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 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…

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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 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.

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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.

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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 ( 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?” ( 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?” ( 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” (, 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” ( 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?

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October 17th, 2017

These days my students smile the moment the phrase ‘secondary character’ comes our of my lips, as they have heard me say already many times that we have neglected them woefully. They smile as a polite way to tell me that I need to be more persuasive, for everyone knows that the main characters are the ones that carry the weight of the fictional text, hence the only ones that deserve being the object of literary analysis.

I have, however, already showed to my two classes that a) in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games a great deal of the plot depends on decisions made extradiagetically (um, secretly!) by secondary characters (the scheming President Alma Coin but also, intriguingly, fashion designer Cinna); b) in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the real plot mover may be the wicked Arthur Huntingdon and not the protagonist, his saintly wife Helen, but the greatly neglected plot shaker is his sexy mistress, Annabella Wilmot. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I am about to start teaching again, although Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch are impressive secondary characters, it is actually the far more secondary Compeyson who sets the plot in motion. Literally, for he is bound by a (criminal) plot to both.

Literary Studies has paid very scant attention to the secondary character. To begin with, there is doubt about when a character is a protagonist or just a supporting actor (I’m thinking here of Iago in Othello). In, for instance, Wuthering Heights, the elder Catherine is universally regarded to be a main character. Her daughter, also named Catherine, plays in the second part of Emily Brontë’s novel a similarly important role; nonetheless, she has hardly received any critical attention. There may be, then, plenty of analyses of particular secondary characters, as I have found in a quick search, but there is not a sustained theoretical approach to how they are built and how/why they matter.

In this quick search, combining the MLA database and WorldCat, I have found, as I should expect, more articles and dissertations than books about the secondary character–all in all, less than 60 documents since the 1970s, and only if we combine in this list four different major languages. The books are actually just two: Peter Bly’s The Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 (2004) and Jennifer Camden’s Secondary Heroines in Nineteenth-Century British and American Novels (2010), both originating in doctoral dissertations. Also committed to making the most of the secondary character is the monographic issue published by the French and English-language journal Belphégor in November 2006 ( The issue, nonetheless, is focused on the flexibility of secondary characters in their diverse media adaptations, rather than to an in-depth consideration of their role in print fiction.

Fictional characters, generally speaking, are underanalysed as literary constructions. This is why what Lennard J. Davis had to say about them 30 years ago in his singular 1987 volume Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction is still relevant (the book was reissued recently, in 2014). In a fascinating chapter called “Characters, narrators, and readers: Making friends with signs”, Davis explains that characters “are designed to elicit maximum identification with the observer” and that “their existence is part of a monolithic structure created by an author”; that is to say, they are a function of the text.

Characters, Davis adds, do not have a personality: they have characteristics, although the main trick that novelists play upon us, readers, is making us believe that a limited set of features constitutes a human-like personality. “In essence,” Davis argues “the feeling that we get that we are watching a complex character is largely an illusion created by the opposite–the relatively small number of traits that make up a character”. Oddly, Davis focuses on how attractive protagonists are created to be desired “in some non-specific but erotic way” because “part of novel reading is the process of falling in love with characters or making friends with signs”. Yet, he misses the chance to consider, first, what minimum number of traits gives secondary characters a distinct personality; second, in how many tiers are they organized (from your basic ‘spear carrier’ with no lines to almost-protagonist) and, third, how much of any novel’s appeal depends on them.

In cinema things are slightly different, if only because the Oscars (and the Emmys for TV) acknowledge actors’ merits in two categories: leading and supporting. This is not without controversy for, often, production companies try to have co-protagonists nominated in both categories so as to increase the chances of a particular film to win an Oscar (or two). Other strange things often happen in connection to the Oscars. This year Viola Davis won as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, even though she is the female lead in that film. I don’t believe that she has less screen time than Ruth Negga, nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Loving–but of course, how could Davis compete with Emma Stone, everyone’s favourite for La La Land?

‘Screen time’ is, of course, also a very tricky concept to measure the ‘secondariness’ of a role: Judith Dench got a very well-deserved Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a performance lasting all of… eight minutes. It turns out that the record is in the hands of Beatrice Straight for a six-minute role as a spurned wife in Network (1976). This is fine as, precisely, Straight’s win shows that what matters in a secondary character is not the extent of their presence but of their impact.

Whereas screenwriters can congratulate themselves for having written secondary characters that, in the right hands, become Oscar-worthy, (print) fiction writers are not granted any special merit for creating great supporting roles. Praise usually goes in the direction of number, rather than specific successful characterization. There are exceptions, of course. Dickens’ disciple J.K. Rowling gave us in Harry Potter a marvellous secondary character list that kept the best British actors happy for years, whether they had been chosen to play minor roles (Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart) or fundamental ones (Alan Rickman as Severus Snape). Fans claim that Rowling came up with 772 characters, though apparently ‘only’ 136 receive enough attention to qualify as main or secondary (with lines), the rest are just names dropped in passing into the text.

The list of Dickensian characters runs to many more hundreds, among which the secondary roles come in all sizes and types, from the cheeky Artful Dodger, to the ill-treated Bob Cratchit, or the brutal Bentley Drummle. And the inevitable ‘spear carriers’. Dickens, indeed, seems to be the only writer in English always drawing praise for his secondary roles, even far above Shakespeare, who could do Mercutio brilliantly but somehow fell short with the likes of Count Paris. In a 2012 article, Paul Bailey enthuses about Dickens’ “ability to catch life on the hop” and chronicle life through his myriad minor people. There is, however, still that elephant in the room as beyond creative writing courses (I assume), nobody is trying to analyze secondary characters in fiction. How do writers ‘do’ them?

Perhaps this academic feet-dragging should be blamed onto genius playwright Tom Stoppard, who had the last word (and the last laugh?) with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. In it Prince Hamlet’s hapless university classmates, called by King Claudius and commissioned to help do away with the obnoxious heir to the Danish throne, meet a sad end, as happens in Shakespeare’s play, of course. What changes in Stoppard’s witty version is the focalization: whereas the hesitant blonde prince is our delegate in the original text, in this other play the pair of minor characters are the protagonists. That they have no idea of what is going on and that their lives only appear to make sense (if any) when Hamlet is on stage is a wonderful comment on the role of secondary characters. Also, a sort of self-defeating strategy, since few authors can pull the trick of using secondary characters as narrators and focalisers without promoting them to the main role–the exception being, of course, Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who remains elusively secondary.

In The Hunger Games there is a secondary character called Johanna Mason, a former victor in the 71st edition of the Games. Ostensibly introduced as a lesser rival to Katniss Everdeen, Johanna turns out to be her reluctant secret ally. Spunky, forthright, angry and resilient, Mason is so well-drawn despite her very limited presence that many fans wish Collins should have chosen her to play hero. You should have seen the smiles in my students’ faces when we briefly discussed her. Briefly because, of course, being a secondary character Johanna only got whatever little time was left after we finished discussing Katniss. Now I know those few minutes was far less than her contribution to the success of the trilogy deserved. Next time I teach The Hunger Games I’ll do it the other way round: beginning with the secondary characters.

One day I should teach a course called ‘Great Secondary Characters of English Literature’… Let’s start a list!

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October 10th, 2017

In my Department, we use a pedagogy based on close reading combined with contextual comment to teach Literature, as happens in all English Departments in the world influenced by Anglo-American styles of teaching Literature. Yet, I’m growing anxious this academic year about the limits of this methodology and how it actually works in our context, both for teachers and students.

Close reading, let’s recall, is a teaching methodology based on exploring the actual texts by paying minute attention to detail; ideally, it should lead to interactive classroom discussion between teacher and students. This formalistic approach was developed in the USA in the early 20th century to replace an older European philology-oriented methodology, in which the texts were described without actually reading from any in class. Thus, as an underground student I took a year-long ‘traditional’ course on 18th and 19th century Spanish Literature, consisting exclusively of lectures about approximately twenty set texts. We were expected to read them all but we never carried any books to class, nor discussed them in any way with the teacher. This kind of ‘lección magistral’ aimed at very large classes is the equivalent of the Anglo-American lecture, which is then combined with the seminar, a type of undergrad teaching we don’t have a tradition for in Spain. In most English Studies Departments in Spain we do use, then, the seminar format but applied to large groups, ranging from 20 students in the elective courses to 90 in some compulsory core courses. Yes, absurd!

Since we have not really managed to convince students to read the books in advance and contribute their own passages for comment, I believe that what we do in class fails on both counts: it is never as informative as a lecture, nor as effective as seminar in-depth analysis. My own classes have become a very strange product: I read a passage, comment on it and students make notes of what I say, as in a lecture, instead of contributing their own comments. Only a handful talk with me, which does not necessarily mean that they have read the text, they may just elaborating on the specific passage. The bigger the class, the less productive close reading is, even though common sense suggests that class discussion should be livelier with many participants. I need to add that I’m no longer sure about how close reading must combine with introductory lecturing, as it seems a waste of classroom time to transmit what can be easily found on the internet, especially when this is what we use for our own introductions. I won’t even mention the nightmare of producing a nice-looking PowerPoint in as few hours as possible…

I realize that I have never discussed with any of my colleagues how a text is prepared for class; actually, I have never been trained as a teacher on that central aspect of my profession. So what do we actually do?

