With another round of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop starting up this week, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pulp magazine covers again, and continuing to read a lot of old pulp stories—even full issues of magazines. And even as I use some of those old magazine covers to draw attention to that course, it’s hard to look at them and not see some issues. In some cases some really, really big issues.
I’m honestly desperate that everyone who learns of the course, thinks about taking the course, or is inspired in any way to explore the classic era of pulp fiction in terms of their own writing, understands what I’m actually trying to do not just with this online workshop, but with all my posts and tweets (etc.) about a time and place and style of fiction for which I have a real love, but not unconditional love.
Today, let’s dive headfirst into the issue of sexism, which will be immediately evident in your first Google image search for “classic pulp magazine covers.” Sexism has been a significant issue in genre publishing (and not always excluding romance) for as long as the genres have been around. For more on that I’ll point you to the article “I read the 100 ‘best’ fantasy and sci-fi novels—and they were shockingly offensive” by Liz Lutgendorff, who wrote:
Frankly, from my vantage in 2015, it was just plain weird to read books where there were hardly any women, no people of colour, no LGBT people. It seemed wholly unbelievable. I know what you could say: it’s science fiction and fantasy, believability isn’t one of the main criteria for such books. But it is relatively absurd that in the future people could discover faster-than-light travel, build massive empires and create artificial intelligences but somehow not crack gender equality or the space-faring glass ceiling.
True, though I will at least ask that everyone consider that science fiction never was about accurately predicting either the technological or social future, but has always reflected the era in which it was written.
Beyond that, the endemic sexism of the pulp era doesn’t always seem to have penetrated the current mindset, as evidenced by things like, when commenting on a gallery show of old pulp magazine cover art, Kevin Stayton, Curator of Decorative Arts for the Brooklyn Museum, was quoted as saying:
Although this art may have pushed the edge of what was acceptable, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards. Things that were troubling to the public 60 years ago, like scantily clad women, don’t really bother us anymore, while things that didn’t raise an eyebrow then, like the stereotyping of Asians as evil, cause us tremendous discomfort now.
Is that true?
Of course the broad racial caricatures of many of the pulp magazines are going to cause a reasonable person “tremendous discomfort now,” but in not all, of course, but in a too-significant-to-ignore percentage of the old pulp magazines, women weren’t just “scantily clad” but are depicted in sexualized, non-consensual bondage. They are not just hoping for rescue by the male hero, but are in immediate danger of sexual assault—or, it’s certainly fair to say of a woman who’s been forcibly bound already—further sexual assault.
Here are covers from four different pulp fiction magazines that I was able to find in a few seconds’ worth of Google image searches:
You’re going to need someone like a cultural anthropologist to give you a better idea of why it seems that a mass market American magazine aimed at adult men equated “spicy” and S&M at least through the mid-1930s to the early 1940s—but believe me, these are only four examples. Search for “spicy pulp cover art” and you will find one after another after another basically just like these.
Obviously, these covers were almost exclusively the work of men, but let’s be historically accurate here: In early 20th century America pretty much everything was “almost exclusively the work of men,” because women were routinely barred from having jobs beyond a few acceptable vocations (teacher, nurse, secretary, etc.) Still, there are stories of women who might to today’s eyes seem almost a sort of collaborator. In her article “The colourful world of pulp fiction: The art that graced the covers of short-story magazines is seducing people more than ever,”Alice-Azania Jarvis told the story of
[Artist Marilyn] Brundage [who] was imprisoned by her gender. Never signing her full name, she posted her work to New York from her home in Chicago. Raised by her widowed mother, and married to the erratic Myron “Slim” Brundage, a heavy-drinking former vagrant, she specialised in producing the raunchiest of raunchy covers. Women, nudity barely concealed, embrace; sinister-looking men prepare to drag the object of their affection into their room. When her femininity was eventually revealed, it caused outrage.
Reading through a lot of pulp fiction from that era, there is a basic assumption that the all-American hero is a white man and women tend to come in one of two guises: victim to be rescued or villainess to be defeated, but I’ve yet to run across a story I would equate to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems, at least anecdotally, that the bondage stuff was at least mostly on the outside—as though the editors were leading that charge with the artists, but not so much with the authors.
Still, female characters didn’t really fare too much better in the stories than their cover girl sisters. As described in her article “Pulp Sci-Fi’s Legacy to Women in Science: What I learned about gender in STEM when I analyzed 560 works of pulp,” Elizabeth Garbee “set out to uncover the way those authors portrayed scientists by using something called corpus linguistics. Words have meaning based largely on the ways we use them, and corpus linguistics is an incredibly powerful way to use statistics to help uncover that meaning.” She managed to find, out of those 560 science fiction stories, only three female scientists. Here’s how she described one of the three:
The first of these women makes an appearance in the 1945 story “Me and My Shadow” by Berkeley Livingston. Erica Seeling is a Nazi-sympathizing self-described “lady scientist.” While quite obviously nefarious, Erica possesses typically attractive qualities, which makes it difficult for the male characters to be around her. Her beauty is distracting, and even simply occupying the same room makes her male colleagues blush and think lurid thoughts. Disarmingly pretty, clever, and resourceful, this woman is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, her supervisor feels the need to describe her as a genius “in her own way.” The male assistants she works with in the story aren’t described as geniuses in their own ways. They’re simply good at their jobs.
The second “lady scientist” was even more… let’s say… problematic, while the third, from a clearly post-pulp era 1963 Samuel R. Delany story, shows signs of a culture at least beginning to work itself out of the deeper depths of the patriarchy.
Look, it’s been a long time since these magazines graced the crowded newsstands of America—a very long time—and not just counted in years but in an unprecedented cultural shift that, though we clearly have a whole lot of room for improvement ahead, has seen seismic shifts away from the institutionalized sexism and racism that was the norm in 1942 and earlier. These covers, and the stories they sometimes illustrate, can’t be removed from the times in which they were written, and neither can the authors, artists, and editors behind them.
But in exactly the same way that we expect a corporate CEO in America in 2018 to ignore gender in hiring, promotion, and salary decisions (though they often fail us there), and (the Electoral College aside) the majority of American voters chose for president a qualified woman they didn’t necessarily like over an unqualified man they, well… really didn’t like—we have a lot of work left to do, and maybe one of the ways we can help, as writers, is to learn from the pulps what the pulps have to teach us and in the same way that authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.P. Lovecraft brought into their stories the world and culture around them, after a long and tumultuous hundred years in between we can do the same—bring a post-sexist, post-racist, post-nationalist culture into fiction that is just as entertaining, fun to read, and original as any you might find in the pages of Spicy Detective, but reflecting a more sophisticated and increasingly inclusive culture.