‘QUEDAR BIEN’: HOW TO BE POLITE (AND MAKE FRIENDS) IN ACADEMIC LIFE

The Spanish idiom ‘quedar bien’ (or Catalan ‘quedar bé’) doesn’t translate well into English. WordReference offers as basic suggestions “to make somebody happy”, “to make/cause a good impression”, “to look good to someone”. Elsewhere I have come across this: “to stay in good terms”, “to get in good with someone”, “to please someone”, none of these 100% accurate. I mean here, of course, “quedar bien” in the sense of following certain rules of politeness and not the “quedar bien” used for clothing (“that dress looks good on you”, “you look great in that dress”) or cooking (“me queda muy bien la tortilla de patata” = “my Spanish omelette tastes delicious”).

There must be much anxiety about the impossibility of finding a perfect fit in English for this idiom, for a Google search throws up mainly links to translations, not definitions. The RAE Dictionary seemingly does not gather idioms, for it offers no definition of this one, nor do its lexicographers include it in the entry for the verb ‘quedar’. Another bout of unfruitful googling leaves me wondering about this strange lexical blank: everyone knows what “quedar bien/quedar bé” means but nobody is offering a reliable definition of this expression; fancy how hard it must be to master by foreign learners of Spanish!

The point of my post today is actually wondering whether everyone does know what “quedar bien” means. I’ll offer my own version, to begin with, then offers examples of the opposite behaviour. “Quedar bien” means performing actions addressed to showing one’s own good will to please others, for the sake of making the relationship with them work well. I think this is it. This varies in degree: you may ‘quedar bien’ with your couple by organizing a candlelit dinner to show your love, or simply greet a neighbour every morning to be in nice, neighbourly terms. Funnily, I do not know whether the ‘quedar’ in the idiom is self-reflexive (“this makes me feel good”, that is, “me quedo bien”) or transitive (“I make/cause a good impression”). Probably a mixture of both. No doubt, “quedar bien” can be quite hypocritical, as it may even cover an intense dislike: I actually hate my neighbour and I use my daily greeting to avoid real conversation.

In, specifically, academic life “quedar bien” earns you many contacts (and indeed friends). This is a situation in which it is absolutely imperative to behave impeccably, as you never know who might be assessing you for publication, a research project, a tenured position… you name it! The worst possible situation, doubtless, is one in which your academic peers whisper behind your back that you are impolite, nasty or, God help me!, an arrogant bastard/bitch.

We are in need of maintaining our reputations beyond strict academic achievement, and it hurts nobody, as far as I gather, to have the reputation of being a real gentleman or lady. Yes, old-fashioned as this may sound (remember I teach Victorian Literature?). I do my best to apply this rule though, of course, it is for the others to say whether I am successful. I also do my best to incorporate to my academic life what others teach me, like emailing a thank you message to conference organizers once you return home, which I learned to do from a very polite English colleague.

“Quedar bien”, in short, entails a big or small personal sacrifice to do something you NEED NOT DO. Generally speaking, though, it only brings benefits–yes, it can be an extremely selfish attitude or even hypocritical, as I said. Now, for the examples of how NOT to “quedar bien” in academic life, this time including students:

*the by now increasing tendency, as I noted in my last post, to tell your Literature teacher that you don’t like reading (you don’t want to signify yourself this way)

*emails sent with no opening greetings and no closing words (how hard is it to write “Dear Professor, Here’s my essay. Thanks. Yours, Mary”?)

*not thanking people who have thanked you for something (“Thank you for being a good student” means, yes, that your teacher is fishing for a compliment)

*pretending you don’t see a teacher in the corridor: yesterday an ex-student made a point of NOT seeing me by… whistling as I passed by her side

*pretending you don’t see a colleague you don’t like that much in a conference you’re both attending (just say “hi, nice to see you” and move on)

*disrespecting in any way people in positions enabling them to a) grade your work, b) offer a reference letter or recommendation, c) hire you (this is the equivalent of shooting your own academic foot)

*being arrogant at conferences when asking questions to colleagues, both your own level or superior–coming across as if you know better than anyone else will make you no friends. If you want to be nasty and cannot help it, make sure you will not cross paths with this person ever again.

*express negative opinions about the work of people who have a say in your academic future, for instance by publishing a negative review of their work (oops!)

I could go on and on, I hope you get the idea. If you think I exaggerate, I know of an individual who is guilty simultaneously of the three last offences… my inspiration for this post.

You may be thinking at this point that “quedar bien” is all about being a complete hypocrite/sycophant/brown nose/ars licker… playing a hypocritical game. There is just a little bit of this but, believe me, it is not that difficult to distinguish between the genuine article and the phony one. A person who inclines towards “quedar bien” sets clear limits: “I’m greeting you in the corridor for politeness’ sake but this does not mean I admire you”. The sycophant knows no limits and will probably tell you in the middle of the corridor, for no good reason, how much s/he admires you. Yes, they overdo it.

