CELEBRATING JUDY AND POPPY: GREAT FEMALE CHARACTERS IN ZOOTOPIA AND TROLLS

The fiasco following Warren Beatty’s absurd proclamation of La La Land as this year’s Oscar winner instead of Moonlight (despite realizing that he had the wrong envelope in his hands) has already been commented on to exhaustion. I’m really sorry for the public humiliation that the producers of La La Land endured; yet, at the same time, I’m happy that the error was corrected, as this a film I profoundly dislike. I share 100% the reasons for my aversion with David Cox, and, so, I’ll recommend his insightful review (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/23/la-la-lands-inevitable-oscars-win-is-a-disaster-for-hollywood-and-for-us).

I’d rather use my time and energy here to praise the winner for Best Animated Feature Film, the delicious Zootopia (a.k.a Zootropolis in Europe). Also, another charming animated film, Trolls, though this was only nominated for its wonderfully catchy song: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”(he voices Branch, the male protagonist, in the film). I want to applaud in particular the leading female roles, Judy and Poppy, respectively, for being a breath of fresh air in the stale world offered to little girls.

I love animated films for children and I’m sorry to see that adults with and without children in their families look down on them as inferior products. I have been reading these days Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and enjoying very much his defence of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks as producers of valuable work, worth analyzing from an academic point of view and actually quite subversive. Even so, he calls the films “silly” quite often, as if apologizing for dealing with them before those who despise movies for the little ones as sub-par cinema. This is the wrong attitude. So, please, here is my first plea today: do see films for children, and of all nations, not just American ones. I need not say that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is producing wonderful animation, and so are others around the world.

I am well aware that animation need not be limited to children. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (Oscar nominee last year) or Persepolis (nominated in 2007) are, obviously, not for children. Adults who make the mistake of believing that cartoon movies are for kids may find themselves very much chagrined, as did the many embarrassed parents who rushed their children our of the screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) which I attended. I was myself quite shocked to see what could be done with a few pieces of cut paper… At any rate, take a look at any list of Oscar winners and nominees for Best Animated Films, a category activated in 2000, (like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Animated_Feature) and marvel at the many excellent films it contains. Indeed, Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), also appeared in the list of Best Picture nominees, apart from winning in their own category.

This year, Zootopia’s rivals were two other US films–Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana–the Swiss/French My Life as a Zucchini and the French/Belgian/Japanese co-production The Red Turtle. I have not see Moana yet (known as Vaiana in Spain because Moana is the trademark… of a bathing soap!) and it might well be, this goes in the same positive direction I want to praise here. Leaving aside The Red Turtle for the purpose of my argumentation, I need to say that I was horrified by Kubo and the Two Strings (despite loving Laika Studios’ Coraline and Paranorman) and will almost certainly not see My Life as a Zucchini.

Why not? Well, Kubo might be as beautiful and innovative as you may wish regarding its animation technique, but it begins with a mother running away with her baby after her own father gouges out the little boy’s eye. Not that you see the actual scene but I could never get over this bit of patriarchal cruelty, so nonchalantly narrated. My Life as a Zucchini begins with the protagonist, um… Courgette, accidentally killing his mother and being sent to an orphans’ home. Similarly, Pete’s Dragon, which I saw recently, begins with little Peter’s parents being killed in a horrifying car crash, which leaves him stranded in the forest for years. I usually go to the cinema with my little niece and after having put her through the terrifying experience of seeing The Good Dinosaur I have been avoiding like the plague this kind of traumatic children’s animation–hence my pleasure in Zootopia and Trolls. And her pleasure.

You’ll have noticed that in all the horrifying films for children I have mentioned, the protagonist is a boy (or a male creature). Odd. Call me naïve, but I’d rather push that ugly view of life as confrontation aside and focus on what cinema offers little girls, which seems far more upbeat. The trend, possibly started with Brave (2012), extends now to other products, like the TV series Gumball (2011-, with the amazingly well-balanced Anaïs) or Miraculous (2015-) with the girl superhero Ladybug. Even Spielberg’s failed film The B.F.G. is part of a growing trend: an increase in the number of appealing female characters for little girls. It’s not just a matter of up-dating the fairy-tale princess, though this is also happening, but of going a little bit farther. As my niece patiently explained to me, what is cool about Elsa in Frozen is that she is a queen, hence in no need to marry… and with power to do interesting things.

