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a sense of joy and then a panic
a sense of joy and then a panic
hope I don't break my arm falling out of the treehouse 
05.27.10
leather
Fantasy fans frustrate me sometimes.

Alison Flood (who I often disagree with) writes at The Guardian about her experience reading Conan stories and how turned off she is by the way different races are described, and the way women are described, and the way intersectionality brings the two together into a horrible union: The more lily-white a woman's skin, the more prized she is, says Flood.  So she wonders: "Is it ridiculous to criticise Robert E Howard's enjoyably pulpy Conan stories for their 1930s attitudes to women and race?"

The resounding response to this question: of course it is!  (And of course Flood responds to all this hysterical defensiveness of Conan with "but I really did enjoy a lot of it, I swear!  I promise!"  Ugh.)

- so what...take it in context. Do you critique sub-Saharan African or Oriental literature for its focus on particular races?
personally, as soon as you say Oriental you are docked like 1,000 points in my book.
- attempting to over-analyse them is the wrong way to approach them.
- its like dissing Harlequin romance novels for heaving breasts, wimpy heroines saved by manly men, and schmaltz writing.* Conan was always the romance novels for teenage boys.
- Oh, on the matter of political correctness or whatever you want to call it, I don't think it's all that bad. It's reconstructed, perhaps, and there's some stuff sitting between noble savage paternalism and popular xenophobia, but they are by no means Nazi screeds or something. I'm a pretty wishy-washy PC sort of a guy, but I don't see that as a big failing in the Conan stories, particularly if you consider the times and - more so - the men's adventure writing genre.
- No, you couldn't get away with writing like that today but so what? They're still good tales. The racism jarred? Just as well you didn't read the Del Ray editions which are the definitive texts, unlike your edition which was based on texts edited in the 1970's to make them more politically correct.

Man, it is SO AWESOME when "politically correct" is used like this.  Geez, thinking that women who are not porcelain white can be attractive is so PC, geez.  Gosh, if we were just BEING HONEST... /sarcasm

I get "taking things in context."  I really do.  I let a lot of classic lit take a pass because of this, and because there are redeeming values in the book.  Obviously I am a fan of the Mythos (though one of the lovely things about that is that it is constantly reinvented today without Lovecraft's B.S.), but that doesn't mean I just say "so what" to Lovecraft's racism (and hey, what interesting implications for horror as it pertains to changing social values, eh?).  Heart of Darkness is one of my all-time favorite books, although I also think that Achebe's criticisms of the way it depicts Africans are totally valid.  I have never read Conan and I don't want to (because epic barbarianism is not my genre), but I suspect if I did I would probably think it was funny in a pathetic way, remember that it is a product of its time, put it back on the shelf, and point and laugh at people who read it.  This isn't even about Conan.  You can replace Conan with any number of things that now come with the warning, "product of its time."

It's the responses that really get to me, the "who cares if it has that because I had fun reading it when I was an adolescent boy" thing.  Does that mean they'd give it to their sons?  Probably, yeah.  After all, so what?  Why not?  So Conan lives on, Conan with his lily-white women, Conan who ironically cannot be criticized because he is not to be taken seriously.  Whereas classic lit, which is actually, you know, meaningful and interesting and not the equivalent of a Michael Bay movie with half the intelligence, is constantly called out for its outdated bullshit.  Which is good, interesting, and ultimately necessary, because we are people living TODAY, analyzing it TODAY.  Like my Colonial Encounters class, talking about the way Tin Tin and Babar have been changed over the years, to get rid of the horrific racist cartoons in one and the weird-ass imperialist mindset in the other.  Nobody said let's go out and burn all copies of Rin Tin Tin.  It's saying, "hey, let's talk about this, look at how norms change over time, look at how embedded colonial narratives were, even in ads for detergent and coffee, did any of you pick up on this as kids?"  I wrote a paper on how Peter Pan is an iteration of the Noble Savage myth.  I love Peter Pan, but hey, it was an interesting idea.  Like this awesome thing I found on Victorian Chromatic Anxiety in Jane Eyre (i.e. "Jane's all white")

And some of the comments on that site did engage with what Flood brought up, suggest other works to try, explain things in a more in-depth way, etc, while still liking Conan stories.  There are, of course, Tolkien fights.  Which is fine.  Engagement and discussion, that's what you want!

