Robert E. Howard’s “People of the Black Circle”, published in 1934 is rightly regarded as a classic. It is easily among the best of the very best fantasy stories of all time. The way that the romantic threads of this story are developed would of course be shocking to anyone that has come into the genre primarily through the more recent works:
“Where now?” Yasmina was trying to sit erect on the rocking saddle bow, clutching to her captor. She was conscious of a recognition of shame that she should not find unpleasant the feel of his muscular flesh under her fingers, but under that too was a wicked little tingle that would not be denied.
But there’s more than just raw attraction at play here. This “princess” type character is in fact a person of lineage and import with her own ends in mind. She’s not above taking advantage of the power of her own charm:
She could not mistake the look that was beginning to dawn in this wild man’s eyes as they rested on her. Kingdoms have fallen when a woman’s slim white hands pulled the strings of destiny.
But though she might well have the inklings of a Lady MacBeth or a Jezebel within her, she is nevertheless still fundamentally human:
“Conan!” He wheeled back into the chamber just in time to catch the Devi of Vendya in his arms as she rushed across the room and threw herself upon him, catching him about the neck with a frantic clasp, half hysterical with terror and gratitude and relief.
His own wild blood had been stirred to its uttermost by all that had passed. He caught her to him in a grasp that would have made her wince at another time, and crushed her lips with his. She made no resistance; the Devi was drowned in the elemental woman. She closed her eyes and drank in his fierce, hot, lawless kisses with all the abandon of passionate thirst. She was panting with his violence when he ceased for breath, and glared down at her lying limp in his mighty arms.
“I knew you’d come for me,” she murmured. “You would not leave me in this den of devils.”
Alas, this is one of those love affairs that just isn’t meant to be. Real princesses have real responsibilities and have to do what’s best for their people. They don’t have the option to just run off with the first good looking barbarian type that happens to kidnap them for a really really really good reason, even when they do manage to rescue them from a fortress of evil sorcery! It’s almost ironic to see Conan put in a situation at the conclusion where he genuinely needs the help of this princess in order to get him and his followers out of a fix, but the fact is there is more of a parity between these two characters than a cursory reading would suggest. This is not at all unusual, but this is not how stereotypes of classic pulp fiction are typically framed.
As another example from a little more than a decade later, this scene from the positively tremendous film The Big Sleep (which the great Leigh Brackett had a hand in) is just plain sizzling:
Wow, what a scene!
(If you don’t think that the best of the best of the best films from the twentieth century can compete with the stuff that’s in theaters right now, then you need to cruise over to Amazon and drop a measly three dollars on a rental and see for yourself just how good the classics really are.)
Now, it’s not that there aren’t any exceptions… but for the most part this is not how things are done anymore. I think people that are immersed in more recent material are liable to not even notice that things have changed– or even that things could be done differently than how they are now. But that’s why you read things from other time periods: so that you can really get a look at the sort of things that are being inadvertently suppressed just due to the fashions of your own time.
So when did things change and what specifically got changed…? Well, here are a couple of examples to highlight the overall trends. The first is from David Madison’s story from the 1978 Swords Against Darkness III anthology. Now, I’ve got no beef with this guy personally. He actually wrote a pretty good story. But he was (like most people) a product of his times as well. Check out this excerpt, though:
The woman was tall and lithe, muscular without being awkward. Her heavy square-cut blonde hair was confined by a circlet of beaten gold; other than that she wore no ornaments. A narrow white scar creased the perfection of her tan, pulling her right eyelid down slightly and giving her face a faint look of sleepy cynicism. A fantastically jeweled and embroidered peacock cape hung from her shoulders, contrasting oddly with her masculine linen blouse, rudely patched canvas pants and the notched and rusty sabre in her belt.
The guard-captain had no great love of foreigners, but could not help but be impressed by her.
Her male companion was small, although supple and compactly built. He was blonde, like the woman, with a pretty, faintly childish face and deep black eyes.
He was dressed in peach-colored satin trousers, soft white boots, and a shirt that was alive with needlepoint dragons. His mascara and eyeshadow had begun to run from perspiration, and there was a blue butterfly painted on his left cheek.
This is one of those “hey let’s be a nonconformist just like everybody else” things. The archetypes that are at play in countless myths and stories of the past are here turned inside out and upside down. What if… the heroes were a tough masculine woman and a dainty effeminate man…? Wouldn’t that be awesome?! Well hey, I don’t blame people for trying something different. But you know, this sort of thing might look like a good idea on paper, but it will not cannot ever have the kind of passion and power that more traditional stories have. That’s just how it is.
