Monday, February 22, 2016

History through American Television

“American television has sustained an extremely active and nuanced engagement with the construction of history and has played a crucial role in the shaping of cultural memory.”

This closing line of Steve Anderson’s introduction to his article, “History TV and Popular Memory,” rang very true for me. Television in itself is a cultural and historical phenomenon, but the shows on television can do some wonderful things for viewers. As 21st Century American citizens, we understand television has become a staple in our culture, relaying both information and stories about past, present, and future. As a staple, television has introduced new ways to think about time and history that other media have not been able to before.

While some may claim that TV provides this information and story telling is “without context or opportunity for retention” and that because of this, it isn’t a solid source of historical memory, Anderson argues that television does provide opportunities for “historical reception, [or] what people remember of history, and the way it is made useful in their lives.” Shows about historical events as well as shows about the present provide means to understanding culture.

Anderson asserts that “memories acquire meaning in resonance with other historical constructs (images, narratives, politics, ideologies, etc.).” Television is given the opportunity to combine several (if not all) of these features he provides that allow us to construct and build upon memories. Even though some may counter that only “official” histories, written by historians, are the only “true” histories, even historians come from a biased position: “no historical ‘document’ […] may be considered naïve or free of its own historical consciousness.” Therefore, with television, viewers can make their own decisions about the history presented to them, putting themselves in that historian position of their own lives in regards to understanding culture.

Shows that focus on historical events can take several paths that create a “compelling form of ‘living history’” for viewers. These shows can, in fact, present interviews with historians debating and reflecting on the ideas being presented. These shows (I’m thinking along the lines of the History Channel, here) typically have experts in the fields presenting the information in a very factual, objective way. Reanimations of the events allow for this idea of “living history,” placing viewers in that time period visually, which immerses viewers into the history in a much different way than text alone could. While viewers may find these shows entertaining, their primary objective is to inform about historical events.

One of the categories of shows that Anderson does not address in his article is more modern shows that are set in the past but not connected to any one particular historical event. These shows visually represent the past but do not directly address historical moments during these times; they are typically meant to entertain rather than inform. For example, the shows I have in mind are those like Mad Men and The Goldbergs, which are set in the late 1950s/1960s and the 1980s, respectively. Historical events during these time periods are rarely directly discussed, and if they are, it is only in relation to the character’s lives, and not those of the American people in general.

Nonetheless, these shows provide viewers with a sense of “living history,” or the ability “to see and feel what it must have been like to be a part of history.” Yes, Mad Men is fictional, and The Goldbergs is semi-fictional (based on one character’s actual life), but they do provide accurate representations of history and culture at that time, despite the individualistic narratives being presented. Fashion, gender roles, family and work dynamics, political issues, ideologies, and more are all presented in the most accurate way possible to portray to readers a sense of realness in its place in time, a sense of accuracy that allows viewers to be part of that place and time despite the fictional (or semi-fictional) timelines/stories.

Surely you can’t tell me that these pictures don’t just scream 50s/60s and 80s culture.

Even the modern shows about today’s culture, while they may not feel like “history” to us at this moment, will soon become part of our memories of our history. They’ll also become a way for future citizens/historians (really anyone with a memory, here) to come to an understanding of this “present,” our “now.” Let’s take Saturday Night Live as our example--one that's still in progress. Each week, SNL presents culture’s trends, issues, and hot-button topics, inadvertently capturing the fashions, ideologies, etc. that come with them. The show still airs, continuously framing American life in an often sarcastic and silly way, but framing it anyway in a way that most of us can come to understand. We can look back look back on the same format of show from over 30 years ago and see the same kinds of routines in a different time in American culture, which allows viewers to gain that better understanding of history and past. As culture changes, we can see the changes in the content of the shows but also its presentation, alluding to the culture in which it was made as well.

Of course, these three categories of shows that I have presented don’t even begin to touch the variety of ways in which television can affect viewer’s memories and create understandings of the past that affect their futures. Anderson presents more in his article as well. It seems we have only skimmed the surface of what television can do for constructing a sense of historical memory and identity.

I can think of way too many shows that have shaped by thoughts and understanding of the past and how it relates to my present. I’d love to hear the shows that have most influenced your thoughts about the past!


