small, whether it's positive or negative in the end.)

For me, Colonial House raises a series of different questions--questions about what makes the past worth studying and about how we compare the present day to the world of 1628. As Common-Place points out, for example, the show's world-view is informed by its emphasis on a historical "fear-factor." The show's slogan is "No TV. No phone. No electricity. No computers. No experience necessary"; the show emphasizes the "challenges" and "rigorous" of a "harsh" New England life ruled by "stringent" laws. Consider this paragraph from the show's website:

Think colonial life was all about pious Pilgrims, powdered wigs and freedom for all? Think again! Two dozen modern-day time travelers find out the hard way what early American colonial life was really like when they take up residence in COLONIAL HOUSE, public television's latest hands-on history series from the producers of FRONTIER HOUSE, MANOR HOUSE, and the Peabody Award-winning THE 1900 HOUSE.

One of the main lessons of the show, then, seems to have been "See! Colonial life was difficult! No one could watch TV!" (To be fair, the show will also challenge our misconceived ideas that colonists never wore bright colors and didn't drink, but even these don't strike me as crucially important lessons about the past.) But are these really the questions most worth considering? And if you really want to see people suffer, woudln't it be more fun to see them suffer while working in a phosphate mine in the Atacama Desert?

Perhaps I'm just a snobbish history grad student, but I'm much more interested in how colonists viewed their world than in how they survived a cold winter. According to an article in Slate, the creators of the show hoped to accomplish this goal, but were never entirely successful:

Colonial House's predecessor, the entertaining Frontier House, charted three families' efforts to live like 19th-century Montana homesteaders. Colonial House ups the ante considerably. In addition to eating, sleeping, working, and playing like it's 1628, the 26 participants are expected, as cast member Mrs. Michelle Rossi-Voorhees (the wife of a freeman) puts it, to occupy the "head space" of early English colonists. It's not enough to use crude tools and wear scratchy clothes as they did in Frontier House; in Colonial House, the participants are supposed to think and behave and relate to each other as if inhabiting a different time. If in real life you're an educated, outspoken woman, say, you're expected to mind your tongue in the colony. The idea is interesting in theory, but in practice the premise is too heavy a burden for these otherwise smart, well-meaning people to bear. The harder the participants work at being true to the past, the more they look like products of the present.

The most glaring departure from 1620s life came when one cast member (a graduate student playing an indentured servant) decided to come out of the closet--a decision that seems historically questionable. (Slate quotes the student noting that the governor would probably take him out and have him killed; I have doubts about that, but I doubt that he could have a conversation like that at the time and I suspect that 17th-century Puritans would be confused by the 21st-century conception of homosexuality.)

Slate continues to address the show's tenuous grasp on historical reality in the following paragraph:

And then there's Gov. Jeff. I never thought I'd be in sympathy with a conservative Baptist minister from Waco, Texas, but Jeff Wyers, playing the colony's governor, seems to be the only person who wants the show to be what it was intended to be. Last night, he attempted to model the colony on the Puritan ideal of a utopian "City on a Hill." But when Gov. Jeff lays down the law—no profanity, women must cover their hair, mandatory church attendance on the Sabbath—almost everyone, in his or her own way, rebels. Saucy indentured servant Paul Hunt keeps swearing up a storm; Mr. and Mrs. Voorhees ditch church to go skinny dipping (!); while freeman Dominic Muir sneaks off to town for a beer and a plate of fries. Implementing historically accurate enforcement measures—wearing scarlet letters, being tied to a wooden stake—proves to be a modern pain in the ass, and work is brought to a near halt. Because the colony is expected to be financially viable (project rules dictate that the cast pay off imaginary "investors"), Gov. Jeff capitulates, proving that at least he's well-versed in that most modern of religions—expediency.

This situation does, indeed, sound like a mess, but it might be fun to watch the show anyway. At the same time, I'm not even sure that this picture of colonial life is completely unrealistic historically: in doing genealogical research on my colonial ancestors, I've learned about forebears of mine who were fined by the Puritan authorities for skipping church and swearing in public. (My favorite ancestor was fined for skipping church 14 Sundays in a row--and when it was time to pay the fine, the records say, he "was nowhere to be found.") I've also found that colonial Massachusetts was a hilariously litigious society: certain ancestors of mine were always suing their neighbors or being taken to court, often over matters as trivial as the loss of a silver bodkin.

What would be interesting, I think, is a historical TV show that looks at the conflicts in colonial Puritan society and asks why they came about. (I doubt that what caused a rift between my ancestors and the authorities was a fervent desire to go skinny dipping and eat lots of French fries, after all!) I don't think a reality TV show is the way to do this, but even if it were, the best way to convince participants to enter the "head space" of colonists isn't to give them a list of rules or to tell the women to mind their tongues. You can debate the best way to understand the world of the colonist; you can conceive of your project in historical or anthropological terms, and describe your subject of interest as the "behavior," "attitudes," "beliefs," "mentalites," or "subjectivity" of colonial settlers, depending on the nature of your approach.

I probably shouldn't make sweeping pronouncements about Colonial House without having seen the show, but I suspect that a program like this is more effective as entertainment than as history: it's probably better at introducing viewers to "the historical fear factor," and teaching them ahistorical lessons about how people deal with adversity, than it is at teaching them about the past. What's more, I suspect that I'd believe this even if I weren't a history graduate student. After all, which sounds more interesting to you: a documentary about law-suits and community conflict in 17th-century Massachusetts, or a show in which Governor Jeff gets mad at his skinny-dipping colonists?

Posted by Ed at May 19, 2004 05:25 PM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

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