Writing on AV Club, Jason Heller says he looked forward to rereading Piers Anthony’s Xanth books and was dismayed to discover they’re very sexist. Which got me thinking about the way I reacted to sexism and other isms in the books I read as a child and teenager.
A lot of stuff flew over my head. For example, I knew diddly squat about the “shuffling darkie” stereotype so when I read stories with that kind of racist caricature, I took it as just a low-comic character type and laughed as I read. Embarrassing now, a little.
Hitting me teens as second-wave feminism was blooming, I was much more aware of sexism than any other ism. But a lot of times I still couldn’t identify it as such, it just seemed wrong to me somehow. For example in Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (cover by Michael Whelan, all rights to current holder) protagonist Bink’s dream girl is a woman who cycles from being beautiful but stupid through average to ugly but smart. I’m not sure if I actually saw this as sexist—I liked the book so I didn’t want it to be sexist — but it definitely disturbed me (Heller has many more examples, but that was the one that stuck in my personal memory). Later in the series, the sexism got increasingly obvious, or I just got better at spotting it.
For an uglier example, consider Philip José Farmer’s Tarzan pastiche Lord Tyger. At one point Tyger is traveling with an obnoxious (i.e, she doesn’t put out) doctor, so one night he sticks a piece of raw meat in her intimate recesses and tells her she can either have the meat inside her, or his meat inside her (that was the bit I thought might be triggering). This is not presented as rape, just the superstud getting the upper hand of the bitchy chick who refuses to screw him. I’ve heard arguments the point is that a real Tarzan wouldn’t have human sexual ethics, but the tone isn’t “Tyger’s an amoral monster” — my impression was (and is) that we’re supposed to root for the jungle sex machine. Ditto the finish when the doctor wants to marry her rapist to monopolize his penis, but it’s obvious Tyger will continue screwing every available woman he can nail down.
I hated the book when I read it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t think of the raw-meat scene as rape at the time. After all, he hadn’t used force to put his penis in her … but something about it screamed WRONG! I just couldn’t explain why.
Other books, in hindsight, felt wrong because the characters didn’t react properly. Like the protagonist of Bruce Jones Pride of the Fleet whose response to being turned into a kaijin by the guy she put in the friend zone is “darn it, I can’t wear my sexy outfits any more!” Or the first couple of John Norman Gor books where the women complain because the hero didn’t rape or enslave them when he could have. Or Black God’s Kiss in which CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry melts for the man who’s conquered her kingdom, assaulted her and thrown her in a dungeon (I love the stories, but not that bit).
Some things, by contrast, slid by me without raising a ripple: there were a couple of rape jokes in various movies or plays that I laughed at even when I was in my twenties. I don’t recall being offended by all the rape in Coming of Age in Zamora until I reread it a few years ago.
I’m not sure there’s any larger lesson to be learned from this. Unless it’s that if a story makes you queasy for some reason, possibly it’s not just you being prudish or “politically correct.” And that even if we don’t see the problems in stories from our past, they may still be there.