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I’m reading a book right now called Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing.  It’s a collection of scholarly essays about the award-winning AMC drama MAD MEN, with topics ranging from the treatment of race, gender, and sexual orientation, to the styling of the costumes, sets, and props.

A topic that comes up a lot is what the authors of the essays refer to as “historical fetishization.”  In MAD MEN this could be the way we can compartmentalize the blatant sexual harassment, racial and gender discrimination, and insensitive language, and revel in the clothes and lifestyle of the period.  “Glamorous” is a word that comes up a lot.  To briefly diverge from my thoughts on historical fetishization, I find the use of the word “glamorous” to describe the show very interesting.  It’s meant to describe the lifestyle of the high-powered executives in 1960s New York advertising, but it can also be used in its older form.  A glamour is a spell, often one to disguise appearances.  It’s a term I’ve mostly seen in folklore from the British Isles in stories of the Fair Folk, the Tuatha dé Danaan, or in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s stories about the mythical isle of Avalon.  Given Don Draper’s dual identity, the disguise version of the word seems appropriate.

But to return to historical fetishization.  It’s kind of like a fish-eye lens in photography.  It doesn’t filter, it distorts.  You’d think that as a historian this habit in popular culture would bother me.  Sometimes it does.  I think the biggest issue for me is those popular representations of historical events that take artistic license without acknowledging they do so.  As a child I was horrified to realize how far Disney took Pocahontas from her real story, and for many years I refused to watch any animated Disney film.  I relax that rule a little now that I’m a wise 27-year-old, but I still feel rather antagonistic towards the whole Disney Princess franchise.

To offer another example, many of my friends, though startled to hear that I enjoy Showtime’s drama THE TUDORS, assumed that therefore I would enjoy Philippa Gregory’ novels.  In this case it’s less about acknowledging artistic license than it is about just plain shoddy writing.  The more nonfiction I read, the more judgmental I become about historical fiction.

But I did like THE TUDORS.  And I also enjoyed Showtime’s other recent historical drama, THE BORGIAS.  When it’s handled delicately, historical fetishization can actually prove beneficial to the endeavor.  I haven’t formed an opinion about its value in MAD MEN, other than a cynical wink at its popularity and many awards, but I think THE TUDORS and THE BORGIAS are interesting examples of how it can work.

Popular culture representations of the remarkable reign of England’s King

Annette Crosbie as Katherine of Aragon

Henry VIII abound.  The 1970s BBC series THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII is fetishized in one direction – the actors cast in the various roles bear striking resemblances to their historical counterparts (particularly well done were Keith Michell as Henry VIII and Bernard Hepton as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer).  Katherine of Aragon (Annette Crosbie) is even shown as a petite woman with reddish blonde hair, which is historically accurate, but strays from the usual assumption that she looked like the stereotypical Spaniard with olive skin and dark hair and eyes.  Portraits and contemporary descriptions prove that Katherine resembled her Plantagenet ancestors.  However, though the 1970s series excels in visual accuracy, it lacks in more intangible elements of psychology and raw emotion.

Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon

THE TUDORS makes little attempt at visual accuracy.  By no definition is Jonathan Rhys Meyers over six feet tall, red-haired, and strikingly beautiful, nor was he monstrously obese by the end of the series.  Maria Doyle Kennedy, who played Katherine of Aragon, is a large-framed woman with black hair and dark eyes.  None of the six wives, in fact, resemble their portraits – most are far too beautiful by contemporary standards.  Probably the only person on the show who gets close to resembling his historical counterpart is Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More, though that’s in great part due to his costuming.  The show makes occasional nods towards famous items of clothing as seen in portraits, such as a particular hat that shows up in popular pictures of Henry VIII or More’s famous S-link gold chain.

I’ve read and seen many fictional representations of Henry VIII’s court, I’ve read several nonfiction texts on the subject, and one of my favorite places to visit in England is Hampton Court Palace.  One of the reasons I like THE TUDORS (other than the lush costumes, sets, and pretty people, of course) is because it focuses on a historical aspect that has been very little studied.  This is the mood of the court and the country during Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign.  The show’s creators acknowledge their historical liberties – for instance, Henry had two sisters, one older and one younger, and neither married into the Portuguese royal family.  Margaret married the king of Scotland and ended up as regent for her infant son, and Mary married the elderly king of France before eloping with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Instead of focusing on appearances, THE TUDORS tries to capture Henry’s charisma.  While popular culture usually tries to portray Henry as thinking all the time with “little Henry,” the truth is he was a well-educated, precocious Renaissance prince.  Even before he wished to be free of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, he expressed great interest in theological issues, and is said to have frequently involved his tutors, courtiers, chaplains, and ambassadors in extended discussions.  He wrote music and poetry, he danced, was athletic and graceful, and at his accession was widely admired for his physical beauty.  Henry came to the throne at eighteen – he was not then the obese monster of his final years.  Ambassadors to his father’s court describe him as grabbing and holding the attention of anyone in the room, even as a child – intelligent, engaging, and confident.  THE TUDORS shows Henry as sixteenth-century rock star.  He was admired and feared.  In the overused turn of phrase, women wanted him and men wanted to be him.  Everyone wanted the honor of being a part of his courtly entourage.  “The Tudors” shows this in some subtle ways, such as using modern slick fabrics for costuming, and in some more heavy-handed ways.  The latter relies heavily on Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ crazy-eyes and ability to chew the scenery.

In THE BORGIAS, Jeremy Irons (Rodrigo Borgia/Alexander VI) does a good bit of scenery-chewing, though he shares the task with his co-stars Francois Arnaud (Cesare Borgia) and Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia Borgia).  I have less knowledge of the history of the Borgia papacy, but from the reading I have done, it appears the show begins with the question, “What if all the rumors about the Borgia family were in fact true?” The show is full of intrigue, assassination, and morally problematic decisions, but again it highlights a mood.  Many of the rumors are contemporary with the historical figures themselves, so it is worth proposing a set of circumstances in which they were true – put the pieces on the board, set them in motion, and see how it plays out.

Historical fetishization in popular culture can be problematic when the audience takes the work as complete fact, but it’s not entirely a bad thing.  It can highlight aspects of a historical period or story that are hard to do in nonfiction, such as the power of charisma or the value of historical gossip.  Perhaps the only way to get an undistorted view of the past is to take all versions of a story – all the novels, films, television shows, monographs, scholarly articles, archival materials, and remaining bits of architecture and art – combine them, and then assume you’re missing the ineffable that can only be gained by personal experience.

For the “real,” undistorted story we’ll just have to wait until someone invents a time machine. But then we’ll have other problems, like causality.