(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?