MASCULINITY EMBODIED (AND THOSE MANLY VOICES!)

Today I need to say something about men’s voices.

A few years ago I got contacted by an American man with a warm, husky voice, Dave Muldoon, who asked me to help him develop a PhD dissertation on men’s voices –he is himself the voice of Tom Waits in an Italian tribute band (here’s Dave singing live, enjoy!!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6ySDaqmAjM ). I said no to him, worried that the topic was too abstract for the conceptual and theoretical tools we use in Masculinities Studies. I still think this is the case, with much regret.

We agreed instead to work on a dissertation about the representation of masculinity in a series of biopics about iconic pop and rock male singers. He’s hard at work on it and, funnily, we’ve come full circle as it might well be that the final element he needs to tie up all the diverse films is the fundamental presence of the male singer’s voice. Since the chosen ones are Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Johnny Cash there is surely a case to be made about how Dave is, after all, dealing primarily with how male voices articulate a certain image of manliness (I don’t know what to make of the fifth one, Bob Dylan, not a voice I listen to with pleasure).

I have already mentioned here Joy Division’s suicidal lead singer, Ian Curtis, as a key figure for those of us who were young and wanted to be alternative in the early 1980s. What I didn’t mention is that the contrast between his baby face and his deep, baritone voice was what got all fans hooked. Since he died I have been looking for a replacement (found him!: Paul Banks from Interpol), and paying attention to men’s voices and how they signify masculinity. I’ll acknowledge that I’m rethinking all these matters not only because of Dave’s dissertation but also, oh my!, because of chef Jordi Cruz’s of MasterChef fame. There is another angelic, babyish face with an unexpectedly manly, velvety voice.

Logically, when it comes to male voices I tend to pay attention to performers, whether actors or singers. In Spain we have recently lost Constantino Romero, the most important dubbing actor of recent years. Romero, the kind of chubby, moustachioed man you’d call sweet, dubbed most famously Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Blade Runner’s replicant Roy and Darth Vader. For us ‘Luke, yo soy tu padre’ comes in his voice –it seems young people used to stop Romero in the street and begged him to say that. Ramón Langa is also dubbing male icons like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, which of course is annoying because this means that in Spanish most Americans actors you’d identify with action movies and a certain kind of ultra-manly manliness share their voices. I hate dubbing!!

So, belive me, the reason why I want to see Fast and Furious 6 in the original version is Vin Diesel’s beautifully manly voice (see the animated film The Iron Giant in which he dubs the robot). If you want another example of attractive manly voices, and this one is unusual, believe me, see any episode of the BBC’s Sherlock and see what odd-looking Bennedict Cumberbatch brings to the role with what I can only call a voice that makes intelligence sound sexy. More examples? Yes, the perfect father of To Kill a Mockinbird (the amazing 1960 classic film) has Gregory Peck’s lovely, serene voice. You want scary? Um, Ralph Fiennes both as Heathcliff and as Voldemort. A feast for your ears… By the way, Clooney’s appealing voice is the reason why the Nespresso adds are not dubbed.

Recent scholarship in Masculinities Studies by big names such as Jeff Hearn and Victor Seidler insists that we need to understand how masculinity is embodied (as you can see, I myself am more interested in how ‘manliness’ is embodied –see my essay on Zack Snider’s Spartan film 300 in my web, section articles in books). Actually, Cultural Studies have been taking a close look at men’s bodies for quite a long time now in books as diverse as Richard Dyer’s White or Susan Bordo’s obvious The Male Body. The voice is missing, though, possibly because it is very difficult indeed to find the adequate vocabulary for description and analysis (um, as you can see here).

Long time ago I was at a Tindersticks concert and I heard a girl say ‘I don’t care if he doesn’t sing, I’d give anything for Stuart [Staples] to whisper sexy words to my ear’. Maybe we need a new definition of oral sex (or sexiness?), I don’t know… Now, seriously, ehem, listen to men and tell me what you hear (and Dave, thanks!!)

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SHAME ON YOU: AFTER MEETING CHRISTIAN GREY

This is a post I wish I didn’t have to write, as I wish that E L James’s Grey Trilogy did not exist. I’m even deeply concerned that by publishing this, I might be calling anyone’s attention to this disturbing, revolting piece of trash. After meeting Christian Grey I can only say that I am ashamed that this has been written by a woman, and that so many women have not only bought the books but also enjoyed them (some even fanatically). I can only call the success of the trilogy, which has outsold Harry Potter, a clear example of the slave mentality that feminism cannot eradicate. Men must be having a very loud laugh at our expense.

