You go to a museum to learn a story by means of the objects they have on display. You go to a zoo to be entertained by the animals. You go to a living history museum to to see people bring the past back to life. People who, in their historical clothing, are part zoo animals and part museum objects. They are also, quite often, knowledgeable historians and talented craftspeople, but perhaps you do not notice this. You do notice them, photograph them, as objects, as zebras and giraffes, on display for your enjoyment.
I’ve got a friend named Will who does living history as a hobby. Our friendship revolves largely around tossing barbed witticisms at each other. At a reenactment a few weeks ago, sitting around the tavern table and passing the punch bowl, he tossed a comment my way that I wasn’t able to forgive him for. It was a revolutionary war event, and I was portraying an army woman – the wife of a continental soldier.
What he said was: “you’re too pretty* to be a camp follower”.
A bit of “no I’m not” – “yes you are” ensued while I recovered from this blow. You see, Will did a remarkable thing – he crafted an untouchable insult: He successfully objectified me, shredding any sense that my knowledge or skill were the more relevant factors in determining my ability to accurately portray a soldier’s wife, and he did this through a comment that everyone else at the table perceived as a compliment. (For bonus points he made me feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t a comment I expected or wanted from a friend.) When I brought this up with him a few weeks later, he said that since we had a relationship based on insulting each other, he had thought of the most insulting thing he could say to me. I offered him my congratulations, because he certainly succeeded.
Aside from the simple horror of being so sharply objectified, Will’s comment touched a nerve; I’ve had the feeling since this spring that “looking pretty” while doing living history is a bit of a problem. This first came to light when I finished a new gown in March. It is pink – a nasty, insipid, little girl sort of a pink that I bought on a lark because I thought it would be funny to make a dress in such a ridiculous color. (There is a perverse pleasure to be gotten from making something historically accurate which is also godawful ugly.) But everyone else seems to think it is pretty, and when I wear it, visitors to my site take my picture; they take it instead of talking to me. My knowledge and skills become irrelevant; superseded by my appearance. It seems to me that wearing a “pretty” dress means being a museum object, rather than a museum educator.
Because of this, Will’s comment had a second meaning of which he was unaware. Looking pretty while doing living history is a problem: it makes it much harder for me to have meaningful, educational interactions with people. To this end, I do not wear that stupid pink dress all that often. I was not wearing it at the event where I got into this little verbal dog fight in which Will struck such a significant blow. And yet, he was able to use the crime of looking pretty against me, to diminish me and my work.
I didn’t come up with the zoo analogy from the opening paragraph – that’s one we throw around at work a lot (when people touch our cloths without asking, put their fingers in our lunches, and interact with us solely through their camera lenses). It stems from the frustrations of a team of deeply knowledgeable people being viewed not as historians, but as figurines in a moving diorama. Our goal is not just to illustrate but to educate, but often we fail in this mission because of how we are perceived.
The “pretty” problem is a part of this. It is an additional hurdle I and my female colleagues are required to jump over, put up by a society that is used to objectifying women. A society where an older male friend doesn’t have to think twice before throwing out a comment that revolves around physical appearance. It makes me so sad. The only fix I know is not to sit quietly while photographed, but to talk to the people who face me through their iPhone cameras, and hope they go home with not just a photograph, but some historical knowledge, and a small sense of the person who they learned it from.
*A note on my physical appearance: I am a healthy, normal-enough person in her mid-twenties. That’s it. I’ve never been in a beauty pageant, so I don’t have any more solid information for you on the topic of my looks, nor do I want it. If you feel the need to form your own opinion, let it remain that: your own.