Tag Archives: Hell on Wheels

Shame Day: The History Channel

shamehistoryWhen I was growing up in Syria, we had two channels. One was the state-run propaganda channel, the other was the same channel, but with slightly less static. When my family did make an infrequent trip out of the country, the first thing on my agenda (after ratcheting up the AC to somewhere between “high” and “arctic gale”) was to plop down at the end of the bed and flip on the TV to see if they had Discovery or National Geographic or- best of all- The History Channel.

Of course, this was back before.

[Editor’s Note: Since 2009 The History Channel has gone by the one-word name “History.” Gordon will continue to refer to it by its original name for old times’ sake]

Now when I covered webcomic Sinfest for a Shame Day, I directly addressed the comic’s creator, Tatsuya Ishida, in the off-chance that he might stumble across what I had written. While I don’t think (1) anyone from the History channel is going to come across this post or (2) give a flying **** about it if they did, talking straight to the source came pretty naturally, so I’m going to be employing the same technique again. Continue reading

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Slavery and Movies

I recently had a chance to see The Man with the Iron Fists, a gritty Kung-Fu-Spaghetti-Western-70s-Exploitation mash-up film presented (of course) by Quentin Tarantino. I say presented by Tarantino; the creation of the film itself is owed largely to The RZA of the former (and still awesome) Wu-Tang Clan. In addition to co-writing and directing the film, the RZA stars in the epic slug-fest itself, serving as the narrator and titular character.

Now I went into this film simply suspending my disbelief. I assumed all the nonsensical elements in the film would simply be loving jabs at the old-school kung-fu and action movies that Tarantino and Roth grew up on. That’s why Russel Crowe’s character has a gun-scissor-knife weapon, or why (and here’s the big thing) the blacksmith in this fictional Chinese village is black. Much to my surprise however, the movie began offering explanations (though not to the gun-scissor-knife). The blacksmith is, in a flashback, shown having grown up on a plantation and receiving his freedom from his dying master. Despite having papers declaring him a free man, he is continually treated as a slave- in one scene he is told by a couple of dandies that there’s no way he can read, and therefore understand what’s written on his documents. The two men crumple up his paper and proceed to slur and shove him until he fights back, inadvertently killing one of them. He flees west, and after his ship is wrecked, finds himself in China.

Now obviously that whole last bit about him running so far he winds up in the far east is obviously just the movie shifting back into fantasy, but what really got me was the depiction of slavery. Not prejudice, not segregation- slavery. When’s the last time you can actually say you saw a film deal with that? Glory in 1989? Some Little House on the Prairie episode sometime in the 70s? It simply isn’t done (and that one episode of The Boondocks doesn’t count).

And that’s what I want to talk about. Our depiction, or lack of depiction, of slavery. For all our grand talk of freedom, liberty, and American “exceptionalism,” we do tend to gloss over the uglier elements of our history, such as Manzanar, Wounded Knee, and perhaps most notably, slavery. It brings up all sorts of uncomfortable, and frankly unresolved conflicts. It throws a dark shadow over all of our self-reported greatness. Nevertheless, we really can’t shove it under the carpet, and it looks like, at long last, it’s starting to all come out.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels takes place during the years following the close of the Civil War, and like The Man with the Iron Fists is one of the few depictions of slavery I’ve ever seen on film or TV. In addition to its frank depiction of slavery, I want to take a moment to give the show some applause for the historical accuracy it had in general, depicting Northern racism towards the ex-slaves, as well as the racism inflicted to (and by) the Irish immigrants- another nasty little thread in American heritage you won’t find in most history books.

Of course, beyond that, there’s the highly anticipated Tarantino film Django Unchained, which we’re all expecting to be jaw-dropping in how good or bad it turns out to be. Unlike the previous two examples, which depicted slavery only briefly, this is a movie set completely in the antebellum South. That’s another hefty jump, though again, how well this is going to be executed is still very much up in air.

Now I’ve been struggling all night to come up with a conclusion for all of this, but I’m really not sure what to say. I can’t say why we’re suddenly interested in a subject we’ve been ignoring for the past century and a half. I can’t quite figure out if this is some little trend or the awakening of some part of our culture that’s been dormant so long we’ve forgotten it. I can’t pinpoint what’s causing this. I can’t tell you where it’s all going. I can tell you, however, where I hope it goes.

I hope this is the beginning of something that might pass for maturity in our culture or our generation. I hope that movies depicting the reality of slavery become a thing. I hope that they open up the doors for the rest of our small-pox-infected, witch-burning, Japanese-interning, waterboarding history. I hope we can actually learn something from all of this once it’s out there, and hey, maybe we can actually get some racial diversity in our movies for a change.

Maybe.

P.S. I haven’t seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or Lincoln yet, so I can’t say how they deal with it in there.

Manly Culture

Even if you haven’t recognized it for what it is, chances are, you’ve seen elements of it. The resurgence of beards, comments on period piece clips like “Why don’t we wear hats anymore?” or “Dang- they knew how to dress back then.” Or perhaps you’ve stumbled across The Art of Manliness or are (like me) a faithful apostle of Ron Swanson.

