Before the vast acceptance and understanding of homosexuality in today’s America, when words like heathenism and degeneracy were used with less hesitation, a bizarre genre of pocket-sized literature surfaced to mid-twentieth century subculture. Titled because of their grainy, cheaply produced paper, pulp novels gave the repressed lesbian community both a source of common ground and the comforts that come with shared experience.
More significant than their content is the time period in which these novels gained momentum and popularity. During World War II, a sudden uprising of female work forces penetrated a number of blue collar industries, including the United States military. Women began to move from the comforts and boredoms of the “lonely midwestern housewife” archetype into sprawls of Greenwich Village, and San Francisco, and other niches defined by their un-defineability and relative chaos. The first lesbian bars and lesbian authors writing about lesbian characters established themselves with viability and force. But none of these transitions happened in a time of cultural acceptance. These transitions occurred in a time period heavily dictated by McCarthyism and blacklists, and consequentially, in early/mid-fifties, following the war, women became excessively encouraged to return to their nice safe families in the nice safe suburbs. Police went as far as targeting lesbians as a sexually perverse group and made arrests in direct accordance with laws preventing the freedom of homosexuality. Even the spheres of science and medicine didn’t justify homosexuality. In the 1950’s, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness, with provable psychiatric remedies and interventions.
And here we are left with stories. Stories with titles and cover artwork that seems so outrageously dated and ridiculous, that I couldn’t help but see the humor in what time has done to this genre. Something about the words paired with the imagery reminded me of the absurd 50’s pulp literature telling the story of poor women who are sucked into the deadly thrills and horrifying outcomes of marijuana addiction, or the corny science fiction stories of UFOs and places far away. But isn’t it great that we can see these pulp novels for their absurdity into today’s context? Aside from the solace lesbian communities sought in these paperbacks, I think it’s comforting to note the silly-ness of the imagery and equally telling as to how far we’ve progressed in terms of societal acceptance.
The exhibition is located in the upstairs founders gallery.