Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Misogyny and Reenacting

Part of the Progressive Movement Discussion Broohahaha (spurred by this post, responded to in several venues including this one from Historically Speaking and this one from Kabinettskriege) has been the question of whether progressive reenactors and the progressive movement as a whole is sexist.  Some claim misogyny at the hands of progressive reenactors; others claim that progressives hold no more chauvinists in their ranks than any cross-section of the hobby and are in fact welcoming of female reenactors.

First, there is the issue of women feeling welcome to participate.  This has come under disagreement and discussion over the question of women-in-the-ranks.  There are those progressive groups that discourage women from dressing and acting as soldiers.  They would argue that this comes down to presentation, not chauvinism--that many women cannot effectively disguise themselves as men therefore cannot present an accurate portrayal.  After all, even the documented women who DID disguise themselves as men and soldier were able to do so because *no one figured out they were women.*  So the point is fair one--women who can't "hide" in men's clothes should, perhaps, not soldier.  However--are we going to turn away anyone with a physical appearance that didn't exist in a particular regiment for the purpose of authenticity?  Unless we're willing to refuse participation to those of Asian or African or American Indian descent who weren't present in certain units, or older individuals beyond the age range of the average soldier, I think we have a difficult question regarding women and correct visual impression on our hands.

In fact, many progressive women will set that limit for themselves--knowing that they can't effectively disguise themselves as men, whether due to body type or facial structure or what have you, they choose to avoid that particular avenue of participation.  That's, to me, progressive mindset and inclusiveness of women in action together--choosing the persona you can best achieve and pursuing it.

That said, refusal to permit women to "galtroop" is not a requisite of the progressive movement.  There are some progressives who are against it; others are fine provided that the woman hold herself to the same standards of accuracy and presentation as the men.  Excluding women from the ranks is not something the progressive movement as a whole agrees on, only some individuals with strong opinion.  And there are some mainstream individuals who discourage the practice, too.

What about the alternative--the choice most Revolutionary War female reenactors make, to portray the women involved in and affected by the conflict?  Seems to me that well-researched and well-portrayed female impressions are just as appreciated by the progressive community as the male.  Yes, I admit to seeing some "boys club" mentality from male progressives--but it's rarely "you're excluded" as much as it is "my area of study and interest doesn't really include women" and, well, once you get a nerd going on their area of interest, all else is forgotten.  Perhaps progressives would be wise to keep this unintended consequence in mind when discussing priorities and the big picture of our hobby--but women can also keep in mind that it's often unintentional and we should jump into the conversation and broaden it.

In fact, I have yet to see a progressive argue that women portraying women should not be included and encouraged, despite the fact that our numbers in camp are often ludicrously over-representative of historical norms.

I come back, ultimately, to the point that there are always a few jerks present in any sub-group, and reenacting is no different.  There are progressive reenactors who are jerks, and a few who are misogynist jerks.  Same with mainstream reenacting.  The truly insidious thing about reenactors perpetuating misogyny, however, is that when it happens, it's often under the guise of "historical accuracy."  And this may be why progressives are bearing the brunt of the misogyny accusations, whether fairly or not--the misogyny some women have experienced was in the guise of behaving "historically" and so it becomes tied to progressive reenacting.

I have watched men berate and belittle women at events, during and after public hours, claiming it was their "persona" and "part of the experience."  Now, if the women in question are fine with this kind of banter and play-acting, fine.  But BOTH PARTIES need to be in agreement that this is make-believe, and the women need to be respected as members of their unit beyond their (self-chosen) role as whipping girl.  Clear "enough is enough" rules should be in effect, and anyone should feel free to walk away from the game at any time.  There are times when this has not been the case.  I've been openly brushed off or ignored in situations where a man had decided that, since we would not have had an open conversation in the 18th century, he wouldn't have one with me.  (Never mind the fact that the reason for my approaching one such man involved official event business with which I had been tasked...)

Ultimately, there are certain men who do assert this version of "historical accuracy" whether others around them are interested in playing that version of accuracy out.  The version itself is honestly debatable given the many instructions on "courtesy" that include gentility toward women, but that's a different topic altogether and likely far more complicated than "this is right in all circumstances."  Individuals perpetuating this kind of behavior could be progressives researching and documenting their actions, or they could be repeating straight reenactorisms.

Even if we can prove beyond a doubt that men would have verbally abused women publicly at a given place and time, there are some things that we should consider carefully if we want to incorporate or not.  It may be "all pretend" but it's very easy for "pretend" words to start to carry a sharp edge.  It can begin to sow actual hierarchy and disrespect within a group if those participating are not very careful.  Again, it must be agreed upon by both parties, not imposed on anyone, and must have an "off switch." As a corollary, we know that corporal punishment for children was far more prevalent in the 18th century than today; we don't need to demand that parents adopt these modes of discipline with their children while at reenactment events.  Neither do we need to promote verbal abuse.  There are plenty of ways to display the social norms of the time that don't include that particular facet.

Less justifiable and, frankly, creepy have been sexual advances wrapped in the guise of "historical" conversation and not ended when the women in question politely requested that it stop, again under the excuse of "behaving" like a historical alpha male who would have, presumably, kept pressing.  Not acceptable.  At all.  We are a community here in the reenacting world, even if we have our neighborhoods of progressive, mainstream, somewhere in the middle.  Everyone should feel safe in our community.  Unwanted advances and unasked for verbal abuse, whether historically documentable or not, are unacceptable.

In the end, I've experienced far more camaraderie than misogyny, and neither progressive nor mainstream wings of the hobby is entirely guilty or entirely absolved.  It is a spot that either side could take the opportunity to "clean house" over--when you see something happening, address the issue.  Don't let the jerks speak for the hobby as a whole.


Connie Keller said...

I've only done reenacting once, but I was treated with respect and, thankfully, had a positive experience.

Rowenna said...

I'm glad, Connie :) The vast majority of reenactors don't have this problem at all--just a select few. And like I said--no matter where you go or what hobby you choose, you eventually encounter jerks.

Cassidy said...

One interesting thing that's stood out to me is the way different people define a progressive (not in the reenacting sense) attitude towards women - some say, "I feel like this group supports me as a woman because it lets me galtroop," and others, "I feel like this group is less sexist because it allows me to portray a realistic woman of the time without being sidelined." The strange thing is that they're not at all mutually exclusive, yet they apparently are in practice. Strange.