22 February 2004

Is Heinlein's writing sexist?

I'm pressed for time today, so I'm going to recycle some comments I wrote an online discussion forum some time ago.

A few folks there called SF writer Robert A. Heinlein a “sexist pig” in his writing. I have to agree that it's as fair a short summation of his attitude as you could manage. But he was a writer extraordinarily resistant to such short summation. If you said that his political attitude was “anarchist,” I would agree to that as a fair one-word description. But if you called his political attitude “fascist,” I would agree to that as a fair one-word description, too.

That may sound impossible to those of you who haven't read much of his writing. He's a complicated guy. I know I have readers who have read him and are chuckling because they've probably made both arguments about his politics themselves, at one time or another.

Considering that the man was born in 1907, he was surprisingly un-sexist in many ways. In the 1950s — an era when women showed up in SF to need rescuing, when they showed up at all — he wrote Hazel Stone complaining that none of the men she worked with could solve a double integral without a pencil, and a military recruiting officer telling a young man that he shouldn't apply for training as a starship pilot because the people with the necessary mathematical and kinesthetic talents are almost exclusively women. Later in his career, his character Friday could take any three of his male characters in a fair fight without breaking a sweat. Women are often in positions of authority in his work, and no one thinks it strange. His characters of both genders routinely assert that women are smarter than men without a trace of irony.


Women in Heinlein's fiction are still vastly outnumbered by men. While many of them are strong and interesting, more of them are either cardboard cutouts or fools. Even the strong and interesting ones really, really, really like being pregnant. And are discomfortingly deferential to the male characters. And in fact display a nauseating delight when those men treat them like children. And are pornographically willing to drop into those fellas' beds. And have a particularly unwholesome attraction to grumpy old male author mouthpieces. And are often absurdly psychologically unreal, as any woman — any human — who has read I Will Fear No Evil will attest.

And while I understand that he comes from a generation that sincerely believed that if we could just get over the guilt, sex would be good clean fun, the resulting attitude is chillingly callous toward women in too many places. Women are never frustrated with their feminine gender role, never injured by sexual attention.

And my personal un-favorite: there's a little attempted witticism he repeats in a few different stories about a female character wearing “a perfume that was probably named something like ‘Summer Orchard' but would be better called ‘Justifiable Rape.’ ” At the risk of sounding like a cartoon humorless feminist, Mr. Heinlein, that is just not funny.


Good comment from Mitch Wagner at Tor and M. G. Lord at the New York Times, plus disconcerting quotes from a letter Heinlein wrote about “race relations”.

Mentioned in a Quora discussion.

M. G. Lord at the New York Times has a personal memoir Heinlein's Female Troubles.


Anonymous said...

Completely agree. While Heinlein may be an advocate of "sexual freedom" his versions of sexual freedom are undeniably hetero-normal and cartoonish.

One of the worst aspects of his portrayal of even his "stong" heriones in his later novels is their complete acceptance of stereotypical gender roles. How can he advocate sexual liberation so strongly while maintaining a fundamentally patriarichal attitude?

Scott Spaziani said...

While I know where you are coming from, I think we need to step back and not look at Heinlein's characters in the sense that we look at gender. How we need to look at them is in the way that nature would have is look. Heinlein has this unique vision where he erases these religous rules that have give us this attitude toward gender roles.

When we look at natural gender roles and when we look at sex as free.... the line begins to blur.

If you are familiar with the story "The Number of the Beast" one of the four main characters, Hilda Corners, is a least intelligent out of a cast of PHD's. At least, that's what she wants us to believe. When she is thrown into the leadership position she becomes the most capable out of any of them. Even having Lazarus Long imprisoned on his own ship.

But she allows herself to be "belittled" by her husband and their friends. Intellectually and sexually. But when her husband takes his position for granted and tries to overrule her when she is captain... she flips.

That's the view Heinlein takes. Complete equality. Those jarrings we see as sexist he saw as jokes. The sex's are equal in most of his writings.

"Listen, son. Most women are damn fools and children. But they've got more range then we've got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better — and the vile ones are viler, for that matter."

^ From Starship troopers, said by an old man who was giving advice to his son. Not to be taken completely at face value because of that fact. But inside it we see Heinlein's admiration for women.

"They have more range than we've got"

Means that a woman who is a bad human beings can become worse than a man. But a woman who is honorable can go beyond what any man can become.

The famous Jill justifying rape scene in Stranger is another example of taking character into account. Jill says those awful things (a woman is as to blame for rape as a man) because Jill is, before Smith's influence, what Heinlein hated in the 1950's woman.

