Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Daily Mail's "History Girls," or: Do I have to wear stilettos to the archive now?

By now, the internets are all abuzz with links and reactions to the Daily Mail’s Sunday article, “The History Girls,”[1] profiling seven young female historians who “have rescued studying the past from the clutches of fusty academia and changed our view of yesteryear for ever.” Atop the article is a fashion-style shoot of the historians in question, impeccably styled (including some serious stilettos all around) and posed like the ad for a new reality show. Most have PhDs, all are under 40, all are slim and attractive. In the body of the article, each deals with the same questionnaire: “Why topic X?”; “If you could travel back in time…?”; “Who would you resurrect for a dinner date?”

My first reaction? Oh, barf.

Yes, there are second and third reactions, but let’s get to the first one first. No, even before that, let’s get to a pre-reaction: Even in my initial revulsion at the piece, I am not interested in shaming the women themselves. They’re not betraying anyone or anyone’s cause. Chances are that the Mail called them up and pitched this as a piece on young women historians in the UK. If someone had called me up with that, chances are that I would have jumped at the chance to publicly counter the typical image of the old, white, bearded, tweed-jacketed history professor (times ten, since I’m a medievalist). By the time we got to the questionnaire and the photo shoot, I probably would have felt that it was too late to back out gracefully, and hoped that some shred of my original purpose (promote women in the profession!) would have remained.  And stilettos aside, I wouldn’t mind having someone dress me up all high-fashion, just to see what I would like if I were the kind of person who put more than five-minutes' effort into my appearance. 

So, I’m convinced of the good intentions of the historians in question until it can be proven otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m still pretty squicked out at this piece. What are the criteria for being a woman who is making boring old history (::sigh::) interesting again? Well, according to the Daily Mail's selection, you'll want to be young, white (I'm including the one of hispanic heritage), thin, and conventionally pretty. There’s nothing wrong with being any or even all of those things. But historians are not TV presenters (except for the ones that are); our effectiveness in bringing our work to our students and to the public should no more be predicated on broad physical appeal than would apply to a male historian in the same situation.

That, in a nutshell, is my first reaction. Now, let's get the strawmen out of the way. HERE'S WHAT I'M NOT SAYING:
  • That academics shouldn’t be attractive
  • That women shouldn’t be attractive
  • That attractive women aren’t real historians
  • That dressing up fancy is bad
  • That the article is racist
  • That only middle-aged and old historians should be taken seriously 
 Any of these things might be argued to be true, but none of them are what I'm saying. So don't bother arguing against them in the comments, lest you see mine eyes give a mighty roll.

We good there? Alrighty, then; moving on to my reconsideration (second, third, and fourth thoughts about the article):
  1. The questionnaires are dumb, no doubt. But the women’s responses aren’t. Some participants seem to have refused to answer the “who would you date” question.[2] One of them straight-up challenges the idea that women write a different kind of history than men. One of them answers the time-machine question in the same way that I would: by clearly stipulating that she’d first think of loading up on immunizations; another notes that being a European woman in pretty much any past time period would have been much less preferable to being one now.
  2. Some of these women are actually TV presenters on history shows. So for them, looking good and dressing up are part of the job description (whether it should have to be is another kettle of fish). 
  3.  In my opinion, we (not just women) could learn a lot from people whose historical work appears on TV and in the general-readership press. I’m starting to think that we, as academic historians, are part of the problem when it comes to a general lack of historical literacy. If a potential reader needs to be halfway to a graduate degree before they can really “get” something we’ve written, then perhaps it’s time to rethink how we’re presenting our work. Or, at the very least, to think about having a couple of publication tracks going at the same time. And finally... 
  4. It's the friggin' Daily Mail. What did we expect?
I’m still on the whole skeeved out by the piece. I’d have thought that “academic historian” would be one place where I wouldn’t have to be hot or face irrelevance. But beyond the obvious idiocy and pandering, there are some things in this piece worth thinking about.

But don’t worry: You won’t see me posing draped across my desk in stilettos anytime soon.

[1] Title is likely a take on the film "The History Boys." So I'm gonna give the "girls" thing a pass. 
[2] Or perhaps one or more of the "dates" were editorially excluded for being too boring or obscure or even -- saints preserve us! -- not men.