In the interest of disclosure, I need to remind readers that I have exchanged emails with Roberts, who has invited me to next year’s Paradigm Symposium, which he runs. I have not spoken with Roberts about his program or the video you’re about to watch because to do so would prejudice my judgment about his proposed program.
Roberts, readers will recall, operates the Paradigm Symposium and publishes Intrepid magazine. He is also the author of a book on the Nephilim and speculation about ancient astronauts.
So that brings us to the video, which I find it difficult to discuss because of the choices that the pair made in creating this pitch reel, which they produced through TCA Media, a “low cost” media services company. We can dispense with some of the aesthetic questions first: Did you notice that the title sequence combines elements from many of cable television’s most popular fringe history series? There’s a bit of Ancient Aliens and a dash of America Unearthed. The logo for History Trippers is reminiscent of the word mark for Ancient Aliens and In Search of Aliens in terms of typeface choices, and the reveal of the title as sand blows off of an inscribed version is virtually identical to that of In Search of Aliens. And the title History Trippers? It is terrible. It sounds like a druggie version of Drunk History. It has a lot of ironic potential for describing the content of the show, though!
But when we move beyond the trappings of cable’s mystery-mongering shows, we see a more interesting aesthetic choice: Both Roberts and Ward are dressed as Alan Quartermain (a particularly Victorian variety of the Indiana Jones look), and they occupy a space decorated as a Victorian Explorers’ Club drawing room, complete with colonial bric-a-brac spangling the walls. Their costuming and their Victorian drawing room base of operations lends a disturbingly colonialist undercurrent to the efforts of two middle aged white men to travel across former colonies and mandates to impose their own reading onto the history of the African and Near Eastern peoples they meet. That Ward is from Britain, the former colonial power in Egypt, doesn’t help. It’s as though they have purposely elected to emulate the romantic idea of Victorian scholar-adventurers like Richard Burton in complete ignorance of the imperialist and colonialist ideology that is inseparable from Victorian anthropology.
At the same time, Roberts and Ward have complicated the Victorian aesthetic in a way that, if I attributed intention or self-awareness to them, might have raised important questions about the underlying dynamics of Victorian sexual repression. Honestly, when I watched this the first time I thought Roberts and Ward were a couple, only to learn that both men are straight and married to women. (The line in which they argue about which of them is the “straight man” made me laugh inappropriately.) The choice to emphasize their personal relationship in terms of physical affection, declarations of love, and tomfoolery at the expense of delineating specific content for the proposed show is, frankly, baffling. I get that they don’t want to limit the proposed show’s range of potential content so it can be adapted to any network’s needs, but I am hard pressed to find a way of describing the choices that they made in depicting their relationship that don’t involve reading them as a couple, especially when we combine their “bromance” with their effete performance and their dandified clothing choices—a cravat for Ward, a scarf for both. The less said about the phallic symbolism of their umbrella joust the better.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing Roberts or Ward in terms of real-life personality, or in terms of their actual real-world friendship, which I am sure is warm and fulfilling. I speak only in terms of their on-camera performance—and every on-camera appearance is a performance, even when playing oneself. Nor, frankly, would it have been a problem were they actually a gay couple. It is precisely because they are not that it reads against convention and defies audience expectations. It may not be right, but we cannot change culture overnight.
Cable TV shows recognize the risk that a pair of fringe history explorers who are too into one another will read sexually (TV doesn’t do subtlety, and emotions read broader on camera), and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that they also recognize that the audience for such programs is older and conservative, especially for the Bible-based programs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that History’s two fringe history shows that feature a pair of male investigators (Curse of Oak Island, Search for the Lost Giants) both feature brothers, while other fringe shows either feature a lone wolf investigator or a large team. Such groupings help to keep sex out of it, all the better to let viewers develop their own unidirectional relationships to the characters that the investigators play on their shows. (Cf. Giorgio Tsoukalos as sex symbol.) To be extremely cynical: I think that Roberts’s and Ward’s self-depiction in the video will complicate their efforts to bring the show to air.
This gets into some interesting questions about the arbitrary cultural line we draw between behaviors associated with friends and lovers, and these lines move over time. The Victorians were much more open to same sex platonic affection than post-World War I culture, for example. It is precisely this ambiguity over the dividing line that allows for plausible homoerotic readings of some pre-World War I genre fiction. Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) has been read by James Gifford as the narrator’s homoerotic love affair with a cowboy until the cowboy jilts the narrator to marry and raise a family. Richard Phillips, writing in Mapping Men and Empire, specifically notes that the male heroes of Victorian adventure fiction (particularly of the colonial variety) were often seen as objects of homoerotic desire for their (presumably) male readers, despite the denials of many adventure authors. This gets into a lot of complex sexual politics that are far beyond my purpose here, which is to note that Ward and Roberts made a video that reads very differently than they intended, but which is ironically in keeping with the spirit of the aesthetic they’ve chosen to adopt.