Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I spent a rich afternoon yesterday reviewing Xavier Aldana Reyes’s excellent volume Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014). As happens, despite the 2,000 words I wrote, I’m not done yet; there’s still a matter to address: the limits of my own tolerance to the shocking primary sources analyzed in the book.

I completely agree with the main theses in the book: a) Gothic Studies scholars unfairly forget that this genre is as psychological as it is somatic and corporeal; b) all gothic is body gothic since it aims at eliciting bodily responses; c) current body gothic (he dates it back to 1984) manifests a “sustained questioning of the role of embodiment” (18); d) we consume body gothic as the best strategy to contain our fears about the vulnerability of our bodies. Xavier argues all this by examining 1980s splatterpunk, body horror, new avant-pulp, the slaughterhouse novel and torture porn, using a wide range of authors and texts: from Clive Barker’s short fiction (his Books of Blood) to Eli Roth’s Hostel film franchise, passing through pulp author Richard Laymon and Tom Six’ film trilogy on The Human Centipede.

When I wrote my own dissertation on the monster, almost 20 years ago, I also used the argument that the task of the academic must not be hindered by a censorious, prejudiced attitude and that extreme horror, in all its varieties, must be included in Gothic Studies. Like Xavier, I made a point of stressing that critical judgement does not apply and that ‘trash’ is not a relevant concept (fancy an anthropologist refusing to examine cannibalism). I must face, nonetheless, the vexing question of how far contemporary ‘shock’ cinema (no longer ‘horror’ cinema) will go in the representation of the total gross-out thanks, of course, to development of film special effects, both digital and prosthetic-based. Blood used to be a silly tomato-red in the old Hammer films, which is why it is laughable today (not so for contemporary audiences). I am squeamish and prone to nightmares but have managed to enjoy dozens of horror films… in the safety of my home. Yet, Hostel (2005) marked a limit and I abandoned mid-way the bizarre Saw saga (2003-10). Actually, after seeing them I gave up gothic for science fiction. Now let me explain why.

Current body gothic, as Xavier argues, addresses our fears regarding the vulnerability of our bodies by paradoxically subjecting us to the vicarious experience of seeing other fragile bodies destroyed in the cruellest ways. Yes, fine. Actually, I am comforted by his idea that there is a logic behind the appalling sadism of the films. They are rightly called ‘torture porn’: porn goes straight to sex, these films use plot as an flimsy excuse for torture. Now, torture as seen, for instance, in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film on the hunting of Osama Bin Laden, is ugly and inhumane but somehow bearable as part of a larger plot. In 1980s body horror the camera learned not to look away but in 2000s torture porn it has learned to grip the spectator by the scruff of our neck and force us to look. And I cannot do that anymore: the realistic detail has become ultra-realistic and, thus, unbearable (I imagined Xavier taking notes with all due academic care and I wondered how he did it…).

It’s ironic that I am now, at 48, invoking the same arguments that I myself had to put up with 20 years ago. Gothic horror is a misogynistic, homophobic genre but I answered back that I found in it strong women characters capable of fighting back. Still, I found myself criticizing Xavier for not passing judgement on these films’ dubious gender politics. What is, arguably, making them worse is the general disempowerment of all victims, men and women. Unlike the old-fashioned kind, these stories offer no comfort, preaching that the world is a terrifying place in which random violence just happens. Instead of helping audiences face this inescapable truth today’s body gothic is, rather, gloating over it.

It’s also harder than ever not to stoop down to consider the sick imagination of some gothic ‘artists’. Yes, yes, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin or Matthew Lewis were also criticized and they are classics today. Yet, Xavier’s comments on the trilogy by Dutch director and screenwriter Tom Six, The Human Centipede (2009, 2011; the third instalment is in production) gave me the kind of shiver one feels in the presence of the profoundly disturbed (I mean Six…). Xavier sticks to his impeccable academic prose even in a plot summary that gave me tachycardia: a mad German surgeon kidnaps young tourists whom he mutilates in order to stitch their mouths and rectums to each other, thus creating the centipede of the title. Gasp, and deep sigh.

Thankfully, the sane IMDB spectators rate Dix’ film only 4’5 out of 10. Annoyed reviewers abound: one reports the film as ‘100% medically inaccurate’, another simply wonders ‘Why?’. The man who titles his review ‘After watching it I wanted to kill myself’, remarks that (original capitalised text): “People will say it’s an original idea, but OF COURSE IT IS. It’s never been done before because NO ONE HAS THOUGHT OF SOMETHING AS SICK AS THIS YET.” The late Roger Ebert’s magnificent review offers, exceptionally, no rating: “Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

After calling Dix a “dark artist” for taking his films seriously, Ebert grants that the film is “true to its genre” and “delivers what its audiences presumably expect”. These audiences are the most demanding midnight movie fans and I am quite familiar with them, having attended the Sitges horror film festival a few times: they’re mostly nice, harmless people, out with friends for a night of fun. Often, they receive gross films like The Human Centipede with hilarity, both at the expense of the whacky content and at the screenwriter’s devious mind. Still the question remains: ‘why?’, accompanied by my very deep dread of men thinking of ghastly plots like this and enjoying them alone at home.

All in all, then, I can only praise Xavier’s Body Gothic for his very, very brave approach to texts that for many people, including quite a big number in Gothic Studies, are intolerable. His theses are very useful to illuminate what the extreme texts of contemporary horror, in particular film, mean, for they do mean much of interest and relevance in our contemporary view of the body. I hope I find in his forthcoming volume on affect and the corporeal model of viewership answers to the questions I raise here, though I realise that only a titanic, perhaps collective effort, can succeed in finding an answer to the main question –‘why?’

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

At the end of my intervention narrating the experience of teaching Harry Potter on a round table (see my previous post) a woman asked me whether I’m not depressed by the thought that students are willing to read Rowling’s seven-volume saga but not (implicitly) better books. Marta Gutiérrez, one of the round table organizers, asked me to what extent the experience of teaching popular fiction is different (or specific). A third person asked me: what should university teachers do to motivate students to read the classics with as much enthusiasm as they pour into reading certain popular fiction?

First my answer to Marta: what made the difference in my Harry Potter course was not the content but the fact that all the students registered in it had read the books (in many cases, more than once; in some, many times). I am, like all my Literature colleagues all over the world, tired of forcing LITERATURE students to read… Literature. I don’t even demand enthusiasm but simply that students who have FREELY CHOSEN to take a degree in language and Literature come to class having read the books we discuss (ideally having underlined key passages and made notes). The Harry Potter elective was wonderful to teach because a) I didn’t have to ‘sell’ the books to anyone nor ‘force’ them to read, b) everyone knew the contents in depth. This way I could take discussion to much deeper levels than usual. How do I know who has read the book or not? Easy: non-readers make notes of basic plot points, particularly those towards the end of the novel. Yes, we teach novels in rigorous narrative order to give students a chance to reach the end before we do. Spoilers are a problem.

The other two answers are intertwined. No, I’m not depressed that students have read Harry Potter, as I see it’s been a beautiful experience (also for me) and I can never be sorry that people enjoy books. I don’t want them to have read something else instead, particularly because I’m very much aware than Rowling did manage to turn many children into very keen readers. I am, to be honest, dismayed rather than depressed by the situation in class. I have been wondering in the last weeks when I became the kind of boring old teacher during whose lectures students fall asleep, check their email or wassap, sit slumped as if they have run a marathon… I have started to hear myself speak and I realise I drone on, loudly, to cover up their silences. We teachers have started to refer to ‘the cobra movement,’ which is that moment in class when you say something connected to what students enjoy and they raise their heads collectively. Also, I have taken to calling myself a dinosaur and to imagine my university as a campus Jurassic Park, as I’m quite sure about my obsolescence as a Literature teacher in a world of non-readers.

I told the three ladies and the 120 students in the room that I do not think my job includes motivating students. These are adults over 18 who have chosen to pursue an academic degree in the Humanities. Their capacity to read well and for long stretches all kinds of academic and literary texts must be taken for granted, as must their interest in a subject of their choice. We, English Literature teachers, have had enough of students who tell us to our faces they don’t like reading and that they’re here to learn English –well, I was under the impression that reading is the best possible exercise to acquire vocabulary in a native or foreign language. And if you don’t like reading Literature fancy reading English phonetics manuals… As I explained, I am responsible for finding my motivation to teach and I will not be made responsible for the students’ motivation to read. I make sensible choices (like asking them to read Oliver Twist and not the very long Bleak House) and try to connect the Literature of the foreign past with our local present, but this is it. Well, I also try to be as professional as I can. They know this.

Next year I very much want to teach an elective monographic course on science fiction. I have chosen a list of novels and films with some students and I’m beginning work now on downsizing this overlong list to fit the limits of the semester. I find the syllabus very thrilling but I am as worried as if I were to teach Middle-English poetry for there is no guarantee at all that students will a) read the texts, b) like them, c) be willing to discuss them in class with energy and enthusiasm. I do look forward to teaching this course but, as I anticipated last semester, I know that the degree of student involvement I enjoyed during the Harry Potter course will NEVER materialise again. And I won’t complain, as I am VERY lucky that I had the chance to enjoy that.