Now whether you’re aware of it or not, there is a growing culture based around this general perspective of “manliness” that supposedly existed from 5,000 BC to 1974 AD. The resurgence in the popularity of the beard, the wave of internet memes centered around being “classy,” our love affair with period pieces- all of this compounded has created the beginnings of a whole new subculture.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at some of our favorite TV characters.

Don “F***-You, Liver!” Draper

Jack “Even Ayn Rand Thinks I’m Egotistical” Donaghy

Rick “Bad Decisions” Grimes

Walter “Tied with Draper for Making People Love Fedoras” White

Barney “Legen- wait for it… -DARY!” Stinson

Cullen “I Will Punch You For No Particular Reason” Bohannon

Comedy, Drama, Action/Horror, Westerns- this is a pretty broad range, and we’ve got the same strong, dour antihero type in all of them. Men who remind us of our fathers and grandfathers. Tough as nails bastards who came to this country with only a dollar in their pockets- who took a break from their honest 8 to 8 jobs of hitting metal with other pieces of metal to kill Nazis and look dapper doing it.

So what’s this culture all about? As with any group, we can talk about the superfluous or cosmetic elements- in the case of the “manly” group, handshake etiquette, strait-razor whetting, and driving stick- but to really understand ’em, we’re going to need to look at the underlying values in play here.

Independence:

What do all the men shown above have in common? A degree of independence. They’re DIY guys. Men who aren’t reliant on the help or charity of others- in short, dudes who can take care of themselves in most any situation, from car repair to providing for the family to killing the undead. And on that note…

Initiative:

These are all men who don’t allow themselves to be victims. They’re proactive moment-seizing leaders who don’t wait idly by for someone to step up. Good or bad, they’re leading the way- and speaking of bad…

Stoic:

These are guys who tend to lend credence to the stereotype of the unspeaking, unfeeling male. At best, the strong, silent type- at worse, the uncommunicative lout. One way or another, they don’t let the situation get the better of them. That’d be undignified, and if there’s one thing that they’re about, it’s…

Dignity/Pride:

It’s in the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they expected to be treated. A kind of code that prohibits some things and makes others compulsory. You can’t hold your head high, then what’s the point in having one?

Moral Ambiguity:

These men are all, to varying degrees, antiheroes. Guys with their own agendas and a certain degree of moral ambiguity that keeps you on your toes. There’s a level of egotism, self-centeredness, and disregard for others that makes them pretty good at what they do, but what they do not all that good- certainly they don’t fit the traditional mold of the selfless, self-sacrificial hero.

Wealth:

And while it’s not true for all of them, money tends to be a major element of their stories. A drive to be successful, prosperous, and (again) independent. It’s the age-old dream of being your own boss.

So what does all of this boil down to?

Power.

It’s about power. These guys represent everything we, as a generation, aren’t. Independent, wealthy, self-assured, proud. Does that sound like us? Not at all. We’re the casual dressed, globally conscious masses struggling to make it by, and taking whatever miserable, degrading soulless job we can find. We’re not strong like these glamorized images of our grandparents are (having conveniently erased the racism, bigotry, and misogyny).

But we want to be.

And so begins the perpetual motion machine of life-imitating-art and art-imitating-life. Epic Meal Time, Memes, Period Pieces- the list goes on.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, there are good and bad elements to every culture (some more bad than good, and vice versa), but let’s list out the positives and negatives.

The positives have been wrapped in bacon

Positive:

  • We can stand to toughen up a bit a lot as a generation. We don’t need to be bending horseshoes with our teeth, but some basic survival skills and a thicker skin when it comes to discomfort and hardship would be nice (battery running out on your phone doesn’t count as suffering).
  • In these tough economic times, be able to do basic repairs to your house and car aren’t just good- they’re necessary. Same goes for any of the thrifty elements of the culture.
  • Even if we don’t have it quite yet, demanding a certain level of dignity in our work and our day to day lives isn’t just good for you as an individual- it improves society on the whole.
  • While we probably shouldn’t worship the fedora or declare the suit to be the only appropriate clothing for a man over the age of twelve, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know how to dress ourselves, or conduct ourselves well in any given situation.

Negatives:

  • The glorification of the past can, as I jokingly mentioned above, lead to the uglier elements of it being glossed over. We hail our grandfathers as being great men, forgetting how easy it is to make a name for yourself when none of the good or prestigious jobs can be given to equally qualified women or non-white men.
  • The culture really doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for women at all, other than the kitchen. This is not to say that all adherents of the culture see it this way, but when you’re trying to espouse 1950s society, that includes 50s traditional gender roles as well.
  • It can’t be denied that there’s a strong conservative appeal in this culture, as well as hints of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Glorifying wealth and success, especially when coupled with a “do whatever you need to do” mentality, can lead to the twisted perspective that poor people are poor because they are lazy.
  • This culture, despite the intentions of its adherents, does give a home for sexism. The uglier elements of the masculinity movement, those who view women as belonging in the home and nowhere else will doubtlessly find it a lot easier to fly under the radar in a culture that’s utterly dominated by males.

So what’s the final verdict?


“Manly” culture doesn’t appear to be either helpful or harmful- at least, not yet. The underlying issue being power, it’s going to be faced with the task of walking the thin line between empowerment and megalomania. So long as self-control is kept in mind, they oughta be fine.

Be sure to look for next week’s installment: “Science” Culture.