Fair for Its Day

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

Shylock, from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in what was a radical statement for his day (as opposed to being, you know, pretty self-evident)

You've come across something that seems like a huge load of Values Dissonance. It seems laden with, say, a Rose-Tinted Narrative or a Historical Hero Upgrade or Villain Upgrade.

Only... it turns out it was comparatively Fair for Its Day. Maybe people complained the Historical Hero Upgrade or Historical Villain Upgrade was not giving enough credit to the hero or enough demonization to the villain. 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 pretty 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, and while it might certainly be unfair to hold a work to current standards of acceptability... well, those will always be the standards that matter most to the modern viewer. 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. This is because a given author is often working under a system of rigid censorship that decrees even mild criticism of the status quo to be going a little too far; attempting to depict something that would be thought of as normal today would have really been pushing one's luck. (In other words, here Failure Was The Only Option.) It's arguably all for the best in the end, of course, because a work that's only a little culturally subversive is infinitely more likely to escape bowdlerization 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, if not more, to shift the values of a society towards more tolerance and idealism, later generations (given enough time) will see you not as a hero, but rather as a Rule-Abiding Rebel who is hardly any better (or less appalling) than the people you fought when you were alive - or at best, a well-meaning coward. (This conclusion, of course, presumes the so-called Whig theory of history, which proposes that societies become infinitely more politically liberal as time passes. Of course, it also assumes that people from the future must have absolutely no sense of history. It also also assumes that increasing political liberality/progressiveness is necessarily a good thing; there are many not only outside the West but also a growing segment within it that are questioning the validity of this assumption.)

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.

Examples of Fair for Its Day include:

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 progressive writer for his time and would likely appreciate the more open minded nature of today's society.

Comic Books

  • When Marvel decided to out Canadian superhero Northstar as gay—the first mainstream superhero to identify as such aside from ex-supervillain Pied Piper in The Flash—he came out by saying that he sympathized with an AIDS victim..."FOR I AM GAY!" The delivery is pure Narm today, (and the facial expression doesn't help,) and recent writers have made an effort to be far more down-to-Earth with outings. However, it was considered progressive at the time; the issue even sold out despite Alpha Flight's low popularity.
  • Luke Cage's blaxploitation origins is a bit cringe worthy to read. Heck, he hasn't said his "Sweet Christmas" catchphrase in years and rather considers the era an Old Shame. Never mind that he was the very first black superhero to have his own title series and regularly served as a reserve member of the Fantastic Four.
    • Actually, he still does the "Sweet Christmas" thing from time to time, although now it's more of a Mythology Gag and intentional narm than anything else. In-universe, it's because he swore to his grandmother to never swear.
  • When DC debuted Starfire in the 80's, she was depicted as a Green-Skinned Space Babe from the planet Tamaran, where her people don't see an issue with modesty and are completely accepting of polyamory and people having multiple sexual partners, as long as they talk about it. Starfire's modesty issues were frequently played for comedy and the requirement to stay strictly solely with Nightwing is depicted as a good thing. However, she was one of the first characters to be sexually open who was depicted as a genuinly heroic character, and furthermore, she was not depicted as a woman obsessed with sex, but as someone who came from a world where staying strictly with one partner was an an option, not a requirement.
  • When Ra's al Ghul was introduced in the 70s, he was depicted as a terrorist, but was characterized as a sympathetic villain, who genuinely respects Batman. Yes, Ra's was a terrorist, but he was not your typical Arabic terrorist, in that he did not act like The Fundamentalist, being obsessed with Islamic values. In fact, Ra's has been depicted either as a staunch environmentalist, or a stringent anti corruption believer, with the problem Batman had with Ra's was that he was too extreme. Furthermore, Ra's and his daughter Talia were depicted as being genuinely cordial, with Talia Dating Catwoman with Bruce and even having a child with him. This occurred in the 70's and Eighties, when Arabs were frequently characterized as either greedy oil barons, or violent fundamentalists. While more recent storylines have painted Ra's as a Hypocrite, and very often, an abusive to his many children, this is due to more awareness in the present of what Ra's is as a violent cult leader, and also makes Talia and Damian more sympathetic by making Ra's terrible behavior the foundation for much of their actions and issues.
  • The many superheroines who were given large breasts. Nowadays, this trope is under very harsh criticism for sexualization along with being depicted as unrealistic, with more newer superheorines having average or moderate busts. However, many of the superheroines with large busts such as Wonder Woman and Zatanna were depicted as very competent at the job, and were treated with strict respect, not as objectified eye candy as the more recent criticisms of the trope have insinuated.
  • When Wally West made his debut in the Fifties and Sixties, he was given a Parental Neglect backstory where his parents were emotionally abusive and heavily neglectful. This backstory was criticized for not focusing more heavily in depth on how this would have affected Wally up to the present day. However, Wally's upbringing was always depicted as bad, with it being made clear that there were several bad signs and traits that Wally inherited and deeply struggled against, such as his father's constant cheating on his mother with sex workers, along with being dismissive of her, which left Wally with a bad example on how to talk and deal with women respectively. Furthermore, the abuse and neglect was emotional, verbal and neglect, not physical abuse and it was depicted as constantly serious and damaging. This was at a time when it would have been perfectly acceptable for a parent to be physically abusive and no one would have batted an eye, while the idea of emotional and verbal abuse being a serious issue would have been seen as something trivial or exaggerated.
  • When John Constantine made his debut in the mid 80s, he was depicted as a chain smoker, a heavy alcoholic, a frequent Lower Class Lout who hated the rich, along with being bisexual, while also depicting him as having engaged in sex while drunk, along with having a terrible romance with Zatanna after she got an Age Lift to an adult where he frequently obssesses over her and on several occasions has flat out stalked her. More than once, Constantine has been accused of embodying several stereotypes of homosexual people, and much of his behavior, especially having sex while drunk and his obsession with Zatanna, have aged utterly horribly. However, he was depicted as a good person and his homosexuality did not make him incompetent with several of his issues due to being his Abusive Parents backstory rather than being gay, which was very notable given that in the 80s and 90s, the gay rights movement was only just starting to emerge and where it would be illegal or very severe social scrutiny for someone to admit to being gay in the West at the time.