Basically, I do as I did as a student: read the text once to get an overall impression, then again pencil in hand to locate what I call the ‘hot spots’. During this second reading, I make very brief notes of the plot in each chapter, which is an extremely tedious business. I hate it so much that often I can’t decipher my own handwriting. Then, whether this is legitimate or not I don’t care, I borrow another summary (from Wikipedia, or study aids such as Gradesaver), and produce–only for my eyes–a kind of composite creature, merging my plot notes with these other notes as briefly as I can manage. Next, I add to the summary thus produced the page number of the main passages from the ‘hot spots’ and, obviously, I place small pieces of paper marking the most relevant pages in the book. It is very important that the notes I take to class are visually very clear so that I see at one glance the ‘hot spots’ I want to discuss and the quotations. Funnily, although I usually select around ten, I never have time for more than six, yet I never manage to select only those six. Discussion inevitably leads to passages not marked and that are impossible to find in a hurry.

How long does it take to work on a novel using close reading? Well, it’s funny how a novel can be dealt with in a couple of sentences in a wider-ranging lecture–“Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall denounces that women married to abusive husbands in the 19th century lacked the protection of the law and were reduced to trusting the gentlemanly inclinations of good men”–but ‘covered’ only very partially even in ten sessions of frantic close reading. For, here is something else: what dictates the number of sessions are the needs of the syllabus and not the intensity of the text, which might require a year-long monographic course to really get to its core. Or surface.

On the other hand, perhaps we’re overdoing it. Because of a series of external accidents affecting my program, I have been forced to compress my teaching into fewer sessions. Novels that should have been taught in seven sessions have been reduced to four. Hence, I’ve had to talk ‘about’ the text rather than read from it as extensively as I wanted to do. Strangely, this change is not so negative as I would have assumed because attention to textual detail often results in not having the chance to discuss larger issues in the text, from characters’ narrative arcs to plot architecture. And it’s great to be able to do that.

What is it like for a Literature teacher to prepare a novel for a series of close reading sessions, then? A time-consuming chore. Let’s say, for the sake of argumentation, that a 300-page contemporary novel to be taught in 5 sessions takes 5 hours to read the first time, and 8 the second (pencil in hand, marking text, making notes). Add 3 hours to produce a summary, then, say, 3 more hours to check bibliography (download at least one article and read it, check at least 3 other sources). This is already 18 hours, plus, say 2 hours for the PowerPoint, if you’re lucky, that’s 20 hours for 5 sessions of 75 minutes each, 1.92 hours of preparation for each hour we teach, instead of the official 1.07 in my university. And this, of course, is just a silly figure, for to properly teach any novel, you need to have read many, many others novels, other Literature, and plenty of literary criticism… What I teach every session has taken, in fact, 33 years of my life to prepare, since the day I became an undergrad.

Time-consuming as preparing a novel for class is, I find it increasingly difficult to ‘control’ the text. No matter how often I have taught the text and how hard I have worked on the summary and the passage selection, it is more and more complicated to keep the whole novel ‘fully available’ in my mind.

To strengthen my grip on the text, in a few occasions I have transferred the selected quotations onto a Word document, projected onto the classroom screen. With classics available online this type of document can be produced in a reasonable time, but with new books typing the selected quotations into your computer constitutes a waste of precious (research) time. A possibility is, of course, using both the paper copy and the ebook. Since we’re trying to convince students to buy the set texts, however, I find that projecting a selection of quotations rather than reading from the print book is a self-defeating pedagogy. With quotations from secondary sources things are, I believe, different and I see no problem in just sharing a passage without bringing the whole book to class. But maybe I’m wrong…

These days in particular, I feel that the bottom is dropping out of my own pedagogy, for I am having trouble handling in class the bulky text of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. Summarizing in the manner I have described book three, Mockingbird, selecting the passages for discussion and writing the class notes took me about three hours of a very busy morning. This is for a book I have read twice, which means I was already using a copy with pencil markings and comments. After these three hours, however, and seeing that there was no way I could comment on so many aspects of the protagonist’s (gender) characterization in just 75 minutes, I threw it all away (metaphorically speaking) and decided to focus on just the last chapter and the Epilogue, using intensive close reading. And trust that the novel would be sufficiently ‘covered’ in one session (I’m using 7 for the whole trilogy, treating it as a single text, within a one-semester elective course on Gender Studies). In the end, I only had time to read three passages…

Perhaps I should be teaching poetry… Or use less close reading?

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September 26th, 2017

It’s funny how memory deceives us. I positively know that in the thrilling opening credits of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989), Rosie Perez box-dances to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”, a call to Afro-American political action which Lee commissioned for the film. Yet, I associate Rosie’s punches not to Public Enemy’s tough male voices but, rather, to Pennie Ford’s black female voice shouting with glee “I’ve got the power!” in the chorus of German band Snap’s 1990 dance hit “The Power”. Perhaps because, after all, Lee’s vision of Perez’s sexy dancing is in itself patriarchal.

This rallying cry, “I’ve got the power!”, has popped up in my brain many times this past week, as I read Naomi Alderman’s controversial novel The Power (2016). I do not wish to write a full review nor to help this appalling fiction attract more readers. However, I do wish to discuss how dangerous the idea of empowerment is becoming, using Alderman as a prop for my arguments.

Just consider: in this multi-awarded novel we are told the story of how a genetic mutation originating in WWII gives all women a skein, located under the collarbone, capable of generating electrical discharges. First, only teen girls have the ability to unleash this mortal power but soon they manage to awake the dormant skein in all women. The author was apparently inspired by what eels can do and they even appear in her novel, in case we miss the allusion.

How do women use this startling bodily ability? They learn to control it, so that electricity can be used, for instance, for erotic play, which sounds fun (some men do develop a strong taste for that). Soon enough, though, female power is applied to more violent pursuits, from playground harassment of girls and boys to… the establishment of an androcidal all-women republic in Moldova (Romania). The victimized women revolt there against intensive sex trafficking as they also revolt against other political patriarchies in the world, such as Saudi Arabia, which leads to the threat of (all-male) war against the newly born state. I won’t go on, but just will mention that the anti-patriarchal backlash and sudden, literal empowerment turns women into feral beasts, quick to rape, torture and kill men. Even children.

Naomi Alderman jokes in her public presentations that The Power is only dystopian if you are a man. She has defended herself from criticism (mostly coming from women) claiming that nothing happens to the men in her novel that does not happen to women in real life. Readers who support her bleak vision of femininity invoke the classic (misogynistic) argument that a civilization dominated by women need not be better than a civilization run by men. And, as you can see in GoodReads, to the question of what would happen if a man had written The Power many readers reply that then we would be reading a history book. Curiously, Alderman presents her fiction as non-fiction written by a male historian about the events and then sent to her, which is, to say the least, an odd framing device. My personal opinion, if you care for it, is that Alderman’s novel is both a misogynistic and an androphobic ugly rant. I am specially scandalized not only because The Power has received any awards but also because it has been endorsed by Margaret Atwood.

Women’s power in Alderman’s novel is the approximate equivalent of men’s muscular strength. You might read The Power as a thesis novel in which the author answers the question of how would it feel for women to know that they are the stronger sex. The problem is that the author bases her thesis on the assumption that men’s average superior strength is applied all the time and against all the women. This is simply not true. I have no doubt that in ancient prehistoric times some men developed patriarchy when they realized that the violence used against animals when hunting could be applied to fellow human beings. In this way, the death race towards total empowerment began. However, despite the staggering amount of violence the world still sees on a daily basis, this is exceptional enough for its acts to be media news and recorded with increasing disgust in the History books. We do speak about violence, that is to say, about the abuse of the personal ability to hurt others, because we see it as anomalous, even in the regions of Earth were it is part of daily routine. And I would insist that most men never dream of using their muscles in the way most women use their (electric) power in Alderman’s novel.

This leads me back to my classroom last Wednesday. I was introducing my students to Masculinities Studies and explaining that one of the greatest challenges this discipline faces is the development of arguments to convince men privileged by patriarchal societies that it is in their interest to surrender (part of) their power. Power, so to speak, is a limited quantity and if minorities need to be empowered, then majorities need to accept disempowerment (think African Americans and American whites, if you want an example not about gender).

One of my male students asked the key question: why are we always talking about empowerment and isn’t the very idea of power suspect? I acknowledged that this is the limit of my own theorisation and that I want to believe that there is a difference between accruing power to abuse others (to use them as your own resources) and to help others (from a position which commands respect and gets positive things done). How about anarchism, then, he asked, and how does it fit our current discourse on power? Badly, I should say… Although there is the question of whether an absolutely equally empowered society would result in a form of (workable?) anarchy.

What my student suggested very intelligently is that the very idea of empowerment is a poisonous legacy of patriarchy, and I believe that Alderman’s novel proves this point. Personal experience suggests that nobody is empowered for good, and history has countless examples of extremely powerful patriarchal men who have lost everything overnight (think mafia). Current Western democracies are based on the peculiar principle that someone, usually a man, can be empowered for limited periods of time. At our current crossroads it looks as if WWIII might be triggered by opposite, yet complementary, examples of patriarchal empowerment in North Korea (a tyranny) and the USA (allegedly a democracy). Countless dictatorships and revolutions have seen people who felt secure in their power, from dictators to democratic judges, just to name opposite positions, be radically disempowered and even deprived of their lives. The road to empowerment is by no means safe.

As minorities struggle for empowerment and agency, these two keywords of our time, they are tempted by the patriarchal style of (ab)using power, or so it seems. I told my students how in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, about the first openly gay man voted into political office in the USA, there is a very scary moment. San Francisco town councillor Harvey Milk wants to get rid of his political enemy, conservative councillor Dan White (who would eventually kill him), and threatens Mayor George Moscone–the very man who empowered Milk to be elected–with withdrawing his support. Moscone, taken aback, jokes that Milk sounds like a mafia boss and Milk quips “I like that, a gay man with power”. I was dismayed by this scene, as it suggested that in the end minorities are after what hegemonic masculinity has: the power to disempower.

