Red Dead Redemption and the Complexities of Historical Accuracy

Historical accuracy is a tricky thing. Because it’s a very subjective matter. We like to think that history is based on facts, but it eventually comes down to the interpretation of the people that are there to record it. Or, as Napoleon Bonaparte put it in his famous quote: “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree on.” And often without realising it, we’re basing arguments we make on ‘facts’ that we consider true because we ‘saw them somewhere’. The phrase ‘historical accuracy’ is thrown around a lot in discussions about diversity and representation in popular media. As such it’s often used as a counter-argument when people advocate for more representation of e.g. queer folks, people of colour or women: “We can’t have them in this game/movie/series because that wouldn’t be historically accurate.”

Red Dead Redemption

I was reminded of this discussion again, when I watched the new trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 last week. Obviously we shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet, but there’s an undeniable surplus of white faces on screen. I wrote about this when the game was first revealed; from the trailer it’s looking like an inaccurate representation of the old west, even though a lot of viewers might not realise that. Cowboys and frontiersmen in movies and other popular media are usually white men. This dates back to the days of the wild west shows and the early days of Hollywood. Mostly men, mostly Caucasian and mostly presented in a traditional masculine ‘badass’ way.

The thing is, as this went on through the decades, newer movies and such started to base themselves on previous works of fiction rather than the actual historic western US. This caused the image of a white male dominated frontier to sneak into the public conscious as accurate and factual. Similar to our image of Cleopatra and Caesar based on Shakespeare plays and 1950s Hollywood or Jesus of Nazareth from medieval paintings.

Romanticisation of Tragedy

As such, from what we can tell from the trailer, Red Dead Redemption is strictly speaking not very accurate. Apart from a few non-white faces in the background and one woman, the main cast looks whiter than a housewarming party in upstate New York. In reality, the frontier is described by historians as a particular place for people of all sorts. Cowboys were often Mexicans, escaped slaves from the south and Native Americans. Gunslingers, highwaymen and other outlaws too came from all walks of life, and more often than not were people that escaped from established communities because they didn’t fit in. Including people of colour in the game (or women, or and men that don’t fit the genre stereotype) would not be a stretch or a far fetched attempt at political correctness; it would simply be more accurate and natural.

The trope of outcast-type characters going to the frontier to find a new life is often romanticized in fiction, and personified as freedom loving men escaping the clutches of society. There’s a bit of a libertarian fantasy, don’t-tread-on-me sort of sway to it, where men get to be themselves and be heroic, brave cowboys or adventurers. In reality this life was very attractive for people that were rejected and persecuted in their communities because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or racial heritage. Of course, their new life in the wild west wasn’t often that much better. Cowboys and outlaws are viewed as badass and cool now, but weren’t considered as such back in their time. A cowboy (or cowgirl) was a low paid job for folks of low social status; and were at the disposal of ranch owners. Similarly, outlaws and robbers were not heroes of the free life, but disliked by the general population as much as petty criminals are today. Their hero-like reputation is fictional fabrication, very similar to the Mafia from the 1930s and 40s. In fact the stories of these people are rather tragic. Of course, this might be historically accurate but doesn’t make a good male power fantasy.

Does It Matter?

That brings us to a final thought: does it matter? Okay, we established that the white men dominated wild west story doesn’t make much sense from a historical viewpoint. And that defending it as such from feminist- or other progressive criticism, doesn’t work. But I started this article diving into the phenomenon of history being an image that is not only made up of facts, but also the (artistic) interpretation of facts. Rockstar Games became famous channeling the spirit of cult cinema into videogames. The Grand Theft Auto series don’t base themselves on real life crime, they base themselves on Scarface, Goodfellas, Miami Vice and The Godfather. So we can say that Red Dead Redemption and its upcoming sequel are hommages to old Spaghetti westerns like For A Fistfull of Dollars, Once Upon A Time in the West and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Interpreting those movies as ‘accurate’ – because they in turn also based themselves on older works of fiction, it can be seen as the continuation of a tradition in popular media.

The Rockstar way works, and has brought some of the best and most memorable videogames in history. As one of the first to base themselves so strongly on mature popular culture, crime fiction and cult movies it made a name for itself as innovative, unique and daring to go where others wouldn’t. But at the same time, times change. Their formula is not so new and unique anymore and the world hasn’t stopped changing since their first releases. We can wonder if in 2018 there’s still room for a reactionary, status quo upholding Hollywood flick of a game. Or that perhaps it’s time to freshen up again and look around to see that not every gamer is a 30-something white dude with a Tarantino DVD box set. A description, by the way, that also fits me. But I think that is a good indicator that for innovation it’s only healthy and smart to look beyond your own interests.

Interesting links:

Shredded Magazine – The Queer Frontier 

Time Magazine – Women in the Old West 

Smithonian Magazine – History of African-American Cowboys

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