  • 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 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 real problem with the movie isn't "happy slaves" — it's the Disneyfication of the Reconstruction era, and a lot of the racism and Unfortunate Implications stem from that.
  • South Pacific was intended as a anti-racism musical and movie. It's the '60's film'-ness that really dates it; modern musical adaptions tend to play the anti-racism angle for all it's got.
  • 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 are the evidence of a vigorous sex life (one film has an early dinner table 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 Irish local 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 progressive, 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 an African-American child hanging out on a more-or-less equal basis with white children. Several episodes show Buckwheat sitting in the same classroom as white students at a time of rampant segregation. In addition, Stymie may have been illiterate, but he was a clever lad who was the main character as the brains of the outfit until he was gradually eased out due to his advancing age for Spanky to take over that role.
  • Flower Drum Song is one long list of cliches, but a Hollywood movie in the early sixties with a cast composed entirely of Asians? Unexpected. Also, while there are significant cliches, you also see many characters be as shallow and annoying as other "hep" characters from this period. To put this in perspective, the movie came out in 1961, the same year as Breakfast at Tiffany's, which had Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord with no problems.
  • Sayonara, with Marlon Brando, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki. Japan is portrayed as a land of geishas, Takarazuka, kabuki, bunraku, pagoda, arched bridges and cherry blossoms; Japanese women as delicate doll-like creatures who exist to scrub their husbands' backs - demure lotus blossom stereotype right out the wazoo. Still, when it came to sympathetic portrayals of Japan and interracial relationships in 1957, the pickings were pretty slim.
  • 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 red-neck sheriff J W Pepper who is explicitly shown as an idiot.
  • Philadelphia is riddled with cliches and Unfortunate Implications, but what can you expect from a 1993 mainstream Hollywood film portraying homosexuals sympathetically?
  • The 1978 film The Wild Geese contains a gay Combat Medic, who is about as camp as you could get at the time, and cringeworthily stereotypical by today's standards. However, he is portrayed as a competent soldier, and the rest of the unit seems to know about and be completely comfortable with him being gay. Granted, the drill sergeant does call him a faggot, but the drill sergeant hurls equally vile abuse at everyone else too.
  • 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.
  • Cruising. A 1980 movie starring Al Pacino as a New York City detective who goes undercover in a gay neighborhood to find a serial killer. There was disclaimer at the beginning of the movie that it only dealt with a small segment of the homosexual community and shouldn't be taken as commentary on all of them. Even with that disclaimer, the problem is that most (not all) of the gay characters were potentially homicidal lowlifes, and Pacino's character found his own values deteriorating the longer he stayed in their community. However, it was one of the first movies to deal with the gay urban scene, it had many realistic moments, and at least some of the gay characters were sympathetic.
  • 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.
  • In M*A*S*H, the lone black character is a former college football player nicknamed "Spearchucker" who's brought in as a ringer to win a game. On the other hand, he's an officer and a neurosurgeon, and his white colleagues treat him with respect (even adulation) despite the film being set in the 1950's. 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).[1]
  • Today Disney's The Little Mermaid is considered 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 to 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 who's 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."


