Historically accurate misogyny, anti-genre bias at the BBC and another Doctor Who death

Paul Jessup wonders why misogynist tendencies in some epic fantasy works are always excused with “But that’s the way it was in medieval times”, when authors are otherwise not particularly interested in maintaining historical accuracy.

Of course, historical accuracy is a very common excuse for misogyny in any kind of fiction. In the romance genre, whenever the discussion gets to the type of historical romance commonly known as “bodicerippers” and particularly the prevalence of rape and violence towards women in general and the heroine in particular in those novels. Whenever a romance reader complains that she (since most of them are female) doesn’t want to read books wherein the alleged hero rapes and abuses heroines or whenever some other reader complains that historical romances are “much too PC” these days, the first argument that comes up is always, “But the rapes and the violence against women are historically accurate”.

Now many historical romance novels are no more accurate than your average pseudo-medieval fantasy in every respect, including gender relations. However, the violence and rape are explained away with “Well, it is historically accurate”.

It’s a stupid excuse, never mind that it isn’t true. If you read novels that were actually written during the time that most historical romances are set, i.e. the 18th and 19th centuries, you won’t find the domineering alpha jerk heroes so common in modern historical romances. Instead, you have Werther from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) who at one point falls to his knees and kisses the pale red ribbons on the gown of his beloved Lotte, whom he is in love with but does not dare to confess his feelings, because she is engaged to another. Werther also cries and whines a lot and eventually commits suicide. Or take Osbert, Earl of Athlin, from The Castles of Athlin and Dunblayne (1789) by Ann Radcliffe. Osbert, whose courage is repeatedly extolled in the text, is captured by his enemy and about to be executed. However, he is very brave and courageous in facing his impending execution, as Radcliffe does not fail to remind us. He is so brave and courageous that he promptly faints once he sees the executioner sharpening his axe*. Those are the real heroes of the late 18th century, whiny Werther and fainting Osbert, and they are very unlike the macho men found in modern historical romances.

Sam Sykes responds to the recent uproar about the alleged genre unfriendliness of the BBC. Like I’ve said before, I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think that the BBC really deserves the blame here, because they do produce quite a lot of genre television.

And of course, the BBC has produced the longest running speculative television show with Doctor Who. Twenty-six years of the original show plus seven years of the new, plus countless audio dramas and tie-in novels, no other broadcaster can match that.

While on the subject, here are some very sad Doctor Who related news: Actress Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who, died of cancer yesterday, aged only 63.

Her character, Sarah Jane Smith, was among the most iconic companions of the classic Doctor Who series. She definitely was my favourite companion and starred in some of my favourite Doctor Who stories such as Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks, Seeds of Doom and Masque of Mandragora. I was overjoyed to see her reappear in the new Doctor Who series, though I was never quite happy with what Russell T. Davies did to her character. Spending thirty years pining for the Doctor and eventually being reduced to chaperone/babysitter for a bunch of precocious teenagers in The Sarah Jane Adventures – Sarah Jane Smith deserved better.

When I first read the news in one of those “most viewed articles” boxes on the sidebar of a news site, I was utterly stunned and shocked. Because Elisabeth Sladen was much too young to die, she had not appeared ill and had still been working until very recently. The most recent – and it turned out final – season of The Sarah Jane Adventures was only broadcast in the fall of 2010. Turns out that no one knew she was ill, because she preferred to keep her illness private.

It is depressing how many of the actors, writers, directors and producers who turned the original Doctor Who into the iconic show it was during its heyday in the 1970s are no longer with us. Of course, there still is Doctor Who, but the modern version is no longer the show I once fell in love with, though it took me three seasons and two spin-offs to realize that.

*I happened to be on the London Underground, when reading The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and I literally burst out laughing when I hit upon the fainting scene, until the whole carriage was staring at me.

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4 Responses to Historically accurate misogyny, anti-genre bias at the BBC and another Doctor Who death

  1. Estara says:

    For some reason this entry made me think of two articles recently on Dear Author

    Do you think they’re trying to reclaim rape in a similar way that female Americans are trying to reclaim the word Bitch? I liked reading the Smart Bitches quite a lot when Candy and Sarah both still posted regularly and I’ve enjoyed them intermittently since, but I would never call myself a clever bitch out loud…

    At least that’s what I sort of gather from all this.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the links.

      I suspect that the rape/forced seduction scenes in old “bodiceripper” type romances and also the vigilantism and torture scenes that have gained popularity in the past ten years are both linked to the issues many Americans have with gender, sex and violence.

      I came across a few bodiceripper style romances as a teenager and was so put off by them that I stopped reading romances altogether for several years, since I figured that hoping for the hero to die was not the response I was supposed to get out of reading romances. I only returned to the genre once the bodiceripper style romances were largely gone. It’s also interesting that the American “bodiceripper” style romances never sold as well in Germany as in the US and that pretty much every European reader I have encountered dislikes “bodiceripper” type romances. So while those books spoke (and continue to speak) to American readers, they don’t really work as well here.

      Ditto for extreme torture and vigilantism stories. I have been very bothered by the increase in torture as committed by the good guys in certain books and various popular TV shows and films in recent years.

      I’m not really that sensitive a reader/viewer. For example, I read and enjoyed the Angelique novels as a teenagers and those books are full of rape and violence. But the raping and torturing was only committed by the villains and it wasn’t so graphic that it bothered me. I’ve also written some pretty violent stuff, I’ve written torture scenes and some of my erotica goes close to the edge, though there’s always a point with sex between hero and heroine where the heroine could have said no and the hero would have honoured that.

      Where I draw the line is when the supposed good guys rape, torture or commit cold-blooded murder. I don’t mind villains doing horrible things, that’s why they’re villains after all. But for heroes, rape, torture and cold blooded murder are usually dealbreakers. In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of romances went across that personal line, nowadays it’s more commonly torture scenes that cross the line for me. Besides, rape and so-called forced seduction scenes are easy to avoid, if you don’t want to read them, but torture is much more mainstream these days.

  2. Estara says:

    Well for a certain time I thought Angelique and Kathleen Woodiwiss WERE romance, until I discovered Barbara Cartland and Hedwig Courts-Mahler and finally Georgette Heyer – and then it all opened up for me.

    At the time I accepted the forced “seduction” as something I had to live with, if I wanted a certain kind of romance. These days and being able to read in English I can pick and choose.

    I am SO HAPPY I don’t have to buy those embarrassing covers anymore, especially Blanvalet or whoever had the BRILLIANT idea to make all the edges of the romance books garnet RED! I enjoyed that time when the US had the obscure object or extravagant font with step-back cover ^^ – and now I own an e-reader and it’s not a problem anymore.

    I still buy DAW Jody Lee covers, though, if I can get them for a book by a writer I enjoy.

    • Cora says:

      I never read Kathleen Woodiwiss, though I read Fern Michaels and Catherine Coulter and whatever my mother had.

      I liked the stepback covers, too, largely because German publishers did not do them.

      I used embarrassed of some of the really awful covers as well, particularly at university, when you had certain students who would only carry around Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners and sneer at everything else. Then one day I had enough and took the book with the most lurid cover I owned to university. It wasn’t a romance but a pulp reprint (this one). As was to be expected, someone made a remark and I replied, “Oh, I am reading those, because I am researching social issues of the Great Depression as reflected in the popular fiction of the day” or some such thing. That shut them up.

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