The summer of 2023 was the summer of Barbenheimer—a portmanteau of two highly anticipated films, Barbie and Oppenheimer, that premiered the same day. Humor about Barbenheimer came from the seemingly divergent subject matter. And while one is certainly more pink than the other, both films have an important thing in common: they are both popular history.
History has always been a source of inspiration and content for popular productions. Hamilton, Vikings, The Woman King, Dunkirk, Blonde—stories about historical events, individuals, or broader cultural landscapes are not only entertaining, they also influence collective memory for better and for worse. But pop history opens itself up to scrutiny about accuracy, or that elusive and charged word, “authenticity.”
So how do professional historians, taught to turn a critical eye to all accounts of the past, interact with the popular variety? And what does it even mean to be historically accurate?
Below, several U-M historians weigh in on how they feel about popular portrayals of their field, and if they’re able to enjoy pop history outside of the classroom.
“The truth is: I avoid popular representations of the periods I am interested in as a scholar like vampires avoid garlic.”
Helmut Puff is a historian of premodern Europe, whose castles, manors, and royal chambers elicit romantic imagery for audiences.
Puff says that while there have been a few exceptions, for the most part he cannot enjoy such productions. “What is most painful,” he said, “is the utter lack of an understanding of people’s gestures, their movements, their every thought. Most popular historical tales tell stories of modern people lost in a perfectly reconstructed premodern setting.”
Shows like Bridgerton or The Great play with anachronism in intentional ways, but even shows attempting to stay true to their time often misrepresent characters’ psychology and interactions. “Different ways of thinking or acting are what make the past the most interesting subject to study,” Puff said. “And we learn so much about ourselves in the process.”
Still, even he can enjoy some history-themed shows—usually ones set in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charité and Babylon Berlin, both set in the German capital, are appealing to Puff, who spent time there this past summer.
“Most people don’t learn history from academic historians.”
Anthony Mora defends the importance of paying attention to pop history as he does with his scholarship and also as a fan. “Representation of the past is working at two registers,” he said, “one is just entertainment, but it’s also stories of history that people want to know about.”
Mora appreciates that these stories are all clearly aligned with, and filtered through, the contemporary moment. “The sixties Marvel explosion is filled with Cold War catastrophe anxieties,” he noted.
In the winter, Mora will teach the class, “Heroes and Superheroes in US Popular Culture.” Starting with Natty Bumppo in the early nineteenth century, his students will consider what each hero represents about their moment’s anxieties regarding gender, nation, race, and more.
Outside of the classroom, Mora enjoys lots of historically situated media, but always watches with a critical eye. “Most recently, I watched The Dance of the 41, which has ties to a real historical moment but is also hyperfictionalized to meet our contemporary sensibilities around sexuality,” he said.
“If it inspires people to want to read more or watch actual documentaries, then I’m not as worried if some details or nuances are missing.”
“I’m afraid I don’t watch much by way of TV or movies, and when I do it’s mostly chosen by elementary- and middle-school-aged children.”
Victoria Langland, who studies modern Brazil, cited a common problem for parents, academic or otherwise. She does go to the theater when she can, and this summer she was able to see two Shakespeare plays at the Stratford Festival. Both made her think about how the past is presented to the public.
“I saw King Lear, which is based on a mythical story, but which was produced with an early modern aesthetic and costuming that made it feel like a historical play—one trying to evoke Shakespeare’s time and voice,” she said.
“And I saw Richard II, which is based on the history of the fourteenth-century English king, but was performed with a 1970s-era theme, including disco balls and music, bell bottoms, and roller skates.”
Langland isn’t a scholar of English history, so she was not thinking in depth about accuracy. But she did find the historical elements fascinating. “From the fourteenth century of Richard II’s life, to the sixteenth century of Shakespeare’s authorship, to our present moment of interpretation—there were various temporal planes operating at once,” she said.
“This is part of what is so delicious about re-producing these old plays, again and again, as they take on new meanings every time.”