  1. I think it's also interesting to consider television shows as history. I can tell you where and who I was with when I watched the final episode of M*A*S*H just as easily and vividly as I can recall where and who I was with when I learned about 9-11 or the Challenger space shuttle disaster. I still know that Kristin shot J.R. And live television shows air history in the making, the act of watching those shows adds to at least my own personal historical value. While I have no conscious memory of watching the moon landing, I know that my mother sat me in front of the television to watch it. I woke up at 3am to watch Diana marry Prince Charles live, and I stayed up all night watching the news reports until they confirmed her death (and, yes, I know exactly where and who I was with). And I don't think that my sons will ever forget Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl halftime, but I was in the kitchen and missed it.

  2. I remember growing up learning all about the 70's from That 70's Show! When I was younger, everything especially felt so much more authentic. I even had my mom buy me some of the same vinyls and a couple pairs of bell bottoms so I could match (laughing-crying face emoji happening now). To this day, nearly everything I know, or think I know, about the 70's is directly from That 70's Show. What I think sets it apart from shows like Mad Men is that it is self-aware—even with the name, it's apparent that the show is going to be about the seventies, and I think they did a great job carrying it through so many seasons and actually bringing attention to handfuls of historical events that took place during that time. Off the top of my head, I know there was one episode when President Ford visits Point Place and it's a huge deal for nearly everyone. Even seventies' culture is preserved within the details of each episode.

    It's interesting that you bring up SNL. I was just watching re-runs with my mom the other night (we didn't realize it was a rerun at first) and I didn't understand ANY of the jokes. To be fair, my mom didn't either, but when I looked at the program guide I realized it was an episode from the late 90's. It felt like one of those "had to be there" moments, which makes me wonder if that kind of commentary-like humor is just a product of its time?

    I promise I'm almost finishing commenting--the last thing I was reminded of with your post was the range of television shows that are set in specific historical periods, but completely rewrite history within the show. The example I'm thinking of is "The Man in the High Castle," which was adapted from Dick's novel of the same name. It's set immediately following WWII, but the weird twist is that Germany and Japan actually won the war, and the show takes place in a post-war United States that it split three ways: Nazi territory, Japanese territory, and a free zone near Colorado. This show very much adapts the culture of the time, but completely changes the path of history right alongside it. I'm wondering what something like that means to us--how do we react when a film or show takes what we think we know and then completely messes with the fabric of time in which the outcome has been set? Just something to think about.

    1. It seems like SO MUCH of our commentary humor is fleeting with the trending topics. Good point.

  3. Bringing up SNL and it's commentary was also interesting for me to see as well. As McKenzie pointed out, SNL sits very well in it's time period for each skit and some of the jokes can be lost on older generations. The reason I bring this up is because it also reminded me of what critics were saying about the Deadpool movie. With all the cultural references in it, they questioned how the movie would do in future generations. There were a lot of jokes within the movie that were funny to us, but may be confusing to people who weren't there in the moment.

    As for era television, such as Mad Men and The Goldbergs. one of the interesting things I've noticed is the bigger use of time travel and flashbacks in the shows I watch. Some examples that come to mind for me are Supernatural, Arrow, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. With Supernatural, the brothers are brought back to different eras in various episodes. When they do get brought back, the producers of the show do a great job of giving the feelings of the era. I particularly remember one episode they go back to when the Catholic church was big on exorcisms, and so they play the roles of priests to do the same. Within Arrow, there was 5 years that the main character was missing and the show starts with him returning to his home and becoming the vigilante. Every season there are generally two stories in one. You get what is going on in the present, but also what the character went through each year he was gone. Although Legends of Tomorrow is on it's first season and I've only seen the first two episodes, it's interesting already how they deal with time. They return to the 70's at one point and are forced to put on clothes that are popular from the time. Most of the characters make jokes about how they look and the attitudes of the era.

    1. I haven't seen the new Deadpool yet, but I can imagine that some jokes may be confusing later on. That was something I hadn't quite thought of in movies rather than TV.

      I very much look forward to hearing what kinds of jokes about the 2010s the future brings!

