Wednesday 1 September 2010

Mysterious Anonymous Posters, Vanishing Comments, and What Is A Feminist?

Something odd happened just the now: I got an email alert saying an anonymous poster left a comment at my discussion of Alison Flood's review of a Tanith Lee book, and the discussion of Howard therein.  Yet when I went over there, it had mysteriously vanished.  I can only assume Blogger fouled up, because I know I sure didn't delete it.  In any case, I felt the comment needed to be addressed, because the honour of Howardom was at stake.   

Someone was wrong.  On the Internet.

Hi there, anonymous!  Wish I knew your name, and that you had left it.

Sorry, but if you ARE a feminist of almost any stripe (and from your article I'm guessing you're not)

Why would you guess such a thing?  Have I said anything that gives the impression I am not?  Surely if I'm arguing for Howard's feminist qualities, that would indicate I have feminist sympathies.  Unless I'm grossly misinformed of what feminism actually is, of course.

The article Anonymous is speaking of is presumably Return of the Flood.  In that article, I talk about how awesome it is that Valeria is depicted as being the equal of any man and superior to the average, and that it's a shining example of Howard's female characters at their finest.  Apparently, someone read all my quotes praising how great it was that Howard portrayed a woman as strong, in control of her destiny, and most importantly as an equal to Conan - a triumph that can't be said of any male character in the stories - and came to the conclusion that I'm not a feminist.  I have no idea how.

Lee's characters are infinitely preferable to Howard's. You can't throw down the gauntlet at Alison for talking about things you don't think she's read thoroughly enough, then turn around and admit you've read absolutely nothing by Tanith Lee and expect to be taken seriously by any but the most hardened Howard fans (who will most likely agree with you automatically and refuse to engage in meaningful literary criticism without name-calling and the like as has happened below).

Well, you are certainly correct on the first count: I don't know Lee's work.  However, let me quote myself again:

nothing I've read of Lee's female character in the article seems appreciably superior to the best of Howard's female characters in terms of feminist qualities.

I wasn't commenting on Lee as a whole, I was commenting on what Flood said about Lee in the article.  And what was said in the article didn't sound much more feminist than any of Howard's characters.  In fact, I'm pretty clear about it: I post the full paragraph in question, and pretty clearly state that nothing in the paragraph says anything that sounds more feminist than the best Howard characters:

Having fought through Conan and all his lily-white wimpy women, imagine my joy to be greeted by Narasen, "the leopard queen of Merh", beautiful, a warrior, and uninterested in the male sex: "I do not lie with men," she says firmly. Of course things end up going wrong for her: she and her city are cursed to be barren, it's only if she can bear a child that her kingdom will survive but – after very reluctantly trying with many – she realises the curse means that only a dead man will be able to impregnate her. A bargain with Uhlume, Death's Master, ensues, but it all goes wrong and she's condemned to live 1,000 years in his kingdom. She never stops being thoroughly feisty and brilliant, however. Even when, later in the book, she's turned completely blue (long story).

I see little about this Narasen that seems particularly more refreshing than Valeria, or Belit, or even Yasmina, save the lack of interest in men.

Now, if I had said something along the lines of "nothing I've read of Lee's female character in the article seems appreciably superior to the best of Howard's female characters in terms of feminist qualities, therefore, Lee's work cannot be appreciably superior" you'd have a point.  But I didn't, because I'm not going to talk about what I don't know.

If Flood had, in fact, shown something appreciably more feminist than Dark Agnes or Red Sonya - something more than just a biographical sketch and a brief outline of the character's adventures - I'd happily concede.  But she didn't.  And neither did you, for that matter.  You just said "they're infinitely preferable" without saying why.  Well, here's your chance: if you can prove Tanith Lee's female characters are, in fact, infinitely preferable from a feminist perspective - feel free to specify which school of feminism, if you must - then provide examples.  I have a feeling that Lee is more feminist than Howard, by virtue of her writing half a century after Howard - but providing proof of that is preferable than just saying she is, and leaving it at that.

As for the insult against the intelligence of hardcore Howard fans, let's not engage in such silliness.  Let's stick to the argument at hand without accusing anyone of anything.  That said, I have to laugh to the implication that Howard fans are terrified of intellectual discourse, for the simple fact that Howard fans can be massively divided on countless aspects of Howardania - ye Gods, if you had read some of the wars between opposing factions in The Cimmerian's Lion's Den, you'd think otherwise!  REHupa hosts articles by Gary Romeo, the last lone voice of dissent in favour of L. Sprague De Camp, many of which are very contradictory to other Howardist arguments, to the point where the have been pivotal to some of the biggest controversies in recent memory.

