Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Cover Story (Part 1) -- Pulps, Women, Sexism, and Power

by Sean Taylor

If you know me at all, you know I'm a fan of classic pulp magazine covers. Now, I'm not about to try to pretend that most of them aren't sexist or that lots of them probably warped the imaginations of boys everywhere in all kinds of testosterone-driven, perverse, kinky, and misogynistic ways. And to dismiss them with a mere "Well, it was a different time with different values..." is, well, kind of a cop-out.

Still... I want to look at them with an eye for art and culture over the next few weeks here on the blog, and we're going to start right in the middle of the deep end -- the women in peril covers -- perhaps the vilest offenders to gender equality.

But, as least the way I see it, when looked at in the right light, they can be admired and studied for what they say about the cultural norms of the time and the audience the pulps were reaching.

Category 1: White Knights to the Rescue

This one is probably the most abundant cover style of the pulp magazines of the "classic" era. A woman's in trouble, and some heroic guy is waving a gun or smashing some bad guy with his fist in order to try and save the day. My favorites of this style are the ones in which the hero is not on the cover at all, but merely implied.

Sometimes, even, the only danger is that, like in fairy tales, the lost princess only needs to be found, or the sleeping princess awakened.

Category 2: No Hero in Sight

This is where the covers can jump from inequality (or male fantasy) to downright mysogony. This is not just violence against women, but violence purely for the sake of terror and power. Cue the "They're coming to get you, Barbara," and realize there's no one around to save the damsel in distress, most notably not herself. Simply put, she's screwed. (At least until the story "redeemed" the cover image by having the hero show up and thus "softening" the cover image by just being part of the story.


Category 3: Attack of the Monsters

This is where the two previous categories meet sci-fi and horror. Whether or not the hero is around in the image, the women in peril are not plagued by mere men anymore, but gods, monsters, aliens, and metal creatures. The use of the outsider instead of a mortal man as the villain of the image definitely takes the edge off the subjugating of the female and wraps it up in the dressing of adventure and exploration in most cases.


Category 4: Mad Scientists

It was only logical that there would be covers that combined the monsters and creatures but also retained the sort of sexual one-upsmanship against women. I'm not fully convinced this was to subjugate the female of the species, but more to appeal to the male ego to ultimate be the hero -- and the bigger and more terrifying the bad guy, the more heroic by extension. That said, most of this type of cover leaned toward the "No Hero in Sight" style, at least for the image. Most likely to let the reader put himself in that role instead of sharing the spotlight with a hero on the cover.

Category 5: Sexual Power and Toying with Fetishes

Even something as innocuous as the serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE is rooted in the taking of sexual power from the female. It's a mere step away from domination and bondage, just dressed up in less kinky clothes. And lots of pulp covers realized that appealing to the male sense of sexual power meant sales. Lots of sales. Even if they kept the really kinky stuff in the closet and teased about the fetishes they were promoting.

Forced stripping. Bondage. Necrophilia. Body modification. Branding. Lesbianism. Agalmatophilia (look it up). Breathplay.

It wasn't just about women in skimpy lingerie or ripped clothing at the mercy of a strong, virile man. It also grew darker, with the ultimate sexual objectification of the woman as mere property, mere decoration to be lusted purely as a "thing" -- no longer a person. Encase them in ice. Marry them to the dead. Coat them in gold. Put them on display. Lock them away tight in ropes or in a box. Turn them into mindless robots. Bend them to your will and keep them at your feet. It's perfectly all right... as long as the hero shows up before the really important girl gets reduced to a mere object.

Or even better, get other women to treat them as mere toys or playthings.

Category 6: Truly Graphic Horror

Then the proverbial poo sometimes really hit the fan. Sometimes the sexual power didn't stop at objectification or degradation. Sometimes it had to really, truly reduce a woman (at best) to being marked (as with a brand or cuttings) to being permanently lessened in some way (usually through the removal of limbs -- perhaps the ultimate objectification or reduction to a less than human thing) -- or even to death by some overly violent method that is designed for great pain and humiliation.

This level of graphic illustration also influenced the comics and in part helped lead to THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and the creation of the comics code.

These are the covers that can be difficult to defend, yet they can also have the most ardent supporters and fans.

Category 7: Men's Adventure Cranks It Up a Notch (or to Eleven)

Then came Men's Adventure magazines, and they embraced everything that had come before, and twined it all together without any apologies. Nazi sadists beating poor virgins with whips. Brutal gangs feeding sex slaves to crocodiles. Tribal natives sacrificing bloodied maidens to fertility gods. Nothing was sacred.

To be fair, not all Men's Adventure magazines blended sex and violence in such graphic ways. Many simply told more titillating tales of heroes rescuing the damsel in distress. But the lure of blending sex and torture to creative visually stimulating (yes, I mean what it says) temptations was too easy, too readily the low-hanging fruit.

The world hated and lusted white women, and only red-blooded American men could save their virtue and soft, tender flesh. (And then, as a reward, get all that virtue and flesh served up on a plate in gratitude.)

Admittedly, many of the images from the Men's Adventure magazines weren't really anymore graphic or titillating than the covers from the earlier years of pulp magazines, but when combined with erotically charged headlines and cover copy, the illusion was solidified. Not only that, but even if the images themselves were not worse, and often more tame visually, the implied intent of violence and degradation toward the female victims filled in the space between the lines (so to speak) to make the message pretty damn clear after all.

Finishing Blows...

Now, this may seem like a harsh critique of the pulp era, but understand this: I totally love this stuff. I really, really do. I geek on this. I'm not some kind of Chief Officer of Political Correctness, but I do acknowledge a certain worldview in these covers that considers men heroes and women victims.

That said, I still find the stories and the images a lot of fun. I know that as modern readers we can read into these stories and covers more than was intended. I get that. But I also can be a grown-up enough fan to understand that the world has changed and that they form a sort of time capsule to days gone by that weren't so magnanimous toward the roles of women and completely embraced the notion of "foreign devils."

What the Future Holds...

Next week we'll look at how pulp covers empowered women instead of merely subjugating and objectifying them. And a little after that, we'll look at what pulp covers got right to help little boys grow up to be confident, stalwart men.

So, until next time, keep it pulpy.