  • 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 progressive, as most teachers of that day were men.
  • H. Rider Haggard's 19th century stories about his Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain (King Solomons 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.
      • To be fair to Kipling it has to be remembered that The British Empire had existed for as much as a hundred years or more. before Kipling was born, depending on how it is measured. The moral question at the time was not whether or not to have an empire but what to do with it and Kipling seems to have mainly believed in giving good and competent government. This was helped by the fact that he had a positive fascination with other people's occupations and could see romance in building bridges and railways, etc. To compare, pretty much every state in the world has a history of imperialism, even supposedly anti-imperialist ones (which usually complete the revolution by seizing the property of those who did not support it). If there was a massive devolution in a hundred years, we would not think it quite fair to be criticized for supporting the present government by our descendants.
    • 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 Farnham's Freehold lacks the excuse of being someone else's outline, but it tends to be more Unfortunate Implications.
    • It's worth noting that in other works the Unfortunate Implications are dialed down or absent (e.g. the narrator of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is explicitly multiracial, and the narrator of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is half black).
    • In Stranger in a Strange Land, both Mike and Jill go out of their way to avoid homosexuality. Mike makes his face more manly to prevent homosexual men from being attracted to him, and Jill reflects on how she would not be able to cope with lesbian feelings. In a story that's largely about Eternal Sexual Freedom, it's jarring—but the novel was insanely revolutionary for its time.
      • The novel mentions that Mike is avoiding homosexuality solely out of political concerns (its notably disapproved of in his era and he's already got enough people wanting to lynch him for everything else he's preaching, he doesn't need even more social penalties). Culturally, both genders are identical to Mike because he's essentially an alien in a human body.
  • The Kouroukan Fouga may seems somehow reactionary today, but for its time, it was a revolutionary document and the first full-fledged constitution of a federation, five centuries and a half before the US got one.
  • "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 Two 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, all around the world.
  • 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 Exclusively 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.
  • Growltiger's Last Stand from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats uses the CH word to refer to the Siamese at one point. Howsoever, they are undeniably the heroes, and their defeat of the evil Growltiger is a Crowning Moment of Awesome.
  • 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, Valeria 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.
  • Anne McCaffrey's Pern series was revolutionary for its day, in the sense that she included homosexual characters without demonizing them or trying to "cure" them. The good intentions are there, and it must have caused quite a stir when it was first published in the 1980's -- but unfortunately, she holds the belief that people can be "turned" gay. Also, her standards of feminism and romance leave a bad taste in many later generation's mouths; you can tell what age group reviewers are in by whether they call her work "a sweeping and innovative fantasy," "a well-meant product of its time," or "a horrific excuse for writing."
  • 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. What's harder to get past is the unconscious patriarchy embodied in George and Jean's relationship, though it does not affect the story in the wider sense.
  • 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 1930's 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.
  • Der 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 times characters (even the villain) reference the black friend, Eradicate's, race, he is called "black", which is more than fair for its day in books written literally twice as close to the days of legal slavery than to today. Unfortunately, the narrator calls him basically everything short of the n-word in the first book when he is in a chapter for a long time, apparently to avoid redundancy. Also, Eradicate is implied to be rather lazy, which is jarring simply because he seems to spend all of his waking day looking for work, whereas a white character living as a hobo also plays a prominent part in the book, but without implications of laziness. That said, Eradicate also saves Tom from very dangerous situations multiple times, so Mighty Whitey is averted, despite Tom fixing his stuff often (which Tom also does with most of the secondary white characters as well.)
  • Live and Let Die was Ian Fleming's second 007 novel (1954) - while the book's narrative and the black dialect Bond hears in Harlem read pretty cringe-worthy, he observes they're interested in the same things as everyone else, and is glad "they're not genteel about it". One of Mister Big's mooks is instructed to hurt Leiter "considerably", but has bonded with him over their mutual love of jazz. He hurts him just a little and apologizes, as he doesn't dare cross his boss. Mister Big himself notes that blacks have made major contributions to many human endeavors, and aims to be the first black super-criminal.
    • During Bond's initial briefing, even M (not a character noted for tolerance or 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."
      • In the same scene Bond expresses surprise at the exceptional magnitude of Mr. Big's criminal operations... because Bond considered black people more law-abiding than white people on the average.
  • 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 when women were only recently getting the right to vote.
  • Does the future count as a "day"? In an in-verse example The Three-Cornered Wheel by Poul Anderson, the star trader, David Falkayn, lands on a planet ruled by a priestly class who think circles are sacred and all use of them for mundane purpose is blasphemous. Except they are not stupid, they know perfectly well that a wheel and axle are the most efficient means to carry the cargo Falkayn needs to repair his ship. So they bend over as far as they can to make wheels, in this case by making a wagon with three cornered wheels that need only be used once. In other words they have their taboos but it does not make them ignorant.
  • Similarly in Honor Harrington Grayson is a patriarchal society. However they at least make up for it by an instinctive protectiveness toward women. By contrast Grayson's Evil Counterpart Masada, simply regards women as trash with no complications whatever.
  • Another in-verse version is in Vorkosigan Saga where the ruthless Emperor Dorca is called "the just" even in the more mellow era of Emperor Gregor for bringing the warring nobility of the planet under control.
    • Even in Gregor's day while Barrayar is starting to act like what is effectively a constitutional monarchy, the government has traces that look grim, authoritarian, and in general rather raw. Furthermore in the backcountry there is plenty of poverty and superstition whatever the intention of the authorities, and some of it is rather murderous.