The reason the strong woman like being pregnant is because it is NATURAL for a woman to want to be pregnant. The reason woman go to bed with men who "treat them like children" is because that isn't serious disrespect... but friendly playing.

It's all about removing yourself form preconceived notions of gender.

Jonathan Korman said...

Hilda Burroughs is a strong example of what I was thinking of when I said, “Even the strong and interesting [women] .... are discomfortingly deferential to the male characters. And in fact display a nauseating delight when those men treat them like children. ”

I agree with what you read as Heinlein's attitude, and Hilda as a clear embodiment of it. Women are every bit as capable as men, as demonstrated by Hilda's leadership role in their little troupe. But men's sexist belittling of women, as demonstrated by Jacob, is in Heinlein's eyes jokey, trivial, free of consequence, and up to women to manage.

This dismissal of the significance of sexist attitudes is itself sexist.

(I feel that I should justify Beast as an example. It is admittedly tricky since the novel itself is a satire of a whole set of pulp SF tropes, including much of Heinlein's own writing, but it does fall squarely in his comedy-of-manners phase, when he felt he could experess what he really thought about sex and gender. All of the characters are clearly meant to be psychologically realistic portrayals in the context of the absurd circumstances of the story. I read Hilda's relationship with her husband Jacob as played straight; they are meant to be a realistic portrayal of gender relationships.)

Sara Amis said...

I think that Heinlein was ahead of his time. In the 1940's, he wrote a short story about a woman experiencing sexual harassment on the job, something that people at the time considered part of life if they acknowledged it at all.

Along about the time of "Stranger in a Strange Land", he was with the times. All the attitudes about sexuality...good and bad...were right about where people in general were.

Then the times got ahead of him. People moved on in their analysis of things like gender and power and so forth, and he just...didn't.

Anonymous said...

I began reading Heinlein's novels and magazine stories--adult and young adult--at age 13, along with at least 4 other sci-fi & fantasy books and stories per week. I found most other sci-fi writers, including Asimov and even humorist de Camp, unconsciously (but not annoyingly) sexist. Bradbury was OPENLY and ANNOYINGLY sexist, Sturgeon (who was about that time the lover of Judith Merrill) tried not to be. The best women writers, LeGuin, Butler, Friesner, and so many others, had yet to make themselves known. They have been sources of wonder and beauty to me. But so was Heinlein, just when I needed him.

Only urbane Alfred Bester and unclassifiable Robert A. Heinlein presented women of all ranges of competence and likeability. In other words, women a 13-year-old girl could believe in. Bester's were anti-hero types.

I patterned my life after some of Heinlein's women and girls, starting with the sassy scientist heroine in his story "Let There Be Light." (Mary Lou had as much fun as Beatrice in "Much Ado"!!)

I'd already studied composition along with piano, and at age 14 set the verses in "Green Hills of Earth" to music. I sent one of them to Heinlein in the 1960s. (Glad to say that he liked it.) Because of Heinlein I took 4 years of science and 5 of math in high school, although college drew me out of physics to linguistics and ultimately to a grad degree, plus books and articles, in Medieval studies. Because of Heinlein, outside school I studied Morse code and electronics on my own, drew a detailed map of the moon, worked out Hohmann orbits to Mars, and built model rockets--for fun.

Because of my admiration of Heinlein (plus deCamp and others) I became a Naval officer after college. Stayed nearly 12 years until I could no longer stand the Vietnam War. However, bossing 65 people and having responsibility for a $1.5 million dollar physical plant were beyond the reach of most 21-year-old working women--and great experience for me. I must add that while the Navy had the space program, I was the first US woman to test a space suit under vacuum conditions, plus other tests, back in 1957, and wrote my first article for pay on that experience for a Sunday supplement.

Was Heinlein sexist? Not the Heinlein I read as an eager girl and young woman--not until he got war happy and lost touch with the underclass and the tragedy of U.S. imperialism. As he aged he fell back into cliches, influenced by his arch-conservative libertarian wife and their (and Nixon's) doped-out talking head counselor, Herman Kahn.

I thought Heinlein's lapse into Ayn Randish politics was a tragedy, and now we can see its pernicious results. From 1949 to nearly the end of the 60s, he'd been like a distant uncle--sometimes we exchanged letters and comments--but now that I'm 75 years old, with a long career in alternate energy and medical tech writing and editing behind me, I'm still an endless social justice, community & church activist, and cannot IMAGINE how far less interesting, delightful, education-filled and fun my life would have been without Robert A. Heinlein! Thank you, RAH, from the depths of this old woman's heart!

