On -isms: Historical Context

By | Thursday, May 08, 2014 3 comments
Mr. Fantastic is a sexist jerk. Or, at least, he was. Back in the 1960s when the Fantastic Four debuted, the Invisible Girl was not only written as the perpetual third wheel to the "real" heroes -- which was unironically turned into a plot point in FF #11 -- but Mr. Fantastic was regularly given dialogue that was emotionally abusive towards her as if that was just the way husbands were supposed to talk to their wives. Actual dialogue written for Mr. Fantastic...

"Stop sounding like a wife and find me that gun, lady!"

"Wives should be kissed -- and not heard!"

"I'll explain later, woman! Just do as I say!"

"Just like a woman!! Everything I do is for your own good, but you're too scatterbrained and emotional to realize it!"
You don't really find examples like that today, of course. Contemporary writers have modified Reed's personality a bit, so he's not nearly so abrasive/abusive with his wife. That kind of thing simply isn't tolerable today, and you can bet that Marvel would catch all sorts of public relations hell if something like that took place in the current book.

But, as the broader story of the Fantastic Four is one of a continuous narrative, with unbroken continuity for the past half century, those uglier parts of the character remain in his background. Now, it's easy enough for modern writers to simply ignore those elements and carry on as if Reed and Sue's relationship is now pretty much exactly as it's always been. Probably not the healthiest approach in real life, but it works well enough in fiction.

For the record, too, it wasn't just Mr. Fantastic being misogenistic; it was pretty common for all male characters to act this way. In most cases of fiction, though, those characters are eternally relegated to their time period. No one has written sequels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or A Clockwork Orange so Randle McMurphy and Alexander the Large are expressly products of the early 1960s. But many comic book characters have been in constant publication since then and, despite their earlier origins, are often seen as products of modern society.

So how do we, as readers, address this kind of thing? People are reading those old stories for the first time all the time thanks to a healthy reprint program; do they convey the type of social messages we collectively want to express? Of course not, but since the characters continue to this day, they can be seen as contemporary expressions.

I don't think it's enough to just say, "Well, those stories were written ages ago, and that kind of thing was more acceptable then." While that is a true enough statement, it seems to me that we should carry that thought a step further. We need to say WHY this kind of thinking was wrong; how it demeaned and subjucated women to a lesser status so that they would be conditioned to accept a minimal role in society relative to the men in power. How lip service to equality was underminded by continual belittlement. How it's taken decades of pointing out just how unequal that is to even get as far as we have. How there are still people who have these out-dated opinions, and how they're expressed in a more subtle fashion today.

These old comics can be a lot of fun, but there's a big opportunity for education there as well. Education that a lot of adults could use, too!
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Matt K said...

I recall at least one story that confronted this relatively directly. I purged the issues years ago, because they didn't have much else of interest in them, but in one issue of the "Domination Factor" miniseries, I seem to recall modern Sue finds herself in one of the team's early adventures with all its unreformed misogyny.

I don't remember what exactly followed; I think it was basically "this is absurd! You bunch of jerks!" and nothing much deeper than that. Basically par for the course for the entire story.

But, perhaps worth noting just because I really don't recall much else that explored this issue even that lightly. There was that issue of "Nobody Gets Out Alive" where 90s-tough-chick Sue yells at her past self for being too passive, but those scenes were all new events written into a generic "early years FF," and the story as a whole was even shallower than "Domination Factor" in examining this issue.

Matt K said...

Actually, come to think of it, we might also note Steve Englehart's "Dreamquest" storyline. As I recall, the rival team of clones that he introduced were basically a means of dropping the early 60s team, or at any rate their mentality, into contemporary society. I'm pretty sure that he used actual quotes from early issues for much if not most of their dialogue, too.

Of course, inevitably they were also a commentary on growth and change vs conservatism, as well, and the whole story was generally a bizarre mess, for a host of reasons…

I suppose it might in fact offer exhibit A for why no one else (that I recall) has even attempted to look directly at these contrasts in any kind of sophisticated way; I'm not sure how much you can do with it through storytelling, even with fantasy and science fiction, without getting extremely weird.

Wow -- I hadn't even remembered the DomFactor bit, but I went back and checked. Sure enough, Sue goes through about two pages of "I can't believe I let them treat me like this", grabs the artifact she was sent to find and gets transported back to the present. But yeah, it's little more than a cursory acknowledgement.

As far as Englehart, he did pull quotes and stories from the old FF issues, but I think he glossed over a lot too. You basically got enough to realize he was serving up Lee/Kirby stories, but he zipped through them so fast that he could skip over any troublesome dialogue.

I expect there are a few writers out there who are talented enough to address the issue more substantively, but I don't think that's likely. Editorial policy has, for years, been to just ignore the uncomfortable bits and keep it all as contemporary as possible.