Thursday, May 1, 2014

Creating and Sustaining the Other in Lesbian Pulp Fiction by Marika Cifor

In his groundbreaking text Orientalism (1979) literary and critical theorist Edward Said analyzes the lengthy tradition of what he terms “Orientalism” by the “West,” namely the British, French, and Americans. Orientalism serves as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient,” one that is based on the “special place” of the Orient in European/Western experience(s).[1] The Orient occupies this “special place” not only because of its (imagined) location adjacent geographically to Europe, but also as “the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”[2] Said argues that “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, [and] experience.”[3] The Orient is not just a figment of European imagination, it “is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.”[4] Orientalism as a mode of discourse expresses and represents that integral part culturally and ideologically with “supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, [and] even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”[5] Said is particularly interested in the question of how Orientalism is involved in writing, thinking, and acting on the Orient and how European culture developed and sustained strength and identity by creating itself in opposition to the Orient.[6]  One of the most influential concepts to emerge from Said’s text is that of “othering,” the process by which one creates and sustains a dichotomy between one’s self and the Other(s). As Said writes,
For Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). This vision in a sense created and then served the two worlds thus conceived. Orientals lived in their world, “we” lived in ours. The vision and material reality propped each other up, kept each other going.[7]
The dichotomy examined by Said is that of the self with a particular Western (Occidental) identity and the Other, the Orient and the Oriental.
Said’s work has been applied to information studies concerns by scholars including Michelle Caswell in her work on approaches to cultural property in the controversy of the Iraqi Baath Party Records and Beverly Butler in her work on “othering the archive” in context of Palestinian cultural politics and memory-work. Drawing inspiration from these projects this post uses Said’s work as a critical theoretical framework to explore the significance of othering in lesbian pulp novels.[8] Much like the process of othering in the context of Orientalism, I argue that the creation and representation of the Other in the pulps, namely the lesbian, has far less do with the lesbian or lesbianism than it does with the “self,” the producer, consumer, and mainstream society and its norms in mid-twentieth century America. By looking particularly at the creation, maintenance, and promotion of the sexual and sometimes racial Other in the pulps the importance of Said’s contributions will be exposed.

Lesbian pulp fiction is known for its voyeuristic appeal, heavy-handed prose, stock characters, and predictable narratives. It is a genre defined by its form, production, distribution, content, and historical context. Between 1950 and 1967 over five hundred lesbian pulps were published.[9] Named for the cheap paper they were mass-produced on they were small, with soft paper covers, colorfully dyed edges, and vibrant cover illustrations. They were sold widely and successfully in corner drugstores, chain stores, at newsstands, and bus and train depots across the US.[10] The majority of the pulps can be classified as “virile adventures,” sensationalized romps featuring a male protagonist and told from a male point of view with underdeveloped female characters and many sex scenes.[11] There are many conventions of the genre including their prosaic writing style, frequent depictions of sex, and a tendency towards sensationalism. In addition there were a number of other subgenres including faux non-fiction exposés of the pseudo-scientific persuasion, reissues of earlier lesbian fiction with pulp style covers in paperback, and pulps that offered more positive representation of lesbians and more women-centered stories.[12] Most of the pulps were probably written by men, however some of them were written by women, and some of them were lesbians.[13] For my purposes here the unique sexual and racial content they offered in service of creating and sustaining the Other “to an extent and with a kind of detail” particularly about homosexuality, interracial relationships, and colonialist impulses makes them key sources for examining identities and knowledge production.[14]