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.
    • 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.
      • In addition, for most of the women on the IM Team, their role in the operation often meant they were the ones most at risk of getting captured or killed as they were often the ones in direct contact with the mark or the opposition. One need only see Cinnamon playing a submissive woman who is dismissed as mere eye-candy walking away with the slight smile when the bad guys' backs were turned; she had just completely pwned everyone in the room.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series 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 Stepchildren." The person who felt so inspired by Uhura as a symbol of progress that he talked Nichelle into remaining on the show was Martin Luther King Jr.
    • Other examples include Sulu and Chekov, being a competent professional (not a cringing yellow stereotype) and a non-evil Russian on television during the Cold War, respectively. 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 Fan Service too, but not just that.
    • Originally, Roddenberry wanted to take it further 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.) Captain Pike even called her "Number One," the traditional naval nickname for the ship's XO. Executive Meddling canned it, either because of negative test audience reaction (from women!) or because Barrett was Rodenberry's mistress. Or both.
  • Ultraman was very similar to Star Trek: The Original Series 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.)
  • On The Man from U.N.C.L.E., (which started running several years before Star Trek: The Original Series), 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 cringe-worthy 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 razor blades. However, Benny became increasingly uncomfortable with racial humor and began scaling it back. After learning about the extent of the Holocaust, he demanded that all racial humor be eliminated from the show. Rochester remained poorly treated, but this is because Benny's character is an egomaniacal jerk. Many later episodes also show that Rochester and Benny's character are actually best friends.
  • Amos And Andy was immensely popular in its day, but is today viewed with a degree of embarrassment due to its unvarnished indulgences in Minstrel Show tropes and Blackface live performances. However, it was also one of the first shows to portray blacks as successful businessmen. Various characters were shown as lawyers, doctors, shop owners, and the main characters run a cab company. In earlier radio days, Amos & Andy was a 15 minute daily serial program, and great attention was paid to characterization. Audiences were called upon to sympathize with the black characters' goals and feelings. The show included a significant portion of straight drama dealing with their lives, and even dabbled with social commentary during a sequence where Amos is abused by police.
  • One episode of Get Smart featured Max pretending to be a Native American to foil a plot by a Native American splinter group to destroy the US. More than a bit cringe-worthy by today's standards, but the episode's climax has Max admitting 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).
  • Jodie on Soap suffers from a pretty bad case of Have I Mentioned I Am Gay? (and later Suddenly Sexuality when he sleeps with a woman), but was downright groundbreaking at the time, given that he was the first openly gay regular cast member of a prime-time American television show. Not only that, he wasn't a stereotype - in fact, he frequently played the Only Sane Man role. Additionally, later on in the series run, there was a story arc in which Jodie sued for sole custody of his daughter (the result of the aforementioned Suddenly Sexuality situation). Since the mother is a vindictive and unstable woman, Jodie is presented as being the unquestionably better parent and more sympathetic character, and the idea that he would be denied parental rights because of his sexual orientation a gross injustice.
  • 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 1950s gender roles. 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 (albeit in a way that implies that they should be happy to be wives first and students/workers second.)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer containing two women in a loving, committed, long-term relationship was incredibly unusual in television even in the early 2000s. However, today most people only remember how they weren't even allowed to kiss each other for 1.5 seasons, the series' adamant refusal to even use the word "bisexual" (Willow was previously in a relationship with Oz, and was in love with Xander before that), and how Willow went crazy and started killing people the moment Tara was killed.
  • 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.
  • Barney Miller: Among the recurring characters were a local gay couple, Marty and Darryl. While Marty in particular was depicted as a stereotypical Camp Gay, Barney always treated them with dignity and occasionally made a point of calling Wojo out on his homophobia. Uniformed officer Zitelli wasn't camp at all, and was only revealed to be a closeted homosexual after he'd already been a recurring character for some time; later episodes dealt with his fear of the effect being outed would have on his career, and his later coming out himself in support of other gays on the force.
  • 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 progressive, considering the fact that this was Mexico in 1989-1990, a very conservative society with gender roles stricter than those 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.
  • One episode of Kojak revolved around a man who had been kicked out of the police academy due to the discovery he was gay. Despite a few comments that these days would be seen as crass (but were for the time very mild), Kojak doesn't make an issue of his homosexuality and simply treats him as a person (albeit a suspect in his father's death).
  • A lot of "serious" comic fans hate the Batman TV Series of The Sixties because it's an Affectionate Parody, but this article argues that given the Values Dissonance between the executives in charge in The Sixties and now, the mere fact of a show about Superheroes being greenlighted in The Sixties as an Affectionate Parody of the comics written at The Silver Age of Comic Books made perfect sense or even was a bit radical.


  • People who bash Al Jolson for performing in blackface may not realize that he actually helped a lot of real African-Americans 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.
  • David Bowie's "She's Got Medals" (1967, from his first album) is about a Sweet Polly Oliver Butch Lesbian Action Girl taken to, by 1960's standards, outrageous levels. However, after fighting in a war, she "got very tired of picking up girls, cleaning her gun, and shaving her curls...moved to London Town, and now she's settled down."
  • 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'

Newspaper Comics

  • 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, but it's still The Theme Park Version of the possibility of a world where we can live together in peace.


