[Slow Down] Racism and sexism in the genre of pulp fantasy

edited January 2013 in Story Games
(Admin Note: This thread is now under Slow Down for a few days: http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/comment/379951#Comment_379951 )

In the thread about the new Riddle of Steel remake there's been some discussion of whether the sexist art in the book is appropriate for the game. I'd like to discuss this topic a bit, because I have some humble opinions on it, and it's an important thing for me and probably others. I haven't even seen that new game, so that's sort of a secondary concern here.

(In case you're wondering why sexism in pulp fantasy is important to me personally: I think of myself as a pretty hardcore liberal humanist, even if others seem to disagree now and then. It is a very common cultural idea that a proper humanist does not read or discuss modernist patriarchal ideas about gender and race. Consequently I'm left wondering whether my enjoying pulp fantasy is a sign of inner degeneracy, or whether it is possible for cultural humans to find relevancy and stimulation even in art that disagrees with their own convictions.)

The key issue is that I value the genre of sword & sorcery literature, and often enough I value it for the way it presents powerful imagery of primitivist romanticism to the reader. In fact, these themes are so prevalent in the genre that I don't even recognize a given work as being proper pulp fantasy unless it deals with these types of themes:
  • Heroism is the masculine trait of being a natural leader and a natural egoist. The failure of masculinity is in lack of bravery. The negative, villainous man actualizes in treacherous, underhanded ways. The natural man is good in that his needs and desires are natural, he has natural sympathy for others, and he is not deceived by the lies of ideology.
  • Men and women are creatures of flesh, and this is inescapable in their relations. Men cannot be presented to women, nor women to men, without the implicit sexual tension being constantly on the verge of eruption one way or another.
  • The transcendent is a political lie, immanent concerns are human and sympathetic. The supernatural is in truth immanent as well, there are no particular absolute truths; demons and angels are powerful political factions, and morality is in how we treat each other, not in following these flags.
  • In an unknown world humanity is a difficult and pressing concern: our own humanity is challenged morally in our choices, and materially in demonic possessions, corrupting diseases, tainted blood inheritance and so on. The humanity of others is challenged by the inherent limitations of knowledge: sometimes what seems human is not, sometimes what seems inhuman shares in our inherent humanity. Because this unknown world is a fantasy, nothing is guaranteed, although much may be presumed.
Considering the above view of what pulp fantasy is "about", I find myself instinctually unsymphatetic to the idea that a work in this genre should shy away from racist and sexist depictions. Those very things are the thematic core of pulp fantasy, that's what the old writers as well as the modern ones wrestle with. This is not the same thing as affirming a bigoted worldview in my eyes: it's equally possible to write about say inherent female submissiveness as it is to write about brave swordswomen who defy the very roles suggested by biology and the cosmos. In proper pulp fantasy the storytelling won't let me forget that this protagonist is a woman, with heaving breast and whatnot, but the genre does not dictate your conclusions about what heroism is like, and what men and women may be. The same goes for the other kinds of "natural assumptions" that pulp fantasy proffers us: these racist, colonialist and sexist ideas are necessarily offered for us as subject matter in this genre, for without talking of them we cannot make our peace with them.

Why I like reading e.g. Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, that's what the reason seems to me, anyway - he presents the above thematic list front and center, and via various stories demonstrates what he deems credible about humanity. Sometimes his conclusions are very humanist and even liberal, other times they reaffirm the modernist patriarchy. The same goes for other S&S authors. If the literature was not about violence, sex and humanity, it would mostly resemble modern D&D novels: devoid of challenges to our preconceptions, preprocessed pablum that reaffirms the forms of heroic fiction without any substance to what it presents as good or evil.

This viewpoint obviously makes it difficult for me to relate to the gaming discussions where people require, demand or merely prefer to have these types of themes and elements removed from games they play. Of course everybody gets to play and read whatever they like as far as I'm concerned; the question that concerns me is my own critical faculty, whether I'm actually wrong about thinking that it's good to engage with fiction even when it's bigoted, or presents bigoted ideas with various degrees of acceptance. It seems to me that my "you gotta think about things to understand them" attitude is very opposed to this idea that the right way to deal with e.g. sexism is to not talk about it, and to not present it in media.

What are your thoughts? Specifically, do you think that pulp fantasy has literary merit? (That's the easy and obvious answer to my musings: pulp fantasy is outdated trash, a constructive futurist leaves these romantic lies behind.) Do you think that we should only read it today, but not write or play it? Do you think that there are literary genres that are exclusively the concern of specific genders or nationalities, and therefore one should not expect e.g. women to like or appreciate pulp fantasy? Am I perhaps simplifying too much, and there are actually separate right and wrong ways to write pulp fantasy, so it's not just a matter of whether pulp fantasy is allowable or not?
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Comments

  • I'm left wondering whether my enjoying pulp fantasy is a sign of inner degeneracy, or whether it is possible for cultural humans to find relevancy and stimulation even in art that disagrees with their own convictions.
    The latter.
  • edited January 2013
    You said in the other thread, we love to talk about misogyny and racism. For my part, I absolutely hate to talk about it. I would prefer to talk about pretty much literally anything. I wish people would get clued up and stop producing garbage and arguing for it so we could move on to more interesting things on the basis of a consensus.

    Much of classic S&S simply revels in white supremacism, colonialism, Orientalism, imperialism, militarism, misogyny, patriarchy, rape apology, homophobia, etc. ad nauseam. Not all of it, but enough to make the exercise of reading much of it pretty unrewarding sometimes. It's just not okay to revel in that stuff.

    Is it possible to tell dark fantasy stories about morally ambiguous swashbuckler protagonists brooding on the nature of courage and quipping cynically in the face of supernatural horror---without relying on tropes that presuppose or normalize white supremacism, misogyny, etc.? YES. Sure, why wouldn't it be? Please let's start doing THAT instead of coming up with pseudo-intellectual wanky reasons to keep dwelling on the same stupid, hurtful cliches.

    ETA: The position I've taken above pertains to the question of writing new S&S stories and games. As for enjoying stuff from the past, I am totally down with saying, "I enjoy this thing, even though it has some unpleasant or unconscionable aspects, because I bracket those out and the stories also have this other thing I like. That's a privilege not everyone enjoys and I don't begrudge anyone who is actually hurt by the stuff I bracket." You can have a preference and defend it without having to defend everything about the thing you like.
  • edited January 2013
    It seems to me that my "you gotta think about things to understand them" attitude is very opposed to this idea that the right way to deal with e.g. sexism is to not talk about it, and to not present it in media.
    I'm with you on the spirit of what you are saying, Eero. But I think you're being unfair in some of the details. And this quote typifies that unfairness.

    There's a big difference between thinking about and understanding sexism versus what could be seen as a nonreflective modeling of negative stereotypes.

    As a critical reader, it's relatively easy to analyze and examine distasteful values when they are presented in a text.

    Not all readers are good critical readers. It's not entirely unreasonable for folks to want to put more positive behavior models in front of less critical readers, is it?

    Also, addressing sexism doesn't have to be done through modeling it. Especially when it is modeled without any appearance that the text's "opinion" of the sexism is either neutral or supportive.

    Just the fact that a text is presenting nonstandard sex roles means that it is, in fact, addressing sexism. I'd argue that many texts that are written more recently do so in a way that is much more positive.

    Does that mean you can't enjoy reading Howard? I don't think so. But it certainly doesn't mean others are wrong for finding it distasteful, either.

    As for the question of how you go about playing in such a genre, I agree that's a bit more of a sticky wicket.

    (Note, this post made without reading the mentioned thread, just Eero's post.)
  • Dangit. I didn't even really hit my point very well. Your unfairness in what I quoted is that you present the alternatives as "modelling unreflective, unabashed sexism" vs. "not talking about it at all".

    And I think there's a lot of other things you can do with sexism. You can present more positive models. You can condemn your sexist characters by making the bad guys sexist and the good guys not. You can actively have your characters talk about it. All sorts of things.

    That was my main point. I think your dichotomy was unfair.
  • Eero, I think you've unintentionally set up a kind of false dichotomy here, and let me see if I can get at it.

    I don't think most folks would argue that there's anything inherantly wrong with dealing directly with sexism, sexuality, gender roles, sexual violence, racism, oppression, slavery, bigotry, colonialism and all the rest in either fantasy fiction or fantasy games. As you say, one of the ways we can work out our various issues involving those things is to actually deal with them (another is to create imaginary worlds in which many of these issues are magically nonexistent or solved already, so we can imagine what that might be like and move toward it, but that's a different topic).

    The difficult part is HOW you deal with those issues, yeah? The difference between engaging with a difficult topic and reenacting harmful speech and behaviors (even in the context of a game) is sometimes a subtle or non-entirely-clear one (that lack of clarity is where some transgressive games like Poison'd and Bacchanal get some of their power, I think), but it is VERY IMPORTANT. And part of that, in my own personal experience, is getting everybody on roughly the same page about how we will engage with the problematic issues that will come up at the table.

    We don't have to have the same understanding of them! That can get worked out over time and, in the end, we will probably still leave with different impressions and memories of the same content and events. That's par for the course in this hobby. But it could also be totally disfunctional without some degree of shared understanding in approach, right? And things like the text, artwork, and rules of a game help set that tone.