I have conversations all the time with students about the matters I raise here but, as they tell me, the problem is that I usually talk with students who are keen readers (they are the ones who, logically, take coffee with Literature teachers…). For the non-reading students I must be a bore, a pest, an obstacle they want to forget as soon as they can. When I think of the nightmarish years I spent trying to obtain tenure and the constant effort that maintaining an academic career afloat entails… then I get depressed. Would things change, I’m often asked, if we taught English-language culture through audiovisual texts exclusively (films, TV)? No, I don’t think so. It’s something else altogether, a deep fault in the system.

So, students, you should know that we Literature teachers are worried sick there is no way we can do our job well. We need your collaboration, your participation, more effort and more enthusiasm on your side. You’re the young ones, not us, and this must show. I hate to think that my Harry Potter course will be the exception to remember not now, after 23 years teaching, but when I retire in 22 years… I know it might be hard to swallow but we need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to learn from us, willing as we are to teach you. And, no, your motivation is not our responsibility. We have the duty to teach you, you have the duty to read, as simple as that.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have just spent two joyful days in Valladolid, where I have offered a lecture and have also taken part on a round table. Both were activities within the course ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ organized by the efficient and committed Sara Molpeceres (a member of the ‘Literary Theory and Comparative Literature’ section of the local university). I have felt throughout these two days a deep envy of the 75 students registered in her course, for in my time it would have been unthinkable to gather together so many lecturers to discuss comics, Tolkien, science-fiction, role games, zombies, witches… with the utmost academic naturalness.

What is happening, despite petty attempts at repressing some aspects of these kind of events (for the events themselves can no longer be stopped) is that the younger academics are making available to current undergrads the subjects we could not study in our time (but are teaching and researching now). I hope these lucky undergrads in Valladolid do appreciate the effort. Naturally, there might be other subjects many students are interested in which are still overlooked or, worse, excluded from the university. If that’s the case, do let us know –unlike many of our predecessors, we do listen.

To my surprise, I find myself hailed as a Spanish pioneer in the field of the study of popular fictions. It is true that I already have twenty years of experience under my belt (I presented my first paper in public back in 1994… oh, my!!) but I feel personally that I’m just beginning and far from being consolidated. It is lovely, in any case, to have my ego massaged by invitations like the one issued to me by Sara and our common friend and colleague, Marta Gutiérrez (of the English Department).

Sara and Marta accepted my proposal to lecture on SF and the post-human as part of my current research, and asked me to discuss my experience of teaching Harry Potter last semester –on which you have read plenty on this blog– on a round table. I spent a very happy time describing this innovative, fulfilling experience and sharing it with about 120 persons crowding the room (the questions I was asked deserve deeper thinking that I can offer now, next post, then). The lecture on SF went well, I think, and I left Valladolid happier than I have been in a long while.

The lesson learned from the very successful Valladolid course is that there is room for thrilling activities to accompany regular teaching but also that they are under attack. Not because of their content, which may be more or less adventurous, but because the degrees have been pruned of all extras. I used to teach a UAB summer course on film adaptations, which always was a very satisfactory experience, before the concept of the ‘free credit’ was erased from the new BA degrees. It is true that the ‘free credit’ was often too easy to earn with trivial activities but this can be easily corrected.

Sara and Marta tell me that their university allows students to take courses like theirs up to 6 ECTS, which are then validated as an elective. I think this makes perfect sense but I need to check whether my university allows this. We complain that the university is lacking the intellectual effervescence of previous times but then we seem to be doing all we can to prevent that from coming back… I hear that the new degrees will have as few elective courses as the authorities can manage and I fear very much that the precious chance to teach a fourth-year elective connected with our research and the students’ specific interests might soon vanish all together. Not to mention any possible extras we can fantasize about.

The other lesson I need to consider is whether specialised courses can contribute to making other subjects attractive –or just the opposite. Let me explain. My worry is that the success of ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ and similar courses based on connecting popular fictions with better-established academic disciplines (here the study of ‘myth’), may make ‘standard’ subjects (even) less attractive. The course included a lecture by the illustrious Carlos García Gual, emeritus professor of Greek at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. His presence added indeed much academic ‘respectability’ and interest to the course topic but I wonder whether students would have responded that well to a course on Greek myth. He himself told us over lunch a revealing anecdote: a student in his course complained against the obligation to read the Ilyad, which is like telling Prof. Harold Bloom you’re not willing to read Shakespeare…

I’m wondering, then, whether after the excitement provoked by a course like the one I’m discussing here the students feel an increased dislike of the classics they must read. One thing is, say, Tolkien and myth, quite another just myth. Couldn’t we offer, then, a more exciting view of the classics? The colleagues in charge of presenting a great session on role games within the course claimed that all narratives can be turned into role games and, thus, that role games are very good educational tools. I had this queer vision of my students playing Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice, and I thought ‘no, this is not the way to go.’ But then it is hard to imagine a class as enthusiastic about Dickens and Austen as the Valladolid students were about role games.

Sara, Marta: thanks, it’s been a wonderful experience. Call me anytime, I’ll be there. And keep up the good work!!

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This week I have watched the US series True Detective (9 episodes, 2014) and have read book 19 in Ian Rankin’s series about Edinburgh cop John Rebus, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012). Blame a nasty cold for my sluggish mind but at points the missing girls in Nic Pizzolato’s screenplay would get mixed with their peers in Rankin’s novel, the remote corners of the Louisiana bayou with the lonely tracks in the Scottish Highlands. Both set of girls were blurry, undistinguishable, mere appendages to the madness of the sick male that killed them (off screen) and of the obsessive males who hunted him. The cases were solved by flimsy, far-fetched coincidences. Nobody really cared nor mattered.

The first paper I ever presented in public, back in 1994, was a positive reading of FBI trainee agent Clarice Starling in Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs (much less conservative in this sense than Jonathan Demme’s film, despite the subsequent horrors to which Harris subjected Clarice). I remember a senior female academic asking me whether I did not feel disgusted with this obvious misogynistic trash, in which women were always victimised. Young that I was then, I was puzzled by her remark: not at all, I answered, Harris offers a strong female character who is a good role model to empower other young women in the fight against male violence. I still stand by that. Now, what makes Clarice so unique is that, unlike the men surrounding her, she learns who each individual female victim is and this way she eventually tracks their troubled male killer. I think this is what irked this woman and what irks me now: not so much the femaleness of the victims but their dehumanisation, intensified in current fiction.

I knew I would not like True Detective already by minute ten. Where are, I complained, the police women? Has none heard of Clarice and her many descendants? The series turned out to be, indeed, a bare-faced male ego trip. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were simply marvellous, giving total credibility to bickering partners Rust and Marty. Yet, somehow the pretentious Pizzolato convinced himself that the more Rust spoke, the deeper the series would be when actually all his pseudo-mystical, depressive chatter only deflected from what should have mattered: the victims. Me, me, me both true detectives proclaim to the world: I’m so unhappy, I’m so lonely, life is dark (but light’s winning??). Promising to unmask a confederacy of villains, they unmask in the end … a cliché, seen one hundred times (for the hillbilly’s point of view see the very funny comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil). Two things have been stuck in my dizzy brain for the last few days: Rust’s Texan drawl preaching to me endlessly and the beautiful opening credits (with the song ‘Far From Any Road’ by Handsome Family). Oh, well: 9,3 according to IMDB audiences. Really?

I read Standing in Another Man’s Grave a little edgy, as I wrote a while ago an article on the whole Rebus saga. Once Rankin published Exit Music (2007), supposedly to be the closing volume, I embarked on an article about the strange bond between his detective and the gangster Cafferty: “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus,” published in Clues: A Journal of Detection in 2011 (see I wrote with much caution, as I very much suspected Rankin would go on and follow Rebus beyond retirement, as he has done. Luckily for my argumentation, Rebus and Cafferty are still ‘best fiends’ since they cannot be ‘best friends’ (a bit like Rust and Marty). Rankin has a great subplot about Cafferty’s misleading attempt to become the overlord of a young upstart, who actually becomes the next big thing in Edinburgh’s gangsterhood. Yet, Rankin needs a case… so here we go: serial killer it is.

Rebus has been accompanied in the series since 1993 (The Black Book) by Siobhan Clarke, a very solid female character who is crying out for her own series. In Standing… she has made it to Detective Inspector; she is now aspiring boss. Keen on the last criminal advances, she suggests that a profiler be brought into the case of the missing girls but her (tepid) attempt to sound properly up-to-date is dismissed. Obviously… for just as happens in True Detective not only the victims lack interest for the writer but also the killer. Perhaps aware that the figure, borrowed from American fiction, fits awkwardly the Scottish landscape, Rankin tries even less firmly than Pizzolato to convince us that his male wacko has a solid reason to kill. He is just there in both cases as the excuse for the cranky hero to succeed in the face of unadventurous authority. Siobhan simply looks on, letting Rebus proceed. In Marty and Rust’s case there is no female peer about (just a disappointed wife).