FOCK said...

Short answer: Yes. and No. Heinlein really only has 4 characters: (antagonists not included)

The Narrator - who tends to be ignorant bout social ideas and conventions which must be explained by...

The Scientist/Best Friend of the Narrator - who is almost always out on the fringe of what is acceptable in the current society.

Colleagues of the Scientist

And Lazarus Long.

And like Lazarus Long, he has a fair amount of 20th century baggage hes trying to get rid of.

Anonymous said...

As the author of the article points out, Heinlein was merely a product of his times and was no more bigoted or sexist than most others from the same time frame.

Recriminations about these social shortcomings do nothing to advance understanding of Heinlein's life and times. They merely point out the smug intolerance with which we tend to view our forebears.

Frigid Barrell said...

You hit the nail on the head.

I find it insane how some scifi writers can imagine whole other worlds, aliens, AI, etc. And yet still struggle to imagine women as humans.

I've read a few books of his and have encountered the same problem throughout. He seems to go out of his way to invent a society where he doesn't need to have to write more than one woman (if that). Like the moon is a harsh mistress and orphans of the sky. How *convenient*

And then you have Stranger, which yes does have more than one woman. But just how badly they are written is laughable. How willing they are for sex, tolerate creepy old guys, etc. And of course the rape comment was terrible.

I was recently recommended The Mote In God's Eye because of how weird the aliens are (spoiler: they arent that weird). But I noticed a lot of the same problems. Created a future where somehow things turned out just right for the author to only have to write one woman. And of course, created a future where it makes sense for the woman to be damsel-y. And just like Heinlein, throw in lots of little jabs at women in general. Or how a woman who was determined to stand on her own, starts thinking about throwing it all away to be the wife of the "right man".

After I finished it, I was reading some critiques about it and just happened to find one that said that Heinlein said that he thought it was the best sci fi book he ever read (when it came out). And Heinlein worked with the writers on it.

So..yeah. And it also shocks me how SO MANY guys from today never seem to notice all the sexist crap that is going on it in (just like how people never seem to notice how Kerouac is a sexist jerk either).

Point is, I really liked your article. And I don't get how more people don't think he's sexist.

Luara said...

It gets much worse than what you describe. In his Job: a comedy of justice novel, Heinlein's main male character Alex threatens over and over to beat his lover Margrethe. In a "joking" way, so it's all hunky-dory in the novel, his lover never objects but actually falls into his arms after one threat of beating her. She's totally unrealistic. I don't know of any woman who would be just fine with jokes about beating her. Of course Margrethe in the novel never says anything aggressive back, never gets "feisty" in response or "jokingly" threatens to kick him in the balls if he hits her.
It made me wonder if Heinlein had beaten a female lover and was trying to justify himself in this novel. Like, see - it's OK, Margrethe doesn't mind that Alex said he might beat her someday. So it's OK. See?
And the sexism is in Heinlein himself. Not just in his character Alex. You can tell because the talk of battering his lover is taken for granted in the novel, never challenged by any other character. It is not an issue at all. Alex never thinks about it, never asks himself why he talks about battering the woman he "loves". As a "joke", the reader is being asked not to question it.
Heinlein having "strong" or capable female characters doesn't make him non-sexist. He can layer a simulation of non-sexism over his underlying sexism. Like you say, he's a complicated guy. His "strong" female characters are probably just as unreal in their own way, lacking a self.

Anonymous said...

Actually, that line is pretty hilarious, so long as you can separate the intended meaning (i.e. "Wow that smells so good it makes me ravenously sexually excited") from the painfully obviously wrong interpretation of "women smelling good is a legitimate grounds for rape".

Anonymous said...

I dispute your claim that women are outnumbered by men in Heinlein's books. Certainly that is the case in some of his books, but just thinking of the most prominent examples in my mind, that isn't true. Number of the Beast had two female and two male main characters. Time Enough For Love had Ira, Lazarus, Gallahad and Justin as the main males but had Ishtar, Minerva, Dora, Athena, Hamadryad, Lapis Lazuli, Lorelei Lee, and Tamara as relatively major characters during the framing story. Outside of the framing story the number of major characters is just about split evenly between men and women with Dora, David Lamb, and the twins who weren't as the most memorable characters (for me); special mention to (Elizabeth) Andy Jackson "Slipstick" Libby who was transgendered.

Similarly Stranger has Jubal, Mike and Ben as major male characters but has Jill, Anne, Dorcas Miriam, and Pam (that's the tattooed lady's name, right?) as the major female characters.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset was written entirely from a female character's perspective.

