TLC as a Sideshow: Final Reflections

by Tori Warenik, Abigail Gautreau, and Katie Stringer

Tori: Over the last couple of months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the type of TV we as a society are being shown. Specifically, it’s been interesting to think about TLC and their offerings. Before I began this investigation I had so many preconceived notions about American Gypsies and the Duggers that I just thought I would be presenting my initial biased, admittedly close-minded, view. Instead, after doing some research on both shows, it became simple to separate my personal thoughts about the people involved on the shows with the company who airs them.

I have come to find that TLC, much like other channels, panders to their viewers and is just as biased as the rest of us. During a time when TV networks pride themselves on their partisanship (ala Fox News, CSNBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) we shouldn’t be surprised this would be the case for TLC. And yet, given TLC’s brand is based on “The Learning Channel,” what are they actually teaching us? That it is utterly ridiculous to get married so young in the Gypsy culture (but they do it anyway) and completely acceptable to get married and have 19 kids if you’re able to sustain your family? In the end, people watch TLC for the entertainment, not an education which leaves me with one final, unanswerable, question: is this what TLC wants from their programming?

Abigail: First of all, I’d like to thank Katie and Tori for taking the time to have this slightly more formal conversation about this particular moment in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, and I had a lot of fun writing mine.

Sister Wives

This is probably the time when I should make some great announcement as to whether TLC is the modern sideshow, but since I’m still safely ensconced in the ivory tower, I’ll use my academic prerogative to challenge the question rather than simply answering it. If we consider the sideshow a place where people could safely view the “other,” than yes, TLC is certainly such a place. From the comfort of our own couches, we can sit back and wonder at the titillating questions raised by Abby and Brittany and Sister Wives or gawk at the lifestyle choices of the Duggers and Honey Boo Boo’s family. At the same time, TLC is hardly the only place where such programming exists. A&E, Nat Geo, and even The History Channel offer similar programs (after all, there are shows on hoarding on TLC and A&E, and Nat Geo’s Taboo often includes the same people featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction or My Weird Obsession). If it’s a sideshow network, then it’s hardly alone.

Calling any program a sideshow has connotations of exploitation. Katie is far better suited to answering the question of whether sideshows are inherently exploitative in nature, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think the TLC programs are. One of the themes that came up again and again as I watched these shows and read about them was the extent to which the subjects control their own narratives. It’s also clear that these people are being compensated by TLC for appearing on the program, though it’s unclear how much money is involved in the agreements. Whatever we may think of these stars of “reality” television, I, for one, hope they are using their fame to their advantage.

She is full of wisdom.

It’s also probably worth a reminder that when we talk about popular culture, and especially about the stars of “sideshow” programming, we are really talking about ourselves. So whether you love Honey Boo Boo or just love to hate her, do yourself a favor and take a minute to think about why.

Katie: I’m so happy that after months of watching all of the TLC shows unfold before our very eyes the three of us were finally able to sit down an put together a blog series on our thoughts, questions, and ideas.  Thanks so much to Tori and Abby for participating!

As I’ve said before, this is a topic that I feel I could write about for each of the shows, probably multiple times.  Last night during the Sister Wives premiere (which Abby and I g-chatted through “Kody is such a fool!”) I saw promos for a show about the wives of Sin City and another about the Amish Mafia.  While is is really more fodder for the freakshow fire, I still do wonder how educational it is?

Since Abby and Tori summed up a lot of thoughts from this series, I can’t help but go back to the History Channel (as I always seem to do), which in the not too distant past did show documentaries about castles, Vikings, The “Dark” Ages (they weren’t that dark!!!), and of course, Hitler.  With the reality TV of Swamp People,  Mountain Men, and Hairy Bikers  it seems like they are focusing on the out-liers (and MEN) of society to draw visitors to see something weird or strange rather than actual history (ya know, from the past).  Yes, History is made every day, but aren’t there other channels for that?  What is the education value here?

