The History Princesses

Last week the Daily Mail, not my favorite U.K. paper, published a piece called “The History Girls.” Let me say up front that I respect the work of the scholars in question and I understand why they cooperated with the newspaper and its photographers (and hair/makeup artists). But here’s how I see the resulting piece (again, the piece, not the scholars):

If you read this blog, you may recognize the second picture from the work of David Trumble, an artist who Disneyfied great heroines of the 20th century in order to critique the way that Disney flattens all heroines into single types. Trumble wrote:

Fiction is the lens through which young children first perceive role
models, so we have a responsibility to provide them with a diverse and
eclectic selection of female archetypes. Now, I’m not even saying that
girls shouldn’t have princesses in their lives, the archetype in and of
itself is not innately wrong, but there should be more options to choose
from. So that was my intent, to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to
paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush.

The Daily Mail has Disneyfied these scholars. This group of thin white women have been placed in bright colors, posed with artifacts, been styled and made shiny – and reduced to “girls.” They have “rescued studying the past from the clutches of fusty academia and changed our view of yesteryear for ever,” which sounds like praise, but I sort of bet most of them have respect for the academic conversations in which they take part and sometimes lead (even the best of us lead only sometimes).

I don’t know the work of all of these women, but many clearly have impressive credentials. Moreover, they are media-savvy scholars, an essential attribute in this era of research assessments in the U.K. They appear on BBC documentaries, write popular books (as well as scholarly pieces, I think), and otherwise try to engage the public. And of course I say more power to them! And yet, the Daily Mail here has turned them into princesses, in which appearance is emphasized.

Moreover, as with Disney, the lens washes out key differences – Research fellows (not secure work) and senior lecturers, journalists, fiction writers, and broadcasters all merge here.

But in the end, this is my real gripe – I suspect each of these women has encountered sexism, overcome it, and they have built careers, only to be rendered as cartoons in the name of praise by the Daily Mail.

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