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TV is Not The Real

Whether or not you are willing to admit to it, most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably been Rick-Rolled by a story we thought was legitimate. Was it an Onion article? Maybe that one mermaid documentary on Discovery? Did it have “Based on a true story” as the subtitle? Or perhaps you were the opposite; lulled into a false sense of security by your general ignorance of the world around you. Remember the crushing sense of betrayal you felt the day you found out that Titanic was not just a movie?

In the search for good TV, many of us have cast a wide birth for bullshit and suspended disbelief time and again, but one thing we can no longer ignore is that, over the years, the line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred, much to the chagrin of history teachers across the nation. The most recent Sunday night viewing appointment turned crash history course is Game of Thrones.

Kids, Game of Thrones is not history. It is not even historical fiction. To be sure, the default mode is haute medieval mess, but, alas, it is a fantasy epic presenting an allegorical interpretation and loose reconstruction of pre-Tudor England with the fated meetings of reincarnated historical figures in configurations only to be found in the annals of fanfiction. There are dragons, zombies, and a unified religion, ritual for disposing of the dead (less they turn into zombies), and, by all appearances, a singular currency that transcends cultures. Let’s not even get into the fact that there is only one group that speaks anything other than English, and even then, they’re all A+ ESL graduates.

To be fair, I don’t believe that the greater public generally considers their HBO & Showtime subscriptions as anything other than entertainment with a grain of salt. However, when you have shows like Rome, The Borgias, and The Tudors that overlook glaring historical inaccuracies in favor of ratings fluff and market it as being based on historical occurrences, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that viewers would consider most of the information being relayed as solid.  Thanks, Obama.

So, what’s the deal? Is history just bootleg, or are we too bored to care?

In 2011, search engine Ask Jeeves (ironic, no?) commissioned a survey of its United Kingdom users after noticing a marked increase in the number of queries for biographies and other personal details for fictional characters. A poll of 1,000 users found a fifth of people struggled to tell the difference between onscreen characters and real figures. Approximately twenty percent of those served believed literary super sleuth Sherlock Holmes was based on a historical personality. Others think Clark Kent and Indiana Jones were genuine people, too, according to Ask Jeeves. Stranger yet, the confusion between fact and fiction goes both ways, with survey respondents believing Che Guevara, Florence Nightingale, and evenJesse James were fictional, not real.

The general consensus of participants blamed Hollywood for the confusion because historical dramas are presented as true stories, claiming the obsession with celebrity makes fictional characters take on a life of their own for audiences.

This explanation works the other way around, too, as even authentic figures, once they have been given the Hollywood treatment, are perceived as being the creations of a movie studio. 

So, where does this leave us? We have to advocate for our own intelligence. George Carlin said it best: “Think of how stupid the average person is and realize half of them are stupider than that.” There is nothing quite as embarrassing as failing the U.S. history portion of your SATs because you thought Abe Lincoln spent his youth cutting down vampires and jumping from trains engulfed in flames.

So, since there isn’t going to be a new episode of Game of Thrones this week, fill the void by educating yourself on the real history behind the show. You’re welcome. 

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