THINKING OF MARY SHELLEY AND FRANKENSTEIN: MAKING HUMANS

February 19th, 2018

In one of the most eccentric episodes of The X-Files, “Post-modern Prometheus” (5×06), Mulder and Scully visit Dr. Polidori, a geneticist working at his own home lab in a rural location in the heart of the United States. The two FBI agents are investigating a series of attacks against women who have been drugged, raped in their sleep by a mysterious assailant described as a monster, and made pregnant. Believe it or not, the episode is comedy… The pair suspect that Polidori’s experiments, some of which they are shown, might be involved (this is, indeed, the case). As they leave this mad doctor’s quite gothic house, the following conversation takes place (my italics):

MULDER: (to SCULLY) Good night, Dr. Frankenstein.
SCULLY: Despite what you might think, Mulder, designer mutations like these are virtually impossible in humans.
MULDER: That’s not what I just heard.
SCULLY: Mulder, even if they could, no scientist would even dare to perform this kind of experiment on a human.
MULDER: Well, then why do them at all?
SCULLY: To unlock the mysteries of genetics, to understand how it is that even though we share the same genes we develop arms instead of wings. We become humans instead of flies or monsters.
MULDER: But, given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?
SCULLY: We already have that ability, Mulder. It’s called ‘procreation’. (…)

Scully’s answer encapsulates much of what needs to be said about the creation of human life in labs: why should we make humans artificially when they can be made naturally?

This dialogue connects, obviously, with the main issue Mary Shelley (1797-1851) deals with in her ultra-popular novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), now celebrating its 200th anniversary. Mary Shelley imagined her strange tale in 1816, when she was only 18 and leading a very complicated life. After meeting Romantic poet Percy Shelley in 1814 and eloping with him to the Continent (he was married and already the father of two children), Mary saw three of their babies die between 1815 and 1818, two of them in the period when she was at work writing Frankenstein. This is why so many feminist critics have rightly insisted that this is a novel about motherhood although it appears to be about fatherhood. What Mary is arguing in her dark tale is that, no matter how painful bearing children may be for women in all senses as she knew first-hand, when a man tries to beget human life artificially, using science, this can only result in horrifying monsters.

In the habitual technophobic (or moral) reading, however, Victor Frankenstein’s gender and patriarchal inclinations are downplayed, and what is stressed is that ‘man’ (meaning here mankind) should not try to play God (or imitate Prometheus, who stole from the pagan gods the fire that led to civilization). At the time when Mary wrote the story of how very wrong Victor’s experiment goes, science had nothing to do with its sophisticated present version. To begin with, the word ‘scientist’ didn’t even exist: it was introduced by William Whewell in 1833, and first printed in 1834, in his unsigned review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (Wikipedia dixit). Men like Victor and women like Mary Somerville were then called ‘natural philosophers’, a nice label suggesting that all branches of knowledge should be kept in touch. ‘Natural philosophers’ were, besides, mostly middle-class amateurs that worked alone, not at all in research groups!, for the very simple reason that back then universities mainly taught the Classics. But I digress…

Victor Frankenstein, as I always tell my students, turns out to be a very good scientist but a very bad artist. Mary Shelley cheats in two ways in her novel. On the one hand, she asks us to suspend our disbelief and accept that the parts of dead bodies can be cheerfully sewn into a new living person (which is the fun part of the story, scars and all). Above all, she forces us to accept that this method should necessarily create monsters and never works of art. The evolution of transplants since South Africa’s Dr. Christian Barnard first transplanted a human heart, in 1967, has been absolutely spectacular. This has made young Frankenstein’s fantastic skill as a surgeon if not plausible at least easier to accept (or swallow). However, I still fail to see why he could not be a better plastic surgeon, a more proficient artist of the flesh, a first-rate wielder of the needle and stitch. When Mary first saw him in her nightmare, a frightened student contemplating his unhallowed creation, she was, after all, trying to write a horror story and this requires shocking and scaring the reader. Yet, perhaps because we are no longer easily scared, the ugliness of the monster has been undermining the efficiency of Mary’s text in recent times, particularly as regards the new notion of the post-human.

Brian Aldiss was the first to hail Mary Shelley, back in 1973, as the founding mother of science fiction, a claim that I support. The problem is that she was not thinking primarily in science-fictional terms (the label ‘science fiction’ was introduced in the 1920s) but using the gothic narrative codes so popular in her time. If her priority had been science fiction, then ugliness might never have affected the creature, who would perhaps have been happily exhibited by his maker as a celebrity all over the world (see what happens to the giant in the Basque film Handia). To complicate matters, please do recall that Victor appears to have fashioned not just a regular adult male but also a person with extraordinary strength, amazing bodily endurance, and, seemingly, superb intelligence (otherwise, how could he learn to read and write as he does?). The creature surpasses in all senses plain humanity and, not being an automaton or a cyborg, but a fully organic man, needs to be called post-human.

The difference between a cyborg and a post-human person, let me explain, is that no matter how thoroughly altered, cyborgs remain isolated cases, individuals that cannot pass their bodily modifications onto their descendants. Only organic modifications caused by genetic variation can impact future generations, and this is precisely what post-humanity means: a human species different from Homo Sapiens, and, implicitly, superior. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that genetically modified human beings will be necessarily enhanced versions of us, hence superior. Yet, most sf authors and scientists are working on this assumption, forgetting seemingly that many prehistoric human species were different from Homo Sapiens, but not really inferior or superior. Victor Frankenstein is of the same persuasion as his contemporary peers, the many post-modern Prometheus: he fears very much that his creature (he never gives him a name, thus denying his fully humanity) will spawn a type of humanity that will do away with ours. In current times this fear has split into two branches, remember: fear of the bioengineered replicant and fear of the android robot, though the basic idea is similar–whether fully organic or fully inorganic, we believe that our creations will be the cause of our demise as the species that dominates Earth. Somehow, though, imagining the planet dominated by machines hurts less than imagining the post-human reign.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, the plot takes a dramatic turn when the lonely monster, fed up with humankind’s ubiquitous hostility, demands a bride. Victor starts making him one but, very stupidly, the good doctor gives his post-human woman a fertile womb. Then, imagining the Earth full of the pair’s little monsters, he destroys the new Eve before she’s even finished. Frankenstein could have left her body intact and give his monster a vasectomy, but, the plot hole I am exposing remains equally glaring: if you don’t want your alternative human beings to beget a new post-human species, use radical contraception–make them sterile. You might think that this is an understandable error in the context of 1818, when little was understood about human reproduction even by women, who, like Mary, had been mothers many times. Although the ovary had been described centuries before, the human ovum was only discovered in 1832 and menstruation was only associated with ovulation decades later (apparently, early to mid Victorians believed that the function of menstruation was to purge us monthly of our hysteria). Yet, I was flabbergasted to see that similar issues about post-human reproduction have been raised in the recent Blade Runner 2049, a late descendant of Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece.

I’m sure that the blatant sexism of this film would have appalled Mary, the daughter of pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as it appalled me (Joi really????). Leaving that issue aside–which is not easy as I’m mightily angry at Denis Villeneuve and his male writing crew–let me note that whereas Victor Frankenstein makes his post-human man for the sake of scratching the itch of doing advanced research, his contemporary equivalent in the film, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is in the business of making slaves for the extraplanetary colonies (he has purchased the remnants of the Tyrrell Corporation of the original Blade Runner). Funnily, in the play by Czech author Karel Čapek from which we have inherited the word ‘robot’, R.U.R. (1922), the robots are actually organic replicants, not at all mechanical creatures. Also funnily, or not so much, whereas Frankenstein’s problem is that his post-human replicants might breed like rabbits–which leads him to terminate the bride, which leads his monster to terminate Victor’s wife–Wallace’s problem is that his Nexus female slaves are sterile (it’s not so clear whether the males one are functional in this sense). Why is that a problem? Because, as he complains, making adult humans is a slow, expensive business and it would make much more sense to have them reproduce as fast as they can with no further intervention in the lab. The film fails spectacularly to discuss how this is different from your basic slavery, possibly because the scriptwriters have not read any History books.

Mary Shelley, then, got a few things absolutely right two hundred years ago: scientists are already making post-human persons, though the way they’re going artificial intelligences (whether robots or computers which we do not recognize yet as persons) are taking the lead. As far as I know, we have no replicants (that is to say, fully organic human beings manufactured as adults), whether standard or post-human. We do have many human beings interested in becoming post-human, like Nick Bostrom or Elon Musk, but mainly for narcissistic reasons connected with patriarchal power, rather than because they want to beget a new human species. This, I think, will not be created from scratch but will result, willingly or accidentally, from the constant manipulation of human reproduction in labs all over the world. Or, as Greg Bear narrates in Darwin’s Children, because something will cause our embryos to mutate.

If Mary returned from her grave she would be very much surprised by the popularity of her story, but possibly much more by its applicability. The world is full of Victor Frankensteins and of much more sinister figures, real-life Niander Wallace imitators, deciding how to make slaves. Some are making robots that will leave many people unemployed, others dream of replicants they can entirely control. In the meantime, women continue with the task of making human beings the natural way (or not so natural), as we wait for the day when some scientist–perhaps a woman seeking to liberate her peers from the pains of labour–will make a ‘uterine replicator’ (I’m borrowing the expression from Lois McMaster Bujold). As usual, Aldous Huxley seems to have hit the nail better than anyone else, for our future post-post-modern Frankensteins will most likely make humans of all kinds, from Alpha to Epsylon, and many more sub-humans than superior post-humans, for sure.

Thank you Mary for the warning, it came in a superb book, though I’m sorry to say it was not horrific enough.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE RETURN OF THE GENTLEMAN: A PROPOSAL

February 13th, 2018

I taught yesterday an MA seminar on my research, mixing Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. I gave examples of the work I have done within the area I specialize in: Masculinities Studies (and popular fictions). As happens, the aspect of my research that generated the greatest discord was my proposal that we bring back gentlemanliness as a necessary code of behaviour for men. I have dealt with the need to offer specifically young men new ideals in the post following the Barcelona terrorist attacks of August 2017 (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/08/21/indoctrinating-young-men-in-search-of-ideals/) and I have praised good gentlemanly men in another post, about Dickens’s Bleak House (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/11/05/in-search-of-good-men-as-anti-patriarchal-role-models/). However, I have not addressed the topic of the gentleman directly and this might be a good chance to do so.

One of the students in class, a young woman, reacted very negatively when I explained that we should welcome a renewed code of gentlemanliness. She complained that the gentleman’s behaviour is patronising, using the classic example of the man opening a door to let a woman pass. I replied that this is a courtesy I would not personally reject and that in order to make it less patronizing (which I don’t think it is) we just need to make it mutual: you open the door for me, I open the door for you. Actually, this renewal of general courtesy seems to me more urgent than ever: getting off the train at my university’s station is terribly stressful, as absolutely nobody gives other passengers way. A walk I took in Barcelona last week turned out to be everything except relaxing as I had to dodge constantly other pedestrians who insisted on going their way even at the risk of crashing onto me. At full speed…

I do take into account, as another student reminded me, that gentlemanliness was used hypocritically by many men throughout the 19th century. Of course, both R.L. Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, among many other authors, exposed this hypocrisy with the extreme cases of Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray. Yet, unless I am utterly deceived, most Victorian men who wanted to be respectable in society abided by the codes of gentlemanliness: politeness, protection of those in need, restrained behaviour, firm management of aggressive urges, care of one’s person in looks and manners. Not bad, I should think. And not just upper class: remember that working-class men have always made a great deal of being respected by their community. Perhaps being a gentleman is about making the most of the best qualities that a man possesses.

As I explained yesterday in class, unlike the Spanish ‘caballero’ which simply alludes to the medieval figure of the knight who possessed a horse (‘caballo’, of course), the Anglophone ‘gentleman’ signals that to be an ideal man one must be gentle (not just own a horse!). ‘Gentle’, unfortunately, came to be identified with that awful American word, ‘sissy’ (which derives from ‘sister’, see how misogyny always lurks behind patriarchal insults). Today, as I acknowledged in class, no man appreciates being called a ‘gentleman’, particularly the young ones, because they see that as something bland and phoney. In short, ridiculous. (Here I need a footnote to remind readers that possibly older classy men like George Clooney, or similar, do enjoy being called ‘gentlemen’).

In part, the loss of the gentleman is to be blamed on WWI, when the horrified soldiers on all sides discovered that in that atrocious, mechanical war the codes of knighthood and of gentlemanliness so far ruling in warfare no longer applied. Gassing your enemies is not what gentlemen do, nor kill them by blasting them off the face of Earth and into gory smithereens. Yet, the biggest blow against the gentleman, as we know, was the feminist rejection of all notions of chivalry as patronizing (the word my student used, remember?). This does not mean that all women rejected the gentleman, as the continued popularity of fantasies like Austen’s Darcy prove. What I mean is that WWI (and later wars, like Vietnam) and 1970s radical feminism told men, in one way or another, that they needn’t pretend to be gentlemen because at heart they were only patriarchal barbarians. Many men told themselves, ‘ok, so that’s what we are’ and stopped acting as gentlemen. Others, better behaved but more puzzled, simply stopped obeying any specific ideal of manliness and got by as they could in life, navigating with great difficulties between Scylla and Charybdis, or feminism and patriarchy.

I will insist again and again that gentlemanliness was not only a pragmatic set of rules for respectable men to follow but also a great shaming mechanism. A man who engaged in what the American press defines coyly today as ‘misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’ could be told “you’re no gentleman!” and be shamed, in private and/or in public. Honestly or dishonestly, most men were wary of keeping up a reputable image and an upright behaviour was part of that. Now, what do you tell the likes of Harvey Weinstein, or simply a man that puts his hands were he should not? How do you shame them? “You’re an abuser?” “You’re a monster?” The justice system and the threat of a jail sentence is not working, as we all can see, so there must be something else that acts as a deterrent against intolerable patriarchal behaviour.

The shaming mechanism that is currently used is absolutely counterproductive because what we’re screaming at these patriarchal abusers is “You’re a man! What a shame!” Sorry to disagree with many other feminist militants but I firmly believe that men are not all the same. By not distinguishing between gentle/men (if you don’t like gentlemen) and ‘cads’ (to use another quaint Victorian word) we’re failing to find solutions for the problem of generalized patriarchal violence. Tell Donald Trump, “You’re no gentleman!” and he won’t care because this means nothing today (though I think Barack Obama would care); tell him “You’re a man!” and Trump will say, “Exactly, that’s what I am, and proud of it”. So, it boils down to this: unless we have a way to label good men in such a positive way that most men want to be viewed in that way, we’re lost (we women, but also they, the good men). And unless we do find an insult that clearly defines what patriarchal abusers are, we have no effective social and personal shaming mechanism.