I vowed to myself that I would never spend a euro, not even a cent on either Meyer’s Twilight or James’s Grey. None of the Twilight books has materialised in my path, but Fifty Shades of Grey appeared recently on a bookshelf where I myself opened a book crossing space for the Department’s teachers and students. (Did someone leave it for me, I wonder?) So I took it home and yesterday I read the first half. This morning I have decided not to waste more time and after reading a handful of reviews with as many spoilers as possible, I have decided to exorcise Grey off my reading list by writing this post.

As everyone knows by now Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey actually descend from Bella and Edward, as James first wrote their story as part of Twilight’s booming fan fiction. Bella and Edward are, yes, a sorry twenty-first version of that other lamentable couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, but with a happier ending. It is as if time stopped long time ago in the early nineteenth century for (most?) women, while others still struggle to accomplish the equality that brave Mary Wolstonecraft demanded then. James very explicitly mentions Alec D’Urberville as another milestone in the constructions of her repulsive fantasies, which at least 70 million book buyers have shared and many more cinema-goers will soon share.

James’s trilogy has the dubious ‘merit’ of having exposed what many women really dream of and, beyond the appalling prose, poor characterisation and trite plot, this is what concerns me: the absolute confusion of abuse with romance. You can read the Grey books as a story about too seriously disturbed persons who match each other to perfection in their absurd folie-à-deux. Yet, whereas nobody would (or should) read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho with sympathy for Patrick Bateman (so close to Grey that Ellis wanted to write the screenplay for the adaptation), the whole point of the Grey trilogy syndrome is that it has generated veneration for Anastasia’s ultra-patriarchal lover rather than disgust, as it should.

Who am I to say what other women should feel? Well, someone who is fighting hard to convince women that if they want love in their life and happen to be heterosexual, they ought to choose good men –the beast never turns into a prince, as the cruel deaths of so many women show, and telling yourself that as long as you enter it freely an abusive relationship is fine, is sheer madness. We need urgently new stories by and for women, and we also need to return to the nineteenth century to read the ‘other’ stories. Mary Wollstonecraft but also others like –my most recent reading– the autobiography of pioneer American feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This has plenty of anti-patriarchal good men who did help women to acquire the rights we enjoy now. If I were that kind of man and read the Grey trilogy today, I would give up on women in despair. And, what is worse, I might feel that abuse is justified because this is what the ladies want, secretly or not so secretly.

Cady Stanton explains that the American feminist movement grew under the shade of abolitionism and came to a crucial turning point when, after the Civil War, enfranchisement was offered to black men, still excluding all women. Cady Stanton, her soul mate Elizabeth B. Anthony and many other women fought then for full citizenship as the US law proved again and again that they were in practice slaves. It’s clear to me that for all the legal, professional and personal advances in women’s lives in the West (and in men’s thanks to feminism as well), not fifty but a hundred shades of black, rather than grey, still darken our lives.

The slave mentality has not been purged out of romance. I see many women calling themselves post-feminists downplaying this danger and even arguing that producing and reading (sick) romance is part of our empowerment, a position I cannot share. Very simply: if good guys do not turn us on and we cannot write sexy romance about them, then let’s abandon romance. Actually, I thought that the whole point of romance was offering compensatory fantasies about Prince Charming to women trapped in sad, bad or boring lives but it turns out that romance is becoming a way to compensate for the lack of abuse in your own (post-feminist?) life… I have never liked Jane Austen but I clearly see now how preferably fantasising about Darcy is to fantasising about Christian Grey.

As for myself, I’d rather fantasise about disseminating ideas that help other women live better lives, including the idea that we must celebrate and enjoy the company of good men, not of fucked-up (patriarchal) bastards. Of these we’ve already had and still have too many.

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RETURNING TO STEINBECK (IN THE BLEAKEST MOOD)

One of the masterpiece I have been meaning to read since my student’s days (but never got round to) is John Steinbeck’s monumental The Grapes of Wrath (1939). I love John Ford’s film adaptation of 1940, but I’ve kept on putting off reading the book. Sorry but Steinbeck is one of those authors that makes me feel lazy as a reader despite my admiration for him. I got, though, eventually curious to see whether his portrait of Depression America is still valid today. It is, so much so that I ended wrapped up in the bleakest mood (my! that final scene…). This, anyway, is not a novelty these days: add to the pay cuts and the general attack against the welfare state the death this week of my favourite writer, Iain Banks.

