Something from the past that seems like a huge load of Values Dissonance. It seems laden with, say, a Rose Tinted Narrative or a Historical Hero or Villain Upgrade.
Only... it turns out it was comparatively fair for its day. Maybe the Historical Hero Upgrade or Historical Villain Upgrade was an unfair reflection on the person's views. Maybe the Rose Tinted Narrative just wasn't rose tinted enough for its original audience. Maybe it was even ripped apart in its own time for being downright insurrectionist, and was brave to go as far as it did.
This doesn't automatically make the work immune to criticism: something less dissonant than its contemporaries can still be pretty darn dissonant. Oftentimes, though, a little research will show that something cringe-worthy or laughable today is also something worthy of applause for what it stood for. Authors often work under a system of rigid censorship that decrees even mild criticism of the status quo to be going too far. Attempting to argue for modern values would have really been pushing your luck. (In other words, here Failure Was The Only Option.) A work that's only a little culturally subversive is more likely to escape censorship and earn public acclaim than one that goes all the way, thus ensuring its relevance - or at least survival - into the present day.
Leading via Fridge Logic to the Family-Unfriendly Aesop: If you risk your reputation to shift the values of a society towards more tolerance and idealism, later generations may see you not as a hero, but rather as a Rule-Abiding Rebel, or at best a well-meaning coward, hardly any less appalling than the people you fought when you were alive. This conclusion presumes the so-called Whig theory of history, which proposes that societies become infinitely more politically liberal as time passes. (It also assumes that people from the future must have absolutely no sense of history.)
Please remember that this trope does not mean "surprisingly enlightened for its time period." It means "more enlightened for its time period", which is not necessarily the same thing. If a vintage work has a message that comfortably fits modern audiences, that's Values Resonance. In order to qualify for Fair For Its Day, a vintage work must have negative cultural traits as well as positive ones.
Contrast Rule-Abiding Rebel. Innocent Bigot and Racist Grandma are related tropes. The same principle applied to innovation in fictional works is Seinfeld Is Unfunny.
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Anime and Manga
Often noted in the case of Osamu Tezuka that, while the content of some of his work is offensive by modern standards, he was actually a very enlightened writer for his time and would likely appreciate the more open minded nature of today's society. A good example would be Princess Knight. While it can come across as incredibly sexist by modern standards (among other things, having that men and women are inherently different and women are naturally timid, unsuited for fighting, and enamoured fo pretty things like dresses), it still has a heroine who fights for her happy ending and becomes strong and brave enough to defend herself. Furthermore, while the series shows women as naturally being frail, it also showed that they could grow to be strong and most of the women were shown as being naturally brave, compassionate, and intelligent. Friebe and Hecate are shown as being good people while ignoring gender norms and engaging in unladylike behavior (and are shown to be very good at it). Meanwhile, the villain takes advantage of the kingdom's sexist laws to further his own goals, while the heroes agree that the rules limiting the rights of women are misogynistic and outdated. When the women of the kingdom finally revolt, while the whole thing is generally Played for Laughs, they do put up enough of a fight to worry the Duke, and Plastic granting women equal rights to men and letting Sapphire rule is shown as him being a true man and doing the right thing.
When Marvel first ran its Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, its Token Black character Gabe Jones was portrayed rather stereotypically (complete with a jazz trumpet on the cover of the very first issue), but having a black character on the team at all was quite revolutionary in that day and age, and he was generally treated as equal with the other commandos and a valued member of the strike force.
Luke Cage's blaxploitation origins are a bit cringe-worthy to read. Heck, in-universe he rather considers the yellow-disco-shirt-Holy-Christmas era an Old Shame. Yet he was the very first black superhero to have his own title series, he regularly served as a reserve member of the Fantastic Four, and he rapidly evolved from a generic Scary Black Man to a well-rounded character.
A lot of the entries in Captain Ethnic can count as this. They might be embarrassing stereotypes but they were sympathetic heroes of color in a time when almost all superheroes were still white people.
Will Eisner laid out a similar defense for Ebony White from The Spirit. He argued that despite his racist minstrel appearance, Ebony was a relatively competent and heroic depiction of a black Sidekick, especially for the time period he was created in.
Tintin has what would be considered very racist portrayals of minorities today. However, Tintin and the heroes always treated these people with respect, while the villains would not treat them this way.
Despite Disney's current stance on Song of the South, that movie portrayed Uncle Remus (who was a sharecropper, not a slave) as the only intelligent, mature person in the movie, whereas the white people were portrayed as idiots. Without Uncle Remus, that family would have fallen apart, and the movie says so. The film gets a lot of flak for presenting "happy slaves" even though Remus wasn't a slave. It also is criticized for Remus' "exaggerated" accent and dialect. The actor who played Uncle Remus, James Baskett, originally auditioned for a bit voice acting gig. Walt Disney liked his performance so much that he was given the roles of both Uncle Remus and Br'er Fox, and Disney did quite a bit of work behind the scenes to get the Academy to acknowledge Baskett's performance with an honorary Oscar— and that right there is the definition of this trope: the very first Oscar awarded to an African-American male, yes, but an "honorary" one.
South Pacific was intended as an anti-racism musical and movie. Rodgers and Hammerstein originally intended the show to end with Cable and Liat getting married until public and political pressure led to Cable being killed to prevent an interracial marriage from occurring on stage.
The Charlie Chan films of the Thirties and Forties may cause some embarrassment to modern audiences, with their hero's You No Take Candle English and stereotypical "Oriental" aphorisms; however, the character was actually intended as a subversion of the then-ubiquitous Yellow Peril villain and actually did a good deal to regenerate the character of Asians among Westerners. It's worth noting that Charlie Chan's sons were played by Chinese-American actors and given a "Gee, Pop!" all-Americanness. In "Charlie Chan at the Olympics," Charlie's son is representing the U.S.A. as an Olympic swimmer.
Broken Blossoms would be considered racist today, as the Chinese character is called "The Yellow Man", and played by a white man in yellowface. For its day, however, it was quite enlightened, as it portrayed a Chinese emigrant positively, as opposed to the Yellow Peril depiction that was prevalent in the 1910s.
The portrayal of Buckwheat in many The Little Rascals shorts is considered quite offensive by many today, yet at the time it was considered fairly daring in many quarters to show a black child hanging out on a more-or-less equal basis with white children. Several episodes show Buckwheat sitting in the same classroom as white students at a time of rampant segregation. In addition, Stymie may have been illiterate, but he was a clever lad who was the main character as the brains of the outfit until he was gradually eased out due to his advancing age for Spanky to take over that role.
Flower Drum Song is one long list of cliches, but a Hollywood movie in the early sixties with a cast composed entirely of Asians? Unexpected. Also, while there are significant cliches, you also see many characters be as shallow and annoying as other "hep" characters from this period. To put this in perspective, the movie came out in 1961, the same year as Breakfast at Tiffany's, which had Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord with no problems.
1960 sci-fi B-movie 12 to the Moon features an international, multi-ethnic, mixed-gender crew, all of whom are introduced as being legitimate experts in their fields (although most of the crew are still white males). It's also notable for portraying the Soviet Russian scientist in a sympathetic light. The Frenchman, on the other hand...
The film of Live and Let Die may look incredibly offensive today with its seeming stereotyping of all black people as superstitious drug-dealing criminals. However, the film was surprisingly liberal for its time in showing Bond in an inter-racial relationship, two of the most competent agents in the film (Quarrel Jr. and Strutter) are black, and the most incompetent of the 'heroes' is the racist sheriff, J.W. Pepper, who is explicitly shown as an idiot.
Ben Hur: The Arab sheik is portrayed by a white guy (although some Arabs, from the more northern parts of the Middle East especially, look almost white, so it's not too much of a stretch). He's also portrayed as a decent person, has a Star of David talisman fashioned for Ben Hur, explicitly draws a parallel between the oppression of Jews and the oppression of Arabs at the hands of the Romans, and is generally one of the very few male characters with no obvious bigotry.
As in The Ten Commandments, this was supposed to take place at a time when the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael often remembered that they were brothers and served the same God.
Gone with the Wind, unlike other films made in the early twentieth century, thoroughly avoided using blackface, having actual black people play the black characters. Also, Mammy was hailed at the time as a strong black female character, with Hattie McDaniel becoming the first black person to win an Academy Award with the one she received for Best Supporting Actress. Additionally, the makers of the film actively refused to give the Ku Klux Klan the glorifying treatment it received in the book. The film is also a rare example of a film that easily passes the Bechdel Test and has strong female characters.
In M*A*S*H, the lone black character is a former college football player nicknamed "Spear-Chucker" who's brought in as a ringer to win a game. On the other hand, he's an officer and a neurosurgeon, and his white colleagues treat him with respect (even adulation) despite the film being set in the 1950s. The film even Retcons the book by claiming his nickname referred to his time as a champion javelin thrower (though with a strong suggestion that no one buys that for a minute).
Sleeping Beauty has a rather flat love story line between the prince and princess. They just meet in the forest and fall in love in a matter of seconds because they met "once upon a dream". But at the time, the previous two Disney Princesses (Snow White and Cinderella) had even less developed love interests — they functioned simply to marry the princess and whisk her away to a better life. Aurora meeting her prince and getting to talk to him properly was fairly progressive for Disney at the time. It was also the first time a Disney Prince functioned as an actual character — Philip has to fight and properly work hard to earn his happy ending instead of just showing up at the end. Also worth noting is that Aurora doesn't just immediately swoon into the guy's arms. She makes arrangements to get to know him properly later — not in the forest, but in her home with her 'aunts' present.
Said 'aunts', the good fairies, are also the real protagonists of the story, and do all the real work for the male "hero" during the climax. Considering that the villain is a woman as well (and so formidable that when Disney villains crossover she is inevitably in a leadership position), pretty much everything that happens in the entire movie is driven by the female cast.
In Kitten With a Whip, to modern sensibilities, Jody is clearly bi-polar; a criminal, dangerous to herself and others, and in clear need of meds and psych counseling. By the standards of the day (mid-1960s), Jody would've been considered a troubled girl, in need of a firm hand to guide her on the right path (this was long before the current practice of charging youth offenders as adults came to be). Indeed, this is how she's described by the juvenile facility matron Jody hospitalized in her escape.
Howard Hawks was known for having some surprisingly impressive depictions of women despite the bulk of his work being made in the studio era.
His Girl Friday can be somewhat troubling today with Hildy's talk of wanting to "become a woman" by getting married. On the other hand, Hildy is a strong-willed, intelligent, and hardly submissive woman (some of the men even start making bets on how much time it will take before she will want to come back to the paper) and is respected by her male colleagues as an equal, as well as being acknowledged as one of their best reporters. This is all quite impressive for a movie released in 1940, but even better, she ends up overcoming her previous aspirations and sticking to her work in the newspaper, albeit on the condition of remarrying her boss and getting a proper honeymoon this time.
