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.)

The "product of its time" line, then, makes a hard divide between past and present, assuming that the past was completely benighted and that we are completely enlightened. It does this in the name of defending past literature: of morally exculpating Lovecraft, or Orwell, or whoever, on the grounds that they couldn't be expected to help themselves, living as they did in such a dim and corrupt age.

Rather than defending them, though, this argument threatens to make these creators irrelevant. If, after all, the past was so different than the present, if we know so much more now than then, if we're so morally superior, then what can these writers teach us? If we have progressed so far beyond Orwell in our understanding of equality and freedom and justice and humanity, then why should we read 1984, which purports to discuss issues such as equality and freedom and justice and humanity?

The answer is that we should still read Orwell not despite the sexism, but in part because of it. The fact that 1984 uses a Manic Pixie Dream Girl doesn't make it helplessly of its time—MPDGs show up in our contemporary culture with a wearying consistency. Being attentive to Orwell's sexism is a way to be attentive to ours; it makes 1984 more relevant, not less. For example, in the book, the ultimate triumph of totalitarianism is that Winston and Julia's love fails. You could read that as saying that all love, everywhere, is crushed by the power of the absolute state. But you could also see it as a comment on Winston and Julia's relationship, which is unreal insofar as Julia is treated as a tool for Winston's happiness, rather than a person in her own right. Sexism prevents their love affair from being a real love affair, which is why the state can break it apart. From that perspective, 1984 can be read as an analysis of how totalitarianism and sexism are intertwined—and maybe, maybe, Orwell meant to be read that way.

None of this is to deny the importance of historical context. Of course it would be silly to dismiss Jane Austen as sexist because her female characters look to men for financial security rather than leaning in to become CEOs. But one important historical context is that inequities of race, gender, and class (to name just three) have been around for a very long time, and aren't going anywhere. When creators address those issues, whether well or poorly, they are speaking to us. It's a lot more respectful to argue with them than it is to pretend we have evolved past the need for ears.