The Grapes of Wrath tells in compassionate, humane detail the story of the Joad family. These poor Oklahoma croppers lose their jobs and home when the greedy banks that own their land replace whole farming communities with a handful of men driving tractors. The Joads and thousands of other ‘Oakies’ take then the road to the promised land, California, only to discover after an arduous journey that the scant jobs available there are too meanly paid to guarantee basic day-to-day survival. Same old story.

A reader at Amazon called the novel ponderous and perhaps it is. Chapter 3, very famously, focuses on a turtle crossing a country road. You might also tire of so much dialogue in dialect although, naturally, this is how the Joad family and the others that people Steinbeck’s world would speak. I had, nonetheless, the clear feeling from page one that I was reading a masterpiece, the kind of literary novel nobody can write anymore (remember that Steinbeck is a Nobel Prize winner, not that I care very much about that).

I do not mean that there is no literary talent today. What I mean is that The Grapes of Wrath is an ambitious novel by a novelist who cared more about what he was narrating than about his own career, at least that was my impression (I cannot get rid of this feeling that writers today write mainly for narcissistic reasons). Steinbeck’s writing is dominated by his anger and indignation at the political and economic situation of 1930s America. I don’t know whether he was repeating facts and ideas well known at the time or whether he himself had a crystal-clear perception of the abuses of capitalism. What baffles and moves me at the same time is how he made first-rate literary material out of that personal and collective suffering.

I do not know whether Greek author Petros Márkaris (a recent Carvalho award), who is writing a trilogy about the deep crisis in his country, is up to the standard of literary greatness that this catastrophe calls for. What I know is that we need someone as big as Steinbeck to narrate these hard times (the Dickensian allusion is not accidental).

Logically, this major novel of the current crisis should come from the South of Europe (Italy, Portugal, Greece and indeed Spain). This great novel should draw, in the style of a Hugo, Balzac, Tolstoi or Dickens, a vast panorama of interlocking stories with corrupt politicians, long-term unemployed families, migrant post-grads, victims of fraudulent bank practices (and university teachers scared of eventually losing tenure…). Or, as Steinbeck does, this great Spanish novel could focus on just a family –hopefully not in the style of the awful TV series Cuéntame (I wonder whether our local talent is already stretched to the limit with Aída…). I just wish that any of the members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca could turn out to be the novelist we need. And no experimentalism, please.

The hardest part of reading Steinbeck is how the hardships of the characters get under your skin. How deep, one keeps wondering, can injustice gnaw into people’s lives? This is no simple melodrama but something much darker, which shows how the same untrammelled evil let loose then, in 1929, is still sweeping up the lives of many that deserve much better (and I do know this is white ethnocentric). Perhaps one could read The Grapes of Wrath fifteen years ago and think of it as a quaint reminder of a distant past; not any more, for the dividing line between the Joads and any of us, working or middle-class, is gone (just think of the thousands of Greek public TV workers that their Government left cold in the streets a few days ago).

In the bleakest mood, I’m telling you (any great novelist out there??)

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THE CLASSIC YEARLY ENTRY: THE LITERATURE QUIZ…

My entry of 6 June 2012, about the poor results of the quiz on the handbook Introduction to English Literature which first year students must take, offended, I know, many students. Two sent furious comments, criticising me for publicising students’ mistakes (even though I did so anonymously, nobody was ‘outed’). A girl was particularly angry. She told me off for not using more class time to train students for the quiz, since this exercise, she wrote, appears to be so very important for me.

Remembering her complaint, I warned my class this semester that a) I don’t care about the exercise, I care about their education; b) I do not use class time for this because studying the handbook is an autonomous activity which, well, they’re supposed to carry out on their own. I did explain in detail what the quiz would consist of, and offered a class tutorial (with practice) that few attended. I even proposed that we suppressed the quiz: all they had to do was promise me that they would study the handbook. No such promise was forthcoming, so, here we go again: they hate me for the massive cramming the quiz demands, and I am as usual hugely disappointed since many have failed to identify very prominent titles and authors of English Literature, and place them in their correct historical context.

Just consider this: even though the first weeks of the course focused on Modernism and included a short story by Virginia Woolf, few students have attributed her masterpiece To the Lighthouse to Woolf and she has been called Victorian by at least one very disoriented student… Let me insist on the obvious: there’s no way around studying if you’re a student, and that includes memorising. If we produce lists for you (we did offer anyway a period and author chart) this will not help you, as memorising is best approached by producing your own lists, as we teachers did as students and still do. Ask the students who scored above 30 points (out of 40) how they managed the feat.

