SEEKING A NEW VISION FOR UTOPIA

Last week I attended a talk by Lynne Segal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynne_Segal), a feminist academic and activist, born in Australia but based in the United Kingdom. I first heard about Segal because of her excellent book Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; since then I have also read by her one of the very few outstanding books on heterosexuality, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure and her accomplished volume Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. It appears that a very cruel member of the audience in a previous presentation asked Segal whether her next book would be about dying… She has chosen instead to write about happiness, and this is what her talk here in Barcelona dealt with.

Actually, the talk, which was a conversation with us, the 15 attendees, soon veered towards dystopia and utopia because Segal argued that personal joy can only be truly achieved in connection with the community (I paraphrase). This started your classic exchange about how we, Southern Europeans, appear to enjoy ourselves in the streets much better than our Northern peers, though I have never been fooled by this idea. Norway was recently chosen the happiest country in the world and this is pretty far up north. Next the conversation moved onto how a society can reach happiness in our current dystopian world, and whether utopia will ever resurface. Lynne Segal claimed that for utopia to re-emerge someone needs to have a clear vision of what it should be like. For her, generating this renewed utopian vision is the challenge today.

Since Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has become an instant best-selling novel in the land of Donald Trump, you hear plenty about feminist speculative fiction these days in the media. I’m not sure whether plans for this already existed before the November 2016 election, but next month a TV series based on Atwood’s book will be released (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/). There is already, by the way, a very good film adaptation (1990) with the late Natasha Richardson as the handmaid Offred. Every woman reader of Atwood’s grim story is terrified (as I explained in my post on Houellebecq’s Submission) not so much by the rise of the religious fundamentalism that takes over the US Government, as by the indifference of the protagonist’s husband to the progressive loss of her rights as a citizen. I will insist on this again and again: the current feminist utopian project has made important inroads in recent years but it is still a very fragile structure that can be easily dismantled. As Atwood shows. And Trump.

Many feminist writers have transformed their impatience at this slow process of change into utopian fiction, intended to offer a shortcut towards a better future. The shape taken by this sub-genre has usually been that of the gender separatist utopia, beginning with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915), and even earlier, Mizora (1880-1) by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Second-wave feminist gave new life to this type of fable, which resurrected with well-known examples such as The Female Man (1976) by Joanna Russ or The Wanderground (1978), by Sally Miller Gearhart, often with a lesbian component. A later wave, with works such as Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), are less optimistic about separatism. Nichola Griffith’s Ammonite (1993) is quite critical of the supposition that lesbianism would (or should) be an integral part of the utopian resolution of conflict, not so much between the genders but among women. You may also want to check Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986) for an all-male gay utopia written from a woman’s point of view, or David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) for a man’s view of matriarchal utopia.

I tend to avoid, as I have explained here many times, feminist utopia as I don’t appreciate the separatist solution. As Segal claims, we need a new vision for utopia, but I find the ideas offered by classic feminist speculative fiction writers in support of separatism disheartening. I was beginning to think that the sub-genre had been buried two decades ago, when I came across all the hype surrounding Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016). You may read her own take on utopian/dystopian feminist fiction here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/25/dystopian-dreams-how-feminist-science-fiction-predicted-the-future). Now, here’s the premise of her novel: because of something to do with pollution, women suddenly develop an ability to generate electrical discharges with their bodies–a literal new power which they use to dominate men (and generally go berserk). No, I have not read this novel yet, and I don’t think I will (at least, I will not pay to do so) because I find the idea of reversing patriarchal domination simply disgusting: it increases misogyny and it offers women nothing positive. Alderman claims that what happens to men in her novel is close to what happens to women in real life. However, showing men that they could victims of rampant hatred and be trapped by dystopia forced on them by women is the complete opposite of the search for a new utopian vision that should bring communal and personal happiness, following Segal’s line of thought. Sorry to say so, then, but it seems that our energies as women are too caught up in our daily fight against dystopian patriarchy (which is the patriarch’s utopia, of course) to offer this urgently needed utopian vision (beyond feminism, I mean, which is utopian).