Within hegemonic masculinity, an entangled concept which already two generations of Masculinities Studies scholars are failing to make sense of, things are by no means simple. The core of patriarchy is doing all it can to keep minorities at bay but sooner or later we will see white men mix with (or even be replaced by) other kinds of powerful human beings, not excluding at all women or non-whites. My dystopian future is not about women lashing out like eels but about the opposite of the Star Trek World Federation: an Earth dominated by a power-hungry elite, always vying for positions at the top, and combining the most ambitious individuals in our world. This elite will no longer be strictly patriarchal in the sense of being an exclusive male patriarchs’ club but, rather, a rainbow oligarchy. The rest of us, the ones who do not yearn for power, will be ruled (as we are), while those who do ambition power but have no means to access it will go on causing random violence, as private or public terrorists.

This is why I think that dealing with power along separatists lines in feminist dystopia or utopia makes little sense. There must be a middle-ground between the equally absurd propositions that women are all adorable, moral persons or evil wanna-be patriarchs, and we need to find it. I marvel at how 27 years after the publication of Judith Butler’s indispensable Gender Trouble (1990), which famously declared that gender is performative, the gender binary is still alive.

The question to ask in 2017 is not, most emphatically, how women would handle a sudden gift of power but whether power will be eventually degendered, particularly in the gender-fluid society that the young, in the West and elsewhere, so often promote as an ideal. Also, why disempowered minorities are not building tools for better agency, or why they are not being taught to do so. Reading about the women in Alderman’s novel, and in particular the politician who wants to run for USA President, a thought that often occurred to me is that some avenues for empowerment are already open–without the need for the electric skein. Hillary may have failed this time around but look at Angela Merkel. Or, more worryingly, at Marine Le Pen.

Most importantly, as my student suggested, we need to consider why power and empowerment occupy such central position in the ideology and agendas of the minorities seeking to gain more agency. And whether in the end even a gender-fluid society would be ruled by a hierarchy, rather than be a power-fluid civilization, that is to say, perhaps an anarchy. A word I believed to be until this week not part of my ideological vocabulary…

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September 19th, 2017

[I’m celebrating today the seventh anniversary of The Joys of Teaching Literature!!! Thank you for reading the blog. Please, find all seven yearly volumes in .pdf here]

It is one of those beautiful coincidences in life that the surname of the couple whose union ended state legislation in the USA against interracial marriages was Loving. The love story between Richard and Mildred was narrated last year in a quite successful film, simply called Loving, directed and written by Jeff Nichols This was based on the 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story ( Curiously, and this is more and more frequent in US cinema, neither actor playing the Lovings is American: Joel Edgerton is Australian and Ruth Negga–who received an Oscar nomination for the role–though born in Ethiopia to a Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, was raised in Ireland. This constant use of foreign actors deserves perhaps another post but before I start rambling, just let me say why the film Loving, whose title plays so nicely with the surname, is so fine: it’s because how Mildred and Richard look at each other with a loving gaze, hardly ever seen in contemporary cinema.

Nichols took his inspiration for his presentation of the Lovings from Grey Villet’s photos of the couple in the intimacy of their very modest Virginia home, published in 1965 by Life magazine, and now gathered together in a book, with an obvious title, The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait. Take a look at some of the pictures for instance here: What you see is a white man and a non-white woman (Mildred was of mixed African-American and Native-American descent) happily enjoying their home life with their three children. Since the Lovings were working-class (Richard worked as a builder, she was a housewife), the photos have nothing to do with the middle and upper-middle class idealized families with whom we tend to connect a happy home life, quite stereotypically. What the photos plainly transmit, as this is Villet’s merit, is that these five persons, specially husband and wife, love each other very much. Believably and credibly, as you don’t often see in our jaded times.

Nichols’ film eventually reaches the tipping point when this mixed-race couple, initially the victims of racist Virginia legislation like others, become a fundamental case in the annals of the US Supreme Court. This is in the second half of the film. The first five minutes are, however, the most challenging ones. Why? Because before the legal arguments are built and presented, you simply see how deeply Richard and Mildred love each other, and how happy he is made by her announcement that she is pregnant. Indeed, the naturality of this opening segment is such that uninformed spectators might initially believe that this is a romantic fantasy and not a real-life story, for we’re not used to the very simple idea that love does happen between individuals of different races. And we hardly ever see this kind of couple portrayed. It’s about time we wonder why.

I have the legal details of the Lovings’ struggle to earn their right to live freely as a married couple from the film, and, so, they might be incorrect or limited. Basically, since as residents of Virginia they could not marry in this state, due to its cynically named ‘Racial Integrity Act’ of 1924, in 1958 the couple travelled to Washington D.C. to get married there. They, however, returned home. Soon, they were arrested (at this point Mildred was heavily pregnant) and given a sort of exile sentence, which prevented them from being in Virginia together for the following 25 years.

They moved back to Washington D.C., visiting family separately for a few years. Tired of city life and missing the country, Mildred decided in 1964 that they should go home, where they faced a harsh prison sentence and risked losing custody of their children. She sent then a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Volunteer attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop started then the journey that would eventually lead the Lovings’ case to be heard three years later by the Supreme Court. The film explains that the Lovings kept themselves apart from the process to avoid hearing the Virginia legal team referring to their children as bastards.

The Supreme Court judges reached on 12 June 1967 a decision on ‘Loving v. Virginia’. They ruled, in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, that: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival (….). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law”. This put an end to anti-miscegenation legislation, still applied then in 15 American states. 12 June is now National Loving Day in celebration of interracial love. By the way, Warren’s argumentation was also recently invoked by defenders of lesbian and gay marriage.

Many issues overlap, then, in Nichols’ subtle film and in the story of the Lovings. One is how come that their names are not better known? Is it because the USA are somehow hiding their embarrassing anti-miscegenation legislation that there is an interested silence about the heroes who resisted it? Reading about the Nazi Nuremberg Race Laws (1935) banning Jews from marrying ‘Aryan’ Germans as an absolute horror, I was dismayed to read that many American states in the Union had their own one-drop rule. That is to say, they passed legislation to prevent whites from marrying blacks, thus preventing racial mixing or miscegenation. The one-drop rule determined that, regardless of whether a person appeared to be racially white, if this person had a black ancestor, then s/he was regarded as black, and, hence, banned from marrying a white individual. Laws defending this principle were passed in the southern States from the 1890s onwards, peaking in the 1920s with, for instance, Virginia’s 1924 infamous act. This was, you see?, before the Nazi anti-miscegenation laws. And, as Loving narrates, this kind of detestable legislation stayed put until the late 1960s.

Let me go back to the film’s narrative style and its focus on the loving/Loving gaze. Just by coincidence, I was reading this morning a paper by Darko Suvin in which he wonders whether scopophilia is somehow connected with the Freudian death wish. Let me explain: ‘scopophilia’, or ‘pleasure in looking’ is a central piece in Laura Mulvey’s feminist attack against classical cinema, famously expressed in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). As Mulvey argued, invoking Freud, cinema was (and still is) aimed at eliciting the scopophilia of the male spectator by using the female body as an erotic object. I think that Mulvey, like Freud, forgot about how important women’s erotic gaze is (whether lesbian or heterosexual) but I don’t want to pursue this argument now. What I want to stress is that whether diagetic or extradiagetic–that is to say, whether this is actors looking at each other, or spectators looking at actors–the contemporary male and female gaze has been so sexualized that it is actually excluding love. I think this impression underlies Suvin’s claim that scopophilia is today fundamentally cannibalistic and destructive.

This is why I was stunned, this is the word, by Loving. You may have seen thousands of actors avidly staring at each other, trying to transmit some kind of electric feeling growing between them, but this is not love–it’s passion, or lust. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga look at each other and, as the spectator gazing at them, you understand that Richard and Mildred love each other, a feeling that goes far beyond in depth than the sexual desire currently dominating the human gaze in audio-visual production (both cinema and series). Perhaps this is so because the actors and the film director are copying what is documented in Villet’s photos, presenting for once love as it is in reality, not as it is fantasized about. Since Nichols is making a moving picture, and not a still picture like Villet, his problem is how to avoid the intense melodrama of the Lovings’ life. The result is a slap in the face of all those films that fail to represent love, convinced instead that–excuse me for sounding so prudish–love is best portrayed by showing the couple in question having sex. It turns out that love is most lovingly shown by the simple touch of a (white) hand on a (black) hand.

Racism is one of the most absurd aberrations produced by the human mind and it would be nice to see it over, the sooner the better. Loving helps us very much to understand the nature of the aberration (as another beautiful film, Hidden Figures, does). Yet, we must recall that although one-drop rule legislation is, happily, a thing of the past, the racist misgivings against miscegenation might not be. I wonder, for instance, whether Barack Obama would have been elected President if Michelle had been white and their girls mixed-race. Not to mention the fact that even though Obama’s mother is white, he is labelled (and self-identifies) as black…

Not there yet, then. In the meantime, enjoy loving/Loving.

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September 11th, 2017

I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

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September 4th, 2017

I am using this first post of the new academic year to process ideas I’m considering for my plenary talk on Obi-Wan Kenobi, to be given at the conference on ‘Star Wars and Ideology’ (April 2018, Universidad Complutense in Madrid, I asked specifically to focus on Kenobi because there is one image in Lucas’s saga that still bothers me after many years: that of the burnt, mutilated body of Anakin Skywalker, fallen at the feet of Obi-Wan on planet Mustafar’s volcanic landscape.