Similarly, in The Thing from Another World, the female lead really only exists as an added love interest (though to be fair the movie didn't have a whole lot in common with its source material, so this is one of the more minor changes). However, she is probably one of the most memorable characters in the movie. Much like Hildy Johnson, she is sharp-witted, intelligent, and far from submissive. Even while most of the choices are put in the hands of the men, she gets a few moments (a memorable case being when the fact that she wasn't involved with an argument among the men allowed her to be the first to notice that the Thing was cutting off the heat). Also despite being in a horror movie from the 1950's, she manages to avoid any kind of Distressed Damsel situation and never once screams in the movie (the only time she actually raised her voice was near the very end, and that was because she was trying to alert the protagonist to a very legitimate problem).
Lawrence of Arabia is often praised for its anti-imperial politics and providing sympathetic, complex Arab characters, and was considered fairly progressive in 1962 because of this. Today, however, the movie draws heavy criticism for focusing on Bedouin looting during the desert campaigns (which is well-documented) and the political/tribal discord among Lawrence's allies (ditto, though this angle's exaggerated in spots). Not to mention Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn playing Arabs.
Guinness went to extraordinary lengths to portray Feisal accurately. It worked, too. While on location he met several people who had known Feisal and were impressed by the resemblance. He listened to Omar Sharif to learn his Arabic accent. Jordanian officials and clergy worked closely with the production crew and actors, even coaching an English actor in proper recitation from the Holy Q'ran.
Similarly, a lot of revisionist Westerns made in the '50s and '60s, which were daring enough to depict Native Americans sympathetically, haven't aged well, whether due to Noble Savage stereotyping or off-color casting. Broken Arrow (1950) being the best example: Jeff Chandler's Cochise was considered groundbreaking, as an honest, sympathetic, and intelligent Apache Indian — but today comes off as an improbably perfect wise man, played by a Jewish New Yorker. Later films like Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves, which feature Native American actors playing Native Americans, haven't helped.
Most early movies depicting homosexuality directly, as opposed to through coded inference, inspire critical responses from modern viewers. The Children's Hour has generated controversy through the Unfortunate Implications involving Shirley Maclaine's character. Others criticize Basil Dearden's Victim (1961) for showing its gay characters as passive victims of criminals and blackmailers, focusing on their sexuality to make a social statement.
Conquest of Space (1955) may be shocking to a modern viewer in that it seems to imply the non-existence of female astronauts, meaning that the space program is made mostly of white men. However, the one Japanese crew member we see is treated as competent, professional, and equal to his white comrades.
The crows in Dumbo are often accused of acting like stereotypical black people, and the leader of them is even called Jim Crow in the credits. But on the other hand, their antics portray them as being incredibly clever, and they prove to be some of the nicer characters in the film when they teach Dumbo how to fly. In fact, they are the only characters, other than Timothy, who treat Dumbo well (Dumbo's mother, being his mother, doesn't really count).
The embarrassing portrayal of the American Indians in Peter Pan was actually a positive portrayal back then. Of course, Disney is embarrassed by this and even go far as removing the the shamefully catchy song What Made the Red Man Red? from the select screen.
Little Women was actually comparatively feminist by the standards of its day, but the most feminist thing about the novel isn't anything in the book itself, but the fact that Louisa May Alcott defied every feminine standard of the day by fully supporting herself and her family financially with her pen after most publishers told her to "stick to your teaching." For that matter, being a female teacher was itself quite enlightened, as most teachers of that day were men.
H. Rider Haggard's 19th century stories about his Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain (King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quatermain, etc.) has a number of Unfortunate Implications and the occasional racist overtone, but actually tries hard not to be racist. The second book, Allan Quatermain, even opens with an anti-racist essay by Quatermain. This does not make the books politically correct, mind you, and there's still a little accidental racism, but Haggard really does try, and his books are notable for pretty much lacking all the nastier stereotypes of blacks, having many strong black characters, and even a sympathetic interracial romance. Admittedly, they're Star-Crossed Lovers, but Quatermain notes that the problems they face are largely circumstantial, and maybe one day such love may be quite acceptable. A notable quote from King Solomon's Mines has Quatermain talk about gentlemen:
"What is a gentleman? I don't quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers — no, I'll scratch that word "niggers" out, for I don't like it. I've known natives who are, and so you'll say, Harry, my boy, before you're done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who ain't."
Rudyard Kipling rejected the notion that white people were inherently superior to non-white people. He believed that non-white people were no less capable of nobility, morality, and kindness. However, he also believed that non-whites needed the guidance of white people to better themselves, with his definition of "better" being English culture. This was a fairly common Fair for Its Day belief argued by many people who rejected racism but supported British imperialism.
White Man's Burden has inspired a great deal of argument over what the intended message was. If read as a straight defense of imperialism, it still states that whites attained the pinnacle of civilization through chance rather than racial superiority. Therefore, non-white people can be civilized and shouldn't be excluded or abused. This would be culturally supremacist, but not actually racist. Some people insist that the poem is a parody of imperialism, refuting it altogether.
Several other of Kipling's poems — "Jobson's Amen" and "We and They" — are rather scathing towards the attitude that British are intrinsically superior to native people.
"Fuzzy-Wuzzy", which refers to the Beja by the rather unfortunate epithet of, well, "Fuzzy-Wuzzy", nevertheless acknowledges "yo're a pore benighted 'eathen, but a first-class fightin' man".
Gunga Din, which has the titular Indian water-carrier — viewed as lower than dirt by the British soldiers, including the narrator — end up performing a Tear Jerker of a Heroic Sacrifice to save the narrator. By the end, the soldiers' racism and Gunga Din's heroism end up as a huge subversion of the then-popular Mighty Whitey trope.
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
The 1939 Film of the Book portrays the Indian antagonists fairly sympathetically, simply fighting to get the British out. As the Indian leader notes, "our civilization was great while Englishmen lived in caves and painted their faces blue."
Uncle Tom's Cabin is an example in regard to Unfortunate Implications — the blacks are caricatures, but they're at least treated as human beings, and the whole point of the novel is to condemn slavery. When released, the novel outraged the Southerners, and an entire genre was created to respond to it. Over the years, supporters of slavery created In Name Only adaptions of the story that used the worst of the Blackface caricatures. It was these characterizations that stuck in the public's consciousness and gave rise to the concept of the "Uncle Tom." The book's Uncle Tom character was anything but the stereotype: he was killed for defying his owner to help other slaves.
Unlike other examples here, the "for its day" part in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn't merely a comparatively positive portrayal that was nonetheless unfortunately marred; the caricatures in the book were part of a conscious subversion of such portrayals, as they reflect how black people look through the eyes of a racist child; as the book progresses, and Huck wises up, the black characters become less and less cartoonish. Much is made of Jim's many humorously absurd superstitions, but it should be noted that many of his predictions actually come true, and many white characters believe things that are no less absurd. Strangely, this makes the book fall into somewhat of an Uncanny Valley of race relations, with its invocation of N-Word Privileges causing more trouble than books that are much, much more prejudiced.
Tunnel in the Sky is also on the receiving end of this. While it seems ridiculously 1950sish at times — like boys and girls not being allowed to go out hunting together, or girls' obsession with getting married — it would have actually been pretty radical by the standards of the time, with strong female characters, including an entire military corps made up of women in combat roles — something that we're only just now, in the 21st century, accepting. One of the strong characters is a black woman, and there are multiple suggestions that the protagonist might end up marrying her, without a hint of negativity; something that wouldn't even be legal in most states for a decade after he wrote the novel. And it's even more radical given that it was a young adult novel.
"The Little Black Boy" from William Blake's Songs of Innocence is a statement against racism, in which the little black boy begins by noting that Dark Is Not Evil, and then saying that when all are dead and gone to Heaven, their "clouds" of white and black will be lifted and they will all be alike.
A non-fiction example is the first volume of The Story of Civilization, the best general history series of the 20th century. The first volume was published in 1934, and is about the origins of civilization, and the author goes out of his way in the preface to apologize for the various stupid mistakes and simplifications he makes. He also makes the point that most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice; moreover, he flat-out states that civilization has nothing to do with racial qualities. Then he goes on to call Aborigines and Africans savages (right after saying we shouldn't use the word savage), gives a now incredibly antiquated overview of neolithic life, and talks about how the loose morals of various civilizations led to their destruction.
Like most of the protagonists of 'boy's own' British adventure novels of the early twentieth century, John Buchan's Richard Hannay of such works as The 39 Steps reads as being quite racist and jingoistic to a modern reader; however, when compared to his peers (such as "Bulldog" Drummond), Hannay is notable for actually being quite open-minded and empathetic towards many of the traditionally stereotyped groups of the literature of the period (such as Germans, pacifists, Jews, etc), and frequently avoids demonizing them. A lot has been made of racial slurs against Jews in The Thirty-Nine Steps, but a more careful reading shows that they are all made by one paranoid and possibly unbalanced character. In Real Life, Buchan supported Zionism to the extent that at the outbreak of World War II, he featured on Hitler's death list of pro-Semitic persons.
Greenmantle is noteworthy for treating its German villains with a degree of sympathy and respect, quite surprising given that the book was written in the midst of World War One. Even Kaiser Wilhelm makes a brief cameo, coming off as a decent man manipulated by his subordinates into starting the war.
Heavily subverted in the Nevil Shute novel Ruined City, whose protagonist gives a modern reader the distinct impression that he would not be anywhere near so upset about his wife's infidelity save for the fact that she's chosen to conduct it with an Arab. But by the time you find this out, said protagonist already looks several kinds of jerkass for completely unrelated reasons, whereas the Arab comes over rather more sympathetically.
The story "The Jewish Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen, with its message that Christianity is just better than Judaism and its protagonist who just wants to convert to Christianity, is insensitive at best. However, for its time, it is fairly tolerant: Sarah goes to Heaven, without even having to be baptized.
The epic Arthurian poem Parzival features a half-white, half-Moor brother of the main character called Feirefiz. While the author, Wolfram von Eschenbach, claimed that Feirefiz would have skin that alternated black-and-white because of this (like a magpie), Feirefiz is treated much more decently than most other pagans in Arthurian legends — he gets baptized, sees the Holy Grail, marries the Grail-maiden, and goes back home to a happy ending. The idea that a pagan was just 'someone who isn't Christian yet' as opposed to Always Chaotic Evil was extremely advanced for the Middle Ages.
Orlando Furioso does something similar with the Moorish knight Sacripant, who is, to some extent, the story's Chew Toy, but is also probably the only genuinely decent person around. It's also worth noting that he gets a happy ending (although it involves converting to Christianity), while Orlando does not: Angelica's Character Development from Rich Bitch to caring human being involves her choosing Sacripant over Orlando.