Let me recommend at this point Isabel Santaulària’s excellent study of the serial killer, El monstruo humano ( My problem with this figure is not that it exists at all, even though clearly the fictional representations must multiply by now thousandfold the real thing. My problem is that he is used too often in a lazy way. Perhaps Se7en (1995) went too far to make any other serial killer interesting. Yet the problem with the ones these three true detectives have faced for me this week on each side of the Atlantic is that, I insist, they’re clichés (and blurry ones at best).

My colleague Bill Philips from UB, who leads a research team on the post-colonial detective novel, explained to me recently that readers no longer seek the thrill of the well-made detection story: they value detective fiction as social fiction. Fair enough – after all, I read Rankin for what he says about the dark side of Scotland. Yet, possibly as series as diverse as Bones or Sherlock show, detective fiction is and has always been about the main character. Both Pizzolato and Rankin (I don’t know about the female authors) are suggesting that it would be altogether nice to do away with victim and killers, let the detective be our own nihilistic, existential hero. This as odd as doing away with love in romance…

The matter with genre in fiction is that labels make promises: if its romance, it has love; if it is detective fiction, it has a case. I’m not against mixtures (SF and ‘noir’ blend beautifully in Blade Runner) nor against eccentric detectives. It’s just that if you’re willing to work on their characterisation you should also be willing to work on their case, for a very basic reason. A poor case spoils the picture, making the oddball detective just that, an oddity, instead of what he was meant to be: someone with a deeper insight into life’s dark side.

And no, Pizzolato, the light is not winning, at least not for the victims.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I was just considering whether to recycle a truncated debate in class last week for this post, when an email message brought me notice of a lecture by the illustrious Prof. Paul Collier, an economist from the Blavatnik School at Oxford University ( His title: “Is the world approaching war again?” This chimes in with my subject today: WWIII may be already happening and will test the limits of our gender system. Yes, it’s bleak.

Last week I lectured on a favourite subject: Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and its film adaptation. A favourite because it is a very candid exposé of the patriarchal military ideals manufactured by the USA and exported to the rest of the world (also, well, it has all those great-looking men). I embarked on a long digression criticising the military code based on the defence of honour, glory and duty, with the help of Leo Braudy’s excellent From Chivalry to Terrorism. War is not a subject that goes down well with young audiences, much less with girls, and my choice of a remote conflict (Leonidas died 480 BC) was, perhaps, less than thrilling to them.

I insisted that what is really relevant is not what happened in Greece at the battle of Thermopylae all that time ago but how we represent war today since war, after all, is so intimately connected with patriarchal violence (and hegemonic masculinity). To engage their interest I asked them what would happen if the terrifying Islamic State extended its hold onto our own European shores, or if Putin invaded NATO territory? Shouldn’t we, as feminist women, also volunteer for combat? How would young men react to the need to enlist? Time ran out without my surprised students answering me back.

If I recall correctly, author Nick Hornby voiced through his protagonist Rob Fleming in High Fidelity (1995) a concern that post-WWII generations would not be up to the task of defending the (British) homeland. I recall explaining to an MA class that for men in WWI being branded a coward was fearful enough to enlist; the young male students simply could not understand this: they’d rather be called cowards, they explained, than engage in murder on behalf of their nation. Fair enough.

Conscientious objection is a product of the Great War, which was, let’s say, a war among equals and as such not a justified war. WWII was quite different, as the threat posed by the Nazis was downright evil (the same applies to the terrorist Islamic State today), and it had to be stopped at all costs. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Vietnam, after the elimination of compulsory military service in most Western countries, we were left with the impression that a) military corps should be exclusively composed by professionals and volunteers, not by citizens called by conscription, b) if WWIII happened, it would be a colossal nuclear affair so short-lived that no actual fighting would happen.

This is not, however, what is happening around the world. Prof. Collier must be either grossly misinformed (which is unlikely) or thinking of WWIII (most likely) for, as far as I know, war has never stopped for a single day on planet Earth. That we, the privileged, have been born and live in peace does not mean that patriarchal violence (in its worst aspect, war) is over at all. Actually, the threats posed by both our Russian neighbours and the Middle East inferno are 100% patriarchal in nature.

I know I am beginning to sound like Maggie Thatcher while waging war on Argentina’s dictatorship but, well, the life of both my grandfathers was marked by their participation on different sides of the tragic Spanish Civil War. How can I forget this? And I have simply no guarantee that what is happening to the young women kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa will never happen in Spain.

So, if Prof. Collier concludes that, indeed, WWIII war is coming if not already here as a constellation of local conflicts, what are we supposed to do? It’s very depressing, I know, as I’m warning that a civilised masculinity and a pacifist feminism can do little in view of the onslaught of the ultra-violent patriarchal Other. If you think I exaggerate about the Islamic State, just think of Putin’s military might. And of what NATO keeps in our backyards. No, the Cold War is not over.

What am I saying, then? Am I calling the authorities to re-introduce military service in Spain, this time for both men and women? Should we become Israel? No, not really –I’m just feeling horrified by the possibility that the story I’ve been told (peace is vanquishing war) is not true but just a pretty utopia, mere wishful thinking.

In case of war, I told my students, lines will be drawn in the West possibly according to age, not gender: everyone below 45 would be fighting at the front, those above 45 would run the home front. The polite smiles suggested they dismiss this scenario as my sick fantasy (too much SF, most likely). And, then, of course, I’m above 45 as they know.

Yet… what do we know about the future? After all, Europe felt more smug and self-confident than ever, thinking that all wars were over until the very eve of WWI. Let’s just hope, then, that we’re not feeling too smug…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Yesterday I had the unusual pleasure of basing my lecture on a collective volume just issued, in which I participate: Àngels Carabí & Josep Maria Armengol’s (eds.) Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Serendipity dictated the coincidence of publication and lecture, and I very much enjoyed this happy accident. The topic of the lecture was how to define manliness and how to find alternatives to its patriarchal version. I used Harvey Mansfield’s very provocative but cogent volume Manliness to stir my students into the mood I need to introduce the idea of the ‘alternative.’

‘Alternative’ is a complicated word, as we know in the research team ‘Building New Masculinities’ ( When we started working on the volume, we decided to use ‘alternative’ in the sense of ‘counter-hegemonic,’ which opened up new difficulties as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is far from being clearly defined (it seems synonymous with ‘core patriarchal masculinity’ but many object to this basic description). The idea, however, is that ‘alternative’ should mean anti-patriarchal, pro-feminist, non-homophobic, non-racist… a version of masculinity with a positive potential for imitation.

The focus of the research team is American Literature. This is what the Ministerio funds us to explore but I have doubts myself that Literature has today much influence in publicising and disseminating gendered role models, positive or otherwise. The main focus seems to me to be elsewhere: in music, video-games, comics, film, TV, popular fictions… My team mates and I have made an effort to locate these alternative masculinities, then, in current US novels and plays, with a result which I find both hopeful and discouraging. Hopeful because we have managed to fill in a 244-page book but discouraging because the texts where these counter-hegemonic masculinities are found seem (to me) a little bit too marginal.

This might not be the case for the novels by Toni Morrison or Paul Auster discussed, but the variety of ethnic productions analyzed and my own inroad into Orson Scott Card’s SF (in his saga on Ender Wiggins) suggest that we’re not analysing texts with a high impact on masculinity but calling attention to texts that might have a moderate impact in their most immediate surroundings. This is not intended to discredit the work of my colleagues (which I find excellent) nor my own, of course, but to highlight a simple truth: you may find tons of feminist fiction but there is not a single male author out there with the project of working in favour of liberating men from patriarchal strictures. Actually, the volume suggests that women writers are carrying out this task more intensively (as part of their feminist agenda). It’s urgent, then, to invite men of all ages to generate the ‘missing’ texts.

The first part of Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World has been written by a selection of distinguished names in disciplines that, according to the editors, should engage in a dialogue with Literary Studies. I think this is a very good idea: yes, by all means, let’s learn more from anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.

