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.