Tales of Gor (Postmortem Studios, 2017) is the licensed tabletop role-playing game adaptation of John Norman’s notorious Gor series of sword-and-sorcery novels, written by James “Grim” Desborough and illustrated by Michael Manning. Gor is notorious for heavy themes of slavery, sadomasochism, male dominance and female submission, and for long philosophical digressions justifying those themes. Since 1966, there have been more than 30 novels published in the series. The series has inspired a strong cult following, including a small branch of BDSM culture devoted to Gorean style slavery, both in real life and online in Second Life.
There were two films titled Venus in Furs released in 1969. This is the one also known as Paroxismus, directed by Jesus (aka Jess) Franco, and starring James Darren, Barbara McNair and Maria Rohm. It has little to do with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus im Pelz (aka Venus in Furs). (The other 1969 Venus was directed by Massimo Dallamano.)
The Mask of Fu Manchu is a 1932 adventure thriller.
Many other people have written about the racial and gender politics of this film. Suffice it to say, they’re awful. This was at the peak of “yellow peril” racism in America, portraying a world on the brink of a cataclysmic war between West and East. Asians are portrayed as both vicious and weak, needing a leader like the Western-educated Fu Manchu to lead them.
This was also before the Hays code was put into effect in 1934, and it displays a degree of sex and violence that is still surprising today.
The two villains are both portrayed by white people in yellowface: Boris Karloff as Doctor Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his daughter Fa Lo See (“fallacy”?). Before Loy was the ideal American wife Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies, she played “exotic” or “ethnic” women in brown, yellow or black face.
Postmortem Studios is working on a tabletop roleplaying game based on the Gor series of fantasy novels by John Norman (a.k.a. philosophy professor John Lange). Published since the 1960s, Gor is a modern version of the Orientalist fantasies of savage lands and slave markets and so on. You can read about their ongoing project on their blog. Gor has a long history of being recreated in Second Life and other online roleplaying environments, so it’s not surprising that someone would try to adapt it to the tabletop, dice-and-paper form of roleplaying.
I learned about this from following the Facebook page of Michael Manning, my favourite (living) fetish/BDSM artist. He’s illustrating the entire book. Manning is primarily known as a fetish/BDSM artist, and it makes sense that he would be tapped for this project. Apart from the standard ferocious monsters, sword-wielding warriors, decadent cities and savage fighting, the books are rife with BDSM imagery. So much so, that there is a fringe subset of the BDSM culture based on the books, Goreans, who borrow the iconography and terminology of the books, such as slave positions and so on. Some of these terms have seeped out into the broader BDSM world.
Gor is notorious for its strong emphasis not only on the world’s apparently universal chattel slavery, but the male-dominant/female-submissive philosophy that justifies it, endlessly reiterated in the books. That’s what made me pause when I thought about Manning illustrating the book. Manning’s work, starting with the graphic novel The Spider Garden, has a strong bi/queer flair, running all over the map of sexuality from conventional, heteronormative pinups to “sacred androgynes”, cross-dressed men, and other, stranger types of sexuality. This also comes in a time when video games and related media like tabletop RPGs are under a lot of flak for #GamerGate. The games designer, James Desborough, reportedly has connections to #GamerGate and some other controversies. It got me wondering: how will Gor be adapted into this medium?
If I’ve been posting less, it’s that I want to devote more energy to finally getting at least a first draft of this book finished.
It’s a week later than I hoped, but I finished a draft of Chapter 4, on Orientalism, weighing in at a little over 7,000 words. It covers the centuries-long influence of Europeans being held prisoner in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, and the lasting influence on pornography and sexual fantasy. I also touch on American captivity narratives, which are largely about white settlers abducted by Native Americans.
There are a few points I would like to cover, like Burton’s quasi-translation of the Kama Sutra and the vogue for exotic sexuality among certain Orientalist elites, but that may have to go in a later chapter. One of the things I’ve realized in this process is that I can’t include everything I’ve researched. I have to pick and choose, both for length and to keep the narrative pacing going. Just accumulating information and references will bore the reader.
Next is Chapter 5, “The Peculiar Institution.” This should be relatively easy, as I already wrote an earlier draft that covered Atlantic slavery but proved to be too long. I particularly went overboard describing the Munby-Cullwick relationship. Chop that down to 6-8,000 words and that should be good, at least for a first draft. The goal is to get it done by the end of June.
Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976), Directed by Don Edmonds, Written by Langston Stafford IMDB
Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 Amazon
What you might call “Mediterranean slavery”, of Christian Europeans captured through piracy or raids and enslaved in North Africa or the Near East, coexisted with Atlantic slavery, roughly paralleling the dates. While the numbers about Atlantic slavery are pretty solid, the numbers on Mediterranean slavery are far less so, and Davis is forced to piece together rough estimates from a variety of different sources.
Trying to pin down numbers of Barbary slavery is beyond the scope of this blog, and I don’t want to get into any kind of “oppression Olympics” about different slave economies. (Discussions of white slavery tend to bring out people with an axe to grind. One discussion of Barbary coast slavery on Fetlife included a post with a link to a white pride site. This included lengthy incoherent rants about the place of white people in history. One passage included an array of pictures of tribal people with facial tattoos or body modifications, followed by another array of white people with facial tattoos or piercings. The caption said that these white people took no pride in their heritage and were trying to imitate other races.)
Clissold, Stephen. The Barbary Slaves. Elek Books, 1977 Gbooks
Up until now, I had focused most of my attention on Atlantic slavery as an source for BDSM fantasies, but there are other influences that go back centuries. The older some historical event is, the more it has decayed into myth. It underlies more recent events. Abolitionists used Orientalist and Gothic ideas to talk about American slavery and in doing so harkened back centuries to Barbary Coast slavery, when Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East. It was a roughly two-century period marked by Christian Europe’s relative rise as a world power and Muslim Northern Africa’s relative decline.
iHarem is a blog with a vast collection of images and especially video clips of harem/slave girl/odalisque Orientalist fantasies, some going back to the early Silent Film era. Apparently, as long as there has been moving images, they have been used to deliver Orientalist fantasies of beautiful, available women, often in quantity.
While trying to learn more about the Orientalist slave paintings I’ve been posting on Tumblr and Pinterest, I found there are a lot of these kinds of paintings. There’s the slave market set on Flickr, the entire Orientalism tag at Onok-Art, and a collection of slave market paintings on Tanos.org.uk.