My class, however, were much dismayed by Michael Flood’s discussion of men’s anti-violence activism, as his chapter paints a very bleak portrait of widespread misogynistic violence and only a mildly positive portrait of the men engaged in fighting it. Instead of feeling inspired, a young man told me he felt appalled by the idea that his peers on American campuses, as Flood explains, needed to be educated in not raping their co-eds. Then, Bob Pease, another illustrious name, with a very long experience in raising anti-patriarchal consciousness among Australian men, writes his chapter: “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful when doing the tasks that are not traditional for men.” Students were quick to see that power always entails oppression, as it is power over someone. A new vocabulary is, then urgently needed –we agreed that the right sentence should be “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to feel self-confident without oppressing anyone.” The idea of a man feeling powerful as, for instance, he bathes a baby makes simply no sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I find the volume very, very interesting precisely because it is an index of the limitations under which the search for alternative, counter-hegemonic masculinities operates. The research results are, I feel, good and solid. What is not so good, much less solid, is the anti-patriarchal resistance described by all the authors. Hopefully, this is a first step in our own effort to raise consciousness. It might well be that we need fifteen to twenty years for young male and female writers to write the texts we’ve been looking for.

I need to add to all this two more comments. One is that teaching Gender Studies within the Humanities is a frustrating affair… as regards the male students. My degree has only 15% male students, which is roughly the proportion in my own class. The problem is that, in addition to being few they are silent. I have simply no idea what they were thinking as I lectured on masculinity, no matter how much I insisted that all big names in Masculinities Studies agree that it is crucial to listen to men. It would be naïve of me to overlook the simple fact that possibly my male students feel insecure and intimidated among so many outspoken young women. Yet I think the girls would be also grateful for their participation in debate.

Second: I asked my students to think of positive, alternative male role models in films and TV as I lectured and to name them at the end of the session. The boys said mostly nothing… The girls were clearly unimpressed by men’s efforts to combine manliness with an up-dated attitude towards gender issues and chose young male characters mostly defined as ‘nice’: caring and sensitive. I have no idea how this matches their real-life practice of choosing boyfriends but, then, I’m no sociologist. My impression, if you ask me, is that we know nothing and that little fiction accurately reflects the real state of gender issues today.

What a challenge for young writers…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This morning I was helping my 9-year-old niece to do her homework: a set of terminally boring exercises on how to use punctuation, designed to make any child hate commas and semi-colons for life. The cynical author had the gall of writing an exercise with the wording “Write an exclamatory sentence expressing how you feel right now.” My niece and I burst out laughing, we just could not stop. She came up with all kinds of nasty little sentences, as I wondered what kind of moron thought that generating frustration is educational at all.

Then I thought of my own frustration, produced by a meeting this week in which my university gave us, heads of Department and degree Coordinators, the basic set of instructions to produce yet another reform of our BAs (‘grados’). Basically, the idea is that the decision made back in 2007 to implement 240 ECTS, four-year BAs, is plain wrong. We need to go back to the drafting board and produce 180 ECTS, three-year BAs followed by 120 ECTS, two-year MAs. This way, we’re told, we’ll fit better the European system of higher education and facilitate mobility. Deep sigh. Abysmal sigh.

It seems that seven years ago the smaller universities pushed as mightily as they could to have a 4+1 system, on the grounds that students would leave them to take MAs elsewhere after only three years. My own university, very keen on the idea of the internationally attractive MA, wanted the 3+2 system we need to impose now (and which is apparently based on the British model). From what I hear, though, the universities now taking the lead and forcing the rest to follow are the private universities and, closer home, a public university behaving as a private one. As happened seven years ago, we’ve been told at the same time that we need not hurry and that we must hurry like Formula 1 racers: take the chance to consider in depth what’s been achieved with the new degrees, but prepare the reformed version in less than six months.

The Spanish Government has not issued the decree yet, which circulates just as a draft. This is enough, however, to set anyone’s teeth on edge. The whole key to this mess is that nobody seems to have considered how students will react to the very likely possibility that fees are raised once more. From what I gather, students are to be sold the idea that the three-year BA will not guarantee their professional insertion and will be ‘invited’ to take an MA, so that a) their education will be prolonged for up to five years (like the old ‘Licenciatura’), b) the fourth year will be more expensive –no longer part of the BA but of the MA. Surely, this will push many students out of the more serious part of the university –or is this the plan, that only middle-class students can get MAs and get the best jobs?

I personally have very serious misgivings about the three-year BA in the context of Spanish education, with a notoriously weakened secondary school. In the particular case of the degree I coordinate, ‘English Studies’, I see no way at all we can send into the market graduates with a competent level of English in just three years, particularly taking into account the plans to make the first year common to several degrees. We’ve been told not to approach the BAs as something specific to a speciality, as if they were to be just a glorified follow-up to secondary school. The real specialisation should be that of the MA. But, then, how can we train professionals in a second language? Add to this the last straw: the new law actually allows universities to offer degrees between 180 and 240 ECTS so, technically, we might decide at UAB to defend our current 4+1 system. Now, suppose our neighbours UB opt for the 3+2 system –who, then, would take our degree? And how can you put in the market-place graduates with this diverse education? I shudder to think of future doctors…

The person who gave us all this ‘good’ news, one of us, acknowledged that this is a very bad moment to ask our professional collective to make yet another massive effort: our salaries have been frozen for years, part of them simply stolen by the diverse Governments, we’re overwhelmed by the bureaucratization of education, and, most important, most degrees only started six years ago… But we have to go for it, and brave it with a smile. I am personally depressed and desperate, as I was in the front line during the preparation of the new degrees and endured a great deal of psychological anguish only last year, modifying the whole paperwork for purposes I’m not sure I understand. My successor as Coordinator (I’ll be done by the end of January) is a much more stoical woman and she has decided to take things as they come. Fair enough. She does not have, though, the experience of wasting precious hours in filling in 400-page documents with newspeak that puts Orwell to shame…

I’m very much aware that many European countries have this 3+2 system we need to introduce now but, if I’m not mistaken, these are the countries that back in 2007 changed nothing, as they already had short BAs followed by MAs. We saw our old ‘Licenciaturas’ destroyed, then the new degrees imposed with no time to consider their impact on us and now, once more, we need to imitate educational systems very alien to our own to please… the international students we want to attract to our MAs? That was my impression…

In the meantime, few are thinking of the enormous frustration that the students in our classrooms, engaged in four-year BAs with no future, will feel the moment they learn about this. And as I said, generating frustration is no way to educate anyone –nor to encourage those in charge of educating.

And, here the worst nightmare: if each reform is increasingly short-lived, for how long is the new system going to survive? Sisyphus comes to mind (without his original sin).

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

You may have heard that millions of I-Phone users were very much annoyed with Apple when they discovered that the new U2 album had been downloaded onto their smartphones without their permission. What you might not know is that the youngest I-Phone-addicts flooded Twitter with complaints beginning ‘who the f*** are U2?’ I wonder whether the 100$ million Apple paid U2 were enough to comfort the ultra-vain Bono… What a downer for his ego…

My subject today is not Bono, however, but (partly) how fast cultural memory fades, as the I-Phone blunder has revealed. We teachers often complaint that our students live in a limited version of the present with little or no insight into the past. Evidently, we are much older and what for them is history is for us living memory (I recall very clearly the huge queues back in 1987 to buy U2’s smash hit album The Joshua Tree). I say a ‘limited version’ of the present, nonetheless, because both U2 and Madonna, whom I mentioned in the last post, are very much alive and adding regularly new work to a very long career already. I wonder, then, what other icons, already deceased, mean to young students.

The particular icon I have in mind is Steve McQueen –no, not the British black film director responsible for Twelve Years a Slave, but the legendary American star of the 1960s and 1970s who died of cancer, aged only 50. Last Tuesday 7 Discovery Max showed the new documentary I am Steve McQueen (June 2014), directed by Jeff Renfro, written by David Ray and produced by Chad McQueen, a loving son as you can see in the film ( It’s not my intention to review the documentary (you can see a good review at ) but to discuss a few points it raises. This connects with my most recent article (available in 2015), on Manuel Huerga’s documentary Son and Moon (Diario de un astronauta) about Michael Lopez-Alegria. There I argue that documentaries are neglected as key primary sources in the study of masculinities –they show which kind of men we find interesting and from which point of view and this is indeed the case with I am Steve McQueen.

I was 14 when McQueen died which means that for me he was what I’ll call a ‘retrospective icon,’ someone you discover through other persons’ enthusiastic opinions and mainly an actor I have admired on TV, never on a cinema screen. I recall gossip, unlikely as this may sound as I was just a child, about his rocky marriage to pretty actress Aly McGraw (Hola! and similar magazines were a usual presence in my grandma’s home). I’ve caught up with McQueen’s legend later, seeing his films again on DVD, rediscovering above all The Great Escape, The Getaway and the absolutely thrilling Bullitt.

For me, McQueen has a kind of feline attractive: he looked sleek and cool (his nickname was ‘the king of cool’ for a good reason). He had always something boyish about him, the traces of the bad boy he could have been if luck had not placed him on the path of acting. I’ve never found him, though, as evidently good-looking as the stunning Paul Newman, a fellow actor McQueen seems to have admired and envied in equal measure (as shown by his jealous bouts during the making of blockbuster The Towering Inferno). McQueen simply had the most amazing blue eyes (‘piercing’ everyone calls them in the documentary) but he had this funny flat-top head, a longish face with that pointy chin, the deep cheek creases that aged badly, the fit but not really muscular body… The actor whom I thought the most likely candidate to be his heir, the late Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame, was far more beautiful than McQueen. Yet, he did not have what McQueen had: charisma.