Academic life is, I grant this, a delicate game based in many occasions on nuanced personal impressions. I find myself frequently discussing these days how big a hindrance personal differences are for teamwork to progress. Yet, happily for me, I work in a Department in which most colleagues believe in “quedar bien”, sometimes with an effort, more commonly making no effort. Teachers may spend decades with the same colleagues and this calls for subtle policies regarding how to make coexistence as nice as possible. Blunders happen, inevitably, but, needless to say, they must be avoided, particularly, let me be crass, to protect your own interests.

To finish: “quedar bien”, as I acknowledge, is a fragile mixture of selfishness and generosity which only brings benefits, whether professional or personal. Behaving like a “señor” or a “señora” must always be the rule, in any environment. In academic life there are inevitable power dynamics that, openly or covertly, rule our life and the worst anyone can do is ignore them.

I feel like one of those Victorian ladies who used to publish conduct books, but, well, one doesn’t teach Victorian Literature for a couple of decades with no effect whatsoever in one’s mentality. I’m even using the impersonal ‘one’ like Queen Victoria. Better stop now…

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READING TV: THE END OF THE NOVEL?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Literature students do not read. To be precise, just as, obviously, Austen’s man of good fortune is not really in want of a wife, many Literature students do read. Experience tells me, however, that this does not necessarily mean that student readers do read what we ask them to read but what they please to read. The non-readers simply don’t read.

This tongue-twister recaps worries occupying some of my time in recent days. Last Monday we had a Literature teachers’ meeting to discuss, once more, what we can do to have more students read more. My personal impression is that only a minority (say 20%) read all the set texts, a majority read some (say 50% to be on the generous side) and the rest get by using internet summaries and class notes (30%).

What is worrying, as I have noted here several times already, is the growing number among the non-reading students who have adopted an in-your-face attitude and do not hesitate to tell us as rudely as they can that they don’t and they won’t read. Recently, we even had a girl who demanded our praise for her honesty (and passing the exam). Now, the consequences of not reading are serious: undergrads can be expelled after registering for a fourth time in a subject–even so, some are beginning to express their, so to speak, ‘right’ not to read.

As usual, the problem is that the recalcitrant students do not approach any Literature teacher for a chat on why they don’t read. So, I have to make do with the ones who do read.

The less dutiful have clearly explained to me that there is a principle of selection at work: you want me to read so and so, fine, I’ll choose what interests me and fool you about having read the rest. A few weeks ago, I found at my door one of my most brilliant students: he was finally reading, after taking my Victorian Literature class four years ago, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights… and loving it! He is famous for having publicly declared that he got an A for my subject without having read any of the (four) books. When I called him to my office to justify this boast, I had him explain his method to me rather than fail him. He had worked quite hard reading summaries and essays and, anyway, the paperwork to fail him retrospectively was so messy I let him be (also, well, he is a compulsive reader). Still, we had other students demand their right to pass the subject as he did, students who based their claim on their not having read the books, either… nor even the summaries.

Anyway, two of the brilliant, dutiful students who do read plenty told me more or less the same story when I asked them this week: the 1990s generation may not be readers but they certainly are consumers of TV series. Both girl students, committed readers since childhood, explained to me that they are quite capable of consuming TV in very long bouts. When I say TV, I should be cautious, for they actually meant series made for TV but watched on the computer independently from broadcast schedules. Everyone, they told me, is watching at least two or three series at the same time, sometimes combining ongoing with already finished products.

As I have noted here, I don’t like watching series. I prefer movies and tend to see one every evening, instead of watching TV (my only ‘appointment shows’ are Polònia and APM Extra on TV3). Also, as I have noted here, this is because I prefer variety to following long narrations; I learned to control the time I use for a particular story after the fiasco of Lost. Yes, I did write that pioneering book about The X-Files (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437) but the experience also taught me that consuming a very long series is, for me, too taxing, too little relaxing.

My students tell me the opposite: for them, reading requires concentration and is, thus, increasingly subjected to a shorter attention span. As one of my colleagues hypothesised, the reason why students don’t read too much is because their reading practice was not sufficiently strong before they reached us; lacking practice, they find reading time-consuming and unrewarding. The more complex the texts we ask them to read are, the less they enjoy reading as, naturally, they need greater concentration. These students, of course, still enjoy storytelling, which they get from TV. Now, fancy this: it might well be that both the non-readers and the readers are consuming plenty of TV series because they are easier to follow than a printed text. For different reasons in each case.

Back to my two students, one quite surprised me by declaring that when she completed her MA dissertation she let off steam by watching The Gilmore Girls over a few days. This series is 7 seasons long with 22 episodes per season (seemingly 60’ each), more than 140 hours?? She clarified to me that her record, watching 10 episodes on one day, has to do with her ability to multitask–she does not sit in front of the TV but takes her laptop all over the place as she does different things. The other girl, who also uses TV series to relax, gave me a similar account of her habits, stressing that you need not follow all the episodes in detail, ergo, there is no need to concentrate unlike what happens when you read. Sadly, when I observed that, at least, our students’ oral and verbal skills must be improving with so much audio-visual input she told me that not all enjoy the original English-language version.

