How Do I Depict Historical Cultures With Problematic Behavior?

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On the last podcast, Fay brought up the problematic trope of the killing of disabled people, especially if they’re disabled during the story. This made me think. If you’re writing historical or historically inspired fiction where this is something that did happen ([Malcolm provided several examples of cultures where this took place]) how could one address this? Does inverting the trope just draw attention to it and/or misrepresent the culture you’re inspired by?

– Malcolm Heredia-Langner


Thanks for the question! The issue of how to address the more egregious forms of oppression in historical and historically inspired settings is complicated and worth talking about.

To start out with, just getting accurate information on many historical cultures is difficult. In particular, the many years of European colonialism were destructive to cultures around the world. This time period has also created many distorted and inaccurate views of non-Western cultures, many of which have proved persistent, despite clear evidence to the contrary. For example, many people still think that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slave labor, when there is clear evidence that the people who built the pyramids were paid laborers who were permitted the great honor of having their tombs located near the pyramid and the pharaoh.

It is not just the mainstream view of history that has been warped. The biases that were rife in early anthropology and archeology also continue to impact us today. One specific example is a Viking skeleton that was discovered in the late nineteenth century and assumed to be a cisgender man because it was buried with weapons. This false identification lasted for more than a hundred years and wasn’t discovered until just a few years ago when that person’s bones were examined for a different project.

Another important factor to be aware of is the role that racism plays in discussions about oppression in non-Western cultures. Narratives about these cultures being “backwards” and “inferior” were central to historical colonialism. These condescending narratives are continued today in the way that oppression in non-Western cultures continues to be talked about through narratives of “saving” or “civilizing” them, all the while the ongoing oppression in Western countries is ignored.

Oppression needs to be addressed in every culture, but it is important to recognize that great harm has been done by privileged people from Western cultures who’ve decided that they know what it is best. Real change needs to be led by people who are part of the culture they are changing. People from Western cultures who want to support those efforts need to start by listening to leaders within the culture and help in the way that they are asked to.

I believe that a similar approach should be taken when addressing historical oppression in fiction. Because racism is so deeply entwined in portrayals of oppression in non-Western cultures, it should be left to members of those cultures who are also members of the oppressed group to decide how to depict and address that historical oppression. This is especially true for anything that is particularly egregious, like the killing of disabled people.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t have historical fiction about disabled people, women, queer and trans folks, and people with other marginalized traits. History is full of amazing marginalized people that did incredible things. The trick is to carefully choose what you are representing and what you are leaving out, so that the portrayal is respectful.

When writing fiction, writers are always picking and choosing what to show and what not to show. Writers choose the exact time and place that they are depicting. Uneventful moments are skipped. Long tedious journeys are summarized in a sentence. Many difficult or unpleasant aspects of historical life are left out. This means that it is entirely possible to leave certain cultural practices out of a story by just not including them or not including situations where they would come up.

Depicting egregious forms of historical oppression feeds into racist narratives that are continuing to cause problems today. In addition, depictions of such intense content are hard on audience members who are part of those oppressed groups. Unless there is a compelling reason to include these egregious things in the story, they shouldn’t be depicted. For those times when they are going to be depicted, then a person from that culture who has that marginalized trait should be involved in creating an accurate and culturally sensitive portrayal that avoids reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

I hope that this helps,

–Fay from Writing Alchemy

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  1. Cay Reet

    My favourite ‘WTF?’ moment of archaeologists ignoring the facts before their eyes was when a female skeleton was found buried in what was clearly a gladiator’s grave and they said she’d ‘just fallen into it.’ Yeah, happens all the time, doesn’t it?

    But back to the topic of this Q&A article. I agree with Faye that it’s not a good idea to portray oppression or other historical behaviour that is problematic when you’re not part of a group which has been affected by it. There’s always something cut out of historical fiction, nobody portrays all facets of the period they’re choosing as setting for their story. Therefore, it’s a good idea to just leave it out. Otherwise, you’d have to do a lot of research and, ideally, have some sensitivity readers from a group with has been affected by what you are portraying.