This is how the relationship between master and padawan ends: with Kenobi using sickening violence to smash the body of his former pupil. Inexplicably, despite the appalling way in which Obi-Wan punishes Anakin for his first crimes as Darth Vader, the Jedi Master still remains a favourite with many Star Wars fans. True, Skywalker/Vader’s crimes include the near murder of his pregnant wife Amidala and the extermination of all the children apprenticed to the Jedi Temple. Kenobi is himself the only survivor of Order 66, evil Palpatine’s decree to annihilate all the Jedis and, besides, Anakin is trying to kill him. Even so, when Obi-Wan coolly uses his lightsaber to cut off both of Anakin’s legs and his remaining arm (the other was lost to Count Dooku), and when he abandons his former apprentice to be burnt to death by lava, he is not acting as a Jedi, whether knight or master. He is acting in anger, fury and resentment, exactly the emotions that the Jedi code tries to suppress because they lead to the dark side.

Palpatine, or Darth Sidious if you wish, rescues the disfigured, half-dead Vader to imprison him in the iconic cyborg black suit. Meanwhile, Kenobi sees Amidala die in childbirth and organizes the adoption of her newly born twins, Luke and Leia. He hides for nineteen years on planet Tatooine, keeping an eye on the boy, fostered by farmers Owen and Beru Lars (Leia is left in the aristocratic hands of Bail Organa, a member of Alderaan’s royal family). Apparently a new film, scheduled for 2019 and still to be written, will narrate Obi-Wan’s Tatooine exile, which he starts looking like Ewan McGregor and from which he emerges looking like Alec Guinness.

I’m convinced that Guinness’ English avuncular looks in the 1977 film, Episode IV: A New Hope, and McGregor’s Scottish good looks in Episodes I-III have played a major role in convincing audiences that Kenobi is a good man always acting right, no matter the circumstances. We first met him as teen Luke’s new mentor: a clever, serene old man, at all times one step ahead of the malevolent Empire thanks to his proficient use of the Force. Who could have thought back in 1977 that when he meets Darth Vader to let himself be killed by him in strange circumstances both were sharing the memory of the Mustafar horror? Well, nobody, not even George Lucas, who must have came up with that grisly moment only about 2000. By the time Kenobi wins the awful combat with Anakin in Revenge of the Sith (2005), at the end of the trilogy, McGregor has convinced us that Obi-Wan has been an extremely patient father-figure for the unruly, testy, irritating Anakin. And let’s be clear about this: because we find McGregor not only handsome but also a very good actor, we even cheer when dreadfully bad actor Hayden Christensen (playing Anakin) starts losing his limbs, lopped off by Obi-Wan’s blue laser saber. It’s just a case of the villain getting his comeuppance from the hero.

Yet, it is not at all. Anakin’s fall is the result of a serious flaw in the Jedi code: the rule preventing knights from having personal attachments. This is the point at which I need to explain the role of the Knights Templar in Star Wars.

As you know, the Knights Templar where a medieval religious military order. They were founded by Hugues de Payens (1070-1136), a French minor aristocrat who convinced the Christian king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, to let him form with eight more men a guard devoted to protecting pilgrims. This happened in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1095-99); the Order of Solomon’s Temple was established in 1119. From its humble beginnings, the brotherhood of the Knights Templar blossomed into a rich emporium with houses all over Europe and the Middle East, specializing in international banking (they invented the equivalent of modern travellers’ cheques). The order grew so powerful that by 1312 Pope Clement V and King Philippe IV decided to disband it, killing most of its members. Their arrest was decreed for a fated Friday 13, apparently the origin of our superstitions about that date. Remember Palpatine’s Order 66?

Proof that George Lucas knows about the Knights Templar is very easy to find: he proposed the story on which the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is based. All kinds of legends are attached to the Knights Templar, who spent their initial years in Jerusalem apparently digging the remains of Solomon’s Temple for treasure and who found, among other objects, the Ark of Alliance and the Holy Grail, both chased by Indiana Jones.

Anyone minimally interested in the charismatic Templars knows that Hugo de Payens introduced a singular innovation in medieval warfare by merging the monk and the warrior in a single figure. Lucas, who initially though of calling his own monkish soldiers Jedi Templars must have been also aware of their code, developed by Payens together with his relative and founder of the Benedictine Order, Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153). The text of this code, called the Latin Rule (1128) defines in 72 articles how Knights Templar should behave down to the last detail.

Here are the articles that apply to Star Wars and that make it impossible for Obi-Wan Kenobi to successfully guide Anakin Skywalker. Article 14 states that, although children were often accepted as novices in monasteries, they should not enter the order. The code advises parents to raise their sons until they can “bear arms with vigour” and warns that “it is much better” for a candidate “if he does not take the vow when he is a child, but when he is older, and it is better if he does not regret it than if he regrets it”. In contrast, the Jedi train children from a very early age: Qui-Gon Jinn takes Anakin when he is only nine. Let’s add to this glaring mistake the fact that Qui-Gon frees the child from slavery, but not his mother Shmi, forcing the poor boy to abandon her to her sad fate for ever.

Why for ever? Because, allow me to speculate about this, Lucas also borrowed from the Latin Rule article 71, which forbids brother knights from kissing, embracing and even looking at women “be it widow, young girl, mother, sister, aunt or any other”. Contact with women must be avoided so that order members “may remain eternally before the face of God with a pure conscience and sure life”, which also means that “the flower of chastity” (article 70) must be always maintained. This article serves both to prevent women from joining the Knights Templar but also to keep “the brothers” celibate, and always married first and foremost to the order. By the way: married men could join in provided they should stay chaste after admission. The imposition of chastity on religious orders, interestingly, was only made final, after warnings scattered through the centuries, by the Lateran Council in 1123, celebrated only five years before the writing of the Latin Rule. Pope Calixtus II denied the sacrament of marriage to anyone in orders and even annulled perfectly valid unions signed before the Council.

The Jedis are very similar to the Knights Templar in the management of their personal relationships, though not as strict as to forbid looking. Also, there are females among them, though the use of the word Knight for them suggests that non-male Jedis were a politically correct addition rather than part of Lucas’s plans from the beginning. Pope Calixtus II made celibacy compulsory for very pragmatic reasons: whereas many, including the Templars, invoked the purity of the body (which is funny because they only bathed once a year…), the actual purpose of celibacy was preventing the riches of the Church from being scattered among the priests’ and nuns’ families. For the Jedis the key matter was preventing the forming of uncontrollable dynasties (see the Wookipedia for a discussion of this point).

Even though the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-15) invented for Obi-Wan an impossible romance with Duchess Satine Kryze, Kenobi is a stickler for the Jedi rule and, seeing that Anakin is falling for Amidala, can think of nothing except tell the young man that they should remain friends. As he did with Satyne, to their mutual insatisfaction. Please, remember that Anakin has not chosen to be a Jedi, has lost his mother and has not been allowed in any way to buy her freedom, much less to stay in touch with her. Perhaps now we understand why he falls in love with a kind woman five years his senior, precisely during the time when Obi-Wan allows him to go on his first solo mission, as Senator Amidala’s protector. Since the Jedi code determines that Anakin, then 20, will be expelled if the romance is discovered, the couple embark on a secret marriage, never trusting Kenobi and for good reason. Anakin’s anguish and his fear of losing Amidala make him extremely vulnerable to Palpatine’s manipulations and so he falls on the dark side. Only to be burned to a crisp by the man who was supposed to be for him brother, father, friend and master in one–Kenobi.

I have no idea why Lucas decided to keep this rule from the remote medieval past alive in the 21st century of Episodes I-III, although we must recall that a) all love stories need an obstacle, b) celibacy is still today a major problem for Catholics priests and possibly the root of rampant child abuse. The question is that although Anakin Skywalker is not exactly a sweet guy, he is a man deeply troubled by the loss of his mother, who regains some sort of balance thanks to Amidala. The secrecy of their love and the actual death of Shmi in terrible circumstances call for a thoughtful, compassionate reaction from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet the fact that he sides with the absurd Jedi code rather than with Anakin’s very human passions is what brings disaster onto the heads of all Jedis, almost ending the order for good. A wise mentor would have convinced the Jedi Council to allow Anakin and Amidala to live openly as husband and wife, thus putting an end to Palpatine’s hold on the young man. If, in addition, Anakin certainly is the most powerful Jedi ever, then it seems in the Jedis’ best interests to keep him happy and on their side, firmly bound to Kenobi and Yoda’s wise counsel. Instead, we get the ghastly scene on Mustafar when Darth Vader has already taken Anakin over.

Even if you hate Star Wars with all your might, you might perhaps draw a lesson from Anakin’s fall, and that of any young man, to the dark side: any code of masculinity that calls for the suppression of feeling and of personal attachment is monstrous. Far from being a wise man, Obi-Wan Kenobi unwisely enforces that revolting rule because he is himself a limited man, incapable of truly empathizing with his troubled padawan. Unwittingly, then, Lucas sends with his underrated second trilogy a most important message: if men fail to understand what other men feel, and how to guide and help them, then we are all in trouble.

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August 28th, 2017

This summer I am giving myself a crash course in ballet because I don’t think there is a bigger pleasure than discovering a whole exciting field one knows nothing about. Two posts ago, I already commented on the lack of sufficient introductory texts and the role of men as ‘male ballerinas’ (this is a tag used on the internet). Yesterday, I watched on YouTube the Paris Opera Ballet, dancing Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide (1832), which is the first Romantic ballet (or classic, as we call it today). It is also the ballet that placed the ballerina centre-stage for good, thanks to the marvellous talent of Marie Taglioni, Filippo’s daughter. I was enjoying enormously Aurore Dupont and Mathieu Gaino’s performance and I thought to myself, ‘this is really weird–why has this specific branch of theatrical performance survived for 180 years already?’ And ‘will it survive 180 years more’? What am I doing watching this and not, like everyone else, Game of Thrones? How can contemporary culture accommodate both Sylphide and Daenerys Targaryen?