I mystified everyone in the room in conversation with Segal by declaring that we are already in the middle of an emerging new utopia but too scared to even contemplate it seriously. I refer to the replacement of humans by robots and artificial intelligence in many aspects of work. The debate about this issue has been steadily increasing and, I should think, accelerating quite fast in just the last year. The usual headlines concern fears about the many millions that will lose their jobs, with a warning about how these will mainly be the unqualified men now in low-paid jobs (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/24/millions-uk-workers-risk-replaced-robots-study-warns). Yet, for the first time in decades, there is also a debate about whether the income generated by the robots could be taxed so that citizens can be offered a minimum wage, beginning with those soon to be replaced at work. Someone in the room objected that this will be catastrophic, as our identity centres on work and being deprived of this would destroy our lives. Whenever I come across that kind of comment, I always hear in my mind the voice of the late comedian Pepe Rubianes: “They always say that work helps you to fulfil yourself–sure, this is why I see every morning happy people in the metro, singing all the way to work… .” Everyone listening to him would laugh in discomfort.

Fears of the utopian vision in which robots and A.I. give us leisure to live our lives in content (if not total happiness) depend on which dystopian texts you are familiar with. Even though Isaac Asimov spent his lifetime promoting the idea of the positive contribution that robots could make to human wellbeing, the film adaptation of his I, Robot (2004) is the typically shallow story about robots rebelling to eliminate humankind and rule the world. I even fail to see that negative version as dystopian, since, from the point of view of Planet Earth, our elimination would surely bring much relief and a new breath of life. But, anyway, bear with me: utopia lies that way, in letting the machines take over. Obviously, the idea is not mine, and my belief in this utopia shows how deeply influenced I am by the novels of the late Iain M. Banks.

Once again, then: in the civilization imagined by Banks, which he simply called the Culture, the formidable artificial intelligences known as the Minds have taken control. The inhabitants of the Culture live on the artificial planets and on the colossal spaceships (the General System Vehicles) that the Minds have built. Banks explained that the Culture comes from a combination of ideas: to survive (in space) you need to cooperate with each other, trusting the machines to do the right thing can be extremely liberating and communal happiness can only be reached by embracing socialist anarchism. A citizen of the Culture craves nothing because all their needs are cared for. Property, and this fundamental, has not only been abolished but made simply ridiculous. So has crime. In the Culture, you can do as you please with your body (they are all technically post-human), including changing species if you like, and with your mind. Immortality is not ruled out, though most people have enough of life after a few millennia… And, yes, utopia works.

Critics of Banks’ eutopia claim that the Culture is boring. Utopia as a narrative genre is, indeed, boring, which is why Banks organized his tales around the idea that the Culture feels bound to export utopia to other civilizations. The clashes with these other more or less reluctant peoples are the focus of the novels, whose protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances Agents, part of the (secret) body preaching utopia to the galaxy. Living in eutopia might also be boring, for all we know–Norwegians, the happiest nation on Earth, remember?, do not hesitate to declare themselves boring. Offer Syrians and Iraqis a chance to be bored for a lifetime and see how they react… I am totally serious when I argue that if boredom is the reason why we are rejecting utopia, then we deserve dystopia. You cannot begin to imagine how depressed I feel when I think that I will never be a citizen of Banks’ Culture. I could cry, really. Of course, the challenge of utopia is how to fill your time productively without the onerous obligation of work–but we already have that: it’s called retirement and we all want it. So, here’s utopia: we live off what the robots and the A.I. produce and we use our lives for whatever we want, as retired people do. Whatever we want may include work, if you’re so inclined. Work would not consist, however, of the kind of backbreaking, mindsquashing jobs most people devote their lives to.

Now, here’s my call to women: if you, my dears, can look beyond gender and imagine utopia that gives everyone a new vision beyond patriarchy, we all win. And thank you Lynne Segal for the inspiring talk.

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/.