Zootopia and Trolls are, in this sense very different, for Judy Hopps is a rabbit very much focused on becoming a police officer, whereas Poppy is a troll queen, focused on saving her people from the ogres that want to eat them. At first sight, they seem to have little in common but they do share a main feature: the determination not so much to fulfil a dream as to do their job well, and for the sake of their community. They also have a magnificent self-possession, totally extreme in Poppy’s case, as she does not know the meaning of the word ‘defeat’ (Judy does, indeed). Jack Halberstam praises a series of animated films, from Finding Nemo to Chicken Run, precisely because they focus on characters that look beyond themselves to help others, something which he finds missing in our selfish society. In this sense, though I loved the French/Canadian film Ballerina (with its subversive Marxist conquest of 19th century bourgeois ballet by low-class Félicie), I realize that the plot repeats the selfish model of personal success. In contrast, Judy and Poppy are motivated, rather, by securing the best for their community: hence their being praiseworthy heroes.

Again, though the two films are very different, the central problem both in Zootopia and in Trolls is posed by predators. Judy’s utopian world is based on the idea that carnivores and herbivores can live happily together–a dream spoiled by shady manipulators who attempt to present meat-eaters as pure beasts. In Trolls, things are even more straightforward: the big ogres see the tiny trolls as a delicacy and (as we do with animals) they even have an annual festival devoted to gorging on them. Judy and Poppy’s mission, then, entails keeping a delicate balance that deters the potential predators from eating their prey, a category to which they themselves belong as a herbivore (Judy) and a troll, no matter how queenly (Poppy). In their efforts to redress the balance and avoid danger, Judy and Poppy are accompanied by a very reluctant male mate: respectively, the con artist Nick Wilde (a fox) and Branch, a severely depressed troll who lost all his colour because of a deeply traumatic event. Nick mocks in his stylish way Judy’s earnest fight against crime; grumpy Branch dampens (or tries to) the spirit of the always cheerful Poppy. That is, until both gentlemen are won over by the girls, in friendly, rather than romantic ways.

Girls, the message is, can change men, hence patriarchy, with their optimism. This has been well received by Zootopia’s audiences (the movie keeps a very high 8.1 score at IMDB) but not so much by the public for Trolls (only 6.5 at IMDB). I’m not sure whether this is important but Trolls is a DreamWorks, not a Disney, film. I loved every minute of Trolls, but others found it both too dark (in the sense I have been complaining here) or, confusingly, too mawkish. I enjoyed very much Zootopia’s clever plot and the many playful references to adult films. Yet, I appreciated Trolls for being an in-your-face defence of cheesy good feeling.

Beyond the actual events in the plot, I very much believe that Trolls has pulled the amazing trick of turning the disgusting, creepy Troll dolls designed by Dane Thomas Mann in 1959, into something, well, energizing. Please, take a look at Judy here (http://zootopia.wikia.com/wiki/Judy_Hopps) and see how optimistic and forthright she looks–encouraging, right? Now, take a look at pink-skinned, pink-haired Poppy here: http://dreamworks.wikia.com/wiki/Poppy. She is irresistible… an image of complete and utter self-sufficiency. Both my home and my university office are now decorated with her image, completed by the motto ‘I’m confident’–for so she is. And you know what? I feel confident when I look at her comical, slightly squint-eyed, glittery face… or when I see her sing her way into almost complete disaster and still be positive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0. Who, I wonder, can connect with angry, one-eyed Kubo instead?

