History and Entertainment

When my youngest daughter was six years old I was  racing to stay current with the latest Disney movie’s most recent heroine whose shoes, shirt, towel, bathing suit, shampoo, tooth paste and story book were being marketed.  There was Belle and the Beast, Ariel’s struggle with that really scary octopus woman from the deep, but the one I remember best was Pocahontas.   I remember this one the best because during a casual conversation with my daughter I forgot for a moment that she was six and that I was a dad and not a history professor.  We had just emerged from the grand showing of the new Pocahontas Disney extravaganza and my daughter was chattering on about the characters in the movie.  She was especially taken with Pocahontas’ love interest Captain John Smith.  Disney portrayed John Smith as a tall, dashing, studly, blond surfer/Fabio dude and my daughter was gaga over this guy.  He was ”just so cute!”  Well, I was obviously not thinking (lost my mind) when I launched into a description of the real, historical John Smith as a short, stout, older man with red hair and a beard who smoked and drank alot.  As I finshed this attempt to bring some historical accuracy to the conversation I noticed that there was total silence.  I looked over at my daughter and she was sitting there with lips quivering and a tear.  Oh, great!   In one fell swoop I ruined the movie for her and the rest of our day.  We did however buy the Pocahontas sandals.

I was reminded of a similar experience via an email correspondance in which a person was reflecting on the television series, The West Wing.  He was concerned about whether the series was being used to idealize parts of our political system.  I liked The  West Wing.  I liked the quick, witty script and I liked the actors and the characters they portrayed.  I consider myself a republican in the  more classical, political meaning of that term, but I liked Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the president.  Now this was a Democrat I could vote for.  The problem of course is that this was a made for television series, not the actual American political system at work.  Idealizing ideology just like idealizing historical figures is great for entertainment but we all know that it is no basis for interpreting life.  How do we know, because the History and Political section in Barnes and Nobles offers us information to balance the store’s DVD collection.  Whether we ever buy and read that information is another issue.

 History is like that.   In many ways, the actual story is better than any attempt by Hollywood to portray it, but, in terms of entertainment, history will always stuggle to compete with the movies.  There is a difference between life and idealized life.  We all know this of course but it does not mean that we like it.  My daughter would have been just fine if I had listened and nodded my head and left her to find out about the real John Smith on her own one day.  Part of growing up is finding out that life does not imitate the movies.  I have a grandson now and I’d like to think that I am not only older but wiser if the subject of Pocahontas ever comes up and he thinks that she looked like the babe in the movie.

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