Sleepy Hollow: The Politics of Presenting the Present to the Past

I absolutely apologize for the alliterative awkwardness. So sorry, stopping soon. Ok, now. Anyway, does no one else view SH as (among other things) a satire of (mostly rightwing) American politics? No? Just me? Because I think it's a rather fun one, too.

(Yes, this is overthinking. No, I doubt very much the show has any kind of deliberate political platform. Why write this? because it's fun and just how my brain ticks when it sees things. If you can make it stop, I'm sure my future therapists would like to know how. Moving on.)

So I'm not American and have no personal stake or involvement in the political process in the US, but I am kind of...well, fannish about it. (Such characters! Such narratives! Such awesome sex scandals!) I also know very little about the American revolution as an actual historical series of events, but I am somewhat familiar with it as a great tangled blob of images and names and ideas that is used and abused in current political and ideological debates. Sometimes with great sincerity, sometimes with great cynicism, and sometimes with what appears to be a bizarre political Schroedinger's cat of both. So with that as context, Sleepy Hollow immediately looked like it was set up for political subtext.

Sleepy Hollow: The Politics of Presenting the Present to the Past

(Would you believe I could find no GIFs of Glenn Beck? Internet, you sadden me today.)

Sleepy Hollow seems to go out of it's way to trample all over that Revolutionary-mythmaking. The American Revolution here has been turned to brazenly puply nonsense. Demons, witches, portals, headless Hessians with sub-machine guns, lost colonies that speak Middle English, Masonic conspiracy theories, zombie George Washington. Dude. Zombie George Washington.

Presenting the past to the present is a constant thing and it's almost impossible for it to not have an ideological slant. Emphasizing or eliding the history of women, or of slaves, or of Native Americans, or of working class people, is political. Focusing on this side or that side of a conflict is political, etc. That's pretty standard stuff and we run into it all the time, from tv shows to textbooks. What the Sleepy Hollow does that's a little weirder is that it has put itself in the position of presenting the present to the past.

Sleepy Hollow: The Politics of Presenting the Present to the Past

Ichabod Crane isn't just some random time traveler from the 18th century - he's a revolutionary, a fighter, a radical. He's a political traitor. He isn't just lost, he's exiled. He knew half of those iconic names in the great American Revolution imagery-blob personally and might have ended up one of them himself. He was fighting for a cause, one he joined on ideological grounds, and the show has him in the very odd position of seeing, in a way, how what he fought for "turned out".

Abbie has to make certain choices when she's telling him about the world of 2013 - when she tells him in a deadpan tone in the pilot that, yes, she's a Black, female police officer, that might read as neutral to Crane - but that's because he's missing 200+ years of context. Abbie knows it's not a neutral statement in 2013, not quite, and the audience knows it too - but there's something empowering in seeing her do it anyway. Ichabod is a literal straight, white, dead guy, and she's in a position to simply inform him as a matter of fact that the reality of the world is that it naturally includes Black, female police officers.

Sleepy Hollow: The Politics of Presenting the Present to the Past

But that's just the characters. The show itself isn't reality. It has worldbuilding and it's making choices in the image of the world it's choosing to present, and keep presenting, Ichabod and the audience with. The Revolution is still terribly important, after all - good and evil, save the world, etc, and Ichabod is a fairly political person who's opinions get aired a lot - abolitionist, ur-feminist, environmentalist, anti-consumer, etc. He is the dead, white guy, but he's not a bad guy.

The show likes him and likes his politics...and I think it's kind of trying to please him. Or, well, please us - the audience. It wants to keep giving us those moments of empowerment that "we" - 2013 - can use to prove to Ichabod that we're both living up to him and maybe doing better than he might have expected.

Sleepy Hollow: The Politics of Presenting the Present to the Past

So, if that made any sense, I think it's kind of neat to look at the world of Sleepy Hollow in that context - for example, at the unusual diversity of the cast, which is still (deplorably) pretty rare on tv. At the prominence and capability of the female characters. The show has put itself in a position where it's much harder for it to have a white-washed cast or token-female characters, because at some point it was always going to have to explain to Ichabod about what women can do in 2013, and about what people of color can do in 2013. And having that explained to the white guy by a bunch of other white guys, without a woman or a person of color anywhere to be seen, would have been very, very awkward indeed.