The flip side to that is, what happens when educational programming actually occurs?  I will admit that How the States Got Their Shapes is educational and pretty fun, which proves that this is a possibility.   I also got a text from Abby that there is a new show called I Love the 1880s;  while this is an obvious play on the I love the... series on VH1, Abby pointed out that it isn’t about the 1880s.  I haven’t watched enough to know if this is something worth watching, educational, or just silly, but I’m not sure how well relating to teenagers is working out for the network with this theme.

Watch, as four white males survey the beautiful country that they built (seemingly) without the help of immigrants, non-whites, slaves, women, or anyone else that isn’t rich and gloriously ivory.

My last example from the History Channel of “actual educational programs” is the warning vibes that I got, just from the titles really, of Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Men Who Built America.  The former may cover all genders and races, but the title seems to appeal to the male demographics the history channel reaches, and from the short clip that I watched (which enraged me), no women were shown. On principle I pretty much refuse to watch The Men Who Built America because I think traditional history classes and the “great books” and everything else in the world has covered the stories of the rich, white men more than enough.  Is this seriously a show?

Maybe I’m just irked that the History Channel caters so much to men and leaves women and minorities out of the picture so much; maybe I’m irked that this shows a skewed history; maybe this should become another blog series…

As I digress, I do think that television in general has replaced the sideshow, the freakshow, the circus, the gladiatorial ring, and so forth. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment and, in some small way, education.  People are always curious about the strange and the different, so it makes sense that there would be television programs that address that.  Perhaps society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and maybe even silently (or vocally) judging the different people/lifestyles/choices/disabilities/whatever than they would be in a public forum.  My only remaining question is, how long will this trend continue on educational television networks?

Facebook in the classroom: How can we effectively use social media to teach?

I’ve talked about facebook in the classroom before, as a way to provide funny snipets of history from historical figures.  I wanted to try to find a way to integrate the social media that students (and myself!) use on an almost every day basis into the classroom as a teaching/learning tool.

As an optional extra credit homework assignment (full assignment and rubric available here) I challenged students to think creatively as an historical figure.  Their assignment was:

1. Chose a historical figure that we have studied or a person from one of the civilizations we have covered in this class.

not an accurate representation of me

2. Create a profile page for this character.

3. The next page has a checklist of all the information that must be included.  Use this sheet to complete your research before you begin constructing the page and finding pictures. Make sure you check off each item as you do it to get full credit!

4. This page does not literally have to be an online account.  You can produce a mock-up through Word, Photoshop, Powerpoint, or with magic markers or colored pencils depending on your level of creativity.

5. This assignment does require research.  You may use your textbook or other academic books.  You may go online to find information, but please remember that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A VALID SOURCE.  NEITHER ARE NON-ACADEMIC WEBPAGES.  If you are unclear on what an “academic webpage” is email me.  Use websites with .edu or.gov for valid information.

6. You must, as always, properly cite your sources and include a works cited page.  I prefer footnotes for this assignment since it needs to be aesthetically pleasing.  Since this assignment requires more research I expect your citations to be correct.  If you have questions, email me or visit the writing center.

7. To get full credit you must have information for every category listed below.  This may require you to be creative but also be historically accurate.

8. Extra extra credit (1 point each):

  • Prepare a presentation for the class on your historical figure, your page, and your process of creating this page for an extra point.
  • Create an actual facebook page published using the information you have compiled here.
Students then had to fill in the worksheet with the following information:

Since this was an optional homework assignment for extra credit it did involve a lot more work and research than previous projects.  I wasn’t sure how students would react, or how many would take the time  and effort to fully develop the assignment.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have as many students participate in this as I would have liked!  In the future I hope to make this a required homework assignment instead of extra credit.

One creative idea was to do a page for Cleopatra using the Shakespearean play for the wall facts and conversations among the Pharaoh and her lovers.

I also had another Cleopatra, Achilles, and Jesus. Surprisingly, they all love watching Ancient Aliens!  Clever, students. Very clever.