  4. Very interesting post, Katy. I find "nostalgia" shows like these quite fascinating. There have been tons of shows that return us to the 50s/60s. The most recent I watched was "The Astronauts' Wives" and I have to admit I felt I was learning a lot about the space program from those shows. (Neat trivia fact: do you know only a handful of marriages survived the space program - the ones that weren't ended by tragedy ended in divorce).

    I wrote a blog post about "The Goldbergs" and Nostalgia when the show first came out. As a product of the 80s (sort of) I find the show taps into some of my earlier foggy memories:

  5. Katy, one major point that stood out that you mentioned was that "Shows that focus on historical events can take several paths that create a “compelling form of ‘living history’” for viewers. These shows can, in fact, present interviews with historians debating and reflecting on the ideas being presented. These shows (I’m thinking along the lines of the History Channel, here)." I very much agree with you on this point. The History Channel, albeit criticized recently for showing nothing but reruns of Pawn Stars or Ice Road Truckers, has a longstanding record of very objective and informational documentaries and shows (such as Modern Marvels and the docudrama The Men Who Made America) as well as taking new paths, such as its recent show Vikings. They have routinely taken, as you mentioned, several paths to show and tell history in different ways while remaining relatively objective.

    I also like your point about the realistic fictionalization of life and culture with shows like Mad Men. Of course shows like these aren't real and aren't meant to be taken as such, with many often providing disclaimers that the shows are works of fiction and that any likenesses and such are coincidental. One example that comes to mind is Law and Order. Ongoing for 20 seasons (excluding any spin-off series such as Law and Order: SVU), the show makes it a point before each episode to mention that any and all likenesses were coincidences. But they also make it a point to mention that every episode is based on a real-life case that has happened somewhere in the United States, tying it closely to history while also remaining a fictionalized drama.

    Lastly, your point of bringing up Saturday Night Live is important as well. You are spot on in noting that the show is intended to parody or otherwise bring in culture and current events with their program. Although it isn't alone, it has since been a main starting point or otherwise root for other popular media that does something similar, such as popular satire news programs The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. Other programs have tried to do something similar to varying degrees, most notably The Simpsons and South Park, with these two going so far as to comment on pop culture and even one another throughout their lifetime, most notably the South Park episode titled "Simpsons Already Did It," poking fun at the fact that The Simpsons have done and anticipated so much for popular culture and memory during its lifetime that it almost seems as if the latter are now copying The Simpsons. Some have gone so far as to produce lists of such examples from The Simpsons (in comparison to real life), such as this one: (I take no responsibility for any ads/articles on said website).

  6. After thinking hard about what show has had a particularly powerful effect on me in terms of the past, I thought of the old show All in the Family, which I saw for the first time when I was 12 or 13. The show aired from 1971-1979, and depicts an openly prejudiced yet benevolent WWII veteran named Archie Bunker. Bunker’s bigotry is frequently and humorously countered, making him the victim of his own ignorance. What struck me as interesting (a few years after my first impression of the show) was how openly the show depicted many controversial issues that had never been presented on television in such a manner: homosexuality, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War, rape, religion, atheism, and race relations. While Archie’s ignorance often backfires on him, he still scores a lot of laughs from the studio audience when he calls his son-in-law a “dumb Polack,” or tells his wife, Edith, to stifle herself—but I suppose this is much better than Ralph Kramden’s famous line from The Honeymooners (debuting in 1955), “POW, right in the kisser!”, which implies that he is going to physically abuse his wife. I find it hard to forgive people being “a product of their time” in regard to domestic abuse and many other forms of abuse, physical or psychological, which I won’t go into.
    Your mention of SNL made me think of satire as a very effective social critique, but only when it is understood. If people don’t realize that characters in South Park, for instance, often show the ignorance of society in a way that is (admittedly not always) educational, they may, for example, end up sharing Cartman’s affinity for fascist ideology—they may identify with what is meant to be mocked, perpetuating ignorance in the process.

  7. As I type (and retype and retype because my google account wouldn't let me log in and kept losing all my comments), I watch Fuller House, which gives me a crazy sense of nostalgia. The memories I linked to Full House transferred to this show because it brought me back to my childhood. We link memories to shows we watch, just like we do with smells, which can be both good and bad, depending on those memories.