Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Read Classic Science Fiction. And I Become Irritated at Its Misogyny and Homophobia

I’ve blogged here in the past (e.g., here and here) about how I would find it unthinkable not to have read (and to keep reading) literature, theology, and philosophy written by women.  This theme has been in my thoughts lately, all over again, as I try to redress a balance in my own reading history.

When I was around ten to twelve, I went through a science fiction phase in which I read any and every science fiction novel on which I could put my hands.  I remember being struck in particular by Clifford Simak’s City, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and a book written specifically for children, Richard Elam’s Young Visitor to Mars.  These are titles that stick out of a sea of many other novels I read in those years of my life.

And then I weaned myself of science fiction—not consciously so, but because my interest began to focus on many other types of literature (including religious studies), and science fiction, as a distinct genre, fell by the wayside.  I did read and thoroughly enjoy (understatement: I gave myself completely to) a number of fantasy novels in high school, which for reasons I’ve never figured out, often get shelved in the science fiction sections of libraries.  These included anything and everything Tolkien ever wrote (I did one of my semester papers as a senior in high school on Tolkien), C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy and Narnia series, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time quartet, Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, and Charles Williams.

And now I’m moving past middle age and realize that, for many years, I haven’t read much science fiction at all, and there’s a big hole in my literary knowledge when it comes to that field.  And so I’ve started to try to fill that hole lately.

I began with Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and while I enjoyed the dystopian/utopian/alternative word framework, with its critical commentary on the world in which we find ourselves, I quickly became irritated by the slangy, diffuse way in which it was written, by the hokiness of some of the utopian philosophy, and above all, by the outright sexism of this 1961 sci-fi classic.  Its taken-for-granted misogyny.  And its taken for granted homophobia.

What makes the misogyny and homophobia all the more remarkable is precisely the book’s utopian/dystopian framework, in which anything is implicitly possible, when a human born and reared on another planet that has no inhibitions when it comes to erotic behavior drops in on the planet of his genetic origin, totally devoid of knowledge about the mores and cultural patterns of his genetic planet.  Since the book’s main character has never been taught about sex and is wide open to learn (the utopian fantasy, or perhaps the utopian male Über-fantasy), the book’s father figure guides him with advice about how to channel his burgeoning sexuality in the right directions.’

Which is to say, in the direction of females rather than males, though the Martian-reared man expresses an interest in both kinds of sexual exploration—indeed, in polyamorous activity that the book frames as, ultimately (and unconvincingly, to me, at least), religious in its nature.  The argument that the stranger’s mentor gives him to deter him from erotic activity with other males?  It’s just not done.  Period.  We’re not made that way.  Period.  And case closed.
I call this plot development irritating because the very point of a utopian framework is that anything is possible, as one plays the utopian world of possibility against the dystopian world of reality.  By setting off some possibility as just not done, one undercuts the force of the utopian commentary.  One does so in a totally arbitrary fashion that exposes the underlying ideology of a utopian fantasy whose force depends on its lack of obtrusiveness.
As I finished Heinlein’s book, one of my nephews happened to mention to me that he was reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, another alternative-world read.  And so I bought a set of Dick’s novels and began to read, with results similar to my reading of Heinlein: fascination mixed with irritation.

And again, irritation elicited, quite specifically, by casual and prolific use of derogatory language about gay men (ditto for Heinlein’s book), coupled with a casual assumption that the male outlook and male experience are normative.  

I recognize that one will probably find implicit misogyny and homophobia all through novels written by men in the period in question (like Heinlein’s, Dick’s novel was written in the early ‘60s).  What’s different now is that what was subliminal and unconscious in novels of the 1960s, what was taken for granted, has now been made conscious by sustained critique and is no longer taken for granted.
There’s a protest-too-much quality about the swaggering machismo of these two science fiction novels—and of much fiction written by male authors in the ‘60s—that reminds me of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who may well have overcompensated for their own considerable homoerotic desire by writing always about men’s men, men who despised feminine weakness, particularly when it was mirrored to them by other men who frankly pursued their homoerotic interests.

And here’s what all this is winding around to: a question.  I’ve noted in a previous blog posting that I sometimes nag and push my nephews to read more works written by women writers.  I haven’t been successful on this front.  And I should note that my nephews aren’t by any means unattuned to women’s issues or gay issues.  They have an uncle who pushes them on one front, and a sister who shoves on the other front.  And they have grown up in a generation much more adept at spotting the hidden patriarchal assumptions of what they’re reading than my generation was.

Still.  Still, I wonder.  I wonder what we do to boys and young men in our culture, when we do little or nothing to push them to read books written by women, to watch films written, directed, and produced by women, and so forth.  And what’s the effect of reading a steady diet of literature from periods in which patriarchal attitudes were pre-conscious and simply taken for granted? 
What’s the effect of a steady diet of misogyny and homophobia in much of our classic literature, when that diet is not offset by deliberate wide reading of work that critiques that misogyny and homophobia?  Or of work that, if it is not an outright critique of patriarchy, nonetheless captures the alternative viewpoint of women living in an overweeningly male-dominated culture?  To be specific, what’s the effect of such a diet on young males?

These are questions, and I am not sure I have the answers to them.  And so I’m asking them on this blog.  Any thoughts from you all as readers?

P.S. And as the good Lord knows, women writers are certainly not immune from homophobia, either.  Having just blogged about Ms. Lingle of Hawaii, I am critically aware that women can write some whoppingly homophobic works, though I have found that the balance weighs much heavier, in that regard, in works written by males.