Achilles’ page was great.  He has some pretty awesome lines; his last status update was, “taking a dip in the Styx River!”  This was after he met with Homer to give him some info on the Illiad and complained that Lycomedes made him dress like a girl.  His interests include working out, sailing, and traveling, while his favorite movies are 300 and Antigone.  Also, for all you Achilles stalkers, he lives at 1345 Hellenistic Drive, Athens, Greece.

My second Cleopatra got very creative, as well.  Her last status was, “…will not let Rome control me!  My Antony is dead and I can not live without him!” dated 30 B.C.E.   Her relationship is “It’s complicated” with Julius Caesar.  Her statuses also complain about having to marry her brother Ptolemy XIII, but she is quite happy to take the throne and rule Egypt.

She also talks about running off to learn Egyptian language and culture to try to gain respect of Egyptians.  Her favorite music includes the sistrum and Walk Like an Egyptian, and she enjoys watching the Style network.  And for any Cleopatra stalkers, you can email her at isislover@ptolemy.com   Her political view is divine rule, and she included several pictures of herself on her facebook page.  She included photos from Egyptian papyrus, Renaissance paintings, 1920s film, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Kim Kardashian as Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra, and also a Greek bust and a coin that may show the “real” Cleopatra.   Another album was also posted of herself and her Ptolemy family members.

My students used (for the most part) valid educational websites or books for this research project.  It seems that they enjoyed themselves and the opportunity to be creative in a history class, which may not always be the case.

It also seems that the students learned quite a bit from this project.  Not only did students learn a lot about a specific person from history (or mythology), but they also learned a lot about creative thinking, the historical context and the world of that person, and how to do proper research and citations.

Have any of you used Facebook in the classroom, or other social media?  How can it be used effectively?  I encourage you to try this with your students either as an extra credit assignment or as an alternative homework assignment.  I believe in my future classes it will be a very beneficial learning tool.

What can you learn from watching History’s “Ancient Aliens”?

I often wondered about this very question while watching this show (before I gave up watching because it almost gave me a stroke to watch it).  I decided to assign my students in World Civilizations 1 a homework assignment revolving around this very question.

The assignment was basically this:

Watch an episode of Ancient Aliens either on the History Channel or online. ***Be sure to watch an episode that is about ANCIENT aliens (despite their name, they have had shows on about the American Founding Fathers and the Third Reich). I would prefer you watch something from Season 1

1. Choose three claims or ideas that are presented in the show.

2. Using critical thinking and deductive reasoning, and some research if needed, come up with an explanation for these claims using historical sources and what you have learned in class or from the book about ancient civilizations.  CITE YOUR SOURCES!

3. What things did we talk about in class that are also discussed in this show?

4. Do you think this show fairly represents history?

5. Why do you think the history channel would show this?

6. Is this a show about history?

7. Who are the “experts” that present the evidence, and what are their backgrounds?

8. What are alternate explanations to theories presented in this show?

9. What is your opinion of this show? (Honesty is fine, as always!)

I hoped that this would help spark some ideas about questioning sources, thinking both critically and historically, and questioning bias and motives that are always present in historians and all people.

I was pleased to get plenty of well thought out and reasoned papers!

Students brought up ideas such as:

–          Maybe the “radioactive bones” at Mohenjo-Daro were exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time.

–          Even if there are aliens, why do we give them credit for everything?

–          We can’t assume aliens exist from something like a cave drawing that is similar to another one on the other side of the world.

–          Aliens didn’t build massive structures for us – today we are too lazy to imagine something like that being possible.  Instead the ingenuity of ancient man isn’t given enough credit.

–          The show is just an opinionated crazy idea that the History Channel shows to make money and get more viewers.

–          Just because a god or spirit is shown in a different way than we think they may have looked doesn’t mean it was an alien – that’s just how followers depicted them

–          More time is spent on the ancient astronaut theorists’ ideas than those with historical research backgrounds – this shows an obvious bias.

