Recently, I’ve watched or read a few things that made me ruminate on the problems with enjoying dated media. That is, pieces that make me uncomfortable with the values dissonance I feel when consuming them.
One was Blade Runner, from 1982, with its rape scene. I’m still not sure if it was meant to be a rape scene or not. At any rate, I did not feel it was handled sensitively. The other case was my attempt to finally read Dresden Files (first published 2000). It was aborted after about fifty pages because I just couldn’t deal with sexism permeating the story.
In both of these cases, I told myself that I shouldn’t be too hard on the creators and judge them by today’s standards.
On the other hand, I’ve also watched Blade and Buffy recently. Both are from the 90s, and both made me question that approach. Because, well, here we have a superhero flick with a black man and black woman as main characters. And we also have a TV show with a female protagonist who kicks vampire ass. So clearly it was possible even back before I discovered my first geeky tendencies. And yet both these things – actually strong female characters and people of colour in more than supporting roles – are things media still seem to struggle with today.
Just the fact that something is old doesn’t mean it will be offensive to our sensibilities.
But still, there are the things that are really old, right? I’m talking about the last twenty or thirty years, but if we go really back in time…
Except then you have things like Austen. She manages to be really amazingly feminist for someone writing two hundred years ago. Wrong again, then.
So, what’s the deal?
The idea that we are consistently headed toward progress is attractive. It’s only going to get better! But unfortunately inaccurate. While I overly much prefer living now to living in any other period in time, there are many respects in which the situation is actually getting worse. Lower vaccination levels. Rising xenophobia in some countries. And, yes, sometimes representation in the media too.
To give another example, I have recently bought 7 mages, a video game that is a third installment of a popular Czech classic Gates of Skeldal. In both the original and the most recent iteration, you can choose the gender of the hero you start with. But while the original 1998 game took the gender of your character into account, the one that came out in 2016 assumes you’re playing for a man in all situations, including objectifying comments about female characters (which, no, are clearly not meant to be queer-inclusive). The original game did not include any sexist commentary at all.
So no, it’s not necessarily all getting better, and believing so can lead to complacency. Additionally, simply assuming that authors of the older pieces could not have known any better leads to a false sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction – we’re doing so much better now! – and also distracts from those remarkable authors who did better even when most simply couldn’t be bothered.
Because that is the thing: I fully realize all the things I will mention here used to be pretty standard at certain times. But in some cases, people could have and should have known better. I don’t want to invoke Godwin’s Law, but let’s just say there were kinds of behavior in Germany in 1930s that became pretty standard, and stating that is a very different thing from saying they were OK, or that people didn’t know better. Is it more understandable to act like a jerk in that atmosphere than if someone decided wholly on their own to simply be evil? Sure. Is it OK? No.
Similarly, someone being a racist asshole in their piece of media today is less excusable than it was fifty years ago, but that’s not to say that the creators of older days can always get away with claiming ignorance of such subtle social mores as basic human decency.
So with that in mind, here’s my personal, subjective and entirely incomplete list of things older creators deserve a break for, and things where they really should know better.
Give Them A Break
The first case I know of where affirmative consent was employed as standard was in 1991. Back then, it was ridiculed quite universally, and more wholesale acceptance of this idea is a matter of this decade. So creators from as recently as the 90s absolutely deserve a break for not understanding how that works. If a character initiates sexual contact with another character and doesn’t meet with any signs of protest, then authors of things made more than twenty years ago probably fully believed they were depicting genuine consent. Or at least, you know, no lack thereof. Because “they didn’t really mind my groping” apparently used to be enough for people to be comfortable with, or something.
The idea of gender as a social construct emerged gradually. The first hints of it are probably in The Second Sex, which came out in 1949 and was translated into English in 1953. Second-wave feminism did some more work on that, but the notion that gender is wholly socially constructed doesn’t appear until the very end of 20th century, with postmodern philosophy and deconstructionism.
Until these things happened, everyone seemed to pretty much assume that gender was directly tied to biological sex, though people certainly differed in their opinions on what exactly it meant. But a whole lot of character traits were generally taken to be connected to it. The discussions only took place about which ones exactly it was.
Like in case of affirmative consent, it took a while for even the most basic of these idea to gain traction. I have many problems with what Agatha Christie does to her female heroines, but I would never blame her for being gender essentialist, not even in the books that came out in the 70s. I might get irritated when her heroine states that “we women are emotional,” but Christie was an old lady by then, and while it is nice to imagine her reading Simone do Beauvoir in her off time, I think we can all forgive her that she did not.
While the idea of trans people has been explicitly present in public consciousness since mid-twentieth century, awareness of non-binary people has much more recent history. Effectively, it is a matter of this millennium, as long as we’re talking about this awareness outside the LGBTQIA community. Frankly, even today, many people completely lack relevant information. So if you see a mention of two and only two genders in something from 2000, don’t be angry with the author. Or, you know what, be angry with whoever you want. I usually am. But bear in mind that it’s not really their fault.
The first country to legalize same-sex marriage was Netherlands in 2001. The first campaigns for it emerged in the preceding decade. I remember that growing up in the 90s, my liberal family assumed it was natural that same-sex unions would exist, but would not be the same thing as marriages. So when a creator of your favorite piece of media does the same, never marrying any of their numerous suburban queer couples, they’re not necessarily being a jerk.
Incidentally, if you know about a story that contains numerous suburban queer couples, drop me the name in the comments, because I need to read that.
Ignorance about Aromanticism and/or Asexuality
Just this summer, I have heard a liberal in his sixties joke that next year, he’d do asexual pride along with gay pride. He was honestly astonished by my explanation that aro and ace people were in fact considered part of the LGBTQ+ community, and as such routinely took part in the various pride events. He had no idea.