    People enjoy or engage with pulp fantasy or other problematic genres in different ways at different moments. Sometimes we engage with it because it is inherantly problematic and full of all that great story meat and you get to rip that terrible stuff out and examine it and maybe learn something in the process. But we can also engage with it just by revelling in all of it, both good and bad, problematic and not, and not being too discerning about it or attempting to deal with any of the issues it raises. Does this make us terrible people? No, I don't think so. It's a natural thing. But it's also INHERANTLY PROBLEMATIC, because then all that stuff gets inside us and is repeated by us. Stories are powerful things, and things said and done in a game (despite what we sometimes say) don't take place in some magical other dimension, they happen in the real world too, at the table with other real people, and matter in real ways for our thoughts and relationships and future actions.

    I don't think it's realistic to expect people to always wrestle with and problematize all the messed-up stuff we encounter. That would just be too exhausting. Sometimes being a bit uncritical is necessary to relax and get by in the world. On the other hand, when we do have the energy and perspective to point out problematic stuff and either engage with it productively (learning lessons, trying to understand, trying to improve, etc.) or resist it (offering other models or understandings instead), that's a good thing, yeah? I would also suggest that it doesn't harm sword & sorcery (or any other genre or cultural thing) to directly engage or resist its problematic parts. If it can't survive that kind of examination, if it's inseperable from unexamined prejudices, then fuck it. But I'm pretty sure it's robust enough, because it is linked to ongoing issues facing humanity, like sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. It can survive examination: us ripping its problematic guts out, trying to understand them, and even trying to replace certain aspects. It's at least as tough (and problematic) as Shakespeare, right? We can mangle it into all sorts of different forms, examine it from all sorts of angles. And doing so tells us more about ourselves: both good things and bad things.
  • P.S. Everything I posted really applies to real life as much as games. Basically, I think the answer is that games aren't exempt from what we would ask of ourselves when faced with problematic speech and behaviors in other parts of our lives. We can't always directly confront everything and remain sane, but we should try to do what we can to make the world better, yeah?
  • You said in the other thread, we love to talk about misogyny and racism. For my part, I absolutely hate to talk about it. I would prefer to talk about pretty much literally anything. I wish people would get clued up and stop producing garbage and arguing for it so we could move on to more interesting things on the basis of a consensus.
    Yes, this is a fair and logical viewpoint. I am not wise enough to declare it wrong. Basically ever since the modernist shift it seems to me that everybody's had to make choices about how we are to structure our worldviews for a forward-looking world. On the one hand we can try to integrate the past, like romantics and conservatives and humanists and so on generally do; on the other hand we can try to forget the mire of history and develop a new humanity on a rational basis, like various brands of modernism from communism to American transcendentalism try to do. Pulp fantasy is a very integrating artistic impulse in general, I think: it's written and read so as to make peace with our history (I'm pretty sure that this was true for the originals, too - I can't elsewise interpret Howard's consistent romanticism for his imagined past), and to discover lessons for the future. Something like say classical scifi embodies the opposite viewpoint for me: envisioning the bold future world of reason, devoid of the follies of the past insofar as the author may imagine it.

    As far as cultural politics go, I think it would be fair to speak of these things in frank terms. Some things like say sword & sorcery fantasy get a pretty raw deal out of it when publications are critiqued on the seeming basis of inappropriate depiction of women and minorities. It would perhaps be more exact to just outright say what you suggest above: this shit is outdated, we want this just as much as blackface musical theatre, which is to say not at all. This might be a more fruitful approach for developing new, fresh fantasy literature, instead of trying to nitpick the entire genre piecemeal. What new things might be created, if we were to simply condemn pulp fantasy instead of attempting to force it into being politically correct?

    (The above basically refers to how you nitpicked that S&S fantasy game in the other thread on account of it having sexually charged art in the margins. I still haven't seen the art in question, but that whole approach seemed weird to me when what you actually apparently meant to say was that you don't want a sword & sorcery game at all, but rather something else that deals with a more egalitarian world. Just a thought.)

    Of course that runs into your second thesis here: as I understand it, you're saying that it's possible to have everything that is actually valuable in pulp fantasy without also having modernist ideological themes (racism, sexism, etc. - that whole list). I'm not personally so convinced, to me it seems that I've never read anything actually compelling in the genre of pulp fantasy without it having been about one of those four things I mention up in the first post. Perhaps it's possible.
    There's a big difference between thinking about and understanding sexism versus what could be seen as a nonreflective modeling of negative stereotypes.
    I agree with the spirit of your points, Rob, although I only have limited sympathy for the viewpoint that we need to regulate our literary output to account for the lowest common denominator of people who might be reading. Also, I don't think that it's wise to try to distinguish between talking about ideas and nonreflective negativity; the latter is just "talking about ideas" by somebody with whom you disagree, isn't it? I'm not comfortable with the sort of summary judgement that gets passed in progressive circles where bigotry is concerned, I suppose. In summation, I guess I favour a cultural landscape where all ideas, even the ones I disagree with, are regularly dusted up and taken out for a spin. The literal opposite of Creases's stance up above, it seems.

    Jonathan: I agree with nearly everything you say, as far as I can see. What "pure revelling" in something does to people is a too complex topic for me to pass judgement on, though; that could go either way. I tend to favour the idea that there is actually no such thing as harmful cultural exposure; there is just having too little or too biased cultural exposure, which is different. Again, could be wrong - there are a lot of people who subscribe to the idea that wrong kinds of music, comics or games hurt people and make them think in the wrong ways.

    Anyway, this is looking pretty good to me, lots for most anybody to think about. Any other viewpoints? I'm especially interested in hearing from those who think that pulp fantasy is problematic, but who also think that it's artistically worthwhile. Do you think that art needs to have a clear moral lesson, and that moral lesson needs to accord with liberal humanism, for the art to be praiseworthy?
  • edited January 2013
    (The above basically refers to how you nitpicked that S&S fantasy game in the other thread on account of it having sexually charged art in the margins. I still haven't seen the art in question, but that whole approach seemed weird to me when what you actually apparently meant to say was that you don't want a sword & sorcery game at all, but rather something else that deals with a more egalitarian world. Just a thought.)
    I'm all for sexy art. I'm against sexually exploitative art. I'm not arguing on grounds of prudishness. I'm arguing on grounds of inclusiveness: Who do we conceive as the target audience for this work? Who are we excluding, and why? Why aren't we including them? How are we depicting people like them, and how is that likely to affect how they receive the work? What are they likely to view as okay and cool, and what are they likely to view as alienating or insulting?

    Now, this is a matter of judgment. There are no rules or guidelines (though I think a good starting place is to actually seek out and take seriously the views of women, people of colour, people who do not identify as straight, and other people underrepresented among the authors of S&S fiction).

    I do think, though, that if you haven't actually looked at the art in question, then we aren't really having a serious conversation about this, right? I know what I'm talking about here and you don't, right?

    Whether I'm saying I don't want an S&S game depends on what you count as essential or accidental to S&S. I'm saying I don't want a game with racism and misogyny. Is that essential to S&S? It's certainly well represented in the texts typically named as the classics. It's represented in the art of BotIT, although less so in the text. Above, I gave the characteristics I thought were essential, and they had nothing to do with racism or misogyny. "Sword and sorcery" is not a natural kind. When you define a genre, which stories you take to be "classic", and which features are essential and which are not, requires an exercise of critical and editorial judgment. And that judgment has moral and political entailments, too. I would love a game that has the things I consider important and interesting to the genre.

    ETA: Like I said, I'm really not interested in actually debating this. This is a thing where I feel like either you sincerely want to get it, in which case you will go do some independent reading on your own initiative, or you don't, in which case debate will go nowhere. I'm always happy to clarify my view if you have any more questions about it, but I'm not interested in justifying myself beyond what I've said.
  • I do think, though, that if you haven't actually looked at the art in question, then we aren't really having a serious conversation about this, right? I know what I'm talking about here and you don't, right?
    No no, we're definitely not debating that other thread with the offensive margin art, I know nothing about that. It was more of an inspiration for me here. For all I know that art in there is horrid dreg, and you're completely correct about it being at odds with the game. Your commentary mostly drew my attention because the problems you cited about the art were that it had sexualized women and white people fighting black people. I would take both of those as granted when a game is associated with the sword & sorcery genre, so it seemed like an odd complaint. In fact, the news that the creators had the balls to do nudity counts as positive to me, as it signals that the game might be the "real deal" in thematic terms and not just Masters of the Universe style faux-pulp. That's pretty much our topic here: given that pulp fantasy is about sexualized people and horrible violence and cynicism and tribalism, and it thrusts a division between "natural" and "civilized" at our eyes so strongly, can that genre actually be good, or should we just repudiate it and ascribe any fondness to misplaced nostalgia.

    Also: I don't particularly want to debate this either, I'm just interested in how people think. Opinions are rarely changed quickly, in a flash of logic; it's more likely that if I'm wrong about what I like, I'll come to change my mind after many cycles of discussions like this. This belief, of course, could in itself be wrong-headed as well; many seem to subscribe to the idea that wrong ideas will only continue to persist if they are discussed and examined.