I told a colleague about all this and he wondered how this generational portrait as, mainly, TV consumers fits their other portrait as readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Supposing the overlap is large, of which I am by no means sure, I’ll argue that it is perfectly possible. Rowling only turned a fraction of her readers into readers for life and, anyway, a passion for reading is not incompatible, as we can see, with a passion for TV series. Perhaps the real testing ground should be provided by A Game of Thrones. Before the TV series started back in 2011, this story was known as A Song of Ice and Fire; A Game of Thrones (1996) is actually just the first novel in Martin’s ongoing series. Ask the 1990s generation and you will see that most refer to it by their TV series’ title, as this and not the books is what is mostly consumed. The TV series is surely getting more readers for Martin but I am sure most viewers are satisfied enough and feel no inclination to read the books.

I do wonder, then, whether the 15 years mediating between 1996 and 2011 will be seen retrospectively as the years that killed the novel, and whether we will ever come to the conclusion that the construction of reading fiction as a (cultural) habit has more to do with the availability of technology than with anything else (if Shakespeare or Dickens had had a camera then…). I am well aware that cinema has not killed the novel and that novel sales are still very high, yet this massive TV series consumption might be indicating something else: the final victory of middle-brow, easy-to-follow storytelling over all other forms of fiction.

I’ll leave the matter of whether TV series can be avant-garde for another post…

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ENCYCLOPAEDIC VERSUS ARGUMENTATIVE KNOWLEDGE: CULTURAL TENSIONS IN ACADEMIC WORK

As happens when I’m on holiday, I embarked last Christmas on a project I can hardly complete now: I’m re-editing my PhD dissertation (1996) as a user-friendly volume for my website, as, for reasons I fail to understand, the Catalan repository TDX has it split up into a variety of .pdf documents. Going through its more than 300,000 words (that’s about 2’5 current thesis… most likely the reason for its dismemberment), and its primary source list, including 75 novels and 125 films, I cannot help noticing the tension between my clashing encyclopaedic and argumentative methodologies. That is to say, between my native Spanish academic tradition and my adoptive Anglophone tradition.

When I chose to work on how monstrosity was articulated in the Anglophone texts of the 1980s and 1990s (novels and films), it was clear to me that my main task would consist of mapping a vast territory. There was no way I would be satisfied with just a handful of examples. The list of primary sources grew and grew, and I recall trips to libraries, bookshops, and video rental outlets which brought home a half-dozen new sources at a sitting. Things were also complicated, as I recall, by David Punter, one of my two supervisors, who demanded that I included a chapter on children –to a dissertation already 7 chapters long…

It was certainly very, very difficult to integrate so many sources into my discourse, without the thesis sounding as a collection of independent comments on each. I marvel at how hard I worked… really without needing to do so much. Yet, those were the times when a thesis 1,000 pages long was not really very exceptional (mine was about half). At any rate, I learned very, very much and I guess that was the point. I am still mining my dissertation for articles I’m writing today.

Dissertations, however, are currently much shorter and fulfil a different mission, apparently. A couple of years ago a student asked me for help to organize his PhD dissertation on zombies. To my surprise, he brought to my office, not a list but a gigantic spreadsheet (A1-size) on which he had traced a myriad intertextual connections among texts with zombies. I was impressed (my Spanish encyclopaedic tradition responding to this) and dismayed (the Anglophone side), and tried to explain to him that the argumentative demonstration of his thesis statement should dominate the impulse to make lists. Or should it?

There are indeed a number of problems with the encyclopaedic approach, particularly in our internet times. Typically, a Spanish book on, say, 1980s horror cinema, would present as many films as possible, with individual comment and little general argumentation linking them. The worst possible version of this is the volume aimed at a general readership, which usually consists plainly of file cards barely transformed into printable matter. This type of book is now a very obsolete artefact as, properly, its domain should be the internet. A website based on file cards on 1980s horror cinema makes sense, as it needs no argumentation; not a book, as it does.

Then, recently, I saw a woman academic embarrass herself beyond measure when she presented at a conference a so-called paper on vampire films. Her ‘paper’ consisted of mentioning a list of, well, vampire films. When someone in the audience, surely as aghast as I was, asked her (with a pinch of salt she totally missed) why Blacula was not included, she explained that hers was a random selection from a much longer list. Random? A key speaker in the same conference ‘delighted’ us with a lecture on monster films. Since this was in chronological order, a friend and I entertained ourselves with playing the game of whether we would guess the next item on the list. I must say that perhaps the boring list had a point, judging from the notes made by a student sitting in the next row–she consistently misspelled names I would have thought absolutely familiar to any film audience.