And if you don’t believe me, try sitting through the Next Generation Star Trek episode “Angel One” where we get a glimpse of an entire world that’s predicated on this shtick. Sure this sort of experimentation of forms and modes and conventions is inevitable. But messing with this sort of thing is more liable to produce inadvertent comedy than it is a timeless classic. (Man, that Star Trek episode sure is awful.)
Flipping the script like this simply does not work, no matter how much people might want it to. That doesn’t stop critics from slamming Robert E. Howard for being “problematic”. I could almost begin to put up with the constant lecturing on the sexism inherent to the classic works of fantasy and science fiction if they had a point… but the truth is, the critics of the pastmasters haven’t actually produced a more satisfying alternative to more the more traditional depictions of romance and attraction.
This is over the top reversal never really stuck, of course. But there are plenty other methods for overturning the old norms. More likely nowadays you’re going to see the heroic protagonist de-masculinized to the point where he is little more than a nice, “safe”, likable nerd. The object of his romantic yearnings is going to be masculinized up by having the attributes of a cad overlayed onto her personality. Thus do we get the formula for the first season of The Flash where Barry Allen wrestles with his unrequited love for his childhood sweetheart Iris West. Far from ever busting a move on her, he wrestles with his fear of revealing his true feelings about her even as he feigns approval of her relationship with a better looking guy. Meanwhile, Iris West cheerfully reveals that she has a “three list”: a list of three men she’d be willing to cheat on her boyfriend with even as she gets Barry to help her move in with his own romantic rival.
This sort of thing is a double disaster from a romantic standpoint because not only are we not treated to a protagonist that fails to be a convincing “leading man” figure, but the object of his affections is not even close to being worthy of them. (And seriously, why is it depicted as being unthinkable for this guy to move on to someone that’s more in his league…? I don’t get it.) For a romance to have anything remotely like the excitement we see in the more traditional stories, its absolutely crucial that the likability of the characters be maintained. But the tendency of storytelling since sometime around the seventies or so is to make the men “nicer” and the women trashier. This not only makes the characters inherently less likable, but it makes the resulting romance far less exciting or even believable.
Most classic works of science fiction and fantasy never come close to experimenting with this sort of thing. They are largely unconscious in their embrace of the tried and true storytelling elements. This is the reason why they are consistently better than more recent works.
But culturally, we’ve gotten to the point the following things are more and more out of bounds with each passing year:
- Women being attracted to strength and traditionally masculine traits.
- Women needing men.
- Women that are feminine.
- Women that are worthy of even being won by a hero.
The subtext of today’s culture comes down to this:
- Men and boys as a class do not deserve to have adventure stories that cater to their usual preferences, likes, dreams, and so forth.
- Men in general do not deserve to play the part of the traditional leading man– and they don’t deserve traditional happy endings either. (Think of Interstellar where the guy has had the history books characterize him as totally loving farming by his own daughter even as he has to set off to go rescue a girl that was never that into him in the first place. Even worse is Elysium. The guy gives his life so that the sweetheart that dumped him to have a child with another man can get free healthcare for that child.)
These are trends, so of course there will be exceptions to the rule. But for the most part, the more “progressive” something is, the more unthinkable the leading man story elements are going to be within it. Are any of these creative choices objectively better or worse…? I think there are, not that I’d stop anyone from catering to whatever audience they want to play to. But the thing is, the typical adventure story of 1934 would be read by a boy that dreamed of growing up one day to be big and strong and manly and able to win the affections of worthy girl and live happily ever. By 1978, the adventure story was read by someone that daydreamed about reality working according to entirely different precepts– that a guy could be weak and effeminate and dainty and nevertheless pull off a relationship with a “tough guy” woman anyway. And by 2014, even that sort of unlikely relationship is melting away… replaced by a chump that is constantly doing favors for a girl that really doesn’t deserve him.
The ideal has steadily been reworked from a classically heroic man getting the girl in the end, to a misfit getting a girl without himself having to be hero material, to the whole concept of the guy “getting the girl” at all being vaguely sketchy. Meanwhile, if any of the old pulp heroes ever come up in conversation, there’s almost always someone around ready to point out how awful they are and how offensive they are now. But for an average guy, the classics are about the only way that he’s going to read something where he’s squarely in the target audience anymore.