So to say Howard fans are automatically going to agree with each other is, well, wishful thinking.

Are you even familiar with feminist literary theories? If your blog is any indication, you're not, and this is another example of talking about subjects in which you've never versed yourself. Exactly what you seem to be complaining about with Flood.

Am I familiar with feminist literary theories - should I have to be?  Nowhere does the discussion of feminist literary theories even come up.  I don't see why discussion of feminism must be limited to discussion of feminist literary theory: I'm talking about feminism at its most basic, by its dictionary definition.  Why this obsession with pigeonholing feminism according to one practice or another? There is more to feminism than adhering to a specific school of feminist thought.  The fact that I wasn't talking about, say, Post-Modern or Separatist feminism should've indicated I wasn't talking in those terms.  How can I talk about things I'm not versed in when I'm not talking about those things in the first place, and gave no impression that I was?

At its core, as I understand it, feminism is the idea that women should have the same social, political, economic, and all related rights as men, that women should not be considered inferior, subservient, or under the dominion of their spear counterpart.  That's how feminism is described in the first definition in my dictionary: the other definition, meaning a specific movement or group, is secondary to that.  There are other variations - those feminists who think women are different but should be treated with equal opportunities, as well as those who think women should take over - but they are just that, variations.  There are certain aspects of feminism that transcend such pigeonholing, and these ideals I support vigorously.

Am I excluded from being feminist, simply because I don't belong to one movement or another, even if I'm an advocate of its fundamental principles?  If so -and do correct me if I misunderstand the implication - that would be dangerously close to a No True Scotsman fallacy.  That would be like saying a person who follows Christ can't be a Christian, just because they don't belong to one of the many denominations of Christianity, or that a Parisian in the 1940s shouldn't be considered anti-Nazi because they aren't an active member of the French Resistance.

Also, I must respectfully disagree that the three Barrett and Kerr articles sufficiently counter Flood's feminist thesis (which intelligently addresses the intersectionality of race with sex/gender but neglects socio-economic class).

I've been following this argument over at the blog.  I obviously disagree with your assessment myself, and must confess not having a clue by what you mean about Flood's feminist thesis.  What is "intersectionality of race with sex/gender"?  Do you mean how race intersects with sex/gender?  Why didn't you say that?  Why the needlessly obfuscating language, especially making words like "intersectionality" up?  "Socio-economic class?"  What do you mean by this?  How is it relevant?

you'll see even Barbara seems to be quickly backing off from the idea that Howard's female characters are actually feminist representations.

First of all, what I see is Barbara trying her best to explain that this is not meant to be a PHD thesis, but in fact a blog, and thus not the platform for such a discussion.  Secondly, what Barbara is saying is that Howard's female characters do not belong to some specific school of thought of feminism: she is not saying that they aren't feminist representations.  If she was truly backing off from the idea of Howard's females not being feminist representations, that would be a massive concession that undermines the entire article: she quite clearly isn't doing that.

And again, you say they're not feminist representations: why aren't they feminist representations?  I provided multiple examples of why I think Valeria in particular is an example of a feminist approach to a female character.  Going by the dictionary definition, I'd say that they almost certainly are advocates of the basic idea of feminism.

Barbara even starts to distance HERSELF from any clear identification as a feminist. She invokes feminist scholarship (though she seems to barely understand it) and then refuses to discuss legitimate criticisms of her argument online, throwing "agree to disagree" shapes and ad hominem attacks (implying Justin and Deirdre are somehow insincere or only trying to sell a book) behind her as she runs from the discussion.

Again, you're mistaking Barbara's refusal to align with a particular division of feminism with a refusal to be considered a feminist of any sort.  Big difference.

There is more history between Justin, Deirdre and Barbara than the article supposes. The first two were present at a panel at Howard Days this year, where they were discussing their upcoming book, More Than Human: The Evolutionary Heroes of Robert E. Howard.  I know that Barbara also attended that panel.  Now, I wasn't privy to their discussion, but I do know that Barbara and the others did have a discussion - at a guess, I'd say it was to do with this precise argument.

That said, I object to the idea that Justin and Deirdre's criticisms are legitimate, when many of them are, frankly, besides the point.  Justin posits the idea that Howard's strong females are not feminist, but belong to the "Amazon tradition" of western culture.  This seems to ignore the fact that the classical Amazons were frequently used as an anti-feminine polemic by the Ancient Greeks.  The role of many Amazons in myth are as wild viragos to be conquered and humbled by masculine heroes like Herakles and Theseus.  The warrior women of other cultures, such as the Celts, Germanics, Scythians and Parthians, were used by the Greeks and Romans as examples of those cultures' barbarism and savagery in comparison to their civilized societies.  This was the case in Shakespeare, certainly, where the likes of Katarina have to be "tamed" by a man.  Howard's strong women are not used in such a way - in fact, they're used in the opposite manner, as a rebuttal to such concepts.