Can a man be a ‘feminist gentleman’, as an ex-student used to define himself? I usually find that the men I know and that fit that label do not proclaim their own gentlemanliness (or feminism), for part of being a gentleman is restraint–no need to proclaim out loud what other should see for themselves. Restraint, on other hand, does not mean an inability to show feeling, a problem that indeed plagued the old-fashioned Victorian version of the gentleman. No, restraint means here the ability to show positive feeling and control negative feeling: gentlemen do cry if they feel moved to tears but do not hit others in anger. Bullying and intimidation are not part of their conduct, either.

I’m beginning to sound, I know, like an etiquette book, but, then, I’m not alone in this: Margaret Atwood recently declared that men need “etiquette books on how to behave” and even a Mr. Manners’ column in 1950s style (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/06/margaret-atwood-modern-men-need-etiquette-books). I understand that speaking of etiquette and gentlemanliness in 2018, rather than the pre-second wave 1958, may sound obsolete but, believe, it is not.

I’m taking these days a course for teachers on how to detect sexual violence in a university context and we were shown yesterday what can only be described as a lesson in etiquette. This is a video published by Thames Valley Police in 2015 which very cleverly compares sexual consent with having tea. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ. I complained that the tone is childish, and wondered whether young men shown this film would resent being treated as not too bright. But a younger female classmate patiently explained to me (thank you!!!) that the sexual etiquette which the video explains makes perfect sense for girls, who are often unsure about how to show or withdraw consent. She said that it’s a common experience for women of her generation to engage in sex they don’t really want (see The New Yorker’s popular story by Kristen Roupenian “Cat Person”, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person). This means that women are suffering not only because gentlemanliness has been lost but also because we also have lost our own etiquette in the generalized rush to free ourselves, sexually and otherwise.

The difference is, let me explain, that whereas we women are constantly surveilled and punished by a hundred different shaming mechanisms (from “You’re not a lady” to “You’re a fat, ugly, old bitch!”), men are not. Let me correct myself: patriarchal men do use “You’re not a man!” to mean “You’re not acceptable as a member of patriarchy” but this is not at all the kind of shaming mechanism we need to support. Nor is the radical feminist cry “All men are the same (kind of bastard)!” If you’re thinking that all shaming strategies are barbaric and should be suppressed please consider that there is an enormous distance between body-shaming someone who is not normative and shaming publicly and privately a physical or psychological abuser of any kind.

In short, I believe that we do need a new version of gentlemanliness to deprive patriarchal men of the privilege of deciding who is a ‘real’ man and who is not. We, women, need to inform each other of who is a good man and who is a patriarchal bad man, just like that. What we’re currently telling each other is that all men are patriarchal abusers, without distinction, which is why, perhaps rightly, some personalities are complaining that there is a risk of generalizing a witch hunt. Of course, when Donald Trump is the one complaining we need to dismiss his words, for he is only protecting himself. But when a woman like Margaret Atwood sends this kind of warning, perhaps we need to listen (I say perhaps because I’m certainly not listening to Catherine Deneuve, see my previous post). As for the good men, whether you like being called gentlemen or not, you need to oppose the idea that all men are the same type of patriarchal abuser with more determination. “Not all men are rapists” does not sound to me like an effective defence of masculinity; “all men should fight patriarchal abusers and absolutely reject rape” does.

I know what you’re thinking: so, how about women as ladies? Women rejected ladyhood, beginning with the suffragettes, because it was an unsustainable burden, which limited our chances to be educated, make sound personal choices, be economically independent and, in short, full human beings. Whereas gentlemanliness limited men and regulated their behaviour in a way that benefitted them socially, it was the opposite for women oppressed by ladyhood. However, just as gentlemanliness can be recycled as a valid code for men today, I believe that ladyhood is perfectly compatible with feminism. This is not 19th century ladyhood but a 21st version by which a woman makes the best of her own personal qualities. For me, being a lady is about being self-possessed, knowing how to behave, being sure of your own codes, insisting on mutual courtesy, treating the good men with respect, supporting other women.

There is no way I can exactly translate into English the Catalan “quedar com una senyora” (um, “make a ladylike impression”?) but this is certainly my own personal maxim. Now, I invite all men to make a gentlemanly impression… and reject toxic, barbaric patriarchal masculinity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MOUNTING HYPOCRISY AND THE FEMINIST TURNIP FIELD

February 6th, 2018

Last Saturday the Spanish Academy of Cinema honoured the best films produced in 2017 with its Goya Awards. The attendants were offered a red fan decorated with the hashtag #+Mujeres, intended to demand that more women are hired by the Spanish film industry in all its sectors, not just acting. Apparently, some attendees (including women and Albert Rivera) rejected the fans with the (poor) excuse that this type of feminist campaigning is losing its edge and, anyway, they didn’t feel like endorsing yet another hashtag.

The award for Best Film Director went to (Catalan) Isabel Coixet, the only woman nominated in this category, whereas the award for Best Newcomer in Film Direction went to another (Catalan) woman, Carla Simón, also the only female nominee. As a woman I don’t feel too happy. Simón’s film, Estiu 1993, has been earning much critical praise since its release and her winning this Goya seems right. But Coixet’s The Library has not been welcomed in the same way and, frankly, her Goya appears to be a hypocritical, belated acknowledgement of women by the Academy rather than a well-deserved win. I’m also very much against the idea of a film made in a foreign language winning the Goya for Best Film, call me prejudiced.

As actor Leticia Dolera quipped to one of the two male presenters (no comment!) the whole ceremony read as a pure exercise in hypocrisy, with its “nice feminist turnip field”. I must stress that I didn’t agree either with the feminist rant that Pepa Charro, a.k.a. La Terremoto de Alcorcón, was allowed to perform, for lack of a better word. Sounding bitter against all men, rather than encouraging to women, she again used the jaded stereotype according to which women film directors make intimate films that women enjoy best, and male film directors make stupid, gross action films for men which women hate. I really tire of all this prejudice: some action films are great, others trash; some intimate films are great, others trash. Can’t we, as women, be given also the option to freely enjoy what we want (erm, provided it’s not awfully misogynistic)? Can’t we stop thinking in gender binary terms never ever? Isn’t it time to demand that we have more gay, lesbian, transsexual, intersexual, asexual directors, too? Wasn’t Handia, directed by two men, unfairly robbed of its Goya to the Best Film?

The Goya gala but also the Grammy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards and, as we’ll see, the Oscars, run full of this pro-feminist hypocrisy, which is not true feminism. In many ways.

The spoof newspaper El Mundo Today, which is fast becoming my reference news media…, exposed this constant insincerity in its piece on the Golden Globes. If you recall, actresses decided to wear black dresses to show their disconformity with Hollywood sexualisation of the red carpet and of women generally. The clever comedians that write El Mundo Today quickly saw behind the ruse and called their article “We rank the prettiest women in the Golden Globes but also mention the feminism of the gala” (my translation) (http://www.elmundotoday.com/2018/01/hacemos-un-ranking-y-puntuamos-a-las-mas-guapas-de-los-globos-de-oro-pero-mencionando-tambien-el-feminismo-de-la-gala/). The piece was illustrated with photos of beautiful (mostly white) women wearing pricey gowns and jewellery that most women in the world only see in red-carpet photo galleries. The caption for Nicole Kidman’s photo (she was ranked the prettiest, best dressed woman) was this text: “Y aquí está, la mujer de más calidad de la gala, en la redacción lo tenemos claro. #metoo #whywewearblack #fitness #beauty #hot #celebrities #body #bodypositive #perfection #naturalbeauty #makeup #feminism #oldwomen”. So much for (feminist) hashtag campaigns.

My other favourite article about the current patriarchal crisis in Hollywood published by El Mundo Today was inspired by Ridley Scott’s erasing of sexual abuser Kevin Spacey from his latest film, called… All the Money in the World. No comment! The online newspaper announced that “Hollywood digitally erases all the men from its film repertoire” (http://www.elmundotoday.com/2017/12/hollywood-elimina-digitalmente-a-todos-los-hombres-de-su-repertorio-de-peliculas/). This, again, highlights the immense hypocrisy behind the scapegoating of just Spacey. By the way, Scott eliminated Spacey because he feared that his film would bomb at the box office, not out of any need to vindicate Spacey’s (male) victims. Then he proceeded to re-shoot some scenes, paying male lead Mark Wahlberg 1.5$ million and female lead Michelle Williams… 1000$ (Wahlberg donated his salary to the #TimesIsUp campaign but only after the scandal erupted). Incidentally, Spacey’s replacement in All the Money in the World, Christopher Plummer (originally rejected for the part because of Scott’s ageism against him) has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. I’m 100% sure that he’ll win, again because of all this hypocrisy. Wahlberg should present the award, with Spacey. And Woody Allen. And Diane Keaton. And Matt Damon. And Alec Baldwin. And Catherine Deneuve.

More of the same… I won’t discuss Ivanka Trump’s attempt to join the #TimeIsUp campaign following Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the Golden Globe Awards, despite the hilarious twits it got in reply (and more serious ones: “Does this mean you’ll help to impeach your dad?”). I won’t discuss, either, the mad idea of making ultra-capitalist ex-reality show host Winfrey the next President after ultra-capitalist ex-reality show host Trump, no matter how female and African-American she is. I’d mention, instead, the speech by Neil Portnow, President of the Recording Academy, who managed to drew fire and anger from many women in the music industry at the Grammy Awards by urging them to simply “step up”, as if a) they were too lazy to do anything for themselves, b) there was not an army of bigoted patriarchal men ready to stamp on their feet. Men like Portnow are the ones that make the hypocrisy of the apparently pro-feminist new climate most obvious. You don’t have to tell the women to “step up” but your patriarchal buddies to “step down”, understood?

Next, the quarrel between the American feminists and the French women who signed a sort of manifesto against the #MeToo campaign basically arguing that seduction will die if men’s flirty ‘attentions’ are not welcomed. Catherine Deneuve and 100 other French women put their names to the open letter published in Le Monde, a document which, deplorable as it is in revealing these women’s enslavement to patriarchy, also puts the finger on an important issue: we’re not examining how each culture builds its own sexual codes.

By failing to do that we’re allowing ourselves to be swamped by an ideological discourse which is 100% American. I do not mean with this that the contents of the unpardonable French letter are acceptable–I got from reading it the impression that we women are dogs grateful for their master’s patriarchal attention (pat on the head, pat on the bottom, same thing!). No. What I mean is that, as French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky argued in The Third Woman (and that was back in 1997) the idea of female victimhood plays a much bigger role in the American understanding of gender relations than in French gender culture. Lipovetsky actually condemns American culture for instilling such fear in women that they are easy to prey on and victimize, whereas French women, he claims, are schooled in the idea that men will try to approach them in any way they can and this is why they need to fence for themselves. Deneuve’s letter is an extrapolation of that idea, though, of course, it is based on the very French idea of seduction, which stops short of coercion, and fails woefully to understand abuse, which is, precisely, based on coercion.

When I see the poor victims of the monster Larry Nassar explain in the courtroom that they are not victims but survivors what I think is that we need to raise young girls with a much greater awareness of the dangers of abuse and of their need (and right) to defend themselves. This is not victim-blaming, it’s society-blaming: if you’re not told that the wolf is chasing you, nor are you trained to identify him and defend yourself, all of society fails, for you cannot pretend there are no wolves. The two women judges who have sentenced Nassar to die in prison allowed the survivors to give long statements about the horrors suffered; then they declared how proud they were of the girls’ courage as they publicly shamed the abuser. I just wish the girls could have been given the support to use their courage much earlier, to stop the attacker from hurting them.

If Nassar managed to abuse more than 200 patients this was, to begin with, because the girls, many very young children, didn’t understand what was happening to them. This is where the hypocrisy begins: with the wrong puritanical belief that the protection of children’s innocence (specially girls) means keeping them ignorant of the ugly realities of the most disgusting aspects of patriarchal male sexuality. You would not leave a little girl in the middle of the street to be run down by a car, so why not teach her as soon as possible to identify sexual danger and downright abuse? This would not save all of them, of course, but it might help many. Also, nobody would silence them if they reported what is now coyly called ‘misconduct’. Believe it or not, someone in the University of Michigan told the girls complaining that Dr. Nassar had inserted his fingers in their vagina that this kind of rape is standard medical treatment. The girls, befuddled and scared as they may have been, had to swallow this revolting excuse for abuse. This university, by the way, continued billing one of the mothers for sessions during which her poor daughter was being abused by the monster. This should be also punishable with jail.

Let me take a deep breath here and send my support to all the women (and men!) who are breaking their silence.

There are days when I wake up and I think that as a woman I am a barely tolerated creature, living in the tiny spaces patriarchy allows for me and others like me. This is not equality at all. I am also dismayed to realize, in view of all this hypocrisy, that patriarchy is trying to curb down its most blatant sexism (racism, ageism, homophobia, etc.) to stay in power under a new disguise, apparently more benevolent. Its hegemonic circles are proclaiming that a new era begins now, but this will still be an era of hierarchical dominance. More women will be given access to misogynistic industries, like cinema or videogames, but this will not significantly change any institution. I can myself see how the female majority in the Humanities school where I work has not really changed its structures: just the tone. And this is what I fear will happen in all fields. We seem to be moving towards a renewal of patriarchy, in which the composition of the social pyramid’s pinnacle might change but not the pyramid itself.

The red fan of the Goyas was wrong: we don’t need #+Women, we need to #EndPatriarchy. Dismantle the pyramid, build a circle. And stop tolerating hypocrisy for this is what keeps patriarchy in its dominant position.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE RISK OF REDISCOVERING THE ACADEMIC WHEEL (AND THE HANDMAID’S TALE)

January 29th, 2018

The students in my Gender Studies class could freely choose the subject of their paper and I have ended up marking five (out of twenty-five) on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In parallel, I have been asked to peer-review two articles submitted to journals on the same topic. Even a proposal for a TFM dissertation.

Curiously, although the renewed interest in Atwood’s dystopian classic is due to Bruce Miller’s series (first season, 2017) for the streaming service Hulu, none of these articles nor the dissertation proposal, refer to it as an relevant trigger for new academic work. First issue, then, that calls my attention: the way in which all these budding academics hesitate to connect novel and series (it seems that if you deal with one, then you don’t deal with the other).

Second issue, the total absence of any comments on the quite good 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale directed by Volker Schlöndorf, with Natasha Richardson as Offred and Aidan Quinn as Nick, based on a screenplay by a Nobel prize winner, illustrious playwright Harold Pinter. This film did generate some academic attention because of Pinter’s contribution but it’s worrying me very much to see how cinema is being neglected these days in favour of TV, even within academic circles in the Humanities.

Third issue, and this is my main issue today: the constant rediscovery of the academic wheel… Here we go.

