When we think of the old pulp covers, what often comes to mind are scantily clad, helpless women waiting to be rescued by a weapon-toting male. While the pulps did, indeed, have their fair share of this sort of artwork, some scholars of the pulps argue that pulp stories often did have strong female characters – sometimes more than one. They even cite cover art that reverses the expected stereotype – in other words, women rescuing men from evil monsters!
While the Damsel in Distress stereotype did exist, there appears to have been some effort to showcase women as strong characters in pulp stories. This can be seen as part of the changing social perceptions of the times: in 1920, women finally won the right to vote, and the Flapper Age of the 20s and Hollywood scandal magazines all demonstrated that women’s roles were changing.
But, perhaps the most disturbing stereotype of the pulps – both in its artwork and story lines – was the negative depiction of Asians and Blacks. Racial notions about these groups had been around for years, and white culture saw no reason to change them if they helped advance their various plot lines.
A quick glance at the covers in the CSUEB Pulp Collection, for example, shows a frequent use of the Fu Manchu – or “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. As with blacks still struggling with institutional racism in America at this time, Asians found it difficult to complain about this stereotyping when they were more immediately concerned in dealing with the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other political measures that defined them as unequal in the American system.
Between the First and Second World Wars (the heyday of the pulps), mainstream American society’s perception of Asians and Asian cultures was limited and ambivalent: On the one hand, there had been a popular craze for things Japanese early in the 1920s (think the popular tune from the 1920s, “Japanese Sandman”); on the other hand, no one bothered to question the notion of a “Yellow Peril” – threatening hordes of Asians (Chinese or Japanese, it didn’t seem to matter), that had been promoted since at least the 1890s in popular newspapers and literature, that might somehow threaten our way of life. (In 1910, even Jack London had written a fictional story about a future scenario – in the 1970s and 80s – when an expanding China would threaten its neighbors with colonization and conquest – the Western nations responding with biological warfare!)
Thus the pulps, like so many other forms of media between the wars, unwittingly reinforced a negative view of the peoples and cultures that Americans of the time found it inconvenient to understand. This, in turn, helped pave the way for the objectification of its own citizens on racial grounds when 110,000 Japanese-Americans were summarily sent to “Evacuation Centers” in early 1942, after the outbreak of World War II.