Is Judy and Poppy’s optimism misplaced in our increasingly ugly world? Should we give little girls heroes like them at all? I’m not talking here about silly, pretty girls who only think of romance and fashion. These are, let me stress, females doing a good job (I puzzle, however, about why they are not human–perhaps I need to see Moana/Vaiana). Judy and Poppy are intelligent, resourceful, competent and, above all, positive. Not just happy in a bubbly, inconsequential way, but constructive, affirmative and encouraging of others. My heroes…

Now, thank you Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for writing Trolls, thank you Erica Rivinoja for Poppy’s story. Thank you Jared Bush and Phil Johnston for writing Zootopia, thank you Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee for Judy’s story. And the marvellous production designers for the way Judy and Poppy embody girl power.

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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

THE CHARISMA OF SUPPORTING ACTORS: PAUL BETTANY (AND THE ‘THAT GUYS’)

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick contributed a paper on the film Transcedence (2014) to our recent yearly post-graduate seminar. The film is just average but Jack Paglen’s screenplay is one of the very few attuned to the treatment of the posthuman in current sf. The role of Will Caster, the man who transcends his humanity, is here played by Johnny Depp. I started a discussion about whether Will’s loss of control over his life parallels the current decadence of Depp as a star (see how Hadley Freeman bemoans her loss of an idol: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/how-i-loved-you-johnny-depp-purple-tinted-truth). Josie mentioned instead Paul Bettany, who plays Depp’s rival in love, as an example of an actor with quite a steady career. To my surprise, this unleashed a flow of comments from the women students in the room, each mentioning a favourite role played by Bettany…

Bettany has appeared so far in 43 films; chances are you’ve come across him. IMDB and Wikipedia help me here to offer a quick overview of his career. Bettany (b. 1971) is an English theatre and film actor. His debut was on the stage (An Inspector Calls) and he even appeared on a BBC Oliver Twist (as Sikes), before getting a small role in Bent (1997). British film audiences discovered Bettany thanks to Gangster No. 1 (2000). His career became international when director Brian Helgeland insisted that he was cast as Chaucer in his silly medieval adventure film A Knight’s Tale (2001). Bettany next secured a breakthrough supporting role in the Oscar-award winner A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard), with Russell Crowe. Bettany and Crowe soon played best friends Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Peter Weir’s acclaimed Master and Commander (2003). Bettany has occasionally played leading roles in, among others, the romantic comedy Wimbledon (2004) and the medieval mystery The Reckoning (2002–or was he co-protagonist with Willem Dafoe?). You may have also spotted him in Dogville (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006). Curiously, after voicing Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in four films in which Iron Man appears, Bettany has been cast as the literally red-skinned Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Incidentally, he’s been married since 2003 to actress Jennifer Connelly (they met when shooting A Beautiful Mind).

A 2004 interview with Sam Ingleby offers interesting clues about Bettany (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/paul-bettany-lets-get-physical-547410.html) Asked why he chose to make Wimbledom after the vastly different Dogville, Bettany “immediately drops into self-deprecating mode” and explains that “My plan–well, it isn’t much of a plan, but it’s mine and I like it–is to try to do lots of different things”. He cites two of his heroes, Peter Weir and Ang Lee, as examples of versatile film directors that work in many genres. He adds that “I just get bored if I don’t do different things”. No wonder, then, that Ingleby sees Bettany’s “malleability on screen” as a product of his “ability to change genre and to avoid being typecast”.

Here’s some irony, however, that Ingleby fails to explore: Bettany is slim, blond, blue-eyed, very tall and quite good-looking (perhaps not 100% handsome in a manly way). Yet, despite having “the lineaments of a film star” he is not one. He’s an actor, not a star. Russell Crowe, to name someone connected with Bettany, is a star. Because Bettany is very pale, he has often been cast as a cold-blooded character, none paler and colder than the monk Silas in The Da Vinci Code. Physical appeal, then, is not as easy to pin down in an actor as we assume.

Usually, the value of a film star is measured by the fees s/he commands. Currently these are the ten male names with the highest influence and appeal on planet Earth: Dwayne Johnson, Jackie Chan, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Shah Rukh Khan, Robert Downey jr., Akshay Khumar and Brad Pitt. By the way, the best paid female actor in 2016 was Jennifer Lawrence; she made 46$ million; Dwayne Johnson, in contrast, earned 64.5$ million. Earnings, thus, turn out to be only indirectly related to box-office appeal; sexism also plays a part.