WONDERING HOW (POPULAR) CULTURE IS TRANSMITTED (WITH A REFERENCE TO STAR WARS)

As consumers of cultural products we seem to take for granted that texts are, somehow, automatically saved for survival and that any new generation has access to all of them. This is, of course, naïve, misguided and plain wrong. In the case of popular texts (and I mean here generally of all kinds beyond the printed page), we seem to assume that transmission is practically automatic and immediately guaranteed, in some cases, by the big cults around some of these texts. Even so, there are specific practices, companies and persons involved in the process of keeping a text alive. Just think of the constant renewal of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Do you, my reader, know exactly how Tolkien’s classic has managed to survive since the day of its publication back in 1954-55? Could this rich trilogy ever disappear? Surely, this catastrophe is unthinkable for its many fans but it seems to me that at this odd jointure in the history of culture its future is impossible to predict.

As one of the children lucky to attend a cinema screening of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977, the one now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, I find myself often thinking about how exactly texts are passed on. (By the way, I’ll take the chance here to make the happy announcement of a forthcoming conference on Star Wars and Ideology at the Universidad Complutense for April 2018. Finally!!). You might think that something as gigantic as George Lucas’s brainchild, now a Disney brand, has a life of its own. Actually, this is not the case at all. To begin with, when the first film was released, the producers and the director were absolutely sceptical about its success. So was the manufacturer in charge of selling the corresponding toys, to the point that many children who loved the film received that Christmas 1977 not an actual doll (soon sold out) but a sort of i.o.u., promising their future delivery. Today it seems as if everyone knew about how the merchandising would keep the saga alive but this is just an illusion.

I visited a few months ago an exhibition of Star Wars toys at Barcelona’s Illa Diagonal (the shopping centre) and I paid close attention to the children. Some were very young, around six, and already familiar with most of the characters there represented. Their parents, clearly, had placed them before the TV screen as soon as possible to share the corresponding DVDs of the saga with them; most likely, they had also shared with them their own merchandising products and bought new items. This type of generational transmission, from parent to child, must be the most habitual one. The children I saw seemed eager, none was dragging their feet after an embarrassingly enthusiastic parent, all were smiling and wide-eyed, and so were the adults. I assume that many parents fail to transmit their love of Star Wars (or any other beloved text) to their children but, then, the failed cases were not attending the exhibition. I’m sure that the frustration must be terrible in those cases…

I wondered, however, what happens to children whose parents are not keen at all on Star Wars (or that do not have a special favourite text to enthuse about). I know very well that elder siblings, cousins (either older or not), and aunts and uncles (rather than grandparents) play major roles in this generational transmission, still totally under-researched. At least, my impression is that Reception Studies tends to focus on the interaction between consumer and text, not caring too much about how consumers actually access texts. Anyway: there are five children in my family (four girls, one boy) and we, my husband and I, have failed miserably to instil in them a love of Star Wars. They’re just not interested and find our own interest a bit peculiar (“the problem with being a nerd,” one of my nieces sentenced, “is that you feel under the obligation of being a nerd and doing nerdish things”–this was when she declined seeing Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens despite our insistence…). Intent on enticing at least our youngest niece, and seeing how useful the new girl hero in this film, Rey, could be, we launched a relentless campaign… To no avail. Then, suddenly, one day she announced that she was ready to see the saga and, so, we started with Episode IV. It has not worked (or not yet) because she herself has decided that she is too young (she’s 8) to make sense of the plot.

We still have hopes that she’ll turn to the light side of the Force but in the meantime I have decided to learn from her how little kids get acquainted with famous texts, such as, well, Star Wars, in the event of there being no adult pointing the way to them. I hear you groan: playground talk, it’s all it takes. Yes and no. Obviously, basing any conclusions on the experience of one single child is bad research but at least I have learned a few new things (to share with you). Here they are:

1) If my niece regards herself as too young to understand the saga, this means that many parents ‘force’ their children to consume texts for which they are not quite ready. It is not normal for an 8-year-old to claim, as one of my niece’s classmates told her, that Rogue One (the prequel) is her favourite film. This is an excellent adventure film but also quite a dark story of heroic sacrifice, and if this little girl saw it this is because an adult disregarded how she would react to the bleak plot. Yes, I’m a bit scandalized… children are sensitive and impressionable…

2) The transmission of the text values among children is done through direct comment and, indeed, through the toys. On the school bus, in the school playground, at the home of other kids. The toy or any other items connected with the text in question (stationery, bags, clothing…) elicit curiosity, which leads to questions: what is this?, who are they? At this very early age, children’s comments on the films are limited in criticism (the films are just ‘cool’) and include, rather, plot summary or scene descriptions. Often of shocking moments.