I am Steve McQueen contributes with its elegiac tone to the legend around the star precisely by focusing on his charisma, both on the screen and on the race track, as he possessed a heady cocktail of major acting and driving skills. At one point a male interviewee (I can’t remember who) describes him as a “guys’ guy” and you can bet this is a perfect label. The two ex-wives (Broadway star Neile Adams, the mother of her two children, and Aly McGraw) and the widow (ex-model Barbara Minty) share their memories on camera teary-eyed; Minty even presents herself as a kind of female version of McQueen in her pleasure for speed. As happened in the case of Michael Lopez-Alegria in Son and Moon, I was bowled over by this all-round praise of wholesome manliness. To put it simply: if thoroughly admirable men like this existed, women would be much, much happier. And so would men.

I was concerned by a comment in the memoirs published by Anoushe Ansari, a rich business woman who bought herself a ticket to travel to the ISS in Lopez-Alegria’s very reluctant company: he never smiled, she says, a bit wary. This is a very tiny stain in comparison to what the documentary glosses over in McQueen’s life: his constant infidelities, his rough temper, his short fuse. Neile Adams mumbles something about leaving him because she feared him. Also, the documentary attributes McQueen’s mortal lung cancer to the asbestos he was in contact with during his stint in the military. Well, fair enough, though I recalled from my childhood plenty of gossip about his being a very heavy smoker (and habitual drug user).

I am Steve McQueen has been produced, as I noted, by a loving son, Chad (the daughter, Terry, died in 1998) and it is very palpably a portrait of a father very much admired privately and, what is more, to be proud of publicly. Something, however, is missing: something which, if you ask me, Brad Pitt possesses right now, that perfect mix: the physical beauty, the personal charisma, the serene manliness and the firm commitment to his big family and to his wife (Paul Newman comes to mind again). Not that Pitt is my favourite male icon (I’m not sure I have one, except Atticus Finch…) but he comes closest than anyone else to what McQueen embodies in his son’s documentary. If Pitt’s not a “guys’ guy,” and I don’t think he is, then one thing I can say for sure is that he is a “gals’ guy” much more than (too) cool McQueen.

This may sound strange coming from a confirmed feminist as I am but I wish that, one day, the “guys’ guy” and the “gals’ guy” become the same person. If only we could have the (cool) manliness without the selfishness and the mysoginy lurking beneath all portraits of manly legends things would be so perfect.

Now go and enjoy Bullitt…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This post summarises debates in two sessions with my students in which they offered presentations on: Session 1) Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Adele, Lana del Rey; Session 2) Katie Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, and Selena Gomez.

During these sessions, we raised the following issues for debate:

Pop seems to be currently dominated by female performers, with individual male performers occupying a marginal position, except in boy bands (like One Direction). It was hard for us to name male first-rank pop stars beyond Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars.

The pop divas belong to at least two generations, with the oldest being well past fifty (Annie Lennox is 59, Madonna 56) and the youngest in their twenties (Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez were both born in 1992), having started their careers as teenagers.

The older divas are less well-known by younger audiences, for whom Madonna is not the indisputable referent she is for the generations born before the 1990s.

Madonna crucially contributed to the making of the contemporary pop diva the key idea that female performers should control their careers. Before she became a star in the 1980s that was not the case, with most female stars being manipulated by men close to them: managers, producers, partners (a classic example would be Tina Turner).

What is most controversial in Madonna’s case and her legacy is that she chose to empower the pop diva by flaunting her body and her sexuality, turning the object into subject.

This strategy worked fine for her but has resulted in a) an obsession with avoiding the effects of ageing, b) the diva’s own bodily objectification. This, while empowering for other women aware of feminist ideals, can be simply read by sexist audiences as an incitement to reading and consuming the diva as pure sexual object. It is very hard, then, to establish whether the diva’s self-presentation as a sexy, powerful woman is actually empowering.

The case of Adele, who does not present herself as sexualised, suggests that the sexualisation of many pop divas might actually serve to conceal moderate singing abilities (think Britney Spears). Adele’s voice seems an instrument solid enough for her empowerment as a pop diva. Those who have gossiped about her being fat (Karl Lagerfeld) have been harshly criticised, though this seems to be in contradiction with the prejudiced treatment met by fat (or plus-sized) women in ordinary life.

In most cases, the pop diva shows a contrast between her self-assured public presentation and the lyrics in her songs, which display much vulnerability. The diva’s successful career often seems at odds with the feelings expressed in the songs, suggesting she might not want to alienate audiences who believe in an essentialist idea of gender and romance.

The pop diva is an object of intense public scrutiny, particularly as regards her private life: marriage (Beyoncé), dating younger men (Madonna, Jennifer Lopez), being with abusive partners (Rihanna), being with partners who are themselves a celebrity (Selena Gomez). A peculiar case is that of Taylor Swift, who, sadly, has earned a reputation as a (promiscuous?) woman unable to commit because of the many relationships she has been involved in.

Regarding the pop diva and feminism, we have seen varied attitudes with a common denominator: either the pop diva rejects feminism but practices it notwithstanding, or the pop diva publicly embraces feminism after rejecting prejudiced definitions of this word. Beyoncé seems to be using a didactic approach which might be beneficial (though Annie Lennox has questioned her feminism as just tokenism).

Of all the divas explored, Beyoncé is no doubt the most successful and powerful one: her career is very solid, and she is in a stable relationship, married to the most powerful male musician right now (Jay-Z) and the mother of a daughter. She is rich, beautiful and well-liked, perhaps because she seems to be more ‘respectable’ than the other divas (she’s been involved in no scandals).

In contrast, the most controversial pop diva seems to be Miley Cyrus as her extremely sexualised self-presentation can be alternatively read as an expression of (feminist) freedom or an unwise choice which degrades her as an artist. A crucial issue in this sense, as she used to be a teen idol playing Hannah Montana, is which effect this may be having on younger women who used to follow her as a role model. This would also refer to ex-Disney stars like Britney Spears or Selena Gomez.

Ethnic and racial issues are hard to pinpoint: the white divas are not perceived as such, yet for the non-white divas race does not seem to be a major issue, possibly because non-white performers have always been a prominent part of pop. The fact that Madonna is white and Beyoncé African-American seems irrelevant as regards their success, since they reach all kinds of audiences (Beyoncé, though, possibly has a high value as role model for other African-American women performers). Other, like Jennifer Lopez, seem to be exploiting an ethnic identity (Latino) of which they do not really participate.

Most importantly, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone has the right to criticise these divas or curtail in any way their self-presentation. This has always been a problem with feminism, as it usually appears to be unfairly censorious and fixed on rigid rules.

My own point of view is that as women we need positive role models that contribute to our empowerment. The pop divas are, arguably, the most visible face of women’s empowerment, much above politicians, business women or scientists. The problem is that their intensive sexualisation may actually undermine the possibilities for women to be empowered, particularly for those who choose not to present themselves in this way, or for whom this might be a serious obstacle (who would take a sexualised scientist seriously, whether man or woman?).

Their individual right to choose how to run their careers (and lives) clashes then with our collective need for role models which carefully avoid confusing self-empowerment with self-exploitation. A misogynist or a male chauvinist contemplating Rihanna’s half-naked body will not see an empowered woman but a confirmation of his own views that women are nothing but sexual objects.

Finally, the standards of beauty set by these attractive pop divas may even have a negative impact on the world of music itself, in the sense that less attractive women of great talent might feel inhibited from pursuing a career. Adele may be an exception, but if we consider the case of Spanish singer Rosa we see how, instead of adapting audiences to the diva’s original physical appearance, she has undergone a drastic process of transformation to suit audience’s preferences for slimmer women. In contrast, what is needed for women in careers with a great public projection is the same acceptance for variety that benefits men (think, for instance, how differently the body shapes of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé have been read).

Just a little comment: as I noted, there are individual academic studies of some of these divas (Madonna and Beyoncé in particular) but no publication addressing the issue of what is a pop diva and how this figure is constituted today.

Fascinating, really…

PS: See my own articles about
*(with Gerardo Rodríguez) Kylie Minogue,
*The Scottish diva (Annie Lennox, Sharleen Spitteri, Shirley Manson),

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Sorry, this one is very long…

I’ve given hints here that I could a tale unfold if I wrote about my au-pair days back in 1985-6. I have just signed a reference letter for a girl student to be an au-pair in Britain and this brings back many complicated memories. I had a very hard time being an au-pair but, as I told this girl, this is an experience I would never erase from my life.

