Do sexism, racism, or other prejudices bother you in period fiction?

Over in the “Do women like MAD MEN” thread, some persons have commented on the sexism shown by many of the shows’ male characters and endured by the female ones. Here’s a couple of quotes:

Both of which make me wonder: are any of y’all vexed, discomforted, discombobulated, or otherwise put off when partaking of a piece of fiction set in the past (book, tv show, movie, whatever) in which sexism, racism, homophobia, or other currently-unacceptable mores are shown without challenge? Why or why not?

Answering my own question: Not at all. In fact, it would bother me more if MAD MEN porotrayed Don Draper as a 2010 men in terms of the way he treats women, or if he were encouraging of Sal’s homosexuality or eager to be be first ad agency in New York to hire a black copywriter. All of those would take me out of the story.

But not everyone feels that way. F’instance: in the late 80s there was a show called I’LL FLY AWAY, starring Sam Waterston, late of LAW & ORDER. One of my sisters was very distressed by the frank racism shown by many of the characters and wished they had left it out; it was not something she wished to see in fiction.

Tthoughts, anybody? Bueller?

Are we restricting this discussion just to modern works set in past, or works which were created in the past? Because, for instance, I was very turned off by the attitude towards women in Flatland (which also had a fair bit of racism or something similar, in that the lower classes were inherently predisposed to being lowlifes, with nothing they could do about it).

On the other hand, it’s very refreshing to find the odd example of an older work which is fairly enlightened for its time. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, seems remarkably free of prejudice of any sort.

I am bothered if the author seems to advocate bigotry, misogyny or homophobia. For example, in “A Predicament” by Edgar Allan Poe, he tells the story from the point of view of an ignorant teen age female who badly mistreats a servant. She is oblivious to the wrongness of her actions. I don’t mind the story because it is very clear that the author is appalled at the horrendous lack of human decency. I am not bothered by him portraying the young woman as a hideous person, because he does show her as a person and also I don’t get the impression that he is condemning all women.

I found Stranger in a Strange Land more disquieting because of the narrator’s comments on homosexuals even though no homosexual characters came to harm.

I have also noticed that if you go back far enough, like medieval mythology, you are more likely to see women’s separate contributions lauded than you would in a modern retelling of the same kind of story. For example, if the story is about a tournament, the women making and getting ready all the fine clothing warrants quite a few pages as a heroic effort and accomplishment, but not so much as a mention in a newer story. One exception is Tolkien. He treats Lembas and the cloaks from Galadriel, and even the banner made by Arwen, with reverence and conveys that these gifts, gifts made by women, are important and really do matter.

Feel free to discuss either.

I sometimes find it jarring in older written works when the hero says or does something overtly sexist, racist or what have you. However, for some reason when Phillip Roth has his characters spewing the most bileous racist or sexist bullshit it somehow doesn’t bother me that much, even when these characters are meant to be present day creations, not period.

What do you consider advocating those to be?

I had nice argument with a graduate school professor who refused to teach The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor. He cited previous and problematic fallouts with undergrad students, and I maintained that ignoring those discussions inadvertently whitewashed the issue. He only needed to provide context and set some broad guidelines for the literary elements they should focus on.

From what I’ve read, this was meant as satire. Here’s one cite:

Not at all. As an English lit major, I’ve seen it all.

What does get to me though is smoking. Last night I was watching Die Hard, and people were smoking at the airport, in office buildings, in the bathrooms, etc. etc. etc.

I’m shocked at how bad it’s gotten for smokers today.

I’m getting reading to run a RPG set in 1670s Spain, and as prep, I’m reading Captain Alatriste. The characters are all vicious antisemites, and I get the impression it was very rare to be a Spanish Catholic then and not be a vicious antisemite. It doesn’t bother me in the book at all.

I am, however, wondering how I’m going to deal with that and other issues when we’re playing. On the one hand, I certainly don’t want the PCs to be abolitionist Unitarians; that’s totally not in keeping with the setting, and just wouldn’t make sense. On the other hand, it could get kind of uncomfortable if they’re casually beating slaves or whatnot.

Regarding modern works set in historical periods - it would bother the hell out of me if there was NOT any racism/sexism etc if it were appropriate to the era. That’s just lazy writing - “presentism”, as I have heard it called here. On the other hand, I prefer the author to give some indication that they aren’t necessarily condoning these attitudes, but being historically accurate.

For instance, there’s a great scene at the end of one of Barbara Hambly’s Free Man of Color series, set in the nineteenth century, where the hero, who’s black, is sitting in a cafe in New Orleans and the local police chief (a man with whom he has a very mutually-respectful relationship) comes over to talk to him - but standing up next to the table, not sitting with him. And mid-way through the conversation, the hero actually points this out to him - that despite the fact the police chief clearly respects him personally, and has been willing to use his expertise on various occasions, he’s still not willing to be seen in public sitting at a table with a black man. And the police chief laughs and agrees - and stays standing.

I really respect that, in a novelist, the ability to show even the good guys with flaws we wouldn’t tolerate today, while making it clear she recognises the flaws for what they are.

I thought it was odd in Unforgiven how the characters don’t seem to notice that Morgan Freeman is black.

Or how white prostitutes are willing to service a black man, or that there were no black prostitutes.

On the flip side, in Shanghai Noon, nobody refers to Jackie Chan by anything other than “chinaman.”

Another one was in Black Knight, where everybody thought it was perfectly natural for a black man to be wandering around Aruthurian England. They just naturally assumed he was a Moor, although I thought Moors were Arabian, not black.

The amount of smoking in old TV shows and films used to bother me, too. Then it slowly dawned that it might have been product placement. We now are told that cigarette smoking didn’t really start to grow until around World War I.
Prior to that I read that cigar smoking was more popular.
This makes me question the “last cigarette” offered in the Westerns before someone got nailed in front of a firing squad.

Cigarette smoking predated WWI; but you usually rolled your own. Also, women never smoked; mass-marketed cigarettes were designed to capture that part of the market.

A last cigarette in the West is certainly possible – but it wouldn’t have been a manufactured one.

Cigarette smoking was popular in the United States before World War I. The Anti-Cigarette League was formed in the U.S. in 1890 by Lucy Page Gaston. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union also campaigned against tobacco in general and cigarettes in particular by the early 20th century.


I remember years ago I read the book Chesapeake by James Michener. The story spans several centuries, and shifts focus to new characters as some come of age and some die. During the 1600s, black slaves are unnamed background characters who aren’t given more than a passing thought. By the 1700s, a few Quaker characters voice their objections to slavery. By the 1800s there are black men and women who are “fully fledged characters” in the story, given as much attention as the white or native characters.

It was an interesting idea, but I’ll leave it to a more discerning reader to declare whether it was executed well.

Flatland is a good example of that which advocates bigotry and misogyny. The way that it talks about how character is directly linked to the regularity of ones angles and sides is a clear analogy for racism. The way females are dealt with, as if they are simply breeding stock and not quite people comes off as misogynistic to me. I am very torn by this work because it does so well illustrate a mathematical concept, and seems to beg us to think beyond our own dimension, the way prejudice and stereotypes are treated as gospel quite put me off.

See the earlier post. It’s satire. (And how could it not be? The faintly ridiculous air to the description of Flatland society has to have been evident to contemporary readers, too.)

Not usually. Flatland did bother me a bit, being so over the top, depicted as so rational, and me not being aware that it was a parody.

Characters being racist/sexist is of course a different thing than the story itself being bigoted (depicting the minority characters as actually fitting their stereotype).