When the Classics Hurt

I love old stuff. I think you know I love old stuff. From classic rock to Claremont-era X-Men, Conan the Barbarian to the Dark Crystal. I love old media. But old media has a LOT of problems. Namely, racism, sexism, and all the other evils we of the post-modern era are heir to. (Also, could we enter a new era already? Post-modern was always such a pretentious title. Even worse than calling the period between 1870s and 1930s “modern.”)

What am I talking about? I’m talking about how older media often contains harmful depictions of women, people of color, African or Asian culture, Jewish stereotypes, LGBTQ stereotypes, etc. Do I really have to draw this out? Conan the Barbarian comes right out and says it: Between the times when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas. Who’s Aryas? Who do you think? He’s Robert E. Howard’s fictional ancestor to the “Aryan Race” because Robert E. Howard was a big ol’ racist. Fantasy has deep roots in racism and colonialism. There’s no denying that. I mean, you could deny it. You’d be wrong, but you could deny it.

“Colors of the Wind” is a beautiful song, but Pocahontas is an ahistorical mess, filled with noble savage stereotypes and reeking of the white savior narrative. I love “John Carter” to death, but it’s no coincidence that the movie version skips over the awkwardness of a white guy from Earth (A Confederate soldier, no less) being the most powerful man on a multicultural world. (Fun Fact: If they’d recast John Carter as a freed slave fighting for the North who becomes the most powerful man on Mars, suddenly the movie gets 10x better.)

Look, racism is real, alive, and well in the 21st century. Most white people like myself are blind to it. Worse, most refuse to even acknowledge the fact.

What do we do? In this case, the obvious answer is to chuck the classics. And I’d gleefully do so, faster than you can say “Tear down that Robert E. Lee statue.” But there’s a problem. Much of this old stuff is an integral part of my childhood, my upbringing. Of me. They’re my stories. They’re a part of me, warts and all. I can no sooner deny them than deny my own family.

And that’s my main problem with the Left nowadays. Anything less than 100% commitment to anti-bigotry is unacceptable. And in truth, that’s probably a good thing. Bigotry is, after all, bad.

But is there a way to embrace the old stuff without embracing the bigotry embodied within it? I don’t know. I hope so. Is all this just an exercise in white guilt, wherein I pray for absolution from the New Gods of Social Justice? Maybe. Probably. I don’t have any answers, just questions. And sometimes, questions are what we need.

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