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Heinlein's flawed characterizations 
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Post Heinlein's flawed characterizations
Okay, Peter’s thrown down the gauntlet and I am going to pick it up… but here in Advanced Heinlein where a little more focus and concentration is encouraged. The point isn’t to restrict the discussion to some level of expertise – please, anyone with a relevant contribution, make it! – but to allow the discussion in the general subforum to remain nonintimidating to the more casual crowd.

Heinlein has always been praised for his use of female characters, especially in the first half of his career when women in sf were hapless girlfriends or missing altogether. He’s also been praised for using characters that were not white, of Northern European ancestry, English-speaking, and generically middle American – again, in a field where the only such characters were Stepin Fetchit blacks, Holy Maria Italians, oy vey Jews and yellow-peril Asians. Appreciation of his nonwhile characters is perhaps behind recognition of his female characters, given that much of his career precedes the civil rights movement and as a result many of his nonwhite characters had to be obscured – a careless reader could miss the racial points entirely. Heinlein’s efforts to get strong, important female characters and almost any nonwhite, non-stereotyped characters past editors, publishers and readers are praiseworthy; against a tide of indifference and prejudice, he delighted in breaking new ground (and a few preconceived notions).

But were his female and nonwhite characters believable and well done? I don’t think so. The deserved praise for just having such characters has tended to slop over onto the characterizations themselves, and I think they are held in higher regard than they deserve. I can think of only one well-drawn characterization of a major female character (Jill, in Stranger) and struggle as I might, I can’t come up with a truly successful racial characterization.

This entire debate turns on what makes a successful characterization. I don’t believe it’s useful or necessary to compare Heinlein to other authors, of his time or any other. I don’t think anything is gained by trying to rank Heinlein’s characterizations under or over other authors’s work. I think there is a relatively simple test that can be applied to a characterization, in place, that judges the validity of that characterization in the relatively limited sense we’re examining here.

(If someone wants to create a discussion of Heinlein’s efforts relative to others, of any era or all, be my guest – it’s not my aim here and I don't think it addresses the question at hand.)

The touchstone for whether a characterization is successful or not is whether the character’s actions, thoughts and words convey their gender, culture or race without external cues or description. We should not have to be told a character is female, or have other characters make gender-identifying comments, to know she is a woman. It is a bit more subtle and difficult, but the same is true for nonwhite characters. (Allow me to use that term for “not the assumed white north-Euro middle American” in this context.)

Turning the question another way, can we simply change a few nouns and adjectives and have the character become a white male? If we can, does it matter that the character was supposed to be a woman, or black, or Japanese? Maybe there’s a place for such ‘meaningless neutrality’ – and that is an admirable accomplishment – but that’s not what Heinlein is being praised for. (Not usually.)

On that basis, I think most of Heinlein’s characterizations are thin and unsuccessful. Cardboard; 2-D; not rounded as they should be to be praiseworthy in that respect.

Many of the women from the pre-1950s works are simply men who are said to have a nice figure or wear a hair ribbon. Nothing they say or do is overtly feminine or inherently a woman’s viewpoint or action; none speak or think in a woman’s voice. (Many, in fact, are written with praise for their rootin-tootin manly ways.) These characters can be changed to male with a minimum of minor descriptive edits. Those that can’t are excepted only because they are cast in a traditional female role – and even those could be changed to male if we were completely willing to accept same-gender couples in the given time and context.

(I am going to avoid Heinlein’s handling of putatively gay characters and couples; his ineptness there is more evident and much more widely shared into the present day.)

One of the most perfect examples of a “Heinlein woman” – in my definition, not the one usually intended in fannish admiration – is the character of Captain Elizabeth Lochley in the final season of “Babylon 5.” The character is played by the shapely, attractive, and thoroughly female Tracy Scoggins, easily the most conventionally beautiful actress in the whole series. The problem, which I’ve examined in several passes through the series, is that not once in 22 hour-long episodes and two telefilms does she speak with or evince the slightest touch of feminity. You could lay in a male actor’s image and voice and there would be no slightest incongruity. The character may as well be male; it’s only female because Tracy Scoggins has a great rack.

(In-line footnote: Her role in “Crusade” and the last, short-story installment of the B5 saga did have distinctly feminine aspects. But not in the original series.)

Too many of Heinlein’s women are exactly the same. They think, speak and act male except when they or someone else is admiring their hair ribbon, dress… or great rack. They could be converted to a male character with the smallest of external-viewpoint edits. They are female only because Heinlein makes a production of saying they are… and that, to me, is not successful or believable. Furthermore, Heinlein’s insistence in making his “desirable” women men with great boobs is evidence of his inability to craft a believable woman character.

Without rehashing the same statements, his racial and cultural characters are the same or worse; remove a few pasted-on descriptives (speaking Tagalog at home, looking over retirement villas in Kenya, wearing a kimono) and you have a character of any race, probably standard Euro white.