An obvious, yet important, point to make is that whereas spectators pay good money to see these stars on the screen, hence their earnings, generally speaking we do not go to the cinema to enjoy the work of particular secondary actors. Character or supporting actors certainly add value to films and may be a strong selling point, predominantly those in villain roles (like Javier Bardem in No Land for Old Men). I have no idea on what basis is their salary established but, surely, there must be a ranking which value in money what they add to films. My Google search for ‘highest-paid supporting actor’, however, throws nothing.

Supporting, or character, actors, appear to be of two kinds: the ones that eventually slip into stardom, and those who never do. All actors have volatile careers but supporting actors appear to fare better, since they can avoid the stressful demands of stardom. Nothing worse than pouring high expectations and hype on an actor who might have reached success by chance rather than merit–arguably, this might explain why so many Oscar-award winners for leading roles suddenly see their careers sink. Fickle fashions also play a role: an actor like Meryl Streep is not in danger of incurring in what is now called ‘brand exhaustion’ or ‘brand fatigue’. Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be six persons instead of just one, certainly is.

Returning to the supporting actors, Paul Bettany might be perhaps representative of a third category. Some actors hover forever on the brink of stardom; they are the kind whose fans are always asking themselves ‘how come s/he is not better known?’. Tom Hardy used to be in this category, but now he’s on the way to stardom aided by us, his fans from the early stages of his career. Other character actors, however, reach fame even without an enthusiastic fan base–simply because they’re very good: think of Paul Giamatti or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Then we have what an IMDB user calls ‘that guy actors’: actors “you see in every movie and say to yourself ‘Hey its that guy!’ but you never know their names”. This person offers a great list of 100 male names here: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls050426470/. No, Paul Bettany is not included, but, then, no list is ever exhaustive. See also, for instance, http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/the-30-greatest-character-actors-in-hollywood-history/.

Although not all male stars are handsome–some are not even close–clearly physical attractive pays a major role in the lists of best-paid actors. Character actors, in contrast, bring physical variety to the screen. Their presence is what reassures us that the world is not peopled only with beautiful individuals. Charisma, of course, marks the difference between the more and the less popular actors in all categories. This is the x factor that whets the spectator’s curiosity and that helps us to recall specific names. And then return for more, in yet another film with the same actor.

This seemingly suggests that supporting actors on the brink of stardom, like Bettany, have an odd measure of charisma: enough to seduce loyal fans but not enough to seduce many fans and reach stardom. Bettany is very good at stealing scenes from the protagonists but not attractive enough (in a general sense) to bear the burden of a whole film on his shoulders. Perhaps he just needs a breakthrough leading role that tips the scales of charisma in his favour. Sometimes it takes a very long time, which is why I’m not writing Bettany off the list of 21st century stars. Sometimes it never happens. The good news is that characters actors like Bettany tend to enjoy longer careers than most stars as, ostensibly, spectators are more generous with their ageing process. The whole planet is monitoring each wrinkle in Brad Pitt’s face but, surely, this will not happen to Bettany.

My message today is that we need to reconsider success and failure. Paul Bettany’s career suggests that long-lasting careers in secondary positions may be much more satisfying than downright success/stardom. Also, that each charismatic individual seems to have a different measure of this elusive quality. Brad Pitt seems gifted with an endless supply, but here we are, Paul Bettany’s loyal fans, announcing to the world that we appreciate whatever amount he does have. This is a call, then, to look beyond the star and appreciate all the ‘that guys’ (and ‘that girls’) that make cinema such a wonderful experience.

