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The Huge PBS Failure on The Gilded Age


Above: The student body at Carlisle Indian School, 1885, which evidently was not part of the Gilded Age

I was pretty excited last night. PBS’ American Experience was premiering its new two-hour show on the Gilded Age. As more people come around to the reality that we live in the New Gilded Age and that there are a lot of similarities between what is happening now and in the late 19th century, I was hoping for a real good episode. In fact, I chose to live tweet the entire thing. Unfortunately, that tweeting demonstrated my growing frustration with the show. It did some things right. It had great talking heads, some of the leading historians of the period. It discussed pieces of the inequality of the period. It went into detail on issues and people such as Coxey’s Army, Homestead, and Henry George. It didn’t really sugarcoat Andrew Carnegie’s grotesque hypocrisy, which was a big fear of mine when I realized he was going to be one of the two capitalists they focused on (Morgan was the other). They barely mentioned any politicians at all–I think Grover Cleveland was it. And of course, the production values were high quality and the footage cool.

That said, are you aware that the Gilded Age did not include any black people? Or Native Americans? Or Asian-Americans? Because the only mention in a 2 hour special on the Gilded Age of any people of color was about 10 seconds on how some black farmers supported Populism. That was it. Period. It was shocking. I wonder if this was a decision made later in the process. I say that because of two of the historians they had as talking heads. Nell Irvin Painter is one of the very best African-American historians living. And John Kuo Wei Tchen wrote a great book on Chinatown in the Gilded Age. So they had to assume their subjects would be mentioned. They were not.

Instead, we got dozens of minutes on the social activities of the Gilded Age elite. Focusing primarily on one of the Vanderbilt daughters and her scandalous divorce and huge home, it was a sop to the Downton Abbey set, who just want to see big houses and huge parties. To say the least, I am not looking forward to the creator of that show putting together a new show on the American Gilded Age. I think Downton Abbey was a flat out bad television show first of all. But even as it paid a bit of lip service to issues of poverty and politics, it was cartoonish at best in those depictions. Anyway, The Gilded Age showed lots of parties in Newport, big houses on Fifth Avenue, etc.

Of course, some of that is to be expected. If there wasn’t some discussion of the wealthy, that would be a big problem. But not as big a problem as NOT DISCUSSING PEOPLE OF COLOR AT ALL!!!!

How do you talk about this period and not discuss Plessy? How do you not mention the Chinese Exclusion Act? How do you not talk Wounded Knee? The Dawes Act? Indian Schools? Lynching? I could go on and on. I finally had to facetiously wonder out loud:

I also noted:

How does PBS just erase people of color? I was genuinely flabbergasted. I guess they decided that the core story here was economic inequality. But how do you talk about inequality without talking about people of color? It’s like Class Not Race people took over PBS!

There were other minor sins as well. For some reason, the 1870s were just not covered at all, even though Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” in 1873. The choice to end the show with the 1896 elections might work from a narrative standpoint, but the Gilded Age very much did not end in 1896. It might have ended by 1915. There’s no real clear starting and ending point at all, but some attempt to define this would be useful.

However, compared to describing a whole period of history as nearly lily white is a far greater problem.

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