The 'Product of Its Time' Defense: No Excuse for Sexism and Racism

Dismissing the classics' shortcomings as just a reflection of the era's norms mischaracterizes history and undermines the books' very relevance.
The cover of the March 1942 Weird Tales, which featured H. P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Reanimator" (Wiki)

George Orwell's handling of his main female character in 1984 is clichéd, clumsy, and not a little sexist. I made that argument in a piece I wrote last week, and in response, a couple of readers replied with what I'd call the "of its time" defense. Yes, they said, Julia is not necessarily treated as a human being, but you can't really expect more from a book written in 1949. In the words of commenter LaurelhurstLiberal, "As for the claim of misogyny, that's scarcely surprising in an author of his era, but he comes off a lot better than many of his contemporaries."

This argument comes up a lot (as, for example, in this piece on Snow White). As others have also pointed out, the "of its time" defense is standard response to writing about sexism or racism in any non-contemporary cultural product. It's quietly ubiquitous—but it's also wrongheaded.

In the first place, the idea that sexism or racism is "a product of its time" assumes that the past was self-evidently worse than the present, that culture progresses in some sort of straight-line fashion, and that we can therefore assume that folks now are smarter and more enlightened than folks in the past. This is unduly flattering to the present, which has by no means overcome prejudice or stereotype. As just one example, Her, much-lauded for its philosophical depth and human warmth, is, I’ve argued, about a sensitive writer's mid-life crisis and the sexually adventurous Manic Pixie Dream Girl who helps him self-actualize. Which is to say, it follows the same basic stereotypical, sexist script as 1984. Orwell's sexism, then, isn’t of its time at all. It’s still with us.

Additionally, the idea that racism and sexism were ubiquitous before we came along is a slander on our own parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Yes, there was virulent racism and sexism in the past (as there is today). But that doesn't mean everyone, everywhere in the past was equally racist and sexist. Charles Dickens's female protagonists are treacly and vapid, but George Eliot's aren't—just as Eliot's working class characters tend to be condescending sentimental portraits, while Dickens's are human beings. Similarly, H.P. Lovecraft's racism was certainly of its time in many ways—he lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, a period many historians have described as the nadir of American race relations. Yet, Langston Hughes also lived and wrote in the same period, proving that it was in fact possible to write in the early 20th century and not be a racist ass. Saying that Lovecraft was "of his time" erases all the folks (not least black people) who were not racist, or held different views. And it erases Lovecraft himself, turning him into a blank slate, devoid of free will, simply regurgitating accepted wisdom, as if he had no other choice (though the example of Langston Hughes and of, say, Stephen Crane, shows that he did.)

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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