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 from 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.)
Still, only the most skilled of authors manage to portray something that is not only Fair For Its Day, but fair for any day.
Compare Values Resonance. Contrast Rule Abiding Rebel. Innocent Bigot and Racist Grandma are related tropes.
open/close all folders
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.
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 is a bit cringe worthy to read. Heck, he rather considers the era an Old Shame. Never mind that he was the very first black superhero to have his own title series, regularly served as a reserve member of the Fantastic Four and was a well-developed character.
A lot of the entries in Captain Ethnic can count as this. They might be embarrassing stereotypes but they were sympathetic non-white superheroes.
Marvel Comics' Young Allies was a team made up of pre-teen boys who fought Nazis in WWII, much like DC Comics' Boy Commandos. It consisted of Captain America's sidekick Bucky, the Golden Age Human Torch's sidekick Toro, and four Token Minority boys- a nerd named Jeff, a fight-prone Irish boy nicknamed Knuckles, a fat boy nicknamed Tubby, and Washington 'Whitewash' Jones, who wouldn't be at all out of place as a character in Minstrel Shows. Has since been retconned as the fictionalized adventures of a real group, whose members were actually much more normal teens.
'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's "exaggerated" accent and dialect, but the fact is that most uneducated African-Americans talked like that, and some still do. It would be less accurate to make him articulate and sounding like a college graduate.
On actually seeing the film, one gets the impression that Uncle Remus would strive to be happy no matter where he ended up, he's just that kind of guy. Like a fictional counterpart to Corrie ten Boom.
The movie takes place in the Reconstruction-era South. Considering Remus' age, he was probably a former slave. And even if he wasn't, the Deep South at the time wasn't a fun place to be black, free or slave.
It's the "'60s film" quality that really dates it, modern musical adaptions tend to play the anti-racism angle for all it's got.
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. Only one Asian ever played Chan, and that was only as a voice actor: Keye Luke in the animated adaptation by Hanna-Barbera. The casting of Peter Sellers as his Affectionate Parody "Sydney Wang" in Neil Simon's Murder by Death references this fact.
It's worth noting that Charlie Chan's sons were played by Chinese-American actors and given a "Gee, Pop!" all-Americaness. In "Charlie Chan at the Olympics," Charlie's son is representing the U.S.A. as an Olympic swimmer.
Also worth noting in the Sidney Toler films and Animated Adaptation are the evidence of a vigorous sex life (one film has an early dinnertable scene with Charlie and his wife and children, ranging in age from teens down to a child in a high chair and bib) and camaraderie with other ethnic cops (colleagues from the San Francisco PD "kidnap" Charlie on his arrival in the city and after he points out their footwear gave the game away, it's laughs all round and an invitation to share a drink with the ethnic Irishlocal police chief and his men).
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 Tiffanys, which had Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord with no problems.
1960 scifi 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 (though majority 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 Jnr 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. He's also portrayed as a decent person, however, 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 very few male characters with no obvious bigotry.
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 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).
Today Disney's The Little Mermaid is considered by some to be rather cringe-worthy, as its heroine is a girl who abandons her family and her home for a guy she hardly knows. At the time though, Ariel was written by Disney to be a proactive girl, following after the more passive and demure Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. She also was the first Disney princess to set out and win the heart of the guy she loved, rather than have him show up and carry her off. (And she was also the first Disney princess to save the life of her prince (not that doing so does her any favors).
Stagecoach (1939) follows seven characters in post-Civil War frontier America as they travel from Arizona to New Mexico in, well, a stagecoach. While from diverse social classes and lifestyles, all the passengers are white, at least two of them come off as quite anti-Indian, and in the film's big chase scene, three of them remorselessly - and, in one case, gleefully - gun down Apaches on horseback, albeit in self-defense. Yet at other times, it becomes clear that the passengers are knowingly struggling with other, subtler prejudices, and in fact are having a hard time getting along with each other. One of them, a drunken doctor whose been driven out of his practice, outright refers to himself and another passenger as "victims of social prejudice." That other passenger, a prostitute, gets the worst treatment of all: when the stage stops at an inn for dinner, everyone is too disgusted or ashamed to sit next to her at the table except for a vigilante gunman (John Wayne) who was actually brought onto the stage as a prisoner; he then tries to lessen the prostitute's humiliation by suggesting that the other passengers don't want to sit next to him either, because he's a criminal. By the time the stage arrives in New Mexico, these seven people have been through a lot together and have come to at least grudgingly respect each other, with even the villainous, irredeemable banker getting a Pet the Dog moment. As for the three most notable passengers, the doctor successfully gives up drinking, the gunman is allowed to escape by a sympathetic sheriff, and the prostitute absconds with him to presumably start a new life together far "from the blessings of civilization."
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.
