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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Political Correctness vs. Accuracy

From Wikipedia, here's the definition of Political Correctness-- Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, disability, and age-related contexts.

See the guy in the photo. That's the Marlboro Man. He was created the year after I was born. I grew up seeing him on tv ads and on billboards He, along with Joe Camel, the Lucky Strike guy, and a whole host of others were part of popular culture during my day.

I mention this because I was sitting here writing. The scene was my hero, agitated, staring toward the horizon, alone with his troubled thoughts. I was trying to think of ways to "show" his agitation when it suddenly dawned on me that just a few short years ago, I might have had him make a smoke, strike a Lucifer on his bootheel or thumbnail, then grind the hot match head into the dirt. But not anymore. Why? Because these days it's not politically correct for a hero to smoke. I'm not even sure why it popped into my head. It just did. Which got me to thinking about all the things we don't write about anymore because they're not socially acceptable. Well, it's my opinion that we've become so attuned to political correctness, we've lost something in the process, which is historical accuracy and the authentic flavor of times past.

But back to the smoking guy in the white hat. The Marlboro man usually did wear a white hat. Because he was the good guy. These days, the villains are usually the only persons who smoke. Because smoking is bad so it must be cast in a villainous light. Is this accurate? No, of course not. But think about the smoking man in the X-Files who left his trademark butts lying everywhere. That guy was the very definition of villain. The message is clear, but it's not historically accurate.

The fact is, the American cowboy of the Old West had about a 50% or better chance of being a smoker. Most all cowboys carried "the makin's" (a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers) in their pockets. Not only did they smoke tobacco, they chewed it in mass quantities. Why else did they have all those brass spittoons in every saloon.

Please do not think I am for one second advocating smoking. I'm not. I'm just trying to make a point about how all this political correctness has affected us as writers. And, frankly, I don't get it. We can write about murder, torture, vampirism, pagan gods and demonic heroes, etc. etc. and yet we don't dare have a guy light up when he's stressed. Does that make any sense at all?

Other than the slavery issues in Civil War romances, what other things can you think of that have become taboo subjects in our romance novels. As fiction writers, do you think we should always tailor our stories to conform to political correctness?



  1. Interesting post. I hadn't really thought about it before, but I can certainly see how "political correctness" could become an issue for historical writers. The basic language that's used in different periods of history might be considered offensive to some these days. And you're right... many times in today's books, the villain is the only one who smokes a cigarette.

    Something to think about!

  2. Honestly, if smoking fits your cowboy hero, then he should smoke. As a reader of historical romance, I would expect him to.

    In one of my stories, set at the end of the 1700s, beginning of the 1800s, my hero is a tobacco plantation owner and he carries a tinder box and smokes his pipe quite often. It made sense to me that if he grew it, he would smoke it. There was a different view of tobacco in that time period.

    In one of my contemporaries I did have my heroine smoke at the beginning of the story- but I felt that for her character, it was a necessary evil for her to overcome as part of her character growth.

    I can't think of anything taboo off the top of my head... but I'm sure I have a tendency to censor myself without thinking about it more often than I realize. The thing is, my characters come to me, flaws and all though...they're no more perfect than I am and I don't want to change who they are. I guess for me I figure it this way- I'm cursed to conformity in my own life- why would I put my characters through that anymore than I have to?

  3. Bah, Devon, I write historicals too, and I never let PC stuff get in the way. We're not revisionists; people did smoke, swear, use derogatory language (which I DO avoid). Actually, my characters get away with things that we wouldn't even consider today. That's part of writing a historical.

    Don't let PC/not PC stifle your voice.



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