Examining the production of the category of sexuality in the narrative, rhetorical and affective context of the pulps may seem an obvious choice. However the category of sexuality as articulated in the pulps is particularly messy. There is often a clearly articulated desire on the part of the authors (and we can presume the publishers) to explain the “deviant” sexualities of the characters by extension of lesbians in real life. Understanding the prevalence and causes of lesbianism served a variety of purposes: as a vehicle for erotically charged stories; as a way to police gender and sexual norms; as a form of control in an uncertain world; as an anthropological exploration of contemporary subcultures; to satisfy curiosity; to raise awareness of the interests, rights and presence of these women; and as a way to sell books. As Said wrote, knowledge of the Other “is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.”[15]  The representations of the Other in pulps as a means of educating the public about sexual deviance and the idea that increased awareness might protect young girls and women from these dangerous lifestyles is a clear reflection of Said’s statement. “Dr. Benjamin Morse” in The Lesbian (1961) emphasized the potential fragility and susceptibility of young girls, “who when placed in a situation which turns her toward lesbianism,” such as single-gender institutions, can hardly be blamed for following that direction.[16] It is only through such an education that he believed that the “problem” of lesbianism could be addressed arguing that “a staggering number of girls…wind up living the lives of lesbians because they were unaware of the precise nature of the problem.”[17] Women’s sexuality in this argument always holds the potential for danger and deviance reflecting larger cultural anxieties. Lesbian sexuality was represented not only as Other, but as a dangerous force that destabilized American society by disrupting gender norms. From the first lesbian pulp onward the sexual identities of women were usually reduced to two types of lesbians: “real lesbians,” masculinized in their appearance and/or behavior fated by their immutable sexualities to stand outside of “normal society,” and feminine women, who temporarily engage in lesbian relationships, but who can always be redeemed to heterosexuality.[18] The latter type are often naïve, younger, and very beautiful women who fall under the influence of an older “real” lesbian. In That Other Hunger (1961) Fran, a real lesbian, describes her lover Sally as the kind of girl who if she “had stayed in her home town” would “probably be some guy’s contented and devoted wife right now.”[19]  Grinning to herself she thinks, “[e]xcept for a slight matter of gender that’s what Sally was” to her.[20] In this brief discussion, Sally is portrayed as an accidental lesbian, someone who conforms to gender roles and expectations that have been misdirected into a gay marriage. This example demonstrates how the othering of lesbians in the pulps is a deeply complicated and conflicted process.  The masculine lesbian is always irredeemably the Other, but the feminine lesbian is a messy figure that unlike Said’s Oriential or the masculine lesbian has the potential to be remade into the “self.” Sexuality in the pulps thus proves and complicates the process and our understandings of othering.

The creation and maintenance of the racial Other in the lesbian pulps also make important contributions to understanding the writing, thinking, and acting on race taking place in this period. The pulps were most definitely a cultural production of Cold War racial norms, but also in turn produced knowledge about race for their large readership. White Americans at midcentury were strongly encouraged to identify with their racial position—whiteness, generally speaking, was not a troublesome identity category for them and did not carry the complex burdens of shame or sorrowfulness.[21] Much like earlier colonial renderings race in the pulps was a consumer spectacle that was packaged, marketed, and distributed to readers. Even when race, particularly that of whiteness, was not explicitly mentioned it was always present in the pulps just below the surface; often race was coded in references to the racialized geographies of cities like New York.[22] Racialized Others were produced as spectacle in the pulps when they appeared at all, voyeuristic representations of race meant to secure and reassure the white male reader that dominant cultural structures will be reasserted in the end. A prime example is Randy Salem’s Man among Women (1960), set in the Bahamas. Not only race, but also sensationalized visions of colonialism are produced in the story of a group of white lesbian friends, including the main female characters, who are planning an all-lesbian resort in a tropical “closed town” only for the very rich and the very white.[23]  The Indigenous Bahamians, be they the maid, policeman, or hotel manager, are portrayed as “subservient, docile, [and] feminized” as well as “alien and eroticized.”[24] In a scene set in a lesbian bar the central voyeuristic spectacle is centers on eroticized native, brown bodies, rather than its typical focus on the white lesbians. Salem describes in vivid detail the scene of four “Negroes” with bongos and other instruments accompanying a “barefooted Negress” who “pad[s]” out into the spotlight and dances with “thighs flexed, ribs heaving and breasts hanging naked. Her stark white eyeballs rolled upward as her frenzy mounted.”[25] The Indigenous Bahamians are thus othered, portrayed in line staunchly with racist, sexist, and colonialist imagery. In a less explicit, if no less prominent, allusion to the category of race in Lesbian for Hire (1967) Roger Blake describes the crowd in a lesbian bar: “A big Negro woman sits arm-in-arm with a dainty and feminine Oriental. A Jewish girl from Brooklyn does a dance that looks more like an upright mutual body massage with the kinky daughter of an Arab diplomat. A syrupy voiced honey-blonde from the Deep South gropes beneath the table to caress the naked thighs of a dark skinned Puerto Rican mulatto.”[26] These “sisters of the Third Sex” do not replicate the “segregation or discrimination” of the outside world in the “atmosphere of Sappho’s Lesbos.”[27] The interracial relationships he noted in the bar serve as a point of both othering and titillation, eroticizing the deviance and exoticism of the racial and sexual Other.  Whether hinging on categories of sexuality or race the lesbian pulp novels demonstrably say more about the “self,” not only the producers and consumers of the pulps, but mainstream heteronormative culture in mid-century America. 