    What are people's favourite bits in the genre of sword & sorcery, anyway? For myself it definitely has to be the more organic, mature and dangerous tone of the work as compared to post-tolkien fantasy literature. What I mean is that when I read pulp fantasy, issues like who's the hero and who's the villain, or whether there are any, are all up in the air. The world is depicted in realistic terms, not flinching away from how horrible humans can be at each other. It's not beautiful in measured terms; if there is beauty in the S&S genre, it's going to assault you from the folds of ugliness, as fleeting moments. Or it may be the beauty of cosmological nature, where individual human fates may be awful, but the overall nature of the setting is securely balanced on natural law - or so the author would have us believe.

    The last time I read substantial S&S fantasy was I think last year when I read several books of the Thieves' World series - a well-known example of late-era S&S fantasy. I remember that the parts I liked best were the stark imaginations about the extreme social injustice of the city of Sanctuary, and the way this environment shaped and moved the various characters in the stories. For example, the sort-of-love-story between the captain of the royal guard and the madame of the brothel in the 1st or 2nd book of the series (I think they returned to that thread a few times, in fact) was interesting, as were all those stories about how greed and will for betterment can make people take insane risks when the opportunity presents itself.

    I'm not entirely sure how stories about such unjust worlds could be told without actually having the world of the story be unjust. This is where D&D fiction and much of the post-Tolkien fantasy literature in general fails me completely: post-tolkien fantasy literature is generally set in worlds that are miraculously clean, gender-equal, racially diverse and in all ways nice. People have nice little problems with cartoon villains. It doesn't feel like this type of fantasy literature can teach me anything when it is devoid of both the poetic virtues of Tolkien and the unflinching ideological drive of pulp fantasy. I'd rather read (and play) stories that try to prove and reaffirm that the only real justice in the world is a real man's sword arm - at least that story is standing for something, and it's a fantastic journey into somebody else's world whether I ultimately agree or not.

    What about you, what do you think is worthwhile or important in pulp fantasy literature? Would it be better if this sort of thing was phased out in the fantasy genre altogether?
  • Eero: My take on "harmful art" is that I can definitely imagine non-abusive things that would be unwelcome and unhealthy to my personal psychological well-being to experience. Being stuck in the pitch dark and played a recording of disturbing sounds, for example. That could be really disturbing and hard to shake off. And I have had a relatively happy and privileged existence where not too many truly awful things have happened to me, so I only have a theoretical appreciation of some of the true horrors of the world or the frustration of being treated like crap on a regular basis for a long period of time (I was bullied sometimes in school, but that's only kinda similar). Still, I know other people who have experienced some pretty terrible things up-close and personal or who are just more sensitive to disturbing things, and people who have been treated like crap because of who they are. So I definitely don't begrudge them the right to feel safe and welcome in gaming spaces and I'm willing to go relatively far out of my way to make up for the bullshit they've had to suffer in their lives. I feel like that's what I owe them, as a friendly person who wants them to be involved in games. How much do you compromise the aesthetic experience you want to have for someone else's comfort? It depends on what's more important to you, right? Most of the time, I think the person wins, but not necessarily always. If I'm pitching Poison'd and someone likes pirates but isn't interested in dealing with issues of sex and violence, that's just not going to work out. But I think roleplaying would be in better shape if we typically defaulted towards making people feel wanted and respected.
  • Do you think that there are literary genres that are exclusively the concern of specific genders or nationalities, and therefore one should not expect e.g. women to like or appreciate pulp fantasy?
    My boilerplate response to this topic every time it comes up is that I will personally be concerned about "white supremacism, colonialism, Orientalism, imperialism, militarism, misogyny, patriarchy, rape apology, homophobia, etc." in RPGs exactly when the mass market romance novel industry starts depicting men in a positive and realistic fashion. The amount of money and influence thrown around in that market dwarfs anything the RPG industry could ever produce.

  • My take on "harmful art" is that I can definitely imagine non-abusive things that would be unwelcome and unhealthy to my personal psychological well-being to experience.
    Yes, discretion towards individual people and their desires in art is of course warranted. But then I don't think that these issues are particularly associated, you know? I know that there are entire genres out there that I actively dislike myself (torture horror comes to mind), the least I can do is to respect other people's choices about what they want to experience. That's pretty much a basic presumption in arguing that media is safe at all - that's definitely not the case when we assume that people are not making their own voluntary and rational choices about what to experience. Voluntary consumption is an important safety valve that enables us to sample and choose when and where we expose ourselves to media.

    (In fact, this is a major reason for why I hesitantly support parental discretion in controlling media exposure of children; young children don't quite understand themselves and their own feelings, so they can get into traumatic situations with media without being able to just shut it off and walk away. Adults, though - I would hope that anybody worthy of the name is able to avoid that sort of hazard.)

    Setting aside the special case of involuntary exposure, though, I'm relatively confident with the idea that people are generally better off with more varied cultural experiences than less. To make a point of it, I think that reading Mein Kampf is good for most people, barring some exceptional cases that I'd like to relegate to the margins of culture politics - that is, I wouldn't want policy to revolve around the exceptional situations where reading Mein Kampf might not be good for you. In the vast majority of situations I would expect exposure to a rich mixture of true and untrue ideas to help hone a person's intellect and virtue. It's a pretty self-assured technocratic ideal that we could instead divide the cultural world into the things that are better forgotten, and the things that should be experienced for self-improvement. I won't say that it's an impossible dream, but it would take some doing to achieve such limitation without devolving into simple self-serving propaganda. What are you afraid of others knowing, that would always be the question.
    My boilerplate response to this topic every time it comes up is that I will personally be concerned about "white supremacism, colonialism, Orientalism, imperialism, militarism, misogyny, patriarchy, rape apology, homophobia, etc." in RPGs exactly when the mass market romance novel industry starts depicting men in a positive and realistic fashion. The amount of money and influence thrown around in that market dwarfs anything the RPG industry could ever produce.
    You have a point, although I wouldn't justify one wrong with another. Rather, how about we say it this way: just like pulp fantasy with its primitive era of swordsmen and opportunity appeals to people who are wrestling with the associated masculine themes, Victorian costume dramas and romance novels appeal to people who are wrestling with their understanding of femininity, fidelity, family and honor. I'm not convinced that a man reflecting on Conan is somehow engaging in a worse habit than a woman who finds it appealing to imagine the chaste, romantic and extremely gender-segregated society of early modernity. It would take some additional justification for me to be convinced that it's more OK to enjoy a story about women submitting to their romantic conquerors (to pick a theme I understand to be common in the "trash romance" genre - I'm not an expert) than to enjoy one about men solving their problems with violence.

    I do think that a hardline futurist has an argument that is difficult to refute: one can say that all this romantic delving in the past is so much meaningless folderol, and we should all turn our thoughts onto more worthwhile pursuits. Noble stories about better people. It's maybe not the most realistic of arguments, but it is difficult to naysay.
  • So much for putting our own house in order, huh.
  • Do you think that there are literary genres that are exclusively the concern of specific genders or nationalities, and therefore one should not expect e.g. women to like or appreciate pulp fantasy?
    My boilerplate response to this topic every time it comes up is that I will personally be concerned about "white supremacism, colonialism, Orientalism, imperialism, militarism, misogyny, patriarchy, rape apology, homophobia, etc." in RPGs exactly when the mass market romance novel industry starts depicting men in a positive and realistic fashion. The amount of money and influence thrown around in that market dwarfs anything the RPG industry could ever produce.

    I can't believe my prediction failed already. We're barely a week into January!
  • You have a point, although I wouldn't justify one wrong with another. Rather, how about we say it this way: just like pulp fantasy with its primitive era of swordsmen and opportunity appeals to people who are wrestling with the associated masculine themes, Victorian costume dramas and romance novels appeal to people who are wrestling with their understanding of femininity, fidelity, family and honor.
    That's certainly a more comprehensive way of putting it. I don't consider either of these genres "wrong", though; rather "equally fraught with gender-specific adolescent power fantasy". Assuming that's "wrong", shirt-rending histrionics about the tiny RPG industry when there's this 8000 lb romance novel industry elephant in the room seems like misguided effort to me.

    One thing that always seems to me to fall by the wayside in this topic is that S&S literature and S&S film ca. 1980 have very different tropes, but they often get lumped in together as if they're of a piece.

  • Eero,

    This is fascinating and I want to participate, but I don't have the stamina for having this conversation online.

    Here's something I wrote about Conan and racism a while ago: Link!

    In short: We can read these stories however we like, ignoring the probably racist intent of the authors. When you read Conan as being about racism, rather than as advocating racism, it's much more interesting. Some stories are easier to do this with than others.

    I'd like to talk about the Gor novels too. I read the first few of them recently, and found them both much better and much worse than I expected. Alas, too spicy for the internet.
  • edited January 2013
    One reason I don't buy that militarism, misogyny and racism are inherent to the genre is that there are plenty of examples that defy one or the other to a greater or lesser extent (while sometimes replicating the other problems). Conan, Gor and Carcosa aren't all there is, guys! Jirel of Joiry has a female warrior protagonist; Imaro is Afrocentric rather than Eurocentric; there are lots of ways you can vary some of the baseline cliches and still have something recognizably S&S.