3) In this regard, I was surprised to find out that our focus on Rey was a bit misguided. My husband and I assumed that, just as little boys could identify with Luke Skywalker and hence enter into the spirit of the saga, Rey would have the same function for my little niece. She loved the ‘idea’ of Rey but was terrified by her confrontation with Kylo Ren using laser sabres (this is the clip we showed to her). The idea of a laser sabre toy is very attractive to her, but, paradoxically, not the terrible potential of this weapon in the films. In contrast, she explained that she had asked us to see the first film because she is very curious about Darth Vader’s death and his connection with Luke. Yes: we believe that spoilers are always negative but it turns out that sometimes they are the greatest enticement. A classmate told her about Luke’s fearful father… and she is puzzled about Vader’s person. My hope is that her curiosity keeps her interest alive and will eventually result in her seeing the three first films. At least.

4) A major lesson to learn is that children can make extremely clear judgements from a very early age about what they like. Not so much about why, logically. I keep on asking my nieces about their preferences and this is always a wonderful lesson for me. They, however, find explaining themselves quite a difficult exercise: they’re flattered about my interest, but also concerned that I may find their answers too basic (poor things!). Another obvious lesson is that textual transmission works much, much better if you (the adult) avoid forcing the text on the child. “I’m going to take you to see a film you will love” doesn’t work as well as “I’m going to see this amazing film, would you like to come with me?” In the first case, the child can even get a bit suspicious (“um… why do you want me to see this movie in particular?”), whereas in the second case, a better kind of complicity is built around the text. Sometimes it works the other way round: in the last year, my office has got a new set of tsum-tsum Disney characters, and some Trolls dolls… And my husband can’t stop watching Gumball

So, yes, basically you need the patience of an advanced Jedi knight/dame to bring a child to the light side of the Force but, here’s the lesson, you’re not alone. Other persons, particularly in the child’s own circle, are also participating in the constant renewal of the saga. If nothing works, then, this is it: you gain no padawan. But then, you can still enjoy the company of many other Star Wars fans all over the world. Some comfort!

Although at the time I was not aware that this would be a crucial memory in my life as a film spectator, I thank now George Lucas for the unforgettable sight of the Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the beginning of Episode IV, 40 years ago. I was 11, remember? The Harry Potter generation also enjoyed 20 years ago (how time flies!) that ‘wow’ moment that defines a whole cohort when Harry got that letter from Hogwarts, also aged 11. But, what about the children of 2017? I sometimes worry that they’re trapped in the stories meant for other generations, as the machinery of cultural production stagnates. It’s wonderful to see how our own texts last but, surely, today’s children also deserve their own moment of wonder. And, then, we’ll learn from them.

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/.

A WRITER THINKS ABOUT HIS CRAFT: GEORGE SAUNDERS

Today I am reading in detail here an article recently published by American writer George Saunders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Saunders). He specializes in short fiction, children’s fiction and the essay and is not, therefore, a novelist, the type of writers I most commonly read. I have only read one book by him, Pastoralia (2000), a collection said to be among his best work. He has won plenty of awards in the last twenty-odd years, among them the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2013). He is since 2014 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All in all, then, a sophisticated kind of literary writer.

The article is “George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write) and has a subtitle that names to “A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts…”, which is the gist indeed of the piece. The complete article runs to almost 4000 words and I certainly recommend that you read all of them.