While Robert E. Howard was unfortunately racist (although less hysterically than his friend Lovecraft), and he wrote many stereotypical Distressed Damsel characters (usually at the insistence of his publishers), he also managed to create several strong female characters — Belit, Velaria, and Red Sonya in particular. He also managed to write a few reasonably well-rounded black characters in the Solomon Kane series, not least of which is N'Longa, who is not only a native African, but also a powerful witch-doctor. His tone when referring to African natives is condescending, and he does use the nasty stereotypes a lot, but definitely not exclusively, which would have been par for the course.
Arthur C. Clarke's original version of Childhood's End (1954) was extremely fair for its time, but slips up describing the Utopia: "The convenient word "nigger" was no longer tabu in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone." Cringe-inducing, along with the use of 'negro', but ameliorated by the black Jan Rodricks' adventuring & subsequent appearance at the end as the last man.
Isaac of York in Ivanhoe is uncomfortably close to a Greedy Jew for some modern readers. He's a wealthy and cautious Jewish moneylender who really likes his wealth. Although at least one of the epigraphs from a chapter involving his character is taken from The Merchant of Venice, Isaac is actually one of the good guys. In contrast to Shylock, he repeatedly states that he loves his daughter more than all his wealth. The persecution he suffers at the hands of the Christian villains is always characterized as unjust. The heroes always treat him and his daughter fairly.
If you lived in a Crapsack World where you could be robbed and even killed with impunity, you'd cringe too. Having enough money to buy a precarious protection from the likes of King John is the only security Isaac has, as he points out on at least one occasion.
Machiavelli's The Prince certainly qualifies. These days, it's largely considered a manual for puppy kicking, and only the most cynical dictator or greasy politician would follow it. When it was written, it was basic pragmatism and even a little hopeful. A small minority of critics go so far as to label the whole thing a satire.
Further, he ought to entertain the people with festivals and spectacles at convenient seasons of the year; and as every city is divided into guilds or into societies, he ought to hold such bodies in esteem, and associate with them sometimes, and show himself an example of courtesy and liberality; nevertheless, always maintaining the majesty of his rank, for this he must never consent to abate in anything.
Machiavelli actually wrote The Prince while in prison for writing much more liberal works, which supports the view that it's satire (of particular note is that The Prince praises the Medici family, who were the ones who had sent him to prison, after overthrowing the Florentine Republic Machiavelli serves, which can be taken as a veiled Take That toward their ruthless methods, by associating them with those advocated in the book). This article explains it fairly well.
Julian Tuwim's Murzynek Bambo (literal translation: Bambo the little Negro) was a 1930s Polish poem for kids which was meant to teach tolerance by showing that Bambo may be black and live in Africa, but he's still the same boy as you and me, sometimes misbehaving but being a good guy after all, who loves his mom and gets good grades at school. Today it is often seen as extremely insulting and racist, mainly because it shows Bambo doing things other little boys around the world do, like climbing a (palm) tree or refusing to take a bath.
Struwwelpeter from Germany has the story of the Inky Boys: Three kids who tease a black boy get their just desserts when Nikolas dips them into ink. The black boy is called a "moor" by the narrator, which would be considered offensive today, but as you can see, the story isn't exactly pro-racism.
German philosopher Oswald Spengler wrote in his non-fiction book The Decline of the West that every major culture is not understandable from the POV of most other major cultures. Which he claimed was the case with westerners and Jews, too. Now, note he wrote this during a time when antisemites would spread the craziest conspiracy theories about the eeeevul Jews. And in another work, he criticized German antisemitism, pointing out that the Brits didn't mind that Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish, and only cared that he was a competent prime minister. And in yet another work, he wrote how real men don't care for the race of their women, and only choose whomever is the right mother for their kids — and may even prefer women of another race. And finally, he pointed out how in South Africa, black and white miners worked in the same mine, but the white miner was paid 2 shillings per hour for 8 hours of work per day, while the black one (though Spengler used a different word starting with "K", which he likely didn't know is considered very offensive) worked 12 hours for 1 shilling (per day, not per hour).
The early Tom Swift (1910) novels are an interesting case. In the books, the few times characters (even the villain) reference the black friend, Eradicate's, race, he is called "black", which is more than fair for its day in books written literally twice as close to the days of legal slavery than to today. Unfortunately, the narrator calls him basically everything short of the n-word in the first book when he is in a chapter for a long time, apparently to avoid redundancy. Also, Eradicate is implied to be rather lazy, which is jarring simply because he seems to spend all of his waking day looking for work, whereas a white character living as a hobo also plays a prominent part in the book, but without implications of laziness. That said, Eradicate also saves Tom from very dangerous situations multiple times, so Mighty Whitey is averted, despite Tom fixing his stuff often (which Tom also does with most of the secondary white characters as well).
Live and Let Die was Ian Fleming's second 007 novel (1954) — while the book's narrative and the black dialect Bond hears in Harlem read pretty cringe-worthy, he observes they're interested in the same things as everyone else, and is glad "they're not genteel about it". One of Mister Big's mooks is instructed to hurt Leiter "considerably", but has bonded with him over their mutual love of jazz. He hurts him just a little and apologizes, as he doesn't dare cross his boss. Mister Big himself notes that blacks have made major contributions to many human endeavors, and aims to be the first black super-criminal.
During Bond's initial briefing, even M (not a character noted for tolerance or open-mindedness) says that Mr. Big or someone like him was inevitable. "The Negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions — scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal. After all, there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They've got plenty of brains and ability and guts. And now Moscow's taught one of them the technique."
The Land of Oz series by L. Frank Baum makes it difficult to realize that it was written more than a hundred years ago when you consider how many women are in positions of power, how many different personalities and mannerisms come with each woman, there was an all-female revolt against the Emerald City, the entire Land of Oz itself is ruled by a woman, and how little cultural quips such as women being delegated to being inside the home are mercilessly shunned by eponymous characters. It's about as quietly feminist a fantasy world as it gets, and it was written in a time nearly two decades before the United States granted women the right to vote.
Though at the same time, one doesn't have to read too carefully to spot some pretty ridiculous (by today's standards) stereotypes. For instance, the soldiers of the all-female revolt mentioned above use knitting needles as their weapon of choice, and they conquer the Emerald City because the army (which is only one old man) would never dare harm a lady. Also, when the leader of the revolt, Jinjur, is expelled from her throne, she laments that she now has to go back home and milk cows.
On the other hand, Jinjur is expelled by the all-female army of real soldiers fielded by Glinda the Good. So it's not exactly The Patriarchy Strikes Back.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been criticized for the use of racial epithets and for not developing black characters completely enough, and Atticus for not being as completely accepting of African-Americans as some people would like — but considering that it's set in the 1930s, just the fact that he forbids his children from using the word "nigger" and honestly argues Tom Robinson's case in court even knowing that he can't win (as well as the fact that he actually almost does win) is quite a thing in itself.
Italian author Emilio Salgari was revolutionary for late 19th century-early 20th century Italy, as he would have female heroines and invariably portray colonialism as the result of either greed or well-intentioned ignorance and often took the parts of the indigenous people in his novels, openly stating they had any right to oppose forced Europeanization (and putting the blame for the Indian Mutiny of 1859 firmly on the East India Company for walking over Indian customs). On the other hand, modern audiences will cringe a little at his characters, considering the various races of mankind and assuming that a determinate character is brave or a coward due to his origins, or the implied superiority of then-current European civilization (keyword current: he states that many past non-European civilizations were on par or superior to the European one of their time, and that the European superiority is due to non-European decadence and mixing foolish customs to more civilized ones). He also considered smoking a healthy habit.
The Silence of the Lambs centered on a Creepy Crossdresser serial killer who murdered and skinned women to make himself a woman suit. However, both the book and the film try to distinguish between real transsexuals and the villain, who only thinks he's a transsexual due to his own self-hatred, and go out of their way to point out that most transsexuals are normal, decent people who have no unusual inclination towards violence — in fact, in the book, one of the ways Lecter suggests for finding a description or photograph of the killer is to look at people who both faked their identity to the surgeon, and were turned down for the surgery for psychological reasons; the former because a criminal record for almost anything (besides, well, charges based upon them cross-dressing) disqualifies the applicant (and both Lecter and the FBI agree that Buffalo Bill almost certainly had one), and the latter because, well, there was no way that anyone as disturbed as Buffalo Bill was going to pass a psychological test of any kind.
Robinson Crusoe can leave a bad taste in readers' mouths due to Friday being happy to be Crusoe's slave and Robinson subsequently "Europeanizing" him, as well as never letting you forget that Friday is Crusoe's inferior. However, in the days when Carib Indians were considered devil-worshiping cannibals, Friday being described as brave, loyal, and a better Christian than Crusoe himself is a huge improvement by the standards of 1719.
Robinson also mentions that while the cannibals do eat people and kill their captives, it's not really their fault, as it is only in their culture to do these things, and that his own more civilized nation has also committed atrocities.
With regards to the Crusades, he wrote that the Christians attacked the Muslims to take land that was rightfully theirs.
About fox-hunting: "The poor beasts are here pursued and run down by much greater beasts than themselves".
H.P. Lovecraft very rarely gave any female characters important roles in his stories, but his thoughts on women's rights were actually quite progressive for his time (even if he also had racist opinions). Whenever women do show up in his stories, it's a very minor supporting role at best. That said, in The Shadow Out of Time, the narrator describes his ex-wife, who after he apparently went mad (in actuality, his body had been swapped with an alien from the past) actually takes action and gets the rest of her family as far away from her now-abusive husband as possible. There is also talk of strong-willed and intelligent mothers (such as that of Arthur Jermyn), and one or two memorable female antagonists. This is also quite impressive compared to some of the other mythos writers of the time, some of whom did not write women at all.
The book "Lady-In-Waiting" may seem overall backwards in expecting single women to do so much service. However, some parts of it are actually rather progressive. One single woman is encouraged to pursue a doctoral degree — sadly, some religious leaders and denominations still discouraged women's advanced education, stating that a woman did not need it since motherhood was a woman's true call. Another part states that a spiritually beautiful woman is interesting and has goals for herself — possibly encouraging goals other than motherhood. And just the fact that the book implies that the women reading it want to find husbands because they want romantic love and adult companionship (as compared to just seeing marriage as the way to achieving their one and only ultimate goal of having children) may seem actually revolutionary. Overall, just the fact that the book acknowledges that women could or would possibly want something in their lives other than to become mothers goes against what some groups believe.
The Sherlock Holmes stories feature various racist stereotypes common to the era of the 1870s to the 1890s, but there is a hint of Writer on Board in the way Holmes, Watson, and the women in the series express, to different degrees, distaste for the way divorce laws were slanted against women. Holmes also lampshades, a century-plus ago, the "American fascination with guns".
