'Thor: Ragnarok' Offers a Timely History Lesson
There’s a clever set piece in the new Marvel film “Thor: Ragnarok” where the villainous Hela, played by Cate Blanchett, marches into the throne room of Asgard and begins tearing from the ceilings all the inspiring frescoes of the brave and wonderful deeds of the rulers of the realm. This isn’t random vandalism. When the paintings come down, we see older images of an Asgard built by violence and cruelty. This quite different history has somehow been airbrushed from ... well, from history.
Hela, of course, is meant to be a baddie. But in this particular episode, surely she’s doing right: exposing the truth beyond the myths on which her society is built. Perhaps she’s doing it too suddenly, and certainly she’s doing it too savagely. Nevertheless, she’s following the right course.
The same urge to uncover the true history -- the thing that really happened -- lies behind large chunks of contemporary controversy. Just consider the wave of harassment and assault charges that is flooding the entertainment world, with no end in sight. The happy-business-as-usual frescoes are falling everywhere, but particularly in Hollywood.
The same storm is beginning to thunder its way across Capitol Hill, and the outcome isn’t easy to predict. (Will Roy Moore withdraw from the Alabama Senate race? Will Al Franken resign his seat? And, by the way, who’s next?) Surely the rising tide will soon drown other institutions as well. Watching the disaster unfold isn’t pleasant, but the pain of following the disclosures cannot compare with the pain of suffering through what is being disclosed, or of coming forward to discuss what happened. 1
Sometimes, the effort to find the truth behind the myth is more contested. In the battle over monuments to Confederate war heroes, for example, both sides have a point. The case for taking the statutes down is basically that those being honored are undeserving, and that only a whitewashed history pretends otherwise. The case for leaving the statues in place is that the raising of the monuments was itself an act of history, and to take them down is to airbrush away the era in which people gloried in putting them up. Some political leaders have reached for the obvious compromise -- to leave them in place and add historical context -- but this act of difference-splitting seems to make neither side terribly happy. 2
Removing statues and related honors for the country’s founders is more troubling. It’s not as though George Washington wasn’t actually the first president or the commanding general of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. It’s not as though Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Declaration of Independence. 3 That they also had physical ownership of other human beings is horrific, but in the context of their era merely made them unheroic. Their statutes (and frescoes) shouldn’t come down. But, again, we most certainly should add context, as much as necessary, to give a truly rounded picture of both the founders and their era.
And not all the context has to be official. When I was in the eighth-grade in Washington, my history teacher told us that most of the slaves were happy and weren’t particularly interested in freedom. I went home and shared this fascinating nugget with my astonished parents. In return, I got a history lesson, in my house, that was quite a bit closer to the truth.
History is a creature of immense energy and complexity. Trying, as we often do, to twist it to suit our interests is (to borrow from Harold Schonberg in another context) like trying to put handcuffs on an eel. Sometimes we even think we’ve succeeded -- every generation has its Ministry of Truth; these days it’s located largely on the campus -- but, in the end, the eel almost always wriggles free.
Sometimes, however, too much context can obscure the truth, and those frescoes simply have to come down. When facing an accusation of being abusive toward women, it's no defense to say such behavior was common in the industry. We’re not talking about two centuries ago; we’re talking about living memory. And in living memory, abuse and assault are simply outrages. To paper them over with context is to blur the ever-clearer pictures that the frescoes are covering up.
The makers of “Thor: Ragnarok” could hardly have imagined that their well-received and hugely popular entertainment would be released at so timely a moment, and contain so sharp an allegory for the era. But it does. And although Hela is, obviously, the villain of the film, on this point she’s plainly right. Obscuring history is wrong, and if we look too carelessly, we’ll see all the wrong images.
Yes, as a due process maven, I do accept that not all allegations are true allegations. But not all allegations are false allegations either, and we as citizens shirk our responsibilities if we shrug our shoulders and say we’ll know the truth once a court decides ... or so I’ve recently argued.
And remember that our debates over statues and their relation to history are nothing new. Six decades ago, public institutions were busily taking down portraits of Paul Robeson, as if his Communist Party connections negated his artistic talents. A hundred years ago, Catholics were demanding the removal of the statue to the martyred atheist François-Jean de la Barre in front of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. In both cases, those who insisted on removal were wrong.
Okay, fine: edit, compile, harmonize, whatever verb you like.
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Stacey Shick at firstname.lastname@example.org