    The 4e edition of Dark Sun also springs to mind as something where they made an effort. It's not perfect but, you know, it's not R.E.H.
  • I'm not entirely sure how stories about such unjust worlds could be told without actually having the world of the story be unjust. This is where D&D fiction and much of the post-Tolkien fantasy literature in general fails me completely: post-tolkien fantasy literature is generally set in worlds that are miraculously clean, gender-equal, racially diverse and in all ways nice. People have nice little problems with cartoon villains. It doesn't feel like this type of fantasy literature can teach me anything when it is devoid of both the poetic virtues of Tolkien and the unflinching ideological drive of pulp fantasy. I'd rather read (and play) stories that try to prove and reaffirm that the only real justice in the world is a real man's sword arm - at least that story is standing for something, and it's a fantastic journey into somebody else's world whether I ultimately agree or not.

    What about you, what do you think is worthwhile or important in pulp fantasy literature? Would it be better if this sort of thing was phased out in the fantasy genre altogether?
    I think there is a huge difference between depicting that racism and sexism exist versus engaging in it and/or glorifying it. For example, The Handmaid's Tale absolutely depicts a dark world full of sexism - but the story is pointed against sexism. There is a world of difference between this and works like Conan or John Carter. Similarly, the Imaro stories are very dark and feature plenty of racism, but they are pointedly opposed to real-life racism.

    I think it is an enormous cop-out to engage in the sexism and racism of old stories without re-thinking it. It doesn't require changing the world at all. Examples:

    I ran my Conan convention game, "Brawny Thews" ( http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/brawnythews/ ) - all of the characters are male Cimmerian warriors much like Conan. However, that game ultimately twisted around the genre tropes. I have trouble summing it up simply.

    Not swords and sorcery - but a similar issue is in my pulp game, "Shadow Centurions Assemble". I pull in real pulp villains like Fu Manchu and Shiwon Khan, along with Incans and West Africans. Rather than editing out the racist undertones, I am keeping them as is and commenting on them - mainly by mixing in real-world history with the character descriptions.
  • I agree with the common thread of the last few posts: there are different ways of approaching and handling themes of equality. This is pretty much what I said before, that the genre of pulp fantasy does not prescribe your conclusions, only your subject matter. The patriarchal agenda can be, and has been, deconstructed in increasingly varied ways within the genre over the decades. This is why I don't see engaging with the genre particularly problematic: people can and will make their own conclusions, and as Simon says that goes not only for the wise author, but also for the humble audience in the receiving end.

    (If I believed that wrong-headed books were despicable, I'd probably do something drastic to my Narnia collection.)

    What I'm not so sold on is the duality of engaging a text vs. deconstructing it, as if these were two different approaches. Both Jonathan and John have suggested that this is a key element in an allowable reading of literature like this. My problem with this model of text reception is that it presumes a political bias: you have to be One of the Wise and write/read/think correctly to not be corrupted by the falsehoods of the text. I quite can't wrap my head around this sort of thinking, it seems like something that only applies to somebody who already knows the Truth and is just reading stuff to pass the time on the way to Nirvana or wherever. The rest of us have to read with an open mind, engaging with texts or play games to learn what may be learned.

    As a comparison to John's deconstructive gaming approach where he knows in advance what the Truth (on racism in this case) is, my own way to play with controversial themes is usually predicated on laying the facts down and trying to understand: how does one come to think this way, or that? What are the consequences? So the process of play or reading is not a ritual refutation of old-moded thought, but rather an earnest attempt at seeing the world through the eyes of somebody different from myself.

    I don't know if this difference is significant, it's just something I noticed. I get a distinct sense of ritual denial from John's turn of phrase: it's allowable to read or play pulp material, but only if you know in advance to utilize that material in service of the right politics. Perhaps that's good for some artistic purposes.

    Anyway, good points from everyone. It's time for me to go get some shuteye, but feel free to continue if anything occurs on the topic. If you're feeling frustrated or angry at the subject matter (I'm saying this because SG has a tendency towards getting angry at these types of topics), remember that we're not debating anything, just comparing philosophies - and following along is voluntary. I at least haven't yet encountered any opinions that I'd so much as hate here, even where I don't agree.
  • edited January 2013
    It's easy to say we can or should engage with the problematic content of a genre when you're not the target of it, though, right? It's a privilege to be able to not take it personally, and that comes with being able to identify with the ones doing the problematic stuff rather than the ones who are being silenced and subordinated in the narrative. I don't see why the sensibilities or sensitivities of white heterosexual men should be our default baseline, and other people only get to participate in the genre as readers or game players if they accept that standard. Anyway, I've said my piece and have nothing else to add.
  • Daniel, I totally understand where you're coming from, but what I'm not seeing is how you intend to indicate that people who make RPGs have any effect one way or another on mass market romance novels. I mean, I find them to be largely worthless smut, but I don't buy or consume them, much like porn or meat. I could make this conversation about porn or meat, but it seems beyond the scope of the OP's intent. If you have an opinion about misogyny or orientalism in pulp fantasy, by all means, please share it and we can engage, but if you want to talk about mass market romance novels, that's probably a topic for another thread. If so, by all means, start that thread and your opinions will be engaged there. Thanks! :)
  • edited January 2013

    The key issue is that I value the genre of sword & sorcery literature, and often enough I value it for the way it presents powerful imagery of primitivist romanticism to the reader. In fact, these themes are so prevalent in the genre that I don't even recognize a given work as being proper pulp fantasy unless it deals with these types of themes:
    • Heroism is the masculine trait of being a natural leader and a natural egoist. The failure of masculinity is in lack of bravery. The negative, villainous man actualizes in treacherous, underhanded ways. The natural man is good in that his needs and desires are natural, he has natural sympathy for others, and he is not deceived by the lies of ideology.
    I don't actually see why a genre with your stated themes need make too many assumptions about gender roles; it only takes a slight revision of your first of your four thematic statements:
    • Heroism is the human trait of being a natural leader and a natural egoist. The failure of humanity is in lack of bravery. The negative, villainous person actualizes in treacherous, underhanded ways. The natural person is good in that the person perceives that needs and desires are natural, has natural sympathy for others, and is not deceived by the lies of ideology.
  • (If I believed that wrong-headed books were despicable, I'd probably do something drastic to my Narnia collection.)

    What I'm not so sold on is the duality of engaging a text vs. deconstructing it, as if these were two different approaches. Both Jonathan and John have suggested that this is a key element in an allowable reading of literature like this. My problem with this model of text reception is that it presumes a political bias: you have to be One of the Wise and write/read/think correctly to not be corrupted by the falsehoods of the text. I quite can't wrap my head around this sort of thinking, it seems like something that only applies to somebody who already knows the Truth and is just reading stuff to pass the time on the way to Nirvana or wherever. The rest of us have to read with an open mind, engaging with texts or play games to learn what may be learned.
    That doesn't sound at all like what I intended. I'm saying:

    1) There are works with wrong-headed messages, like John Norman's Gor novels or D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.

    2) There are also works with messages that oppose sexism and racism, like Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale or Spielberg's Lincoln.

    3) The difference between these two is not some airy subtlety. You don't need to be One of the Wise or have political bias to see a difference between Tarnsman of Gor and A Handmaid's Tale. True, they both feature a sexist culture where women are enslaved, but the difference in message is real, obvious, and in the text - not solely the result of pre-existing reader bias.

    4) I don't believe that sexist and racist works are inherently harmless and have no effect, but neither are they mind control that uncontrollably turns one evil.

    5) I believe in free speech and truth, so that such works should be kept around - but they should be criticized for their message. I would prefer, for example, that my son learn about racism first - then read Tarzan and recognize the racism in that - rather than destroying the book or having an edited version that tones down the racism.
    As a comparison to John's deconstructive gaming approach where he knows in advance what the Truth (on racism in this case) is, my own way to play with controversial themes is usually predicated on laying the facts down and trying to understand: how does one come to think this way, or that? What are the consequences? So the process of play or reading is not a ritual refutation of old-moded thought, but rather an earnest attempt at seeing the world through the eyes of somebody different from myself.

    I don't know if this difference is significant, it's just something I noticed. I get a distinct sense of ritual denial from John's turn of phrase: it's allowable to read or play pulp material, but only if you know in advance to utilize that material in service of the right politics. Perhaps that's good for some artistic purposes.
    I didn't say that and wouldn't say that. I'm saying that these are two different things: (1) the character of Fu Manchu in the context of Sax Rohmer's stories; and (2) the character of Fu Manchu in the context of real-world 1930s Asian history. Even though they feature the same character, they are not the same material - much like how there is a difference between John Norman's Gor and Margaret Atwood's Republic of Gilead. If my Shadow Centurions larp were set up like a Sax Rohmer story, it would be very different material from what it is.

    It sounds to me like you are claiming that my material is Biased, whereas yours is the Truth. i.e. Because I thoughtfully construct my material thinking about the implications, that therefore I can't make any discoveries in play. Whereas you claim to not have any bias, and therefore get the Truth from your play.

    I think that the idea of unbiased, neutral Truth doesn't exist in fiction, games, or real history. Game materials always have bias and a stance.
  • Heh. Honestly, isn't S&S really about the glory of having a great big dick? And really being in tune with it, so much so that you can channel it to overcome any odds before you? Foes! False ideals! The highly superficial misunderstanding by the opposite sex that you are not indeed the manliest, most layable man!