Much like with non-binary gender identities, asexuality has only been discussed as an orientation (or lack thereof), instead of a disorder to treat, in this century. Aromanticism fares even worse. It’s a question of last decade at most that it’s begun to be discussed more openly. The number of people who do not even realize lack of romantic attraction is a thing is huge. Therefore, ignorance about this is a little understandable even now. Completely so in someone writing more than a decade ago.
Unfortunately, this can manifest in quite ugly ways even when the author has the best intentions: people who are not interested in romance tend to be painted as cold or selfish. It cannot even be called stereotyping, because the writers have no idea there is a group this can hurt. They are not writing an aromantic character, they are writing a selfish, cold man with heart too closed to love anyone. To someone who has never heard of aromanticism, it probably seems like natural character trait to add to their villain. We can only hope this trend will stop any time now. One Voldemort was quite enough.
Representation of Minorities
This is something media nowadays get a lot of flack for, not including enough minorities of any sort. But the idea that the way people are represented matters goes hand in hand with the realization that identities are constructed and with the rejection of essentialism of any sort, which is, once again, a matter of postmodern philosophy. So much like with gender constructivism, the spread of this idea only comes at the beginning of 21st century. As I’ve said already, when Rowling was writing the Harry Potter series at the turn of the century, it was not quite that much of a thing yet. It wasn’t clear to people why it should matter if the cast of your film or show is diverse. They just didn’t see colour, you know?
Right, who am I kidding, it’s obviously not clear to a lot of people till this day. Or, alternatively, they just don’t care.
Orientalism is the idea of a complex set of prejudices about the East that permeates the Western culture. The principle can, in a modified form, be applied to any non-Western region. It was first introduced by Edward Said in the eponymous book, published in 1978. It brought crucial instruments with which to examine this type of complex sets of prejudices, which is by and large a prerequisite to attempting to get rid of them.
Until Said’s work, the prejudices as a complex went largely unreflected, which also means that the authors could not be on their guard about writing them. Orientalism is replete with examples of how marvellously that went. But orientalism is also, in effect, what Rowling does in her depiction of abroad, or what Doyle does when he has the “king of Bohemia” come to Sherlock Holmes personally, while his visits to the British royal family are always treated with the appropriate pomp. And believe me, I could go on.
I could go on with naming the kinds of misstep in dated media for which time period is exclusively, or almost exclusively, to blame. I left out some pretty major ones, in fact, like slavery or blatant religious intolerance. Not because I think they’re unimportant. Because I think we generally have a good idea when this can be blamed on the time period and when not. Yes, people who wrote in slaver societies and were not themselves enslaved cannot be entirely expected to realize the repulsiveness of the institution in itself. As opposed to its various excesses, which have always been recognized by many as immoral. But hopefully, we have some rough idea when in time were these things situated, and what to think about them.
Ignoring “no” signals from sexual partners, particularly women
Look, this was mocked in Pride and Prejudice already. Mr. Collins does not talk about sex explicitly, true, still, the idea that when a woman says no, she doesn’t actually mean no, is exactly what Mr. Collins’s proposal is about. And if Jane Austen showed how ridiculous it was back in 1813, then there is no excuse for anyone writing after 1900. And no, Blade Runner, the fact that she was an android doesn’t make it better. That was rape, plain and simple.
Women as Incompetents and Perpetual Damsels
I’m sorry to be using Austen as an example once again, but I always try to go as far back for examples of this being debunked as I can, and Austen works great for this. Persuasion, in particular. It is effectively a long study in Anne Eliott being by far the most competent person around, in almost anything that comes up in the story. And while I have a number of issues with Jane Eyre, she was no damsel in distress. Hell, we can go all the way back to the Bible for competent women. Or to the Quran. Or to the bloody Epic of Gilgamesh. There is really no excuse.
You know how all those conservatives like to talk about good old days when there weren’t all these gays about? Well, in those “good old days”, homosexuality was something that was not discussed in “polite society”. As sad as that is, it also means one thing: there is really no excuse for homophobia. Back in the days when it was something generally considered forbidden, you didn’t write about it. So if you are writing about it, you are modern enough to have no excuse for being offensive. The same goes for transphobia, or any kind of queerphobia really. Yes, there were times when it was not accepted. But no, there were never times when it was good form to make fun of or insult people with different sexual or gender identity.
A crucial part of orientalism, which I discussed above, is a belief in the superiority of the West. So this can be something of a thin line. What is the kind of stereotype I claim people “back then” didn’t have the critical apparatus to examine? What is outright enough for me? But, well, on one hand there is consistently portraying people of colour as servants. Disgusting but understandable at certain points in history. On the other, there is portraying them as stupid to the point of having trouble functioning in society. Or excessively violent all the time. Or ay other extreme which anyone who ever met a single person of colour must have known was untrue. And if you’ve never seen a person of colour, you have no business writing them. So, no excuses.
Whitewashing A Clearly Non-White Situation
When you write a story set in Egypt, you don’t fill it with white people. If you do, it makes you a racist. I am sorry, Lawrence Durrel. I really loved your Alexandria Quartet, but how did you not notice it did not contain any actual Egyptian Muslims? Even Agatha Christie has a sympathetic local bartender in They Came to Baghdad. And she’s certainly no champion of equal rights for minorities.
But, of course, if your inclusion will take the form of the film version of Murder on the Orient Express, which has people stoning a woman on the streets of Istanbul in the mid-twentieth century, then perhaps keep to your whitewashing. Or, better yet, don’t make any films at all.