The Nero Wolfe stories, particularly those written fairly early on, often have sympathetic characters expressing some casually racist and misogynistic views. However, Rex Stout was a fairly progressive guy for his time, and just as frequently lampoons these same views by showing them to be ludicrous, damaging, and evil. Wolfe himself, while unquestionably holding several old-fashioned and misogynistic views, seems to find these types of prejudice absurd, and usually treats everyone he encounters with an equal amount of respect. One also gets the sense in reading the stories as they progress over time that Stout often comes to find several of his earlier views embarrassing or shameful and makes a conscious effort to try and repudiate them in later stories.
A notable example is the 1938 novel Too Many Cooks, which is set at an exclusive restaurant/resort in West Virginia with a large number of black people working as the service staff. Derogatory terms and condescending attitudes towards African-Americans are thrown about with an abandon the modern reader may find disconcerting, but the ultimate point of the novel is that these attitudes are foolish; Wolfe makes a significant breakthrough in the case simply by gathering the service staff together, treating them with genuine respect, and appealing to their sense of decency and equity.
The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books had to undergo some pretty extensive rewrites (to the extent that sometimes only the title was the same) in the 1960s because of this. The original stories started back in 1927 had a lot of more offensive stereotypes, and the unfortunate habit of referring to a large number of the villains as "dark," "swarthy," and "foreign," not to mention stereotypical characters who were supposed to be the good guys. At least one scholarly article wondered whether or not it was a good thing, since rather than make minority characters more complex and three-dimensional, they just got rid of them entirely, whitewashing the entire series, leaving some scholars to say, "Sure they were offensive, but at least they were there."
In a similar case, in The Lord of the Rings, while they are not humans, the orcs are often referred to as dark and swarthy while the heroic elves are usually described as fair or light-skinned. Also most of the humans who are fighting for Morgoth and Sauron are Eastern and described as sallow-skinned or swarthy. Tolkien was actually quite progressive for his day, but such descriptions might make some readers cringe today. However Tolkien at least implies that those fighting for Sauron aren't really evil but misguided and lied too. When Sam sees the body of a man who fought for Sauron he even wonders whether he was really evil and whether he would have preferred to stay at home. And in an Unbuilt Trope of Always Chaotic Evil it is claimed the Orcs are really acting out of fear and a cruel culture.
Also Tolkien claimed he based the Dwarves on the Jews. This can make the writing about the Dwarves loving gold and Thorin's obsessive greed towards the end of The Hobbit a bit cringe-worthy. Yet the Dwarves are mostly portrayed sympathetically and heroically. And there is some Fridge Brilliance in that the Dwarves end up getting their homeland back.
Racism: While Alexandre Dumas was a man of color, and his portrayal of people of various races and cultures was extremely advanced for the mid-1800s and the two slave characters in the book are usually treated extremely kindly and respectfully by their master, the main character is still a slaveowner, and some of the commentary on Arabic culture can leave a bad taste in modern readers' mouths.
Sexism: Dantes seems to blame Mercedes for marrying Fernand and consider it an act of unfaithfulness. It's very arguable, though, as Mercedes defends herself by reminding him that Fernand was her closest and oldest friend and her emotional support after Dantes was imprisoned, and she had no way of knowing that Fernand was behind it. The Count later tells her that he doesn't begrudge her anything. Additionally, many of the women in the story, even if they aren't necessarily the nicest people, are independent, well-rounded characters.
The character Haydee is also an example. Yes, she is stereotypically quiet and submissive, yes, she is a foreign slave who is happy to be so — but she also gets a chapter or so devoted to recounting her backstory, and another showing how she testified in court to get her revenge against the man who killed her father and sold her mother into slavery.
Homophobia: The lesbian Eugenie Danglars is portrayed as an extremely cold, standoffish, even morally ambiguous person. However, she is also a more-or-less openly gay character in a time period when homosexuality was something of a taboo, and she and her lover Louise d'Armilly are still portrayed as fairly good people compared to many of the other characters in the novel. It also completely averts the Bury Your Gays trope (Eugenie and Louise run off together to be artists, escaping their disapproving families and presumably going on to live happy lives).
Heart of Darkness can seem quaint and uncomfortable to modern audiences, but Joseph Conrad was one of the only people writing criticism of the atrocities going on in the Belgian Congo. Even if the book contains some Africans depicted as cannibals, or violent hunters, or Noble Savages, Conrad's sheer indignation as he writes about the labor camps and their brutal European overseers bleeds through and is hard to argue against.
Can be seen in much of C.S. Lewis's work. While some of his views on gender roles, race, and sexuality may seem outdated now, he almost always did his best to treat these subjects even-handedly and with more sympathy than many readers now give him credit for. He was actually fairly progressive for his day (and still is compared to many mainline Christian writers).
The Calormenes may seem like offensive stereotypes of the Middle East, worshipping a God who turns out to be a demon who can't accept anything good. However it's shown that there are still good Calormenes, Emeth for example is able to get into Aslan's Country because he was devout to his religion even though he wasn't worshipping Aslan. Aslan even says anybody who does good is really doing it in his name without knowing it.
Live Action TV
Star Trek was progressive for its day, but is still obviously a creation of the 60s.
Lt. Uhura is the only black cast member, who, as a female communications officer, can come off as little more then a secretary. Nichelle Nichols agreed with this assessment and was going to leave the show at the end of the first season. She was talked into staying, because seeing a black woman on television in any role but that of a maid really was groundbreaking for its day. It even led to the often-quoted first interracial kiss on television, between Kirk and Uhura, in the episode "Plato's Children". The person who felt so inspired by Uhura as a symbol of progress he talked Nichelle into remaining on the show... Martin Luther King Jr.
Other examples include Sulu and Chekov. Sulu as a competent professional, not a cringing yellow stereotype, and Chekov as a non-evil Russian on television during the Cold War. Many minor characters as well break the white-male mold; given the military setting, this is remarkable for the day.
Those miniskirts that are greeted with rolled eyes nowadays were considered a mark of female liberation at the time, as women who wore them were exerting their right to dress sexy instead of like timid housefraus. Sure, it was fanservice too, but not just that.
In one episode, Kirk reports to his superior officer, who turns out to be a black man. Dr. Daystrom, the creator of the M-5 computer and one of the Federation's greatest geniuses, is also black, and eventually revealed to have created the computers used on the Enterprise. In addition, Dr. McCoy's medical staff includes the eminently qualified Dr. M'Benga, who is African himself (and the staff expert on Vulcan physiology). With them, their race is a total non-issue, as you would expect with an interstellar and multi-species federation.
Originally, Roddenberry wanted to take it a bit farther and had cast Majel Barrett as the first officer in the original version of the pilot. He even subverted the common portrayal of women as being prone to hysterics by portraying her as the cold logical type (a trait that would later be transplanted to Spock, who was originally supposed to be emotional and can be seen acting emotionally in the original pilot). Capt. Pike even called her Number One. Executive Meddling canned it, either because of negative test audience reaction (from women!) or because Barrett was Roddenberry's mistress. Or both.
And then there's Khan. The reason given for the 2013 movie casting a white man to play him instead of an Indian one was that they would feel uncomfortable having a man of color as a villain, and as others have pointed out they didn't get it right in the original series, either, as Indian Khan was played by a Mexican man. However, in the 1960s, having a brown-skinned man playing a brown-skinned man was strange enough, and having a brown-skinned man play not just any villain but a charismatic, extremely intelligent man who was eugenically created to be superior was almost unthinkable.
The famous interracial kiss is often criticised for its Unfortunate Implications, because they were Kissing Under the Influence thanks to aliens. Due to the racism of the time, the showrunners and actors had to fight very, very hard to get even that to happen — the executives ordered them to shoot alternate takes without the kiss (which William Shatner deliberately messed up every time by pulling faces), they wanted Spock to kiss Uhura instead (because he was an alien, so it didn't count), and they outright would not budge on allowing it to be consensual.
Ultraman was very similar to Star Trek in that it had a woman (Fuji) as an integral part of the Science Patrol team. By odd coincidence, Fuji occupied the same post-communications officer as Uhura, and the two shows premiered within weeks of each other! Considering that Japan's attitude toward gender roles was even more retrograde than the U.S.'s at the time, Fuji's prominent role in the team (she frequently deployed with her squad mates and fought alongside them in many of their battles, much more so in fact than Uhura did) was positively revolutionary (to be sure, Fuji sometimes served tea to the rest of the crew in classic Office Lady fashion). Ultraman even went TOS one better in that at least one episode centered around Lt. Fuji, whereas poor Uhura never got the chance to really be at the center of an episode.
On The Man from U.N.C.L.E., (which started running several years before Star Trek), Illya Kuryakin (as portrayed by David McCallum) was one of the first positive portrayals of a Russian. — more precisely, Soviet — character on Cold War-era American TV. This was all the more revolutionary because Illya was portrayed as being not just a patriotic Russian citizen, but a serving officer in the Soviet Navy (he's shown in uniform in one episode). In one second-season episode, "The Indian Affairs Affair", Native Americans in Oklahoma were portrayed in what would be considered a somewhat cringeworthy manner today, but it was quite clear from the context that they were the good guys (and THRUSH was portrayed in this episode as dressing up like stereotypical "black-hat" cowboy villains and treating the Native Americans in a contemptuous manner), and the Native Americans lent crucial help to Napoleon and Illya at the episode's climax in foiling the THRUSH plot.
Certain episodes of Bonanza were Fair for their Day. Although it was, at heart, a cowboys-and-Indians type show, the Native Americans occasionally had hints of character depth and humanity. Little Joe used to defend an Indian boy in schoolyard fights...but then kills him when his "savage nature" shows. The Cartwrights lose track of their young cousin and panic because there are "savages" around...but then a friendly Indian brings her home safely. A neighbor is against Indian removal because he is afraid his friends will starve on a reservation, so Ben intercedes...to make sure the new reservation has fertile land. It all seems hokey and racist today, but some of these aired when American Indians had only recently been granted civil rights.
The Jack Benny Program is sometimes criticized for the character of Rochester, a butler who is routinely mistreated by Benny's fictional version of himself. In early episodes, Rochester is little more than a black stereotype, with lots of gags made about craps and razor blades. However, Benny became increasingly uncomfortable with racial humor and began scaling it back. After learning about the extent of the Holocaust, he demanded that all racial humor be eliminated from the show. Rochester remained poorly treated, but this is because Benny's character is an egomaniacal jerk. Rochester is also a Servile Snarker who often gets the better of his employer. Many later episodes also show that Rochester and Benny's character are actually best friends.
Amos And Andy was immensely popular in its day, but is today viewed with a degree of embarrassment due to its unvarnished indulgences in Minstrel Show tropes and blackface live performances. However, it was also one of the first shows to portray blacks as successful businessmen. Various characters were shown as lawyers, doctors, shop owners, and the main characters run a cab company. In earlier radio days, Amos & Andy was a 15 minute daily serial program, and great attention was paid to characterization. Audiences were called upon to sympathize with the black characters' goals and feelings. The show included a significant portion of straight drama dealing with their lives, and even dabbled with social commentary during a sequence where Amos is abused by police.