    Imagine a Conan poster or book cover. He still has his abs and humongous sword. It's at slightly different angle than the usual ones, though - instead of being a frontal picture, it emphasises the curvature of his likely supple buttocks. Maybe he's slightly arcing them out as he bends to cut off a giant snake's head, or something similar.

    It's still the same person, but the literature surrounding this new butt-centric character would be somewhat different, no?


    Anyway. The above is somewhat in jest, but there's a reason for it. I don't think there's something inherently wrong with the literature, but neither do I think that it really touches upon any really deep truths. As long as we recognise that a fairly good deal of it is a specifically male fantasy and treat it as such, both the need to frame it in terms of great questions answered and something that needs to be gender-neutralized should disappear.

    I am somewhat more sympathetic to Eero's framing of the issue, implicit in which is the need for good literature to be about real human questions. Stuff like "Heroism is the masculine trait of being a natural leader and a natural egoist." is, even if in my opinion mistaken, an attempt to provide a way of framing issues you would encounter in real life.

    Stuff like crease's "dark fantasy stories about morally ambiguous swashbuckler protagonists brooding on the nature of courage and quipping cynically in the face of supernatural horror" is a theme, a set of entirely superficious elements. With all of that estabished, you still wouldn't really know what the genre is about. Can you make literature or games like that? Yes, but if that's all you get to use, it'll be crap. Not even wrong, as the phrase goes.
  • You think that art needs to have a clear moral lesson, and that moral lesson needs to accord with liberal humanism, for the art to be praiseworthy?
    No. No. A thousand times no.

    The question for me is:what else is the artist offering in lieu of liberal piety or making moral stances? A John Cage musical piece is a non-representational experience that invites me to begin listening in a different way. It is a chance to let my ego dissolve. I am not learning any content that I can employ in some instrumental way for the benefit of myself or for others. Sometimes I like my entertainments to have determinate content and opportunities to excercise my moral judgment. Sometimes not.

    Now, I am well-paid, well-fed, and in a North American welfare state with a particular place in the world system. Perhaps some utilitarian or radical could fault me for frittering away my time and resources when there is so much work to be done to help others who don't have my good fortune or whose lives are made worse by the kind of consumerist, 1st world, G20 position I inhabit. But my leisure time would have to be sacrificed in any case. It is not a question of buying Bob Marley Mp3s instead of Black Sabbath. I should be buying less and contributing my wealth and leisure time for the good of others.

    But if we frame the issue in terms of leisure time, and options available for persons with a social position like mine, I don't see why amoral and aimless activities suffer much in comparison to leisure activities with a gloss of moral purpose on them. Is the bus driver who reads William S. Burroughs to be castigated for her choice of reading, and a copy of Little Dorrit substituted? The driver is still going to have to put in her 40 hours come monday morning. The narcissistic pleasure of congratulating oneself for being morally upright, or the narcissistic pleasure of congratulating oneself for daring to imagine things that most people shy away from, is the same narcissistic pleasure.
  • Heh. Honestly, isn't S&S really about the glory of having a great big dick? And really being in tune with it, so much so that you can channel it to overcome any odds before you? Foes! False ideals! The highly superficial misunderstanding by the opposite sex that you are not indeed the manliest, most layable man!
    I doubt that C.L. Moore, Jessica Salmonson, Leigh Brackett, or Andre Norton would agree with you.

    But you are right in that there is an excess of male power fantasies available for consumption. As to literature and art that exposes irresponsible, bloody, and fantastical fantasies of female power, I am only just becoming aware of it. Digging up copies of Amazons I and II is much harder than, say, walking into the nearest comic book store, doing a 2 second internet search, etc.

    Charles' Saunders represents whites as slave-taking perverted humans serving Cthulhoid gods in his Imaro stories. He is not responsible for constructing a complete cosmos in which we are shown a balance of virtuous and vicious white characters. He is not responsible for elaborating a framework for racial justice in his adventure stories. He is not writing alternative history. He is writing bloody power-fantasies. The fact that persons who look like him have been denigrated in earlier examples of the genre he is using is regrettable. The fact that he is exercising the privilege of being irresponsible, the freedom to turn even the nastiest part of his imagination into some kind of art, a freedom that he and his community were denied and had to struggle to achieve, is to be celebrated.

  • edited January 2013
    This article: http://yggdrasildistro.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/conan-zine-web-reading.pdf

    argues that gender roles, racial oppression, socio-economic classes, etc are all the constraints of civilization. They are simply forms of oppression. The author states that if anything, Howard was far ahead of his time, using Conan's barbaric tendencies as a way to advance his political beliefs including feminism, anarchism, and primitivism.

    I need to brush up on my Howard before I agree with the article, but it was an interesting viewpoint.
  • The author states that if anything, Howard was far ahead of his time, using Conan's barbaric tendencies as a way to advance his political beliefs including feminism, anarchism, and primitivism.

    I need to brush up on my Howard before I agree with the article, but it was an interesting viewpoint.
    My impression has been that Howard could reasonably be called a latent feminist, perhaps even without the qualifier (not sure about that). I don't think that in general he was ahead of his time, though, given that he was a virulent racist. Being into anarchy or primitivism doesn't seem to be "ahead of his time" in that sense.

    http://www.rehupa.com/OLDWEB/updates/romeo_southern.htm

    http://skullsinthestars.com/2011/03/28/what-did-robert-e-howard-think-of-women/
  • I don't personally really know about this power fantasy interpretation. It's basically going to be a case-by-case thing, where some texts and play are going to feature easier answers and cheap catharsis, while others are different. Many say the same about D&D, that it's about power fantasy, and I have to say that there are few games where our group would have had less powerful and imperiled player characters.

    If I had to name the common compelling literary theme in Conan stories, it wouldn't be the fantasy of being a macho man. Rather, it'd be the moral simplicity of merely being. Conan's life is not particularly easy, he's not above his fellow men. What he does have is the freedom and courage to be whatever he desires to be, and this might feel desirable in the context of a story, but it's not just a power fantasy most of the time. The typical interpretation is that Conan was deemed compelling from the start because of the stark difference between his primitive world and the industrial, modern society in which Howard wrote.

    The problem I see in assuming a leftist dialectic in advance of reading these texts and playing these games is largely that doing so will make your interpretation be not about the issues the author highlights, but rather about the issues you bring in yourself - you'll end up in a dialogue with the entire modern age, obscuring the specific author. We can complain about roleplaying games or Conan stories not being racially diverse enough for our tastes (presumably on the theory that this is important), for example, but conflating this external observation with literary critique means that we never actually see what the author is talking about. This is basically saying that we should never, ever actually listen to anybody insofar as their work has even a hint of [sexism, racism, etc.] in it. If that's the way it is, then I suppose the notion of throwing out all this outdated cultural history and forgetting about it is the best course after all.

    In comparison, that list of themes I identified in the first post, that's a stab at interpreting what S&S literature tends to be about. If we read The Tower of the Elephant without an open mind and focus only on hints of power fantasy, racism and sexism that we might find, then this means that we end up ignoring the crime story (it's that theme of immanency, people taking foolish risks because they live in a world where life is cheap) and the climax twist where the god/demon Yag-Kosha proves to be a person worthy of mercy despite his inhuman form.

    I have no particular need to defend Howard's philosophies and politics, of course, but I do want to understand him and everybody else, both alive and dead, and this doesn't seem possible through a simple lens that reduces a man talking about his man issues into simple power fantasy, with dashes of racism and sexism on the side.

    I don't know how much this possible difference in readings influences the opinions in this discussion. If your personal understanding of e.g. Howard's Conan is that it's all about big-dicked men fighting each other to steal away women, then I can understand how it's compelling to just throw it out, or take some superficial color for new things, or only relate to it through parodies and deconstructive critique.
  • edited January 2013
    I think we play ironically/deconstructively a lot more than we might think in RPGs, and that can interfere with this conversation.

    Like, Spycraft. I love Spycraft, it's a super-fun action espionage game in the mold of James Bond or one of the more action-oriented Mission Impossible films. For me it's an exciting game addressing a genre I love. But I know that in order for even lighthearted superspy action-espionage to be acceptable, it must be in a world that's basically a conservative fantasyworld: international cooperative efforts, the rule of law, human rights and economic manipulations are not just pointless, they're part of the problem, when confronting pure evil and madness, and if some good-looking person with a gun doesn't suavely kill 100 goons and kick the bad guy off the top of a cathedral then the world is doomed.

    It's a persistent fantasy that reflects a viewpoint causing harm here in the real world. One of our Supreme Court justices here in the U.S. rather famously commented that he might take the show "24" into account when deciding on cases regarding torture, a show that I guess he didn't really watch that close, but whatev.

    But I enjoy this fantasy, it's superheroics in expensive suits and cool kevlar looking outfits with pouches and belts; never mind that in the real world people who did these kinds of things would not just fail to be the hero, they would be among the monsters.

    So I don't know, given what I feel about espionage, intelligence-gathering and geopolitics, given I (as a Christian and a guy that has read a history book at some point in his life) find it my inescapable duty to hate war and love peace, am I a hypocrite for enjoying Spycraft? P'raps. If you accused me of hypocrisy I might not have a good reply. But perhaps I'm not espousing the underlying principles when I inhabit that world and my 9th level Pointman solves Ruritania's problems by jumping a motorcycle off something that is exploding. Maybe, despite fully inhabiting a character in that world and putting myself in their shoes, I still have enough distance that I'm not fully implicated by everything that happens there. (Not to mention that I'm not the only one at the table.)