Amazingly, this year’s quiz included some misidentifications also present last year. John, not Jane, Austen has been named again as the author of Sense and Sensibility, whereas JK Rowling’s masterpiece turns out to be again The Lord of the Rings. Wuthering Heights still causes much confusion: it’s the work of Emily Gemmë or Emilie Worten, not Emily Brontë. A student has called it a WWI poem. Mary Shelley (Mery Shelly…) is still alive, once more, though David Stroke happens to be the author of Frankenstein. Shakespeare (Sheakspeare, James not William) has become a Romantic (or Victorian) playwright. Salman Rushdie, mentioned in class a few times and whose review of The Remains of the Day I quoted from (and students were supposed to read) remains massively unknown.

If I sound sarcastic you misread me, I’m not laughing. I’m sad. This is very serious.

I was about to say that the errors are less blatant this year but this is irrelevant as I believe there were more blanks. Last year I wrote that I was worried above all by the students’ “inability to study in a systematic way”. I still am. I will stress, though, once more my main worry, what I called the truly scary factor: “that those approaching us lack the basic cultural capital that a student of English should possess (and indeed acquire in the first year).”
We are very much concerned that a majority of our students are below the required B2 English language entrance level, as placement tests reveal, and work hard to correct this situation. We don’t use, however, placement tests for Literature and Culture and I’m beginning to think that they’re very urgent. This would need careful, systematic planning for all the concerned courses and we simply lack the time and resources to embark on what is indeed a daunting task, but there MUST BE a minimum standard, an equivalent B2 for a general cultural background in English (and the native languages/cultures).

The quiz is very difficult to pass (at least the first part) precisely because students must learn the author’s names, titles and periods from scratch. And this is something we teachers do not understand. Those of us who teach now Literature took a degree in English because we wanted to be able to read in this language what we were alerady reading in translation – massively. Learning a language means learning a culture, and if you are interested in the language, how can you not be interested in the names and works of the individuals who have used it best? This is why we teach Literature – to reach the rich world that lies beyond the boring grammar exercises, to take students into the core of the language’s beauty. And this beauty comes indeed from any of the 20 major authors we ask you, students, to memorise, hoping that one day you will want to read their texts. That’s what I care for, not the quiz itself.

I’m bracing myself for the hate mail but, what can I do?, my job description includes being nasty whenever this is needed. I wish, though, I could stop being nasty for, generally speaking, I would not call myself nasty. And no, the solution for that is not eliminating the quiz, not as long as students do not promise to study hard on their own –which, by the way, we prefer to call ‘educate oneself autonomously’.

That would have me smiling all the time.

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ASYRAS: A TOAST TO ITS GROWTH AND TO THE FUTURE OF YOUNG RESEARCHERS IN SPAIN

I have had a memorable birthday present as one of the guest plenary speakers of the third ASYRAS conference, celebrated at the University of Oviedo. This was intriguingly called “The Significance of the Insignificant in Anglophone Studies”, a title apparently inspired by Bergson. Very philosophical!

I cannot sufficiently thank organisers Alejandra Moreno and Irene Pérez for this wonderful present, nor for their constant attention to my person, their friendliness and warmth. As a further way of thanking them and ASYRAS’ current president, the very charming Pedro Álvarez Mosquera (of Salamanca), I have decided to publicise here what ASYRAS is, as it deserves that and much more.

ASYRAS is the acronym of the Association of Young Researchers in Anglophone Studies. It was born in 2007 out of an initiative carried out by a group of just 8 post-grad students in Salamanca and it is plainly meant to generate much necessary networking among its members. I asked whether ‘young’ meant in this context under, say, 40, or whether it had to do with being untenured. The answer was that ‘young’ refers to any researcher up to five years after his or her obtaining a doctoral degree. Fair enough. I myself got tenure 6 years after becoming a doctor but I know very well that many young people today face a much harsher time. Tenure, which for me was testing enough, is for them practically utopia… This is why ASYRAS seems to me so necessary.

One of the aims of ASYRAS is to provide guidance to graduates starting post-grad studies in any Spanish university, which means in practice guidance into how to start doing research. Thinking of my own shortcomings as a rookie post-grad student and of what I see around in conferences whenever young researchers offer papers, I believe that this is still very necessary. We rely on a person to person transmission of how to do things academically speaking but I know of no general guidelines to help you start doing research in the Spanish context. I would ask ASYRAS to provide them, and also to contact all master degrees Coordinators for them to pass on information about ASYRAS to the new students.