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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HELLO, HANDSOME!: ON DESCRIBING MALE BEAUTY IN FICTION

The illustration by Nick Hardcastle showing “the first historically accurate illustration of Mr Darcy (…) based on research commissioned by channel Drama to celebrate Jane Austen Season” has run like burning powder through my Department colleagues’ email. “Key findings”, we are told, “include Mr Darcy’s sloping shoulders, powdered white hair, a long nose, pointy chin and pale complexion” (https://vimeo.com/203141362/45c36ba575). Once you consider Darcy’s new fancy mug shot, you may next read the article on which this is based, by Professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery (http://drama.uktv.co.uk/pride-and-prejudice/article/real-mr-darcy-dramatic-re-appraisal/). It is called “The Real Mr Darcy: A Dramatic Re-Appraisal”, and it offers a quite amusing description of what a most desirable man must have looked like… either in 1790s when Austen wrote her novel or in 1813 when it was published, a mere 20 years apart, with Romanticism in the middle. Very accurate.

As you can see, I find the idea of portraying the ‘real’ Darcy absolute nonsense, as, to begin with, Darcy is a fictional character. As I have recently complained, authors offer too little description (except Dickens), which makes our task as readers often quite annoying. In the case of men presented as sex symbols, like Darcy, this vagueness may be an advantage to writers, for Austen only needs to say that Darcy is “handsome” for each woman reader to supply an ideal image. Here’s how Darcy is actually presented (in Chapter III of Pride and Prejudice), in direct contrast, by the way, with his best friend: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. (…) his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Two observations: not the man himself but his features are described as handsome, and Austen makes sure we get the point that Darcy’s handsomeness is much enhanced by his annual rent, in today’s currency, of 500,000£. The passage, however, continues, by noting that Darcy was much admired until “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud (…)”. Indisputably, Pride and Prejudice is the story of how Darcy’s physical handsomeness is only proven by his handsome rescue of brainless Lydia from her entanglement with Wickham.

Colin Firth, who played a very manly Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation, obviously embodied for a whole generation of Austen readers a fantasy of handsomeness, as, of course, did Laurence Olivier for the 1940s. In contrast, Matthew McFadyen did nothing for the role. You will see that the many press articles generated by Hardcastle’s illustration tend to compare it with a photo of Firth as Austen’s heartthrob. Now we know that Firth had to die his gingerish hair in a darker hue to comply with the ‘dark’ part of the standard ‘tall, dark, handsome’ description. He’s naturally tall, at 1.87 m. Having recently heard Jack Halberstam wonder why in heterosexual romance men must be very tall, I now find this matter of height quite droll. Are the 10 cms separating Tom Cruise (170) from Brad Pitt (180) so crucial? Going back to Austen, just let me point out what should be obvious: an illustration of one possible way in which Darcy could be represented in the mental theatre of the female readers of the 1810s is not an illustration of the ‘real’ Darcy but only one element in the ongoing history of how Darcy has been imagined throughout the years. Also, of the history of the representation of male beauty in fiction.

I keep on telling my students–I’m sure I have already mentioned this here–that I want to supervise a PhD dissertation on the use of the word ‘handsome’ in fiction, particularly by women but not only so. My moment of enlightenment came when reading Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novel The Hydrogen Sonata. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, the female protagonist Vyr finds herself gradually falling in love with Beardle, the avatar of the powerful artificial intelligence, or Mind, that runs one of the colossal spaceships which comprise the executive arm of the utopian Culture. Guess how Beardle is described? He’s handsome. Vyr is absolutely chagrined when Beardle basically tells her she’s an idiot for feeling anything towards him, as he is not even human. I was also chagrined, for as a heterosexual female reader used to responding in this silly Pavlovian way to the word ‘handsome’, I had also fallen for Beardle. For Vyr the problem is that Beardle is not a real man. I happen to share her problem for, precisely, Beardle is a fictional construct. Not a real man. Much like Darcy.

There is a wonderful conversation about whether the use of ‘handsome’ is archaic in relation to women here: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/17108/can-you-still-call-a-woman-handsome. I will not go into this but let me just note that Sigourney Weaver is mentioned as a handsome woman, and Scarlett Johanson as a pretty one, though in my view she’s more handsome than pretty–attractive perhaps. Anyway, if we consider the difference between a ‘handsome man’ and a ‘pretty man’ (Douglas Booth, Elijah Wood), you begin to see that ‘handsome’ actually means ‘attractive in a manly way’. Therefore, what makes us, heterosexual female readers, respond to the adjective ‘handsome’ is the manliness embedded in it. Whether it is Darcy’s or Beardle’s.