    Then you pose to me the question "well JDC, that's an interesting theory, but does the same thing hold true for GMs who are designing a Spycraft scenario" and I go "uhhh" and then you insist, pointing your finger at me, "AND JDC what do you have to say about the responsibility of the DESIGNERS of Spycraft" and now I'm really stuck. I have no clue. I'm still trying to figure it out. GET OFF MY BACK MOM, GOSH
  • guys, it's only partially relevant, but Saunders has a blog where offers his point of view on S&S, fantasy, Howard, etc.
    http://www.reindeermotel.com/CHARLES/charles_blog.html

    It's an interesting read.
  • The super-agent genre of James Bond is actually a very good comparison to pulp fantasy, they have a similar sort of thing going. Both are politically incorrect as fuck, and James Bond is an awful, horrible person by most any real-life measure. Still, I find relevance in reading Bond novels and similar cold war era literature that gives me insight into how people enmired in that political situation thought and felt about the world around them. James Bond is sort of a desperate cry of the primitive/conservative man in the gears of civilization: the world might look civilized on the surface, but the Bond novels are full of sad warning tales of what happens to people who are naïve about the world of politics and international intrigue where the law of the jungle is as powerful as ever. (They get seduced by liars and shot in the back after they've betrayed everything of value in their lives, in case you're wondering.) James Bond is a man out of time in this context, especially after Casino Royale; he knows that human weakness is always going to backfire on you, and that makes him a merciless killer for his political masters. In his heart of hearts Bond knows that the Communist is an inhuman beast, for he is a true patriot.

    (The movie Bond is a bit different, of course, but I see similar themes there as well.)

    The point being, I don't need to agree with the fear-encrusted worldviews of old literature to want to understand them: the people who wrote it, their world, their message. I also don't feel like it's a good idea to approach the world with moral certainty, so that I know a priori without experiencing what James Bond has to teach that it's all going to be outdated rubbish. What if I stumble upon something that actually has more truth to it than my personal biases, but ignore it because I'm not open to understanding?

    For these sorts of reasons I don't usually feel a need to sort literature and other arts into political categories. I'm usually more interested in the artfulness of the execution (which I equate to truthfulness, pretty much). There are tidbits of wisdom scattered all around us in the world, and you can find insight into it even in Mein Kampf if you read with empathy. In this same spirit I'm inclined to think that it's a good thing that people play pulp fantasy or espionage thriller games that let them deal with issues they find compelling.

    Admittedly it's the audience reception theory where my laissez-faire attitude might show a few cracks. Is there such a thing as uncritically brainwashing yourself by filling your head with false propaganda? That is, are you actually more ignorant if you watch a 100 westerns (yet another romantic genre full of bullshit political assumptions) than if you didn't? Seems to me that this is pretty much the root difference in many of the attitudes we've seen in this thread. Some find it obvious that "you are what you eat", and thus it's our responsibility to patronize art and culture that is responsible - both for our own sake and for the sake of other poor unfortunates who might be tempted by the wrong kind of art. I find this attitude foreign, and actually spend a lot of time engaging the culture of the "enemy", whether that means reading Christian evangelists or monarchist adventure literature from the 19th century.
  • Eero, I'd love to talk with you more about this, but it seems like you're making a strawman out of the argument that I'm trying to make (also, the argument that John Kim is trying to make), so I'm not sure how to engage with that. I'm definitely not saying that you need to read these stories (how did we get to reading these stories from roleplaying? that seems like an entirely different thing) with preconcieved notions about them, but that you can -- and maybe should -- engage the texts critically as well as for enjoyment, just like you might engage any other texts. There are lots of different ways to engage with texts and narratives critically! I'm not implying any particular set of behaviors, necessarily. There's a difference between considering yourself "one of the enlightened" (or whatever you're trying to imply) and going in with a sense of perspective and awareness and then seeing what you find.
  • I'm just trying to phrase the thinking in my own words, no strawmans intended. What do you think about the field of issues I raised, Jonathan? I mean, you did suggest that it's important to approach wrong-headed culture critically so as to avoid being unduely influenced by it, right? How do you propose to discover what is wrong-headed, and how is the critical framework for analysis formed? In my eyes this is important, as it relates to the way we take influence from the culture around us.

    The conflation of reading with playing is just a shorthand; if any of you feel that these are fundamentally different activities, feel free to focus on either and exclude the other. I don't myself draw a very hard line between the activities of authoring, game design, reading and playing; they're all basically ways of processing ideas and different parts of communication.
  • Personally, I find it a lot easier to think critically about media I'm consuming rather than live situations that I'm acting out in collaboration with other people, where I have much less control of the experience and much less distance from it.
  • Makes sense. My experience is that both roleplaying and reading enable me to see the world through other people's eyes - that is, imagine their concerns and motivations for their actions. In this way both are similar. I haven't thought of the critical angle, really, but I'd say that in both literature and gaming the main part of the critical thinking comes afterwards for me, and insofar as they happen in the midst of it, it can happen in both.

    As Jason rightfully mentioned above, roleplaying has a very strong ironic layer that has not been discussed much (interesting topic, we should talk about it at some point). At least at our game tables it is entirely usual for players to portray characters who have human virtues and faults that the player doesn't possess. This leads to situations where e.g. racist thinking and action is portrayed in the game. The entire process is more strongly ironic than most storytelling - not in a comic sense, but simply in that the players at the table acknowledge a differentiation between the player as author and the player's own convictions. In this sense I might say that for us roleplaying is constantly a much more critical process than a passive media could be.
  • edited January 2013
    Speaking personally again: for me, real racism and sexism is still far too common in U.S. roleplaying / geek circles (just go to GenCon or PAX) for me to feel super relaxed and comfortable acting out those behaviors at the table in many cases. Sometimes it comes up in games and, in relatively familiar and/or collaborative spaces, it can be handled and expressed in a way that is challenging but still productive. Or if the game is specifically about those kinds of issues, like Dog Eat Dog or Kagematsu, then you kinda know what you're getting involved in when you play the game, and it's structured in such a way as to make exploration relatively constructive. However, lacking that sort of environment, such as playing with strangers or people in whom I don't have a high level of trust, honestly I'd rather either (1) be in a position of authority [like the GM] where I can help mediate how we handle problematic content, or (2) avoid dealing with any of that stuff directly.

    So some of this may come from the context of play. I probably play 50% games with random people and 50% games with intentionally created groups. Some random groups establish a high level of trust instantly. Like, when I pitched Dog Eat Dog at SGSeattle, the players who were interested basically self-selected themselves to be a group that felt pretty comfortable with each other after about 15 minutes. That doesn't usually happen, however. And sometimes I play games with people that I know and like but don't necessarily have high levels of trust with at the table, because I know we think about and process games differently, and that it's something I have to be aware of. But in general the intentionally-created groups have higher levels of trust and comfort. Sometimes, of course, you can choose to take risks and throw down Poison'd in front of a group of people you know nothing about and see how it goes. You might get lucky or somehow be able to navigate that! And there's definitely something freeing about trying something challenging with new people that you may or may not play games with again. There's fewer expectations, certainly, and people may have the freedom to try things they might not normally go for.

    But, in some very real senses, U.S. gaming culture is one of the least progressive arenas of culture in society, maybe second only to hardcore sports fans and even then the sports environments of some cities (like Seattle) are pretty progressive. But if I hang out in a gaming store in Seattle and listen to people talk about games or listen to them play games, holy crap, dude, all this awfulness comes out in a neverending stream. It's not universal, by any means, but it's everywhere and it's often baked into the gaming products that people are consuming, so no real surprise there. And smart, progressive people are the ones who perpetuate and revel in it (typically, no surprise here, men and boys). Nerds often like to think that being smart makes you immune to internalizing all this stuff, but it's very clearly not the case. And because it's a game and because that frees people to say and act out things in exaggerated fashion, it all comes right out sometimes. Probably sometimes it comes out of me too, because I can't pretend to be immune either.
  • That actually makes perfect sense, Jonathan, and sheds light to some earlier discussions about the topic as well.

    Looking at Finnish game culture in comparison, my own sense is that roleplaying is simply higher on the prestige ladder here in Finland, which means that people are more comfortable treating it as an organic part of their cultural activities in general, instead of setting it aside as a separate guilty pleasure. This then means that politics and philosophy are a more natural part of the gaming content. With American gamers it sometimes seems like it's important to keep the game to universally acceptable topics because the players want to preserve an illusion of comfortable camaradie; around here the game is more of a vehicle of socializing, perhaps - we might disagree on things, but it's a polite and respectful sort of disagreement among friends, like a literary salon. The content of play is taken less personally, too: the game you play does not define who you are and what you believe, it just shows what you've been curious about lately.

    This definitely has to do with the respective political environments, too. It very much seems to me, looking from the outside, that the people of the USA are much more deeply divided in their political interests than people of a small polity like Finland. I mean, reading about how people feel about even acknowledging differing opinions (perhaps ones that belong to the wrong political party) here, I can't say that we would have anything like that in Finland. There is no political movement in the entire country that would prevent its member from sitting at my gaming table, and I've never heard of that kind of trouble here, either.