One episode of Get Smart featured Max pretending to be a Native American to foil a plot by a Native American splinter group to destroy the US. More than a bit cringeworthy by today's standards, but the episode's climax has Max admitting that they may be justified in their grievances and he has no good reason why the splinter group should expect better treatment from the US in the future, considering all they've been through so far (the Native Americans' plan is to fire a giant arrow at the White House).
Bewitched is often attacked as a reactionary fantasy, in large part for Darrin's chauvinism and Samantha's tolerance of it. However, most of the early black-and-white episodes begin with Darrin clinging to the slightly exaggerated chauvinism of a typical television husband only to realize his mistake and apologize to Samantha by the end of the episode. Darrin's chauvinism was necessary so that he — and the men in the audience — could learn that episode's lesson against male vanity, male consumerism, and male bravado. Unfortunately, that aspect of the character was Flanderized as the series moved into color.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 short "The Home Economics Story" leaves itself open to mockery for its depiction of "women's work" in the 1950s. Still, it does encourage girls to go to college and get jobs (albeit to study Home Economics and become Nurses/Cooks/Teachers), and it argues that an education is important even if you are planning on being a stay-at-home wife (which at least implies that a girl might be allowed to try being something else).
The original Battlestar Galactica had, in its second episode, a case where almost all the male pilots were incapacitated by a disease. In desperation they create a squadron of all female pilots, gleaned from shuttle pilots, who turn out to be just as competent as the men at fighting the Cylons. This was 20 years before the US Military allowed women fighter pilots.
Carrusel may not have had any of the girls be into science, sports, or any other traditional male pursuits. But most of the girls still had career goals—and their teachers and parents encouraged the girls to pursue them. Which can be deemed enlightened, considering this was made in Mexico in 1989-1990, a very macho society with employment opportunities for women much more restricted than those of women in the USA/UK.
Mind Your Language is widely criticized today for its use of ethnic stereotypes, but at the time (late 1970s) it was looked upon positively for giving main roles to non-white actors who would otherwise have found it very hard to gain representation on TV.
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (and the Power Rangers franchise as a whole) is often mocked for the Five-Token Band and having a black Black Ranger and an Asian Yellow Ranger. The truth of the matter was that the race/color combination was an accident, only realized halfway through the first season and was even corrected with various cast changes. But regardless the portrayal of those characters was unexpectedly nuanced and universally positive, Zack the Black Ranger had his own stories other than just being a Black Best Friend to Jason and Trini the Yellow Ranger was intelligent enough to understand Billy but social enough to not fall under Asian and Nerdy. Walter Jones (Zack) commented that if anything it drew more attention to the fact they had a multi-racial cast.
The original version of The Outer Limits was generally quite progressive in regards to race, with several episodes featuring dignified non-white characters. "Nightmare" in particular was an anti-racist episode. (They did have one Yellow Peril episode, "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," but this was arguably more of a Cold War story dealing with Communist China, being inspired by The Manchurian Candidate.) Unfortunately, while the show was admirably racially sensitive, by modern standards it could get pretty sexist. Most of the female characters scream a lot.
The Goodies did an episode about South Africa which mocks and ridicules Apartheid. But I challenge anyone today to watch it on Youtube without wincing!
One episode even spoofed the popularity of The Black and White Minstrel Show (a Long Runner "light entertainment" show featuring musical numbers performed in Black Face - at that time there had been a recent attempt to Re Tool it by doing a series of it without the blackface, but the ratings tanked, causing it to be changed back) by combining it with a Whole Plot Reference to Roots. While most of the stereotypical jokes are aimed at Scotland and the story satirises the concept of using something like blackface as a ratings grab, its assertion that everything's better with blackface doesn't come off as entirely ironic.
The 1960s era of Doctor Who, owing to having a female producer, had much better written and more dynamic female characters than most other science fiction at the time - there are two equally prominent female characters who have lives outside of the male characters, Barbara in particular being very strong. (Compare with Star Trek, with only two recurring female crewmembers who never interact.) Some stories even played with 60s conceptions of gender, such as a story where Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of a male priest, causing her to point out that not all cultures consider gender to be that different, and a discussion between Susan and Barbara about whether Ian should think himself to be be looking after them. Susan also snarks at a member of La Résistance who assumes that because she's a woman that she can cook, even though we later find out that she can when she prepares and cooks a wild rabbit for a Resistance member later. Future societies are depicted in which men and women are completely equal. Even the Doctor's patronising and patriarchal attitude towards his teenage granddaughter Susan was dismantled in "The Sensorites", when he seems to realise that the reason he and Susan never argued is because he's been keeping her dependant on him. Barbara even has a no-strings-attached offscreen relationship with a handsome young Human Alienman, which is not milked for romance and for which she is never shamed. However, there's still plenty of random sexism that would never be acceptable today - such as the way the Thals, presented as unambiguously heroic, openly mock their women - sexist Out Of Character Moments when writers with a shakier grasp of gender relations try and write the female TARDIS crew-members, and how Susan is Put on a Bus by having her get married (when she's supposed to be 16). There is also a lot of pointless female screaming, and it's not always remotely appropriate for the situation - due to being a Bottle Episode, most of the implication that there is something amiss in "The Edge of Destruction" is transmitted through having Susan and Barbara shriek all the time for no visible reason.
1960s Doctor Who also possessed relatively complex and interesting non-white cultures in some historicals, whose problems were not dealt with in a patronising way. Of course, they were all played by white people in makeup.
Mention has to go to "The Crusades", which tries to give a fair portrayal of the Saracens. The main villain may be a Saracen but it is made clear the others don't like him. Also the English are not portrayed as completely pure, Richard I is portrayed as quite childish and foolish at times. And the Saracen villain is finally killed by a Saracen Haroun, who apart from the TARDIS crew is probably the most heroic character in the serial.
The Second Doctor and Jamie Ship Tease like nobody's business, because the actors wanted to see if they could get away with it. This may have contributed to the show's legendarily large LGBT Fanbase, but nowadays But Not Too Gay flirting with no emotional payoff is considered Queerbaiting and is thoroughly discredited as homophobic by fandom.
Similar to Star Trek "The Tenth Planet" (which aired just a month after the first episode of "Star Trek") and "The Moonbase" show a future with less national distinctions. The first example even shows a black man flying a spaceship. This can make "Tomb of the Cybermen" feel a bit awkward due to its portrayal of a black man who barely speaks and is the servant of the villains, with his main feature being his strength. However he ends up sacrificing himself to stop the Cybermen escaping. And originally he was supposed to be deaf but this didn't come across (though was retained in the novelization).
Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow is an interesting example. He's an 18th century Englishman who fought on the side of the rebels in the Revolutionary War who has been awakened in the 21st century. One would expect a lot of friction, especially since his costar is a black female police lieutenant, but Ichabod is extremely proud of his progressive (for his time) views on race. He strongly opposed slavery and was friends with the local Native American tribe (he's very distressed when he learns Indians have been largely destroyed by the modern day.) In fact, his first objection to Mills is that she's a FEMALE lieutenant, though he comes to respect her quite quickly.
James Garner (Western Band Cherokee) was notoriously non-prejudiced, and when gay characters appeared in The Rockford Files they were sympathetic. In "The Empty Frame", the hosts of the ill-fated party are wealthy art collectors who may be based on Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff.
People who bash Al Jolson for performing in blackface may not realize that he actually helped a lot of real black people make it big in the music business, helping to give performers such as Cab Calloway their big breaks. When filming a duet with Calloway, Jolson demanded that they be given equal treatment on the set. When reading in a newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had been kicked out of a restaurant because of their race, he personally invited them out to dinner despite having never met them, saying he'd punch the nose of anyone who had a problem with it. Jolson was also known as the only white man who was allowed into the all-black nightclubs in Harlem.
George Formby wrote and performed a series of songs about a Chinese immigrant named Mister Wu. Although they did play heavily upon the stereotypical British image of the Chinese, they also portrayed the protagonist in what for The Thirties was a fairly positive light. George Formby had a dim view of racism throughout his life, as evidenced during his tour of South Africa in which he refused to play to segregated audiences and criticized local racist views.
The first stanza of the German National Anthem sounds ultra-nationalistic today, with a line that translates as "Germany above everything in the world..." Yet it was written at a time when Germany was scattered between various prince states, and thinking about Germany first rather than various regional conflicts and issues was pretty ahead of its time.
In Lee Falk's Mandrake The Magician, Mandrake's Black Best Friend and Bash Brother is Lothar, an African Prince of a federation of jungle tribes and "the strongest man alive". While this may seem stereotypical, Lothar was portrayed with great respect and dignity compared to almost any other black characters at the time.
An Eye For An Eye was originally instituted to prevent Disproportionate Retribution or long-term cycles of revenge. A later passage also specifies that payment in gold may not be substituted for capital punishments, implying that "eye for an eye" usually meant an eye's worth of money for an eye. Further, the version most people quote is actually a New Testament passage saying that while the law permits retribution Christians should choose forgiveness instead.
Older Than Dirt: The Code of Hammurabi, the original source of "eye for an eye" was horribly socially stratified (i.e., much higher penalties for crimes committed by slaves against nobles than nobles against slaves) but was rather revolutionary in guaranteeing commoners any protection or compensation and in imposing any penalty on nobles.
Biblical treatment of women and sexuality is often horrible by modern standards but may have been relatively liberal at the time.
People complain about the "wives, submit to your husbands" New Testament passage, but then again the male side of that order, "husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church" (i.e. be willing to die for her in return) would have been unheard of at the time it was written.
Ruth and Esther are Old Testament books completely dedicated to women, and in Esther's case, she saves her own people. It's also interesting to note that when David commits adultery with Bathsheba, it is David who receives the most punishment and blame for engaging with her - we do not remember Bathsheba getting punished/rebuked, but rather David. A proverb is dedicated to a strong and hard-working wife who has her own business.
Israelite daughters (specifically if there were no sons) were also able to inherit property as long as they married a man from their own tribe.
Laws commanding adulteresses and other sex offenders to be stoned sound like pretty harsh Honor-Related Abuse. Then you reread them and notice that the man too must be punished. Unusually even-handed, given that even some modern societies punish only the woman and let the man play Karma Houdini. Of course, the law wasn't always enforced that way, as demonstrated in the story of the woman caught in adultery, that mentions nothing about her lover being stoned to death along with her, even though he was caught in the act too (which in itself is not a proof for him not getting stoned, though)...