This is a very clumsy way to reach the issue I want to raise today: the increasing difficulties to understand what truly matters, culturally speaking. If anything matters at all. I’ve been writing yet another text defending the importance of studying popular fictions using the same level of commitment we apply to the artistically ambitious, and I realize that a new problem is emerging.

In a context in which the Humanities are always struggling to survive it seems safer to rely on the classics and on the study of any cultural manifestation that seems most likely to endure the test of time. I realize that those of us in Cultural Studies have complicated matters very much by demanding that the present is studied with the same interest as the past, for I firmly believe that there is no sense in not teaching students and not researching our own living experience. Having said that, and seeing this summer each new chapter of Game of Thrones, season seven, summarised and discussed on the front pages of many international newspapers, I have started wondering what exactly is going on. Mainly in terms of the hunger for texts universally shared, beyond the classics. Also in terms of what we do, both in traditional Literary Studies and in Cultural Studies to help texts survive beyond the time when they were created.

For convenience’s sake, I’ll argue that Cultural Studies started having a considerable impact on how we study contemporary culture, without a capital C, around 1990. I know we can go back earlier, even to 1950s pioneers like Raymond Williams but the point I am making is that for, roughly, the last 25 years Cultural Studies has grown to be a fully established discipline (at least in Anglo-American universities). Let’s suppose that in a perfect world nobody insists any more that studying Virginia Woolf is relevant but studying J.K. Rowling is not (remember, please, that according to Ian McEwan Woolf was a novelty in the 1970s English university context from which he graduated). Now, consider whether academic analysis of a popular text actually contributes to its survival for the subsequent generations. My answer is no: right now, nothing guarantees the survival of any text, whether classical or popular, much less academia. This is because of our extremely short-range cultural memory.

The case study I have in mind is the TV series Buffy, Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). You may not know about this but Joss Whedon’s series is, arguably, the most popular text among academics devoted to the study of popular fictions. There is a thriving field of Buffy Studies (, a label that, while informal, is well-known. The journal Slayage of The Whedon Studies Association was launched in 2001 ( by academics David Lavery and Rhonda V. Wilcox. They were also editors of the first collective volume on Whedon’s series, Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002), though the first academic articles appeared back in 1998. An MLA search throws 301 entries for Buffy, including MA and PhD dissertations, peaking in 2013 with 38 entries (34 for 2004, right after the series finished). A recent book by Patricia Pender is titled I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (2016). It’s final chapter is “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Trajectories in Buffy Studies”.

Whedon, of course, reacted positively to this attention, back in 2003: “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we’re trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it” ( The problem, however, is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is already, excuse me, a fossilized text. By this I mean that it is already a text older than our undergrad students.

What those of us in Cultural Studies are discovering is that there is a huge difference between studying a ‘living’ text–being issued/broadcast as we study it or very recently–and a text you need to introduce, whether this is Great Expectations or The X-Files. You may be raising an eyebrow now, as there has been a recent mini-series of The X-Files but I believe this has only proved the inability of Chris Carter’s text to remain ‘alive’. In short, after more than 25 years of Cultural Studies what we are learning is that very often popular texts have a shorter life span than the academic interest they may raise. La Sylphide is alive–and please, remember this was conceived as commercial entertainment–but who knows whether Game of Thrones will be remembered in 2027?

Does this mean that a) Cultural Studies has failed in its mission? and b) that the only way to save its project is by teaching/researching ‘living’ texts? No, this is not part of my argument. Even using the traditional methodology of conservative Literary Studies, which prefers its authors and not only its texts dead (or ‘fossilized’), we face the same problem: twenty years is part of living memory for most academics currently employed all over the world, but it is a whole new generation as regards the students sitting in our classroom. We sound old-fashioned, quaint and uncool whether we teach Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981) or The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003), and whether we use Literary or Cultural Studies. For it is all about fossil texts.

All of us interested in contemporary culture are, like surfers, trying to catch waves to sit “on top of the world” as The Beach Boys used to sing, hoping that the texts we favour have survival value. Often, when I write about a specific topic I wonder whether my choice is already condemning my work to not even make the tiniest splash. This has always been a major critique of Cultural Studies: that we are not academics but a sort of cultural journalist working on ephemeral texts and producing short-lived analysis of the latest hip text. The joke, of course, is that academic work on any canonical author is beset by the same problem: nobody cites work published before 1990, whether this is on George Eliot or on Tarzan of the Apes (if, that is, anyone published on Burroughs before 1990).

So, in the end, the difference between high and popular culture within academia is no longer down to the binary trivial/serious, as we used to be told (or believe), but short-lived/long-lived, and at all levels. The trend is actually being reversed, if you know what I mean: living authors and ‘living’ texts are cooler to write about than dead or ‘fossilized’ ones. I very much wanted to write my doctoral dissertation about J.G. Ballard back in the mid-1990s, when he was a hot academic property still to be explored and very much alive. Would I recommended today a student to choose Ballard, who died in 2009, for his/her PhD? You tell me… Likewise, the monographic course on Harry Potter that I taught three years ago made perfect sense in 2013-14 when the original readers were sitting in my classroom. Now it is beginning to sound stale, which is why I’m already planning an elective on Game of Thrones, if Martin ever finishes his saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.

So, to sum up my argument, the revolution that Cultural Studies started back in 1990 by inviting academics to study living authors and all kinds of texts beyond the strictly artistic, did not take into account ageing. Both the ageing of academics with cultural memories stretching beyond several generations of students, and the ageing of the contemporary texts of any kind, which is much faster than it used to be 100 years ago. This means that all of us working on the contemporary face an impossible situation: we need to keep up with the latest developments in the field that we have chosen to study as the bottom of shared memory drops. Students, besides, have on the whole little interest in texts produced before their year of birth. I can hear the conservative academics who never tried to catch the 1990s ‘new wave’ smugly reply to my post: ‘I told you so, stick to the fossils’. But, then, if Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is now becoming fossilized or already a fossil, just imagine what Walter Scott, who died in 1832, the year The Sylphide was first performed, sounds like.

I’m not watching Game of Thrones because, although interested, I’m not passionate about it. Also, because, after the fiasco of Lost, I’d rather wait for stories to be over before I see or read them. I really would like to teach an elective and I hope that Martin is done soon, but if he finishes, say, in 2025, which might well be, the TV series might be ancient history by then… A strange situation.

As for how contemporary culture can also accommodate La Sylphide, perhaps the best I can do is argue that in this ugly 21st century only classical ballet (and perhaps photography) insists on providing some beauty. Enjoy!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from See also:


August 21st, 2017

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the terrible Barcelona attack on 17 August, in which 13 persons were killed by a young man driving a van into the crowded Rambles, leaving 180 others injured. The van driver, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, is still at large. Later, in the early hours of 18 August, the Catalan police shot dead a group of five young men who were carrying out yet another terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 90 kms south of Barcelona. There seems to be a connection between these crimes and the blast which destroyed a house in Alcanar, where three men died, apparently members of the same terrorist cell. All reports agree today that the terrorists intended to blow up a lorry loaded with dozens of butane canisters, either in Rambles or near Sagrada Familia, killing hundreds.

The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police) suspect that one of shattered bodies in Alcanar belongs to Abdelkabi Es Satty, the imam of Ripoll’s mosque and allegedly the mastermind behind the attacks. As it has happened in England, France, Belgium, Germany and other countries under attack by radicalized Islamic terrorists born and bred in their midst, everyone is wondering today in Spain how a group of apparently well-integrated, well-behaved young men have been so quickly transformed into inhuman fiends. Es Satty, apparently also connected with the 11 March 2004 bombings in Atocha and other Madrid train stations which left 192 dead, is blamed for the brainwashing of the boys by families desperate to shift their horror of what their children have done onto somebody else’s shoulders. An article by Lluís Urría in La Vanguardia today, titled “One of Us” concludes that, like their peers in other European nations, the Ripoll boys were vulnerable to predators like Es Satty because migrant integration is failing. Whether following the British multicultural approach or the French denial of difference, we don’t know how to make second generation migrants feel integrated. Instead, we place them in ghettos were jihad seems an appealing way out. Into death and destruction.

These seem to be incomplete arguments. To begin with, let’s consider the terrorism that we used to suffer in Spain, caused by the Basque separatist band E.T.A. This was not at all the product of disaffected young men in migrant neighbourhoods of, say, Madrid and Barcelona. It was, rather, the product of nationalist indoctrination of the worst kind, apparently connected at some points with the Catholic church in the Basque Country. Yet, I don’t recall this kind of sociological analysis applied to the case, at least not on the media. The point I am making is that the pattern is much wider than the current case: whether this is the KKK, the IRA, ETA or Daesh, each successive terrorism thrives by offering new members a potent ideal through indoctrination. Much more potent than the ideal taught in schools and families, as the case of the Ripoll terrorist cell shows. If these young men could be brought to the side of horror in just two months, then we need to consider not really the efficiency of their brainwasher but the fragility of the boys’ education and values.

Although there are also young women who have made the decision to join ISIS, like German teen Linda Wenzel who was on the news after her capture about a month ago, patriarchal terrorism finds its breeding ground among young men. Indeed, one of the main, nastiest surprises in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks is that they were caused by very young men, aged 17-24. This is possibly good news, though tragic, as it shows that ISIS needs to appeal to increasingly younger boys, even mere children, to capture adepts. Boys as young as 8 are being recruited in the war zones of Syria and Iraq to be suicide bombers (girls, too, but they are selected to be mainly sex slaves, as corresponds to the patriarchal mindset of Daesh). It is very, very easy to launch here a feminist attack against the readiness of boys and young men to engage in violence–another man in his twenties, a Chechnian migrant in France, was on the news a few days ago for brutally kicking an Italian young man to death in a crowded Lloret disco. This is not my point. My point is, rather, that if young men are so vulnerable to patriarchal brainwashing this is because the alternative is not working. That is to say, they lack an alternative masculinity strong enough to say ‘no’ to patriarchal violence. And to report monsters like Es Satty to the police. In a parallel, ideal world, Abouyaaqoub and his friends would be hailed as heroes today for helping to avoid a catastrophe, not abhorred as brutes for causing one.