But when the response to the idea of a discussion of these issues is a defensive "so what"... damn, it makes me want to break stuff.  This is the same thing that people say to defend Enid Blyton, another product of her time - "it doesn't matter, it's just for fun" or "it doesn't matter, it's just for kids"

What the he-ell does that imply, exactly? 

I'm not saying no one is allowed to read Conan or what the hell have you.  You can even read Enid fucking Blyton for all I care - I don't even want to ban Mein Kampf, so far be it for me to try to disallow literature with psycho ideas and norms.  I'm saying this sort of response to criticisms that a book has racist/sexist imagery is really frustrating.  Nasty little tidbits tucked in books - especially books for adolescents, especially books for entertainment - do not mean nothing. 
 
ETA: As Lindsey says below, media does not in and of itself cause people to be prejudiced - not in the olden days, not now.  If it wasn't a problem in society, it wouldn't be a problem in a book.  Obviously it is a problem in society, however.

* Just to note, I don't let romance novels off this hook either.
Comments 
05.27.10 (UTC)
Taking a novel into context with its time is very important, I think. There can be no text without context. I've read many of Howard's works, as well as the updated, twine-and-spackled L.Sprague DeCamp literary abortions that most people know Conan from.

Several of Howard's texts are extremely progressive, especially in the stories where Conan teams up with people of color. Can you imagine in the 1930's, the heroic central character fighting evil wizards and chthonic monsters alongside a black man? And not as a superior, but as an equal? Mind-blowing.

Sure, Conan's love interest in each story was usually the palest chick in Hyborea, but the bane of his existence, the evil sorcerer, generally was too. Conan was often described as sun-baked, black-haired, albeit sometimes blue-eyed, but he's hardly the iconic image of some kind of Aryan master race.
05.27.10 (UTC)
I agree that it's very important. That's what actual literary analysis is all about. But the thing is, although there are certain things you "can't get away with" now that you could then, that does not mean that there was no racism/sexism/what-have-you in the olden days. It was just really, really embedded. So why not engage it? Why not say "yeah, you have a point, but blah blah blah"? People get really knee-jerky when someone brings up this kind of thing - especially a young person reading with modern social norms, who picks something up and says, "holy shit, this is really offensive to me." But I think it's important that there is conversation about this sort of thing, that people who aren't offended for whatever reason doesn't just say "pah, your concerns are meaningless." I hate to get alarmist, but it's not good for the genre, or critical analysis given a world that is constantly evolving.

Some people made the point you're making in the article's comments, which I think is good, and y'know, probably the most interesting comment in the whole thing was some guy who rambled on about the more progressive aspects of Conan + the deeper philosophical meanings of the plots. I often find myself making those same kinds of points in defending Heart of Darkness, although I will admit it's a tricky line to walk (partly because HoD is something I would think only people who are old enough to handle the text would read - it's not "entertainment"). But a lot more people just shrugged and basically conceded her point, and said it didn't matter - sure, it's racist, who cares? That's what I think is a problem.
05.27.10 (UTC)
Also, I'd point out that I don't think the main character has to be an "iconic image of some kind of Aryan master race" for the narrative to have aspects that are racist. I mean, that means only Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will type stuff gets labeled as a big "racist work" that we can all point at and say RACIST RACIST when in fact racist imagery is all over the cultural landscape, and often appears in less extreme forms. That's what social norms are all about...

