…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.