Reading the classics can be as shocking as it is enlightening. Words that seemed perfectly innocent to the pantalooned authors of centuries past can, to our contemporary jeans, be insulting to us or to those whom we respect. Of course, this could—and often does—dissuade the average reader from these works. Take it from me: a teenager who doesn’t want to read Hamlet feels perfectly justified in citing Shakespeare’s choices to send girlfriends to nunneries and even Queens to the beds of their in-laws. Ew.
Of course, that average reader is being denied the joys of these stories, and that teenager… well, he’s just avoiding his homework.
Take H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This ground-breaking father of Science Fiction probably felt quite the gentleman when his protagonist’s wife innocently observed the invading Martian ships as seeming, “safe and tranquil.” As decades pass, and her innocence morphs into stupidity, contemporary readers are left to wonder why it is the female who is so dense: but this is nothing against bemoaning the “utter destruction our own species has wrought… upon its own inferior races.” Given that these races include “The Tasmanians,” whom Wells apparently felt were a different species, it’s only natural for us to rail against this inequality. (No comments from Australian readers, please).
We have a choice, though. We can instead celebrate how much better we’ve become at recognizing equality. In fact, this is exactly what Jeff Wayne did as long ago as 1978, when he adapted the classic into his Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. The role of this woman changed from a wife who vanished from town at the first sizzle of a heat-ray, to a fiancé who fought, often on her own, to escape with her life and the life of her father.
That’s right, Katniss fans: girls were probably kicking butt even in Victorian times. Writers just weren’t telling us about it.
One trick to enjoying the classics is to take both a reader-centered and a world-context-centered approach to reading those dusty old tomes. Under the bedcovers with a flashlight, the readers in us may feel appalled by some of the content, but the historians in us can recognize from it all of the things that have changed in our world. As illustrated here, a world-context centered reading allows us to criticize those past times. It allows us to celebrate how far we’ve come.
But how far have we come, really? Paying attention to contemporary fiction—really paying attention—can reveal some of those same old biases cropping up, even if they are better disguised. Here are three:
#1: Girls still act like girls. Of course, that’s not precisely the problem: girls should feel free to act like girls, whatever that means. There’s a problem, though, when it means trying to choose between two luxuriously gelled heads of hair instead of focusing on the Cornucopia or an influx of vampires.
#2: Heroes do all the deducing. After all this time, there’s still a tendency for the most athletic character to also be the smartest. Even when his or her sidekick is a weedy computer genius, the weeds never really figure anything out: it is up to the concussed gridiron player to piece together those intricate technical clues when determining who to punch.
#3: Morality is too rarely ambiguous. This is something that separates good literature from great; is the Eurocentric protagonist’s mission unquestionably right, no matter which residents of Middle Earth get hurt? Many authors still have work to do inviting readers to use some of our own judgement about whether other races and cultures may also have value.
So, the battle to write fairly and without bias is not over, and these are just three areas where writers can think twice while creating new fiction. A critical reading, though, can double our pleasure by spotting those biases and questioning them: maybe even making fun of them.
Not that I would ever do that…
Comments are most welcome citing more examples of biases in literature.