  • An Eye For An Eye was originally instituted to stop Disproportionate Retribution.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Furthermore, "Eye for an Eye" was a law for governing a nation, not for people who should try more on their own account. That is it would be too much for the law to force people to turn the other cheek, but if they individually wished to aspire to it that is different. By comparison if modern Israel tried to use police power to make Jews live like Hasidim it would be a grotesque tyranny, sort of a Jewish Taliban.
      • Or just like St Paul tells Christians not to embarrass the Church by suing each other in a Roman Court but would never have dreamed of telling magistrates not to hear the case if they did not heed his advice.
    • 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.
  • 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 us 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 contrast with the neighboring Spanish kingdoms, where non-Christians were persecuted, forced to convert 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 Torah says such things as "The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the father, every man shall pay for his own sins", "Thou shalt do no unrighteousness in judgment, though shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor", and "You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear thy God: I am the Lord." That's right, apparently in Moses' time it was actually considered necessary to tell people not to trip blind people for the fun of it.
  • Early Christian policies on divorce that essentially amounted to 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 easily "discard" wives they were tired of. 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: no matter how restrictive early Christian policies seem to us today, Roman law was even worse.
  • 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 the universal laws, where disobeying a king (any king) 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 not betrothed to someone else,[2] 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 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 able to support her.)
  • 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 progressive 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 effectively no women at the time with the knowledge or leadership experience to take on leadership roles, and this was actually the apostle Paul's primary concern, NOT gender roles.
  • 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 considered extremely radical. 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 do not become a slave of man.
    • For that matter, The Bible encouraged people to protect escaped slaves. In most societies, in that time and place, hiding or otherwise protecting an escaped slave was a crime, and Moses was looked at oddly when he had the radical notion of giving slaves breaks, adequate water and supplies, and some shelter.
    • Also, the racial overtones of slavery we think of today didn't exist until about the 17th century. Until that time, Africans were sold into slavery by fellow Africans, and Europeans felt compelled to enslave Africans not because of their skin color, but because they felt that they couldn't in good conscience enslave fellow Christians.
    • Equally to the point when "slavery" goes out the window, often a euphemism comes in that is Not So Different from slavery. However if you type the word "oppressed" in an E-Bible it will get a lot of passages about God being "Judge for the oppressed".
      • In I Tim 1:10 one of the sins listed was "kidnappers" or "menstealers" in the KJV which would in the context of the time have meant "slavers". In Eph 5:5 "whoremonger" (pimp) is also mentioned as a sin. If the Bible does not specifically condemn living in a slave economy at least it is not particularly friendly toward occupations that are specifically about slave trafficking.


  • 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 it at all.
  • The King and I: Yes, there are crude stereotypes and comically ignorant, misogynistic Asians speaking pidgin English, who need a white woman to civilize them. But at the same time, it also articulates the King's struggle between tradition and modernity with more insight than would normally be expected in '50s America — contrast it with the Japanese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
    • It was also based on actual biographical writings, albeit likely exaggerated somewhat, by said white woman. Who was hired by the king as part of an attempt on his part to educate his wives and children to make Siam more able to interact with the then-still-dominant British Empire — which must have been successful, since Siam was one of only three East Asian countries to resist colonization.
  • 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 Barabas boiled 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 beating her into submission, played as comedy. 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 to be nothing like what her husband thought.
  • Show Boat 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.

Western Animation

  • Bosko the Talk Ink Kid, the first Looney Tunes star, was an African-American 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.
  • 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.
  • Jonny Quest itself 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 a more racist "Oh My Goodness Me" accent to Hadji 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 progressive compliment, and would've been such for the time period they're from.