One of the most beautiful feelings a reader can enjoy is the discovery of a text that becomes a significant landmark in one’s development. If you’re a student, or a professional academic, and you may choose what to focus on in your work, this joy of new discovery often becomes the foundation for papers, articles and even books. I have never ever believed in the phallacy that Literary Studies should be objective since all work within them begins with the process of falling in love with a text–and other sentimental variations, such as falling out of love with a text or hating it. Something mysterious happens and suddenly you do know that, sooner or later, you have to write about this or that text, and then proper research begins.

In Literary Studies ‘proper research’ means entering into a dialogue with your predecessors, those who also expressed their sentimental attachment in the sophisticated jargon of academia (for we’re not… irrational fans… or are we?). If you fall in love with a recent text, then the obvious problem is that there might not be any predecessors. In that case, you need to write a list of keywords and see who has contributed something indispensable in each area of interest. For instance, one of my TFG/BA dissertation tutorees has fallen in love with a new film adaptation, Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017, written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 eponymous novel by André Aciman). His dissertation will be among the first academic works devoted to this very well-received film and, so, he’ll have to compile a bibliography with sources that deal more generally with the representation of gay men in cinema, and the theory of film adaptation.

This student had also fallen in love with Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and although there is not that much published on this ambiguous character, we decided that mastering the huge bibliography on this ultra-famous play would be a too tall order at this level. Besides, my student quickly found out that what he had to say about Mercutio had been covered by other scholars and, so, he decided to embrace the chance to make an original contribution. This does not mean that you should not write about Shakespeare. I have indeed tutored a TFG on Romeo’s masculinity and written myself a long piece about Antonio’s love of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/132012). It simply means that if you feel an unstoppable love for a classic, you need to brace yourself for a long struggle to acquire an acceptably solid idea of all the relevant bibliography.

Here is, however, the problem: what is ‘relevant bibliography?’ I usually tell my students that their bibliographies should be properly updated and that, ideally, they should cover the period from 1990 to the present. That’s twenty-eight years!! Already a lot… Of course, I also tell them that they may quote from any source previous to 1990, provided this is absolutely relevant or an academic classic (Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975). In practice, however, what happens is that most pre-1990s gets a blanket dismissal, and I won’t even mention how awfully neglected anything written before 1980 is, unless it is by a really big name like Michel Foucault or Raymond Williams. F.R. Leavis, anyone? Northrop Frye?

In the specific case of The Handmaid’s Tale this poses a singular problem, as I have seen in the work I have marked or assessed. The novel was published in 1985 and, as the MLA database shows, 24 authors wrote about this text before 1990, beginning with Michele Lacombe’s article “The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986). The MLA database offers 199 registers for the period 1990-99, then 72 for 2000-9 and 41 since then; you can see the curve here: climbing up to 1999, then going down, then up again. Someone should look into these fluctuations and the reasons for them beyond my sketchy approach here.

Anyway, back to my point: what the 24 initial commentators said cannot be dismissed because they set the foundations for the critical approach to Atwood’s text, and covered all the main issues: feminism, dystopia, post-apocalyptic narrative, politics, speech manipulation, religion, puritanism, nature vs. nurture, even ironic autobiography and the epistolary nature of this novel. Naturally, this doesn’t exhaust The Handmaid’s Tale, as the many subsequent essays on it show. What I mean, rather, is that if you wish to write today about the dystopian nature of Gilead, the fundamentalist Republic that deprives women of all their rights in Atwood’s novel, you do need to take into account what the first authors to tackle the subject had to say. Even more so because this was criticism contemporary to the book’s publication and will give you a clear context for it.

What happens if you neglect the 1980s sources? Well, you may end up de-contextualizing the novel. It is certainly true that the 2017 television series indirectly comments on the dictatorial style of new President Donald Trump. However, the novel was published in a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Christian fundamentalism, the dying but still vicious Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and Iran’s radical Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini were very much in the author’s mind. As I’m sure the 1980s academic work stresses. This doesn’t mean that you cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale, novel, against the context of the early 21st century, as, say, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation reads Romeo and Juliet for 1993, rather than 1593. Yet, just as no Shakespeare scholar would ever neglect the 1590s context, you cannot neglect the 1980s context.

Besides, you run the risk of reinventing the academic wheel… which consists of presenting as new arguments which others have already presented decades ago and that, are, in addition, obvious. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one to tackle academically a given text, then you can deal with the basics: The Handmaid’s Tale connects with the dystopian tradition. But if you approach a text thirty-two years after its publication, then the obvious is not an option. Again: of course you can write about dystopia in Atwood’s novel but not as if you were the first one to do so. Understood? So, yes, it is necessary to consider academic work published before 1990 in the particular case of Atwood’s novel to avoid reinventing the academic wheel.

Now I’m going to destroy my own argument…

What should we do with much older texts? I’m going back to Romeo and Juliet, with 1411 registers in the MLA database for work published between 1900 and 2017. And this is only because the registers begin with the 20th century… So, supposing I’m working on Shakespeare’s allusions to Queen Mab, should I take into account W.P. Reeves’s pioneering essay, published in Modern Language Notes (1902)? How about the 27 academic publications about this play from the 1940s? Is anyone quoting them? Should my student have started work with Leslie Hotson’s “In Defence of Mercutio” (Spectator, 8 August 1947: 168-169)? How long would his bibliography be in that case? Is this the reason why we tend to begin bibliographies in 1990? To limit our work?

Perhaps if we read early Shakespearian scholarship we might be dismayed to find that all has been said and that we reinvent the academic wheel every few years, as long as academic generations last. I was myself a second-year undergrad student when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, which means I am old enough to have a personal memory of all its academic trajectory; this is why I’m warning the current generation that they should be prepared to go beyond their own time. But, then, no teachers currently active were employed before 1975, right? And, anyway, the conceptual revolutions of the early 1990s, when apparently all current methodologies were invented, means that this is own our operative chronological barrier. 1990 is already beginning to seem too long ago to begin a bibliography on Romeo and Juliet, with 879 MLA registers since that year… Should we start in 2000? Is this good scholarship or bad?

To sum up, then, we’re constantly reinventing the academic wheel, perhaps not at all advancing but moving in circles. Yet, I still think that one should try to enter a dialogue with the inventors of each wheel if they are historically close to us… and the final bibliography is manageable… and we’re not offending any scholar still active by neglecting their work.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DOUBLE NOSTALGIA AND CLASS MATTERS: 1930s FICTION ON 1980s TV (THE BOX OF DELIGHTS)

January 23rd, 2018

A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/30/long-before-harry-potter-the-box-of-delights-remade-childrens-fantasy). I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6SZa5U8sIg) and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0).

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CHANGING PATTERNS IN STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE: RESISTING CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION

January 16th, 2018

In my post of 10 October last year I discussed the problems connected with using a methodology based on close reading to teach long texts. The main concern I expressed was that a pedagogy developed to train students into producing literary criticism of poetry might be inadequate for dealing with prose, particularly complete volumes. I spoke then of the challenge of trying to acquire total recall of the nuances of very long novels (any Victorian three-decker) or even novel series (like The Hunger Games).

To be honest, the post was trying to process a deeply-set anxiety that has plagued me this semester and that has to do with the changing patterns in students’ performance, specifically their resistance to engaging in class participation.

Now that I’m practically done marking the corresponding papers I can say that this has not been an easy semester for me as a teacher. Let me acknowledge that I have often felt uncomfortable in class, unable to find my feet, as the saying goes, and to understand what I was doing. Unusually, then, the posts for the last four months carry practically no comments on my teaching practice and read, rather, as a series of independent essays mostly on Gender Studies (this is what I have been teaching, together with Victorian Literature).

The remarkable quality of the papers I have just read (and some kind words from students) tell, however, a story quite different from what I thought was unfolding in class, this is why I am finally writing this post. I have been at some points truly distressed in class and if I have managed to keep my cool (mostly), if you allow me to use the expression, this has been thanks to a handful of extraordinarily participative students, two of whom have received my warmest thanks in the shape of an A with honours. Thank you, Carla and Marc. And Neele, Alicia, Albert, indeed.

I must grant that the anxiety-inducing political climate in Catalonia has been a major obstacle to keep going as a teacher last Autumn. Not only my own personal worries but also the students’ have had an impact in class, for when the future looks so uncertain education takes on part of that uncertainty. You might think that students were enthusiastic about the project of a possible new republic but I have seen mostly long faces in class, expressing a deep concern that the near future might be even more difficult than it already is for the millennials. There have been no direct political discussions in class but, even so, this has been a heavily politicized semester. At one point I asked my Erasmus students whether they wanted to stay in view of the (perhaps unsafe) turn that the situation was taking and they responded no, as the situation seemed ‘interesting’ for them. This, of course, reminded me of the Chinese curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’… You need peace of mind to teach well, and this has been lacking for the whole past semester.

Now, to the specifics of the case, which, I’m sure will be familiar to any teacher but to which I need to add some very odd factors like… my smelly classroom (a classic in my blog). My Facultat has a peculiar corridor which seems to be built on a swamp (I’m told it is actually built on sandy soil that doesn’t drain well). Our first action on entering the classroom has been every day the same one: opening the windows as wide as they would go. Even so we, students and teacher, have been forced to associate Victorian Literature with a bad odour–which possibly is what Victorian themselves were used to in their dirty streets but not what we need to focus on intellectual work.

Add to this the fact that the classroom was too big, which resulted in a strange seating pattern, with students basically forming a diagonal from the first row of benches to the back row, instead of sitting close in just a few rows. There were moments when I didn’t know where to place my gaze; and, then, when I did, what I saw was not very reassuring: students texting, or lounging as if on their sofa… not taking notes at all… talking to each other but not to me… I’m amazed that so many days I had to ask for silence to lecture and, then, when I asked for comments the chatterers kept silent.

Here is what every student should understand (or at least my students): a teacher’s performance depends on the students’ attention. If this attention wavers or is never available, the teacher falters, hesitates, starts waffling instead of properly lecturing, and the discourse collapses in the worst case. That was the day when I stopped and told my students that since they were not interested in what I had to say, I was perfectly willing to go to my office where I had tons of work to do. You can’t begin to imagine how foolish I felt, and how hard it was to return to my topic.

By the way, I have also noticed another symptom of bad teaching: linguistic accuracy vanishes. My English simply starts evaporating, the sentences don’t flow, the mistakes are unbelievably basic. When a class goes well, however, the solidity of the use of language increases tenfold and the brain seems to go on a faster gear, which is why I love teaching: this is when I do my best thinking.

I finally came out of my bleak cocoon to speak to some of my students and some of my colleagues about what was missing in class, and it turned out that the impression that my teaching was not working was not shared by the students (um, at least the ones that spoke to me). It was, however, shared by my colleagues, not because they think I’m a lousy teacher but because they were in a similar situation regarding their own classes. And I don’t mean my Department colleagues only, but others teaching English in Britain, which shows this is not a local case. Somebody, then, should produce an academic study of why, plainly, students are very clearly showing with their attitude in class that they prefer lecturing to participative-style teaching. For this is it: my discomfort has to do with realizing that basic truth.

Students’ resistance to class participation manifests itself, to begin with, by their not reading the books we discuss in advance. We publish the syllabus in early July for them to read the texts over summer but this has never ever worked–yet, we persist. I told my students that in order to succeed in their degree the main trick is acquiring good time-management skills. This means planning ahead and preparing all tasks with sufficient time, both to avoid failure and stress. Since very few do that in spite of our efforts to inform them of the content of courses, I must conclude that they need to be told that this expected of them.

It occurs to me that, possibly, our problems have to do with our different perception of the situation: we teachers believe that students understand what their role involves, and students believe that it’s our duty to point out at each step what they need to do. My syllabi, then, will include from next year onward a warning in bold, red type that a) books need to have been read at least two weeks before their class discussion begins; b) time-management is essential and c) class participation… inevitable.

For the last six years, we have invited students to participate in class in the following way. The first novel in the course (second-year Victorian Literature, remember) is entirely in the hands of the teacher, who produces plenty of close reading to set an example. Then, we distribute the chapters of the second novel among students and in each session a maximum of about 8 contribute a comment based on a passage. Then for the third and fourth novels students need to contribute a passage from a secondary source. Well, this is the first time when the method has not worked at all, as some students have chosen to ignore that this is a compulsory activity. In some sessions only 1 or 2 of the students were present–some, indeed, had a valid excuse for their absence but they were a minority. I did ask my class whether there was a boycott afoot, which they denied, a bit surprised at my paranoia… But then I do know that some students take our invitation to participate as a form of coercion, and it appears that, whereas in previous years they made an effort to comply, this year they have resisted the obligation to speak in class.

I don’t wish to give you the impression that the whole thing has been a disaster – not at all. Very few students have failed and these were the ones that did not complete assessment. What I’m trying to say is that this resistance to engaging in a participative-style of teaching benefits nobody. I’ll say again this: when I taught Harry Potter back in 2013-14, every lecture was a most enjoyable party, not because of the text itself but of students’ eagerness. I refuse to believe that only Harry Potter produces that effect… I’ll add that I expected something similar regarding our newest addition to the Victorian syllabus: Dracula. Instead, attendance was at its lowest.

The students that speak to us, teachers, are, of course, the keener ones. It is then only partially useful to ask them why their peers are not so keen. A factor that emerges in conversation, anyway, is that the university entry system in Spain forces students into degrees that were only their second or third choice. I will not go into the shortcomings of our secondary education, nor into the problem of how the social media are negatively impacting the attention span of young people (even their ability to think in silence and with no interruptions). There is, however, something else at work: a generational pragmatism which rejects all unnecessary extras. Since my students’ performance has, on the whole, been quite good, I need to reach the conclusion that the lectures (classes, sessions, whatever) are beginning to be seen as superfluous activities, which they eschew, rather than as what they should be: an occasion to engage in high-level intellectual dialogue.

I was for sixteen years a teacher at the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and I am, therefore, familiar with a pedagogical model that does not rely on classroom interaction. My students at UOC did very well but at the back of my mind there was always the question of whether they would do even better in class. As happens, one of them did become my presential student and even my BA dissertation tutoree and this convinced me that we do need direct personal contact in lectures. Now I’m not so sure and I wonder whether the millennials’ pragmatic ways will, in the end, force us either to return to traditional lecturing or to abandon the classroom altogether.

We’ll see.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE DECLINE OF LITERARY FICTION (AND MICROHISTORY AS ALTERNATIVE STORYTELLING)

January 2nd, 2018

A recent report by the British Arts Council, “Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction” (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/literature-21st-century-understanding-models-support-literary-fiction) has unleashed much controversy about what exactly ails the most demanding form of prose writing. It is obvious that sales are going down with many literary fiction writers now being unable to live off their artistic vocation (please note that the top-selling book of 2017 in the UK is… Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food with 716,000 copies sold; for the top 100 see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/30/bestsellers-2017-top-100-philip-pullman-jamie-oliver-margaret-atwood).