    But be that as it may, I can understand wanting to avoid predesignated touchy topics in the sort of environment you describe. And this social concern will then, by extension, explain much of the attitudes towards game texts and other cultural products, too.
  • Can I push you a bit on the "cultural differences" explanation , Eero? I am willing to believe that there are some differences in how roleplaying is approached in your circles (in an "artsier" fashion, perhaps) that makes a substantial change, but I'm a bit wary of national or continental explanations based on societal values.

    My general sense is that Europeans often consider Americans to be overly sensitive about issues of race, ethnicity, and sexism, yeah? And this seems to come from: (1) people acknowledge that the United States has a long and troubled history with race, as a formerly colonial enterprise and slave-owning society, and (2) the belief that Europe doesn't have these problems to the extent America has, either because Europeans are more "enlightened" or less confrontational (certainly less likely to sue each other) or more homogeneous. Maybe you don't buy those arguments either, but I tend to think they're not really true. Certainly Europe has a host of issues related to racism and sexism, such as the North/South split, the presistence of fascist ideologies, male chauvanism, the historical memory of WWII, etc.

    In my experience, it's more the case that Europeans have many of these same issues, but they don't talk about or publicize them in national debate to the extent that Americans do, so they may be easier to patch over or ignore. But then I read about the issues that France has in trying to bring together a conservative and sometimes xenophobic white middle/upper class and an urban underclass of young non-white men, often of North or West African descent. Or you read about how anti-sexual harassment legislation had to be passed first at the EU level (long after the U.S. had done it) and then trickled down to the various European states, because there was so much resistance at the national level. Europe seems more progressive than America on some issues (gay marriage, guns, paternity leave) but less progressive in others (racism, sexual harassment, multiculturalism). And there's obviously national and regional differences that complicate these kinds of broad generalizations.

    But now we're getting into the continental explanations that I didn't want to get into and away from roleplaying. So I guess what I'm trying to say is: my sense is that these issues are more universal than you're suggesting here. Yes, local play context matters, of course. But we all live in a world full of racism and sexism, yeah? Or do you not feel like that's the case?
  • edited January 2013
    I just can't stay away from this thread. I have one more thing that I want to see mentioned, because the conversation has trended in that direction.

    Racism in the fantasy genre of the early to late 20th century isn't an isolated, purely literary phenomenon. It's one instantiation of an entire cultural enterprise devoted to promoting and defending white supremacy. People of colour were depicted as savages in fantasy because they were being depicted as savages everywhere in Western literature, and have been since the 16th century. That was a hugely important part of normalizing slavery (and justifying it retrospectively, long after it was abolished), political repression and economic exploitation, domestic racial discrimination, lynching, inequities in the penal system, and other forms of systemic hatred. People have been tortured, lynched, denied freedom, and excluded from means of subsistence or self-sufficiency, in living memory, and these things continue to happen, and it's ignored or downplayed because of this dehumanizing discourse.

    Fantasy authors aren't solely responsible because fantasy literature isn't the only place in which dehumanizing depictions of people of colour can be found. But fantasy authors are responsible for the extent to which they perpetuated dehumanization and relied on it to cheap effect. It's a part of that legacy, that bigger systemic set of crimes that are ongoing and whose effects are ongoing. One consequence of the fantasy side of this is that the fandom is predominantly white---which means, even well meaning fantasy fans can have a hard time recognizing the viciousness of some of this material, because they aren't the ones who have first hand experience being labelled or treated as savages. The only way that changes is by making fandom a more welcoming place, and the only way to accomplish that is to tell stories that reflect an interest in dark fantasy swashbuckling adventure that lots of people can identify with, and doing so in a way that doesn't depend on the symbolic representations of dehumanization.

    Similar considerations apply to women and the treatment of violence against women in fantasy literature (where it's used to establish "realism"---meaning, fantasy literature normalizes it and sometimes even revels in it even when the value judgment attached to it is putatively negative). And a related point can be made about queer identities and gender nonconformity, inasmuch as the tropes of "masculinity" in fantasy literature are part of a systemic cultural representation of sexual behaviour and gender performance which is often invoked to justify torturing and murdering people who don't identify as male, or don't behave in the proscribed way according to the touted standard.

    Now, some European societies have not been affected by these issues to the same extent as USA and the Commonwealth countries. That's cool and all, but I think that means there's an onus on you to not be glib about other people's lives. That's true of anyone who enjoys privilege, to the extent they do, because privilege means being insulated from reality to a greater or lesser extent by virtue of being white, or male, or heterosexual, or what have you.
  • Thank you for this thread, I am learning a lot from it.
  • I'm more or less completely unaware of how men are depicted in Romance literature. Can someone summarize the problematic points for me without derailing other stuff?
  • (This is going to get some hate-mail, I can just feel it.)

    When it comes to philosophy of society, I'm totally with attempts to explain the world in non-essentialist ways. Racism and sexism and such are all intellectually speaking similar errors in thought (where and when they are in error, that is - there exist plenty of possible worlds where either might be correct to some degree, as fans of speculative fiction should know): they attempt to explain phenomena from essential causes, simplifying the world to a degree where actual truth gets lost.

    Considering the above, I'm more than happy to look critically at any explanation for differing mores that relies on neat cultural labels. Presumably, if European and American attitudes are different, there exists some more substantial reason than "basic American character" or "basic European character". I wouldn't want to suggest that the investigation stops at declaring "cultural differences" and accepting that; we can also ask why the attitudes are different. Doing otherwise would be to choosing to rely on the racist belief on the matter, as if there existed a fundamental and unexplainable national character.

    I would say that looking at Europe on a continental level is too high up - the individual countries differ radically in their history, and consequently their attitudes towards multicultural environments. Finland, for instance, truly presents such wide swatches of homogenous society in the great majority of the country that things like racism seem entirely different from it seems any place at all in the USA. I wouldn't characterize it more or less advanced (except if you think that an ever-more fractured society is advancement), it's just a societal situation where race, specifically, is not nearly as everyday a topic as it apparently is in the USA.

    (A short primer on race in Finland: the country basically involves four old ethnicities, of which native Finns and their variants are about 90%. The second-most important ethnicity are Swedish-Finns who clock in at 4%. Sami and Romani Finns are much more rare. The rest of the population consists of a random jumble of international ethnicities that've come to the country in minor streams, mostly over the last century. Furthermore, the non-Finnish ethnicities are overwhelmingly focused in coastal urban settlements, leaving the interior practically monoethnic until the very near past.)

    This is not to say that racism is entirely a non-issue: if you live in Helsinki (which I don't currently), you have a much more international environment where racial discourse resembles American reality much more. Out here, though... I don't know, should we act as and think if we were living in New York? Most liberal people around here are race-blind for the simple reason that there's little practical exposure to racial issues, and what little there is has not been phrased in the frankly insane racialist framework that Americans use in conjoining genetics and culture. It is largely impossible for us to be otherwise, unless you actually think that we should pose like we were New Yorkers with black BBFs and all.

    Overall I think that Jonathan has a point in suggesting that there are European regions where we are overly naïve about things like racism, as compared to the wider world. For instance, when I say above that the more liberally inclined rural Finn is "race-blind", I don't just mean that we don't care about race. It's equally true that our attitudes are often untested and purely theoretical. I don't personally think that this is in all ways better than the hysteric sensitivity that the American history and demographics seem to encourage. On the one hand it seems to me that we raise a lot of kids who just don't get to harbor significant racial prejudices, but on the other hand maybe they'll develop them once they first meet people they find different than themselves? Who knows.

    Meanwhile, we're also different as regards sexism, it's just not entirely fair to assume that we'd be identical to USA on this. I can confidently say that Finnish women have never in the history of the nation been subjugated to the degree that southern European cultures share with the Middle-East. (I count American puritans with their Bibble-inspired misogyny in this box, too.) Of course the pan-European layers of civilization have been as chauvinistic here as anywhere, so spheres like the academy and government have been playing catch-up ever since independence, but the overall situation just doesn't seem that dire to me - personal rights, rights to property, judicial rights of women are all pretty complete here as far as I know. (Yeah, privilege enables me to ignore the injustice - bite me.) Is it a failure of human being for somebody from a Nordic background to just not worry day and night about whether the female majority in the Finnish rpg hobby might feel themselves sufficiently welcome?

    You, Jonathan, have often told me that you think that racial issues are more universal than I think. I, on the other hand, would like to suggest that it is a manner of hubris to think that the American racial and gender dialectic is universal. That's probably part of the reason for why the weight of evidence presented in the sort of privilege discussion Creases is introducing fails to move me personally - it's talking about somebody else's reality, not mine, and it's doing it with a type of win/win propaganda that recognizes no dialogue, only supplication. Basically the only way to participate in that game is to align yourself with colonialist misogynists who seek forgiveness from the minorities; this doesn't make much sense to somebody who is not of your country nor history.