Real Life

  • Abraham Lincoln, despite being known for his firm stance against slavery, held views that would be considered very racist today.
  • 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 isn'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 were near saints.
    • Then too, it wasn't a rich landowner who had to have the vote, but only a minimum landowner and Athenians did not have many of the bloated factory farms typical of large empires but were more likely to be Juan Valdez or Little House On the Prairie style yeomanry. Furthermore though the system wouldn't take today there was a certain amount of rationality in that the ones who had the franchise were the ones who had an interest in the state's survival and also(because they owned a shield and armor)the ones who proved themselves willing to sacrifice when needed. Sort of a "buy-in" theory of politics.
    • It also might be well enough to remember that a large number of those who were disenfranchised had direct personal access to someone in power far beyond what a modern would have living in a republic burdened by a Vast Bureaucracy and an immense population. And artistic productions like Lysistrata and The Trojan Women show that Athenians did have human feelings toward their disenfranchised women.
    • Sparta itself was also quite far. 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.
  • The Roman Senate during the Second Punic War heard an appeal from citizens of a captured city and agreed to cashier a tyrannical military governor. In other words, Rome was one of the first states to actually hold its own people accountable for war crimes. Which is pretty fair for any day.
    • The Twelve Tables are a bit creepy in one or two places. But just having a state founded on impersonal law rather then the whims of a tyrant is worth admiring.
  • Cyrus the Great was known for his cultural tolerance. Big deal, he did it for politics? But he was smart enough to know that most people would submit to him if he didn't interfere in their local ways and that terror had diminishing returns and he was even decent enough to prefer that his reign be remembered for generosity rather than successful sadism.
  • It was in Ancient Europe(Greco-Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) that the concept of freedom actually even appeared. In Sumeria the linguistic, and legal counterpart to "slave" was not "free": it was "master".
  • The Middle Ages are remembered as a time of chaos, tyranny, and superstition. There was plenty of that to go around. It was also a time of experimentation and great systems of law, vernacular literature, science, philosophy, and so on had their starting point in the Middle Ages. For instance the balance between Church and State treasured in America was a natural result of the Church being the only bureaucratic organization left after the Fall of Rome in a labyrinth of chiefdoms.
    • Even the Feudal system for all its notorious wars and oppression had its advantages. Not only was there a natural balance between nobles and royalty, but new groups that did not fit into the system could easily do so by making a treaty with a king. Cities regularly were sub-republics of a king (as barons were sub-monarchs),various tribes like Scottish clans could get vassalship in a similar way, and even stigmatized groups like Jews could sometimes fit in, in this manner gaining a recognition in the law that was not equal or even dignified but at least tolerable simply because they had the influence to make treaties with kings. And if nothing else feudalism, at a time when there was little gold and silver to go around, allowed kings to pay their muscle with something besides constant raiding which was an absolute necessity for civilization.
    • The guilds were condemned in later ages for restraining trade and did indeed have that effect later. But in the Middle Ages trade was just developing and they provided an encouragement. As well they gave common people a voice in the system and a sense of identity and their negotiations with nobles produced such institutions as the modern British House of Commons. Also important, is the fact that they were an inspiration for corporations, trade unions, political parties and lobby groups, charity organizations and any other time it is useful to have a legal means for people to act in a unified manner according to internal rules. In one way they even helped the idea that a nation does not belong to it's head of state.
    • Universities became widespread during the Middle Ages and it was fashionable among elites to found them. Not all were clerical schools either and not all clerical schools were solely dedicated to training churchpeople.
    • Despite the silly angels and pins cliche, Scholasticism was a rich exploration of philosophical thought. It required or at least strongly encouraged premises that not all Tropers will accept, but obviously that could be said of every tradition.
    • Technology got high development in the European Middle Ages because of the shortage of labor. Slaves were a moral ambiguity even when the Church did not technically disapprove of slavekeeping (though it pronounced manumission a good deed). Aside from that they could be hard to get as any neighbor was likely to bite back, Eastern Europe the biggest source of slaves was a long way away, and Muslims, who were regularly enslaved by Christians as Christians were enslaved by Muslims, were well guarded and dangerous (as the reverse) to get. Moreover the Black Death cut down the supply of labor and increased its price. Thus substitutes for muscle power were well in the working throughout the Middle Ages such as water and wind power. Optics too was improved with glasswork, a fact that many Tropers can be glad of. Mechanics (like the clock) and Industrialization(like the Venetian naval Arsenal) had their beginnings at this time.
  • The British Common Law was at times a brutal reflection of power like all law. But Law which takes no account of power will simply end up a mockery and in any case perhaps power was less often on the wrong side in British internal quarrels then in many nations. Furthermore it was almost Talmudic in it's complexity. However that in itself reflects it's flexibility and ability to heed the perspectives of differing ranks, ethnicities and occupations from all over the Isles. Furthermore what it did do was shift power slowly away from barons toward the general public and implant roots by generations of case law at the most basic level of ordinary peoples way of life decided by themselves, their fathers, and their father's father's. Or if not that at least giving them some way of an imput that was reasonably satisfactory.
    • Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England though a heavy read in itself has been criticized for summing thing's up to quickly. However while it was not a substitute for a full-dress law library, it was a handy thing for migrants to take into the wilderness to start a new community, or for a Country Squire finding himself a willy-nilly Justice of the Peace.
  • George Washington was the only one of the slave-holding Founders to even 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 and 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 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 loop hole Washington (freed in his will) used was closed by the time Jefferson died.
  • Despite being stereotyped as well, "Puritanical", the laws of the Plymouth colony were advanced for the era including restrictions on the number of lashes that could be sentenced as punishment(to a maximum of thirty-nine by the Torah-reading ruling class of New England) even in a military court. Likewise there were legal protections against domestic abuse and adultery penalties were enforced against both spouses.
    • Virginia did not have such strict legal penalties against wifebeating as New England did. It did at least include that as an offense to put one in peril of vigilantism.