While not as bad as some examples, certain films by Howard Hawks were quite impressive in their time for their portrayals of women. His Girl Friday can be taken as somewhat offensive today when you realize that all the romantic talk of the protagonist being treated "like a lady" is basically saying she doesn't want to be seen as an equal anymore. However, that said the idea of a a strong-willed, intelligent, self-reliant woman running a successful company and being treated by her (male) co-workers as an equal partner is actually quite impressive for a movie released in 1940. 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).
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.
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.
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."
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.
Robert A. Heinlein was given the outline for his novel Sixth Column by the racist but influential sci-fi editor John W. Campbell. He disliked the racism in the story so he "fixed" it. Unfortunately, while it was fair for its day for having a "good guy" be Asian, it still contains enough racism to make you cringe today. He considered the story an Old Shame. His Farnhams Freehold lacks the excuse of being someone else's outline, but it tends to be more Unfortunate Implications.
"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, is about the origins of civilization and Asian 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 lead 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 Thirty Nine 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.
What's more, jingoism is hardly a relic of the past. The past decade has seen an inordinate amount of it, in America and in other countries.
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 unfortunately racist, although less hysterically than his friend Lovecraft and while, usually at the insistence of his publishers, Robert E. Howard wrote many stereotypical Distressed Damsel characters 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.
Machiavelli's The Prince certainly qualifies. These days it's 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 it's satire. This article explains it fairly well.
Julian Tuwim's Murzynek Bambo (literal translation: Bambo the little Negro) was 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 ofted 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 ununderstandable 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, 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") 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 time 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 openmindedness) 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 comes 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 he can't win is quite a thing in itself.
Italian author Emilio Salgari was revolutionary for late XIX century-early XX 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 to forced Europeization (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 coward due his origins, or the implied superiority of then-current European civilization (keyword current: he implies 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 in anything that anyone as disturbed as Buffalo Bill obviously was was going to pass a psychology 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 nations also commit 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. However 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.
Live Action TV
Although there was only one regular black cast member, Mission: Impossible usually escapes any criticism because Barney Collier was not only the technical expert in, well, everything, he was also usually the critical component of an operation. Not only that, but in a Five-Man Band where a chart-breaking IQ was a must, he was The Smart Guy.
One in five is better than the percentage of the total American population that is of African descent.
Additionally, until Barbara Bain left the show, her character Cinnamon was also an important, respected member of the team. Even though her job was often to distract males, she wasn't minimized for it — the other team members knew that those distractions were vital, and, as the female member of the team tended to have the most direct contact with the mark, the riskiest.
Star Trek has been criticized for having Lt. Uhura as 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. Being a competent professional not a cringing yellow sterotype and 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.
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 squadmates 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 UNCLE, (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.
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 razorblades. 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. Many later episodes also show that Rochester and Benny's character are actually best friends.
Rochester also snarks freely about Benny and often gets the better of him.
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.
It's hard not to cringe during early episodes when Samantha matter-of-factly states that warlocks are more powerful than witches merely because they're male. However, by the end of the series, it was fairly clear that witch society was a matriarchy and that witches tended to be more powerful than warlocks, with the single exception of Samantha's father Maurice.
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.
People who bash Al Jolson for performing in blackface may not realize that he actually helped a lot of real blacks 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 he 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.
It should be noted that when George Formby toured South Africa (before the formal introduction of Apartheid), he refused to play racially segregated areas. And when the Nationalist Daniel Malan criticised George for embracing a black girl, George's wife told him to piss off and called him 'a horrid man'
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.
Disney's "It's A Small World" was and is an appeal to everyone's shared humanity. While the various stereotypical attributes of the puppets 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.
Not to mention a lot of New Testament teachings; for instance, people complain about the "wives, submit to your husbands" bit, 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.
Or even the Old Testament - Ruth and Esther are 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.
Not to mention that the Biblical passage that contains the exact form of "an eye for an eye" that most people quote is actually a New Testament passage saying that even that is too much, that "an eye for an eye" was the law but Christians were supposed to "turn the other cheek", AKA not retaliate.
Older than Dirt: The Code of Hammurabi, where "eye for an eye" comes from, originally is blatantly biased in favor of the upper-class (to the point that they can just about get away with murder) but the fact that it gave any right to the lower classes was mildly revolutionary at the time.
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.
Also, in 1 Timothy 1, Paul includes slave traders in a Long List of wrongdoers.
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 progressive, given that even some modern societies punish only the woman and let the man play Karma Houdini.
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 to protect foreigners who pass by. 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, in which a Samaritan man comes off as being more morally upright than even Jews! Jesus also commands that His disciples love their neighbors as theirselves, and Jesus Himself was most likely neither black nor white, but a deep brown, being Middle Eastern. Paul stresses the importance that in Christ there is neither "Jew nor Greek, male nor female," and just about every NT author as well as Christ 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, apart from Christ, equally evil as the next. That is a direct slap in the face to any kind of racial supremacy.
Sharia law gave Arabian women rights that they didn't have before, 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 she can only divorce her husband for cause while a man can divorce his wife without cause provided 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 has also the concept of dhimma, which grants protection to people of certain religions. 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 forbid 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 cannot marry non-Muslim men under any circumstances.