But I'm at risk of starting a new post here, so I'll stop.
05.27.10 (UTC)
Don't have time now, just want to say that that's really not what things being socially constructed is about. Pretty much any argument that blames some form of media wouldn't be taken seriously in anthro, at least. Like the time we had to read about this woman who was saying that Disney movies were sexist and this influenced our children and stuff (sadly I forget what other point she was making that would make steve's comment make more sense), and Steve was like, 'I agree with her point, but she makes it for all the wrong reasons.' And the general idea, to me at least, is that it wouldn't matter if the Disney movies were sexist if society wasn't. The influence is far more society --> Disney than the other way around. And that meaning wouldn't resonate with people otherwise. And even considering that, I mean, I prefer my childhood with the Disney movies in it, even though no one talked to me about anything in the movies. I think I turned out okay. I think people who end up being like 'omg must depend on man & internalize role' have more issues than a Disney movie could possibly give them.
05.27.10 (UTC)
i probably shouldn't make claims about what would be taken seriously in anthro. but anyway.
05.27.10 (UTC)
Yeah, I agree with you that the media won't MAKE those kinds of things whatever, but I think the media REFLECTS those kinds of things whatever. And yeah, it wouldn't matter if Disney was sexist if society wasn't, absolutely. Perhaps I should edit the post to clarify that.

But I think a lot can be gained by looking at media from various places/times to glean what that society reflects. And I'm a huge fan of doing that.
05.28.10 (UTC)
But...yeah, that's what I just said, which was in response to your comments about racist/sexist imagery having effects on adolescents by way of constructivism. But I see you changed the post, so I guess it's a moot point.

i've certainly got no problems there, though of course media aren't unproblematically reflective.
05.28.10 (UTC)
Well, when I was writing originally I was trying to avoid the implication of a direct and simple cause-and-effect (because I always say if a kid shoots up a school because of a video game/song/movie that that kid could have been triggered by anything, i.e., the root causes of the breakdown came before), but clearly I didn't articulate that properly, so I just took it out, since it was not really my point anyway.

On that point, though, I guess I do think that things in the media can reinforce attitudes, or be used by others to reinforce them, or make things that are problems seem like they're not problems or vice versa. It bothers me when people say content doesn't matter. And I dunno, maybe content doesn't matter, but I almost don't want to believe that to be the case.
05.29.10 (UTC)
I think it's not so simple, because content always has to be interpreted. You can ignore parts of the content, it can go over your head, you can subliminally pick up on them, you can dismiss them outright, you can include them as part of your worldview, and very often you can misinterpret it entirely according to your worldview (or whatever). But it's not just a one-way interaction, and how you receive something is gonna depend a lot on what's going on in your head already at that time.

Or you could just go with the 'father of neoconservatism', Irving Kristol, and say:

"After all, if you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you also have to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial and that, consequently, all education is morally irrelevant. No one, not even a university professor, really believes that."
05.29.10 (UTC)
Part of the problem here I think is that when we're talking about stuff that 'reinforces cultural norms', we're not talking about literature/film/whatever that's trying to change anything or make people think. And therefore it limits its influence already--its market is already there, it plays to feelings people already have, it offers no new view, whether a 'corrupting' or an 'improving' one.
05.29.10 (UTC)
True. You think it's possible for a work to have a "corrupting" influence? By taking something that already has seeds/roots in the society and then inflaming it?
05.29.10 (UTC)
Yeah, that's a good way of putting it (or rather, a good list of things that can happen). I guess too often what I read is either (a) "the devil made me do it" as an excuse for a crime, or (b) reading (or whatever) is just a practical activity that has no impact on the reader (or whatever).

I like the quote. Is that bad?
05.29.10 (UTC)
Kristol is a witty and at times eloquent man, and you have to be careful reading such men, because they can make things sound good that really aren't. This is also why I distrust writers. :P

Anyway, I do think it can be misleading to say "corrupted by a book," and I'm not so sure his logic is sound there, either (books have no corrupting influence = all education is morally irrelevant? really? seems like he skipped some steps there). But I partly address that in another comment.
05.28.10 (UTC)
Also, I know this will sound incredible, but some people honestly don't even know what connotations the word 'Oriental' has. It is, for them, synonymous with Asian. My students likewise (but less incredibly) don't know the connotations and use it all the time.
05.28.10 (UTC)
And to be honest, that's why words like that change in history. They start out as the denotational, objective-sounding term for a marginalized racial or ethnic group, then over time as whatever dominant racial/ethnic group uses them, they get associated with whatever stereotypes said majority has, and then they have bad connotations, and then people think of a new word. That happens for taboo words, too. It's all kind of meaningless when it comes down to it.
05.28.10 (UTC)
should probably say: stereotypes, usage, associated actions, etc.
05.28.10 (UTC)
should also say dominant rather than majority. especially if you're going to talk about colonialism or the like. this is me attempting to translate my thoughts from national to international. :P
05.28.10 (UTC)
I don't disagree with that, but I guess I'm ok with moving "with the times" in this context. It is meaningless in the long-term but right now it does have bad connotations.
05.28.10 (UTC)
Anonymous
yeah, and it's good to be aware of them, and choose to represent yourself/not offend others by them. but in terms of understanding what other people mean by it, sometimes it's good not to jump to conclusions.
05.28.10 (UTC)
um, this is me
05.28.10 (UTC)
lol, I figured.

