Was the movie Alpha historically correct?

There is no such thing as “historical correctness” in pop culture

Historical correctness and pop culture debates, symbolic image. - Image: Detail of a woodcut of the burning Aschhausen Castle in 1523 by Hans Wandereisen. Original: Bamberg State Library (RB.H.bell.f.1).

"Historical correctness" of pop culture is one of those things that many people seem to never be completely drawn to. That is understandable somewhere, but still misguided. There is no such thing as “historical correctness”. Still, it's important to understand what this is really about.

A building feeling from the past

No matter how often in the last few years "historical correctness" has been discussed and whether this or that detail was really like that in any pop culture work: actually nobody is interested in historical correctness, at least not really. Discussions about whether an element in a game, for example, is really “historically correct” or “realistic” actually ask whether this element really fits into the game or whether it destroys the illusion of a coherent world structure. A historical novel in which the sky is suddenly neon green can in most cases be so well written, its readers will still ask what in the world this green sky was doing.

This is an exaggerated example, of course, but it makes clear what most people are actually interested in when they discuss “historical correctness”: They are interested in authenticity. We all do. Both in the pop culture works that we receive and in the way in which we discuss them. For example, when a particularly heated debate about correctness breaks out on the Internet, usually hardly anyone asks for evidence of what someone else is claiming. On the contrary: you just have to sound “right”. They have to appear coherent and at least not contradict our personal conception of a past too much. They just have to be authentic.

In principle, that's not surprising, because that's how historical authenticity works, but it's still important. Not only the content of e.g. digital games thrives on historical authenticity, but also the discussions about it. In various debates online and offline, we first of all accept what seems historically coherent to us. And many things can appear historically coherent, regardless of the current state of research.

Can pop culture be “historically correct” at all?

So when we talk about history and pop culture, we have to make a sharp distinction between authenticity and accuracy, although correctness as such can normally only apply to details. I can ask if there is supporting documents for a certain weapon or a design at a certain point in time and thus basically ask whether such a detail in a game or a novel is “historically correct”, but at the latest at the moment when I try to find the correctness of an entire work to attest, I am embarking on dangerous waters.

There are many reasons for this: First of all, it is in the nature of history that we can seldom be able to completely reconstruct something. For historians, the information that something cannot be said exactly is often important, because at least the existence of a gap and thus a limit of what can be said seriously, e.g. about an event, can be identified. To put it bluntly: At least then I know on the one hand that I don't have an answer to my question, and on the other hand I admit it openly.

However, this possibility of naming gaps is a luxury that artists do not have when developing a world and its stories. Even if I try to research as precisely as possible and to consult a thousand experts who then, against all odds, have the same opinion, then I will always come up against the limits of what these experts consider to be certain. This is simply inevitable and is therefore neither surprising nor special as a phenomenon. But again: It is important to be aware of this, because it also follows that no matter what fictional work we are talking about with a setting that is historically inspired in some form or another, parts of it have automatically filled such gaps with what their creator is * Simply fitting inside happened.

It's all a question of interpretation

So here an interpretation takes place that is perhaps based very much on the knowledge that someone has previously researched, but is still an interpretation or manipulation and is therefore subjective. This, too, is actually quite unspectacular, because even historians do nothing else with their research than to interpret sources, but on the one hand an artist replaces the lack of sources with fiction and on the other hand is used in many pop culture debates about history still likes to pretend that history itself is measurable. And that is exactly what it is not.

History is a construct. A suggestion of how someone assumes that something could have been. Ideally, this proposal is appropriately well-founded and based on contemporary sources, but is also constantly open to discussion and is never static. Quite the opposite: every text - regardless of whether it is a research or a source - is perspective. No author can completely detach himself from their time and maybe they didn't want to. This means that on the one hand sources must always be read critically as to who writes something and why (or not), while on the other hand research itself can and must be subjected to a similar criticism. That means that research can also be out of date. And historians can also differ greatly in their areas of focus and perspectives. To be clear once again, history and science are neither measurable nor static.

Mud levels, images of women and "realism"

A nice and very simple example of all this in the context of pop culture is e.g. George R.R. Martin, who likes to say that his fantasy world Westeros and its stories are inspired by medieval history. That is also true and e.g. the references to events from the Wars of the Roses are one of the many reasons why both “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the series adaptation “Game of Thrones” have become so popular. Martin himself always likes to emphasize that he would endeavor not to tell “Disneyland Middle Ages”, but to orientate himself on what he sees as the “real” Middle Ages. The point is, Martin's books may be based on history, but they are out of date history.

In fact, at this point I don't want to argue too much on the example of “Game of Thrones”, but it does illustrate the complicated relationship between history, art and its artists and recipients. “Game of Thrones” simply dealt with its female characters again and again in a way that painfully reminded many female fantasy fans that people like her were allowed to exist here either as shock drugs or sex objects. In the case of the series, this is not only, but also a consequence of Martin's books and that this treatment of the women of Westeros was justified over and over again with history and “the Middle Ages”, exactly the same.

At the same time, it has very little to do with any historical realities - whatever you now think of as such - that there is hardly a prominent female character in the series who has not been raped at one point. Nor does it have anything to do with “the Middle Ages” that in many cases the staging of the series dismissed these rapes as brief moments of shock or even did not treat them as rape at all. And the fact that Martin fell into the trap of giving this a justification by emphasizing the historical relevance of the books has nothing to do with the 15th century and much more to do with the 21st century.

"Game of Thrones" - like many other popular films, series and games of the last few years and decades - represented an idea of ​​the Middle Ages that is basically deeply pessimistic. The Middle Ages here become a dystopia, in which the law of the strong applies, women are oppressed per se and have little room for maneuver or have to fight it through a protracted story of suffering, while at the same time war, chaos and destruction are constantly on their own doorstep. These medieval designs are dark, bloody and the more densely the figures are covered with mud, the higher the realism demands of these designs are presumably.

There is basically nothing wrong with that, but this narrative style is just that, a narrative style. More or less mud says nothing about realism if one understands “realism” as “close to a historical truth”. (Whatever “truth” is supposed to mean in this context.) “Game of Thrones” has above all opened up an idea of ​​the Middle Ages that was strongly influenced by gritty realism. This is of course valid, but has little to do with any constraints that arise from the medieval historical model.

And even if I just outlined all of that in “Game of Thrones”, neither the series nor the books are alone, they are only very well suited to explain the problem because, on the one hand, Martin made his own historical inspiration public and because both the books and the series are so well known. In fact, this could be explained in a similar way on the basis of the “Witcher” games, which also had a massive problem with misogyny and also rather fall into the spectrum of gloomy medieval designs. Likewise, with “The Last Kingdom” or “Vikings” examples could be named that are not fantasy, but history series. And then we are still only roughly stylistically in the area of ​​medieval imaginations, which are based on a rather fatalistic and gloomy premise. Not to mention that these examples all depict both a European-inspired Middle Ages and were specially developed for a western market.

"People assume time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff."

So three things are central up to now: First, fictional works as a whole are never historically correct anyway, which actually makes demands for them as such absurd. What is actually demanded with these demands is a gut feeling for history and the past based on one's own viewing habits and ideas and thus historical authenticity.

Second, history in itself is a construct and often has a strong perspective, which an approach that tries to inquire whether this or that was "really" like that in a novel, a film or a game, is in any case not up to the complexity of this construct . In other words, what we mean by “history” is a collection of interpretations that are never set in stone, but can be discarded at any time because they are out of date for one reason or another. This also means that historiography and research also carry their time (and the views of their authors) sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, and thus both sources and research are perspective. To quote Doctor Who here: "People assume time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff."

Thirdly, even fictional works that are inspired by a historical model only convey a certain idea of ​​an epoch, which in itself can never be neutral, even if it is widespread. This not only applies to fantasy, but also to historical films, series, novels, games and more. All of these stories and their worlds are based, among other things, on the viewing habits of their target group and therefore stage their own actions in one way or another. All of this has little to do with what can be said with some certainty about any past epoch based on sources, but much more to do with how we discuss this past in our present and imagine it (pop-culturally).

Realism, correctness, authenticity

This would bring the topic of historical correctness and authenticity to a wonderful end at this point, but with the questions of what accuracy and authenticity actually are and why one is impossible and the other is very subjective, we are only just scratching the surface here. For if history as such is deeply political at any given point in time, then sensitivities of it are all the more.

If you look at when historical correctness and pop culture have been the most heated discussions in recent years, these discussions are very similar to those about “realism” in general. Of course, that makes sense somewhere, because even if historical authenticity is actually meant in many Internet debates about “historical correctness”, authenticity and “realism” are a category that is as close as possible to “reality” - again: Whatever that is - addiction.

The tension is basically something similar: The discussants assume that there is a reasonably measurable truth that can accordingly also be demanded in relation to fiction and implemented more or less well. Basically only subtle differences separate the various discussions about whether it is realistic that Rey can do this or that in “Star Wars” at this and that point in time, or whether the world of “The Witcher 3” is still “historically correct”. can be when his wives are less sexualized. In both cases, gut instincts are used to operate what appears to be appropriate for individual people or entire groups, in the case of “Star Wars” as space opera, there is just no historical frame of reference to orientate oneself.

At the same time, however, this historical model is not something that can actually be measured or exists in a vacuum, on the contrary: ideas of the past are always political. They not only convey interpretations from any source, but also always certain theses and narratives with which these interpretations are arranged in an understandable way. That means: Especially fictional works, which all tell a plot in one way or another, always have a whole range of possibilities for telling the past. And each and every one of them is political and not a single one is in any way “neutral” or “non-political”.

Keep your politics out of my history

And so we are back when and where demands for “historical correctness” are expressed particularly loudly and particularly vehemently. That also never happens in a vacuum and on the one hand it is not separated from the historical images that are supposed to be defended here, but on the other hand it is not separated from discussions like those about Rey in “Star Wars”. Here it is always negotiated what and who should and may be seen as suitable in a world structure and what and who is not. This not only goes hand in hand with what we perceive as individuals in our environment, but also with what we are used to from a medium, a genre or a world structure and what kind of information is actively told.

From the reality of my own life, the description that grass is green makes sense without any further explanation, but also because of my own viewing habits when I hear the word “dragon” I probably have a clear picture in my head and do not necessarily have to be explained why it is a dragon in a medieval-inspired fantasy world. Due to the same genre traditions and my viewing habits, it can happen that certain recipients instinctively, for example, declare independent female characters to be a problem much more quickly than a man who goes on a hero's journey from dishwasher to millionaire.

And even this justification is based on the assumption that such a problematization does not happen out of bad will, but only out of an unreflected need for authenticity. What actually happens much more often, on the other hand, is that such problematization also occurs for very clearly discriminatory motives. It is no coincidence that the same people who complain that games are politicized at precisely the moment when women are prominent, for example, also like to claim that marginalized people are not realistic in historical settings.

Anyone who shouts “Keep your politics out of my games” and vehemently refuses to accept the fact that art is always political will quickly get out of “Keep your politics out of my history” and in this case, too, the demand is no less absurd . It is not “neutral” to think of the Middle Ages as a purely or primarily white and cis-male epoch. It is even hopelessly simplistic and also illustrates an unwillingness to deal with categories of race and gender as complex social structures made up of identities and power structures.

Nobody needs historical correctness

Now, of course, one can fairly argue that precisely this complexity is something that not everyone is automatically familiar with. How am I supposed to acknowledge that it is media-critical and historically simplistic when I simply assume that women per se cannot have any room for maneuver in a medieval-inspired setting if I don't know better? Not everyone can be informed about counter-evidence at any time in order to be able to take the wind out of the sails of arguments behind which there is simply bad will?

First of all, the objection is correct, but basically it is almost irrelevant. As I mentioned at the beginning, nobody really cares if something is historically correct, we all want something to be authentic. Therefore, there can also be a deep gap between different people's ideas of authenticity, which in turn are decisively shaped by how these people imagine the past. If you look at internet debates with this knowledge, e.g. in the comment columns of large gaming magazines or on social media, it is noticeable that very often even people who want to advocate diversity, e.g. in historically inspired fantasy, argue on the basis of the assumption, that, for example, independent or powerful women are inappropriate in a medieval-inspired world.

This allows even progressive people to engage in discriminatory narratives that theoretically do not have to be adopted in the context of fiction. Even if I now assume that medieval women would have done nothing but pray and look after children: What then keeps me from doing that in a fictional work Not or not to take over completely? We're so used to totally unlikely stories about cis men, but with a woman that's suddenly impossible?

And so we are slowly getting closer to the core of the matter: While historical correctness or realism is superficially linked to a diffuse sense of history, in which, for example, women have no or only very limited space, this is actually about power and interpretative sovereignty. In times when the representation of the marginalized in pop culture is slowly but surely becoming more common, there is a frantic attempt to withdraw to an allegedly set in stone historical truth that forbids this representation.

This is a game that those who want to campaign for diversity in pop culture, for example, can really only lose. Because if you try to contradict the statement “That was the way it was! Women were just suppressed! " to argue, they run the risk of appearing to be the ones who deny facts and science. This is a mechanism on which one can only break out by clearly naming what is happening here: A certain image of history is advanced as apparently neutral and irrefutable, while at the same time there is a) no real reason why fiction with all its medial and stylistic peculiarities would have to submit, and b) even this historical image is not the only one that could be drawn up at this point.