He also asserts there is no evidence of Howard's feminism in the letters - which is absurd, seeing as there are many examples of Howard singing the praises of women throughout the known documents, including one that is basically a rallying-call for great women throughout history.  In that letter, he basically comes out and says the reason women are in an inferior place to men is because men have held them down since time immemorial, and he thinks it's a total crock:

When I see the actions of girls I sometimes think they deserve all that they get and yet again I am nauseated at the injustice of life in regard to women. Woman-beating, for instance, goes on a lot more than most people realize especially in regard to young girls. Getting down to basic stuff, when a man and woman alone, her only real protection against him is his better nature or weaker nature, which ever you prefer. It must be Hell to have to beg for everything you get, or to beg out of abuse or punishment. Obedience – discipline – gah, I don't believe I hate any other words as I hate those two. The taste of them is as the tang of dung in the mouth of me. As regards sex, you and I are lucky. Think of the disparity of Nature’s gifts. A woman gets on her knees to some bastard and begs like a slave whereas if the same bastard even made an off color crack to you or me, he would get the Hell knocked out of him with one smash. And another thing – if a man is a Hell-whooper among men, wading in without fear or favor, a real tough nut, one can pardon wife beating in him easier than in some shrimpish bastard who is afraid to look into the eyes of a real man, and exercises his inferiority complex by knocking a woman around.

"I am nauseated of the injustice in life in regard to women" - Howard clearly states his distaste for the lot women have to endure.  He offers domestic violence as one example, and considers it disgusting.  Does that not square with feminist ideas?

That is the terrific animal vitality of a certain class of people. Or I should say type, for they are found in all classes, from street-sweepers to millionaires. These men – and women – are possessed of extreme natural individualism, restlessness, turbulence, and physical vitality. They are, I suppose, of the type called extroverts. From their ranks come explorers, soldiers, athletes, wanderers, and outlaws.

They are so constituted that only strenuous physical action can satisfy them. Some, favored by birth or circumstances, become soldiers, explorers, empire-builders. For every one of that breed who becomes famous in the ways mentioned, there are ten or fifteen who become dare-devil aviators, prize-fighters, football players, regular soldiers or sailors, or wandering workmen. Then there is a goodly number who turn gangster, gunman, gambler, outlaw.

- To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932

Note that Howard qualifies by including women among the extroverts, from whose ranks come "explorers, soldiers, athletes, wanderers, and outlaws," as well as "soldiers, explorers, empire-builders," "dare-devil aviators, prize-fighters, football players, regular soldiers or sailors, or wandering workmen," and "gangsters, gunmen, gamblers, outlaws."  Obviously female examples of some of those are rare, but nonetheless, Howard clearly and specifically counts women among extroverts.

As for the urge of the frontiersmen to make over the new country into a duplicate of the states they had just left - if that was so, why did they bother to come west in the first place? Why did they keep moving on, many of them, as the country filled up around them? They had the pick of the land; why did they not stay and build up something to look like something they’d long before abandoned? Exalt the frontier? Yes, I exalt it. The older I get the more I realize the glory of it, the true worth, the iron in the men and women who enacted it.

There are some things in this system you can’t dismiss as theories. You can’t dismiss twelve and a half million men and women without work and on the point of starvation as theories.

- To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. September or October 1933

If you’re interested in rugged human types, you ought [sic] see that country; the pioneer breed survives there as it probably does not survive anywhere else – lean, rawhide men and women battling sun and heat and drought and storm and starvation and damnation without murmuring. A tough breed. Nothing can stamp them out. They are endured to hardships that the rest of an overly-pampered world doesn’t even guess exist.

- To August Derleth, ca. June 1934

Once again, men and women.  Howard could easily have just said "men," but he didn't: he made a point of saying that women also battled "sun and heat and drought and storm and starvation and damnation without murmuring," a "tough breed" which nothing could stamp out, "endured to hardships that the rest of an overly-pampered world doesn't even guess exist.

