(Disclosure: I received payment several years ago when I appeared on the American Heroes Channel, a sister station to the Travel Channel.)
What Fox, 32, brings to Legends of the Lost is her celebrity. The Transformers and Ninja Turtles star is, arguably, even better known than Star Trek star Zachary Quinto, who fronted In Search Of, to middling ratings, this summer. Fox’s pinup status earned her media coverage far beyond what a four-part 8 PM cable documentary series would otherwise receive, including an interview on the Today show and write-ups in every publication from The Daily Beast to USA Today.
As a result, there are plenty of reviews of Fox’s series, leaving me with relatively little to say about tonight’s premiere episode, which saw Fox donning the mantle of Indiana Jones (or, perhaps more accurately, given the wardrobe, Laura Croft) and investigating whether the Vikings made use of female warriors. Fox, in fact, told USA Today that she fantasized about being Indiana Jones and said that her love of archaeology came from a high school course in Greek mythology, which she said was the only subject in which she excelled. She also said that her interest in ancient cultures came from her Pentecostal religious background and the regular exorcisms she witnessed as a child, battling ancient evils. The spiritual aspect of her quest for antiquity shades into her investigation in this episode.
This episode was originally billed as an exploration of the myth of the Amazons but refocused on something less sensational as part of what appears to be an effort to make Legends of the Lost hew closer to Discovery’s (and formerly Travel’s) successful Expedition Unknown with Josh Gates than to History’s pseudo-historical fictions. To that end, it was basically boring. And to be entirely honest, if Fox’s name weren’t attached to this, I would probably have never watched this middling entry into the rogue’s gallery of cable history shows.
The question Fox investigated tonight revolves around the role of women in Viking society. Recently, the excavation of grave interpreted as that of a female Viking warrior has led to questions about whether women had a greater role in Viking society than previously believed. However, this is more of a question of degree than in kind. Even before Megan Fox blew the lid off of medieval gender roles, scholars had long appreciated that Viking women enjoyed greater rights and served a broader array of social roles. As the Danish National Museum noted, Viking women could be entrepreneurs working in the textile industry and were seen as independent and possessed of rights, albeit fewer than men, including the right to initiate divorce. “Even if women had a relatively strong position, they were officially inferior to men. They could not appear in court or receive a share of the man’s inheritance. It was the man who had the political power.” The unusual role of women in Viking society has long been known; the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes recorded the appearance of female warriors among the Vikings in 971 fighting the Byzantines, whom he calls by their correct name, romaioi, or Romans: “When the Romans were robbing the corpses of the barbarians of their spoils, they found women lying among the fallen, equipped like men; women who had fought against the Romans together with the men” (Synopsis 15.15; trans. John Wortley). Two centuries later Saxo Grammaticus, writing in Latin, confirmed the account by describing what he termed “shield maidens” (known in Old Norse as skjaldmær) who armed themselves like men and took to the field of battle. It’s kind of cute that in the episode Fox talks about having “rare” and “exclusive” access to these texts—one of which is kept under lock and key—since I could download digital copies of them in the original and in translation with a quick Google search.
The short answer is that the recent discovery was exciting but not unexpected, and the evidence for the role of women in Norse society was always there, but often downplayed by sexist past historians. To that end, Fox’s discussion of Viking women warriors as “so controversial” and necessitating a complete “rewrite” of history as we know it is, to put it mildly, overstated. The relatively high rank of women in Viking society is well known today, and it even appears on the History Channel website. Fox is reacting against the midcentury sexism of 1960s textbooks, but that was a very long time ago, and that stereotype exists in the ignorant media and regressive pop culture more than in science. To that end, to hear Fox snipe at the lies that “the history books tell us” is disingenuous—for the issue isn’t what outdated books from past eras say but what historians today say. Fox is younger than me. If my schooling saw no real controversy in the idea of powerful women in the past, then it is not “the history books” that are the problem but rather Fox’s lack of schooling (she never went to college) and reliance on the angry conspiracy theorists on the History Channel to fill the gap.
Just to be clear: Archaeologists were writing about Viking women warriors at least as early as 1902, and it was not controversial then!
I would also be remiss if I did not note that the show relies on exaggeration even when it doesn’t need to. Fox doesn’t just overstate the consensus about Viking alpha male dominance; she also misleadingly calls the Vikings’ territory “larger than the Roman Empire.” From Newfoundland to Kievan Rus is certainly more widely distributed than Rome, but more than half of that territory is ocean, and the Vikings didn’t exactly rule in imperial style as much as occupy much of the land encompassed in it.
Fox can’t really fill the hour with facts about Viking women, and after running out of them about 20 minutes in, she switches to pagan spirituality and follows the Josh Gates model by going on a largely irrelevant reality TV-style field trip. She performs what an expert tells her is a Norse shamanic ritual to experience ancestral visions, and the dull excursion into paganism is part and parcel of cable TV’s eclectic spirituality, which increasingly runs roughshod over facts. The show focuses quite a bit on whether Norse women were powerful sorcerers and could predict the future. It was the kind of spiritual practice that the Christians late condemned as witchcraft.
The show ends with a visit to a burial site of Viking war dead where 20 percent of the bodies were female, implying that the women were warriors. “This changes everything,” Fox said, though she had just finished reading Skylitzes’s thousand-year-old account of exactly this same thing.
Since the show contains very little controversial content, though somewhat overstated, there isn’t a lot to discuss except for Fox’s contribution to an otherwise standard-issue cable Viking documentary. In short, she was terrible. As an actress, she should have had an instinctive understanding of the need to bring presence to her role as host and to imbue her voiceovers with excitement and drama. Instead, she is flat and affectless throughout, rarely breaking from a soft monotone except for occasional instances of upspeak. The void at the center of the show makes it a challenge to watch because Fox is neither informed, nor interesting, nor engaging. She seems to be almost intentionally blank and neutral, someone for the viewer to project onto rather than to engage with.
If we were to cut out the regular swipes at what “out history books have led us to believe,” this series could easily air anywhere from PBS to the History Channel and would be equally dull televisual wallpaper on any channel.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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