Just consider that a few years back, before MAs were generalised, students who registered for doctoral courses already had a certain idea about what PhD dissertations meant whereas now post-grad students often have a hard time to complete a much simpler MA dissertation. We need to start helping them as soon as possible. Also gone are the times when one could/should wait to have a doctoral degree to start publishing. Competition is fierce. I myself ask my doctoral students to try to publish a first article in their first year. Soon, we might have to prepare MA students for this daunting task. If not undegrads.

Something else that came up over dinner: although I see many novelties in the quickly expanding field of Cultural Studies, with, say, the TV series of the day being the object of interest of unprejudiced young researchers, in general national conferences evidence a certain lack of imagination. What I mean is that the list of literary works on which research is done seems to have become fossilised in the last 20 years – this means that we, seniors, need to suggest new titles as this is our job. My uppermost worry, though, is what I call the constant rediscovery of garlic soup, by which I mean that too often young researchers, particularly pre-doctoral, tend to ignore the key bibliography of their field (MLA basics…) and seem to have discovered on their own primary texts already very well known. We had a person narrate Alien to us in a SF conference… and with no bibliography. This should change urgently.

Finally, I think ASYRAS should also teach young researchers to quote senior Spanish researchers –and we seniors (I count as senior after 20 years in the conference circuit) should also learn to do that and to acknowledge the research done by our peers on national territory but with totally proven international validity.

All my best wishes for the newly elected President of ASYRAS, Jimena Escudero Pérez. And all my help if you need it!!

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SIMPLY PUZZLING: WHY ARE THE (ACADEMIC) SKILLS WE TEACH SO SOON FORGOTTEN?

A recurrent topic of conversation among us, teachers, these days (we’re marking tons of essays…) is that students seem to forget from one year to the next how to apply the academic skills we teach them. Even from one semester to the next.

Let me explain myself: they need to learn in the first year (for ‘20th century Literature’) how to produce a bibliography, which includes monographs, chapters in collective books, articles in academic journals and academic internet resources. This is, they claim, new to them (which begs the question of what kind of research projects they do in secondary school…) but we trust that once they learn how to do it, this will not be forgotten. It’s a basic academic skill not just for English Literature or English Studies but for any discipline and field of knowledge. Mathematicians, say, also write the kind of academic productions students need to list.

The skills we teach with this bibliographical exercise include not only finding the information but being able to edit it correctly, for which not only do we make a set of guidelines available to them but also the Department’s “Stylesheet” (which matches the guidelines 100%, I know as I have edited both). I have just marked the bibliography and, like every year, I’ll have to ask a few students to repeat it as the sources located are not adequate (often very old…) or the edition is not satisfactory. My general impression is that students have many problems using catalogues and data bases and they lack a certain intuition required to complete a bibliography (if there’s nothing on ‘liminality in Wordsworth’, check ‘liminality’ and ‘Wordsworth’ separately…). I have no idea, however, why it’s so hard in some cases to distinguish a monograph from a collective book. Or why the idea of the academic journal is so alien.

What causes major puzzlement among us teachers is that students have many difficulties to apply what they learn in the first year to the papers they must produce in subsequent years. We ask them, very modestly, to start including three secondary sources in their (short) papers in the second year (some teachers think even that is too much!), in preparation for third and fourth year longer papers and for the BA dissertation, which at this point asks for quotations and references from just seven secondary sources (I said 10 to 12…). A point we do stress is that the search for information applies to all the subjects in the degree and to all aspects of professional life, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.

Editing correctly a paper with its bibliography is for students clearly much less relevant than it is for us. I get routinely titles of books and plays with no italics or between quotation marks, and titles of articles with italics. Hamlet, “Hamlet” and Hamlet are all mixed up (and I even get “Hamlet” meaning the play, not its hero). Perhaps we don’t impress strongly enough on students that editing conventions are basic for academic life and that, well, a bibliography MUST be in alphabetical order by author’s surname because that is the way we have collectively agreed to arrange it. I know that even professional academics are guilty of producing atrocious editions of their own papers but no badly edited text is ever published…

So, I don’t know, I’m lost. We already insist that the Literature subjects are not tightly compartmentalised so that what is learned in one applies to all others, particularly the academic skills. Students, though, still have difficulties to grasp this. One of my tasks this summer is to produce a very short document that evidences this problem and that helps students to see the complete map of the academic skills we teach them. I don’t know, however, whether this will do the trick. Whatever document we publish seems to be ignored and Facebook rumourology given more credit.

Any feedback is welcome… from either teachers or students.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/