The Anglophone academic approach, in contrast, is based on the argumentative essay and relies very heavily on theorisation. What matters is not so much what you know about a field but which point you are making about it. This is, logically, a better strategy for the kind of fast production that the shorter BA, MA and PhD Anglophone programmes have aimed at. Although theory is also extended across many volumes and articles, mastering the basics is more feasible than, say, reading all the novels of the 18th century dealing with femininity. I am myself applying a very pragmatic version of this approach to my students’ own dissertations which, unlike mine, focus on a closed set of primary sources texts from the beginning, additions to be incorporated only if absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, I’m missing something.

I have found myself very much annoyed during recent readings of volumes on post-humanism, the topic that currently absorbs me, by the, well, random selection of the primary sources. I am not saying the researchers have not done their homework, what I am saying is that the urge to theorise is so compelling that the primary sources are decontextualised, often isolated from intertexts they closely connect with.

Take the figure of the cyborg, which appears in fiction in 1972 with Martin Caidin’s novel, simply called Cyborg, the basis of the later very popular TV show The Six-Million Dollar Man. Now, take the cyborg as presented in Johnny Depp’s most recent film, Transcendence, or in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War saga and you can see there’s been a noticeable evolution marked by the discoveries in technoscience. However, when you read academic work on post-humanism the arguments revolve again and again around Donna Haraway’s 1991 “Cyborg Manifesto” (usually overlooking the primary sources she does mention).

This refusal to make lists, historicize tropes and see how they have evolved is, for me, bad scholarship–as bad as the vampire film woman’s argument-free method. How can ‘cyborg’ mean in 2015 the same this word used to mean back in 1991? You might say that mapping a representational territory in fiction is not as important today because anyone can do it using the internet. Wikipedia does offer lists, if you want them, which I have often used as the starting point for my own maps–but, notice this: someone has made the effort to make the lists and make sense of a vast territory… beyond theory.

I remember being overwhelmed by my monsters twenty years ago: I despaired every day, thinking I could never finish a coherent list. And I never did, I simply stopped at a date. It is quite possible that theory-based academic work is a silent acknowledgement of the impossibility of commanding a minimum knowledge of any fictional field. Name any, and soon you have 200 texts to read and see, whether this is post-colonial detective fiction or recent British theatre.

The Anglophone solution, it seems, is using samples for the whole, regardless of the significance of the sample, and pruning it from complications (if I discuss Batman, I focus on Nolan’s films rather than the comic series and graphic novels). It’s a solution but it makes for that kind of book that reduces the representation of, say, monstrous children, to five texts. How representative can this really be? On the other hand, the Spanish leaning towards an encyclopaedic name-dropping sounds hollow without a proper theoretical foundation and a solid argument.

Ah… the pleasures of academic bi-culturalism…

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ONCE MORE RETHINKING GENDER (AND HOPING FOR POST-GENDER)

I have spent an intense week marking the 33 essays produced by the students enrolled in my BA elective on Gender Studies. Together they amount to a complete volume of about 80000 words, perhaps worth publishing online (though I hesitate to embark again on the arduous task of editing undergrad work). The list of paper titles is, simply, exciting, with plenty of TV series and the first paper on video-games I have ever marked! I feel I have been reading cutting-edge research even though the researchers themselves are not quite ready yet to produce it. Some paradox.

The students’ papers cover a wide range of approaches to gender: femininity and feminism, alternative masculinities, queer and gay, lesbianism and the mainstream, transgender and intersexuality and a miscellaneous group of ‘gender-speculative’ work. This is why it has been such a … queer experience to combine marking them with reading Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (2009). This is a highly accomplished piece of scholarship on gender studies which has passed quite unnoticed, as usually happens with anything connected with SF. Yet it is also an acknowledgement that feminism and even gender are concepts in urgent need of revision within cultural criticism.

I have read Merrick’s volume because I am currently preparing a talk on women and SF, from Mary Shelley onwards, invited by CSIC (11 March, 19:00, Biblioteca Sagrada Familia). This is quite contradictory, for, though I am often connected with SF feminism, I have actually been writing against its unwise gender-based separatism (see “Cracks in the Feminist Nirvana: Reading David Brin’s Anti-Patriarchal SF Novel Glory Days as a ‘Feminist’ Woman,” in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: On Utopia and Dystopia. Pere Gallardo & Elizabeth Russell, eds.). I am a totally convinced feminist in demand of equal rights and opportunities for women and men; yet as a scholar and reader I have always criticised feminism for considering women’s work apart from men’s, and for ignoring how (and why) men are since the 1980s contributing positive representations of women, particularly in SF.

Merrick’s final chapter deals with the James Tiptree jr. award for SF fiction which contributes to offering alternative gender representation. She wonders, though, whether an award should highlight gender, even puzzling over whether an interest in gender is always feminist. Noting that explorations of masculinity are gaining ground in Tiptree submissions, she observes next that there is much pressure from “women of color”, post-colonialism, critical race theory, queer theory and even feminist science studies to “de-prioritize gender (…) as the primary tool of feminist theory” (281). Gwyneth Jones, a British SF writer, is quoted bemoaning how feminist SF has become just a ‘niche market, a minority interest’ while most women prefer thrilling ‘fem-SF’ and its strong female characters. My reaction?: “well, serves you right for insisting on the separatist line”. Then I’m sorry I’m so nasty.