  • 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 revolutionary lenient for its time, as it 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. You are reading that correctly; the Inquisition re-introduced the legal concept of 'presumed innocent until proven guilty' to Western civilization, and is the reason we have it today. (While the concept of placing the burden of proof on the prosecutor and not the defense was invented by the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome had left it in disuse for centuries until the concept was revived by the Church courts.)
    • 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.
    • "Evidence" gained by tortured confessions and forcing victims to name other "witches". Inquisitors of all stripes were paid by the pyre after all.
      • 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.
  • Hammurabi's Code had a good deal of 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.
    • Some of it would fit right in a modern law code:
      • Section 206,"If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, "I did not injure him wittingly," and pay the physicians," is a pretty good paraphrase of "Direct medical expenses arising from a negligent act may be claimed against the wrongdoer."
      • 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 in the breach or non-compliance of contracts.
    • 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.
    • In one case the Code took a vice to such absurd lengths as to make it a virtue. The Code permitted slavery. Therefore there were slaves who had slaves. In a weird sort of way that was an advance as it was acknowledging they had at least one right namely the right to own property and the right to own property like the right to bear arms is a defense of other rights.
    • Law codes in general, were for some time, often in practice (whatever the theory) less decrees from a from on high, and more an attempt to tie up loose ends from the normal custom of the country so that every magistrate in the kingdom has a rough idea how to judge. That is (for instance) if weregild for an injured slave was two thirds of a man in one city and one third in another, Hamurabbi might decide to square the circle and say it is half, allowing travelers between the two cities to know what will happen if they hurt a slave in the other. The Code Justinian is a clear example of that, being based on Roman practice sprawled all over the Mediterranean. Thus in a sense almost any law code however barbaric is Fair for Its Day because it makes sure that anyone in a given civilization can find someone who knows what to expect.
  • 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 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 who person was mentally (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 capable as any other race.
  • The Meiji Era (1868–1912) language and educational reforms of Japan now look like efforts to eradicate dialects and enforce a single, very specific restrictive standard on people, but at the time they were progressive 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 Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, [...] Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution. These explicit references to Christianity are quite exclusionary to the many atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, etc. who now live in Ireland—but at the time (1937) there was a push for it to open In the name of Our Lady of Lourdes..., an explicitly Roman Catholic opening, but they went with a version acceptable to all Christians (except Unitarians).
    • Likewise, before 1973, the Irish Constitution "recognised the special place of the Roman Catholic Church", which appears to view Catholicism specially, however it also mentioned other non-Catholic religions (like Anglicans, Methodists and Jews). Catholic extremists wanted no mention of other religions and wanted an offical 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. RCC is special only due to the amount of members it has. The offical church position was that RCC is special since it is decended from Jesus.
  • Rod Serling, revered today as a visionary on matters of tolerance and social justice, sometimes said things that would be considered homophobic today [dead link].
    • However, the book (by Joel Engel) in which this is mentioned, is known as being somewhat less-than-reliable, and doesn't provide exact sources. Likely, the world will never know.
  • This LIFE Magazine article from April 1938 compares photos of Franklin Roosevelt to photos of Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. It was in response to Roosevelt's infamous Reorganization Bill, which would have dramatically strengthened the Executive Branch and which many Americans and politicians were STRONGLY opposed to. Fast-forward three and a half years, and such an article would be seen as treasonous.
    • For a long time the main thing people noticed about was that they gathered a lot of authority to themselves and carried out imaginative or at least interesting economic policies. That the later three also did atrocious things outside the normal pale of politics and FDR did not however high handed his opponents might have considered him was not noticed as much then as later. Or to put it another way, before December of `1941 all of America really was asleep.
  • The Western Allies following World War II were pretty magnanimous conquerors for any day. This was partly out of genuine idealism (for there is always a mixture of motives), but also a lot of it was enlightened self-interest. They did not want to have to spend generations as a hostile occupying force. Nor did they want to set up a native government that locals would not consider legitimate. Nor did they want to leave behind a grudge. And they surely wanted the benefits of economic recovery. And on down the list. It is not so much that the Occupation was never clumsy or even brutal. There are always people in any army who are inclined to play The Bully when given a chance. And there is always sheer ignorance. But it was better done than many similar examples of the behavior of invaders.
  • Don't Ask Don't Tell: Before this policy was enacted, LGBT people were quite simply not allowed in the U.S. military; Don't Ask Don't Tell was meant to give a chance to LGBT people who wanted to serve. At the time it was passed, its supporters were shooting for a strikedown on the total ban against homosexuals. Given the virulent opposition, a proposal that would allow homosexuals to be in the military as long as they did not disclose their status, as well as protect them from being asked about, looked highly progressive. However, no one foresaw the influx of overzealous military personnel who would go on gay hunts or pounce on any hint that the soldier was gay as an excuse to kick that person out of the military.
  • The exams performed in dynastic China may seem overly restrictive today, what with the fact that one highly difficult test could make or break your prospects. However, these tests were designed to allow people to have civil service jobs based on merit. In an era when most countries gave jobs based on connections, this was considered very progressive.
    • Nepotism never did go away, nor did anyone really want it to except in the case of competing nepotists, of course, and in any event the Emperor was hardly one to complain on that score. The instinct for that is too fundamental to eradicate without a brutal purge everywhere, and China makes a big deal of clannishness, and Confucianism. Moreover the examinations sometimes had a weakness for what might be termed "cultural studies" courses rather than things like law or statecraft and could make better artists then bureaucrats. However at the time the only criteria besides connections was performance which can only be assessed by sink-or-swim methods without a training course. In any case the system did improve China considerably and several other nations emulated it including interestingly The British Empire with it's course for the Imperial Civil Service.
  • 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 sounds incredibly insensitive and backwards today, but back then (when the prevailing view was that All Women Are Lustful, with all the Unfortunate Implications that trope carries) that was incredibly radical.