Saunders narrates first how the seed for his latest book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which happens to be his first novel, was planted in his mind twenty years ago. Lesson number one: fiction very often arises from an image suggested by one particular experience in the author’s life, which, while personal (it does happen to him or her) need not be auto-biographical, in the sense of dealing with the author’s own life. Saunders visited the crypt where Lincoln’s son was buried and was told that the grief-stricken President often visited it: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind –a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà”. In 2012 Saunders felt finally ready to tackle the topic and write his first novel. Second lesson: inspirational images may live on for many years in the fiction writer’s mind until they demand to be brought forth. Saunders denies as “some version of the intentional fallacy” that “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same”. As he warns us, “The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully”. He tries, nonetheless.

Saunders describes next his “method” to navigate the squalls of literary creation: “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’).” Accordingly, he reads his work, “the way a first-time reader might”, paying attention to how the needle reacts and ruthlessly editing his text: “watch the needle, adjust the prose” ad nauseam. Of course, we have a problem here already: the process of distilling what your mind produces as you write happens before edition. This is common to all kinds of writers. As I write this post, I know vaguely where I am going with my argument but I am constantly surprised by the exact shape my sentences take. Why these words and no others? Actually, what I most enjoy in writing is that kind of surprise, which is why I make an effort to write a post every week: because otherwise my brain would be inactive. In the case of fiction writers, fabulation, as I call the process of imagining stories, happens, I insist, before edition. I believe that everyone can understand Saunders’ needle for we possess one, more or less rudimentary, but not his powers to fabulate. Not even he himself.

It is true, at any rate, that a great deal of the pleasure of writing lies in rewriting, in the polishing of the sentences. Saunders enjoys in particular the impression that “the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ –funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining”. If, as he says, the author/narrator is more interesting than the person, the writer, this means that writing is, like being in love, about presenting the best side of yourself. Saunders makes a very interesting claim by declaring that his method aims at “increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing”, something which, “in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader.” I don’t know if this is mere politeness, for it seems that Saunders does believe that rewriting makes texts “less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading”. I find, rather, listening to many other authors, that the reader matters relatively little and that any writer works for his/herself. The highest quality writers are those with the most demanding inner reading, so to speak, and how external readers react is of relative importance to them.

Saunders does attach greater importance to the “pursuit of specificity”, to the honing down of the language so that it is both nuanced and more effective. Again, this is a rule of all good writing, in any genre, including academic prose. An artist, Saunders stresses, “tweaks that which she’s already done” and, I would add, if this is art, then artistic writing (=Literature) should encompass many more genres, including, sorry to be so tiresome, academic prose. A rule my PhD supervisor taught me is that each sentence must advance my argumentation and be fully justified. This is not really that different from Poe’s injunction to observe an “economy of style” in fiction writing, which is what Saunders also defends without naming it. His analysis of how he writes becomes, then, an analysis of how he edits his texts, which, while interesting (“But why did I make those changes? On what basis?”) is not really about the unfathomable mystery of how sentences travel originally from neuron to screen (or paper).

Saunders turns next to another mystery, “the empathetic function” which, according to him, “is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers”. Revision, he explains, “is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you” –I find this very funny because it is intended to place the reader centre-stage and be flattering but in the end it reveals only the writer’s (any writer’s) narcissism. The point, as you can see, is to raise the reader up to your level via your writing, which might be a lovely exercise in intellectual seduction but feels more self-serving than that. In this sense, I believe that popularisers (sorry, I can’t find an English equivalent of the serviceable ‘divulgador’) are the only writers who truly care about their audience, as they (we?) see writing as a form of pedagogy. I know that I sound very smug in correcting Saunders but I truly believe that literary creation would happen even without readers.

Next lesson: Saunders claims that writing a novel did not require a different method from writing short fiction, just a “slightly larger frame” and a sort of specific architecture: “it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts”. Again, this possibly reflects the experience of the specific case of a short fiction writer trying to write a novel for the first time, whereas habitual novelists would not describe a similar approach. In science fiction there is something quote curious, the fix-up, which is a novel made of short stories that may not have been necessarily written with a book in mind. The fix-up is, perhaps, closer than any other type of novel to the mansion made of many yurts. But, then, poor Saunders, I should not criticize him for describing what he honestly feels.