Let me recap my views:

a) gender MUST be used as a crucial analytical tool as long as patriarchy exists; the main mission of Gender Studies is raising everyone’s consciousness, men and women, about patriarchy–this elephant in the room of feminism so few women and men call by its name.

b) once more: I prefer calling myself ‘anti-patriarchal’ if by calling myself ‘feminist’ I confuse men and women into thinking that I am interested in limiting myself to women (their rights, history, cultural production… as Merrick and her ‘cabal’ do)

c) SF is a gigantic lab for imagining post-gender, post-race, post-class… utopia, which is why I read it. Most young girls, most men and I myself are not very much interested in feminist stories by women (set in patriarchy) but in post-gender stories by women and by men (set in post-patriarchy).

d) I don’t understand why gender should be abandoned, since it is not only perfectly compatible with other identity markers (race, class, age, ability, nationality…) but also intertwined with them. White feminists and black feminists are separated by race, but why should this mean that gender is irrelevant to read their work or life?

Let me mention two more texts. Yesterday I saw The Expendables 3, part of the series bringing back to the screen the ageing actors who played the main roles in action films from the 1980s onwards. It is very peculiar to see these men (actually two generations, born between the 1940s and the 1960s) parade with pride faces that look terribly aged (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson). Harrison Ford (b. 1942!) looks positively ancient… In the case of Dolph Lundgren (b. 1957) what is most striking is the clash between his devastated face and his still very muscular arms.

The film, from a story by Stallone himself, deals with his character Barney’s misguided attempt to recruit a younger band of mercenaries to safeguard his habitual team from danger. His strategy backfires when his new young team makes a silly mistake, which results in their being held captive and in need of rescue by Stallone’s fogies. I entertained myself, between noisy shoot-outs and fights, with pondering how impossible the same story would be with ageing women actresses in similar roles (Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and who else?).

Yet among the post-racial rainbow assembly of testosterone-fuelled men (5 US white, 2 US black, 2 UK white, 1 Latino, 1 Spaniard, 1 Swede, 1 Asian, multiple ‘azmanistanies’…), a woman could be found. Luna, very credibly played by a mixed martial arts specialist, the handsome Ronda Rousey, is first presented as a bouncer in high heels, yet, arguably!, not really sexualised. She is just part of the team, full stop, and efficient at doing her job. When at the end she makes eyes at Stallone and tells him ‘if you were 30 years younger…’ he quips, ‘if I were 30 years younger I would be afraid of you’. Is this feminism? Of course not! It is mere tokenism (just one white woman and she’s secondary). Yet, I find it refreshing, for Stallone’s macho audience is the one needing to be taught respect for women. (I was going to comment on AfricanAmerican Zoe Saldana, kicking ass hard in Guardians of the Galaxy but I’m still processing her green skin, after her blue skin in Avatar).

The other text: N. Katherine Hayles’ ultra-dense How We Became Posthuman (1999). This is a fascinating account (if you’re up to coping with her unfriendly prose) of the current technoscientific craze by which Hans Moravec and company expect us to become disembodied and reach immortality as pure consciousness on the net or some digital device. Helen Merrick reads Hayles’ protest against this wacky discourse, which seemingly forgets that minds belong in bodies, as a feminist challenge against aberrant patriarchal dreams. I see this myself: the persons who have caused computers to shape our world are (privileged white) men who see themselves as primarily minds encased in messy, incidental bodily matter. Hayles’ horror of their ignorance of actual bodies is in essence feminist. Yet, funnily, she carefully avoids using a gendered discourse. My guess is that, ironically, speaking as a female person whose body conditions her daily life would diminish her authority against those who, believing themselves entitled to manipulating the whole human species, do not realise that their privileged position comes, precisely, from their possessing white, male, middle-class Western bodies.

Gender, as you can see, is not only not at all obsolete as a tool for understanding life but in dire need of being better understood. Of course, other factors matter but my view is that they’re all part of this evil patriarchal system that needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. Ignore it at your own risk.

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MAN OF TODAY?: (UN)COOL MASCULINITIES AND MOVIE STARS

It is not my intention to write today exclusively about the Hugo Boss ‘Man of Today’ campaign with Gerard Butler, aimed at boosting sales of its star perfume Boss Bottled. However, it is a useful starting point. You may have seen the TV add, first aired in November 2014. Butler looks his habitual handsome self as he sprays his manly chest with the perfume, dons a trim Hugo Boss suit and considers how great San Francisco looks in the distance.

He delivers off screen in his original Scottish accent the Boss Bottle manifesto. Brace yourselves, boys and girls: “I don’t believe in less, I go all the way. And you can see it in my stride. If good conduct makes a man, it makes me the man of today. A man will never run. Stay noble I say. I am a man. More than the grip of good handshake and a job well done. Diligence and dedication is what I live from day to day. And you can see it in my deeds, be true to yourself, I say. It makes me a man of success. I am a man of today.” Um, you mean ‘not of yesterday’? Really? Why’s that necessary? Now this sentence about ‘diligence and dedication’, doesn’t this also apply to women?

