Mike Flynn has a marvelous post…

on how deeply sensitive PC folk innoculate themselves against the encounter with ideas outside their cramped intellectual bubble by pre-emptively declaring books ritually impure before they know anything about them.

In the course of it, he does something I, as a founding member of the Wright/Shea Mutual Admiration Society, have been lax in doing: recommending a wonderful little series of posts John C. Wright wrote recently:

One does oft find stereotypes in older fiction. The same is true today; only the stereotypes are different. “Write what you know” is an old adage, and most writers in the Golden Age of Skiffy did not know any people from the Enlightened 2010s. Maybe they should have. They were writing about the future, after all. But recall how many writers in the 70s wrote of a future that was all sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, because that was the milieu in which they knew.

The estimable John C. Wright recently wrote a series of posts provocatively entitled Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters. The Late Modern, obsessed with formality can often not get beyond the words to the subject matter, and so will have a knee-jerk reaction to his title, and without the knee.  But among several interesting points, Mr. Wright makes the following: that women in pulp and serial fiction of the 30s and 40s tended not to be dumb blondes. Those came in the 50s with the Marilyn Monroe cult. Of particular interest is his parade of pulp-mag coversfrom the earlier decades which shows a preponderance of kickass women.

Helpless female waiting to be rescued by Big Strong Male
1954: Demure stay-at-home mom providing poor role model for Golden Age young girls.

It is also the case that simply because a female character does not conform to today’s stereotypes does not mean that the portrayal is ipso facto sexist.  In reader discussions of Game of Thrones, the character Arya, a young girl, is often praised as “kickass,” while her sister Sansa is disparaged for being a wuss. But when one thinks on it more, Arya is praised and Sansa dispraised precisely in proportion as they behave like boys.  A freer thinker than some might wonder whether it is sexist to thus privilege masculinist behavior.

1957: Helpless female Martha
Dane translates extinct Martian language

This is one problem with presentizing the past. Folks of that era might read our own portrayals of masculinized women and regard usas the sexist ones for devaluing feminine values.

So’s Yer Old Man

Much the same can be said of the portrayal of other protected classes in classic SF.  The hero of Black Amazon of Mars, Eric John Stark, despite the cover art above, is clearly described in the text as black, and is running guns to natives oppressed by imperialist-colonialist Earth.  Rod Taylor, the protagonist of Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky,is a black teenager — although art directors have steadfastly refused to portray him as such.

They lightened his skin for the actual cover art! (And yes, Heinlein intended that he be a black HS student.)

I’ve often been struck by the disconnect between the assumption that nothing but the Helpless Female was allowed to be portrayed and thought before the Age of Xena and the fact that Barbara Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” were popular Hollywood icons back during the Dark Ages.

  • Dave G.

    An interesting article, but it doesn’t stop at sci-fi and fantasy. A growing number see everything that happened in the past that way. Just read a review of anything produced before the last few ddecades and you’ll see those charges made.

    • sequax

      There were some females kicking ass and takin’ names. Sue Monday from the Civil War comes to mind. The sad thing is, that even when they find those times when things fit their mold, they don’t even have the decency to portray it accurately– when it would supposedly help the cause.

  • KyPerson

    I had a student who was upset at the movie version of Master and Commander because there were no women in lead roles. I tried to tell her that there were no women admirals on board ships during the Napoleonic wars, but no dice.

    • Dave G.

      Shouldn’t matter. At this point, women where there were none is par for the course. My second boy once said PC is the only truth. If we say women should have been admirals in the Napoleonic wars, then that is how it should be portrayed. That is truth. I chuckled, because he is right. And not just how fiction is portrayed.

      • Ishmael_Alighieri

        That the heroine in the Captain America movie was on the front lines of the ground assault of Hydra’s last stronghold almost ruined the movie for me. Freakish strength, agility and lightening quick reactions are one level of fantasy; reimagining history in our image is another, much less fun, fantasy.

        • Dave G.

          Reimagining history in our image. I like that. It starts with the realization that we are right, and then we go back to change it accordingly. I tell my boys, to be honest, some of those old John Wayne type of movies are in some ways more accurate than the movies released today, movies and books that are supposed to be much more heavy on realism. There are some (Band of Brothers leaps to mind) that are very, very good in trying to keep it real. But so much today seems to not care a rip what really is, but simply portrays everything the way our age insists it should be.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X