How Typical Is Historical Misogyny?

By | Thursday, June 16, 2022 Leave a Comment
A few years ago, I tried to read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 novel The Coming Race. (Later editions retitled it Vril, the Power of the Coming Race.) One of the earliest fan conventions was based on his work, but it's most remembered these days for it's often-mocked opening line: "It was a dark and stormy night."

Ultimately, I had to stop reading after a while; the book was a slog for me. I don't care much for Bulwer-Lytton's overly flowery prose, and couple that with a "plot" that largely consists of long-winded descriptions of the whole society. The book is not so much a story, but mostly has the main character convalescing and reporting on how this new society is different from Victorian England. It reads kind of like a wish list of what Bulwer-Lytton would like the world to be. Everyone is healthy and attractive and strong, no one is poor or homeless, they have a limitless supply of free energy... It's horribly dry material, which is I suppose why the author tried to make it more interesting with lots of unnecessarily verbose descriptions.

And then I got to chapter ten. It starts...
The word Ana (pronounced broadly 'Arna') corresponds with our plural 'men;' An (pronounced 'Arn'), the singular, with 'man.' The word for woman is Gy (pronounced hard, as in Guy); it forms itself into Gy-ei for the plural, but the G becomes soft in the plural like Jy-ei. They have a proverb to the effect that this difference in pronunciation is symbolical, for that the female sex is soft in the concrete, but hard to deal with in the individual. The Gy-ei are in the fullest enjoyment of all the rights of equality with males, for which certain philosophers above ground contend.
Let's set aside the renaming-things-for-the-sake-of-renaming-things motif; and we'll even disregard the narratively useless changes in pronunciation. What's bugging me here, and what forced me to quit reading this entirely was that whole "female sex is soft in the concrete, but hard to deal with in the individual" bit. Basically, he's saying that women are weak but a pain in the ass when you actually talk with one of them. I should hope that I don't have to explain how sexist that is, right?

Now, granted, that was written in 1871, before a national women's suffrage movement even started in England, much less gained any sort of traction. So it's hardly surprising that Bulwer-Lytton held some sexist attitudes. That he even provides the platitude about enjoying equal rights as men would have been a progressive statement. But that he tosses that equality line out after spending an entire paragraph explaining why woman and women have two distinct pronunciations, it rings pretty hollow. "Sure, women are equal to men, just not as equal."

This shows up in comics all the time. Stuff written in the Golden Age seems incredibly sexist today. And if it's written (or drawn) poorly on top of that? Well, it makes reading through it that much more of a slog. If not outright impossible.

The thing of it is that this captures the mood and tenor of the time in which it's written. Art is a reflection of society, right? More accurately, art is a reflection of what one creator interprets as the current status of the society in which s/he lives. So to say everyone in 1871 thought the same way Bulwer-Lytton did would be the equivalent of saying that everyone in 2014 thought the same way Dave Sim does. That said, that Bulwer-Lytton remained a popular author for much of his life suggests that his thinking wasn't that uncommon. Just as, through crapfests like Gamergate, we can see that Sim's thinking isn't all that uncommon either. (Just to be clear, "not uncommon" is still a far cry from "prevalent" or even "typical.")

All of which is to say that any given comic you read is indeed a reflection of the time it was created. But to see precisely how much of a reflection, you would need to look at a number of different comics from a number of different creators from the same time period. (Fortunately, comics' serial periodical format makes it fairly simple to identify contemporary issues!) Does Robert Crumb really speak for everyone in 1968 with Zap Comix #1? Or is that perhaps tempered by Stan Lee and John Romita's Amazing Spider-Man? Or John Broome and Ross Andru's Flash? Or Russ Manning's Magnus, Robot Fighter? Or Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins, On Stage? Or Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Meance?

The collective view of society would, in fact, be reflected in all of these. And while you may have to put an individual book down because the outdated views are too grating to read, know that that particular story may not be indicative of everything of that period.
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