Blake, Roger. Lesbian For Hire: A Study of Female Homosexual Prostitute. Cleveland: Century Books, 1967.

Britain, Sloane. That Other Hunger. New York: Tower Publications, 1961.

Butler, Beverley. “‘Othering’ the archive—from exile to inclusion and heritage diginity =: the case of Palestinian archival memory.” Archival Science 9 (2009): 57-69.

Carter, Julian. “Gay Marriage and Pulp Fiction: Homonormativity, Disidentification, and Affect in Ann Bannon’s Lesbian Novels.” GLQ 15, No. 4 (2009): 583-609.

Caswell, Michelle. “ ‘Thank You Very Much, Now Give Them Back’: Cultural Property and the Fight over the Iraqi Baath Party Records.” American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 211-240.

Keller, Yvonne. “Pulp Politics: Strategies of the Vision in Pro-Lesbian Pulp Novels, 1955-1965.” In Patricia Juliana Smith, Ed. The Queer Sixties. New York: Routledge, 1999: 1-25.

---““Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965. American Quarterly 57, No. 2 (June 2005): 385-410.

Meeker, Martin. “A Queer and Contested Medium: The Emergence of Representational Politics in the “Golden Age” of Lesbian Paperbacks, 1955-1963.” Journal of Women’s History 17, No.. 1 (Spring 2005): 165-188.

Morse, Benjamin. The Lesbian: A Frank Study of Those Who Turn to Their Own Sex for Love. Derby, CT: Monarch Books, Inc., 1961.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Smith, Patricia Juliana, Ed. The Queer Sixties. New York: Routledge, 1999.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 1-2.
[4] Ibid., 2.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 3.
[7] Ibid., 43-44.
[8] Beverley Butler, “‘Othering’ the archive—from exile to inclusion and heritage dignity: the case of Palestinian archival memory,” Archival Science 9 (2009): 57-69; Michelle Caswell, “Thank You Very Much, Now Give Them Back’: Cultural Property and the Fight over the Iraqi Baath Party Records,” American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 211-240.
[9] Yvonne Keller, “‘Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965,”  American Quarterly 57, No. 2 (June 2005): 388.
[10] Martin Meeker, “A Queer and Contested Medium: The Emergence of Representational Politics in the “Golden Age” of Lesbian Paperbacks, 1955-1963,” Journal of Women’s History 17, No. 1 (Spring 2005): 167.
[11] Keller, ““Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?,” 390.
[12] Ibid., 390. I recommend taking a look at the classification system that a lesbian reviewers at the Ladder developed as described by Meeker for further information on reception and types. 
[13] It is impossible to identify all of the authors of the pulps as most published under pseudonyms. It is only those who have outed themselves or been outed by fans and researcher that are known.
[14] Meeker, 167-168.
[15] Said, 36.
[16] Benjamin Morse, The Lesbian: A Frank Study of Those Who Turn to Their Own Sex for Love (Derby, CT: Monarch Books, Inc., 1961), 141.
[17] Ibid., 140-141.
[18] Keller, ““Was It Right to Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?,” 389.
[19] Sloan Britain, That Other Hunger (New York: Tower Publications, 1961), 108.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Julian Carter, “Gay Marriage and Pulp Fiction: Homonormativity, Disidentification, and Affect in Ann Bannon’s Lesbian Novels,” GLQ 15, No. 4 (2009): 589.
[22] Ibid., 598.
[23] Yvonne Keller, “Pulp Politics: Strategies of the Vision in Pro-Lesbian Pulp Novels, 1955-1965,” in Patricia Juliana Smith, Ed. The Queer Sixties (New York: Routledge, 1999), 11.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26]  Roger Blake, Lesbian For Hire: A Study of Female Homosexual Prostitute (Cleveland: Century Books, 1967), 64.
[27] Ibid., 64-65.

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