This modern man, Butler enthuses, is “a pretty cool guy” supposed to be, attention!!, smart, self-confident, masculine but not macho, aware of the demands of feminism but not passive, motivated, passionate, successful but discreet. Please, do read the whole article, part of the campaign, and do wonder about the claims made there about contemporary masculinity: http://www.msn.com/en-my/lifestyle/runningtheshow/the-man-of-today-who-exactly-is-he/ar-BBa6Jj3. GC editor Dylan Jones, the brain behind the ad’s copy, stresses that “I think the interesting thing about Gerard as an ambassador is that he’s unapologetically a real man”. I have no idea to whom he should apologize for being a man nor do I understand what a ‘fake’ or ‘unreal’ man is. And consider the effect of someone claiming that (insert here an actress) is ‘unapologetically a real woman’. Why and what for? Yes, I’m being obnoxious here.

Jones finds that Butler’s advantage as a “brand ambassador” is that he’s not “fleetingly cool or too young” perhaps thinking of former ‘ambassadors’ Jared Leto and Ryan Reynolds. Butler, a mature 44-year-old and not exactly a first-rank star, was honoured and humbled that he was chosen for the job of embodying the man of today; as he notes, “There are many other actors and celebrities they could have asked”. I couldn’t agree more, particularly considering he is famous thanks to his barbaric Leonidas in 300 (and if that’s the subtext he brings to the man of today, well, then let me be scared). Yet, if I ask myself who else could have taken up the job and with better credentials and more popular assent, I confess I find no easy answer.

Just humour me and follow me in this peculiar exercise. Using IMBD’s Advanced Search feature and its STARmeter, I find that the main male actors by generation are (20 top names excluding some not that popular outside the US):

*born in the 1960s: Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Downey jr., Nicholas Cage, Will Smith, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carey, Vin Diesel, Josh Brolin, Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Woody Harrelson [also Gerard Butler].

*born in the 1970s: Tom Hardy, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Franco, Leonardo di Caprio, Christian Bale, Orlando Bloom, Bradley Cooper, Idris Elba, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, Jared Leto, Ryan Reynolds, Matt Damon, Joel Edgerton, Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor.

*born in the 1980s: Chris Pine, Charlie Hunnam, Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Jamie Dornan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hiddleston, Henry Cavill, Andrew Garfield, Kit Harington, Robert Pattinson, Ben Wishaw, Emil Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Michael Cera.

Who’s your man of today? If Hugo Boss means, as I think they do, that this must be a steadily ‘cool’ man and supposing that cool means ‘self-possessed’ and ‘self-assured’, is Butler the best possible candidate? Who fits the bill best?

As I’m sure you have guessed by now, I find the whole Hugo Boss campaign quite ridiculous for, here’s the rub, a truly cool man never proclaims his coolness. Actually, part of being cool is the ability to radiate this coolness in a subdued, subtle way. The spectator, the onlooker, must feel when facing a certain male icon that he is the man of today, and not be told who embodies him. If looking at Butler you go ‘wow! he’s cool’ then he’s succeeding in being the ideal which Hugo Boss claims he personifies. If you need to be told what a cool, real man he is then I can only say that cool, real masculinity is in deep… trouble.

In Masculinities Studies the most frequently invoked mantra is that there is not one single way of being masculine but many, hence, there is no ‘man of today’ but ‘men of today’. If you look at my lists, you might perhaps see not only this variety (and remember that actors are just one profession, not all men) but also a manifest disregard for embodying the ‘manly man’ in the younger generations (which often baffles me… but then, I’m getting old). Whether a man can be cool and not necessarily manly (or vice versa) is quite a vexing question; it might even well be that cool and manly are categories of the past that no longer apply to the ‘man of today’ (surely younger men find the Butler ad old-fashioned and would name as man of today… fun-loving James Franco?). Also consider whether family man Chris Hemsworth (born 1983), recently proclaimed by People magazine the sexiest man in the world, is a likely ‘man of today’.

I always have the impression that Butler brings a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to all his roles, Leonidas included. Perhaps this is what I miss in the Hugo Boss campaign, and in the current approach to what being a ‘real’ man is about…

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PEETA AND KATNISS (AND GALE): STUCK WITH STEREOTYPES

One of my undergrad students is writing a paper for my Gender Studies course on Peeta Mellark’s alternative masculinity and this led me to reading recently the complete Hunger Games trilogy. As I wrote two posts ago, the final volume even gave me nightmares as I found the whole concept of having children kill other children on camera, reality-show style, quite sick.