A recent study indicated that woman’s favourite male physical feature is not, as it is often said, the eyes, or, as some have been insisting lately, a shapely butt, but, rather, a good pair of muscled arms. Why? Because when we think ‘manly’ we think ‘protective’ and little girls that we all are, we want to be embraced by manly men with bulky arms–tall ones, as daddy always is for little girls (there’s Electra for you, Jack Halberstam).

This is the main irritant in the new image created for Darcy: he’s lost the manly arms, the square shoulders we associate with him since Firth. Profs. Sutherland and Vickery explain that in Austen’s time “It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake”. What they’re missing is that not even ballet dancers, whether gay or not, look languid today. Also that contemporary heterosexual women do not care at all what was considered ideal for men back in the 1810s.

Reading recently my good friend Isabel Clúa’s new book Cuerpos de escándalo: Celebridad femenina en el fin-de-siècle, which deals with the Spanish female stars of the popular theatre, I was surprised by the photos. There was no way I could see beauty in Carolina Otero, internationally known as ‘la bella Otero’. Tórtola Valencia, on the other hand, seemed quite handsome to me–meaning that her beauty must have looked very odd in her time. I’m thus making again the well-known point that the appreciation of human beauty has a history. The problem, of course, is that it has usually focused on the representation of women, not of men. When I wrote the short essay “Entre Clooney y Pitt: El problema del deseo femenino heterosexual y lo sexy masculino” (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/EntreCloone y Pitt Sara Martin.pdf) I had a very hard time finding sources that discuss male beauty as seen from women’s point of view. Even today, I’m not sure why the six-pack is an essential part of our ideal, though it’s been suggested that it connects manliness with discipline.

This lack of a history of male handsomeness, I am arguing, and of its representation in print and audiovisual fiction means that we lack the codes to read Hardcastle’s rendering of his ‘real’ Darcy but also to understand what is happening under our very noses. And this is quite interesting: let’s see who can convincingly explain why Brad Pitt, aged 53, is universally acknowledged as the most handsome man on Earth, a title he is keeping since 1991, when he seduced Thelma (Geena Davis) and the rest of the planet in Thelma & Louise. Recently, I went through as many lists I could find in IMDB of the hottest male actors active today, lists that ranged from men in their 70s to men in their teens, and, believe me, nobody could compare to Pitt. Chris Hemsworth came second but, like the rest, he lacked this something else that makes Pitt charismatic. Interestingly, Pitt’s status as male icon of beauty seems to have been unaffected by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie’s demolition of his image as ideal family man, whereas a similar icon of a similar age, Johnny Depp, is now facing decadence after a highly problematic divorce.

If I go into why Pitt is so handsome, despite the acne scarring of his face, I will never finish. For the sake of my argumentation, just let’s agree that nobody personifies better than him ideal masculinity today. Now think of two learned professors claiming in two hundred years time that in the fiction of 2010s Pitt is what handsome men looked like. Don’t even say the words Christian Grey and Jamie Dornan, please. Next, take any contemporary novel with a handsome man, thus described, and tell me what you see. Is it Pitt, our consensual ideal, or your own personal fantasy–perhaps based on someone you know?

What I’m saying is that not even in Austen’s time was handsomeness dominated by a single image. Today, when Pitt might be the equivalent of Hardcastle’s handsome man for our times, as in the past, the adjective ‘handsome’ is used by authors to trigger a certain psychological reaction in readers, not as a descriptor. A description would clarify that “Mr. Darcy was, at six feet, a very tall man. His impressive blue eyes were the best feature in a suitably pale countenance, dominated by an exquisite long nose, small mouth and gracefully pointed chin. His hair, naturally blonde, was hidden beneath an elegantly powdered wig.” There you are.

