I recently watched “The Dig” on Netflix. As a former archaeologist, it seemed a bit requisite that I should.
I was amazed how cinematography, pacing, and acting could culminate to provide a gripping movie. Other movies require car chases, bombs, sex. But this one was gentle, and it hooked me.
It was lovely to learn of amateur ‘excavator’ Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes). Alberta has it’s own version of Basil Brown in Eugene Gryba. Eugene is a damn fine archaeologist, formerly an amateur, and is well-known, recognized, and respected in the archaeological community. Much like “The Imitation Game” it seemed “The Dig” was attempting to right some past wrongs.
However, when I read the review of “The Dig” by Vanessa Williamson I started to contemplate a few things. Ms. Williamson makes a point that the film, while highlighting the marginalized males (the amateur archaeologist and the gay academic), did nothing to reconcile the history of women. In fact, the film played a part in maintaining the marginalization of women. The male photographer in the film was a substitute for two female photographers in real life. But more than this, Ms. Williamson voices concern about the weakness of the women in the film. “…[T]he three female leads” she states, “were presented as vulnerable, passive, and helpless.” In some respects I agree. Married women in Britain weren’t considered individuals able to own property until 1870. Women didn’t receive the right to vote in Britain until 1928. Because of this, most women in 1938 were very likely still figuring out how to stand in their power.
While one might believe that the vulnerability, passivity, and helplessness of the three female leads was on target for the time, it was not on target for the real life people. In fact, all three women were standing in what power they had, and I saw that in their portrayals: Edith as an educated landowner protecting her assets (including Mr. Brown); Dorothy supporting her family and livelihood as she could (it ain’t easy being married to an archaeologist); Peggie seeing and accepting her (gay) husband as he was and allowing him to go his own way. Just because these women weren’t portrayed as comic book caricatures doesn’t mean they weren’t strong and active.
So this lead me to wonder how much our 21st century ideals colour our perceptions of history.
Part of this conversation could involve the age-old debate about whether art merely reflects real life or if it influences real life. Is “The Dig” reflecting history in an unbiased light (excepting the photographer), or is it attempting to influence our perceptions of archaeology, history, and recognition? If we view the females in “The Dig” as marginalized is this because they actually were, they were portrayed as such, or because we are using our 21st lens?
An example: “Bridgerton”, another Netflix production. When I first watched this I was very confused. Most Regency-era films strive for historical accuracy. This one obviously did not. That’s okay. However, what continues to bother me is that they chose to alter the history of Black people, but not of women. And with this example, I have to say that Ms. Williamson has a point. If you’re going to go through the pains of fictionally re-writing a period of history, why choose only one sect of the population to re-write?
I am an idealist and an equalist. I don’t give a shit what colour you are, where you’re from, or who you are attracted to. Sometimes this gets me in trouble BECAUSE I see and treat everyone equally. Many people do not treat everyone equally — including those who have been marginalized — and then expect me to follow suit. So, I fully expect backlash when I say that I don’t understand why the circumstances of Black people in “Bridgerton” should have been re-written to improve their conditions while those of women were not. And this, I believe, is evidence of how our current ideals are colouring our perceptions of history.
Apparently we still have mixed feelings and perceptions about the marginalization of women. Otherwise, the fictional circumstances of the Black people in “Bridgerton” wouldn’t have been changed without also changing the women’s circumstances / portrayal. And people like Vanessa Williamson wouldn’t be outraged at the female portrayal in “The Dig” as marginalized even if some feel their portrayal was on point.
Yet, I believe we’re getting closer. We’re starting to really see and be aware of the biases in our perception.
We have thousands of years of history, of ingrained culture to overcome. It’s a tough battle, to be sure. But we’re getting there. One step at a time. One film at a time.
Many thanks to Vanessa Williamson for her post.
** This post has been edited for clarity.
National Trust – The True Story Behind the Dig
The British Museum – Edith Pretty
Jane Austen & Seth Grahame -Smith – Pride, Prejudice & Zombies
English Heritage – Six Groundbreaking Female Archaeologists