Monday, November 05, 2007

The Problems of Living the Past...

...in the present.

Yesterday we went as a family to Colonial Williamsburg for the day. As most of you probably know, Williamsburg is a recreated colonial settlement that tries hard to show the history of the eighteenth century in a way modern historians would say was responsible and as accurate as possible through the use of interpreters--some dressed in period costume but talking about the past as the past, and others playing the role of citizens of the colonial world caught in time.

Some of the attempts to be accurate are pretty funny--like the careful placement of discreetly-treated horse manure along the paths of the city--out of the way of the majority of pedestrians, coated with hay and sawdust (?) so it will not stick to folk's shoes, and completely devoid of smell. But, as they reason, it would hardly be the eighteenth century without poop.

Other things are really hard to grapple with in a place like Williamsburg. It is hard enough to deal with the oppression of non-elite-white-men in the past--but if you are one of the role-playing interpreters, you have to respond to visitors' questions about slavery and the place of African Americans in society, about the treatment of American Indians, about the position of poor people of all races and ethnicities, and about the roles of women. To be accurate to the part you are playing--at least for most of the parts of those in authority--you have to support the oppression of others. But to be sensitive to the very different audience of today's visitors, you just can't spout the pro-slavery rhetoric common at the time. An interesting dilemma.

Clearly, the interpreters are trained to respond to this kind of question and often are full of very careful explanations of the beliefs of the time as well as interesting mentions of dissent from those standard beliefs.

The interpreters answered questions about racial hierarchy very seriously and remarkably respectfully, given the true stances of the real people they pretended to be. Without lying, they managed to convey a larger picture than they might have been able to see at the time.

And as soon as gender discrimination with mentioned, there was an awful lot of laughing and joking going on--both by the interpreters and by the visitors.

Why is this? Why is is so much easier to make fun of discrimination against women than it is discrimination against African Americans and American Indians and people who lived in poverty?

Is it that the fight for women's rights is further along, more ingrained in our society, that we feel it is safe to tease about it? Or is it that we just plain accept a certain amount of discrimination against women without even realizing its injustices?

2 comments:

Misstea said...

That is a very interesting question. I dearly hope the answer is as you first supposed, that women's rights are so established that we can poke fun.

Sometimes, though, I'm not so sure. I work in one of the last male-dominated industries (construction) and I get the impression that I am merely being allowed to play with the boys.

That said, I am very new to this industry, and I am very well aware that my wonderful, male, employers see it differently. They are trying hard to make me fit.

So, I am trying hard to not be so sensitive.

Lolly said...

So very interesting, Hannah. Thank you for posting this piece. I do think that gender equality is viewed as an "old fight", but there really are so many injustices that persist. It is disheartening to see and hear this kind of talk - especially in a group of people with an educational framework like Williamsburg provides. Perhaps the stigma is not longer as prevalent and it feels "safe" to poke fun at it? I have no idea...

I went on that ghost tour, and I can tell you that the poop is real. Our guide stepped right in it and it was not a pleasant smell at all.

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