  2. LeeEsq

    The traditional method of dealing with historical cultures that had problematic behavior varyingly defined is to basically ignore it or have our protagonists by surprisingly modern varyingly defined in their thinking. This is why so many characters in the Canadian TV series seem to have early 21st century attitudes towards race or LGBT issues while the side characters think more like late 19th century and early 20th century Canadians would. In fact the main characters got more modern in their thinking as the show became increasingly popular.

    This method is popular because I don’t think even the biggest fans of grim dark would want to read about the Stark family having a blast and a bear baiting event or something like that. It would just be too jarring despite all the other things that happen in the Game of Thrones.

  3. Kenneth Mackay

    Cay Reet
    I’ve also heard of Victorian archeologists assuming Viking graves belonged to women because they had combs and mirrors included in the grave goods or tomb carvings – apparently they thought only women were interested in grooming!

    • Cay Reet

      Yep, that’s also a form of stereotyping. Or the archaeologists who found a tomb of two men ‘united in death as they were in life’ and immediately assumed they had to be roommates and nothing more…

  4. Gwen

    Almost no historical fiction depicts itself so accurately that it disgusts modern readers with the time period’s ethics. For one thing, there is little common ground with the past as their cultural touchstones are far more different than modern audiences would have with a different country (due to globalization).

    For another, it’s not entertaining, which is the point. Readers are confused because their understanding of the world got tipped over and they don’t have the context to understand it. I read a lot of old books, and there is a lot of hand waving you have to do to keep characters likeable that a modern author won’t have that luxury.

    I’ve never seen any adaptation of the 3 musketeers where they beat their servants for wanting to be paid.

    Almost every single depiction of the greek gods tends to make their romantic intentions far more noble

    The Count of Monte Cristo does not usually have a love life so heinous to make you forgive the people he wants revenge upon

    heck, just everyday things are avoided, I once wondered why so many women got excited about various items in the toilet when reading one book.

    By not portraying your inspired culture too accurately, you make it more enjoyable for the reader.

    On top of that, there can always be exceptions. The Ancient Greeks were incredibly sexist, often not letting women outside without a male escort, usually unable to inherit property and devoid of most rights. But we still have Sappho, a female poet renowned throughout the centuries..

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, it’s always a balance between what you feel needs to be in the story and what will be entertaining to the readers and keep them liking the heroes. Not going into all the details of the past is usually the best way to do that.

      What I find interesting (as I read a lot of early-twentieth century stories, since I love pulp) is that sometimes you get authors who are very guilty one way, but surprisingly ‘modern’ in another. When I picked up the first Fu Man Chu novel, for instance, I expected a lot of damsels in distress in addition to the racism I knew I was going to find (since it’s pulp and pulp loves its damsels).
      The good, old-fashioned British racism (everyone not a white Brit is considered lower in the hierarchy) is certainly there, but the women who get more spotlight in the stories, such as Fu Man Chu’s daughter and the female leads on the other side, get agency and, more often than expected, actually save the heroes or cross the doctor’s plans (his daughter especially always has her own agency, sometimes aligned with his, sometimes not). Quite some modern stories could learn from the writing of the female characters, yet the racism is no longer acceptable.

      • Gwen

        Yes, I’ve been surprised by this myself.

        For example, Don Quixote is beyond racist almost to an absurd degree, but certain parts of it sound like something written today in regards to women. There’s a whole speech in regards to the “nice guy”.

        On the other hand, E.M. Forster’s Maurice is incredibly pro Gay but also incredibly sexist.

        • Tony

          It also brings to mind L Frank Baum, who was involved in the women’s suffrage movement but who also thought the best solution to Indigenous issues was to just put all the poor Native Americans out of their misery or something.

  5. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment for its white supremacist content. It should go without saying that such nonsense is not allowed here.

  6. Tony
  7. Onsyzygy

    Really. This is one of the RAREST time I read someone that gets the story about how the pyramids were built right.
    As an history scholar and a writer, I argued many times about this – last but not least, in ArchDaily, I had to correct an expert in architecture about how the slaves DID NOT build the pyramids. Seriously.

    So, thank you for this, guys!

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