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 provides instructions to Israelite soldiers on taking a captive woman as a concubine: basically, shave her hair, cut her nails, and get rid of all her old clothes in order to erase her cultural attachments. Give her a month to mourn her parents, and then you can make her marry you. If you decide you don't want her anymore, let her go because you're not allowed to sell her like a common slave. Sounds like a formula for a Marital Rape License? Undoubtedly. Is it an improvement over the more conventional "throw her on the floor, rip off her clothes, and gang rape her to death" treatment soldiers from just about every other nation on the face of the Earth were giving to women from the nations they'd just conquered at the time? Absolutely, especially since that long waiting period (which starts after getting home from the war, which might take quite some time to happen) is likely to cool that soldier's jets and make him reconsider whether any woman is really attractive enough to be worth so much trouble.
Very strict early Christian divorce prohibitions may seem oppressive today, but were actually very attractive to Roman women and partly responsible for the rapid spread of the new religion. Under Roman law, it was extremely easy for a husband to divorce his wife or to take a concubine on whim, but extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce even in cases of severe spousal neglect or abuse. The Christian conception of marriage as unbreakable but binding for both spouses seemed much more egalitarian.
The Bible is also exceptionally progressive in the area of race and social status. Rahab the prostitute is given a place in the lineage of Christ. Specific OT laws are put in place (an repeated multiple times) to protect foreigners passing through Jewish settlements (reminding how the Jews were treated in Egypt as a warning to do better or else). Ruth, who was not a Jew, is given her own book. The New Testament is just as radical: Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at the well, and later tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan acts more justly than several members of the Jewish elite. Paul stresses the importance that in Christ there is neither "Jew nor Greek, male nor female," and just about every NT author emphasizes the need to share the Gospel with every tribe, tongue and nation. The most radical idea, however, is the concept that all men are equally evil as the next. That is a direct slap in the face to any kind of racial supremacy.
Isaac Asimov wrote an essay called "Lost in Non-Translation" in which he claims that we're too far removed in time and space from Jewish culture to understand the words "Moabite" or "Samaritan" the way the original audience would have, and suggests reading the books while mentally replacing those words with the name of some ethnic or cultural group that's despised now to understand the impact they were intended to have.
Sharia law gave Arab women rights that they didn't have in the pre-Islamic period, and in some cases western societies didn't have until the 20th century. It might seem unfair to 21st century Westerners that a woman is only entitled to inherit half of what a man inherits, or that women can only use fault-based divorce while a man can no-fault divorce his wife with an adequate number of witnesses, or that a woman's testimony is only worth half of a man's in court, but when you consider that in many societies—including pre-Islamic Arabia—women were not permitted to inherit at all, divorce their husbands, or testify in court, it's actually, well, pretty Fair For Its Day.
Sharia law also has the concept of dhimma, which grants protection to "People of the Book" (Christians, Jews and Sabians). Granted, Christians and Jews living in al-Andalus were second-class citizens and had to pay extra taxes, but this contrasts sharply with the neighboring Spanish kingdoms, where non-Christians were persecuted, forcefully "converted" to Christianity, and eventually expelled.
The extra taxes were because Islamic law forbids non-Muslims from serving in the military. There was at least one occasion when a Muslim general realized that the military situation required him to withdraw his troops and protection from a non-Muslim village. Because he was withdrawing his protection, he returned the taxes he had collected from the villagers for their defense.
The Quran allows interfaith marriage under certain circumstances. A Muslim man is allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman so long as their children are raised Muslim. Muslim women, in the Sunni understanding, cannot marry non-Muslim men under any circumstances. (Shia women can marry non-Muslim men under the same rules as Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women; the Shia consider the prohibition on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men to be an innovation introduced in the days of the Caliph Umar, whose legitimacy they do not recognize.)
This trope is also a counterpoint for God and religion. While killing someone for some slight of the rules may seem unfair, in the days of Exodus and Moses these were well-nigh universal laws, where disobeying a king (any king) in virtually any matter large or small would be punishable by death, and crimes such as shoplifting were dealt with by cutting off the thief's hand.
In The Bible, if a man slept with a woman who was notbetrothed to someone elsenote If she was already betrothed to someone else and "did not scream for help", that was just plain old adultery, and both the man and the woman were to be stoned to death., and someone found out, he legally was required to pay her father (or nearest male relative if her father was dead) the customary bride price and take her as his wife. He could not divorce her, no matter what. Note that this also could be applied to some cases where the woman was raped, not seduced. This was to provide for any child they may have conceived (a very real possibility in an era before effective contraceptives) and to protect the reputation of the woman's family (it also protected the woman, who would be considered Defiled Forever, ensuring that someone would be forced to support her). Also, while the rapist would be obligated to pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life, she would not be obligated to live with him.
1 Timothy 2:11-12 ("A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.") may sound radically sexist by today's standards and is quite the bane of feminists everywhere, even Christians. However in the context of the time the first four words "A woman should learn" itself was a radically enlightened idea; most women living that time period wouldn't be educated at all. The remainder of the passage may still sound pretty backward, however one must consider that there were almost no women at the time with the knowledge or leadership experience to take on leadership roles. Moreover, note that Paul was speaking from personal experience; he wasn't prohibiting all women in all places and times from ever teaching or assuming authority.
In a different context, all Paul had to say about women on the pulpit is that they should cover their heads when they speak (in deference to local customs) and that they shouldn't "talk" (i.e. chit-chat and gossip) in church.
In fact, Paul also said that everyone was equal in Christ, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or social standing, an idea widely espoused (if not always followed) today.
And, the word for "assume authority" in the 1 Timothy passage, does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament, and it is not the usual word for "authority" (exousia) which Paul and the other NT writers always use. Study of this "assume authority" word shows it is a very hard word, sometimes rendered as "usurping authority" or with the general idea of claiming undue and/or excessive authority. The bottom-line of this is that Paul was not forbidding the usual authority (exousia), but something very specific and most likely inspired by what was happening in Ephesus at the time Timothy was there. For a thorough study of this passage and others related to Paul's view on women in the NT, see this http://christianthinktank.com/fem09.html which is part of a larger study on the role of women in the Bible.
Many people have condemned The Bible for allowing slavery, but they forget that the form of slavery that is allowed in the Bible is unusually humane for its time. A master can only have a slave for seven years, and at the end of that time, he must give the slave land and implements to work it. This was from an era where slavery was practically universal, and abolishing it entirely would have been roughly the equivalent of abolishing business and commerce altogether. The Bible also says (in 1 Corinthians 7) not to be troubled if you're a slave, but get free if you can. It also says not to enslave yourself to man, but to God.
This only applied to fellow Hebrews though (and even then could be made permanent in some circumstances). Foreigners could be owned for life, and passed down as inherited property.
For that matter, Leviticus actually required people to protect escaped slaves from other countries. In most societies, in that time and place, hiding or otherwise protecting an escaped slave was a crime, and Moses was probably given some incredulous looks when he had the radical notion of giving slaves breaks, adequate water and supplies, and some shelter.
There's also the story of Onesimus in the Book of Philemon, who was a runaway slave who Paul sent back to his master, but with a letter encouraging him to take back Onesimus as his equal, no longer as his slave (he was required to return the slave by Roman law, but encouragement in the form of a public letter ensured that Onesimus would not be abused or executed). Also, many believe that he was subtly hinting he wanted to have Onesimus back with him for his next mission, as he kept punning about how Onesimus (Latin for "Useful") had been so "useful" and helpful to him previously and should be "useful" to him again.
Also, the racial overtones of slavery we think of today didn't exist until about the 17th century. The primary source of Biblical slaves was bankruptcy, followed by war. If you went too far into debt, you could be sold to pay the price; if you surrendered to your enemy in war, you could expect to be sold because that was just what people did.
Also, in Ephesians, Paul tells slaves to pay respect and serve their masters for the sake of Christ. However, the real radical teaching was that masters were to do the same, because God did not favor either slave or free. In that culture, the idea of respecting and treating ones slaves as equals was an extremely radical thought.
In fact, if you simply think of a "slave" as an "employee" in modern parlance, or just anyone who works for you, and a "master" as your "boss" or any similar superior, the advice there can still be applied quite effectively now.
Ultimately, some of the criticism is less about it was humane slavery and more that a deity said to be timeless and omniscient allowed and encouraged slavery at all when he could have advocated for modern standards.
The Proverbs verse about the Wife of Noble Character is used by some modern sects to demonstrate that a woman's place is in the home tending to her familyand to work deemed appropriately feminine, so that they won't be tempted into sin (or tempt others into sin), and their husbands can go off and take care of their own duties. But the passage was actually written not so much to tell women what they should be doing, but to encourage men to appreciate the work their wives were doing, instead of taking their wives for granted. Indeed, woman in the poem is portrayed as strong and capable and smart. She takes care of her home and family, and her appearance, but she also runs her own business. (And she is good at it, too!) Her husband respects her as an equal, his partner in every sense of the word, and he boasts about her to his friends and colleagues. Women are to follow the example of the Wife of Noble Character and use their talents and be the best person they can be...but men are to follow her husband's example and be supportive and appreciative of their wives.
Carousel: Modern audiences tend to find it disturbing that Julie could consider staying with a man who hits her. At the time it was written, though, what was unpalatable to the audience was that she would admit to being abused at all.
The King and I: Yes, there are crude stereotypes and comically ignorant, misogynistic Asians speaking pidgin English, who need a white woman to civilize them. But at the same time, it also articulates the King's struggle between tradition and modernity with more insight than would normally be expected in '50s America — contrast it with the Japanese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
It was also based on actual biographical writings, albeit likely exaggerated somewhat, by said white woman. Who was hired by the king as part of an attempt on his part to educate his wives and children to make Siam more able to interact with the then-still-dominant British Empire — which must have been successful, since Siam was one of only three East Asian countries to resist colonization. To put it simply: The King was Genre Savvy. He knew that if he put on a good show about how "civilized" Siam was, they could avoid subjugation by subverting the White Man's Burden "justification."
William Shakespeare often wrote characters that would be considered in very poor taste today, but for his time were fairly even-handed.
The Merchant of Venice has created a great deal of debate over how fair it is to its Jewish villain Shylock. Shakespeare often wrote villains with understandable grievances, and Shylock is no exception. He is given a famous monologue in which he eloquently complains about the many injustices he has suffered for his faith. This was a lot more fair than most Jewish characters were treated in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare also kept the play's tone light by giving it what he would consider a "happy" ending: Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and his daughter is happily married to a Christian. Most other stories gave their Jewish villains a gleefully gruesome Karmic Death. For example, Christopher Marlowe's far darker The Jew Of Malta ends with the Jew Barabas being sentenced to death by boiling in oil.