The only way one could assert that Howard wasn't a feminist is if you argue that Howard wasn't a member of a particular feminist movement - an argument that I find intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

Justin and Deirdre, as well as yourself, seem to believe that there is no feminism save one of the many specific groups which one associates with, like a political party or intellectual movement.  That's not even getting into the fact that many of their arguments about Howard himself are questionable.  The idea that Barbara's mention of Justin and Deirdre's book as an ad hominem attack is truly dubious.  I can read zero malicious intent in what I thought was a completely neutral mention of the fact that they are, in fact, promoting their book.  Perhaps you're reading too much into things.

Where is her feminist courage, I wonder? Did she learn to behave this way from Howard? Proof positive of the lack of courage in evidence by Howard's modern fanbase, my comments were very recently deleted from the RSS Feed. Barbara now has the last word, it seems, but still fails to respond to her articles' critics.

You'll note that Justin and Dierdre haven't pursued the argument: are they "backing off" too?  Or has Barbara deleted their most recent comments - in which case, why didn't she just do that from the beginning.

I don't understand why they were deleted - they were deleted from my own site feed, too - but I sure didn't have anything to do with it, as evidenced by my discussion here..  Besides, one can tell when a comment has been deleted by a blog author, because it usually says "this comment has been deleted by the blog author."  This isn't the case.  It's quite clearly a case of the site's software mucking things up, probably thinking the comment was spam, not a case of cowardly deletion of ideas that frighten and confuse.  Accuse Barbara of cowardice at your peril: she isn't one to take fools gladly

I'm glad this Anonymous posted, and it's regrettable their post was eaten by the Nameless Things that Gnaw at Blogger.  Let it not be said that Howard fans are afraid of intellectual discource, though a look at some of the more recent controversies should surely put that idea to rest.


  1. The problem, Al, is that you tend to do this crazy thing where you read what has been said, understand it and then write about it in a critical and honest fashion. That's not the way things are done in academia anymore.

    Unless you can align yourself with some current literary/political/socio-economic movement and defend it as the "correct and true" faith, disregarding reasoned argument in favour of knee-jerk reactionism, you are not conforming to today's academic standards.

    Besides, defending a white man who wrote before the "age of Enlightenment" (the sixties) who wasn't communist or gay, puts you automatically at odds with the majority view in academic circles, don't you know. Especially the white writer whose creation has become the straw demon for all that was wrong with the world before the current generation of intellectuals came into being to set it right.

    Imagine all the time I must have wasted learning how to read and write critically, engage in reasoned argument, when all I should have done was learn to shout hysterically when someone disagreed with my particular political/literary bias. To think I could have used that time and money spent learning those skills on drinking beer and attending rallies.

    Silly me.

    Disengaging "Heavy Sarcasm" mode.

  2. So true, M.D. I've known the like in college and university.

    I'd love to think this anonymous commentator is more than just a baby intellectual, but something tells me I might be hoping in vain. Ah well, these are the things that try us.

  3. I have spent a couple of years at the university, reading litteratur and a bunch of other cultural subjects with both direct and indirect feminist/gender approach, and I think you, Al, make some good points about both Howards personal femenist tendencies and the feminist characters he wrote in his stories (personally I think its important to not mix those up to much). As for litteray feminist theory I have seen you examine characters and "writers intent", and I think even a more semantic approach would be somewhat in howards favour (think you did that with the race issue in Salomon Kane and Conan). Names like Valeria and Dark Agnes has none of the diminutive connotations that a smart feminist see as hidden chauvinism. I think Howard use proper "powerfull" words to describe his women, if they are intended to be strong and independent (this, semantics, is an important litterary feminist tool in my oppinion).
    As for lack of outspoken theory, I do think this pragmatic approach is sufficient for a blog. Its complicated problems to deal with that goes to the deep roots of our culture, and over the years I have read a few definitions of differnt feminist schools, but the names and defenitions varies alot.
    While studying religion my professor was a great fan of "the pragmatic approach"; he saw some issues in theology that would never be solved in more arguments and debate (like the endless debate if there is an objective "core" out there), so my professor said, lets focus on the problems we can solve, lets focus on issues that pose a practical problem, and see if we can solve them. He said not to chose "anti realist" or "realist", he chose "non-realist", not to bother with those matters. So I guess that has become a big influence for me; if someone say "howards women are wimpy and lilly-white", I would probably also make a simple post showing that wrong, and not start a debate on constructivism and hegemony or whatever.

  4. Fredrik, I'm in total agreement. Valeria, Red Sonya, Dark Agnes and others are described using many of the same terms Howard uses to describe his male heroes. The only difference is... well, they're women, and they're described using feminine terms like "full-figured," "shapely" and whatnot. Simple description of physical anatomy.

    I'm a bit of a pragmatist myself when it comes to religion and philosophy.