There are two strategies before this situation. One is offering texts that represent in all its crudity the horrendous nature of the evil that seems so attractive from the outside. One example of this trend is the mini-series currently being broadcast by Channel 4, The State ( Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, the four-part story traces the misadventures of young British Muslims travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The review by Mark Lawson in The Guardian wonders, however, in its very title whether “this show about British jihadis” can “avoid justifying extremism”. The series, released on the Sunday after the Barcelona attacks, “brings an extra shiver”, Lawson writes, as it was shot in Spain. Lawson concludes that watching The State would make it less likely for British teenagers to be recruited, yet he does not mention that teenagers are not today an easy target for TV programmers. Lawson’s review downplays the PR that Daesh is carrying out precisely on the sites which teens do access on the net and that the adults around them mostly ignore. For there are all kinds of manipulative youtubers, all indoctrinating young persons in one way or another.

The other alternative, in which fiction may also participate but which is everybody’s responsibility, consists of building positive, rewarding images for young Muslim men to embrace. I know: a tall order. If you google the word ‘indoctrination’ you will see that most results refer not to Islam but to feminism, as there is widespread fear that men are being moulded in the West through education in the ideology of liberal feminism and thus deprived of their masculinity. I have been explaining for years that to begin with this is not true and, anyway, it is the wrong approach: both men and women should be taught to resist patriarchy and work to reinforce equal-rights citizenship. What strikes me this summer –as I read anti-feminist books written by men, such as the late Horacio Vázquez-Rial’s Hombres solos: Ser varón en el s. XXI (2004), and also anti-patriarchal books like Miguel Llorente’s Los nuevos hombres nuevos: Los miedos de siempre en tiempos de igualdad (2009)– is how badly we need positive role models for men. Rial’s lashing out against radical feminism and Llorente’s disgust at publicly sanctioned sexism (what he calls ‘postmachismo’) reveal a similar inability to tell us what a man should be like in our times. Men are defined by both authors for what they are not: Rial complains that not all men are rapists as Susan Brownmiller and company sentenced; Llorente criticizes men for abusing women and not being good fathers. Yet, neither can truly explain what a man should be like. A good man.

I have been arguing for more than two decades that we need a new code of chivalry, new forms of gentlemanliness and heroism. I’m not naively returning to the 19th century from which horrors like the knights of the KKK emerged but proposing, very seriously, that men codify formally new codes of conduct that can be appealed to. “You’re no gentleman” used to be a very potent insult, but this has been replaced with “You’re a bastard”, which is no use. The insult should hurt the man’s pride, not confirm a deviousness he may have embraced willingly. The same applies to women. I don’t know if telling young wannabe terrorists “you’re not a good Muslim” is any use but as long as Daesh determines who is a good Muslim we are not making headway. Likewise, President Trump missed recently the chance to tell white supremacists “You’re not good Americans” by blaming “all sides” for the hatred unleashed by these racists. Indeed, he is basing his chaotic Presidency on praising the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.

I ramble but in the end the argument is easy to understand: Daesh/ISIS has managed to build an image of what a Muslim man should be like which is spreading like burning oil all over Europe among the young men of immigrant origins because it is finding no positive alternative. So, let’s offer one through education at home and at school, without forgetting mosques if it has to be that way and, above all, the internet. An image and a model that can convince other young men like Younes Abouyaaqoub that the heroic thing to do is to resist all forms of barbaric indoctrination, rather than kill innocents. This must be a joint effort, no doubt, by the Islamic communities in the world but also by anyone who opposes terror.

And, please men, give us positive images for the new times, we need them. And so do you.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from See also:


August 8th, 2017

Many complain that the most neglected area in our cultural education is music. I disagree: I believe it is dance, and ballet in particular. The current syllabus for secondary education in Catalonia includes a course called ‘History of music and dance’ (see, which seems an improvement in relation to the total absence of these two arts from the secondary school curriculum back in the 1980s. Of course, one may learn about any field of interest outside formal school education: after all, cinema does not even have its own BA degree in Film Studies in Spain but this has been no obstacle for many Spaniards to become committed, self-taught cinephiles.

With dance, however, matters are far more difficult as, apart from the general public indifference to this art, there is actually very little accessible introductory material, both print and audio-visual. This surprises me very much in view of the proliferation of ballet schools for middle-class children. At any rate, I have been unable to find a good audio-visual introduction on YouTube, a basic history of ballet, beyond brief amateur presentations or boring professional TED lecturing. Likewise, there seem to be very few books addressed to beginners in the field, beyond Susan Au’s Ballet and Modern Dance, as ballet books are primarily about the practice, and not the history of dancing. Actually, most children introduced to this art (and their parents) have no idea about who the current main stars are–much less about why they must practice particular dance steps, or that truly strange staple of ballet, pointe work.

The volume I am currently reading, the Cambridge Companion to Ballet, demands a certain stamina from readers and, like any other book on this topic, it is limited by the lack of moving images, without which ballet terminology may be quite daunting. Searching, then, for an illustration of the issues covered in the first part of the Companion, specially baroque dance, I came across the BBC documentary The King Who Invented Ballet: Louis XIV and the Noble Art of Dance (2015). This turned out to be a beautiful film presented by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director David Bentley, with a wonderful surprise: whereas the first hour is devoted to exploring what ballet meant for the Sun King, the last 35 minutes offer Bentley’s own ballet The King Dances. Without forgetting that English culture has also produced rowdy Magaluf tourists, I marvel at its public television. I just don’t see Spanish or Catalan TV walking down the ballet road and, thus, remain wonderfully ignorant of the local situation.

Let me pass on what I have been learning these days. Ballet is a ritualized dance form originating in 15th century Italian courts which reached France thanks to Catherine de’ Medici. All European courtiers were expected to master ballet as a social skill applied to controlling body language but also to offering spectacular displays of power. Louis XIV, a keen dancer since childhood, made the best of this aspect of ballet, as the BBC documentary explains, to solve a major political crisis which threatened to dethrone him when he was still a teen king under the regency of his mother and of Cardinal Mazzarino (or Mazarin). The twelve-hour Le Ballet de la Nuit in which young Louis dazzled his subjects by playing the dancing Sun King, gave the monarch not only a lasting nickname but also the authority he craved for. Hard as it is to imagine any contemporary crowned individual dancing in public–beyond perhaps waltzing in gala dinners–the fact is that Louis did so for decades, and to great acclaim. He eventually founded the first ballet academy in the world in 1661, the Académie Royale de Danse.

Formally a celebration of Louis XIV’s major contribution to ballet, the BBC documentary–or, rather, choreographer David Bentley–also has a gendered agenda: vindicating the role of men in ballet. My own interest in this field is being fuelled by the paradoxical position as public women of 19th century ballerinas, owners of the only female bodies on display which deserved artistic respect and even stardom (hence, power). All scholars agree that ballet has been dominated by women since the Romantic period but Bentley’s approach is part of a currently ongoing reflection on the role that male dancers may play in art form today much conditioned by rampant homophobia.

You may see the problem summarized in the 35 minutes of The King Dances: although he had devised the piece for an all-male cast, Bentley reluctantly decided to cast a ballerina as the ethereal Moon spirit; her appearance on stage reduces the principal male dancer playing the King to becoming a supporting prop, what men mostly are in classical ballet. This is frustrating, as throughout the rest of the piece he interacts wonderfully with the rest of the male cast in original, creative dance moves. The controversial suggestion then is that, if male dancers could free themselves from the burden of the ballerina (a figure unknown in Louis XIV’s reign) then they could take centre stage again. And dance as men–as the Sun King did.

Bentley’s film connects with another excellent documentary which I have mentioned just in passing here: Steve Cantor’s Dancer (2016). The film focuses on Sergei Polunin, a young, brilliant ballet dancer whom you may have seen in a viral YouTube video, directed by David LaChapelle. There, Polunin offers an amazing display of formidable dancing accompanied by Hozier’s catchy song “Take me to Church” ( As it turns out, Polunin intended this video to be his goodbye to ballet but, paradoxically, its success made him reconsider his decision. This is what Cantor’s film documents: the cost of being a ballet star in a world in which ballet’s demands may no longer make sense, much less to a young man.

As dancing male bodies on display, Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin occupy diametrically opposed positions: one is the King of the most powerful nation of his time using ballet to flaunt his political power; the other is a poor boy from Ukraine whose working-class family collapses under the burden of lifting him onto stardom. And here lies the problem in Polunin’s case: for Louis XIV, ballet is an extension of his absolutism, inherited by divine right; for Polunin, ballet is not a personal choice, but a road onto which he is placed by teachers and family because of his body’s uncanny capacities and abilities. In my Marxist reading, Louis XIV puts the foundations of an elite taste for ballet which allows Polunin to leave poverty behind in 21st century post-Communist Ukraine at a very high personal cost. This includes his radical de-classing, his permanent exile from his home town, the divorce of his parents and even his own estrangement from the whole family. Polunin wonders, as the film does, whether the sacrifice is worth it. The dancer’s many tattoos and his athletic style (see the video) also hint what he later vocalizes: ballet is a world in need of updating, particularly for male dancers. Bentley’s own message…

And, then, there’s homophobia. In an encounter with the audience at the Toronto Film Festival, after a screening of Dancer, a shy man asks Polunin (himself quite shy despite his undeserved ‘bad boy’ reputation) how homophobia can be combated and, thus, more young boys introduced to ballet. In Polunin’s Ukraine boys were given, as he was, a choice between gymnastics and ballet and perhaps because of this he seems puzzled, also a bit uncomfortable. “I do a man’s job”, he quips and this is it. Both Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin, beginning and present, embody what ballet is at risk of losing: heterosexual masculinity. It seemed that after the phenomenally successful Billy Elliot (2000), the problem would have been solved. Yet, it has not. This does not mean that gay male dancers are acknowledged and respected, either. The Bolshoi’s recent decision (June 2017) to cancel the world premiere of a ballet based on top Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) has dismayed many. Although the Bolshoi authorities have invoked technical problems to justify their decision, Russian legislation against promoting homosexuality in any way is most likely their main consideration. For, of course, Nureyev was gay and died of AIDS-related complications.

