I have just finished watching all eight hours of the PBS “reality” series Colonial House. The basic premise is that a small group of modern people are selected to live for the summer as if they were really Mayflower colonialists. They live in authentic houses, eat authentic food, and live and work as if their survival over the winter truly depends upon a good harvest.
I always watch these historial reality shows, hoping that someday I’ll see one done right, with participants who actually want to experience history as a tangible thing. But I’m always somewhat disappointed, because the producers seem to to be intent on filming a soap opera in funny clothes. Colonial House is a perfect example of the worse kind.
If you want your living history show to fail as a recreation, all you have to do is select participants who are guaranteed not to get along. People who have more interest in promoting various political, religious, and racial ideals than in experiencing history-as-it-really-was, wrinkles and all. People like women who won’t wear a simple head cloth because it’s “demeaning”. Families who are so anti-religion that they can’t bear to sit through a social sabbath, even though that’s clearly required according to the historical rules (no one was demanding they pray or participate, just be there – as observers).
There was a lot of moaning by the women about sexual inequality, because cooking every day was so ‘tedious’. What did they think they’d be doing? In colonial times, the women cooked – if you can’t stand the idea, why did you sign up? And I never did figure out why they thought the men had it so much easier. The men were spending a full month, ten hours a day, felling, splitting, sawing, and planing logs to build a house with primitive hand tools. Just watching them on a tv screen was exhausting. The women’s response? They had a mini revolt and drew up a plan whereby the men (in addition to their normal and less ‘tedious’ work) were required to cook for the women several times a week to let the women relax. Relax? If they wanted sexual equality, why weren’t they out there splitting logs while the men cooked?
Then there was the “lay preacher” who decided to pull several of the indentured servants off the work schedule so he could teach them Greek. He said he “couldn’t imagine” a society existing without learning and culture. In the first year of a new colony? In a world where the lion’s share of new colonies failed and often starved to death over the winter? Um, yeah. I’m positive Greek lessons were way up at the top of the real colonialist’s to-do list!
Finally there was the guy who left the colony early because he refused to be part of the recreation of a society that had “led to the institution of slavery”. Here is another thing I object strongly to. There was a limited narrative voice-over, but most of the so-called “history” was from the mouths of the participants themselves…most of whom held a very weak knowledge of the time period. Most of what they said was wrong, partly wrong, completely wrong, or biased. Such as: the slavery issue, or the episodes with the American Indians. I refuse to be made to feel guilty for something that was absolutely not my fault, and no one else in America should feel guilty either, despite the best efforts of this program. Absolutely, slavery is and was horrible, and so was what happened to the Native Americans, but no one alive today was involved. Every single country on Earth has been invaded and colonized by people who weren’t born there. I’ve lost track of how often it happened to England alone. This doesn’t make the suffering any less, but it puts it in a historical context. It’s not the evil invading white colonialists, folks, it’s evil human nature, and it crosses all racial lines. It’s the pattern of centuries, and at some point, you have to agree to let it go. It happened, but none of us alive caused it, and none of us are to blame for it, and it needs to be released into history.
And slavery. I’m so sick of hearing “slavery” and “America” be synonymous. Slavery is and was horrendous, but it was occurring in nearly all cultures and countries for thousands of years before the Mayflower landed on American soil. It was practiced in Africa 3,500 years ago, it was in England before being imported to America, and nothing the colonialists themselves did “caused” slavery. Yes, black people owned other black people. Yes, black former slaves in America even owned slaves. Yes, white people have also owned other white people. Black people have even owned white people. Historically, it’s not so much a racial issue as a economic one. You would think, that having been a slave yourself, you wouldn’t be interested in enslaving another human, but that’s not how it works. Greed wins a lot of moral arguments, and biased, agenda-promoting “reality history” shows like Colonial House do nothing to show either true reality or history.
The stated intent was to recreate the authentic life of an Mayflower colonialist, as it actually was, and in this, the program completely failed. You can’t have a true depiction of history where every participant is completely unwilling to set aside their modern ideals, prejudices, and individual ways of thinking. If you try, all you end up with is a confused mess.
And that’s what Colonial House was. A mess.