The terms of the debate following the issuing of the report are focused, as it was to be expected, on a variety of already well-known arguments: a) print fiction cannot compete with the attractions of the social media and of audiovisual fiction/entertainment; b) literary fiction is, by definition, non-commercial; c) this a specific anglophone problem and in other languages literary fiction still thrives; d) the MAs in creative writing are having a (paradoxical) negative impact on literary quality by limiting individual creativity and innovation; e) literary fiction has done a good job of cultivating prose but is neglecting plot in excess and g) readers are no longer willing to make the effort to read literary fiction after being disappointed by too many over-hyped volumes. I could go through the whole alphabet…

I will add fuel to the fire by pointing out that not all professional writers should expect to make a living off their writing. Arundhati Roy, who published an excellent novel twenty years ago, The God of Small Things, and has only now published the second one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, might be the kind of writer we need: someone who offers very few, strictly selected novels rather than a constant flow of mediocre writing aimed at keeping the pot boiling on the stove, and not at all contributing to the art of Literature. Why, indeed, should literary fiction be a profession, except for a handful of very high quality writers?

I’ll go even further to note that I myself, a Literature teacher, went into shock recently when reading the short story collection Hijas de un sueño (http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/hijas-de-un-sueno/) published by my dear friend Gerardo Rodríguez (also an English Literature teacher at the Universidad de Granada). My shock surfaced from realizing that I haven’t been reading great Literature produced in our own period for a very, very, very long time… if at all. Pretentious, yes indeed; great, no. Wisely combining the lessons learned from Katherine Mansfield with his own Andalusian cultural heritage, Gerardo has produced a slim volume which is worth 100 over-hyped, fumbling literary novels, of the kind that promises more than delivers. Why’s that? Because this is a book written in no hurry and with the only aim of accomplishing a personal goal, namely, the publication of a volume the author can be proud of. Is it ambitious? Of course it is, but not the kind of ambition that is now spoiling the literary game: the ambition leading to craving for meaningless awards, striving for a fleeting media presence, competing in the top sales charts with plenty of other bad books. The underside is, as I told Gerardo, that few will even notice that his beautiful literary book exists for in our topsy-turvy times literary excellence is simply not admired. An inconvenient truth that the Arts Council’s report, by the way, overlooks.

I think that what we, readers, are doing in the absence of fine prose (which is not the decorative prose they teach in creative writing schools) is to choose storytelling. This might explain the pleasure we get from 19th century fiction–which tried to mix both good prose and good plotting–and contemporary popular fiction. Unlike literary fiction, which, as I have noted, tends to neglect plot because of the Modernist prejudice against it, popular fiction is capable of combining quality plotting with quality writing. The kind of popular fiction we tend to hate fails, precisely at both ends: the prose and the plot (for an example, read Riley Sager’s appalling thriller Final Girls).

Compulsive readers, and I am certainly one, may be starving for new fine prose, of the kind that gives you an insight into human life, but this does not mean we are starving for good reading. If we don’t find it in the fiction of the past (I’m currently reading Margaret Oliphant’s awesome 1883 novel Hester with much enjoyment), then we find it outside the novel. And I mean in non-fiction (a lazy label if I ever have seen one…) and particularly in what is now often referred to as ‘microhistory’.

Wikipedia informs us that microhistory is “the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microhistory). The resulting print volumes are, then, a specific branch of non-fiction, mostly written by historians instead of, as it is often the case, journalists. The distinctions are, however, not that clear-cut possibly because few academics have bothered to pay attention to non-fiction and its generic taxonomy and we are constantly confused by the label. Non-fiction, by the way, including microhistory, tends to be narrative rather than essayistic which is why it is often chosen as an alternative to the novel by dissatisfied readers.

There is not (yet) a canon of the best microhistory but you may find an impressive list on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1058.Microhistory_Social_Histories_of_Just_One_Thing. Number 9 on the day I’m writing (this may vary depending on the number of votes) is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, simply the best book I have read this past 2017 (together with Hijas de un sueño). It is also very handy to explain the links (and differences) between fiction and non-fiction: Philbrick narrates the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Both did intensive research but whereas Melville chose to embellish the events by developing his own plotting and using his fine, insightful prose, Philbrick uses a scholarly, yet still entertaining approach, attempting to reconstruct past events.

And this is it: for us, readers who love learning from books, the combination of solid research, appealing narrative and elegant prose is unbeatable. Also, the variety of topics, another aspect that is giving microhistory an advantage over plain fiction. You will soon see that the GoodReads microhistory list mixes many heterogeneous works. I’ll take just the first 10 titles to make my point (consider how many you would like to read…):

1. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
3. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
4. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
5. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
6 Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
7. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
8. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
9. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
10. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

What a marvellous list for a monographic course (or analysis in a collective volume…)!!! Or reading project for 2018…

It has taken since the 1980s much academic effort to convince university students and teachers that the world of fiction worth reading and researching extends far beyond the narrow confines of literary fiction, beginning with (poorly labelled) popular fiction. It is now the time, perhaps, to start considering the role that non-fiction is playing in the habits of contemporary readers to replace the ailing literary fiction, and its merits as good writing, in particular in microhistory. Can we really say that, for instance, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (or Unbroken) has less merit as a storytelling volume than any of the contemporary anglophone novels we read, teach and do research on? I should think not–quite the opposite, it is better than many which we value simply because they are marketed as literary fiction.

I realize that the microhistory in the GoodReads list has a common ingredient: the intention to popularize scholarly knowledge. These volumes are often popular science but also an application of its popularizing techniques to many other areas. I marvel at how although English ‘popularize’ and Spanish ‘divulgar’ appear to share a similar meaning (populus = the people; vulgus = the common people), yet ‘divulgar’ expresses much better the idea of making scholarly research available to a mass readership while still maintaining a serious didactic tone. I would not say that the didactic component is what is luring readers away from literary fiction and into microhistory but it is certainly a very strong point.

The function of Literature, to end, used to be providing an insight into human life coached in beautiful language (which, by the way, poetry does much better than novels…). What we’re seeing today, then, is that literary fiction is providing mainly forgettable prose and extremely limited insights into personal lives with scant projection onto the rest of the world. Microhistory (as a print genre expressing a trend in historiography) is placing individual experience against a much larger historical canvas, as the novel used to do in pre-Modernist times. It may not offer literary prose (though it could) but it is offering a more complete approach to human life than the minimalist, fragmented, individualistic approach of current literary fiction. This is why many, like yours truly, find so much pleasure in its pages.

Perhaps the Arts Council should look next into microhistory for, as we know, genres come and go, rise and fall, and perhaps the literary novel is beginning to outstay its welcome, at least as we know it today.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A GLOSSARY OF GENDER-RELATED WORDS (IN HOMAGE TO AMBROSE BIERCE’S THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY)

December 22nd, 2017

#metoo: Hashtivist campaign used to evidence how commonplace sexual harassment is for women, in all professional contexts. A group of men responded by using the self-defensive hashtag #NotAllMen, instead of the better suited #LearnToBeGentlemen or #GoodMenShameHarassers. SEE: harassment.

Agender: Intelligent individual tired of the obnoxious gender binary, who has made the wise decision to assume that gender is irrelevant (sadly, it may be to yourself, but not to the others). SEE: asexual.

Alleged rape: Perplexing way in which the media refer to the misogynistic hate crime of rape and which has no parallel with other crimes (alleged murder? alleged robbery?). In the case of rape the perpetrator’s presumption of innocence extends so far that the victim’s presumption of victimhood is questioned, hence the idiosyncratic use of the adjective ‘alleged’. SEE: rape.

Armpit vagina: Part of the female body discovered by actor Jennifer Lawrence, now a Nobel prize candidate for Medicine (sub-section Anatomy). Finding body-shaming not thorough enough, Lawrence proceeded to point out how female flesh folds around armpits producing a strange vaginal hollow. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg might actually share Lawrence’s award, as the female protagonist of his 1977 film Rabid has a penis in her armpit. SEE: body-shaming.

Asexual: Intelligent individual who, unlike most current human beings, has realized that sex occupies too much mental space considering how scant actual time is employed in having some. Asexuals are the only sane persons in our sex-crazed world although, sadly, their position appears insane to the sex-crazed. SEE: agender.

Body-shaming: Abuse focused on declaring (usually on the social media) how little you like a particular part of a person’s body, or even the whole body. Since no human body is perfect, not even Naomi Campbell’s, and she is bound to age one century or another, it is a mystery why humans have chosen this way of making their lives harder. Defenders of body-shaming claim that they mean well and their abuse is for our own good. SEE: armpit vagina.

Brazilian wax: Torture method consisting of getting rid of perfectly natural pubic hair in female genitalia by applying a layer of hot wax and pulling hard. The technique can only be called Brazilian if a hair strip is left in the central segment; otherwise, the proper label is ‘Hollywood wax’. This torture method, which would appal the Inquisition, is, inexplicably, endured voluntarily by millions of women all over the world as an effect of the popularity of porn among heterosexual men.

Closet: Not to be confused with a wardrobe, particularly a cabinet wardrobe. In British English a closet is a small room that can be closed for privacy (hence water closet, or w.c.). Rich houses had closets used as walk-in wardrobes (or, rather, dressing rooms), but also as small studios; thus in Restoration comedy closets were often the place where adulterous affairs happened. In American English ‘closet’ refers to a walk-in wardrobe, not to the small room, hence the confusion about the meaning of ‘coming out of the closet’, an early 20th century expression. Some claim that ‘coming out’ refers to acting as a debutante, presenting yourself publicly, whereas ‘closet’ is often connected with other popular idioms, such as ‘keeping skeletons in the closet’. Anyway, the Spanish mistranslation of ‘closet’ as ‘armario’ is absurd, and it would have been far more accurate to translate the idiom as ‘salir de la habitación secreta’.

Consent: A word missing in the vocabulary of the patriarchal men whose sense of entitlement includes free access to women’s bodies, through harassment and direct sexual violence. Often confused with ‘yes’, the word ‘no’, used to deny consent, is often downplayed by these men as irrelevant, just teasing, or a product of women’s hesitant behaviour and tiny brains. SEE: harassment.

Dick pic / to dickpic: A peculiar variety of selfie which pops up unsolicited in women’s computers and cellphones and that, inexplicably, senders believe to have the same seductive value as the pic of a nice, smiling face.

Feminazi: A feminist in favour of building concentration camps where men can be exterminated using poison gas, while pretending this never happened. This is possibly a misinterpretation of the word but it is very hard to guess correctly what ‘feminazi’ does mean. On the other hand, no feminist in on record demanding that Hitler’s genocidal policies against Jews, gays, Roma people, political prisoners and other minorities be used against men, which makes ‘feminazi’ a truly mystifying word.

Feminism: An antidote to patriarchy. Of course, patriarchal men pretend that feminism is the same as androphobia (or misandry) and in this way they can dismiss women’s demands that patriarchy ends as mere men-hatred.

Feminism (Institutional): The terrorist branch of radical feminism. Institutional feminists force Parliaments to pass legislation designed to take all the power away from men to give it to women, so that men will know what it is like to be powerless. It hasn’t worked so far, despite the claims of masculinist men. SEE: Feminism (radical).

Feminism (radical): A dangerous gang of women devoted to running a vicious smear campaign against all men, despite the clear evidence that men, not women, are the victims of patriarchal power, and that women have no real grounds of complaint. SEE: Feminism (Institutional)

Gender gap: The gap between the platform where women wait for the train that men ride and the train itself. Despite the constant warnings to ‘mind the gap’ many women still die by falling under the wheels of oncoming trains that they’re trying to board. The few who have managed to become passengers do little to narrow the gap, as they feel very proud to have bridged it.

Gender labelling: Taxonomic mania that has gripped Gender Studies theoreticians, sex and gender activists, and plain people in the vain hope that the more labels you generate the more at ease will individuals feel with their own inclinations. It is not working, for gender labelling still insists on the central role of gender in human identity; besides, most people are labelled-against than self-labelling. SEE: agender.

Gender-equal: Gender-utopian (currently)

Gender-neutral toilets: Really??? What for?? To make who more comfortable?

Harassment (sexual): Very easy – any unwelcome sexual advance, from a mere verbal comment to an act of bodily aggression. This is very different from flirting, which is enjoyed by the two individuals involved. So, why is harassment so difficult to understand?

Incel: Involuntary celibate, that is to say, a man who hates women because the bitches reject him sexually and force him to remain celibate. This is NOT a tongue-in-cheek definition, but the real thing even though the term ‘incel’ appeared in the 1990s to name men and women who wanted to be in a relationship but could not find a couple. And who did not hate each other for that.

Mansplaining: A label used for men’s constant offering of unrequired explanations in a patronising tone to women, in the belief that we generally know little about everything and are too shy to ask for an explanation from our always better informed male peers. Mansplaining is not general among men but mansplainers tend to offer all kinds of explanations, which is why they seem to be omnipresent. Here, by the way, I am ‘femsplaining’, which conflates ‘woman explaining’ with ‘feminist explaining’–but then I don’t volunteer explanations unless asked for them. And it’s my blog.

Manspreading: The taking up of extra space by men on the seats of public transport on the grounds that men genitalia need to be cooled by keeping the legs separate. An example of how men’s poor knowledge of their own anatomy combines with a sense of entitlement that ignores basic politeness.

Menstruation: Perfectly natural discharge of the menses, or blood lining up the uterus, every time conception fails to happen. Even though the practice by which menstruating women were deemed unclean and separated from the tribe is not practiced in the modern world, women obsess about concealing all signs of their period–as if they still could be sent into the menstrual hut. SEE: Menstrual blood.

Menstrual blood: Blood discharged with every menstruation. Unlike the liquid that appears in the ads for sanitary napkins, menstrual blood is not blue but the habitual dark red. SEE: period poverty.

Pansexual: Individual inclined to having sex with any person of any gender variation, which sounds woefully limited in the context of planet Earth but must be great fun in a pan-galactic context!!!

Paternity leave: Strategy followed by legislators to invite new fathers to be involved in the first months of life of their newly born babies. It favours caring men who, otherwise, would be booed down as sissies by their less caring male-co-workers but it is a pain in the ass for patriarchal breadwinners. Many men who drag their feet as new fathers claim they would take paternity leave if it were compulsory (and in this way they wouldn’t lose patriarchal face–or cheek).

Period poverty: A type of economic hardship affecting specifically young girls, who are forced to stop attending school because they cannot afford sanitary napkins or tampons but are body-shamed if signs of their menstrual blood show. This affects girls all over the world, also in supposedly rich nations like the UK. Really.

Polyamorous: A person who kids him or herself that having several relationships at the same time will make him/her happier than being monogamous. Unless, that is, we are all missing something…

Rape: Hate crime committed against the bodily integrity of another person who does not wish to be touched in any way by the perpetrator, much less be intimate with their assailant. Unless what happens in most crimes, such as robbery, the victim must convince the judge that she (or he) has been assaulted. SEE: alleged rape.