Ironically, then, although ballet was formally codified to display men’s power it eventually became an art focused on the iconic femininity of the ballerina. I don’t intend to discuss here this femininity, nor how it fits the current cult of the unnaturally thin woman. What anyone knows is that ballet schools are full of girls because most parents believe that ballet gives even the less gifted girl tools to carry her body gracefully, still, believe it or not, a much appreciated social skill. But what about little boys? Whenever I attend a ballet school’s performance, as I do yearly, and see just one or two boys surrounded by twenty or more girls, I wonder who they are, what is motivating them and what obstacles they’re facing, whether they’re gay or straight. Louis XIV would not understand this situation at all.

By the way, Polunin was discovered thanks to the Ukrainian public school system, of which ballet was part. This is hard to imagine in my local context. I’ll leave for some other day why the supposedly cultured, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona offers so little ballet and at such prohibitive prizes. This, I believe, King Louis XIV would understand.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from See also:


July 11th, 2017

My colleague Felicity Hand is organizing yet another exciting conference, this time on India. Having learned much about Postcolonialism from previous similar events, I have submitted a proposal (see, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara I decided to focus my paper on science fiction, a genre with a very rich history in India in several languages. Narrowing down the field to just one name was, though, quite difficult. Fortunately, the recent monographic issue published by Science Fiction Studies (#130, or 43.3, November 2016) led me to a simply wonderful writer, and an indispensable name in the genre: Vandana Singh (

Singh, born and brought up in Delhi, describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy”. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works currently as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University, Massachusetts. Although she started writing both in Hindi and English, her main focus is now the latter language. Singh is known not only for her sf but also for a couple of children’s books: Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Her sf consists of short stories and novellas, some of which can be found online (see She has published her work in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has collected some of her earlier stories a volume, now out of print, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008). Her second, forthcoming, volume is Ambiguity Machines and Other Tales (

Singh is also co-editor with Anil Menon of the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana ( Most Indian sf writers agree that a singularity of the genre they cultivate is how deep it sinks its roots in Indian myth. What readers enjoy in Singh’s fiction, as I do, is the excellent combination of her original cultural background with insights provided by her work as a scientist, now focused on climate change.

I chose initially to work on “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”, one of Singh’s most obvious incursions into the mythical. This is what my conference proposal announced to the organizers. I read, however, many other stories by Singh, passing from the most often anthologized “Delhi” (classic Singh…) to the eccentrically romantic “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue”, a story about a dying old woman, a black hole and an eternally lost lover. Next I read “Entanglement”, the first truly global story I have ever come across. Eventually, a doctoral student explained to me that the title refers to a scientific concept, a point corroborated by the author. The more I read, the more I realized, then, that Vandana Singh cannot be pinned down under a single label, whether this is woman, Indian, speculative writer, or scientist. How, then, should we make sense of her work?

Trying to explain Singh’s work to my friend Mariano Martín I told him that she reminds me, above all, of fellow sf short fiction writer Ted Chiang (the recent film The Arrival adapts–poorly–one of his brilliant stories). I explained how academic analysis of Singh centres on her status as a postcolonial writer and Mariano complained that this is reductive… as absurd as studying Chiang as an Asian American writer, when everyone knows that he is, above all, the new Borges. Disappointingly, as I told Mariano, MLA offers only 6 entries on Chiang, half of which refer to his ethnic background. None mentions Borges.

As happens, Chang and Singh met at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (perhaps more than once?) and she interviewed him in 2012 ( It comes as no surprise, in view of her own work, that she praises Chiang’s tales: “I love how so many of them posit and approach fantastical made-worlds in a wholly scientific way”. Pleased that she asks proper questions on science, he stresses how “the sense of wonder that science fiction offers is closely related to the feeling of awe that science itself offers”. Inevitably, racial issues come up… “Does your being Asian American inform your stories in any way?”, Singh asks. Chiang answers: “Race inevitably plays a role in my life, but to date it’s not a topic I’ve wanted to explore in fiction” because “the events of my own life are too dull to be the basis for fiction”. A bit annoyed, Chiang complains that “People have looked for a racial subtext in my work in a way I don’t think they would have if my family name were Davis or Miller”.

Academics, nonetheless, insist on using what Chiang defines as “extratextual information” to read fiction produced by non-white writers, while ignoring the whiteness of white writers (excuse the tongue-twister). At least, I have never come across an analysis of, say, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizing his race or his ethnic Swedish background. Either we stop asking Singh and Chiang about their background or, perhaps more to the point, we start asking the white writers about theirs. Jackie Kay once warned that she would accept seeing herself described as black, lesbian, Scottish, only when Martin Amis started being presented as white, heterosexual, English…. At the same time, the labels used to name non-white writers are absurdly loose: why should ‘Asian’ be a common label for writers from backgrounds as diverse as China and India? Nobody would label, for instance, a Portuguese and a Rumanian writer as ‘European’, so why use ‘Asian’, or ‘African’, in this comprehensive way?

Vandana Singh’s work has already attracted some quality academic work. I’ll refer here to two examples, before I turn to another interview, this time with Singh herself. The two examples highlight the problem I am dealing with: how are we supposed to read non-white authors in a context in which the category ‘white’ is both normative and non-existent?

On the one hand, Suparno Banerjee (Texas State University) claims in “An Alien Nation: Postcoloniality and the Alienated Subject in Vandana Singh’s Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 53.3 (2012): 283-306) that one of the major topics of recent Indian sf is “the specter of an alienated postcolonial subject caught in the flux of historical eddies” (283). This is precisely, he argues, the kind of estranged character that Vandana Singh explores, calling attention “to the different types and levels of alienation that haunt the people who negotiate their surroundings and identities in this new world order” (283). Reading “Delhi”, “Infinities”, “The Tetrahedron” and the novellas Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters Banerjee argues that Singh “is a writer of the new postcolonial alienation: a form of alienation emerging out of the colonial discourse, yet different from it” (285). He grants that Singh’s style allows her “to speculate about different scientific and philosophical notions” but firmly insists that “alienation in the postcolonial subject becomes her most important concern” (286).

Banerjee’s Indian surname lends to his article an authority as a cultural insider that I cannot have as, well, an alien–a foreign Spanish/Catalan reader. Yet, I feel oppressed and constrained by his interpretation, mostly because he subordinates the essential scientific reading of Singh’s fiction to the ethnic, nationalist reading. Having recently edited a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf I believe that no Spanish writer would appreciate being defined by his or her belonging to a (white) postimperial nation: they would rather have academics discuss the specific themes of their writing. Singh does write about India but as we can see in her eagerness to ask Chiang, she is primarily concerned about how to turn science into narrative poetics, a point to which I will return.

The SFS issue on Indian sf offers an alternative to the exclusive postcolonial reading, offered by Eric D. Smith (University of Alabama in Huntsville), a white specialist in Postcolonial Studies. Yes, ‘white’ needs to be mentioned. In his article “Universal Love and Planetary Ontology in Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters” (514-533), Smith proposes that we rise above “the limits of certain postcolonial theorizations in the postmillennial present”. More explicitly, by reading Singh’s novella through the critique of love proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou, Smith argues “the insufficiency of postcolonial theory for capturing the event of postcolonial sf and the latter’s potential for the production of planetary being” (514). He cites Banerjee (the very words I have quoted) to oppose him and show that beyond the postcolonial, Singh’s fiction “insists on themes of infinity, interdimensionality, and, indeed, universality, frequently underpinned by a referential framework of theoretical mathematics (…)” (514). Half-way through his article, however, I found myself resisting Smith’s reading fiercely: who is this white guy to force Singh’s stories into the philosophical mould set by two other white guys, Alain Badiou, and, guess who?, Slavoj Žižek? How does this approach serve Singh better than Banerjee’s?

In the same issue, Malisa Kurtz (PhD from Brock University)–who looks Asian American as the category goes…–interviews Singh. She prioritizes in her questions the author’s “fascination with scientific speculation” (534) and with “the provisionality of scientific knowledge” (536); also the issue of whether her sf is ‘hard’ (it is, though not gadget-oriented). Kurtz gets Singh to explain how her sf connects with the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and also to disclose her relief at discovering Bengali writer Premendra Mitra (read in English) for “I didn’t want sf written by people from the West to be the only standard with which to compare and contrast my stories” (537).

Yet, Kurtz also gets from Singh the story of how US white female sf writers (above all Ursula Le Guin) saved her from alienation as a newly migrated PhD student. “What she showed me”, Singh enthuses, “was an array of alternate worlds, futures, histories, in which people like me existed” (537). Instead of the “white-maletechnofetishist(s)” Anglo-American sf authors she read as a teen, “Le Guin’s works restored sf to me, made it welcoming in a way I hadn’t experienced before” (537). Another source of enthusiasm, of course, is how Singh “cannot separate the aesthetic impulse that drives me to create worlds from the pleasure I get doing physics” (538). Her current work, “on the pedagogy of climate science”(538) is, thus, a direct inspiration for “Entanglement”.

