Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's All This Hullabaloo About Progressive Reenacting?

The interwebs of reenactors veritably exploded in the past couple of days over this blog post about progressive reenacting.  Frankly, I'm unsurprised at the post itself or the reaction to it--trouble has, to my view, been brewing for quite some time and boils over on occasion over the divide, real or implied, between "progressives" and "mainstream" reenactors.  So I'm going to ramble about it.

For the uninitiated or blissfully unaware, progressive reenactors define themselves as engaging in a continual attempt to improve their impressions and, in some cases, the hobby as a whole, moving as close to 100% authenticity as humanly possible.  Mainstream reenactors are typically defined in contrast to progressives.

So what's the trouble?  In short--the two groups participate in the same hobby, go to the same events, and have the capacity to get in one another's hair.  Progressives are accused by mainstream reenactors of holding everyone to unattainable standards; mainstreams are accused by progressives of doing disrespect to the history they portray through shoddy impressions.  Both sides accuse the other of bullying.

And that's where the blog post cited above kicks off--the bullying.  I have to admit, I believe the author does ignore the bullying that comes from mainstream reenactors ("stitch-counting Nazi" is a term I've seen bandied about and it's not very nice, is it?), but he is correct that there is rudeness, bullying, and general negativity coming out of the progressive movement.  Further, I agree that, with some of the harsh words I've personally seen, it makes it hard for someone unfamiliar with progressive reenacting to get on board.  At the same time, self-defined progressives get frustrated with repeating the same research and information--information which is, once one had familiarized oneself with the period, kind of no-duh on occasion--and with fighting the same battles when people don't want to change.

Why is this such a problem?

First and foremost--the divide is not formally defined.  Anyone could see very quickly that the definition of "progressive" I gave above is fairly open.  Am I progressive if I meticulously research all my garments but machine sew inner seams?  Am I progressive if I am slowly replacing incorrect clothing with more accurate clothing?  Am I progressive if my final product is completely handsewn and researched correctly, but I use modern cleaning techniques? Am I progressive if my kit is perfect but I change after hours? To some, no.  To others, yes. So plenty of people self-define as progressive but are scoffed at for various infractions by the most scrupulous participants.

So, we have two sides, pursuing the same goal (historical education) per their own admission, with varying interpretations of how accurate is "acceptable," falling on a spectrum of authenticity, with no clear, delineated divide.  And unfortunately, the most extreme of both ends of the spectrum are often presented as representative rather than exceptional.

Is there any wonder there's friction?

I said we're all pursuing the same goal, despite nasties spewed by both sides (Progressive: Welcome to Ye Olde Tavern--this is a historical theme party, not education! Mainstream: All they care about is themselves--they're on an ego trip and don't care about actually educating anyone!  Me: I don't actually support either statement, they're just examples!).  The trouble, as I see it, comes in over the issue of balance.  As reenactors, we need to balance authenticity with safety and with inclusiveness/participation.

Typically, the balance of safety and authenticity is easier to strike and to understand.  As many arguments inevitably descend to, no, we don't use real ammunition and we don't get smallpox to add to the effect.  In more nuance, we use flashgaurds when it wouldn't have been done historically, our artillery fires at a lower rate than historically accurate, we wrap cannon rounds in aluminum foil rather than linen, and many groups "elevate" their muskets rather than firing straight downrange.  We do inauthentic things to stay safe.  Duh.

The balance of authenticity with participation and inclusiveness is more difficult.  We can all accept that there are some things we will compromise unequivocally on--people should not be kept out of the hobby based on race or physical disability that would not have been present in the period.  No one is (I hope) turning away an Asian-American participant because "people fighting in the American Revolution didn't look like you."  No one has given my friend with a hearing disability grief for wearing modern hearing aids.

There are some lines, however, that we can't quite agree on.  Women in the ranks, for instance--if a woman wants to field as a man, is that ok?  What if she does a good job hiding her feminine features, but can't do so perfectly?  Not ok to everyone. We seem to accept and move on from the fact that many units have far more women in camp than they would have historically.  Should we pare down the number of women in camp for the sake of authenticity?  And the question of the day--how to balance inclusiveness of those with less than 100% accurate standards, and do we attempt this balance at all?

The big fight I see right now between progressives and mainstream reenactors is over this issue.  The argument that some of the demands that total authenticity puts on reenactors are unaffordable comes up often.  Most of the time, this is a crap excuse--making clothing yourself from authentic materials using authentic methods is nearly always cheaper than purchasing not-quite-right stuff.  There are times, however, when this is not true--I just read a post on my Facebook progressive forum extolling the virtues of $500 bespoke handmade shoes in contrast to ready-made $100 ones with some inaccuracies due to modern production.  Demanding that reenactors must shell out five times as much for shoes?  As dedicated as I am to my impression, $500 for shoes is too steep for me when I can have serviceable shoes for a fifth of that (and use that extra $400 to fix my water heater).