In these days of Erasmus grants, I guess that being an au-pair is not as popular as it was among girl students of English in my time. I decided to take a gap year between my second and my third in the five-year ‘Llicenciatura’ (BA) in ‘Filologia Anglesa’ because I was not making progress in English as fast as I wanted. Also, to be honest, I needed a change of air, as I could put up no longer with my father’s demands that I worked full-time (the money I made by teaching part-time went into books and fees). Once I decided to be an au-pair, I also decided to take the Proficiency examination, as that would provide a clear focus to my stay abroad and would help, as it did, in finding teaching jobs once back.

Just when I returned they started offering the first Erasmus grants. I never applied, fancy asking my father to send me abroad… I’ve often wondered how many poor students are by-passed as I had to be.

I worked for a grand total of five families in one year: one in Lincolnshire, one in Humberside, three in London. What went wrong? I applied too late and was sent, they told me, to the only family who would have me in October (most au-pairs started in September). This family was too poor to keep an au-pair so they soon chucked me out. My Spanish agency washed their hands of me, I was found another family by a local agency. I was given a big house to clean, owned by a couple formed by an older man… and a previous au-pair. It took me much tact to navigate her jealousy. I hated, anyway, being alone all day long in the middle of nowhere and decided to head south to London.

There, I was placed with a Greek family from Cyprus in Mill Hill, about one hour by tube from central London. I learned to dislike intensely suburban life, as I felt stranded all the time. Finally, I started attending school in preparation to taking the Proficiency exam. My lady employer, who’d placed entirely in my hands her huge house and also two little children for many hours, told me she did not care for my studies. Also, she had me working Saturday mornings, which left me with no time to go sightseeing with the other au-pairs… I decided to leave and found a family in Hampstead with two teen boys.

I loved Hampstead. Also, the couple who employed me were cultured persons and would point out to me interesting places in London, as they noted my eagerness to learn. I read non-stop as I was given free use of their library. Only later did I join a public library, something I should have done much earlier. This would be my first recommendation to would-be au-pairs: join a library, ideally a reading club –or any other club where you can make friends. Back to my tale: things grew stale between this unpredictable lady employer and myself; I grew awfully nervous around her and had all kinds of little domestic accidents to the point that she threw me out one early morning. Luckily, I had already met an elderly lady who promised to take me in if necessary and she honoured her word.

I was employed by this lady and her husband, both retired and living on their own, for the last five months of my stay. I was happy with them. My tasks were simple and clearly defined. They did talk to me and held actual conversations beyond giving me orders. Not all was perfect but I just wished I had found them at the beginning. The funny thing is how I found them: thanks to an ad on the window display of a local newsagent. Perhaps the most intelligent thing to do is to travel where you want to work as an au-pair and find an employer this way: face-to-face, in their own home.

I had a very romantic notion of what being an au-pair was about of which I was quickly disabused. It took me a while to understand that my diverse employers did not see a university student in me but just cheap foreign domestic help. Many hired me because they could not afford proper live-in help. I was never employed just to babysit, much less so in the house where they had the two little children. At that time Spain had a military service for young men and I used to joke that I had passed mine in Britain…

My best memories are of my free time roaming the streets of London (how I loved Hampstead, really!). I made friends but they were all au-pairs like me, which was not ideal to improve my English. The natives, of course, had no need to meet au-pairs (mere servants) at all. I never felt part of any family, none of my employers bothered to show me around or asked me questions about who I was and why I was in Britain. Other au-pair girls were much luckier than I, other faced a much worse deal.

I did pass the Proficiency examination, which comforted my poor, suffering mother. In those days my family had so little money I was not even back for Christmas, Dickensian as this may sound today. Cell phones did not exist and I wrote many, many letters. I returned a completely different person, much more confident, having proven that, if necessary, I could support myself by the sweat of my brow. I was a working-class servant for one year, and this I will never forget. Also, I read so much that I taught myself possibly the equivalent of two university years.

Yes, I often think of my employers, gossiping about that terrible Spanish au-pair they had back in 1985-6 and her itchy feet…

Beatriz (and all the other au-pairs in the world): my very best wishes, I hope you enjoy the experience.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This intense Harry Potter period of my life seems never to end… I’m currently teaching Oliver Twist to my Victorian Literature class on the usual pretence that they have all read the book and can follow my analysis. Well. Since they need to learn how to write a paper, I explained to them what a conference is and why papers are written, taking the chance to publicise an oncoming event at my own university: a conference on monstrosity (December 2014, Las mil caras del monstruo, to which I have submitted a paper on Voldemort. Now, that caught their attention… and mine to their alertness. Three students actually waylaid me at the end of my lecture to demand that I teach again the Harry Potter elective… a tall order!

This is why I decided to use the last 15 minutes of my lecture yesterday to a) present the connections between Oliver Twist and the Harry Potter series, b) introduce students to the concept of intertextuality (first coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966). In the process I learned that the majority of students in class have read Rowling’s saga (and enough Dickens to follow me, good…). Also, that there must be something uncanny in the links between the two authors and the two characters because a girl student got goosebumps several times as I lectured (her physical reaction was certainly intense).

So here we go. Intertextuality, a notoriously wide-ranging term, replaces the old-fashioned idea of ‘influence’. It is, despite the looselessness of its meaning, very useful to discuss how texts keep a dialogue with each other, which can be more or less willed, more or less direct. Some intertextuality is explicit (James Joyce’s Ulysses), some implicit. We can see this for Oliver Twist as well: Terry Pratchett wants us to see at first sight that his novel Dodger connects with Dickens’s work, Rowling is not particularly interested in establishing a connection but this is visible enough and very strong at some points. Uncannily so.

Of course, as a student pointed out yesterday, the list which follows might simply be pure coincidence. Or have just dubious value, I’ll add. Precisely, it was my intention to alert students to the fact that intertextuality tends to be extremely subjective, hard to prove persuasively, and always open to criticism.

Now, consider (sorry about the spoilers):

*Harry and Oliver are orphans. They both spend a miserable childhood, which includes a stay with unsympathetic pseudo-parents (the Dursleys, the Sowerberrys) with a particularly nasty foster mother. They’re both bullied in this foster home by an older boy (Dudley, Noah).
*The trope of the mother’s death is displaced in Harry Potter to Tom Riddle’s birth, the difference being that Merope Gaunt lets herself die after giving birth. Both Agnes (Oliver’s mother) and Merope become pregnant by men who keep with them a relationship beset by problems (Oliver’s father actually seduces the poor woman and tricks her into a false wedding, no matter how much he loves her; Merope bewitches Tom Riddle Sr. with a love potion).
*Both Oliver and Harry are protected by their dead mother’s blood: Harry literally and also in the person of his unkind aunt Petunia; Oliver by his much kinder aunt Rose Maylie, who saves him from his life of crime and the persecution of the main villains.
*Harry and Oliver are roughly the same age (11) when they leave behind their known environment for a new world of which they know nothing: the world of wizarding and the world of crime, respectively. I might argue that Fagin is a wicked version of Dumbledore but I’ll let that be…
*Both James Potter (Harry’s father) and Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford Sr., are characters with moral flaws: James used to be a bully at school, as his victim, Snape, reveals; Leeford was quite dishonest about his marital situation with Agnes.

Here comes my favourite bit: Mr. John Brownlow. This is a rich bachelor gentleman, with a London establishment of his own, and the closest friend of Oliver’s dead father. When after many incidents Rose puts Oliver again in touch with him, Mr. Brownlow ends up offering Oliver a happy home and adopting the boy. The moment I named Sirius Black my students understood that he is Brownlow’s equivalent in the Harry Potter saga, with a difference: he dies too soon, too cruelly. Essentially, once he is rescued from Fagin and Sykes’s hands (thanks to Nancy, another Lily Potter sacrificial figure), Oliver has no role in his own story, except that of offering forgiveness. In contrast, Rowling forces his boy to face his arch-enemy alone, once he’s lost his protectors (Sirius but also Dumbledore, Snape). Dickens, always a sentimental man regarding children, would have been horrified at her cruelty. I am.

Finally, both Oliver and Harry make me wonder about their goodness. Dickens defended himself from criticisms against Oliver’s idealisation claiming that the boy represented a ‘principle of good’ beset by evil. There is a wonderful scene in which Nancy throws a tantrum, full of rage against Fagin’s physical ill-treatment of the boy; her point is that Oliver will soon become a degraded criminal, there’s no need to add abuse to this. Shortly after this explosion, however, Fagin tells Monks, Oliver’s arch-enemy, that the boy is impossible to train for a life of crime as he has nothing to scare him with. Harry seems, likewise, impervious to the attraction of the dark side, no matter how often Voldemort insists that they’re quite similar. In both cases the reward for this triumphant inner goodness is a happy (middle-class) family life with the difference, as I have noted, that the child Oliver is rescued by others from evil (imagine a nice aunt Petunia helping a stable Sirius raise Harry), whereas Harry must grow up and rescue himself.