I can’t wait to write the following post about, how can I put it? secondary handsomeness. Think Paul Bettany…

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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

RESISTING GENDER BINARISM: JACK HALBERSTAM (IN BARCELONA)

Last week I attended two extremely interesting sessions with Jack Halberstam at Barcelona’s CCCB: a lecture on 1 February (the 400 seats in the room were taken!) and a seminar the next day (by invitation, attended by about 45 persons). I cannot give an exact idea of all that was discussed but here are some highlights. In any case, CCCB intends to make soon available online both the lecture and the seminar, which was actually a three-hour long conversation.

Jack Halberstam (b. 1961) is an American academic, author and transgender activist, currently at Columbia University, New York. As any person minimally interested in Gender Studies knows, Jack used to be known as Judith (a name he still accepts from family and friends), the name under which he published an early volume, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) and his most famous book, Female Masculinity (1998). Later work appeared signed by Jack: In A Queer Time and Place (2005), The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012). His forthcoming volume is Trans*.

I must recommend Skin Shows, which I believe was Judith’s doctoral dissertation. There is no doubt, however, that Halberstam’s Female Masculinity made a major contribution to post-Judith Butler Gender Studies. The point Judith Halberstam made then was and is still challenging: masculinity can also be performed by female-bodied persons, not just male-bodied persons. I found her argument convincing and liberating until a gay academic colleague, David Alderson from Manchester University, pointed out to me that far from breaking away from the gender binary Halberstam was endorsing it and, what was even worse for him, giving quite a monolithic image of masculinity. Later, Halberstam chose to transition and present herself as Jack, which I’m sure was a fine personal choice for her but left many of us, women who were coming to terms with our masculinity, somewhat stranded. I abandoned long ago this nonsensical idea that man have a feminine side and women a masculine one and now I put my efforts into de-gendering personal features such as assertiveness (why should that be coded masculine?) or a capacity for empathy (why should that be coded feminine?).

Jack stressed several times during his visit that Female Masculinity had been written 20 years ago and that he felt much better represented by The Queer Art of Failure (2011). I have not read this volume yet but following Halberstam’s own comments, the main argument is that transgenderism has made an art of failure because it has resulted in bodies that fail to be normatively male or female, which, for him, is positive. He sent a call to embrace this failure productively and helped me very much to understand this point when he said that “If we become men and we don’t change the meaning of manhood then we have been swallowed by manhood”. The other trans men in the room agreed. So now I understand that what bothers me as a feminist woman about trans women is, precisely, how little many do, generally speaking, to challenge conservative femininity–think Caitlyn Jenner.

A main bone of contention, of course, is whether just because you’re LGTB you are automatically subversive of heteronormativity. Halberstam believes this is not the case: 40% of LGTB people voted for Trump, he explained. The position he has been maintaining is perhaps a bit extreme, as he believes that whenever LGTB minorities are granted a civil right they should reject it as an attempt to expand normativity. Hence, he rejects gay marriage as part of a new homonormativity that parallels heteronormativity. In the same way transnormativity threatens to undermine the work of trans activists to undo gender.

And here comes the most remarkable argument presented in the sessions: Halberstam opposes the current extension of transgenderism to children. This, as he explains, is a new phenomenon based on the children’s access to YouTube standard narratives presented by transgender people outside activism. Their narratives focus on the enormous personal distress that gender dysphoria brings to the individual, the risk of suicide and the successful implementation of medical and surgical procedures, leading to a happy ending. The children absorb this story, which they then transmit to their helicopter parents and the distressed adults rush to doctors’ surgeries in order to place these very young persons on the path to early transitioning.

It’s not clear to be how these children acquire so early such a complex gender discourse (surely, more than YouTube is involved, perhaps the parents themselves). Halberstam, however, made a number of very valid points: a) no person knows until adulthood, if ever, what his gender identity should be, b) the lack of contact between the trans children and their parents with adult trans persons is creating a generational split among trans individuals and activisim (the trans adults could act as mentors), c) most convincingly: if the current trend is to respect intersex children and not manipulate their bodies, why are we manipulating the bodies of trans children as early as 3 years of age? A father in the audience gave us his personal answer: he wants his trans daughter to be happy… But, then, there might be wiser ways of ensuring her happiness…