    Well, anyway. I suspect that nothing good will come of arguing cultural politics, but if any of you would like to contrast and compare your own experiences, feel free. I especially suspect that we should just stay away from that privilege discourse; we've had it in the past, and so far it's failed to move me. Could be that it's because I'm so privileged that you wouldn't believe, or because it's a dialectic trap set up as a win/win for its user, who gets to decide who's privileged and who's not.

    Also, let's not forget the point of the above rambling, I was answering Jonathan: yes, I think that racism and sexism are pretty universal as issues. What I am considerably more suspicious about is the accepted orthodoxy of American discourse on the topic. I don't usually mind you guys talking like there's nobody from outside the US here, but on this particular topic I have to admit that the conceit grates on my nerves. As you can hopefully see from the above, there are plentiful experiences of different degrees and types of social ills and goods in the world, so trying to set up simple solutions like say pushing pulp fantasy through a political correctness wringer seems simplistic to me. I would rather receive the pulps as part of our cultural history, warts and all, and learn from them what might be learned. This in contrast to what Creases suggests just above, a systematic program of affirmative action in favour of ignoring the past.
  • I don't think that's a fair reading of John Kim, Eero. As long as his games aren't total railroads it's hard to see how he's predetermining the game's political meaning.

    But, here's the important point: the reason exploitative art in gamebooks is simply bad is that it's not something that can be engaged with in the same way as the fictional content of an adventure.
  • I don't know. I think mechanics can have political weight too. Look at Blood & Honor's War mechanic. It's brilliant: War is awful, horrible, ruins everything and everyone. And eventually you will maim yourself so badly trying to avoid it that it'll be on you before you know it.

    Do I agree with this political statement? Probably not. But I love that Blood & Honor makes it in its mechanics.
  • Eero, I don't particularly disagree with anything you said, necessarily, except maybe the part about women being in a fine position since they have the same political rights (which you kinda admitted might be a simplification). Certainly, the kind of "postcolonialist" discourse that was invented in the West is not appropriate to all situations, though leftist academics in the U.S. have -- to a certain extent -- exported it to other places. China, for example, likes to draw on some of those memes to defend some of its more dubious practices, which has been interesting to observe, ideologically. I do think, however, that globalization and the increasing diversity of the world in general will eventually affect folks even in the more remote parts of Finland (or, as you say, if they move to Helsinki and have to deal with people that talk in act in ways that they find alienating).

    Here's the thing, though, about the American majority. Most Americans don't necessarily think about race and gender the way they're being discussed by the more left/progressive folks here. That's still a minority perspective in this country and folks are still struggling for these issues to be taken seriously here (even in communities that like to think of themselves as liberal and progressive), which explains the often strident reactions that these topics engender. There's been progress, but it's still an uphill battle most of the time, especially in communities like roleplaying which are based often based around celebrating problematic tropes. So a lot of the language that doesn't particular make sense to you is often aimed at fighting other battles with other (American) audiences. With the number of Americans on this forum (and in the other online roleplaying circles) sometimes you're going to get hit with the spray from shotgun blasts that aren't aimed at Finland necessarily, so I guess my suggestion is more of "if the shoe fits, wear it" approach. To the extent that this stuff makes sense to you or provokes interesting ideas, cool. But it may also be the case that there's controversies going on that are about the American (or UK or what have you) roleplaying scene and what people here want and need from it, and that some of those won't really be as applicable to the issues you see in your own roleplaying communities. That's no real surprise, is it? I'm not sure how you should engage with those controversies (that's kinda up to you), but it's definitely a thing, yeah? I mean, I'm often feel similar when I read the Nordic larp volumes and feel like I don't really have a horse in any of the races that they discuss.
  • I don't think that's a fair reading of John Kim, Eero. As long as his games aren't total railroads it's hard to see how he's predetermining the game's political meaning.

    But, here's the important point: the reason exploitative art in gamebooks is simply bad is that it's not something that can be engaged with in the same way as the fictional content of an adventure.
    Certainly not. Especially with that larp, I don't even know what the political meaning is. My methodology for creating my pulp villains larp was to put in the villains exactly as they were portrayed in the original source material, and to also add in historical notes on the real-world situation in the 1930s. In the three times I've run it so far, it's always been interesting to see where players take it. It was also an interesting learning process in writing the characters, and I found things out both about the original pulps and the real-world history.

    Personally, I feel like the point of role-playing is to try out new things and see where they go. When I want to learn more about the original pulps, I'll read the original pulps. In my games, the point is more exploratory.

    I've played in a number of games that where the GM or organizers claimed to be just sticking to old pulp source material, but those generally felt more like revisionism to me. They tried to make the original more palatable, such as selectively imitating the few strong female characters, rather than having the female characters be representative of the characters in the originals. These came across to me as revisionist defense of the source material, rather than exploring what the original was really like.
  • John: I believe you on the practical point, certainly. My musing on your methodology was more of an ontological conundrum: given that pulp literature is an OK influence on gaming only if it is approached with forethought and sensitivity, who decides what constitutes forethought and sensitivity? It seems that you're just saying that pulp's cool when it's interpreted your way, but bad when it's interpreted differently. I don't think that this is an insurmountable wicket by any means, it just stood out for me at the time. (I'm not even particularly convinced that I'd want to defend bigotry-affirming pulp gaming as "forethought" and "sensitive" in a real debate, to be entirely frank. I think that I could pull it off myself, but then I tend to have an inflated opinion of myself in general.)

    Jonathan: That's quite sensible. I guess I just should keep out of these USA-internal racism/sexism discussions on the principle that it'll just confuse things to mix in minority viewpoints. My idealist tendencies apparently get provoked by this entire idea that cultural heritage should be censured and purified for political appeal. (That's what these discussions about inappropriate sexism and racism in roleplaying seem to boil down to: people thinking that others should not publish or discuss their sexist or racist ideas so as to paint a more appealing picture of the hobby, and to thus influence the future direction of the culture.) Cultural honesty is a very lateral value next to anti-racism campaigning, and clearly one that has been determined to be of minor importance for the bigotry dialogue a long ago.

    (In case it's not clear, I should emphasize that I don't have an opinion on whether it is wise to compromise honesty for the sake of affirmative action. American writers on white male privilege, whom I've been reading because people here shout at me about it, seem to uniformly think so. I don't live the details of their lives, so I can't say whether they're over-reacting, or whether the war against bigotry in their time and place is truly so critical and extreme. It doesn't seem to be like that from where I'm sitting, but then I'm not inheriting a nation built on recent genocide, slavery, etc. here.)

    Getting back to the actual topic from the general diversion of bigotry politics, what I'm taking away from this side discourse is that we don't really have a shared value base upon which to make any sweeping statements about the appropriateness of pulp fantasy. The main ideas that have been floating around here seem to be as follows:
    • Pulp fantasy is an exciting and unique literary form with imaginative themes and compelling developments. People should read it, play with the themes and see if there's anything worthwhile for them in it.
    • Pulp fantasy is basically slave to the history of modernity, affirming ideologies so tainted that they should not be discussed in polite company; a tainted genre that needs to be reimagined for modern sensibilities.
    • You shouldn't distribute pulp fantasy to people nilly-willy, as it may affirm wrongful ideas, but it is important for reasons of cultural history. The material should be approached in a deconstructive manner, wisely and insightfully. Basically it's OK to do sword & sorcery as long as your thematic conclusions are the correct ones.
    • The specific themes of pulp fantasy are only partially problematic, it basically depends on the medium: for example, a story might be more acceptable than a roleplaying game, or text more acceptable than pictures, due to how humans process and are influenced by media.
    • Pulp fantasy is harmless trash literature for men. It's not particularly commendable, but neither is anything else in entertainment, gaming included, so it doesn't stand out as special.
    I should note that I'm specifically not seeing any arguments for simple prudishness here; clearly a sign of our liberal times, that. I'm noting this so it's clear that I'm not confusing anybody's thoughts for simply being afraid of nudity, etc. To me it seems clear that everybody has more complex principles in play, they're just pretty lateral, ranging from nihilism to personal integrity to history appreciation to affirmative action for more diverse fantasy literature.

    The three main thrusts I see in the above list are unqualified acceptance (of creating, distributing and consuming - not necessarily agreeing with the themes), acceptance conditional to correct politics (it's OK as long as the genre is enjoyed by people who know how to interpret it correctly), and unconditional repudiation (it's trash and everybody would be better off with more wholesome art) of the genre. So we've got the entire continuum represented here, one might say. It seems likely that most of the attitudes presented here can be generalized to other genres, too: the people who find pulp fantasy unproblematic are unlikely to balk at most things on the market, while those who require the right politics of art (in a specific medium or not), would surely approach many other genres with the same caution. At least it seems to me that our opinions on pulp fantasy don't particularly rely on the unique qualities of the genre, except in that some of those unique qualities happen to be borderline racist or sexist.
    I'm more or less completely unaware of how men are depicted in Romance literature. Can someone summarize the problematic points for me without derailing other stuff?
    Seconded. I'd be interested as well, I'm just not well versed in it. V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel are about the trashiest that I've read, and they're at least published in hardcover.
  • One thing I'd add, Eero, is that American pulp writers are certainly writing out of a lot of the racial and gender ugliness of America (probably true for the UK and some other places as well), so it's hard for me to see them and their creations as neutral things that can be objectively examined, without taking into account their origins. That's like reading Tolkien without the spectre of war in modern Europe.
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