Othello is about a black man who suspects his white wife is cheating on him and chokes her to death. In the original story on which the play was based, however, the Moorish character doesn't even have a name, and it ends with Desdemona lecturing the audience on why interracial marriage is evil. In his adaptation, Shakespeare gives the Moor a name and fully fleshes out his character into a sympathetic war hero intelligent and sensitive enough to woo Desdemona with poetry. Shakespeare also adds the character of Iago to serve as the play's villain, a white man who manipulates Othello into a jealous rage For the Evulz. In fact, the only overtly racist elements of the play are spoken by unsympathetic characters.
The Taming of the Shrew has a fairly sexist plot, but the standard "uppity wife" play of the time usually involved gleefully beating her into submission for the audience's amusement. By having Petruchio find a psychological solution (demonstrate how mean-spirited her behavior has been), never laying a finger on her, and letting her change in behavior be of her own choosing, it was downright enlightened. The play also shows the obedient, submissive Bianca, pretty much the epitome of a desired girl, turning out not to be quite the ideal wife her husband expected.
It's actually quite impressive that Shakespeare even wrote as many memorable female characters as he did, considering he was living in a time when it was illegal for women to perform on stage and female characters therefore had to be played by men in drag.
Showboat seems pretty racist by modern standards, but at the time it was actually considered shocking that Black people were even present together in a musical with White people. It is said that the audience didn't even clap at the premiere because they were all just sitting there gawking in shock.
West Side Story can seem a little stereotypical today with its portrayal of Puerto Ricans, but for the time it was written in, the 1950s, it was revolutionary in that it had sympathetic minority main characters and touched on subjects such as immigration and the devastating effects of racism, poverty and gang violence.
You could argue that the reason for the Puerto Rican characters seeming stereotypical is because they are immigrants, and because they're still living in segregated communities, where the "stereotypical" accents and the old folkways linger a little longer. That's not prejudice, but social realism - which was also a new idea in the 1950s.
Yes, despite having only been in the mainstream since Gerald Ford was President, the world of video games is not immune to this trope...
Tomb Raider's protagonist, Lara Croft has been seen by some as a misogynistic adolescent male fantasy, given her generous proportions, not really helped by the developers admitting the reason why she was a female was so gamers wouldn't have to look at a guy's ass all day. However, at the time Lara was a pretty big step forward for women in gaming, who even when they were in lead roles in action or fighting games tended to be Damsel in Distress types. Having a female character that not only had a strong personality, but didn't have a male character coming to her rescue at any time was something few games had tried in the past and none saw the same mass-market success. If nothing else, the series proved that gamers—at the time largely stereotyped as violence-addicted immature adolescent males—were mature enough to at least tolerate playing a female character.
If you beat Metroid in under an hour, it was revealed that Samus was a girl... by showing her in a bikini. This was big at the time, however, as she was the first playable human female main character.
Bosko, the first Looney Tunes star, was a black boy drawn in such a simple style that he resembled Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with human ears and a bowler hat. At the very start he spoke in a Southern drawl. But the creators saw their error and tried to backtrack. Soon Bosko was shown running businesses, fighting as a musketeer alongside white musketeers, and defending his girlfriend from white bad guys. Alas, the drawing style still causes uninitiated modern viewers to presume the worst.
It wasn't Speedy who was portrayed in a racist light, it was everyone who wasn't Speedy in the supporting cast, like Slowpoke Rodriguez or the Mexican mice who always call on Speedy to help them get cheese or be free from the oppressive rule of the "gringo pussycat" (Sylvester) or, in the much-maligned later cartoons, Daffy Duck.
The original G.I. Joe animated series is often mocked nowadays for Family-Friendly Firearms, how the Cobra soldiers just about always escape from their exploding vehicles and overall lack of a body count. However, in its day, it was actually one of the edgier kids' shows. Characters were allowed to hit each other, and they do acknowledge the existence of death (heck, one of the episodes has them speaking to ghosts). In some ways, it's edgier than recent cartoons — the Hit Flash is completely absent.
Interestingly, in the 1960s, people also died by the dozens in kids' shows such as Jonny Quest.
Jonny Quest itself (the original 1960s version of which originally aired in prime time) deserves a listing here. While the character of Hadji has some clearly stereotypical characteristics ("Sim sim salabim", anyone?), he was the first dark-skinned character to be a regular in a 1960s kids' show, was always treated as Jonny's equal, as well as his best friend and adopted brother, and had tricks that amazed or confused the adults featured.
Also given the realistic art style of the show, mostly avoiding Engrish, and generally being competent, none of the non-white characters were racist caricatures, at least by '60s standards. They weren't always pretty, but they were far better than portrayals from earlier decades.
The show has some blatant stereotypes by modern standards, including an almost complete absence of any black people (except in ''Pursuit of the Po-Ho"), plus about a second's worth of angry African natives from that episode in the opening credits.
Referenced in Justice League episode "Legends." Green Lantern and the others have been transported to a world with 1950s era heroes, one of whom calls the black John Stewart "a credit to your people," which he genuinely means as a enlightened compliment, and would've been such for the time period they're from.
"Homer the Heretic" was once praised for showing that organized religion and fringe religions can get along just fine, but these days, you will find peoplenote mostly on this site that think the whole episode is a screw to those who are atheist or don't want to associate with mainstream religion, as it ends with Homer going back to church. On the plus side, it's not as aggressively bad as Family Guy's Aesop of "Believing in God is for idiots" in "Not All Dogs Go to Heaven" and, despite the Aesop, the Simpsons episode didn't sacrifice humor to get their message across to viewers.
Disney's "It's A Small World" was and is an appeal to everyone's shared humanity. While the various stereotypical attributes (folk costume, etc.) of the animatronic in the ride haven't particularly aged well, it's still The Theme Park Version of the possibility of a world where we can live together in peace.
Worth noting is that the same mold is used to create the dolls' faces regardless of ethnicity, thus completely avoiding Facial Profiling.
Some Barbie toys actually depicted Barbie in positions that women usually didn't have in that day, - nowadays some people consider that to be "sexist". Most hilariously is when some people see veterinarian as one of Barbie's jobs as sexist.
At-will employment is cited to be unfair to employees, as it allows for employers to fire employees at any time (exceptions do exist, such as discrimination), yet before it was implemented, if an employee wanted to leave a job, it was possible for the employer to force the employee to stay there for as long as he wanted, since the burden of proof that the arrangement had a limit rested on the employee.
Abraham Lincoln, despite being known for his firm stance against slavery, held views that would be considered very racist today (a good example being his "Nobody likes you and you should get the hell out of the country for your own good" speech to some prominent black citizens). Also, as a politician, he had to balance his various interests against each other; simply outlawing slavery would massively disrupt society and the economy, and further divide the country against itself. His original plan, which ultimately only got a partial enactment in Washington D.C. itself, was to buy out the slaveholders at the taxpayers' expense and ship the newly freed blacks back to Africa. Only when this plan didn't work out as he'd hoped and all the disruption and division he'd been trying to avoid happened anyway did he finally decide on a somewhat more radical course, and then only as it came to be to his political advantage. Thus, while he wasn't exactly a saintly abolitionist, he does earn considerable admiration as a crafty politician for having been able to compromise and cajole his way to the slaves' emancipation.
The Athenian democracy gets some deserved flak for excluding women, non-Greeks, immigrants, non-landowners and slaves. Yet, a society where the leaders were elected rather than born into power is pretty good going for several centuries BC.
Sparta was quite fair for its time. Apart from the very rigid training for both intellect and physical fitness boys and men underwent up to 30 years of age, Sparta's political power was shared by two kings, not just one, and people were given the right to vote. The kings had to get approval for their actions from the ephors, who in Real Life were not hideous perverted inbred priests, but respected citizens elected by the people to act as a kind of ombudsmen or board of control. Another, maybe minor aspect was that only people who died on the battle field (men) or died in childbirth (since women were not allowed in the military), would be given named graves. Even a king who did not die in battle would go unnamed-in other words, respect was not a title but had to be earned.
Ancient slaves were often treated more fairly (they could achieve citizenship and at some times it was expected from a rich man to free his slaves) than many Africans imported to North America.
George Washington was very nearly the only one of the slave-holding Founders even to make an attempt to free his slaves. For him, the matter was excruciatingly complicated: He wanted to free his slaves late in his lifetime, but most of his slaves weren't technically his, instead being "dower slaves" owned by his wife Martha, and technically not his to do with as he wished. Further, freeing his own slaves and leaving Martha's slaves in bondage (outside of looking like gross hypocrisy) might conceivably have broken up slave families. He published a will that upon his and Martha's deaths, all slaves the two held were to be freed and educated enough to let them enter society as free men, and those too old or infirm to enter free society were to be cared for at the expense of Washington's estate for the rest of their lives. He had the will published, but Martha's relatives (Washington himself was the last of his line) did their best to get it quashed.
The Inquisition is usually portrayed as a sinister and oppressive organization. However, The Papal Inquisition was the first European secret police more than anything else. The Inquisition was also revolutionarily lenient for its time, as it strictly limited the use of torture (which was very common in secular courts), allowed the defendants legal representation, and issued death sentences much less often than in municipal proceedings where petty thieves usually were sent to swing. However all this pales compared to the fact that the Inquisition rose above its contemporary courts in placing the burden of proof on the prosecution.
And the Spanish Inquisition ended witch trials in Spain a full century before the rest of Europe because it required scientific proof of witchcraft-not just eyewitness accounts.
Hammurabi's Code had a great many double standards and even triple standards, but it still compared favorably to what his contemporaries in the region were doing.
For that matter, "an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth" was a step up from the previous standards, since it limited the amount of retribution to the amount of harm. Also, the oft-quoted "An eye for an eye" bit in Hammurabi's code has a qualification rarely mentioned when the law is quoted: it only applied when the victim was a nobleman. For the common folk, the loss of an eye called for the payment of a piece of silver (that said, the notion that common folk were entitled to any legal recourse when injured by their betters was a huge advance in the direction of justice).
What Hammurabi's code did achieve, for all its failings and inequities, was to specifically define crimes and their punishments. This made law a predictable and reliable thing, which was a considerable advance over the previous levels of law making and punishments, which were roughly equivalent to "I hope the king (or judge, or chief, etc.) is in a good mood today" before then. You might not like the place where you stood very much under the Code, but you knew where it was and that it was stable.
Section 232, "If it (the poorly constructed house) ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means," is similarly paraphrased as "Goods damaged by the negligent construction of a building in which the goods are stored may be claimed against the wrongdoer, and restitution to be made on the damaged building."
Section 250, "If while an ox is passing on the street (market) some one push it, and kill it, the owner can set up no claim in the suit (against the hirer)," is the first basis for the novus actus interveniens, or "new intervening act" doctrine in negligence law. Section 245 also illustrates this concept.
Section 103, "If, while on the journey, an enemy take away from him anything that he had, the broker shall swear by God and be free of obligation," is the first description of force majeure (the doctrine that someone may be released from his end of a contract because overwhelming circumstances beyond his control made compliance impossible).