  • Charles Sumner, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts during the years 1851-1874, was pro-abolitionist, even radically so. However, this has not stopped some present-day observers from accusing him of trivializing black slavery - or perhaps even demonizing the slaves themselves - by comparing it (metaphorically) to prostitution. What these people forget (or might not even know) was that, in a time and place when prostitution was not only legal in many areas but completely unregulated, when it was often the only career open to poor women, and when venereal diseases were true epidemics, being a prostitute was hardly as glamourous as we often like to depict it today (unless, of course, you were a courtesan, and those didn't exist in America), and it really was as degrading as being a slave. For context, here's the actual quotation:
    • "The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. [But] he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him - though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery."
    • Add to that that a great many slaveowners did treat their slaves as their sexual playthings (which is why most, if not virtually all, African-Americans today can be considered as "mixed race" to one degree or another). And Sumner's statement above so enraged Southerners that a South Carolina Congressman stormed into the Senate chamber and attacked Sumner with his cane as the Senator sat at his desk, so badly injuring him that it was years before he was able to resume his duties.
  • 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 (and refusing all retaliation aside from not looking as noble as it would to later generations was hanging a gigantic "kick me sign" in front of neighboring tribes), 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.
    • Similar concept to the Code of Hammurabi.
    • The Weregild is the oldest law still in force in any Common Law country (Which includes America.) It pre-dates the Common Law crime of murder, and they've updated the name; 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.
  • The Anglo Saxon kings were among those taking the first step toward impersonal law when rulers like Alfred the Great made a point to announce that they were claiming the power to avenge travelers who were too far away from their cousins to count on their protection.
    • Anglo-Saxon and subsequent Anglo-Danish society was typically for Northern Europe more egalitarian between men and women then at times after the conquest. Women were valued as sources of wisdom and not just as sex toys, a woman could own property in her own name, and touching a women improperly in a personal place commanded a hefty wergild.
  • The Vikings (Early-medieval Scandinavians more precisely) had a more egalitarian society than most, and wherever they went, what nobles could get away with was limited by law. They also had popular assemblies called Things that correspond to juries and legislatures.
    • Saxons too depended a lot on "moots" which were similar to Things - up to the Wittanagemot (great council of wise men: that is the secular and spiritual aristocracy of a Saxon kingdom who were hopefully "wise" and might even be "great" but were certainly influential), who advised the King and chose his successor. This right retains in modern Parliament, which on notable occasions in the last few centuries has changed monarchs and even dynasties by parliamentary decree.
  • Maryland's Act of Toleration in 1649 guaranteed religious freedom - as long as you were a Christian.
  • For a long time, homosexuality was on the books as a mental disorder and it wasn't taken off the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1970s. Until then, it was not only considered acceptable, but standard procedure to Cure Your Gays, and often in horrifying ways. However, before it was listed as a mental disorder, homosexuality was mainly considered to be sinful and homosexuals were demonized. The idea that homosexuals were not at fault for the way they were and were curably ill was considered a Hope Spot for many homosexuals under stress as well as their families, in addition to being more compassionate than demonization.
  • In Medieval and Renaissance Poland, a Jew could become a Szlachta (knight). He had to renounce all trades but agriculture and war, but the same was required of Christian Szlachti.
  • Medieval Venice had a Republican system with elaborate checks and balances to prevent anyone from taking to much power. It was renowned for its stability in a vendetta-prone era and had the nickname La Serenesima (Most Serene).
  • Like other Medieval commune-states (which has nothing to do with Communists but simply means a constitution was made by a community to govern itself), Switzerland prefigured modern democracy. It is notable both in that it had rural sections as well as civic, and that it covered a large enough territory to be called a real nation state instead of a clan or city.
  • Tokagawa Japan had a very curious Zig-zag. If the peasants got impatient with rents they could organize a mass protest. The leader of the protest was usually crucified for talking back to his betters but the peasants were allowed to make a shrine for him. In the meantime the collector was usually sacked, partly because the Samurai might conceivably feel some sympathy for the peasants but at the least would despise them less then rent collectors, partly because a collector who took too much was likely stealing a cut, and partly because if too much was taken this year there would be no rents but lots of angry peasants next year. In any case Japan at the time had a ritualized (if deadly) way for the lowest classes to protest grievance.
  • The Congress of Vienna was marked by cynical carving up of nations. On the other hand with all the tangles of borders and spare princes and political activists and newspaper pressure groups in the background-and yes that species did exist then a bit of cold bloodedness was needed and in any case the important thing was to get the whole stinking war over. More important this was one of the first times real consideration of human rights figured in. Lifting persecution from the Jews was on the many items: as the Rothschilds had an encouragement which was stereotypical but true in their case, that was not necessarily praiseworthy. Equally important the abolitionist lobby was on the scene and they advocated for people who no one profited by helping. In general the Congress could be a shinning example of being fair for it's day for it wasn't perfect and has been criticized but aspects of it were worthy.
  • The US Army was long ahead of the rest of the country in race relations. A large part of this is simply Combat Pragmatism. Bullets do not discriminate: an enemy bullet will not ask the skin color of whom they are intended for, nor will a friendly one ask the skin of who pulled the trigger. This goes back to the American Revolution. While Southerners, being more dependent on slave labor were reluctant, farther north a black regiment was raised with a leaping stag logo. Later, though kept separate from white units, black units often served in various wars usually in segregated units until Truman signed off on desegregation based on studies that said that would be better for performance.
  • For similar reasons of pragmatism, the western railroads advanced the interests of Asian-Americans. This history, like the Army's, is ambiguous. Some of them were indeed effectively slaves being shanghaied, or sold from captives in vendettas on the Asian mainland. But others were not. And the railroad authorities appreciated them because they worked well and took low pay. It was hardly humanitarian but it ended up with the result of raising the prestige and wealth of Asian immigrants.
  1. It's probably worth noting that the book was loosely based on the experiences of its author during the Korean War, and "Spearchucker" Jones was modeled on a real person, a black surgeon assigned to one of the field hospitals.
  2. 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.