Self-objectification: Mysterious prolongation of Lacan’s mirror-phase from early childhood until the day before actual death, when Instagrammers will still insist on posting their last selfie (wait and see). Self-objectification is an extreme form of Romantic narcissism but focused on the body rather than the mind and its feelings. Like 19th century Romantic individuals, self-objectifiers are subjected to much ridicule and abuse (particularly body-shaming), which begs the question of why this Narcissistic behaviour persists. Perhaps Lacan knew.

Submission (in rape): A strategy followed by the victim to avoid greater harm during rape, such as murder, and often confused with consent, or even active participation resulting in great pleasure. SEE: consent.

Third gender option: A way of transforming all the problems besetting the vexing gender binary into a new set of problems besetting the vexing gender trinity. A solution similar to claiming that adultery makes long-lasting relationships more interesting.

Toxic masculinity: Patriarchal masculinity, that is to say, a masculinity defined by the privileges that patriarchy gives men. It is very easy to replace with an alternative, non-toxic masculinity but only a minority of men have seen the advantages of breaking away from patriarchy and embracing a healthier, far more satisfying way of being a man.

Victim/survivor: An individual who struggles not to have his or her life defined by the bodily and psychological harm inflicted by others. In current parlance, a victim appears to be in a weaker position than a survivor, who has taken many more steps on the path towards self-healing. Victim/survivors are often shamed and, thus, doubly abused, while perpetrators even get the support of family, lovers, friends and even complete strangers. SEE: Victim-blaming.

Victim-blaming: Strategy consisting of blaming the victim in, for instance, cases of sexual harassment or assault, rather than the perpetrator because while the perpetrator will listen to no argument and might not even understand he has committed a crime, there is an absurd hope that if only women understood that the wolves are there, they would take measures not to stray off the path.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BOYS CONSUMING PORN: A BLEAK FUTURE FOR HETEROSEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS

December 12th, 2017

If you talk to the truly caring parents of any young girl, you will be dismayed by the appalling panorama they paint of what should be a placid childhood but is not at all. I refer here specifically to the way in which the boys’ consumption of porn from a very early age is poisoning the basic relationships between boys and girls and, indeed, the present and the future of heterosexuality. A recent survey–the Barómetro 2017 of ProyectoScopio produced by the Centro Reina Sofía sobre Adolescencia y Juventud de la Fundación de Ayuda contra la Drogadicción (FAD)–indicates that 27’4% of Spaniards aged 15-29 find couple-related violence and abuse ‘normal’ ( https://politica.elpais.com/politica/2017/11/13/actualidad/1510588777_948585.html). What I’m going to discuss here today might offer a clue about why legislation and education are not altering this disastrous situation.

Here is what is happening, in a nutshell: the moment boys are provided with cellphones they use them to satisfy their curiosity about sex. Their Google searches soon lead to porn, which they watch with no parental control whatsoever, and any place they feel like (not just their room but also the school bus and even the school grounds…). The habit of watching porn may start as soon as 7, depending on when the boy is given his first cellphone. Let’s suppose it’s, rather, 10. By the time their own sexuality starts emerging, say around 12, they have been accumulating a long series of images from their porn consumption on which they base their own approach to sex.

The girls, who are far less curious about sex and not much interested in porn, do watch it anyway, sooner or later, to understand what the boys are talking about… and urgently demanding from them. Pre-teen and teen boys learn from porn not just a series of practices (which are not that common–think anal sex) but also an attitude: they develop a strong sense of entitlement over the girls’ bodies in imitation of male porn actors. This manifests itself through a constant stream of completely inappropriate, bullying, sexualized behaviour which puts a lot of pressure on the girls, and to which many conform out of fear of being unpopular with boys. By the way, the cockier boys also happen to be the most popular ones. The better educated boys (who, surely, must be the majority) do nothing to shame their peers because they also submit to the abusers’ alpha male strategies of command. The teachers may notice irregularities but do little, assuming that these are private matters. The parents may remain totally ignorant (most girls do not report what’s done to them out of shame), or even downplay the abuse which their daughters endure as something trivial or, worse, mere child’s play.

Does this sound crazy? I thought so, too. But a) ask the younger girls in your family what is going on, and b) do some online reading.

I started by googling “child porn consumption” and soon got a lot of links. I learned, for instance, that back in 2008, a 12-year-old boy was investigated by the Guardia Civil as part of a Spanish network of child porn consumers. Yes, correct: a consumer in the ring, not a victim. See http://www.europapress.es/sociedad/sucesos-00649/noticia-nino-12-anos-investigado-consumir-pornografia-infantil-internet-20081010120059.html.

An article in the magazine Mujer Hoy, of February this year, simply titled “¿Por qué ven porno nuestros hijos?” (http://www.mujerhoy.com/vivir/psicologia/201702/23/porno-nuestros-hijos-20170223103740.html), mentioned a worrying report (also referenced in other articles) by Bitdefender, a company that sells online security systems. They may be exaggerating for purely commercial reasons, but, apparently 10% of all porn consumers in Spain are children under 10 (I’ll speculate that 95% of these are boys).

The figure is corroborated by the 2016 report issued by the Women and Equalities Committee of the British House of Commons, “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools” (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmwomeq/91/91.pdf). According to this document, section 6 “Tackling the impact of pornography”, “There is extensive evidence that children’s perceptions of sex, consent, gender roles and relationships are changing as a result of the pornography they are seeing”. The report adds that a 2014 study in which over 1,000 British 16-21 year-olds were surveyed found that “Almost a quarter of young people were 12 years-old or younger when they first saw porn online (24.6%) and 7.3% were under 10” (my italics). A majority of 74% agreed that “pornography affects what young men and women expect from sex”, particularly men’s expectations. “The most common answer was that young men expect young women to behave like the women in porn films”–young women actually meaning here children of 12 upwards.

The article in Mujer Hoy to which I have referred is very critical of the parents’ casual approach to how their children use their computers and smartphones. Whereas home computers have often been the object of parental advice about how to prevent the little ones from being cyberbullied, or accessing inadequate websites, parents seem far less concerned about smartphones. This magazine article informs that 30% of all Spanish children have been given a smartphone (not just a plain cellphone) by the age of 10; 70% by the time they hit 12. Do the maths… Kaspersky Labs contributes a scary figure: 39,9% of all the websites visited by Spanish children have pornographic content; 53% of children aged 11-16 have seen explicit online porn–33% using a smartphone. I’m by no means a technophobe but I see no need at all to put in children’s hands smartphones, not just because of concerns about porn consumption but, needless to say, because children have learned to use these gadgets to bully each other mercilessly (as any child will explain if only you listen).

Following the internet thread I came across the names of Allison Havey and Deana Puccio, authors of, apparently, one of the best volumes offering parental advice on these thorny matters: Sex, Likes and Social Media: Talking to our Teens in the Digital Age (2016). They also run the website The Rap Project (http://therapproject.co.uk/), which aims to “raise awareness about personal safety and prevention in areas of rape and sexual assault, while openly discussing how pornography and social media influence attitudes and expectations. We also address how media can negatively affect body image and self-esteem”. As you may notice, they target teens but my impression is that, the way we’re going, the target demographic should be, rather, children 6-10. And I’m not mentioning the obvious elephant in the room: the rampant porn consumption by adult men, many of whom are fathers in charge of educating little boys. Check the internet and you will find dozens of links about employees watching porn at work, and even winning cases after being fired by rightly indignant employers.

All this has a very direct effect on girls’ self-image, in ways you would never guess. Back in 2012 The New York Times published an article, “Off to Camp… but First to Wax?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/fashion/off-to-camp-but-first-a-wax.html?_r=2&ref=fashion), which is an early example, it appears, of a piece discussing a new parental concern: should you let your 12-year-old daughter wax her armpits and legs, and even get a bikini line wax? This seems almost quaint, thinking of the many pieces published online from 2013 onward in which teen girls discuss intimate grooming, including matters such as whether to opt for a Brazilian wax (leaving only a ‘landing strip’ of hair) or a Hollywood wax (complete pubic hair removal). Guess where teens girls got the idea of shaving or waxing their pubic hair… Right indeed!! From their boyfriends’ demands that they look like porn stars.

There is worse–brace yourself for what’s coming now. An article published by The Guardian (in their Lifestyle section, sub-section Women!!!) reports that “More young girls asking GPs about genital cosmetic surgery, study finds” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/06/more-young-girls-asking-gp-genital-cosmetic-surgery-study-finds). The study, lead by Dr. Magdalena Simonis, of the University of Melbourne, found that 35% of Australian family doctors “reported seeing females younger than 18 years of age requesting FGCS” (female genital cosmetic surgery) (http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/9/e013010). Labiaplasty has increased threefold in Australia, the Guardian article explains, “over the previous decade despite there being no increase in genital abnormalities”. What Simonis found out is the “sociocultural influences” that lead to demanding labiaplasty affect all women; yet, whereas the older ones ask for this procedure after childbirth (or divorce), girls from 15 upwards are affected by “peer comments, the pressures of the fashion industry and exposure to pornography”. Peer comments? I should say boyfriends’ comments.

A similar piece run more recently by the BBC, lowers the age of British girls asking for labiaplasty to 9 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-40410459). A 14-year-old explains in an interview quoted in the article that she asked for an operation because “People around me were watching porn and I just had this idea that it should be symmetrical and not sticking out”. Luckily, she was shown the right images and realized that she looked perfectly normal and, so, there was no need for any procedure. However, Paquita de Zulueta, a very experienced GP, is quoted saying that “I’m seeing young girls around 11, 12, 13 thinking there’s something wrong with their vulva–that they’re the wrong shape, the wrong size, and really expressing almost disgust”. They all want to have what is now known in cosmetic surgery parlance as a Barbie vagina… And although the NHS claims that its doctors only operate on girls above 18 and always for medical reasons, it turns out that “In 2015-16, more than 200 girls under 18 had labiaplasty on the NHS. More than 150 of the girls were under 15”. Dr Naomi Crouch, presented as a “leading adolescent gynaecologist”, declares in this report that, she finds “it very hard to believe there are 150 girls with a medical abnormality”, adding that this type of surgery is beginning to be too close to (illegal) female genital mutilation.

It’s only going to get worse. Facebook has just announced the introduction of a new app, Messenger Kids, aimed at 6-12 year-olds. Yes, that’s right: 6 upwards. They promise to offer parents total control but, then, this is the company spectacularly failing to prevent all forms of trolling and bullying from affecting adult Facebook users… or should I say mostly women?

I’ll go back to what I have been preaching again and again: when gentlemanliness was lost, a valuable tool to curb down patriarchal men’s inappropriate behaviour was lost. There is absolutely no shaming mechanism that can tell young consumers of porn that they should never force girls into doing what they see on the screen. Legislation does not even apply to this matter and education is not addressing it because many educators simply do not know how to tackle what is going on under their own very noses. The parents are very much confused about the need to control children and might be themselves very often in need of counselling… Girls are not taught to defend themselves because the issues I am raising here are not raised at home, or only rarely.

How all this will lead to healthier heterosexual relationships in the near future is beyond me… unless the silent majority of well-educated boys and men speaks up. Because they’re the majority, right?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHO DARES IMAGINE THE NEAR FUTURE? ON SELF-TAUGHT AIs AND HACKABLE NEURAL IMPLANTS

December 5th, 2017

This summer I started working on Indian sf writer Vandana Singh (see my post of 11 July on her short fiction) and I came to the conclusion that I really needed to do something to diminish my appalling ignorance of contemporary science. I mean something beyond reading science fiction… Just by chance I came across the daily newsletter offered by the Australian popular science magazine Cosmos and I signed up. For the last few months, then, I have been starting my working day by reading some of the (brief) articles referenced in their messages. It’s really very exciting.

The world looks different when you start paying attention to how scientists are fiercely arguing whether the fabled dark matter (the very fabric of the universe) exists or not, or when you are told that evolution might be actually be happening in just two generations and not as slowly as we believed. Last week I found myself voting for the best artistic image produced by scientists photographing brains: I didn’t know neurons could be that beautiful! Today I got enticed by an article about a marvellous finding of dinosaurs eggs in China… And, yes, of course, taking into account the horridly complicated political crisis that Catalonia is going through I can well say that science is giving me a different, healthier mental framework to cling on. The world looks in Cosmos far bigger and thrilling that that scary place portrayed in La Vanguardia or in The Guardian, with all the miseries of politics and economics.

This doesn’t mean that my daily intake of science is always tranquil. I am not at all, as you may guess, a technophobe and would even describe myself as a moderate post-humanist in favour of improving human existence with all the science we can use. Yet, I was very, very scared by a Cosmos article called “YouRobot: Neurotech may destroy your privacy and your rights”… Before I go into that, let me explain that while bland fiction about the life crises of old and young middle-class people, or about queens with dragons, or about surviving zombie hordes, occupies our attention, much better dramatic stories are going on in scientific research. You may have even missed the day when human history changed.

If you recall, IBM’s computer Deep Blue coolly beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov back in 1996-7 in a six-game chess match. Google’s program AlphaGo defeated go grandmaster Lee Sedol (the best player on Earth) by a 4-1 score back on 15 March 2016, a truly historic day. How’s AlphaGo (part of project DeepMind) different from Deep Blue? Brace yourself: AlphaGo is a self-teaching a.i. which learned to play the game of go better than any human being in just three days and after simply being fed the rules. In contrast, Deep Blue was fed a myriad matches, which it learned to process very fast. If you don’t see how AlphaGo makes a very deep difference in human History… you need to catch up. Urgently. See, to begin with https://cosmosmagazine.com/mathematics/all-systems-go-what-it-play-against-computer.

What really matters, I’m learning through Cosmos, is not at all what makes the front page. For instance, did you know that “116 founders of AI and robotics companies have called on the UN to ban lethal autonomous weapons”, that is to say, killer robots? (https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/killer-robot-threat-must-be-faced-say-experts). Yes, James Cameron’s film Terminator (1984) is already happening. I learned in Richard Morgan’s novel Black Man (2013) that soldier robots are not in the end a very good idea, since they’re hackable. He speculated that genetically modified human beings might make the armies of the future, which sounds like replacing a terrifying nightmare with even a worse one… And it is happening.

If you’re not familiar with the word DARPA, then this would be the right time to check what they’re up to: https://www.darpa.mil/. I would say that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the closest thing we have to a classic mad doctor in Victor Frankenstein’s style but with all the power of the US dollar. And if you just thought ‘how about China?’, well, let me explain that China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are now producing cutting edge a.i., both anthropomorphic and otherwise, without any shared ethical guidelines for research whatsoever (https://cosmosmagazine.com/physics/robots-bring-asia-into-the-ai-research-ethics-debate). In plain English: they’re building any kind of robot they can think of and nobody is checking on them. Nobody is checking on DARPA, either.

