Is it Misogynistic if It's of Its Time?

You know, I'm a fairly modern girl, and, using fairly large strokes, take the equal stance of women in the Western world entirely for granted. I think most girls my age (I'm 26) would say the same: we believed without pause that we were entitled to education, to respect and to our own voices. The last one I especially accept without question, and set up my own platform (this one) without pause. So far, so fine.

Then, the other day, I caught myself singing and dancing along to this quite loudly whilst getting dressed one morning, and realised that I was quite happily singing along with surely one of the most misogynistic songs ever performed:


As is abundantly clear from the clip, this song is from HBO's Boardwalk Empire', which, along with just about everybody else, is just about my favourite show, so, naturally, I bought the soundtrack. I adore the 20s: everything's so glamorous and witty, and the clothes are delicious, and it all gold-plated and rose-tinted and lovely from where I stand. But of course, as this song amply demonstrates, not everything was lovely and rosy, especially for women, but I kinda take it for granted that if it's of another time, we can just enjoy whatever it is, be it song or art or literature, for its own merits.  That song is damn witty, and it makes me smile, but should I be so complacent about its meaning? Would I sing it with a child in the house, for instance?

This got me thinking: I can't read Wilbur Smith books because I find them so offensively sexist and racist, and I had a good ol' rant about the sexism in Barry Unsworth 'The Quality of Mercy', but I will happily read the occasional one from the full collection of  Flashman books that live in my house. The content of them is probably no better; I mean, look at the girl on the cover beside this sentence - we're not talking women's lib by any stretch. Let's compare two paragraphs:

George MacDonald Fraser's 'Flashman':

'What I said I don't recall, but it brought Elspeth to my side. She slid her arms round my waist and asked what was the matter.
'All hell's the matter,' I said. 'I must go to London at once.'
At this she raised a cry of delight, and babbled with  excitement about seeing the great sights, and society, and having a place in town, and meeting my father - God help us - and a great deal more drivel. I was too sick to heed her, and she never seemed to ntoice me as I sat down among the boxes and trunks that had been brought in from the coach to our bedroom. I remember I damned her at one point for a fool and told her to hold her tongue, which silenced her for a minute; but then she started off again, and was debating whether she should have a French maid or an English one.' 

Wilbur Smith's 'The Quest': 

'Near the gateway three young women were seated on the lawn. When they saw the travellers they sprang up and ran lightly to meet them. Luaghing and dancing with excitement, they kissed and embraced both Taita and Meren. The first aspara was slim, golden-haired and lovely. She, too, appeared girlish, for her creamy skin was unblemished. 'Hail and well met! I am Astrata,' she said.
The second aspara had dark hair and slanted eyes. Her skin was as translucent as beeswax and polished, like ivory carved by a master craftsman. She was magnificent in the full bloom of womanhood. 'I am Wu Lu,' she said, stroking Meren's muscled arm admiringly, 'and you are beautiful.' 

Now, you may not agree with me that Smith's work is far more offensive than Fraser's - please comment below if you disagree. But presuming that you do, I can spot a number of differences that maybe make all the difference: in the first excerpt, the voice is first person, whereas in the second, it is third, implying the opinion of many. A character with an opinion is far more excusable than a general expressed paradigm. Also, the Smith excerpt focuses on the physical aspect of the women, whereas Fraser talks about her silly talk, and, well, there'd be no satire without that, with regards men or women.

I think the main difference though, is the wit of Fraser's piece, especially when compared to the absolutely seriousness of Smith's. To me, it seems that Fraser is winking down the years at me (this Flashman book is set in 1839, but was actually published in 1969), commenting on how absurd this Flashman character is, rather than how much we should despise and pity his silly wife. Maybe that's the thing about the Boardwalk song too - Stephen deRosa/Eddie Cantor are clearly a hoot, and adore women. It's a joke, I guess nowadays, and a lightly taught social study, but one for adults who know better.

But maybe this is where it gets confused, at least in my head. It's ok to enjoy questionable songs and books as long as you know better, but who's to say everyone knows better? Are things like this fuel to modern misogynistic fires too? I'm sure they must be for some. Obviously, we are not what we read (otherwise I am confused), but is my casual acceptance of all this stuff, as a women secure in her validity etc., the type of attitude that allows casual sexism/racism to persist? 

Should I be taking a stand and refusing to read/listen to this stuff on principle? Or does humour and the distance of eras make it OK? I'd love to know what you think below.


  1. Brilliant post Lyndsay, it really made me think.

    I often think the same....am I ok to read sexist/racist etc work because I know better? Or by reading it am I supporting it? I don't really have an answer but it is definately a difficult question.

    Wow...talk about a comment with no real opinion! Just wanted to let you know you made me think!

  2. Thanks Em - your comment is about as decisive on the matter as my post! :)

    It's such a complex question, isn't it? Also because, if you want to learn about the past and enjoy the artistic output of the time, this kinda thing is often what you have to look past - but who wants a sanitised version of the way things were? That would make it an entirely different place. Isn't the past there to be accepted and learnt from? Or maybe that's the lesson here?

    I could go on all day!!


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