Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Some incredibly specific shit

So I'm tangentially related to the historical re-enactment and interpretation [scene? industry?] in San Diego. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is publishing this pamphlet about chicks shooting black powder guns in goofy outfits. Since the intended audience for this pamphlet is so astoundingly tiny, I don't really expect that the review of this pamphlet that I for some reason wrote has much of a chance of being published anywhere. Thus, I will post it myself. Enjoy!

The thesis of “Women Re-Enactors and the Civil War” is that the demand that biologically female civil war re-enactors in uniform be both documented and undetectable is unreasonable. She presents two warrants for this claim: first, that to be documented, a given female soldier must have been detected, and thus detectable. Second, the idea of a woman in men’s clothing was so incredible to contemporary men (and women) that modern standards of undetectability are unreasonable; civil-war era soldiers couldn’t picture a woman in pants, so they wouldn’t have known one if they saw it. The pamphlet thus advocates that female re-enactors need not be scrupulously undetectable, particularly if they are portraying documented ‘out’ females.
That’s cool, I guess. Within the scope of the re-enactment community, I think that the author’s advocacy is both progressive and, perhaps more importantly, feasible. But holy cow, how can you write this pamphlet without addressing how totally and fundamentally misogynist demands of documentation and undetectability are? It is truly unfortunate that this excellently argued and immaculately sourced pamphlet needed to be written in the first place. Demands of documentation and undetectability are individually problematic, but their intersection is downright offensive. Even if nobody can tell you have a vagina, I know it and so you have to document a bona-fide vagina holder in your unit or you can’t play with us. Why not hang a “No Gurlz AlouD” sign over the door to your clubhouse?
“Women Re-Enactors” does a stellar job of deflating “historical accuracy” as a defense of ‘no girls’ policies, but even if it didn’t, who cares? Even if we had a perfect knowledge that there were never any biological females in the ranks during the civil war, or that the few who did serve were perfectly undetectable to modern eyes, down to the gait and the moustache, it still wouldn’t make it any less fun to dress up in an old-fashioned outfit and shoot guns (which, let’s face it, is the point of the activity) just because there’s a girl around, unless you’re a massive misogynist. But of course, the black-powder patriarchy is going to claim that the problem isn’t the testosterone-neutralization powers of vaginas on the field that concerns them, it’s the negative impact on the educational value of re-enactment that would arise if the public could tell one of the re-enactors had fallen on a hatchet. Shut up.
First, let’s pretend that members of “the public” who weren’t already civil war buffs actually watched re-enactmentsin the first place. This isn’t too far-fetched, as re-enactors often participate in events in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and other interpretive venues. In these situations, interpreters seek to help the public to “understand and make connections to” history. The presence or absence of machine stitching in clothes does not inherently prevent or facilitate understanding or the making of connections to history. Nor does eating period food at all times, wearing sunglasses, or having the wrong chromosomes. These issues can in fact be safely ignored while focusing on the take-home message an interpreter hopes to impart on the public. In the case that a patron is a tailor, chef, optometrist, or woman, these points can be useful in building connections to history even if they are wrong: by pointing out small inaccuracies in re-enactment, one can help a patron understand history by underscoring how their experiences differ. One should of course strive for accuracy, but simultaneously understand that the goal in doing so is to provide an overall sense of immersion for the patron, not because they will somehow go away stupider if Phil hasn’t been eating hardtack all weekend.
I would say that I would entertain “historical accuracy” as a basis for excluding women from uniformed re-enactment when women in dresses start wearing tight, stiff corsets, when sunglasses are altogether banned, when the ratio of interesting but unusual things and people to boring but common things and people approaches its historical value, and when basically every aspect of civil-war era life that doesn’t involve the oppression or exclusion of half of the population is faithfully reproduced, but “Women Re-Enactors and the Civil War” proves that even then, it wouldn’t be acceptable. On the other hand, we are talking about a group of people that fully half of dresses up and acts like people who were willing to lay down their lives to protect an entire economy based on rape, murder, and subjugation. Maybe my cries, and those of “Women Re-Enactors”, are falling on deaf ears.