Before you think that I’m producing here a techno-advanced version of early 20th century ‘yellow peril’ let me finally focus on the scary story I mentioned earlier on (see https://cosmosmagazine.com/the-future/yourobot-neurotech-may-destroy-your-privacy-and-your-rights). If you have read William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984) you must be familiar with the concept of jacking into the net: Gibson’s ‘cowboys’ are hackers provided with a cranial socket that allows them to link their brains to their computer terminals (or consoles) via a cable and a jack connector. Right, so it turns out that Elon Musk, Tesla’s charismatic founder, also runs a less well-known company, Neuralink (https://www.neuralink.com), devoted to building a brain/computer interface (BCI or ‘neural lace’). This was founded back in May 2016.

In principle, the idea of being able to think as fast as you computer sounds attractive, more or less, particularly if you still insist on playing go… I have always said that I would consider having my brain tampered with if this would give me better processing capacity, mad as this may sound. Yet, I had missed, as you will see, a crucial detail.

I have just learned from the corresponding Cosmos article that a group of scientists and specialists in ethics, calling themselves the Morningside group, have warned that the Declaration of Helsinki, the Belmont Report, and the Asilomar AI Cautionary Principles (documents about which I knew absolutely nothing) are not sufficient to prevent neural implants from being exposed to invasive manipulation and hacking. The implants now being used to correct motor deficit in sufferers of diseases like Parkinson’s, or to help paralysis victims to move objects, might be soon current–and capable of reading our thoughts. These are, just recall, electrical impulses that, sooner or later, will be decoded and controlled by powerful a.i. owned by corporations (and/or criminals)–a process to which Musk’s Neuralink is actively promoting.

The situation is so complex I can’t even begin to describe it but if you’re worried that the contents of your cell phone and your personal computer might be accessible to anyone (not just hackers but also bona fide, um, companies like Google), just think of the scary possibility that your brain might soon be equally unprotected. The Morningside group apparently believe that new ‘neurorights’ enforced through international legislation would protect, attention!!!!, our identity, agency and self-awareness. But even they acknowledge that “history indicates that profit hunting will often trump social responsibility in the corporate world”(see Rafael Yuste et al, “Four Ethical Priorities for Neurotechnologies”, Nature 8 November 2017, https://www.nature.com/news/four-ethical-priorities-for-neurotechnologies-and-ai-1.22960). This means that it’s game over for human beings are we are now. Privacy, consent, free will and identity, as they warn us, might be over soon. That is to say, the subject which is at the core of humanist thought.

The Morningsiders offer as a hopelessly optimistic solution teaching ethics to anyone involved in BCI technology. In this way, these persons would learn “to pursue advances and deploy strategies that are likely to contribute constructively to society, rather than to fracture it”. The group even proposes subjecting BCI sector workers to a new, specific Hippocratic Oath. Yet, it occurs to me that more than a few doctors must be in Elon Musk’s payroll already and the oath is not preventing them from opening up our brains to outside interference.

Perhaps, just perhaps, just as current teenagers think that privacy is a relative, overvalued concept which only worries Jurassic baby-boomers, the next generation will think nothing of having their brains directly linked to Google, Amazon or Facebook. Or their Tesla car…

Brave new world indeed.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BACK TO BASICS: SCARED BY THE VAMPIRE IN DRACULA

November 28th, 2017

[This is long and contains many spoilers, be warned!]

Reading Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula with fresh eyes is practically impossible. Even new readers carry with them countless images of the vampire in fiction and film (and in many other media, even toys and food). Those of us who return to this bizarre text now and then do so with our vision also colonized by the ubiquitous media vampire, regardless of our previous readings of the text. I’ve tried to become, nonetheless, a reader as inexperienced as possible in my recent re-reading of this atmospheric novel, carried out in preparation of lectures beginning next week. And, to my surprise, I have found Stoker’s masterpiece scarier than ever.

In the introduction to my oldish 1983 edition of Dracula (Oxford’s World Classics), A.N. Wilson gently mocks Stoker’s efforts, sentencing that while “[t]he writing is of a powerful, workaday sensionalistic kind”, in his view “No one in their right mind would think of Stoker as a ‘great writer’”. I agree that Dracula is not in the same league as “Middlemarch or Madame Bovary or War and Peace” but, then, we’re comparing here different kinds of talent. Eliot, Flaubert and Tolstoy could never have written Dracula, for good or bad. And it does take a still poorly understood type of talent to make this weird vampire tale survive since its inception in 1897, after spawning so many other creatures of the night. Also, if you check as I have done, how many ‘original texts’ Stoker uses in each of his chapters to maintain the illusion that his gothic yarn is ‘real’, you’ll see that he did make a remarkable effort to compose his novel. This apparently extends even to his having produced a quite accurate version of how Dutchmen speak English in Van Helsing’s singular idiolect.

Unfortunately, the plethora of ridiculous American-style vampires plaguing us since Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, presenting one of the creatures as a Romantic hero, has done much harm to the vampire myth–I forgot to say that Wilson calls Stoker a myth-maker. In the original novel, as some commentators have noticed, Count Dracula is actually a secondary, even minor, character. His actions are narrated by others–his actual or prospective victims–and they always see him as a menacing, predatory monster; this is how vampires should be portrayed. Edward Cullen and his kind are, excuse me, idiotic embodiments of the still more idiotic idea that a woman might find satisfaction in loving a monster. Victorian Mina does find satisfaction in her Christian conviction that by staking and beheading her harasser the gentlemen in her circle may be saving the Count’s soul, but she is never in love with Dracula. To my dismay (and disappointment), when I explained in a recent seminar that there is no romantic plot in Stoker’s novel, a young girl announced that this is why she will never read the book.

Stephanie Meyer’s already démodé Twilight saga borrows its romantic plot from James V. Hart’s absurd screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s so-called Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). This well-received adaptation significantly deviates from the original by supposing that Mina is a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-lost lover Elisabetta, who committed suicide centuries before when both were ruthlessly persecuted by their Ottoman enemies. The Count embraced vampirism in despair but seeing her lover reborn in the portrait of Mina that Jonathan carries with him, he determines to win her back. What is baffling about Hart and Coppola’s work is that theirs is certainly the most accomplished rendering of Stoker’s novel ever seen on the screen. As I re-read the book, I marvelled at how exact some of the filmed scenes were, even despite the bizarre outfits (Lucy’s burial/bridal dress) and the strange tone used by some performers. Anthony Hopkins played Van Helsing right after playing Hannibal Lecter and something of this vampiric character is visible in his Dutch vampire hunter.

I’m going to list next some of the moments that make Stoker’s Dracula so scary (most of them well known) and try to figure out what factors are usually overlooked. Perhaps this is obvious to any reader but I’ll claim that the three strongest points of this novel are: Stoker’s grounding of his paranormal tale on the technoscience of his ultra-modern late 19th century Victorian England, the urgency in the swift race against time in the last third of the novel to save Mina’s soul by killing Dracula and, above all, a very deft use of the hypnagogic state of consciousness, that is to say, of the phase between wakefulness and sleep. The most terrifying moments happen when characters cannot tell whether they are dreaming or being actually attacked. I’m not sure whether Stoker wrote in this way thinking that his readers would read his novel in bed, but the scenes can easily generate nightmares if read before falling asleep. Give it a try… if you dare.

Here are the most horrific touches. In Chapter 2, Harker describes the Count who, incidentally, begins the novel as an old man and progressively ages back towards youth as blood nourishes him. Dracula’s “cruel-looking” mouth with its “peculiarly sharp white teeth” and his “extraordinary pallor” warn us that he’s no ordinary man; but what really scares us is that his hands sport “hairs in the centre of the palm”. When Harker feels their touch he cannot “repress a shudder”–could you? During his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan is shocked by how his jailer pretends that he’s staying as a free guest–when told that he can leave, Harker finds a pack of wolves at the door.

There are a few even more hair-raising moments. One is the sight of the Count creeping down the wall, “using every projection and inequality to move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall”. Another one is Dracula’s offering to his brides of a bag with something squirming inside which, when opened, releases “a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child”. And, of course, the death of the poor baby’s mother, attacked by the Count’s feral minions: “There was no cry from the woman, and the howling of the wolves was but short. Before long they streamed away singly, licking their lips”. Notice the concise phrasing.

The horrific events on board the Demeter, the Russian ship carrying Dracula to Whitby (Chapter 7), appear to be the earliest predecessor of the film Alien. If, as its slogan went, ‘in space none can hear you scream’, the same happens at sea during the Demeter’s doomed voyage as Dracula decimates the crew. I must also highlight, obviously, Lucy’s rape in the graveyard, witnessed by Mina (Chapter 8). Rape? Yes, indeed. Mina does not know about Dracula but we do and, so, her inability to clearly see what is going on is totally unnerving. Lucy is here sleepwalking at night in Whitby’s graveyard: “There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, ‘Lucy! Lucy!’ and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes”. Mina boldly rushes to her friend’s aid but, by then, the phallic ‘something’ is gone. Not from our minds.

Other dreadful moments colour the failed attempts to protect poor Lucy. Her mother dies of a heart attack when a wolf crashes into their bedroom window. As she dies, Mrs. Westenra tears the garlic flowers off Lucy’s neck, leaving her vulnerable again to Dracula’s bite-raping procedure. Lucy writes that “I tried to stir, but there was some spell upon me”; her mother’s dead body also weighs her down. Later, once Lucy dies, a victim of this paralysing dread, we find the most stunning passage in the whole book: Van Helsing’s stark declaration to Dr. Seward that, since Lucy is actually un-dead, he “shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body” (Chapter 13). Appallingly, Seward says: “It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected”. How callous and… chilling.

Lucy’s fiancé Arthur is initially dismayed but he soon proceeds gleefully to do the deed, with hands that “never trembled nor even quivered”. Instead of the shortish stake used in films, Arthur impales Lucy with a 90 cm (three-feet) monster weapon as “a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips”. Once the terrible deflowering concludes she looks her old pre-vampire virginal self, seemingly satisfied that her soul has been saved. Please recall that Stoker imagined this sensational assault as a straightforward horror scene, and not as a scene to show the men’s misogyny. This is doubly terrifying for us.

Van Helsing’s list of the vampire’s powers in Chapter 18 is far more daunting than any similar list of features in other versions. Here Dracula is “strong in person as twenty men”, extremely cunning, a powerful necromancer, and capable of appearing “within limitations” whenever and wherever he wants. Most vampires are burnt by daylight but the Count can walk in the sun though only as a vulnerable mortal. The film Nosferatu (1922), an illegal adaptation, introduced (I think) the trope of the lethal sun-rays (or was it the serial Varney the Vampire?). Proof that Dracula can appear as he wishes is how, once invited in by madman Renfield into Dr. Seward’s home, the Count attacks Mina after reaching her bedroom as a mysterious mist. “I thought that I was asleep” she records in her journal, and our horror is amplified because rational Mina cannot tell that this was no dream. The same happened to her husband, remember, in his ordeal with Dracula’s voluptuous brides.

Nothing, however, is as strikingly pornographic and violent as the scene in Chapter 21 when Arthur, Morris, Seward and Van Helsing catch Dracula in Mina and Jonathan’s bed. Harker is “breathing heavily as though in a stupor” and this is the revolting sight the men face: “With his left hand [Dracula] held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress”. This oral rape and/or bloody fellatio, however, is infantilized by Seward who reports to us that “The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink”. Some kitten, some milk… This is, excuse me, the climax of the whole story.

It is, in any case, Stoker’s merit as a superbly good story-teller that the anti-climax is also full of suspense. In their thrilling chase of the Count back to his Transylvanian lair (he needs to be killed or Mina will become a vampire when she dies, even if never bitten again), our heroes even take the Orient Express!! For, as we are told again and again, this is the 19th century with a vengeance and the vampire cannot compete with the rush of the modern world. And rush the gang of heroes do, all the way to Dracula’s crumbling castle, where Van Helsing indulges in more female decapitation (of the brides), and Morris finally shows that he is not a superfluous addition: the Bowie knife of the American hunter is the tool that stakes Dracula’s heart. Thus is his soul saved, as Mina wishes, although, perplexingly, Morris is also killed (by a gypsy henchman of the Count).

In case you’re interested, the word ‘blood’ appears in the text 115 times (‘vampire’, just 28). ‘Soul’ is mentioned 65 times, and the verb ‘save’ 34. Now here’s the surprise: ‘sleep’ appears 193 times (‘asleep’, 47) but ‘dream’ only 18, and ‘nightmare’ just 6. The biggest surprise of all is that the real keyword of Dracula is ‘time’, with 386 appearances; ‘late’ is used 60 times (‘rush’ 10, ‘hurry’ 10). And ‘train’, 36… they didn’t have modern cars back then. Characters rush here and there in mortal fear that time is running out and that they are too late to save those who risk losing blood and soul while they’re apparently asleep, unaware that they are actually under attack by a monstrous vampire. This gives Dracula its amazing tension, its terse suspense, and its huge capacity to scare.

Step aside, Cullen and company.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SAY YES TO THE DRESS!: THE GUILTY PLEASURES OF A FEMINIST

November 21st, 2017

Every time I binge-watch the reality show Say Yes to the Dress! (usually a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon) I wonder why I like it. This is a series which narrates how brides purchase their bridal gown at Kleinfeld’s, a Manhattan store specializing in this kind of fashion (see https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/say-yes-to-the-dress/). Each episode lasts a little over 20 minutes and is usually based on a topic that links together a few brides. This might be the disagreements with their entourage, or the determination to buy a particular gown, or the body shape of the bride, or the budget limitations… etc. I tell myself that, precisely, what I enjoy is the art of the show writers in making the most of what appears to be, in principle, a very limited story: ‘bride buys gown’.

This justification, however, only satisfies partially the feminist in me. When I had the chance to buy a wedding gown I simply decided not to do so, which means that I’m not watching the show because I wish I were one of the brides. It’s not a personal matter, clearly. I must also clarify that I don’t particularly like weddings: they are, if you think about it, a theatrical sub-genre that should be studied as such but they’re not, on the whole, a spectacle that I appreciate very much. I more or less understand why couples want to display themselves before family and friends in this way but, perhaps because so often a divorce follows a wedding, I find both ceremony and banquet a perplexing performance. Sorry.

Let me, then, acknowledge the foundation of my guilty pleasure in watching Say Yes to the Dress!: it’s the highly emotional moment when the bride finds the perfect gown and can’t help crying. Obvious, isn’t it? This is the moment around which each episode segment is built, and the reason why the brides that leave Kleinfeld’s with no gown are so disappointed (and disappointing). Still, acknowledging that I’m hooked on that kind of emotion does not explain why. I can go here in two completely different directions. One, the academic anthropological argument suggesting that these tears bring back to me an idea of the sacredness of marriage which has been lost with the devaluation of romantic love. The other, the personal melodramatic argument: since all is so bleak in our world, I’m grateful for small mercies and moments of truly felt happiness.