The other major issue which Halberstam raised in relation to trans children is that it is contributing to upholding the gender binary system. He agreed that “the categories male and female remain remarkably stable” despite Butler’s introduction of the idea of gender performativity back in 1990, and the current proliferation of new gender identity labels. The kind of transgenderism that helicopter parents embrace is based on the urge to make their children normatively male or female as soon as possible, thus erasing the adult transgender person from society. This is why Halberstam thinks that the phenomenon is not positive. An adult may make better informed choices about gender and, what is more important, may choose to perform its trans identity in challenging ways, which a child can hardly do. Thus, in contrast to his rejection of trans children, Halberstam answered my question about trans fathers and mothers by stressing the positive contribution that these trans adults are making to transforming the family. He stressed that trans/parenting is part of a wider re-organization of traditional kinship beyond heteronormativity but also a particularly beneficial part of it.

Regarding the representation of trans lives, Halberstam, who is perfectly comfortable with using popular texts in his academic work, recommended the film By Hook or by Crook (2001) and the TV series Transparent (2014-). He stressed that positive representations of trans individuals should be complex, eschew the suicide narrative or trauma, and, ideally, be transinclusive in relation to the persons involved in their production. They should also present transitioning as a life-long process, avoiding the tempation of easy or neat closure (as happens in the film Transamerica).

He praised Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) as a significant turning point but was somehow inconclusive about Kim Pierce’s biopic about Brandon Teena’s tragedy Boys don’t Cry (1999). Halberstam did not clarify whether the terrible violence presented in this film works well to erase transphobia but he used the trans protests against Pierce during a screening of the film to criticize identity politics. When asked to clarify this point, he stressed that identity politics cannot deny the right of persons outside a particular label to offer representations of the individuals under that label. He also warned that the famous case of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner), a Trump voter, shows how identity politics are not necessarily subversive as it is too often assumed.

About the gender binary, it took me a while to catch up with Halberstam’s frequent use of the word ‘cisgender’, “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (or the opposite of transgender). I always have this feeling that the LGTB community is conveniently using labels that only serve to maintain separation alive. As a heterosexual woman who does not support at all patriarchal heteronormativity, I constantly vindicate the right to call myself ‘heteroqueer’ but I have been told that if I am heterosexual than I cannot be queer–I was under the impression, however, that been queer was about denying normativity. Now, it turns out I’m also cisgender. Well. Halberstam, to his credit, did stress that the LGTB community and activism are covertly enforcing the gender binary: “you also have to be male or female in a queer context”; he insisted that these are binary categories imposed by queers themselves, not by cisgender pressure. Thus, he explained, feminine gay culture is completely marginalized as is masculine lesbian culture.

I have used here the expression ‘female-bodied person’, which I’m borrowing from Halberstam’s talk. I find it tremendously liberating as it lays the stress on person, rather than woman. I increasingly dislike the words man and woman for their patriarchal connotations and although I’m well aware that ‘male-bodied person’ and ‘female-bodies person’ are a mouthful, they are as labels an appealing alternative. They say that you know how you see yourself when you look at the mirror and consider what comes first to your mind to describe yourself. I, definitely, see a person primarily, not a woman. It is very important that beyond all the identity politics defending particular gender labels, we make an effort to make gender far less important. I always say that as Gender Studies specialist my goal is to eliminate gender, by which I mean not only the pernicious gender binary but also any need to define ourselves primarily through our sex and our gender. This should be in the future as preposterous as defining yourself according to the size of your feet or the shape of your hands.

Until then, however, here we are: stuck with the same old labels and, yes, with the same clichéd, tired narratives (why, Halberstam asked, do heterosexual narratives always focus on size – tall men, big penises, big breasts?). I’ll finish by confessing that I was initially confused by Jack Halberstam’s female voice, as I had stupidly assumed that he had chosen a fully masculine style of self-presentation. I ended up loving this willing refusal to be a normative man, and his willing decision to be playful, to be queer. This is what we, heterosexual people, need: more queerness, less normativity.

Food for anti gender-binary thought…

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