The goosebumps of the girl student and the wand watching my back as I write (Sirius’s of course) suggest to me that other operations apart from rational intertextuality are at stake in this kind of connection. Most likely, I need Jung’s collective unconscious and not Freud’s idea of the uncanny to explain them, though there’s something truly uncanny at work. Brownlow, based on a well-known Victorian philanthropist of the same name (secretary to the Foundlings Hospital Dickens knew so well) suggests that something resonates in us when we read about unprotected children. I firmly believe Freud was too focused on the little and big dramas of the patriarchal nuclear family to note other figures we set much store by, and which, somehow, Brownlow (adoptive father) and Sirius (godfather) embody. Dickens understood this, by the way, much better than Rowling, which is why he paid homage with his fictional character to the man employed in real life to protect abandoned babies.

I’ll keep on thinking about that. You, too.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Just by sheer coincidence my first and my last post this month have to do with time and how we employ it in consuming fictions. I wrote on 1st September about whether investing so many hours on watching one of those US TV series so popular today is worth it. I argued that this is not the case (for me), and came to the conclusion that I won’t invest more than 20 hours in any given narration.

Then, two colleagues called my attention to a couple of related questions. On the one hand, Laura told me about a piece in about “How Long it Takes to Read the Most Popular Books” ( On the other, David emailed us to comment on Ian McEwan’s recent boutade, arguing that most novels are too long. I don’t have an exact link for this, but it seems McEwan offered this critique on Radio Four’s Today programme.

“My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” he claimed, when he reads books above the 800-page mark (think Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch). McEwan added that “The Americans especially love a really huge novel, they still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object. Very few really long novels earn their length.” ( McEwan’s most recent volume (224 pages) is a novella, he says, The Children Act, just 55,000 words long. McEwan’s statement has not really impressed readers: a poll run by The Guardian showed that 52% disagreed with him. One can always make the obvious claim that this depends on the novel in question, although I would agree that not all novels “earn their length.” Also, with McEwan’s hint that novelists need more than ever the good offices of competent editors.

If we take a look at the piece, we’ll see that McEwan’s novella is, rather, a novel, similar in length to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (53,234 words, the paperback is 256 pages long). I do not understand the calculations in that page as the logical thing to do would be to note the hours and minutes it takes to read a text, instead of which they use a decimal notation (2.96 hours for Esquivel’s book). If my mathematics work correctly, this is 2 hours and 57 minutes at a rate of 300 words per minute. 3 hours and 3 minutes for McEwan’s book (which he wants us to read in one sitting). I have checked and this is more or less how fast I (a very experienced reader) read, but it might not be feasible at all for, say, one of our first year students painfully reading in a second language. Or many native speakers of English, depending on their education.

Then, I doubt anyone can manage Sophocles’ Antigone in 0’61 hours (that’s 36 minutes, isn’t it?), reading at the same pace one would read a Tom Clancy thriller. Length is not all that matters, as my students, currently reading Oliver Twist must now be thinking. Just to comment on a few titles: the whole Harry Potter saga amounts to 60 hours (the time I spent watching The Wire!). War and Peace, the longest volume I have ever read at 1,800 pages requires 32.63 hours (with volumes that long, I tend to count days, not hours –it took me a long August to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, same with Tolkien’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). And I don’t think that readers willing to read George Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire care about the hours, days, months, or even years this will take.

I do not know whether this is a consequence of that Kindle function which enables you to see how long you need to read a volume (the machine establishes your speed once you read a few pages). Yet, something tells me that in this overcrowded fiction panorama of today time is beginning to matter (will writers also count the hours invested in particular novels?).

This came the same week my 13-year-old nephew and I had this crazy conversation about the new game Destiny, at 550 million dollars the costliest piece of fiction ever. We got into quite a tangle trying to work out how many hours (minimum) a player would expect from the game and how this related to its high price (55 to 75 euros depending on the retailer, though he had seen a special edition at 150 euros). Perhaps Mr. McEwan is missing the point that readers are happy to read thick volumes because (like gamers) they get value for money, that is, many reading hours. With his slim novellas one is done on any rainy afternoon (like today’s); that might be simply too expensive for someone used to paying what his little book costs for a thick paperback.

I puzzle, anyway, every time I take my Kindle to see that duration has replaced length for me as a reader. The first thing we do, Virginia Woolf said, when we pick up a new volume is to see how many pages it has. Not any more, it seems, or not always.

(I’m told games do not have a specific duration, as this depends on how we play them. I read though that the first player to reach level 30 in Destiny has consumed 107 hours, which seems to be an absolute record. Also, that other gamers are complaining that the game runs out too fast. So much to learn…)

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Back on May 12 I published a post commenting on my students collective volume, Addictive and Wonderful: Reading the Harry Potter Series ( Today, I’m announcing the publication of our second collective volume, Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series (

The elective I taught last Spring, ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Case of Harry Potter’ has given me many satisfactions but also much work, as I decided to turn it as well into an experiment on teaching. I’m writing this post today with the aim of describing this experiment, in case it is useful for any colleague out there. I am repeating many of these innovations in my current elective subject (also fourth year), ‘Gender Studies (in English)’.

To begin with, I choose a handbook, on which I based my initial lectures: David Walton’s excellent Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. I soon realised that there was no way I could write one or several exam questions to test my students’ reading of this ultra-rich volume. I asked them instead to produce their own exam question: read the book, select a topic, find a text related to it (not Harry Potter), e-mail me the question. On the day of the exam, they brought from home a printed page with the question, and if they wished so, a quotation to comment on. Then they wrote in class the 500-word argumentative essay planned at home. It worked beautifully, not just because, obviously, everyone passed, but most importantly because they learned to ask questions rather than simply answer them.

The short essays published in Addictive and Wonderful were not part of assessment for two reasons: a) I hadn’t planned to publish this before the course started; 2) I want students to learn that assessment is not everything and that it’s fine to produce ideas for free (I’m doing this here all the time). When I started reading the essays, the idea of the volume came to me as a sudden inspiration. I have just checked and, as happens, 492 persons have downloaded already this volume from its location at my university’s digital repository. I had no idea we could reach this kind of readership at all. Something else I have learned, then. This semester I’m repeating the experience, with a volume by my students on gender issues (currently at its very early stages).

The second volume Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series, was clearer in my mind when I started teaching the subject but I think I miscalculated the effort it would entail from me. Not that I regret it, quite the opposite –once more, I’m trying the experiment again.

I offered my students a list of 50 topics, a wide-ranging panorama of Rowling’s series. I had no clear idea of the coherence the final volume might have but hoped for the best. My reasoning was that since I had to mark the papers anyway, I could turn my marking into preliminary editorial work, then use the corrected texts as the basis for a second round of editorial revisions before publication. I was quite sure from the beginning that I would not teach Harry Potter again, a decision I am going to maintain because there is no way I can reproduce the atmosphere generated by the happy convergence of a particular group of students and a particular group of guests. The volume would be a trace left for ever by that happy experience.

The papers were part of assessment and I awarded the corresponding marks. As it is my habitual practice, I asked for revisions in a handful of cases. Only one student among those who followed continuous assessment failed the subject, the rest passed but I decided to discard 5 of the 38 essays because they demanded a too extensive revision before publication. I was on the whole happy with the papers and awarded high marks.

The course was over by the end of June but I could not lay my hands onto the projected volume again until late August. This was good because texts need to cool down, if you know what I mean. When I took a second look, however, I almost gave up.

Even though I had provided my students with a template for their paper, thinking this would diminish my workload as an editor, and they had mostly used it well, I had to make the 33 final essays as homogeneous as possible in terms of editing. Luckily, I learned a few new tricks from Word which saved me plenty of time (like how to accept all revisions in the text). I spent anyway a whole week, Monday to Friday, working on the text. This included all aspects of text layout, including the cover, for which I had a wonderful illustration by the talented Genzoman.

In the preface I wrote that 85% of the text was my students, 15% mine. This is correct, I believe. Call me silly but I had not realised that the impression a student’s paper produces for the purposes of awarding it a grade has nothing to do with the impression it produces when you’re thinking of publication. I have by no means changed the nature of the papers but I have worked hard on the language, careful not too make it sound artificial for an undergrad. This has been a challenge: let it be as it is, but make it nicer. A little, yes, like applying a discrete layer of make-up.

What puzzled me enormously is that, once I saw the complete volume, it turned out to have much coherence. The essays are organised by students’ surname but –this must be yet another example of the magic haunting my Harry Potter course– they connect this way much better than in any other way I could have planned. I really think the volume is quite decent, a strange word, I know. I suppose other teachers have published similar volumes but the word that sums up how I feel is ‘proud’, very proud indeed. Whether this is a pioneering initiative or not, it doesn’t really matter.

Finally, without my university’s repository I may not have thought of publishing the volumes. I have my own professional website and I have published there plenty, yet I am convinced by now that the repository seems to work better. I wonder that people are downloading the volumes at all but it’s nice to see the count grow. I’ll be very happy if both Addictive and Wonderful and Charming and Bewitching reach 500 downloads.

