Talking Heads Debate

October 10, 2018 |  Tagged , , | Comments Off on Talking Heads Debate

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The American West conjures images of cowboys, American Indians, horses, maybe even isolated gold rush towns.  The time of its earliest habitation by Americans from the East is often overly simplified to portray a conquering of a single and homogenous people and place.  In Ken Burns’ The West, a nine episode documentary series released in 1996, this long held perception is shattered through the use of thoughtful narration and voice-over readings of primary sources.  These two elements alone would be enough to portray the overarching timeline and various themes but no documentary film would be complete without the input of academics and specialists, usually referred to as “talking heads”.  The West is extensive- both in period covered by the material and the running time of the entire documentary.  This allows for a wide variety of speakers throughout the different episodes, which adds to the quality of the overall storytelling.  However, there is an interesting trend that can be seen through viewing The West that speaks to a modern debate about ethnic and gender representation.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One of the most inviting speakers throughout the episodes is the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday.  His calm demeanor and peaceful voice is the hallmark of a great storyteller, and it sets him apart from the majority of the other talking heads.  Even though his tribe is barely mentioned throughout any of the episodes, and one of the first lessons taught in episode one is that each tribe differed from one to the next, he still gives an air of authority to the material.  When he appears onscreen he speaks about Native American stories, myths, and beliefs.  On a superficial level, his success when covering the subject matter seems a side effect of his heritage and the idea is not helped by the fact his onscreen title merely reads “writer”.  The standard viewer would never know from the given information that he has a PhD in English Literature from Stanford and one of his novels was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Historian Richard White is a good example of what most viewers expect to see with American produced documentaries.  He is a PhD educated history professor at Stanford University with a specialization in the American West.  He is the author of multiple works and two of them, The Middle Ground and Railroaded: the Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.  His credentials are impressive, but he does tend to get lost in the sea of white male historians and writers that are peppered throughout the episodes.  A person’s title is only displayed once each episode.  This means if someone says something particularly interesting or insightful, you have to remember what they looked like or were wearing so you can pinpoint them when their name appears on the screen again.  This can become tedious when there is not much to differentiate one male speaker from the next.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 JoAllyn Archambault is an anthropologist of Native American descent who also happens to specialize in the study of Native American people.  She earned her PhD from Berkeley and is the current Director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.   She does not appear frequently throughout the documentary and her segments feel much more abrupt than other speakers.  She is memorable, however, with her sleek dark hair parted in the middle and the passion which she talks about the reputation of her tribe- often while making direct eye contact with the camera.  Even though she is a highly educated women, the majority of what she speaks about seems to come more from personal experiences than a textbook.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Historian Julie Roy Jeffrey appears in only one episode of the documentary, but she speaks extensively about the experience of a few white female missionaries that traveled west, particularly Narcissa Whitman.  She is a retired history professor from Goucher College in Maryland with a specialization in gender history.  Her published works cover a wide range of topics in American history including Frontier Women: the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880.  She speaks with the confidence of someone who is an expert of the material and gives insights into Narcissa’s experiences as if they were once good friends.  This is possible because of the years spent studying her and, most importantly, the abundance of primary source documents left behind.  It would be almost impossible to not feel connected to someone after closely examining their personal diaries and letters.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 There is a growing idea in American society that a person can only speak with authority on a subject matter that reflects their own experience.  While there is value behind this mentality, when taken to extremes it can be more detrimental than helpful.  On the positive side of the spectrum, it allows for more diverse representation in situations that would have previously been dominated by single ethnic groups or genders.  Using The West as an example, it forces producers to bring in female historians such as Julie Roy Jeffrey to discuss Narcissa Whitman and the female frontier experience.  It just so happens that Jeffrey, being a white female, happens to also be an expert on the subject matter.  The negative aspect, however, is that it discounts a person’s opinion having value based on education alone.  This could possibly help explain the quick cuts to and away from JoAllyn Archambault.  While this is purely conjecture, it would not be surprising to find out the editors removed statements that referenced the male Native American experience too directly.  Given what is known about her education and professional experience, she probably had more to contribute on a wider range of topics than what is portrayed.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Considering The West was created over twenty years ago, one would hope that these limiting stereotypes are something the American viewer would no longer expect to find.  Instead, this debate about who should be able to speak about what has extended into many areas of society, too numerous to even consider here.  In some of those areas, this expectation can make sense.  But when dealing with documentaries, particularly historical ones, almost no information relayed by a historian or writer is going to personally based.  These are facts and ideas that have formed over many years of study and research, and through these methods it is possible to gain an understanding of a person’s experience even if you do not share their ethnicity or gender.  This is not to state that what was accomplished in the documentary was not impressive, and it should not take away from the diversity the film was able to capture with their speakers.  Documentaries should strive to bring in the most diverse voices possible, but the diversity should not dictate the content of their contributions.  This is limiting to not only the content but also the scholars called upon to share their extensive knowledge.

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