February 7, 2024 - 10:40am

Members of the Online Right mustered quite a bit of anger this week over Netflix’s new docu-drama Alexander: The Making of a God. The series has made a splash with a sequence that depicts Macedonian world-beater Alexander the Great making out with his close companion Hephaestion (a detail which is anything but clear from the historical record) cut between historians discussing his sexuality.

The immediate, and arguably disproportionate, culture-wars response nonetheless epitomises the pitfalls of contemporary history-making. The show would appear to suffer from a similar problem to other recent works of historical fiction, as award-related quota incentives encourage filmmakers to centre a very 2024 understanding of diversity and inclusivity. 

Essentially, these films distil complex historical realities — such as the nuanced understandings of sexuality and friendship in the Hellenistic world — into oversimplified, contemporary narratives that speak to Leftist prejudices while antagonising the Right. Quite often, this means reshaping the past to fit present-day ideologies, the so-called “Current Thing”, at the expense of historical accuracy and nuance.

The outrage seems particularly focused on the deviation from a perceived ideal that Alexander should be depicted as a prototypical conservative hero, echoing similar controversies around portrayals of other historical figures such as Napoleon in Ridley Scott’s film, whom some within the Online Right derided as a “cuck”. These examples highlight a modern artistic tendency to either overly celebrate or vilify, creating narratives which are more reflective of current cultural wars than of the complexities of the past, which was neither straightforwardly “good” nor “bad” but simply different.

Those who value the scholarly pursuit of history understand the importance of nuance and the challenges and ambiguities inherent in historical study. The real difficulty lies not in engaging in the endless cycle of outrage and counter-outrage but in resisting the temptation to reduce history to easily digestible, ideologically convenient narratives. That is, Alexander as hunky contemporary LGBT tough guy; Napoleon as fragile, toxic male “cuck”; Hidden Figures‘s black female protagonists as chief architects of rocket-powered flight (inconveniently, former Nazis such as Wernher von Braun played a far greater role in both the US and Soviet space programmes).

The increasing inclination towards “Current Thing” reinterpretations can partly be attributed to recent shifts in the incentives within the film and television industries. For instance, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has introduced new inclusion standards for Best Picture eligibility, effective from this year, which aim to enhance diversity on and off-screen. These criteria require films to meet certain benchmarks related to the representation of underrepresented groups, which has influenced the industry’s storytelling choices and ostensibly pushed narratives towards more diversity and inclusion. 

These changes have also contributed to the “wokeification” of historical portrayals. As creators seek to align their content with new standards and expectations, leading to oversimplifications and anachronisms that further distort historical realities for the sake of contemporary relevance, they also fan the flames of the ongoing culture wars.

The controversy over Alexander’s portrayal in a single kissing scene is but a symptom of a larger issue surrounding how history is consumed and interpreted in the quick-trigger digital age — one made worse with a rewards structure prioritising quota-based filmmaking. The immediate, often visceral reactions to cheesy, shoehorned portrayals reveal more about contemporary cultural divides than about the historical figures in question. 

Instead of capitulating to these divisive narratives by reflexively praising or lambasting them, relative to our position in the culture wars, it is incumbent upon those who value history to seek out and support narratives that strive for a balanced, informed, and careful exploration of the past. It’s an exceedingly difficult task in 2024, but not an impossible one.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work