–          People looking for alien evidence are not objective and are just trying to find the most simple explanation without using their brains.

–          Why is it so hard for us to give ancient ancestors credit for what they accomplished? This insults those ancient people and also people today.

Today we had a follow-up discussion about the assignment, and we talked about what they got out of the assignment and I also shared with them what I hoped they learned.

We talked about art and artistic representations of people.  Several students wrote about the artistic and physical representations of Akhenaten and Tutankamun.  Ancient Aliens claims that the reasoning behind this is that they were aliens.  Obviously.  We argued

Alien or artistic representation?

instead that oftentimes art is just that – a person’s own visualization of what they think.  A great modern example is Francis Bacon’s representation shown here.  Might someone in the future think that there was a person who looked like that?  Will they immediately come to the conclusion of “alien?”

Additionally, we discussed the idealization in art that is sometimes used.  Almost everyone recognizes the golden mummy mask of Tutankamun, but did he really look like?  He certainly wasn’t gold, and his features are more of a uniform look used to show Egyptian Pharaohs throughout much of the New Kingdom.   In reality, his mummy shows that he had protruding teeth, a slight cleft palate, and a slightly elongated skull.

Perhaps most importantly we discussed the idea of questioning sources and biases.  Throughout Ancient Aliens many “experts” are interviewed.  The name card graphic tells their name and part of their credentials, such as author or Ph.D.  Some of my students went the extra mile to actually look up these people, their curriculum vitaes, and their personal websites (without using Wikipedia!!!).  Most pleasing to me was the student who looked up Giorgio Tsoukalos (http://legendarytimes.com/giorgio ).  This website claims that he is the world’s leading Ancient Astronaut theory expert.  Exactly what does this mean?  Wouldn’t you think that someone who makes a living talking about ANCIENT history would have at least a minimal background in history to have the proper context to discuss this?  One would think.  Tsoukalos DOES have a college degree – in Sports Management. His website also explains, “Until 2005, Tsoukalos also functioned as a professional bodybuilding promoter; for 6 consecutive years he promoted, produced and directed the IFBB San Francisco Pro Grand Prix, an annual cornerstone event in professional bodybuilding.”  Additionally, “Giorgio enjoys a good and relaxed sit-down meal with friends, weight lifting, listening to motion picture scores, classic jazz standards, classical opera, sailing, going to the beach and the movies, and hanging out at the Legendary Times Clubhouse in Southern California” and “ 2 more things: (1) Giorgio loves listening to talk radio. Both at home, the office and in his car. Please don’t ask him to turn it off. Ever. (2) Giorgio loves to sit front and center at the movie theater (5th or 6th row). Movies are meant to be seen like this, that’s why they are shown on the silver screen first. If you want to sit in the back of the movie theater, go right ahead, but you’ll both watch the movie alone cuz’ he won’t join you in the back, and you might as well just wait until the movie comes out on DVD so you can watch it on TV.”  No further comment needed.

Additionally, a student astutely pointed out that this show DOES have some historians that appear – to give historical context and explain various stories and historical happenings.  The way this show is edited almost makes it seem that those actual historians agree with the “ancient astronaut theorists.”  Whether or not they DO agree is never addressed, but tricky editing gives that appearance.

Everyone should understand: you don’t have to have a PhD to be an expert.  Conversely, having a PhD doesn’t necessarily make you an expert.   Is a person with a PhD in 19th century American Literature necessarily an expert on chemical reactions?

OBVIOUSLY aliens are the explanation.

Another great product of this assignment was that I got my students to think critically.  Rather than just saying, “I don’t know – therefore, aliens” they started to think back to lecture and things they have read in their books to come up with other explanations than just aliens.  They also did some outside research to find out what historians think about such “mysterious” things as the building pyramids or moving huge stones for monuments.

I was pleased that many of my students were highly offended by the show’s idea that ancestors were too stupid or incapable of doing great things.  My lectures and enthusiasm for ancient and classical peoples and their abilities seems to have rubbed off on them.  Rather than giving credit to outside extraterrestrials, my students gave explanations that included our ancestor’s ingenuity and ability.