Yeah, I shouldn't jump to conclusions. But I tend to do that on the internet. I feel like, "why are you choosing to use that word? that word is not used in the news." Even though sure, some people really do think that's fine. It's harder to not jump to conclusions with things that offend me. Maybe I should actually say something to my boss when she says it again.
05.28.10 (UTC)
I guess my point is, it's just a word. It's not worth getting upset over connotations, connotations of viewpoints or attitudes that a speaker may or may not hold. It's more worth getting upset over the actual viewpoints/attitudes, and there are probably more reliable indicators of that.

...which is also why I don't mind when Alex calls me a cunt.
05.28.10 (UTC)
Yeah, the noodles we buy (from a Japanese noodle company? I'm not sure about their ownership) is also labeled "oriental." My boss says "Oriental people," and she taught English in S.K. (a long time ago).

The word bothered me before I heard about Said and all of that - I think because it was always said with some racist thing attached.
05.28.10 (UTC) - Taranaich/Al Harron says...
Anonymous
"probably the most interesting comment in the whole thing was some guy who rambled on about the more progressive aspects of Conan + the deeper philosophical meanings of the plots"

Would that be me you're addressing?

I agree wholeheartedly with your frustration with fantasy fans. I think it's because people are uncomfortable with those things in literature they enjoyed, but rather than confront them, they seek to downplay it. Perhaps it's a case of them not wanting to be seen as enjoying racist/sexist literature, since it might lead to people thinking they are racist/sexist. Frequently, that leads to people dismissing the literature as a whole as being "not worthy of deeper analysis": in the case of Conan & Howard, it's an affront to the hundreds of Howard fans over the years who've studied the literary elements of his work.

For instance, Howard's views on race & sex are strikingly ambivalent. For every lily-white samsel he has to rescue, there's a remarkably tough chick who's either a swordswoman, a powerful queen or princess, a dominant sorceress, or just a woman with backbone. What people tend to forget, too, is that even the "damsels in distress" display more chutzpah than most contemporaries. Olivia in "Iron Shadows in the Moon" is just a slave girl, but she sneaks into a pirate's camp to rescue Conan. Sancha from "The Pool of the Black One" (note, an olive-skinned female), who's had to deal with a lot in her life, rallies the pirates to charge the enemy when Conan's in dire need. Even young Natala from "Xuthal of the Dusk" actually tries to stab the villain of the story in a moment of desperation - to little effect, but still, she tried something.

I'm guess what I'm saying is, acknowledge the racism & sexism - but at the same time, one should remember that in many ways, Howard was ahead of his time, and deserves to be recognized for those progressive aspects.

Hopefully I didn't ramble overmuch here!
05.28.10 (UTC) - Re: Taranaich/Al Harron says...
Hi, and yes, I guess that would be you!

Yep, exactly, and I get that anxiety. Anytime racism and sexism are brought up the blood pressure of a lot of people on both sides spikes. I hadn't thought about it leading to the dismissal of the work as a whole (in order to avoid confronting these issues), but you're right, and that's too bad. Of course I think everything could stand some analysis.

For what it's worth, your comments have made me want to seek out some of these stories. And what you say here - "acknowledge the racism & sexism - but at the same time, one should remember that in many ways, Howard was ahead of his time, and deserves to be recognized for those progressive aspects" - I totally support.

Thanks for the comment!
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