For a characterization to be successful, we have to know or feel their femininity, their African or Asian roots, their religious tradition from the inside – from their thoughts, words, actions, reactions. Not from outside descriptives that can be changed with the stroke of a pen.

Actually, I just thought of a racial characterization I would regard as successful: Old Charlie, from Between Planets. He was described fairly extensively but I think you could remove most of those external references and still grasp that he was a Chinese expatriate. And one believable cultural character, while I’m at it: Morrie’s father in Rocket-Ship Galileo. So Heinlein could do accurate and believable characterizations when he bothered… but white Euro men in costume were good enough the great majority of the time. Which I don’t think deserves much praise, certainly not as much as is casually and traditionally given.


Mon Sep 10, 2012 1:29 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
JamesGifford wrote:
(I am going to avoid Heinlein’s handling of putatively gay characters and couples; his ineptness there is more evident and much more widely shared into the present day.)


Assuming that you had intended "putatively gay" to apply to couples (as well as individuals) here, I'd like to suggest that Heinlein's hetero couples usually aren't much better. To me at least, the only m/f couple who seem even somewhat real are the leads in "It's Great to Be Back!"


Mon Sep 10, 2012 6:00 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
JamesGifford wrote:
Appreciation of his nonwhile characters is perhaps behind recognition of his female characters, given that much of his career precedes the civil rights movement and as a result many of his nonwhite characters had to be obscured


I think that's a considerable oversimplification. Much of his career preceded the Equal Rights Amendment, but that didn't stop him from proposing nontraditional roles and freedoms for females long before then. It's entirely likely that the prevailing attitudes regarding race were much more volatile than the sexual ones at that time and he was beating a strategic retreat on the racial front, but I think you glossed over a question that an entire dissertation could be based on. Just flagging it for possible future expansion.


Mon Sep 10, 2012 8:06 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
JamesGifford wrote:
I can think of only one well-drawn characterization of a major female character (Jill, in Stranger)

What about Jill strikes you as well-drawn? She is a major character and therefore attracts a lot of ink, but it doesn't seem to have been expended in making her anything more than a foil for MVS. Patty and even Becky seem to be more individuated. Jill is undeniably female, but more as a vessel for a maternal instinct and love interest than anything else.

It might help, too, if you put some salt on the tail of this thing called female characterization you're seeking. When a character is well-drawn and also happens to be female, what do you want to see in her that would cause you not to say she could equally well have been a man? Because if she is exhibiting primary female characteristics - maternal drive, reproductive urge, etc, then does that not also lay her open to charges of being a stereotype? How does a character be undeniably and unavoidably female?

(The same can apply to gay and ethnic characters. If I twist it around and listen to, say, a female manager speaking at a technical meeting, I could ask what about her could not have equally well been spoken by a man and be hard pressed to come up with anything. So some serious introspection is called for.)


Mon Sep 10, 2012 8:40 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
JamesGifford wrote:
Without rehashing the same statements, his racial and cultural characters are the same or worse; remove a few pasted-on descriptives (speaking Tagalog at home, looking over retirement villas in Kenya, wearing a kimono) and you have a character of any race, probably standard Euro white.


I have had some first hand opportunities to examine the Japanese culture through my wife, starting with her requiring me to see The Joy Luck Club. So I get how it is possible to describe a character from that culture unmistakably, without any reference to appearance or dialect. There is a cultural signature more distinct than either of those things, and it lies in things like attitudes towards groups, honoring parents, self-abasement, and so forth. (Side note: Even when we were watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, some of those cultural quirks were so apposite to the Japanese culture as well that my wife was squirming rather than laughing. But only some. Many, of course, were diametric opposites. Weird, huh.)


Mon Sep 10, 2012 8:46 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
First, kudos to Jim for giving this another go. It's easy enough to get tired of a thread or discussion.

Jim has laid down a well-articulated position. I believe he hopes the discussion will go in other directions than it did the first time (or in the same directions, but maybe in a deeper vein).

One of the same directions it took before is "I disagree with you - here's a counter-example." It's one thing to say a position is wrong and stop. I'd like to say it is wrong, and by doing so, evaluate RAH in a context.

I'd like to suggest that in order to evaluate Heinlein's characterization skills, the only way to do so is on a spectrum. Any evaluation is subjective (my assessment of where Hazel Stone should be may be different from yours), but the standard Jim proposes is useful, if not objective. This spectrum can be as big as [Characterization skills of all writers] down to [females by Heinlein]. I think there is some merit in evaluating RAH against other writers, but that may be another thread - this one is the narrow, focused one that compares RAH's females against his other characters. Jim says that RAH lives on the left end of that spectrum (almost no well-defined females, with an exception). I'll gladly cede that he certainly has a cluster of data points there, but there are some others farther to the right. And given that the females I believe are counter-examples are skillfully drawn, I suggest that this means that they are not random outliers, but the purposeful result of skilled writing. A corollary to this premise, then, is that the clustering of the majority of the female characters is, if not an intentional desire to make them ciphers, then at least the result of a conscious decision not to fill them out.