And then there was the fact that the law wasn't just written down, it was written where everyone could see it-thus ensuring that a person couldn't deceive you about what the law was and making sure you don't have access to it to check.
Many people call Dr. John Langdon Down (November 18, 1828-October 7, 1896) racist for claiming that 'Mongoloids' (now referred to as people with Down's Syndrome) were a throwback to an earlier stage of evolution. However, what they don't realize is that he considered mentally handicapped Caucasians to be proof that non-white races were actually human beings, something that was a topic of much debate among white people then. He also supported the rights of women, claiming that educated women produced smarter sons (contrary to the common belief that excessive education masculinized a woman and made her infertile, or produced lower-quality children).
Similarly, Johann Blumenbach (11 May 1752-22 January 1840) (who gave us the term Caucasian for white people) underwent a weird Character Development with regards to race. He initially believed that race determined a person's level of intelligence (with "Negroid" races being below all others). However, he later fell in love with a black woman and came to the conclusion that black people were just as intellectually capable as any other race (presumably he observed this personally in her).
The Meiji Era (1868–1912) language and educational reforms of Japan now look like efforts to eradicate dialects and enforce a single, very specific restrictive standard on people, but at the time they were enlightened efforts to create class equality and open up scholarship to the lower classes by making scientific or literary writing accessible to people who couldn't afford years of education in heavily Chinese-influenced writing.
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia contains a provision that Parliament may make laws about "The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws." The 1967 referendum finally recognizing indigenous Australians as people in fact DELETED "other than the aboriginal race in any State." This makes more sense once you realize that this provision is interpreted such that it only allows beneficial laws to be made about any one race (thus allowing Federal Indigenous Scholarships, grants, etc.) and overrode State laws that did very bad things to indigenous Australians.
The Irish Constitution opens In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, [...] Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution. These explicit references to Christianity are quite exclusionary to the many atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, etc. who now live in Ireland-but at the time (1937) there was a push for it to open In the name of Our Lady of Lourdes..., an explicitly Roman Catholic opening, but they went with a version acceptable to all Christians (except Unitarians).
Likewise, before 1973, the Irish Constitution "recognised the special place of the Roman Catholic Church", which appears to view Catholicism specially, however it also mentioned other non-Catholic religions (like Anglicans, Methodists and Jews). Catholic extremists wanted no mention of other religions and wanted an official state religion. The "special place" was due to the Roman Catholic Church being "the guardian of the Faith of the professed by the majority of the population", i.e. the RCC is special only due to the amount of members it has. The official church position is that RCC is special since it descended from Jesus.
The exams performed in dynastic China may seem overly restrictive today, what with the fact that one highly difficult test could make or break your prospects. However, these tests were designed to allow people to have civil service jobs based on merit. In an era when most countries gave jobs based on connections, this was considered very progressive. The civil service exam and the bureaucracy that it staffed were so stable and powerful that they survived and continued to function through more than a dozen dynasties, including the Mongol and Manchu invasions. The idea that the daily business of government would not be stopped by mere politics was pretty radical.
This system of meritocracy gained popularity in the British Empire and the United States because it was seen as a much better alternative to their then-current systems of nepotism and the spoils system.
When St. Augustine of Hippo (November 13, 354-August 28, 430) was writing, he included a detailed treatise on sexuality that basically reaffirmed the commonly held idea that Sex Is Evil. He did, however, make it clear that a woman who was raped and did not enjoy it did not commit a sin. The "did not enjoy it" part may sound awfully insensitive and sexist nowadays, but back then (when the prevailing view was that All Women Are Lustful, with all the Unfortunate Implications that trope carries this was rather innovative thinking for its time.
Medieval Germanic society had the concept of the weregild (literally, 'man-price'). If a person killed another person, they could avoid punishment by compensating the victim's family in money or material goods. There was even a standardized code in place, establishing weregild prices depending on the victim's social status and circumstances of death. The concept of applying a monetary value to a human life may seem callous to us todaynote although the insurance industry and actuarial practice exist to do exactly that, along with wrongful death suits, but considering the alternative form of retribution was the victim's family enacting a revenge killing, kicking off a blood feud that would most certainly cost more to the involved parties in loss of life and property, it was quite civilized and pragmatic.
The Weregild is the oldest law still in force in any Common Law country. It predates the Common Law crime of murder, and the name has been updated; it's called the Tort of Wrongful Death. Torts to the person, the lesser cousin to the Weregild, also assign monetary values to various injured body parts, as well as the amount of money that person earned with that body part. For a modern example-take a look at OJ Simpson's misfortunes.
Maryland's Act of Toleration in 1649 guaranteed religious freedom-as long as you were a Christian. Given that this was the age of the Thirty Years' War, one of the most horrifying wars ever, fought in large part over rivalry between Christian sects, it's more impressive than it sounds today.
Tommy Douglas referred to homosexuality as a "mental illness". In fact, he said this because he supported decriminalizing it and wanted people to be more tolerant (something that was also true for other progressives then).
The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom might seem like a repressive theocracy run by a messianic lunatic, but it was also the first government in China to prohibit slavery, concubinage, foot binding, and to hold women and all races to be equal in the eyes of the law.
European missionaries in colonial India were known for their aggressive proselytization and callousness to the local cultures, but the areas that they were most successful in were ones that had many members of lower castes under the caste system and dalits aka "untouchables". People who were told their entire lives that it was a disgrace and worthy of punishment even to have their shadow fall over a higher caste person were told that everyone was equal before Christ and that God loves everyone equally. Even now, dalits are common among Indian Christian converts (and before that Muslim converts, for their similar teachings).
John Tharpe owned a slave plantation in Jamaica. However, he was famous for treating his slaves with dignity and respect. During a slave rebellion, other houses were burned down but his was spared.
Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States of America also owned slaves but treated them kindly and supported several laws that would protect slaves from abuse and even prevent the recapture of runaway slaves in free states.
Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Louisiana, like other Southern US states, allowed slavery. However, slaves had rights that they didn't have in other states. Slaves could seek legal action against abusive masters. Also, in accordance with Louisiana's predominant Catholic faith, even slaves were given Sundays off. During those Sundays, slaves could work their own businesses and keep whatever money they earned.
This was in good part due to the state's French heritage, particularly the French Code Noir which had certain articles requiring humane treatment of slaves. The very similar Spanish Code Negro was a socio-political compromise, after a number of Spanish Catholic priests who'd attempted to enforce the Church's unambiguous canon laws against chattel slavery got slaughtered for their efforts.
In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by lashings or death but in 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa stating that homosexuals will not be punished if they get sex changes. These operations are even subsidized by the government.
The British Empire, despite the damage its imperialism caused to its subjects, was the first of the major European empires to ban the slave trade in 1807, then slavery as whole in 1833, some 30 years before America.
And created the West Africa Squadron in 1807, which actively hunted down slavers, eventually destroying the Atlantic slave trade.
King Edward VII of England was very liberal for his day, criticizing his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, for not moving with the times and being decidedly displeased with British colonial attitudes, saying in 1875 (as Prince of Wales) after a visit to India: "Just because a man has a black face and a different religion than our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute."
Don't Ask Don't Tell. While today it is rightly seen as a backwards policy, at the time it was implemented, (the early 1990s) the idea that gays had equal rights wasn't as accepted in the majority as it is today. DADT gave gay Americans at least a chance to serve their country, even if they had to stay in the closet, whereas in the past, even suspicion of you being homosexual, regardless of if you were closeted or not, could land you in a lot of trouble. Prior to DADT, enlisting in the military if you were gay (defined by EVER having had same sex relations, even long before enlisting, or declaring yourself publicly to be gay, or seeking psychiatric treatment for "homosexuality") was fraudulent enlistment, and fraudulent enlistment was an offense for which a person could be court-martialed. It didn't always happen, and after the 1960s most people were just quietly discharged, but the possibility remained that one COULD be incarcerated in a military prison as a felon, and afterward, have all the stigma both of someone with a civilian felony conviction, and also a vet with a dishonorable discharge. You could not vote, or get a mortgage loan, work for just about any government agency, even as something like a janitor. After DADT, enlisting knowing you were gay was no longer fraudulent enlistment, and it was retroactive.
When the vote was first extended to women in Britain by the Representation of the People Act 1918, it was only to women over 30 (men could vote at 21); but, considering that prior to the same Act being passed, only 60% of men (i.e. males over 21 according to the standards of the time) had the vote, it puts things into perspective.
Gaius Julius Caesar would be considered cruel by the standards of today (boasting about killing and enslaving millions of people can do that), but many contemporaries criticized him for being too lenient. Case in point-he once dealt with a rebellious town by cutting off the right hand of every rebel in the town (so they could not raise arms against him again). Standard Roman practice would have been to kill every living thing in the town and turn it into rubble.
Caesar is also the first person in history to have thought of the idea of life imprisonment-for treason, of all things. Everybody thought this novel punishment was ludicrous-how could you throw a man in prison for life and humiliate him when it would be far more merciful to just kill him? In fact, this very argument is still used by those opposed to the outright abolition of capital punishment.
Most of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. At a time when Spain and France were actively murdering anyone who disagreed with the prevailing religious ideology, she was more concerned with making sure England ran smoothly. Anglicanism was the official religion, but all she required Catholics to do was pay a small fine for not attending Anglican services, which at that time was radically permissive. She hated executing people, and would often commute sentences at the last minute, unless the crime was treason. Philip of Spain tried twice to stage a Catholic uprising against her, only to find that most of the Catholics liked her. When asked about her lenient-for-the-time attitude, she said she "had no desire to make windows into men's secret minds and hearts", preferring to keep her people fed and her country financially solvent. At the time, England was almost the only kingdom that hadn't bankrupted itself fighting religious wars. (It had occasionally nearly bankrupted itself from fighting Irish rebellions, but although the Irish were Catholic, that's another story entirely).
Remember how Karl Marx believed that revolution was the only way workers could gain better conditions? Well, he did say all of this during a time where many countries did not give most workers the right to vote, so it seemed the only way that they could get what they wanted was through the use of force (though many of his followers joined parliaments peacefully later on, proving this wrong). Universal suffrage was one thing the Marxist parties helped to pass that most people do agree with. There are still some fringe communist groups that see the state, despite full suffrage, as irredeemably capitalist and insist that only a revolution can bring about real change.
Eisenhower's "And I don't care what it is" speech drew a contrast between the US and "godless" communist regimes and stated that all moral and just governments needed to have a foundation in religious faith. That might sound incredibly backward and reactionary to someone in a more secular society today. However the line that it takes its name from is him stating that he doesn't care about what religion it's based on, and that ones other than Christianity can be valid foundations for society, a rather progressive view at the time, and even moreso than many today hold.
As horrific as the living/working conditions were inside the workhouses of the 19th/early 20th centuries, they were, in fact, the very beginnings of social reform and support systems for the poor.