The racial question pops up, again: how does Singh feel about the label ‘postcolonial science fiction’? Singh lets “the scholars worry about definitions”, noting that ‘postcolonial’ “has its uses” if it helps to dismantle what she calls “paradigm blindness”, that is to say, the “blinkers” imposed by the colonizers. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, “an implication of the term ‘postcolonial’ is that the unit of measure, the standard, is still the colonizer. That can be limiting. So while I acknowledge the importance of the term, I also want to transcend it, to go off and play in the much larger universe we inhabit” (543). In this sense, sf offers the “experience of playfully trying to decolonize my mind—shaking free of hitherto unexamined paradigms, trying to look at new vistas through new eyes” (544).

The question, ultimately, and the challenge, is whether Literary and Cultural Studies are ready to ‘transcend’ Postcolonialism and take as ‘the unit of measure’ something else. Not the white, male, European philosophical discourse that Smith summons from the past under the guise of modernity but, hopefully, a wholly new discourse that looks “at new vistas through new eyes” in a “much larger universe”. Transnationalism and cosmopolitanism have been often invoked as alternatives. Singh’s sf suggests, however, that just as her characters move across the many dimensions of the multiverse while being both deeply rooted in their places and alienated from them, we need to see how humanity functions in all backgrounds, including whiteness. Otherwise, we just contribute to prolonging normative racist ethnocentricity, forcing non-white writers to be spokespersons for just one segment of the human species, instead, as they are, of the whole species.

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July 3rd, 2017

I have given myself the task of checking my university library’s catalogue and select a variety of volumes for summer reading, in an attempt to catch up with the novelties in the areas I’m interested in. The function of journals used to be exactly that: keeping researchers informed about the latest advances in a given field. This seems to work better for the sciences but my impression is that in the Humanities we no longer read journal issues from beginning to end (if we ever did that). Rather, we read single articles and most likely only those that we cite in our own work, as there is no time to spare for reading around. In my personal case this lack of time also means that my visits to the library have diminished along the years. I feel that am slowly but steadily falling behind in my fields of research, and teaching, despite trying to frantically keep up.

This impression is, perhaps, not well grounded, however as I find that the enormous proliferation of academic writing in recent years has not resulted in deep changes in our methodological paradigm. I worked on my doctoral dissertation between 1993 and 1996, more than twenty years ago, and so I should expect new research to be radically different. I see, nonetheless, essentially the same names and the same bibliography established in the 1990s quoted again and again. I urge my students to not use anything published before 1995, except when it is fully justified, but I see that I’ll have to revise that rule for everything that matters today to us regarding theory in Literature and Culture seems to come from the early 1990s. The two most prominent big names of recent times, Zygmunt Bauman (who died in January) and Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), published their breakthrough work also in the 1990s. And I don’t see anyone under 40 making a big splash (yet?).

The dominion of 1990s academia over us connects with the prevalence of post-modernism as a label that has overstayed its welcome, an issue I discussed in my previous post. Perhaps the lack of progress in academic research has to do with this collective inability to move beyond labels but what worries me very much, besides this stagnation, is that the very few calls to action lean towards universalism and formalism, the two evils that the 1990s emphasis on identity tried to correct. I have come across much universalism in the dubious application to Literature and Culture of fashionable Affect Theory (see my conference presentation on the body here And I have just come across a vindication of formalism in Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon’s The Space of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-devolution Age (2015).

Let me stop here, for the issue is complex. Basically, there is widespread agreement that Scottish Literature bore the brunt of keeping the voice of the nation alive while politics progressed towards Devolution. Scotland used to be a separate kingdom but its devious aristocratic rulers signed a Treaty of Union (1707) with England, which resulted in the dissolution of its Parliament and the loss of its independence. The re-emergence of nationalism in the 20th century led to the ill-fated 1979 referendum for Devolution under Margaret Thatcher, which was lost, and, hence to an intense period of national self-doubt which only ended (relatively speaking) in 1997. A second referendum, this time under the aegis of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, resulted in a positive vote and, so, the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999 (though not independence). In a recent referendum, in 2014, authorized by David Cameron’s Tory Government, independence was rejected by 55% of the voters. Another referendum, voted by all Britons in 2016, started Brexit by a narrow margin, 51.89%, and led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) to declare that she would call yet another independence referendum; most Scots voted against Brexit (62%) and in favour of remaining in the European Union. This second referendum is still in the air, as I write.

In her conclusion, Pittin-Hedon quotes Gerry Hassan’s words warning that “Analysing trends is not enough, however good the data. Imagining the future is an empowering process that opens up the possibility of action” (186). To do so, Pittin-Hedon argues, we must follow Alex Thomson’s “lead” and “look for specific features” that are “stylistic, formal rather than systematically trying to connect” Scottish writing “to the political context” (186). She refers to Thomson’s 2007 article “‘You can’t get there from here’: Devolution and Scottish literary history”, which I have not read (yet). This is what worries me: the word ‘rather’, as it implies an either/or situation by which looking into stylistics is incompatible with looking into context.

This is even more puzzling because Pittin-Hedon never leaves context aside in her book; unless, that is, her extensive literary analysis of the works she presents is an attempt to downplay context. How, however, can any literary critic take politics for granted when Scottish academia has widely accepted ‘Post-Devolution’ as an apt label to discuss contemporary literature? In Catalonia, a nation mirroring Scotland in many ways beginning with the chronology of recent History (the Generalitat was ‘devolved’ back in 1980) nobody uses the label ‘post-autonomic’ (the equivalent of ‘post-Devolution’)–just ‘contemporary’. Even though nationalism is of immense importance, Catalan writers and critics are not restricted in this sense as the case seems to be in Scotland. Judging, that is, from Thomson’s call to formalist arms… echoed by Pittin-Hedon.

Actually, though, like Pittin-Hedon, I agree with Janice Galloway’s complaint that it is about time Scottish authors write ‘through’ the nation and not ‘about’ the nation, there is another kind of context that Pittin-Hedon ignores in her book. First, I need to explain that even though this volume has an obvious introductory inclination it is by no means didactic. She discusses the selected writing as if it were already very well known by her reader in the dense academic style typical of most contemporary Literary Studies. Struggling to make sense of her arguments, as I made notes about what I should read to catch up, I suddenly wondered who she was writing for–and why she wasn’t mentioning the elephant in the room: our collective fears that the very habit of reading fiction might soon die, for the younger generations are mostly non-readers. It turns out, and here’s a paradox, that this anxiety is central to Scottish fiction. At least, one of the writers that Pittin-Hedon praises, Ewan Morrison, asked the question none of his peers dared ask: “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”

This is the title of a talk Morrison gave back in 2011 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and that he published in The Guardian ( His argument is transparent: books will disappear because, “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books”. Also, said revolution “will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist”. The readers’ comments, divided between half-empty glass defenders and half-full glass opponents are marvellous to read… And while it is true that Pittin-Hedon brings her readers’ attention to this crucial article, she writes about the selected books with no reference to the issues that Morrison raises. As if Literature were still a central aspect of Scottish society and not an endangered cultual species in the whole Western world.

Introductions and updates are very difficult books to write, since trying to make sense of the present is extremely complicated. At the same time the academic writer undergoing that kind of task has the wonderful chance to shape literary History and even the canon simply by choosing what to include. Interestingly, Pittin-Hedon devotes a chapter to Scottish women writers specializing in crime, and although I miss their sisters in science fiction and I’m not at all fond of gender separatism in literary analysis, this chapter is symptomatic of how genres are merging to challenge canonical visions. I wish, nonetheless, to sound less like a reviewer and more like a reader and so, I’ll note, that, somehow, I find the genre of the academic introduction or update stubbornly resistant to… digitalization.

The whole point of volumes of this kind is to put the reader in touch with books s/he might want to read and the middleman or middlewoman’s role should be to facilitate the encounter. I really think that this is best done through a hypertext: a website combining actual reviews and interviews with authorial comment that would allow readers to navigate among a constellation of unknown books. I just don’t know anymore how to read a few hundred pages of literary analysis about books I have not read. The analysis sounds very clever but it might be all wrong, and even if it is brilliant and spot-on, I will have forgotten it by the time I manage to read the book.

I understand that the most positive feature of introductions, updates (and companions) is that they are, ironically, limited. The Victorian Web, for instance, ( does a very good job of presenting this age to interested readers but it is a sprawling text that cannot be read with the same ease as a volume that can be underlined (whether paper or e-book). Perhaps we don’t understand well how to use the digital media. This morning I have also been browsing through the impressive collections of Cambridge and Routledge companions that my university subscribes and, well, the volumes are now digital but what this means is that each one is fragmented into the .pdf for each chapter, not that they are hypertexts with links to other resources. This is a necessary academic revolution, I think, if the didactic value of this type of introductory book is to be enhanced. And made attractive for post-baby boomer generations…

The lessons I’m learning, then, as I try to catch up with recent developments is that academic literary criticism seems anchored in the 1990s, with few recent developments. The proliferation of new writing is asking for a new way of presenting readers with introductions to particular periods that might work much better as online hypertexts than as (paper) books. This revolution is not happening because we, academics, don’t know very well how to maximize the use of digital media in our favour. The very media that, if Morrison is right, will kill Literature. Or, at least, deprive writers of a living.

How in the middle of this cultural (and political) turmoil we can make sense of stylistics is, for the time being, beyond me–though, ideally, text and context should be always studied together. If anyone cares for reading at all…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from See also: