Or Modern Ideals in Historical Fiction
John Wayne was the ultimate man’s man. He could wrangle a thousand head of cattle alone, draw quicker than any man in the west, out gamble his foes, and set ladies’ hearts aflutter all with a steely gaze and a laconic manner. He was Hollywood’s manifestation of a nation’s ideals of what a man should be and modern audiences still vote him one of the top 10 favorite actors every year. He is an institution. Imagine, though, if John Wayne was a young man now and Hollywood was pushing him at us in 2011 the same way that they pushed him in the Golden Age.
A modern film could never portray its hero dragging his wife brutishly through a muddy field as Wayne did in The Quiet Man. Imagine if the summer’s big blockbuster showed its hero spanking his wife with a coal shovel as Wayne did in McClintock. I think Hollywood would not only have created the biggest flop of all time (assuming that this last was not a bondage film because pop culture LOVES that sort of thing) but many people would be losing their jobs in a hurry and young John Wayne would be the symbol of the enemy of a social crusade.
However, we continue to watch these old movies. We continue to love John Wayne. This brings me to my query: how much of old attitudes is a modern audience willing to tolerate?
I write historical fiction, so this question is of particular interest to me. How do I write a story at least semi-realistically set in the 1400’s or the 1100’s while still garnering audience empathy for my characters? If I made my heroes bigots, racists, and sexists, nobody would like them. However, that is just what the majority of men would have been in those times. They weren’t necessarily evil men. They were products of their time, just as we are products of ours. I am convinced that future generations will look back on us and think how ignorant we were and how wrong and damaging some of the institutions that drive our culture were.
I’ve veered from my topic, though. How do I create an atmosphere where my female characters are respected so as not to alienate modern women, but where they are not running around in breeches, shooting guns, and swearing, making themselves completely unbelievable and thereby causing my readers to set down the books as I have done with so many novel? I suppose that one device that I and many others writers rely on is putting old-fashioned notions into the heads of supporting characters, but not as much in the main characters. This creates an atmosphere of reality, while allowing sympathy with the hero and heroine.
One instance in my latest novel that I have greatly debated in my own mind is a line toward the end, where my hero tells his wife (and I am abridging this here), “It’s different for you. You are a woman. Women are meant to be protected.” A modern woman might rankle at this notion, but it is quite a natural one to the era and to this particular character. His wife does not argue the idea with him, further nailing shut the coffin I have created for myself. Have I insulted my readers? I don’t know, but I cannot write characters so modern that it pulls one out of the setting.
This brings me back to John Wayne. If men and women can still watch his movies and overlook the differences between the heroes that he portrayed and, say, Edward Cullen, can they overlook the relatively few instances where I have chosen history over our own times? It’s a delicate balance. Maybe if Wayne’s movies weren’t so darn entertaining nobody would watch them. Maybe if a part of our society was not still rooted in the past, nobody would watch them. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I can drown out the screaming feminist in my mind and enjoy watching The Quiet Man. Can you?