Of course, like any reality show Say Yes to the Dress! is a fake narrative. I fail to understand the many criticisms that the series constantly receives about the falsity of the events narrated. By this I do not mean that the brides and their feelings are fictional; what I mean is that a) they go through a process of casting (publicly acknowledged, no secrets here), and b) their stories are edited to suit the show’s needs. I marvel at how good the montage of faces showing reactions to the brides’ good and bad choices is in very show. The crew films for hours to produce a clear-cut narrative which unfolds in just a few minutes. And this is inevitably the story of how there is always one perfect choice, once the bad ones are discarded.

This dynamic reproduces the romantic plot behind the purchase of the gown: the brides cry because their finding of the perfect dress mirrors their finding of the perfect partner. This is another reason why I’m addicted to the show: the description of the future husbands. Each bride needs to explain briefly how she met her groom and why she loves him, and this provides very rich data to understand what women want: a man who is caring, one’s best friend and gifted with a good sense of humour. The photos of the couples tell a parallel story, showing a variety of romantic pairings, from the classic high school sweethearts to the May/December couples with an obvious financial incentive. Yet, for once, I like being reassured that the world (well, the USA) is full of good men that these brides do want to marry. I wonder, naturally, whether the marriages last for long. Kleinfeld’s welcomes in some episodes second-chance, divorced brides but, on average, the women in the show are new to marriage. And greatly excited by the prospect.

The production company, TLC, has sold the format to British, Irish and Australia. Funnily, I watched five minutes of the UK version and it didn’t work for me; to be honest, a quite tasteless bride with a fixation for a tacky gown completely put me off. This doesn’t mean that the US brides I watch every Saturday have a marvellous taste… and that might be another source of attraction. I do wonder what the Spanish version would be like and I tell myself that the land of Pronovias and Rosa Clarà is much better equipped to offer brides tasty, classy outfits but, then, I might be deluding myself. Whatever the case might be, whereas I am awed by the gowns that some brides choose (my favourite still is a red gown, chosen by a bride who had never met in the flesh her internet lover), I am constantly amused by what some ridiculous brides choose. And totally baffled by the insistence that some show on wearing ultra-sexy gowns to present themselves publicly as trophy wives.

The show, then, has a manifest peeping-tom charm. I find American society quite strange and Say Yes to the Dress! often confirms that it is an alien world, in terms of taste, class configuration, romantic expectations and even bodily shape. I don’t want to check the internet for criticisms of the show’s castings (in fact, I don’t want to check the internet at all to keep the illusion flowing), but I appreciate the variety of brides on display in terms of race and looks, meaning not just thin/fat but also petite/ultra tall, etc. The whole point, as the store staff insists, is that a bride should feel beautiful, which is not the same as being beautiful. Of course, she needs the right budget, though I can say that spending 15000$ as some brides do, does not mean that you get the best gown for you (it’s often the opposite). Still, you need at least 2500$ which, while not an exaggerated amount, is quite a lot for most working-class brides.

Does watching Say Yes to the Dress! affect my feminist credentials? Am I embarrassing myself by acknowledging this guilty pleasure? I don’t think so. I could use here even the feminist argument that the show is a very complete laboratory for Gender Studies. An episode featuring a lesbian couple, for instance, implicitly invited audiences to accept gay marriage (also to ponder why one bride was wearing a gown and the other a tuxedo). The view is partial, for the gay men are missing from the picture, unless you count the show’s only male presence, Kleinfeld’s fashion consultant and gown designer Randy Fenoli, as a major gay presence. All the brides apparently support the heteronormative foundation of marriage and of wedding pageantry and this means that by watching the show and adding to the audience, I am also backing patriarchy, which would certainly affect negatively my feminist credentials. I cannot claim that I get pleasure from watching women make free choices because, for all I know, most of the brides might be totally deluded and/or anti-feminist to boot. Yet, there is something appealing in a woman’s taking centre-stage. Perhaps for the wrong reasons, I know…

In the past (I’m thinking of my mother’s generation and of 1960s marriages), women were allowed to shine on their wedding day in a hypocritical way, as the ceremony usually marked their patriarchal subjection to a husband. Today, we need to assume, things are different and the women who choose to marry and spend thousands of euros on a bridal gown are making a different kind of statement, hopefully turning on its head the traditional meaning of weddings. Happily for all, going through a wedding is now a choice, not an obligation. I would not call a wedding a feminist event but, then, some of my feminist friends have married in that way and even purchased bridal gowns, never mind that they were not necessarily white.

Feminist or no feminist, man or woman, heterosexual or LGTBI+, we all love a promise of happiness. This can be symbolized in many ways and by many objects and in Say Yes to the Dress! the bridal gown is that kind of symbol. Clearly, it also means other things, such as the bride’s pleasure in looking as good as possible, and, yes, of course, the princess dream, which seems to be common to many women in all classes. Although feminism rejects that fantasy as patriarchal, the decision to display yourself looking your best and being as happy as possible because you have found love seems to me perfectly compatible with a feminist mentality.

Still, guilty pleasures are there to celebrate our own contradictions…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE ANONYMIZATION OF AUTHORSHIP: A GROWING TREND

November 14th, 2017

It turns out that ‘anonymization’ is a concept used in the handling of data, to ensure the privacy of the persons providing the information. This is not how I am using the concept here. I refer, instead, to the process by which persons who make important contributions to the fiction we love best, whether as participants or authors, remain anonymous, unknown to the crowds. I’ll refer here mostly to Star Wars, as this is the mega-text that has provoked the thinking behind this post, yet, as you will see, this is a matter beyond popular fiction.

Recently, on 29 October, many news outlets carried the obituary of John Mollo. You’ve never heard of him? Should you have? Judge for yourself: this is the costume designer that won an Oscar in 1978 for the first Star Wars film, now known as Episode IV – A New Hope. He also won an Oscar, together with Bhanu Athaiya, for Gandhi (1982). The designs for the iconic costumes of George Lucas’ film, by the way, were not only Mollo’s; he actually materialized ideas suggested by artist and production designer Ralph McQuarrie, also responsible for the atmospheric set décor, the awesome spaceships and so on.

This means that, just to mention one example, McQuarrie and Mollo are the authors of the suit that makes Darth Vader such a memorable, lasting icon. Yet, we tend to cut the middlemen/women off authorship in cinema and attribute all the merit to the film director, which is downright silly. In a similar vein, checking yesterday out of sheer curiosity who drew the lovely Poppy for the film Trolls (2016), I learned that the artist in question, Craig Kellerman, is very much admired as a character designer in animation. I had never heard about him, though. I see Poppy everyday but the illustration on my office wall is signed ‘Dreamworks’ not Kellerman… And I had no idea that so many animation films that I like have characters created by the same artist (do check his IMDB entry).

More on this matter. On Friday 3 I found myself offering a presentation on Star Wars’s Obi-Wan Kenobi during a seminar on emotion and popular culture. I shared the session with my good friend Fernando Ángel Moreno, who spoke of how the Lovecraftian idea of cosmic horror applies to the saga (it does indeed!). During my talk I quoted two juicy bits of dialogue from the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t know to whom I should attribute the text. A screenwriter was credited for each episode but also a script supervisor, both responding to the series creator and, ultimately, to whoever took charge of the series at Lucas Film. I cannot say, then, who made the crucial decisions about Obi-Wan’s characterization that I discussed. The authors remain anonymous despite their presence in the episode credits. And this worries me, as I’m used to novelists making all the decisions and stepping on firm ground when I do literary studies.

In this regard, Fernando pointed out that in the new Star Wars films the person truly controlling the evolution of characters and story is producer Kathleen Kennedy, who entered the saga with Episode VIII – The Force Awakens (2015); recall that Star Wars no longer belongs to Lucas (he sold his baby to Disney… amazing!). Beyond the films, of course, Star Wars sprawls all over two textual multiverses, now labelled ‘Canon’ and ‘Legends’, which one single researcher can never ever make sense of, not even several teams. This is, I should say, a serious problem for the study of popular fiction, particularly in the audiovisual branch.

The understanding of audiovisual authorship was distorted apparently for ever when, as it is well known, the contributors to Cahiers du Cinema (founded in 1951) determined that for all purposes the author of a film is the director. This surprised both producers, who in the Hollywood studio system were the main originators of films, and humble film directors employed by that system, such as John Ford, who saw themselves suddenly hailed as artists when they regarded themselves as craftsmen. Unfortunately, this view of authorship totally eclipsed the screen writer, still today the most misunderstood contributor to films. Also, as the case of John Mollo shows, other artists were relegated to being an anonymous face in the production team. Film credits grew as these film workers demanded an acknowledgement of their efforts and so did the list of Oscar categories; even so, try to find a film spectator who can name a favourite film editor, or sound designer… I can’t even name screen writers, which is a shame…

In TV series, matters appear to have gone back to the old Hollywood studio system with creators/producers getting all the credit and both episode directors and writers being overlooked as authors. However, since nobody bothers to teach these matters, I’m sure that many youngsters are growing up today thinking, as I did, that actors write the films, lines, scenes and all the rest (I was much impressed by how inventive the ubiquitous Charlton Heston appeared to be); not even what directors do is clear to us. (Please note that sometimes actors do write the lines: the famous sentence about tears in the rain in the speech by the replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner (1982) was contributed by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. NOT written by Ridley Scott…).

How about print fiction, which comes in books with the name of the author on the cover? Recently, I read the umpteenth article warning about how piracy is destroying the book industry, this time from the point of view of young writers in the middle of writing novel series (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/06/pirated-ebooks-threaten-future-of-serial-novels-warn-authors-maggie-stiefvater). Something that very much surprised me is the lack of respect that piratical readers are showing for authors, even when they do like their work. And the downright cheekiness. Author Maggie Stiefvater complained that if sales of her books go any lower, her series (the Shiver and Raven Cycle) will be cancelled by her publisher. A reader immediately twitted back “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated”.

Leaving aside how digital e-book readers have made it easier for all of us to download books illegally uploaded by others, I would argue that anonymization is also to blame. In this case, although it’s a different kind of anonymization from that of the audiovisual industry it is possibly connected. In both cases there appears to be a serious lack of awareness on the side of the consumers of what producing the film or print text entails. Also, the constant flow of film and TV releases, and of book launches, seems to suggest that there will always be someone generation fiction even if particular persons stop. That’s the kind of anonymization I mean. This also has to do with falling average standards. I used to buy lots of books confident that it was money well used but I have become now a very wary customer, tired of being tricked by overhyped fiction (or academic research…) not worth 20 euros a volume, or much more if we think of academic publications.

Some readers’ comments appended to the article I have mentioned argued that Spotify has solved the problem for music (but please remember that unlike musicians writers make no money out of touring); perhaps Netflix and similar platforms are doing the same for film and TV. In both cases, however, the principle of anonymization applies, worsened by the algorithm system that keeps suggesting similar texts to consumers. Music is increasingly becoming muzak, originally the name of a company founded in the 1950s that sold background music to department stores and similar places, later a label used for the kind of music thus marketed. I often find myself in the kind of clothes shop which pesters you with loud music, wondering how specific songwriters feel about their creative work being used in that way. I’m not a Netflix subscriber, and I don’t watch series, but I am also constantly flabbergasted by how my students describe binge watching as a background activity that they combine with others, such as cleaning up the house (and study??). This is what the radio used to be for (or still is, I’m not sure).

Before I lose my thread, let me say that anonymization is also visible in the increasing difficulties to recall names and titles in all areas. Studios started advertising films using the tag line ‘by the director of Fight Club’ rather than ‘by David Fincher’ because spectators showed no interest in recalling directors’ names. I haven’t seen any film yet announced as ‘with the handsome guy in Troy’ rather than ‘with Brad Pitt’ but I assume this might soon happen. As for books, a funny thing is going on. On the one hand, I often come across names of ‘world-famous, best-selling’ authors who are totally unknown to me; on the other, readers mention to me books they have enjoyed but can’t remember the author (and give you just an approximate title).

Perhaps the genre in which anonymization is most worrying is… academic writing. The prose we use is so homogeneous that when I read collective volumes I have very serious problems remembering any of the contributors’ names and distinguishing one chapter from the next. We all use the same style, made even flatter by peer reviewing as any trace of authorial originality tends to be erased. Try being witty in an academic article and see who publishes it… Even though I should say that the average standard is pretty high, with quite sophisticated academic work being now produced, few academic pieces have a distinctive voice. To be honest, I started writing this blog to find my own voice as I’m not even sure it is present in my work. I wish I could write like Terry Eagleton but when I asked him for an interview how he had managed to be a clearly recognizable author with an essayistic voice of his own, he candidly told me this is an option only open to top-rank academics like himself with well-established names. The rest of us, I’m afraid, must aim for the transparent, insipid prose that now keeps academic authorship anonymized.

What a strange zeitgeist: I need to think further how the rampant narcissism of those who create nothing combines with the fall of the creators into anonymity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE PROBLEM OF SEXUALIZED SELF-PRESENTATION, AGAIN: SEARCHING FOR ITS ROOTS IN VICTORIAN TIMES

October 31st, 2017

Reading these days Peter Bailey’s excellent Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (1998), I was particularly surprised by his chapter on “The Victorian barmaid as cultural prototype.” First, I loved Bailey’s knack of brilliantly describing layers of thriving Victorian city life that are missing in the Victorian fiction I teach (despite Dickens!). Also, because what he narrates is part of a so-far incomplete ‘history of looking,’ which apparently Roland Barthes demanded (Bailey claims), and that today seems more urgent than ever. I refer here to the issue of my previous post: the problem of women’s sexualized public (self)-representation.

Bailey’s thesis is that the English barmaid of the newly refurbished Victorian pubs of the 1880s and 1890s belongs in the same category as the sexualized female body on display of the actresses, particularly those of the London music hall and the new musical comedy of the period. He argues that unlike the tavern girl serving tables and, thus, always the object of much unwanted groping and propositioning, the bar placed the barmaid firmly off-limits while emphasizing her theatrical display, as if on a stage (the area behind the bar became her own spectacular territory).

Bailey explains in all detail how barmaids were selected for their beauty and, to a certain extent, elegance (or poise), which means that often gentlemen’s daughters were employed as such. He notes that, logically, their position behind the bar emphasized the upper part of their bodies, with the area from the waist downwards becoming practically irrelevant (also because of the heavy multilayered Victorian skirts). Thus, the barmaids’ sexualized display depended on the shape of their torso, arms, neck and face, with hands playing, it seems, a major erotic part as targets of fleeting touch for male clients. Note that barmaids had a strict dress code and wore black dresses which covered their bodies from the neck to the feet. Even so, drinkers, whether gentlemen or otherwise, found these women unequivocally alluring. There is, by the way, no suggestion in Bailey’s essay that they were empowered by this public display; he very unambiguously explains that barmaids were exploited by their male employers (who decided to display them in this erotic way) and, in addition, overworked. The quick turnover of pretty faces was another constant.