I forget: this is as low-cost as it can be, and it is still a book. I have spent no money at all, just my own personal work and my students’. This, I believe, is how knowledge should flow: we have the instruments to generate content for the internet, and we must use them.

I hope this experience encourages and inspires other colleagues to do the same, in whatever courses they teach. And students as well.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It is always thrilling to witness a key historical moment, and today it is one. The results of the Scottish referendum on independence mark, as many political commentators have noted, a decisive turning point in the History of the United Kingdom, which will have to revise urgently the conditions of the union (including, most likely, the establishment of an English local Parliament and Government –how intriguing!).

I am personally fascinated by the political savoir faire with which this delicate process has unfolded during the last fifteen years on both sides of the border. A friend who’s now a Glasgow resident emailed me a couple of days ago to explain that watching the debates was absolutely exciting. The very existence of these debates and the chance the Scots have had to manifest their opinion attest to the high degree of maturity and stability that democracy has in the UK.

My own reading of the 55/45 result, which I am offering here both as a Cultural Studies specialist very much interest in Scotland and as a Catalan, is that this is neither a vote in favour of the union, nor against independence. It is a vote that expresses uncertainty about the future. Perhaps this is my own interested personal reading but what I am trying to argue here is best summarised by the opinion of a Scottish gentleman I heard yesterday on TV: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ to a matter politicians disagree so much on”. He defined himself as an independentist.

Both sides stand to gain in the end: Cameron will be a hero for keeping the union alive, Salmond another hero for doing his best to grant Scots the right to choose. In my view, though, they have both lost: Cameron had to use a fear campaign to increase the ‘no’ vote, Salmond could not convincingly explain what the future of an independent Scotland would be like. Neither was persuasive enough about the benefits of staying on or of leaving. The anxiety about the future, rather than patriotism of either kind, has ultimately carried the day.

How do I know? Because even Cameron himself has realised that the union can only survive with less, rather than more, centralism. If the Scottish vote really meant a wish for a stronger union, there would be no need to grant the Scottish Government and Parliament greater powers as Cameron promised to do during his campaign. There might be even good grounds to withdraw some of the powers already devolved in order to strengthen the union. I heard talk today of a future ‘federal’ United Kingdom. Logically, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, who were holding their breath waiting for the results to materialise, are now also demanding more powers. Soon the English will also wake up from their lethargy and assume once and for all that England is one nation in the union, not the union itself.

The message behind all this is, in my view, very clear: people want matters closest home to be decided locally, and think of unions as fulfilling a role only for large scale issues and institutions (Scotland will not go to war against the Islamic State, but NATO will). Also, this is the second message, even though the small Scandinavian countries seem to be the most desirable model in many senses (Norway is the referent for Scotland), the republican federal model of the United States and Germany seem to work best for economic development. Most likely, a federal British monarchy (if they persist on supporting the Windsors, God knows why) is the solution best suited to that particular corner of west Europe.

In this particular corner of south Europe, the media are focusing today not on the result (which might very well reflect a similar division here, too) but on the fact that the Scots have had the chance to vote. Today the Catalan Parliament is passing a law to secure Catalan citizens’ right to be consulted in major decisions, a law than will be immediately annulled by the Spanish Government, for fear that the projected 9 November referendum might result in a pro-independence vote. I wonder why Rajoy has never considered, like Cameron, the possibility that the ‘no’ might win. His own permanent ‘no’ is fast undermining unionism and increasing the independentist ‘yes’. And, something else he cannot see, leaving Catalan unionists completely desauthorised.

I am personally worried sick about what might happen in an independent Catalonia as I believe we would all be impoverished and, anyway, we don’t have enough information to make a reasoned decision (what’s the rush, I wonder?). I do, however, firmly support the right of citizens to decide, not only on this crucial matter but on many other equally crucial matters like what kind of education, justice, welfare services, etc. we want. I actually would like the Spanish Parliament to pass that kind of law and, thus, prevent certain Ministers from implementing laws nobody wants.

The matter of Scotland might not be over. If I recall correctly, in Quebec they have voted on independence several times. I’m sure, however, that Salmond will take a reasonable break before he or someone else in the SNP tries again (perhaps one generation?). The funniest thing about the whole process is that an independent Scotland with her own monarch would see our dear Cayetana de Alba, the last of the Stuarts, crowned Queen Cayetana I. Alba, of course, is the Gaelic name for Scotland. Here we don’t even know whether we’d be a Republic, or, this is a nice joke, still part of King Felipe VI dominions –a joke since he’s a Borbón as much as the independentists arch-villain Felipe V, his direct ancestor.

Congratulations, once more, United Kingdom, on facing a major crisis with an admirable democratic spirit. I hope citizens in Scotland continue the debate and work for what really matters: a transparent political system, accountable to all voters, and as close to them as possible.

[By the way: I’m celebrating today the fourth anniversary of this blog. Thanks for reading me!!]

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I am very fond of timelines. I find that one of the problems of the post-traditional model of education is that it has condemned memorizing as a useless nuisance. This leads to a great deal of imprecision regarding exact historical dates, which in its turn produces a hazy impression of historical periods. Without learning particular dates one may think that the whole 20th century is an undifferentiated mass of events with just a few major highlights. Thus, it is not rare in Spain for young persons to name incorrectly the years when the disgraceful Civil War took place (1936-9) and to suppose that Franco’s brutal regime ended much earlier than 1975.

The problem with timelines is that they are actually of little use for study. You may check a detail or two, take a general look –but who can read a timeline in detail and absorb all that information? This is why I find that timelines only help us to memorise dates if you produce them yourself. Hence, I am always producing new ones in my own study time. It is not easy.

I am currently working on a timeline which, here’s the contradiction, I might eventually publish in my website. I realised that I know more about British and American women’s history than about Spanish and Catalan women. This is why I decided to start a local timeline and later on add to it the key dates in US and UK feminism. My timeline is currently 45 pages long, I can say I have already learned very much but I do not know yet where to stop.

In principle, I decided to include key general political events (my grasp of Spanish History is not that good…), and dates connected with women’s advances (mainly legislation, education, labour). I decided not to include literature, only books connected with the ‘woman question.’ The problem came when I realized that, as Isaías Lafuente hints, domestic innovations –like the mop, invented by Manuel Jalón and first commercialised in 1958– and others, like sanitary pads (no reliable date so far) may have changed women’s lives much more deeply than certain pieces of legislation.

Then, I came across a website on the evolution of the women’s liberation movement in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s, and it was so dense with dates that my using them would automatically require the same for all periods. Finally, guess what? The hardest periods to reconstruct are the most recent ones. I don’t know the date when gay marriage was introduced in Spain. Um. It’s 3 July 2005 (just checked).

One thing that is quite clear, reading Geraldine Scanlon’s impressive pioneering study La Polémica Feminista en la España Contemporánea 1868-1974, published in 1976, and Pilar Folguera’s slim but very information collective volume, Feminismo en España: Dos Siglos de Historia (1988), is that Spain is also different when it comes to how our feminism compares with the rest of the Western world.

Both volumes make it very clear that there was no feminism movement as such until, properly speaking, the 1970s. We had formidable individual figures (Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Clara Campoamor…), many associations of different signs but no all-encompassing movement. When the chance came for that, after Franco’s death, the ‘Transición’ took much of he necessary political energy away from the movement. At any rate, believe it or not, this is the best historical moment ever for women in Spain. Hopefully, the women living in the 22nd century will find ours still an obscure time.

If anyone cares, this is a rough division into main periods of women’s history and feminism in Spain:

*1724-1868: Enlightenment ideas enter Spain (with the French Bourbon dynasty). Men who believe in them, and a few women, start a very timid reform of public education for women (primary and professional levels, schools for teachers).
*1868-1939 Individual women feminists fight for the rights of women (access to secondary and higher education, and the professions); also, with much division, the vote. Many feminist associations are formed in the 1920s, none major. Brief period of fast advances under the Republic (vote and divorce 1931) and the Civil War.
*1939-1965 Franco’s military regime imposes traditional ideals of womanhood. Women are split into meekly following these ideals, or struggling to end the dictatorship (clandestine resistance organised by left-wing political parties and women’s illegal associations)
*1965-1982 Full emergence of the feminist liberation movement, particularly after 1975. Women are split mainly on class lines between the need to consolidate left-wing policies and the need to work specifically for women’s gains.
*1983-2014… Institutionalised feminism (after PSOE wins 1982 election). Legislation becomes the main tool for equality, together with education, supported by widespread social acceptance of the main feminist tenets (feminist activism remains fragmented in a myriad organizations).

Um… 2014-2044… Full equality of rights and opportunities is reached for women of all classes, mysogyny is considered a relic as intolerable as cannibalism. Gender divisions become irrelevant as all, men and women, face life from the same position.

Now back to the timeline…

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