J.K. Rowling’s flirting with the dark side in Harry Potter is intense enough but at least it has a certain sense of decorum and clear-cut ethic lines. What I found most disturbing about Collins’ dystopian fantasy, in contrast, is how often the same line would contain words as opposite as ‘death’ and ‘stylist’. I understand that she intends to represent Panem as the kind of rotten civilization that generates these grotesque matches between the serious and the banal (and the gory spectacle of mutual juvenile killing). Yet I could not help thinking that her own imagination is tinged with the dark colours of America’s unacknowledged sense of its own decadence (as much as Rowling’s is pure British stiff-upper-lip).

The Hunger Games has already generated an immense list of bibliography. I’m going to refer here specifically to two articles discussing gender issues in the trilogy: Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel’s “‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover’ Boy Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading” in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins and “Katniss and Her Boys: Male Readers, the Love Triangle and Identity Formation” by Whitney Elaine Jones, included in Space and Place in The Hunger Games: New Readings of the Novels. In case you don’t know this young adult trilogy, Collins narrates how Katniss Everdeen alters for ever the appalling dictatorship that, among other methods of brutal coercion, celebrates yearly games in which children tributes from the districts are forced to kill each other until only one is left. Her terrifying experience as a tribute runs parallel to an adolescent love triangle: Katniss must choose between her hunting partner, macho Gale, and her games partner, gentle Peeta. I’ll try to avoid spoilers…

The two articles on this triangle make the claim that Collins resists the binary gender system in the name of utopian feminism by having Katniss reconcile masculine and feminine traits in her own person, and by offering her a romantic choice between two very different types of male character, rather than two versions of the same stereotypically masculine hero. However, I find in the articles many worrying arguments.

One is the idea that Katniss’ ‘masculine’ traits respond to the need to entice male readers into reading the trilogy–let me rephrase this: whereas Harry Potter’s ‘feminine’ traits respond to Rowling’s wish to make male heroism less aggressive rather than to attract female readers (this is Hermione’s function), Collins had to worry, above all, about making Katniss attractive to her prospective male readers: less girly, more tomboyish. No, I haven’t forgotten that Joanne Rowling published her series as J.K. to mask her own gendered identity and thus reduce male readers’ resistance to reading women’s fiction. Always trying to please the boys… Deep sigh here.

About the ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits discussed in the articles, my confusion is superlative. Peeta, we are told “participates in a traditionally feminine occupation: baking”, or he represents “the beautiful, gentle part of nature”. The idea is that Peeta embodies Katniss’s feminine side whereas traditionally male Gale stands for her masculine side, and that she is herself torn between her masculinised identity as a hunter/survivor and the conventional (physical) femininity that her bizarre team of stylists manage so competently to highlight. Jones makes the claim that the three characters can be placed on an imaginary line representing the continuum of masculinity with Katniss veering towards one or the other as her own masculinity requires, for “Though biologically female, Katniss is essentially masculine” (my italics). Yet she also claims that Collins is offering a utopian feminist synthesis of gender traits aimed at overcoming the current need for them, particularly useful to teach, here we go again, male readers to overcome masculinist restrictions. In contrast, Lem and Hassel believe that Katniss is “neither overtly masculine, nor feminine” but a mixture (though the feminine side is just skin-deep). Another deep sigh…

I simply get dizzy, and quite annoyed, to be honest. It’s almost 25 years since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) but little has changed in the fight against gender binarism: essentialist categories remain, both in the readers’ perception of their own identity (all this concern about male readers) and in the vocabulary to describe characters who are supposedly alternative gender-benders. The inability to transcend the adjectives ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ even leads to truly weird statements: baking is a feminine occupation??? How funny: take a look at the mixed team baking cakes in TV show Ace of Cakes, and re-think ‘feminine’ (or baking). As for Katniss’ masculinity, well, she’s just one more typical strong female character too busy relating to her male companions to connect with other women. She is supposed to be motivated throughout her harrowing experience by the need to protect her younger sister Prim but I noticed that the girls hardly ever speak–so much for sisterhood and feminism…

About the boys in the triangle, um. Gale is such a huge stereotype he’s not even worth commenting on: he’s the kind who claims to like strong girls but finally marries a pretty non-entity whom he probably ends up abusing. Heathcliff, in short, once more, only marginally less villainous. Peeta is also a huge stereotype, the protective gentleman, perhaps less manly than Darcy and certainly manlier than Edgar Linton, but all the same a figure that dates back 200 years in time. He went through the 1990s ‘new man’ fantasy and is now seemingly resurfacing here as a man quite comfortable with the idea of the girl being on top. Yet the principle is the same Jane Austen invented with Darcy: Peeta is a gentle man (if not a gentleman) unswervingly in love with a girl whose glaring shortcomings he is willing to overcome unconditionally. He never gets angry, he never loses patience, though it’s funny to see how Collins has him literally brainwashed into hating Katniss for a while, perhaps once more to please those recalcitrant male readers. Read as you wish, by the way, his mutilation (sorry about the spoiler).

Once more, then, young girls are offered with Katniss the complete romantic package and no real positive role model: I was actually very much surprised to see that she is actually a very passive person, except for a crucial scene in the last book. This passivity seems contradicted by her ability to kill animals and, if necessary, human beings. However, it is most spectacularly manifested not so much in her difficulties to choose between Gale and Peeta but in her complete inability to express desire for either of them.