I'll grant that many of the juveniles and earlier works didn't include as many female characters but by the time you get to/past Stranger the "women are outnumbered by men" claim is quite suspect.

(Also, for me at least, Heinlein's most memorable character from Moon is a Harsh Mistress, outside of Mike/Michelle/Adam Selene/Simon Jester/HOLMESIV is Wyoh and the young Hazel (to be) Stone)

Furthermore, the whole female characters falling over the claimed "author avatar" isn't entirely inaccurate but the important thing to remember is that he was looking to his wife, Virginia in crafting those characters. Also, I'd be surprised if their psychology wasn't one which at least marginally comported with Virginia Heinlein's.

Unknown said...

I definitely agree with your final paragraph. And yes, Heinlein was at least partially a product of his times; however, in a lot of ways he was way ahead of his times, and I think that his view of women - at least as published - was one of his "ahead" areas. No, he was not a perfect nonsexist; but from what I can see he believed that women should have equal educational opportunities with males; even the most traditional of his females (with a few dystopian exceptions) were at the very least smart and capable, feisty and spunky. We weren't going to go from the Victorian/Edwardian ideal female to today without interim steps - and Heinlein helped supply some of those steps. (For a young woman growing up in the 60s, it was reassuring to know that there were males out there who valued creativity and intelligence in women - just not in my high school!)

Unknown said...

Okay, second comment. I see that a lot of the comments on here refer to his later books (post Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Yeah, mostly they suck. I honestly wonder if some senility was creeping in at that point. He wrote a whole lot more books than just those, and in almost all of those earlier novels and short stories the main females were -- at the very least -- feisty and spunky, intelligent and capable. So PLEASE DON'T JUDGE ALL OF HEINLEIN by the writings of his later years. My only excuse for those novels is that he was going a little gaga by then; and his reputation from previous works was such that we kept hoping for better, so continued buying them. At his best Heinlein was not a perfect nonsexist; but he was a creator of many interim step heroines, who were A LOT less female stereotyped than previous eras heroines. That said, speaking as a mother (and grandmother) if you know of good juvenile science fiction that does a better job of portraying females than Heinlein did, go for it. I just hate to think of future generations of kids missing out on "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" and "The Star Beast," "Orphans of the Sky," etc. Read them yourselves and then give them to your kids and grandkids. You can always say, "there is some gender stereotyping in here, but DAMN they are fine books!!!" (Would you prevent kids from reading The Three Musketeers because of gender stereotypes? -- or even better literature from an earlier era?)

J'Carlin said...

If the universe has any purpose more important than topping the woman you love and making a baby with her hearty help, I’ve never heard of it.

The problem here seems to be that all those intelligent, competent women were interested in propagating their genotype and realized that an intelligent, competent man was a necessary adjunct in that endeavor. Since Heinlein men are basically pricks one must appeal to the prick to get the genes.

Make no mistake. According to the prevailing misogynic social ethos of Heinlein's formative years, especially the military ethos, all his male characters are pricks. See The Number of Beast where the pricks are going to go gallivanting around the multiverse while the ladies stay in Safe Harbor to have babies. Guess what? The pricks lost.

Heinlein was raised and socialized in a society where sex meant having babies. (Disclaimer: I was raised in the same social ethos by feminists whose mantra was make damn sure you have sex only with a carefully chosen women who will be a partner in a good family. Recreational sex was not an option.) The difference in his later books was that recreational sex was an option, and the women knew they could manipulate pricks by effective use of recreational sex. But in accord with Heinlein's early socialization he created few male characters that were immune to such manipulation. I can only think of one male protagonist that was comfortable with non-manipulative recreational sex as the line marriage structure depended on it.

Note this post will be expanded on The Blue Roads of Thinking. Comments here or there will be followed.

J'Carlin said...

Heinlein was unabashedly pro procreation. “If the universe has any purpose more important than topping a woman you love and making a baby with her hearty help, I’ve never heard of it.” He was well into middle age in his writing and life before women had any control over the consequences of sex other than choosing the right partner to make a baby. The mating dances prior to the’60s were all about women enticing the right man into a proper procreating marriage. That this is reflected in all of his writing is hardly surprising. Judging him by modern feminist sexuality standards where procreation is frowned upon and sterile sex is just another recreation is just being ignorant of history. Female controlled contraception is a radical game changer that Society still has not figured out how to deal with. Expecting a writer canalized by the primitive culture he was born in to anticipate modern mores is unrealistic criticism.