TW: Mentions of homophobia, transphobia, rape, and victim blaming
Say that you’re reading a book and generally enjoying it – right until it hits you with some pretty offensive opinions. They aren’t the main message of the book and they don’t come up often, and there are definitely other messages in it that you love, but you still can’t get those offensive lines out of your mind.
So what do you do? Stop reading? Keep reading? Does it depend on how far into the book you are? Does it depend on how strongly offended you are?
Let me tell you about my situation and maybe you can tell me what you’d do – because I honestly haven’t figured out a good solution. Before I start, I want to say that I don’t expect to agree with every author that I read. I don’t expect them to be perfect and without their biases and bigotries. Everyone has them. However, that’s not going to stop the offense from bothering me and leading me to question what I should do.
The book that inspired this post is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. It’s classic scifi but just in case that’s not your deal and/or you don’t know what it’s about, here’s a quick Amazon summary:
…the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love.
My parents have been trying to get me to read it for years, and my boyfriend included it in a stack of scifi books that he thought I should read. Finally, I gave in. For the most part, I enjoyed it. It has some amazing messages about sex positivity and body positivity. I wasn’t super crazy about the obsession with female youth and traditional gender roles, and towards the end the characters all sort of meld into this same personality, but I was mostly digging it.
And then, with only about a hundred pages to go, Heinlein hits me with this:
…[Jill] had explained homosexuality…and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such…fortunately Mike’s male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a “wrongness” in the poor in-betweeners anyhow – they would never be offered water.
Ouch. I was really growing to love Jill, and then she says that? First, we have an idolization of masculinity and feminism when assigned to the “proper” or traditional genders, which would imply that feminine men or masculine women would be wrong. We don’t need to figure that out for ourselves though, because Jill goes ahead and tells us they’re wrong and calls them “poor in-betweeners”. What?
(For reference to those who haven’t read the book: “water brothers” are people that Mike has shared water with and essentially formed an intense, unbreakable bond with; “grok” is a Martian word that means many things, but in this context we can basically say that he’d sense it.)
I was just shaking that off when, less than a page later, Jill tells Mike this about saving her – or other women – from men making unwanted sexual passes.
“Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault. So don’t be hasty.”
Oh, god. Homophobia (and I would say transphobia) and victim blaming right after the other. Not only that but, “It’s partly her fault, so don’t save her.” Mike takes most things very literally and trusts Jill implicitly, and she knows it – so she knows very well that if he senses a girl being raped, he might not stop it because of what she’s told him.
It was difficult to keep reading the book. On the one side, I had really enjoyed it up to that point and was very near the end. These weren’t messages that had come up before and didn’t come up again (though admittedly I could have missed it; I was a little out of it when I finished the last 100~ pages). I also keep thinking – well, this was written in a time when these ideas were pervasive, and even then, they only come up this once.
But wow, they hurt. You probably already know that rape culture is a pretty big deal to me, and LGBT issues are right up there with it. I also find it much harder to handle women who spread rape culture. If we don’t support other women, who will?
I ended up having some other problems with the ending and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet – but this whole thing is what I can’t stop thinking about. That little bit of internal narration, that little bit of dialogue, completely overtaking my ability to really think about the book.
What would you do? Have you faced a problem like this before? Hit up the comments.