An expert on Ancient Aliens

Lastly, we discussed the dangers of talking in absolutes.  Many times the “experts” say words like “obviously” or “of course” without hard evidence.  Even historians may not have the absolute facts or evidence, but many times they say “possibly” or “maybe” – not fact – in those situations.  We may not know either way, but using absolutes can lead to the wrong impression.

Several people have alerted me to the South Park episode about the History Channel.  It is available to watch online at: http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/South-Park_8958/season_15/episode_13/.  The synopsis is: “After watching a Thanksgiving special on The History Channel, the boys believe that aliens were involved in the original feast. But, questions remain… was the first Thanksgiving haunted? Is alien technology responsible for stuffing? The truth could change Thanksgiving for everyone.”  I personally can’t wait to watch it, and I’m glad the show’s creators are tackling this issue as well, on a level that many people may understand.  Have you seen this episode?  If so, what did you think?

Whether or not you believe in aliens is beside the point.  Why can’t we give ancient people credit for the things they did?

Now you, the reader.  I would love for you to try this assignment yourself!  I want to get more feedback from people about this show, sources, “experts”, etc.  Have you done a similar assignment in your classroom?  What do YOU think about the show?

E-Interview with the authors of Dawn Country

I just received this email from the Gears with the answers to questions I sent about their book and writing.  I will hopefully be posting about TAM and how awesome it was soon, but for now enjoy the tweets I sent and be sure to follow TnMuseums on twitter!

1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?

The two are interconnected by their very nature. That’s why we have a bibliography in the back of the novel. We’re making the best interpretation that professional anthropologists can given current data.  Keep in mind that we are anthropologists and archaeologists.  We are presenting a paper at the Society for American Archaeology and hosting a forum session at this year’s meetings in Sacramento on this very subject.  We expect the novels we write to be subjected to peer review, and we base all of our interpretations of the events, cultures, and behaviors upon the archaeological and historical records.

Why?

Educating the public about America’s prehistoric peoples is our main goal, but we strive to entertain at the same time.   So, we are very pleased that many of our books are used in college courses ranging from archaeology, history, and literature, to philosophy courses.  They’re also kept in stock at a variety of national and state parks across the country. All Americans are the cultural inheritors of American Indian ideals of democracy, referendum and recall, one person one vote, and even the notion of confederation.  The tragedy is that despite this, less than 5% can tell you that Cahokia, Illinois, was the largest urban center in North America prior to European contact. Only a handful know that Poverty Point was the first city in what would become the United States. (It was built 3500 years ago in northern Louisiana and flourished for over two hundred years.)  As a nation we’re vastly ignorant of the origins of American democratic principles–let alone the nations, cultures, and societies that flourished here.

2. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The formation of the League of the Iroquois was our inspiration.  It fascinated us that a little-known peace movement in fifteenth century North America could shape what would later become known as “The Free World,” and change the course of world history.  Dekanawida, Hiyawento, and Jigonsaseh, the heroes of the League, established a democratic system of government that sought to maximize individual freedoms, and to minimize governmental interference in people’s lives.  They accepted as fact the equality of men and women, championed tolerance, provided for referendum and recall, assured the common good by allowing every person’s voice to be heard.  None of these principles were part of the European way of life, but no European who heard them could deny their power.  The League heavily influenced America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

While historical archaeology plays a small part–mostly through comparative processes–in understanding what happened in the 1400s, we rely more on prehistorical archaeology.  Keep in mind, “historical” refers to a period with written records.  Prehistoric time occurs before written records came into existence.  There are no written records of the Iroquois from the 1400s, so we use three techniques to frame the plot:  the prehistoric archaeological record, Iroquoian oral history, and ethnographic analogy.  All of these things tell us that the warfare in the 1400s was intense.   As we explain in our non-fiction introduction to THE DAWN COUNTRY, the archaeological record contains evidence of cannibalism and extreme brutality; mutilated bodies, crushed skulls, burned villages.  Because of that, this is a war story.  But it is also the story of three brave people’s struggle for peace.

3. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own?

Yes, that’s a wonderful book.  What Janet Spector tries to do is to incorporate native perspectives and voices into her interpretations of the past, and we try to do the same thing.  That’s why we weave native oral history into our plots.  Many archaeologists would frown upon it, because obviously oral history isn’t “fact.”  Nonetheless, we’ve discovered that oral history can be very informative in helping us to understand the archaeological record.

Keep in mind that archaeology isn’t just bits of old broken pots, chipped stones, and burned bone. Those provide a fraction of the information we can garner about long lost cultures.  The true focus of anthropology and archaeology is people: human beings just like us.  They lived, loved, fought, cried, and died.  Many, though not all, of their concerns were the same as ours:  Will my children grow and be healthy?  Can I keep a roof over my head?  Is grandma’s illness curable?  Will my husband who is out traveling make it home safely?  Can I provide for my family?  Will our enemies attack us again soon?  Will this drought end in time that we can save our corn crop?  What we are able to do in a novel is make those people, places, cultures, and environments come alive in a way that simply cannot happen in nonfiction.

Thanks for the great questions, Katie.  It’s been a pleasure.

Michael and Kathleen Gear

Book Review Next Week: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear

Last week I was approached to be a part of a blog tour for a new book: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear.   The book is in the mail, so I will write the review next week.  I’ve also had e-interview access with the authors, so next week I should have answers to questions such as:

  1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?
  2. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own? (as related to class discussion a few weeks ago in Material Cultures seminar)
  3. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The publishers sent me the following information about the book and authors:

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Dawn Country is the Gears’ 50th published novel, and the first North American series hit international as well as the USA Today bestseller lists.

PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series is about the first Iroquois confederacy and the legendary heroes who founded it, the Peacemaker, Dekanawida, his friend, Hiawento, and the “Mother of Nations,” Jigonsaseh.  Set between the years of A.D. 1430-1451, this epic tale takes readers to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ontario six hundred years ago, when five Iroquois tribes were locked in bitter warfare. Yet the violence led to one of the most remarkable alliances in the history of America, the League of the Iroquois: a confederacy of five nations whose ideas on government would literally change the world.

In The Dawn Country, set around the year 1430 during a time of violent upheaval, Young Wrass is being held captive, along with several other children, in the legendary evil Gannajero the Crow’s camp. Gannajero profits enormously by buying and selling children to outcast warriors who subject them to brutal treatment.  Wrass knows he can’t wait to be rescued. He has to organize the children for an assault on Gannajero’s warriors.  Even if he dies, someone has to escape, to carry the story back to their people. It’s the only way to stop the evil old woman.

But Koracoo, a female war chief, and Gonda, her husband and deputy, have not abandoned their search.  They’re coming for the children, and they have allies: a battle-weary Mohawk war chief and a Healer from the People of the Dawnland.  Together, they will find the children and destroy Gannajero. But not before many of the children have been sold and carried off to distant villages— lost to their families and homes forever.

Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear have successfully provided a vital understanding of the history of North America with the latest archaeological findings and sweeping dramatic narratives and strong Native American tradition. Filled with fascinating details about ancient customs mixed  with adventure, spine-tingling action, and spiritual power that is entertaining and intelligent, The Dawn Country will gratify dedicated fans and appeal to newcomers of the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

W. MICHAEL GEAR, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1978. He is currently principal investigator for Wind River Archaeological Consultants.

KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government’s Special Achievement Award for “outstanding management” of our nation’s cultural heritage.

For more, visit: www.gear-gear.com.

** Now for the fun part!!  Comment on this post with any thoughts you have on popular history or historical fiction and how it relates to public history for your chance to win a copy of The Dawn Country.  I’ll choose and announce the winners some time next week.