Timey Wimey: How Fantasy Taught Me About History

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I was a history major. I studied it for four years. So it’s somewhat shaming to admit that there are many things I don’t know. Not that I could ever know everything about history, because that’s just not possible. But that there are big things I didn’t know, really big things, is sort of embarrassing. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that by college, sick and tired of learning survey US History, I decided to concentrate in European history, which left me with a great understanding of Europe’s complex politics, but a lack of in-depth study on the issues that had been skated over so many times in survey classes in elementary, middle, and high school.

Individual issues are one matter. A general understanding of history is another.

Ironically enough, it was fiction that helped me understand this. To be specific, fantasy -- Tamora Pierce’s fantasy. Those of you who are Tammy fans will know that a major focus of her Tortall books is female empowerment. For those of you who haven’t... well, they all started with Alanna, who wanted to be a knight, not a lady. So she disguised herself as a boy, switched places with her brother, and went to become a page. She spent 8 years disguised as male, and her sex was only revealed shortly after she attained her knighthood. But one female knight, even a legendary one, didn’t stop all sexual discrimination in the realm. Daine, a country girl who has an unusual connection with animals, faces plenty of gender discrimination merely for not wearing skirts. Ten years later, Kel is the first woman to legally become a knight, and is faced with hazing, bullying, and even a probation year from the training master.

Tammy’s most recent set of books chronicles the life of a lower-class girl in Tortall’s police force, a rough enough life without choosing duty in the worst district. Beka lives 200 years before Alanna’s time, so it was a surprise to me that she faced relatively little opposition in becoming a Dog. There are comments from some women (usually maids, and mostly her sisters) about the unsuitability of her profession, but relatively few. And then we were introduced to Lady Sabine, a female knight. And not the only female knight, either. So if Tortall had a good few lady knights, and plenty of women in the Provost’s Guard, what happened in the two hundred years between Beka and Alanna? We were only recently given the answer.

Turns out it was a religious movement. Typical. Called the Cult of the Gentle Mother, it claimed that with the wars over, there was no need for women to be aggressive and violent, and they should concentrate on the home and the family. And over two hundred years, it grew more and more powerful, creating enough dominance over a realm to force women out of the Provost’s Guard and out of the ranks of knights. It is because of this cult that Alanna was forced to become Alan for eight years, that Thayet’s subjects didn’t take her seriously, that Lalasa’s family beat her, that Kel still faced taunts about being a prostitute even as a knight. (Sounds exactly like what the three major Western religions have done to women, actually.)

But what it means for history of our world is also interesting. History, all over the country, and even at the college level, is taught as a progression of cause to effect. What happened then led us to where we are today. It’s a straight line. And so if it’s a straight line, it’s left to students to assume that things must have gone from worse to bad to better to good. But that’s not how it works. Life for women didn’t get better from Beka’s time to Alanna’s -- it got incomparably worse. Women weren’t the most oppressed in ancient times, and have slowly gotten more freedom -- they probably had more freedom in 1600 Germany than they did in 1860 Kentucky. Blacks in the south had a far greater degree of freedom, autonomy, and safety in 1870 than they did in 1924.

We like to think that “progress” was a straight line to the present, because it makes us feel like the heroes that have finally brought things to justice and made the world right. But we have to stop fooling ourselves. We have to stop falsifying history in order to make ourselves look better.

Have we really come that much farther in basic civil rights since the death of Dr. King? In all the civil rights history I did in elementary school (and I did a lot), that question was never asked. It was always assumed. The legal changes regarding race, from the Constitution through the Civil Rights movement, have allowed textbook writers to frame the progression and acceptance of those who have darker skin as something that slowly improved over the decades and centuries, making us into the perfect Americans we are today. But of course, we’re not perfect. 

The women’s movement reached its high in the 1970s. But can an accurate, careful historian can argue that things have immeasurably improved for women since then? Though doubtless there are fewer brick walls, there’s most certainly still a glass ceiling -- on advancement, on some occupations. There is plenty of cultural objectification of women’s bodies -- and don’t get me started on the freedom that women should have over whether they choose to have children or not. (Insurance companies cover Viagra, so why don’t they cover the pill?) If anything, the injustices of sexism have been swept under the carpet, marked as “just life” and “something that “doesn’t happen anymore.”

History is complicated. It’s not all a straight line. Most of it doesn’t connect. The majority of it is unjust to the majority of people. It moves backwards and forwards, up and down, left and right, and diagonal. It does not operate according to our notions of “progress.” And ironically, it was fantasy that helped me realize this. So I use the word “timey-wimey” not in the whimsical sense that Doctor Who fans have come to know it, with Moffat’s mind-bending tricks of manipulation, but in the sense that nothing in the past is so simple, and nothing is ever the way it seems to be. Don’t take it for granted.

There’s your real-world fantasy application for today. Thanks, Tammy.