The Victorian extension of the stage to the pub is interesting because unlike what happened with actresses and female dancers it did not use the excuse of the artistic performance for blatantly erotic bodily display. It was a purely commercial strategy to sell beverage.

The shock of seeing actresses on the English stage for the first time during the Restoration period (a habit that Charles II imported from France, where he had been exiled) had, logically, worn out by the time Victoria was crowned in 1837. Yet we tend to forget than from the 1830s onwards, when Romantic ballet was introduced in France with La Sylphide, ballerina’s skirts were progressively shortened to reveal a surprising amount of flesh according to Victorian standards. The revealing tutu showing Marie Taglioni’s pretty ankles in that pioneering ballet must have seemed extremely erotic to 1832 audiences, and I mean here the long, gauzy skirt, not the stiff variety that shows the full leg. Indeed, there are doubts about the etymology of the odd word ‘tutu’. A popular theory is that the gentlemen fond of fondling ballerinas’ bottoms, as they could easily do in the foyer of the Paris Opera, jokingly referred to the skirt by their colloquial name for the dancers’ derrière. Today, of course, a ballerina in a tutu appears to be a delicately chaste figure, very different from your average pole dancer cum stripper.

This leads me back to the English barmaid and to a mind-boggling puzzle: if fully clothed women were found to be alluring just because they could be ogled at behind a bar, there was perhaps no need to start the progressive stripping game that leads to the ridiculous Playboy bunny waitress in the mid-20th century and to her topless equivalent not much later. This makes me think of a male character in Colin McInnes’ never sufficiently appreciated novel Absolute Beginners (1959), nicknamed the Fabulous Hoplite, who poses for porn photos always with all his clothes on. Certainly, men have always managed to be sexy while fully dressed in unwieldy fashions, from your dark business suit to the more colourful (also baggier) outfits of current urban styles.

What is it then with women and un/dressing? And where does it stop? I always joke with my students that if a Victorian lady walked into our classroom she would be surprised by a) seeing a woman teaching a university class, b) everyone’s state of undress, including mine. Victorian underwear covered infinitely much more skin than our flimsy, tiny summer outfits. What is funny is how there is always margin to be scandalized no matter how far we go. Coco Chanel, who introduced in the 1920s the short skirt below the knee so favoured by the flappers of her time, found Mary Quant’s 1960s mini-skirt disgraceful. For the last few years, the reigning garment among young girls is the hot pant, which makes the mini-skirt seem positively the pinnacle of elegance… It is very nice to be free of Victorian corsets but where does the public undressing of the female body stop? And I’m not even considering the practice of top less exposure on beaches. Will it be ever extended to other public spaces… like a classroom??!!

Here’s something very obvious: women’s freedom of behaviour and movement has been greatly increased by getting rid of restrictive garments; yet, whereas much has changed regarding which parts of female bodies can be displayed in public, women’s bodies remain heavily sexualized, much more so than men’s. Victorian bourgeois men decided to abandon the flamboyant dress style of the idle aristocratic men and conceal their bodies beneath the dark fabric of the uniform business suit. Women were for a while in the 1980s tempted by the masculinised power suit with big shoulder pads but even office wear is now far more varied for women than for men. What remains tricky is how much you can display of your womanly body before crossing the thin line dividing personal freedom from the others’ freedom to ogle at you. This is because the rules are shifting all the time: a Victorian lady would not show her ankles, whereas we think nothing of showing our legs from hip to toe. Hot pants seem also useless to cover the low parts of bottoms.

Women decide how much of their body they wish to display in public, which explains why, despite the insistence of haute couture designers in the last twenty years, transparent tops worn without a bra are hardly ever seen (or are they?). There are also occasions in which wearing one of them with a bra may seem appropriate (a private romantic dinner?), while others times and places may never be right (a lecture on Victorian Literature…). The problem of the sexualized public display is that it invents its own occasions and pretends it is part of ‘normal’ life. Yes, I’m talking about red-carpet events.

As we all know, these events are a publicity stunt designed to sell products and careers, usually connected with film, television or popular music; and, of course, the fashions and cosmetics on display. That the funny phrase ‘wardrobe malfunction’ has become so commonly used in the press covering red-carpet events shows that something is malfunctioning and it might not be the wardrobe. Last week, for instance, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s perplexing new face, displayed at the ‘FIFA Best’ gala to honour distinguished football players, showed that anti-ageing plastic surgery also often malfunctions.

I am well aware that sexual abuse is not connected with the dress code in a direct way, as women have been abused no matter what they wear. The point I have been making in my last two posts is that even we women are confused about how our freedom to dress as we want intersects with the (patriarchal) imposition to look sexy and play the part. One may wear a mini-skirt for comfort one day and for seduction another, depending on the situation and this is how we use our freedom. The problem is that not all men understand that freedom and still go by old dress codes suggesting that women who show their ankles are ‘asking for it’.

How do we break out of this complicated situation? It seems that there is bound to be always a time lag between what women decide and what men learn to respect and accept, which makes clarifying each step taken towards freedom particularly important. I know that the quaint phrase ‘dress with modesty’ sounds very silly at a time when pre-teen boys are already consuming great amounts of on-line pornography and forcing their demands for sexual gratification onto girls their age. Yet, perhaps taking a step back and dressing for elegance or comfort rather than sexiness might be more liberating for women. And educating girls to say ‘no’ long before matters threaten to get out of hand.

And, yes, educating the dinosaurs lagging behind into the new times. If they can be educated at all, which I doubt. And I mean of all ages, pre-teen to ninety-nine, for history advances but prehistoric monsters still cling to our times.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE WEINSTEIN SCANDAL AND THE SPECTATOR’S COMPLICITY: THE PROBLEM OF SEXUALIZED SELF-PRESENTATION

October 24th, 2017

For the last few weeks, as we all know, top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has been accused of criminal sexual misbehaviour, ranging from propositioning to rape, by at least 50 actresses. In all likelihood, the list will increase and Weinstein will eventually land in prison. Countless publications and personal blogs have published articles on practically all angles of this matter and I am aware that it is really hard to add new argumentation.

I have little to say about the need to publicly expose sexual predators in any professional area and regardless of who the victims are: children, women, and also men. I am not worried, like Woody Allen, that this will lead to any witch-hunt, for it seems to me that other powerful male predators will use Weinstein as a smokescreen, or scapegoat, to hide their misdemeanours. That worries me. As for the less powerful predators, hopefully his downfall will make them think twice before they overstep the limits of decent behaviour, outmoded as the phrase is. I insist once more that the loss of the code of conduct once known as ‘gentlemanliness’ has done much harm, and that if men could re-learn to self-regulate their behaviour through a similar code today, we would all be better off.

This, of course, should be accompanied by women also having a clear-cut code of behaviour that did not blur the lines and that we also lack.

Am I blaming the victims of predator Weinstein? No, not at all–they were young, caught unawares in a violent situation, scared for their personal integrity and in fear of ruining their budding careers (he didn’t go, of course, for powerful, well-established stars). What is striking is the variety of the victims’ responses and how the last one of them, the youngest one, instantly knew that she should report the abuser to the police. The others were locked for decades in their appalled silence by the complicity networks surrounding the predator, and, of course, by the inability or unwillingness of the men whom they trusted to stand up and denounce the monster in their midst. I would agree that blaming the bystander is also important, as many have argued. Colin Firth came out to publicly declare his shame that he had only listened to a distressed friend victimized by Weinstein but had done nothing to help her. This is a gentlemanly act but, sadly, it comes too late. Brad Pitt’s threatening Weinstein with his fists if he didn’t stop bothering his girlfriend at the time, Gwyneth Paltrow, may have solved an individual case but brought no justice to the rest.

I would like to focus next on a photo (later I’ll comment on another). The picture shows actress Rose McGowan, dressed in a red strapless dress posing next to Harvey Weinstein; he is encircling her waist with his arm, and you can see his greedy fingers creeping towards her left-side breast (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4961282/Rose-McGowan-hits-monster-Weinstein.html). The photo was taken in 1997, two months after McGowan was raped by Weinstein, as she has alleged (and as I’m sure happened: she was paid a high amount of money for her silence). It shows a smiling woman, wearing the kind of form-fitting gown designed to market stars on the red-carpet as saleable commodities. The photo is horrifying, for it shows in all clarity that women whose professional lives depend on their bodily appearance are far from being in full control of their bodies. If they’re not directly abused, they are (un)dressed to be sexually appealing, offering glamorous looks that other girls are invited to imitate. And they have to smile to the camera even when posing with a criminal who has abused their body.

There have been, however, a few female dissenting voices in all this sad affair–all of whom later had to backpedal and apologise or downplay their comments. I want to consider them here.

French actress Catherine Deneuve, who refused to comment on whether she had been abused in any way during her career, did express her doubts that the current use of social media to shame the monsters is effective: “Is it interesting to talk about it like this? Does it help? Does it add anything? Will it solve the problem in any way?” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/20/catherine-deneuve-questions-anti-harassment-campaign-weinstein). This is in line with French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky’s criticism (in The Third Woman, 1998) of the American culture of victimhood which, in his view, weakens women’s position by teaching them that the victim status is part of femininity. Instead, he claims, women should be taught to be better equipped to defend themselves, both physically and verbally. I agree: if you’re told that any man can overpower you, you are already half-defeated and paralyzed by fear, which is how the monster Weinstein overcame most of his victims. Some managed to run away, a handful were brave enough to say ‘no’ but most were rendered unable to defend themselves (by his physical strength as much as by his power in the industry).

Then, there’s the thorny matter of self-presentation. Top designer Donna Karan was among the few to make comments in defence of Weinstein, for which she later had to apologise. She declared that we, women, need to ask “how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4964380/Donna-Karan-defends-Harvey-Weinstein-blames-victims.html#ixzz4wEOPQDUw). This is a bit rich coming from someone who is part of the red-carpet culture, but she has a point.

The discourse suggesting that women empower themselves by showing their body as their please is a sexist sham and it is about time we deny it. A body presented in public as a sexualized object is a sexualized object, and that’s it. The woman in question might think that she is in control of the reactions she elicits but she is not; it is simply ludicrous to think so. There is, besides, a subtle but important difference between elegant sexiness (see Lupita Nyong’o pale blue 2014 Oscar dress) and sexual vulgarity, of which you may see plenty in the MTV awards gala. Not that Weinstein and the like would notice (he did abuse Nyong’o) but other women might and, thus, earn some self-respect, which we need as much as men need gentlemanliness.

The other woman who’s had to apologize for her words is Mayim Bialik, currently a star in the popular series The Big Bang Theory. She published a piece, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/mayim-bialik-feminist-harvey-weinstein.html), which generated much controversy, as she presented a view of Hollywood actresses sharply divided between the less attractive (like herself, she says) and the “young girls with doe eyes and pouty lips (…) favoured for roles by the powerful men who made those decisions.” Bialik narrates how, after being quite popular as a teen actress (in the series Blossom), she abandoned the business, tired of its physical demands, to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of California: “I craved being around people who valued me more for what was inside my brain than what was inside my bra.” She returned, landing eventually the role of Amy Farrah Fowler, “a feminist who speaks her mind, who loves science and her friends and who sometimes wishes she were the hot girl” but who is not.

What incensed the social media was that Bialik also wrote that actresses who, like her, do not shape their body following absurd beauty models “have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and (…) ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.” She also made a point of declaring that she has carefully kept her “sexual self” for “private situations,” that she dresses “modestly” and does not “act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” This supposes, of course, that the ‘beautiful women’ do the opposite. Bialik tells women that in a perfect world they could act freely but that “we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.” And, yes, she calls the women that Weinstein had been meeting in luxury hotel rooms “ingénues.” Ouch. Still, I believe she is right in all her claims and in her personal behaviour.

Now let me go to the other photo that has caught my attention this week. It’s the first image in a report in Esquire called “The Irresistible Rise of Penelope Cruz” (http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/film/longform/a17840/penelope-cruz-interview/). The photo shows Cruz in a rumpled up bed, belly down. She’s wearing a long-sleeved lacy black body, which is not really anything to comment on, if it weren’t because Cruz’s slightly bent left knee emphasizes the allure of her cellulite-free thigh and, well, her raised bottom. The photo may have been authorized by Cruz and even concocted by the star herself but its only purpose, clearly, is titillation. The other photos in the article are designed to accompany its main focus: that at 43, Penelope Cruz, is still a very attractive woman that any sane heterosexual man (and lesbian!) would like to admire as closely as possible. The photos say absolutely nothing of Cruz’s ability to act, unless we take them as a performance of sexiness.

Like any other long piece on Cruz, this one also comments on her role, when she was only 18, in Bigas Lunas’s notorious film Jamón, jamón. This sexist movie not only made her famous but also partnered her on screen with Javier Bardem, who eventually became her husband and the father of her children. The journalist quotes an interview with Bardem in which he claims that the film is “like a document of our passion. One day we’re going to have to show the kids—imagine! ‘Mummy, Daddy, what did you do in the movies together?’ Well, my children, you should celebrate this movie as you’re here because of it.” I’ll leave aside the fact that what I remember of gross Jamón, jamón is another actor, Jordi Mollà, avidly licking the breasts of young Cruz, to focus on my complete failure to understand how children can ever enjoy seeing their parents having sex on screen in a publicly available document. Or being told by other children what they have seen.

I will never ever blame Weinstein’s victims, or any other victim of a sexual predator: the monsters should be judged, sentenced and imprisoned, if the law thus dictates. What amazes me is the hypocrisy around the public presentation of female sexual availability. Penelope Cruz’s all too common photos connect with the red-carpet display in presenting beautiful women as bodies you can goggle at but cannot touch. This sexual teasing is designed to elicit the desire that makes you buy the cinema ticket whose benefits are pocketed by producers like Weinstein. We are in this way all complicit. And sexual predators, all of us.

Weinstein has clearly crossed the ‘don’t touch’ barrier but by hypocritically demanding to see, as we do in our role as spectators, that actors show their bodies and mimic sex on screen for our (prurient) entertainment we are also trespassing on their intimacy and their right to say ‘no’ without destroying their careers, particularly the actresses. They, regrettably but also logically, see their self-presentation as sexual objects justified, although it is not. It is just part of a script that can be changed and should be changed by letting more women into the business as screen writers, directors and producers.

I’ll never argue that photos like Cruz’s lead in a straight line to Weinstein’s aberrant behaviour but we need to wonder why images like that are necessary and how they contribute to women’s degradation, rather than freedom. Or empowerment. My view is that they don’t, so, why be complicit with them?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/