“Kingdom Come: Deliverance” and the land where the white guys live

A prime example of all of this is provided by the game “Kingdom Come: Deliverance”, the developers of which before release 2018 strongly advertised to present a Middle Ages as realistic as possible. Even before the release, there was sharp criticism of both the studio and, above all, the at least right-wing chief developer of the game, as well as the (German) press, which had little or no problematizing exactly that. Both were more than justified and even before the publication it was quite obvious that “Kingdom Come” would convey a national romantic, transfigured and one-dimensional image of the Middle Ages, which by and large was later only confirmed.

So there is a lot of criticism that can be made of the image of the Middle Ages of “Kingdom Come” and that can express itself in a variety of ways, even under the ideological aspect of the question of a right image of the Middle Ages. To take the image of women in the game as an example: “Kingdom Come” simply presents a time when white cis men did things while white cis women things happened. His image of women is in the best case one-dimensional and in the worst case simply misogynistic. justify. A camera panning to Theresa's butt here, the only ridiculous buff “Alpha Male” da - “Kingdom Come” stages and tells his women very clearly only in relation to the men of the world. Even more: They exist almost exclusively as love interests, mothers or sister characters.

All of this is frustrating from a feminist perspective and a topic of its own, but the point is this: This is part of the contemporary staging of the game world and its stories. No historical interpretation forces game developers to incorporate a bonus called “Alpha Male” that a protagonist receives whenever he has sex (with women, of course). Just as no historical interpretation has forced the creators of “Game of Thrones” to portray the rapes of the series as voyeuristically as they did. These are conscious decisions about staging.

In the case of Warhorse Studios and “Kingdom Come”, the ideological dimension of the seemingly endless dispute about historical correctness and authenticity becomes clear on two levels. On the one hand, the studio strongly advertised its game with promises of authenticity and an “interactive museum”, which of course implied that players had the opportunity to experience the Middle Ages “as it really was”. In view of the game and its often simplistic understanding of the time it wants to depict, this is of course at least dishonest, if not deliberately misleading, and on the other hand, the studio has indirectly claimed an interpretative sovereignty that is common to such a white and so masculine medieval design is simply dangerous in a long right-wing tradition. Incidentally, the staging of the game as a kind of memorial to a forgotten Czech history also fits in with this, as Daniel Vávra himself claimed, although the Czech and Bohemian Middle Ages have actually been very well researched. In other words: an at least right-wing developer wants to set a national romantic monument with his game, which propagates an image of history that is at least nationally romantic and misogynistic. He can of course do that, but it is important to name this ideological dimension. Because it is directly reflected in the debates about the authenticity of the game.

Because “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” is one of the neverending stories when it comes to digital games, historical authenticity and the political dimension of both. Not only did Vávra himself make it clear that he also had an identity-political intention with “Kingdom Come”, but also the fans of the game never tire of defending the realism of the game. They did that before the game was released, and they still do. In September 2018, at a time when most of the game had long been said, I wrote a comparatively harmless criticism of the game and almost two years later I still get hateful comments or emails for it. Both end up in my trash every time, also because I moderate my comments accordingly and don't publish threats and insults against myself, and I've blogged too long to be impressed, but this long breath from angry fans makes it clear how It seems to be very annoying for some when a little blogger makes a feminist media criticism of a video game. I have no power to ban “Kingdom Come” and I wouldn't want to, but it doesn't matter either, because the strong reactions to criticism of the game and its history also make it clear that this is about identity. Both for me, who criticize the portrayal of women in “Kingdom Come”, as well as for the angry commentators, whose ideas of authenticity are disturbed by it.

Nothing "was just like that"

So to repeat it again: history is political and the demand for “historical correctness” or a certain idea of ​​historical authenticity is exactly the same. That could be a truism, but since pop culture debates like to pretend that the demand for a non-existence or only a very narrowly defined existence of marginalized people is completely logical and unproblematic, because it is based on “history”, both must be repeated over and over again be emphasized. “Historically correct” pop culture basically does not exist, or if so only to a very limited extent, nevertheless to demand that pop culture depict history “as it really was” is always problematic and very often simply ideologically justified in a way, which aims to discriminate against the marginalized.

No matter how you twist and turn it: Progressive voices in pop culture discourses must be aware of who they are leaving the field to in the seemingly endless debates about historical correctness when they engage in one of the thousand variants of “That was the way it was” . Not only is it questionable at first whether this is even remotely true, it also ignores the fact that our perception of historical authenticity is very subjective and, for example, also determined by our socialization. Authenticity cannot be measured. History cannot be measured. And to claim otherwise to justify the discrimination of entire groups of people is nothing more than bad will.

This article is a new edition of an older post from 2017 and another essay about historical correctness, authenticity and in particular fantasy of mine was also published in the course of "Roll Inclusive". Click here for the book.