Having Your Status-Quo Cake & Eating It Too: On Alternate History Fails

“Sometimes an author is torn between the desire to present certain material and a guilty awareness that others will not approve. In an attempt to deflect criticism, he apologizes as he goes, pointing out that the minstrel show, strip club visit, or cheap, all-purpose servants in a Third World setting are terribly, terribly distasteful to him, and he disapproves as much as anyone– more! Meanwhile, he continues to wallow in those scenes, exposing what everyone instantly recognizes as the world of his fantasies.”

–Sandra Newman/Howard Mittlemark, How Not to Write a Novel

Last week, a kerfuffle broke out on the internet as Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Spellman announced their next project. It is to be an alternate history where the Confederacy won the Civil War, and people are understandably displeased.  This project seems to exhibit a storytelling behavior Newman and Mittlemark call ‘The Fig Leaf’, wherein the creators of a piece of media indulge in a reactionary setting, while still maintaining a degree of leftist cred due to their performative finger-wagging at said setting.

The creators of this nascent series argued that they were just trying to explore modern racism through their ‘what-if’ scenario, comparing their treatment of racism and colonialism to how the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale tackles sexism, reproductive justice,  homophobia, and religious extremism. Clearly, my objection isn’t that entertainment shouldn’t address difficult subjects– as the existence of this blog indicates, I’m very much in support of using art to gain insight into complex problems. However, attempting to address difficult subject matter and botching the material can actually do more harm than good, and Confederate appears to have set itself up for failure on this front.

First and foremost, alternate history as a genre explores the significance of historical events by hypothesizing how different outcomes would radically change our world as we know it today.  By it’s nature, alternate history challenges our assumptions about the inevitability of the status quo and the shape of the world we live in today. (In contrast, dystopian future settings often extrapolate from modern problems to a degree, imagining a world where our current societal failings have spiraled catastrophically out of control. This is what differentiates Confederate from The Handmaid’s Tale).

Confederate‘s failure to deliver a challenge or a changed vision of the world is deeply entwined with the insulating effects of racial and class-based privilege. To see Confederate as providing some startlingly different version of history requires the audience to believe that racism is a long-dead evil that was killed by the American Civil War and that a modern American state that violently exploits and oppresses African-Americans is an alternate universe, rather than the daily reality of millions of people. Showing a currently powerful group oppressing a currently marginalized group– unless your story is about an upheaval of that social order– isn’t thought-provoking or even a decent ‘alternative’ history storyline. It’s just the status quo with fancy set decoration.

Second, alternate history scenarios that are just a repackaging of the status quo carry a disturbing subtext that groups who are currently the recipients of unfair treatment are perpetual victims in every reality.  It mirrors the ‘historical inevitability’ argument I often hear, in which someone attempts to justify some past or present horror by saying the war or genocide or other man-made disaster was ‘bound to happen that way’.

Packaging marginalized groups as victims, even in alternative history scenarios, is troubling in several ways. It re-enforces arguments that these groups have been subjugated because they are weak or in some way ‘inferior’, denying the forces of circumstance and happenstance that allowed particular groups to gain power at the expense of others. It also means there is no room to show success of members of marginalized groups except as an anomaly who ‘made it against the odds’.  This is particularly problematic when the people in question have a history and culture that extends far beyond a relatively brief period of oppression (for example, if you imagine the history of humans in Australia taking place over 24 hours, Europeans showed up five minutes ago).

Finally, these ‘alternate’ histories (or historical fiction/fantasy) are often a platform for what I call the ‘white sheep’ fantasy, wherein the creator of the story, a member of one or more powerful groups, imagines characters from that same group espousing relatively progressive values.  Using the characters, they act out the idea that they would have been ‘one of the good ones’– the ‘nice’ slave owner, the Victorian businessman who is kind to his workers, and so on (Newman and Mittlemark call this The Vegan Viking). This also frames oppression faced by other characters as the personal misconduct of a few bad apples, completely ignoring the actual circumstances and systems that created the problem in the first place.

If you want to write about the status quo, just write about the status quo; if you want to write a future where the worst of the status quo has taken over, write a dystopian story. But don’t pretend it’s ‘alternative history’ if you’re not going to show us something that is substantively, meaningfully alternative to the world we know today.


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