Historical Drag: Notes on televisual temporal transvestitism

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Since at least the 19th century, various upper-class social explorers have posed as people of a poorer class to explore the particular inequities of slums, sweatshops and marginal spaces of urban vice. The exploits of these actors were reported back to middle and upper class readers who were often shocked by the world inhabited by the less fortunate. The most famous of these recent social class explorers was Barabara Ehrenreich, who recounted her days posing as a waitress and house cleaner in the book Nickle and Dimed. In an excellent piece in Representations, the contemporary historian Eric Schocket labeled these class poseurs — “class transvestites” —, a term both immensely descriptive and ultimately damning of their activities.

In addition to class transvestitism, we can also locate a curious (and recent) temporal transvestitism, made possible through reality tv shows and their significant budgets. Programs such as 1900 House (above), Frontier House, and Manor House, enable participants to live a life in “the past” (Frontier and Manor House actually combine both class and temporal cross-dressing/acting) and they invite viewers to watch their confrontation with historical and antiquated means of living. These programs interest me because they are avenues to experimental spatial historical technique, but they’re also troubling in ways — ways that only make them that much more intriguing.

On one level, these programs encourage historical understanding through reenactment. Enactments sound horribly corny, but I was surprised and fascinated to learn that Thomas Laqueur uses actors to teach world history to his students at Berkeley. These programs also interest me, because all three (painfully) instill the present within history. Although we empathize with a modern family’s struggle with a technologically unaccommodating past, the programs’ producers advance a woman’s housework, property ownership, and class inequity as part of the historical continuum; that is, we see how popular history is commandeered to advance and fix contemporary socio-spatial dynamics.

But there is another ideological strand moving through these reenactments of the past that’s altogether less Barthesian, and ultimately more disturbing. 1900 House and Frontier House may actually not be reenactments of the past, but televisual priming of a possible apocalyptical future. They portend a possible demodernization that haunts contemporary Western discussions of infrastructural collapse and ecological disaster. In these shows water must be fetched, waste disposed, and food gathered, in ways far different than the modern infrastructural city. Additionally, all of the programs emphasize forms of cleaning, eating, and heating, that seem more environmentally palatable — homes more disentangled from global networks.

In fact, within Frontier House, it is only the historical dress that makes this show a part of history and not some ecopocalyptical scifi program. On the program’s website, the producers write “The Challenge: Blizzards, hunger, scorching sun, forest fires….” This could easily be the description of The Road, as much as a television show set on the American frontier. As always, “history,” particularly “public history,” offers us the opportunity to consider a possible future.

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  1. t

    barriers of entry_

    I’m curious as to whether Schocket discusses the issue of barriers of entry. The transformation from upper class to lower class is fundamentally about denial of what one has. Would it also be considered as class transvestitism if someone from a lower class penetrates the upper class? However, the poorer class wouldn’t be ‘shocked by the world inhabited by’ the more fortunate. They live in it.

    • dlgissen

      I would think the answer would be yes — Eliza Doolittle, Billie Ray Valentine, and the Pauper (prince and the pauper) are all class transvestites. But…I read the Schocket piece long ago, so I cannot recall his take. And yes, considering these things almost always play to an aspiring B’geoisie audience, the world of the wealthy is portrayed as “delightfully” shocking — versus simply shocking.




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