Early Christian policies on divorce that amounted to near-complete prohibitionism may seem ridiculously restrictive today, but were somewhat understandable considering how divorce and marriage worked in the Roman Empire and was often used by noblemen to "discard" wives when they got tired of them. Christians sought to redefine marriage as an unbreakable but equal covenant between man and woman.
It's often forgotten that this was why Christianity caught on so rapidly among Roman women in its early days: however restrictive early Christian policies may seem to our no-fault-divorce culture today, Roman law was far more restrictive on the women and far more indulgent of the men, managing to take matters to terrible extremes in both directions.
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 with no condoms, Pill, diaphragms, etc.) 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. That women would be permitted to study and be active in the church at all was a radically new idea. The remainder of the passage may still sound pretty backward, however one must consider that as this was such a radically new idea, 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.
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.
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. If you went too far into debt, you could be sold to pay the price.
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 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.
Some animal lovers may not like the Old Testament Mosaic Law's various required animal sacrifices, but the sacrifices were explicitly indicated to be a symbolic substitution for human sacrifice, which was strictly forbidden. Outside Israel, human sacrifice was very common and widely practiced, with animal sacrifice often being considered supplemental to human sacrifice rather than substitutional for it.
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 Tiffanys.
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 be boiled to death 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. 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.
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.
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. I'm looking at you, Slowpoke Rodriguez!
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.
Robotech may have been dismissed as a trashy botch of the original series, but it took the action possible on American animated TV a step further by preserving more of the violence from the original anime which has consequences. Namely, death is everywhere in the war stories and just when a 1980s North American viewer would have guessed the show was going to choke showing that, it suddenly does, leaving a stunned audience in its wake.
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 1960s kidvid, 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.
Annoyingly, the reboot series in the 1990s gave him a more stereotypical, "Goodness Gracious Me"-esque accent than he had in the original.
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 1 second 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.
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, and where the guy who cleaned the streets for a living had exactly as much of a say in the running of the state as the rich land-owner, is pretty good going for several centuries BC. Assuming that the street-cleaner wasn't a slave.
Well, they weren't that pure (among other things, they were capable of imperial brutality you might have expected of the Spartans), but compared to the rest of Greece at large, yes, they did have a lot more liberty.
Sparta itself was also 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 rights to vote - and not only the men, but also the women (which was unique in classic Greece). 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 ombudsman 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.
Speaking of slavery, the Ancient slaves were treated often more fairly (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.
That being said... he did go to extreme lengths to try to retrieve an escaped slave while President, and observed the letter, but not the spirit of Pennsylvania's slavery laws by making sure his slaves were shipped back to Virginia after five months of residence in the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia (according to Pennsylvania's laws, any slave spending half a year on Pennsylvania soil was automatically considered manumitted and had to be freed immediately).
In large part this was because the laws at the time meant 'free' blacks could easily be re-enslaved, especially if they weren't educated or under someone's protection. This is why Thomas Jefferson didn't free his slaves — the loophole Washington used (freeing them in his will) was closed by the time Jefferson died.
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 evidence on the prosecutor.
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.
In the late 16th Century the Spanish Inquisition ruled that there was no such thing as witchcraft and declared all those who claimed to be witches lunatics. This did not, however, stop magistrates courts and municipal authorities hanging hundreds, possibly thousands, of people as 'witches' regardless. Also, the great share of the Protestant-burning done in the Netherlands was done by the Dutch Inquisition.
It's also worth noting that the Inquisition went through phases in its history. Initially, it was completely a church-controlled organizaiton. At that point, the secular governments routinely complained that it was way too lenient with heretics and such, just educating them as to their theological errors and sending them on their way. It was when the Inquisition was broken up into national, government-controlled organizations (like the Spanish Inquisition) that it became much harsher.
As a general rule, most "medieval" tortures and execution methods actually stem from the Renaissance period. This makes a modicum of sense, as A: The Renaissance had a religious conflict which the medieval period did not have(for the most part), and B: Monarchs and government authorities in general had much more power than they did in the medieval period.
Hammurabi's Code had a great many double standards and even triple standards (not to mention the rule about "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"), 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 an advance in the direction of justice.)
It still allowed punishments against people who had nothing to do with the offense. For example, if your house collapsed killing your son, the son of the bricklayer who built it would be killed in turn.
This is Hammurabi's form of Building Code (and other Standards & Practices.) If you build a house it better well be able to stand up on its own. The son is killed by application of Eye for an Eye.
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 producing 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.
The Meiji Era (18681912) 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 realise 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 Ιire, 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 was that RCC is special since it is descended from Jesus.
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.
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 Implicationsthattropecarries) 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 today, 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 pre-dates 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 decriminalising it and wanted people to be more tolerant.
The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom might seem like a repressive theocracy ran 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.
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 slavery in 1833, some 30 years before America.