When I expressed to a friend my puzzlement at the frigidity of a text aimed at teenagers which contains at the same time so much horrific bodily violence, he reminded me that American fiction has always preferred violence to sex. Katniss constantly claims that there is no place for sensuality beyond kisses in her dangerous life yet, as any war narrative reader knows, there is no better aphrodisiac than a constant death threat… Poor Gale and Peeta with their love for this new chaste Diana of the bow and arrow!

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BEST OF 2014?: LOSING TRACK…

Around New Year’s Day seems the best time to take a look at the list of the volumes I have read in the previous 365 days and see what I have been up to. I keep, as I have noted here several times already, a list of all I read, as a very necessary memory aid. My habit of, in addition, rating the volumes throws this time a very unexpected, odd, selection of top readings for 2014. In chronological order, as I read them along this now past year:

1.Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003), fantasy.
2.Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (1883), memoirs.
3.Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), autobiography.
4.Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914), autobiography.
5.Roberto Saviano, CeroCeroCero (2014), journalistic essay.
6.Richard Morgan, Broken Angels (2003), SF.
7.Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2000), literary fiction.
8.Isaías Lafuente, Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2003), journalistic essay.
9.Geraldine Scanlon, La polémica feminista en la España contemporánea 1868-1974 (1976), academic essay.
10.Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2004), academic essay.
11.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (2005-2010), juvenile dystopian fiction.

My first surprise is that even though 50% of my readings this year were novels, as usual, I have been impressed by very few and I’m not sure I would recommend them: Eugenides’ Middlesex, a re-reading, is excellent but Bujold’s Paladin of Souls and Morgan’s Broken Angels are, rather, signs of very personal preferences which are hard to pass on. What is Suzanne Collins’ trilogy doing here at this peculiar place 11, you may wonder? Well, her books upset me profoundly to the point of giving me intense nightmares; I know this is not a criteria to call her a ‘good writer’ and I rather think she’s a disturbed and disturbing author–yet, I have found myself caught in Katniss’ story with an intensity missing from all the other many novels I have read in 2014. The memoirs, autobiographies and essays I would not hesitate to recommend, as you can see by my having written about most of them here. I do not hesitate, either, to name Saviano’s CeroCeroCero, a bold, desperate dissection of the cocaine business, as the best volume that has passed through my hands recently.

It is also the only volume in the list published in 2014, together with Xavi Aldana’s study, which leads me to the second point today: I’ve completely lost track. I have been checking the ‘best of 2014’ lists published by newspapers like El País or The Guardian, and also the selections voted by members of GoodReads. Since I do not check these regularly for lack of time there was there plenty of authors and titles I didn’t know. Fair enough. What threw me off was that quite often they were said to be ‘world famous’ or a ‘smashing hit’. Can I be really this disconnected? And who’s the one so well connected with the media so as to keep pace with all that is new?

I shared these worries with a group of friends over coffee and we came to the conclusion that the ignorance I am acknowledging here is habitual. From what I gather, readers follow a thread of their own choice, whether this is young adult or post-colonial fiction, without excessively caring about the ceaseless flow of novelties. If you look at my list, I’m doing that: follow a few threads that interest me and see where they will lead–no need to limit myself to the immediate present. A friend noted not only that so much is published every year that it is impossible to keep up but also that reliable indicators of quality, like, say, the Man Booker Prize, have lost a great deal of their influence and reliability: the books highlighted by awards don’t last for as long as they used to last, she said. Indeed, it is harder and harder for me to recall the names of new writers hailed with exorbitant claims about their quality as they, simply, don’t seem to be around with the same force as their 1980s predecessors. A matter of numbers perhaps?

The same friend, currently reading African fiction in English, also told me that there is much of quality to be found in that area of the world–this was in answer to my pointing out that, judging by GoodReads, the middlebrow has replaced for good the literary in the top volumes selected by readers (or the literary writers, if any are left, are failing to connect with the public, I don’t know). I have no reasons to doubt that Africa is producing very fine novels, but how could I know unless she tells me?

I am even lost in my own preferred SF corner, seemingly finding by accident rather than good sense what is worth reading. Here is an example. My friend is co-organizing a conference on the Literature of the Indian Ocean and I proposed to contribute something about African SF. I googled my way into this unknown field yesterday, and here we go: I should have known that it is fast-progressing, spear-headed by white South-African author Lauren Beaukes who is, guess what?, very popular and the recipient of I don’t know how many awards… Yet, I didn’t know she existed at all until yesterday.

As long as readers come across good writers it is really irrelevant whether we keep up with the novelties or not, though obviously it is relevant for the publishing industry. I had no idea when 2014 started that I would be so pleased by books written one hundred or even almost two hundreds years ago, but here they are to last in my memory. We’ll see who my top ten are at the end of the following 365 days.

Happy New Year! May it brings you plenty of good books.

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