(And I'll say one more time, his male characters are weak as well - most of the faults of his female characters apply also to the males. Jim's standard of evaluating female characters works in the other direction. You can take many of the men, put a dress on them and change their name, and not much else is different, assuming modern sensibilities that don't require an engineer or soldier to be a guy.)

Heinlein had many gifts/skills as a writer, but he didn't use all of them on every work (and is consistent with writers in general in this regard). "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" has emotional depth lacking in "The Roads Must Roll"; "By His Bootstraps" is plotted more intricately than "Water is for Washing." "Gentlemen, Be Seated!" and "Searchlight" are gimmick stories in which an SF idea is slightly fleshed out into a narrative. So, saying that characters aren't strong in a genre whose driving engine is ideas isn't a huge knock, in and of itself.

RAH wanted (above and beyond separating a reader from his beer money) to do something in a story; if that something didn't require strong characters, then he may not have spent the time and effort (and possibly word count) in developing the characters. I agree that characterization, particularly that of females, wasn't Heinlein's strong suit. But just because he didn't do it often, doesn't mean that he couldn't do it, or never did it.

Previously, I suggested (off the top of my head) six counter-examples:
Holly and Ariel from "Menace from Earth"; Belle Darkin (older incarnation) from The Door Into Summer; Michelle Holmes from Moon is a Harsh Mistress; Star from Glory Road; Penny from Double Star. Jim's response seemed to reject some (or all) of these because they are girls because their situation requires it. I'm not sure how to respond to that - almost any female can be rejected on these grounds ("Xx is a successful female character" "yes, but* the plot requires a girl here, so she doesn't count" "okay, here's a girl who is not defined by her situation" "no, she doesn't count because she could just as easily be a man and the story still works"). It is a much higher standard to meet - a well defined girl whose place in the story arc isn't by default that of a female. I don't think it is a fair standard and that even if the situation requires a girl (wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, etc.), the character can be well defined, and that Heinlein occasionally did that. If Jim agrees with the latter standard, and is denying that RAH created any, then perhaps I've misinterpreted what he was saying. But after consideration of what he did say, I'd might take Star off the list (but reserve the right to reinstate her if I re-read the book, which I haven't read in 20 or more years).

*and note, Jim, how easy it is to fall back to the "yes but" that you are decrying.


Mon Sep 10, 2012 9:03 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
Just a quick addendum: as long as my initial post is, it's meant to be a starting point, not a finished thesis.


Tue Sep 11, 2012 4:49 am
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
I agree with Bill; do think it may be more appropriate to discuss Heinlein's lack of characterization in general because that may be the flaw, rather than poorly written females in general. To be a strong character, we must know what they want, what flaws obstruct them, and how they change in the face of conflict. This doesn't happen to many of Heinlein's characters, period. I don't even think I could apply it to Manny in Moon. But I would say that Jubal is a strong character by that definition, and even Joan Eunice. Now whether that is a male or female character is an interesting question :mrgreen:


Tue Sep 11, 2012 6:03 am
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
No. There is absolutely no point in discussing Heinlein generalities any longer; even a well-crafted question so broadly stated will simply end in a vast trough of mush. It is more likely that the discussion will end up full of bouquets of flowers, heaps of rocks, and electric motors; there are about a thousand of those here already.

I chose a specific point that Heinlein has been long and frequently praised for and made an argument that the praise is undeserved. Expanding the topic until you find something praiseworthy to say is some blend of chauvinism and laziness. Expanding the topic on any other basis is a road to mush.

I've had enough mush, thanks.

I don't have time at hand to make substantive replies to the questions raised; we're going to have to go a little slower to get anywhere. Add what you see fit to the discussion but don't take it down a side road or off a cliff.


Tue Sep 11, 2012 8:15 am
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Post Re: Heinlein's flawed characterizations
I raised several specifics:
  • What about Jill makes her a well-drawn character? (And what is the femininity?)
  • Why wouldn't the same reasoning apply at least as much to Becky and Patty, pace that they get less page space?
  • Does Jubal, for instance, show that Heinlein can develop a strong male character? Or is he equally inept there? (This isn't an attempt to draw you into delivering praise that you want to avoid right now. If the real problem is that Heinlein just can't draw strong characters of any gender then it cripples the discussion to restrict it to only a subset.)
  • Is Joan Eunice an example of a well-drawn female character? More or less so than Jill?

Undeniably most of IWFNE is spent exploring gender differences from the putative viewpoint of a male brain in intimate conversation with a female mind. The problems are somewhat glossed over - this would have been the book to delve into what that time of the month does to a woman, whereas no one expects that to enter into a story centered on a female FBI agent, but Heinlein dismisses it with the wave of a tampon. But if you're looking for femininity, there it is, however crudely caricatured. Whereas Poddy is at best a tomboy.


Tue Sep 11, 2012 8:37 am
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