But even if it costs the same or less to be 100% right, there are those who still can't "afford" to do so--they may not have the time or know-how.  Frankly, I love handsewing clothes.  Not everyone in the hobby does--and some people have even busier lives than I do.  Do we tell them, "Sorry, get out, the fact that you didn't have time to handsew your entire kit, including seams I don't even see, because you were too busy cooking dinner for your five kids and toting them to soccer practice and earning a living means you're just not dedicated enough"?  No.  That would be stupid.  Even stupider would be to insist that the kids have perfect kits instead of jumping for joy that they're present, learning, and engaged in history (and are the future generation of the hobby, for what it's worth).  Balance--that family has worth to the hobby that can't be quantified solely by flat-felled seams.

The fact that there are people who manage perfectly turned out kits despite the crunch of time and money doesn't mean that it is moot as a point of exclusion.  We have to remember that we all enjoy different elements of this hobby--and believe it or not, some people don't really like material culture research or handsewing.  Instead of telling them they're in the wrong hobby because those are the things we enjoy, maybe we could take note of what they do love--maybe it's learning about 18th century martial tactics or hearth cooking or--woohoo!--talking to the public.  Doesn't that add something valuable?  Isn't it making kind of an exclusive value judgement to say that what they love about the hobby is "wrong" while this other version of reenacting is "right?"  Deep breath--they could say the same thing about you.

Except I don't think anyone should be making these kinds of claims.

And I come back to bullying.  Nine times out of ten, the words exchanged between reenactors are kind.  When they aren't, it often seems to come down to valuing different things about the hobby. I believe in minimum standards; I believe they should be high enough to be properly representative but lower than a progressive ideal.  Balance.

And then I believe we should stay out of one another's hair and have fun.  Remember fun?  Fun is good.



Tom said...

Thanks for writing this. I didn't necessarily ignore the mainstream bullying, I'm just far less familiar with it. I'm sure it happens. But all the experiences I've witnessed and experienced have come from one side. Of course, bullying isn't right regardless of who does it. I appreciate your approach. I'll just go ahead and add you to my blogroll. =)

ista said...

I'm so happy to hear a balanced perspective on this.

I'm in a british navy c1806 re-enactment group, and though I'm not a sailor (but vendor of greens+grog) I really appreciate that our rules are anything visible has to be hand sewn. I loathe hand sewing and it doesn't help that I have divergent (true!!), astigmatic eyes and it triggers tennis elbow (in both). I love the research and making ... right up to that hand stitching point of necessity.

I've been scathed on by a Re-enactOR (emphasis hers) because I was wearing cotton not silk. Ugh. Thankfully I'm not so influenced by that approach because I know how to research.

Evie said...

I love reading level-headed, academical structured responses to things like this :)

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Tom! Yeah, I've seen unkind words on both sides--I don't blame you for not having experienced both sides.

Thanks Ista! It is sometimes hard to remember that there may be unavoidable hurdles when it comes to complete "authenticity" however we define it. And yes--shoving "MY" research in your face is never nice. If I'm leery of someone's clothing (and feel close enough to ask them) I usually ask "why?" instead of starting out with a "you're wrong." Sometimes it turns out I was wrong. And sometimes they are wrong and know it and are working on it, or are glad to get some feedback. Starting out confrontational rarely ends well, but conversation can go a long way.

Evie, we need to hang out and geek more often.

Cassidy said...

So glad to see you mention the mainstream side of the bullying - it gets ignored so frequently. It kind of highlights how easy it is for everyone to not consider what they're doing that's negative as bullying or hurtful. Additionally, criticizing for inaccuracy isn't just about the progressives doing more research - there are plenty of people who hold to what they learned years ago and criticize people who do new things based on new research!

I just wrote an essay on Wilson Friedman's blog so I won't go into too much, but the more I think about it, the more I wish people who want to address bullying would name actual names, when possible. Maybe it's because I come from a fandom background, where people routinely investigate and name names; it can lead to bigger blowups and hurt feelings, but it also tends to lead to more objective views being possible (since I don't just react to a hypothetical example, but can find out what really happened by talking to observers etc.) and actual resolutions being made. The issue of "bullying" can never be fixed if we always give hypothetical examples of bullies and talk vaguely about how people can be mean. If you want to complain about forum members being rude, let us see their rudeness and make our own call on how rude it is - to be honest, my gut reaction to descriptions without links tends to be that the describer doesn't want me to see because it's not as objectively bad as they're making it out to be. Which isn't quite fair, but I can't help it. I always want to see for myself when possible.

Rowenna said...

I can appreciate the idea that we should name names, Cassidy--I know for my part, I haven't been a personal victim of bullying from any side so am loathe to "tell someone else's story" so to speak, as though I have seen things go a bit harsh on a few occasions, I'm not sure that those on the receiving end would claim bullying or not. I honestly think that general negativity and nastiness and poor attitudes (from individuals on BOTH sides) are all more prevalent than systematic bullying--but that they can all be read as bullying in the right context.

And yes--I've seen plenty of criticism of kits and impressions come from people who had no clue and were repeating reenactorisms that weren't actually true. Head::Desk.

ista said...

I thought it showed the silk-wearer's lack of research. Cos long before 1806 fine cotton was a luxury item, and I was wearing a period accurage gown for my class. Given the huge trade in second hand clothing in teh UK it's possible I could have worn silk. A many times remade gown in an old fashioned fabric design.