“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems”. Indeed! Again, I would say that this can be extended to any piece of writing. A PhD dissertation is, if you want to see it that way, the answer to the problem of ‘how am I supposed to write this particular thesis?’ Only when you’re done do you realize how it should have been done, which is, I know, vexing. If you wrote a second PhD dissertation, on a different topic, then leads to a different ‘system of problems’. Ergo, each piece of fiction is also the answer to the question of how it should be written, and how the problems should be faced and solved. As Saunders notes, a problem is solved when it is transformed into “an opportunity”.

Saunders’s final lesson is a that “a work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.” The first phase would correspond to what I call fabulation, which Saunders describes only tangentially–which is why I feel frustrated by his text. It’s tantalizing. “Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment”, he writes and I wish I could tell him that the vagueness of the word “certain” is exasperating –which decisions?, how did you make him?, to what degree are you aware of the process of choice? The second step, based on how “the rules of the universe created certain compulsions” is, I think, what most literary criticism explores (Hamlet sets in motion a whole chain of events by paying heed to what his dead father tells him). Yet, we know close to nothing about how the ‘bowling pins’ materialize. When his characters start behaving as if following their own decisions (a phenomenon which all writers report but on which there is no research at all), Saunders enjoys the “beautiful, mysterious experience”. The mystery is the reason why we worship fiction writers: because we don’t have access to it, it doesn’t happen to us.

Saunders ponders whether the creation of fiction is “a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” but ultimately chooses Romantic celebration: There is “something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned”. Now, unless we, literary critics, sit by the writer as s/he writes and monitors the process as each sentence is written, there is no way we can understand the wonder of it all. Saunders gets very close in this piece to the ‘making-of’ habitual in cinema and we need to be thankful to him for the effort. This is perhaps the way we should go: invite writers to delve into the experience of writing, popularize among readers the very idea of the literary ‘making-of’. Not to destroy the ‘mystery’ but to retrieve literary creation from the intellectual fog surrounding it, and, why not?, make literary criticism a more confident art.

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/.

BE BOLD FOR CHANGE: INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2017

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange, as you may see from diverse sites on the internet. Tomorrow, 8 of March, we women are also invited to join a worldwide strike to demonstrate that without us the planet will stop rolling. The latest calculations suggest that we are 170 years away from gender parity, and this is an optimistic piece of guesswork, as it does not take into account possible setbacks (think Trump, think Putin, think ISIS). It is clearly too long to wait for, hence the call for action. Right now.

I have been writing this blog since 2010 and every year this is the most difficult post for me. International Women’s Day is a yearly reminder of our subjection to misogynistic patriarchy, for if we were truly free this celebration would not be necessary. For as long as we need to protest and show the evidence of the constant patriarchal terrorist campaigns against us, we women remain still subordinated and not at all citizens on full, equal terms with men. I do not like being reminded that my life as a woman is conditioned by patriarchy, hence my anger, sorrow and distress every 8th March.

Also my dismay. I go through the main newspapers websites in Spain, the USA and the UK regularly and it is always the same: most news items about women concern our bodies, whether these are on display for voyeuristic reasons or as objects of patriarchal violence. The same media that pretend to maintain a liberal outlook are guilty of the grossest misrepresentation of what women do and endure on a daily basis. Then, whenever there is a minimally positive article on women’s achievements, or one that discusses inequality from an intelligent point of view, you get all those anonymous trolls pouring out the most toxic venom. In the Spanish media they run unchecked; in the British newspaper I read (The Guardian) many contributions are erased by the moderators; some chains of comments are mostly blanks… I need not even mention the extent to which trolling on the social networks is becoming one of the most insidious, effective branches of patriarchal terrorism.

Yes, I am using the word terrorism insistently because this is how it feels today in Spain: about 20 women have died so far, killed by their current or previous male partners. I must say ‘about’ because not even the Director of the Observatorio por la Igualdad could name the actual figure with certainty (this morning on TV). It is possibly higher. Just reverse the situation and try to think of what would happen if 20 men had been killed so far this year by their female couples and ex-couples…

Whenever information like this appears in the media, I read a string of abusive comments from the habitual male trolls, with one argument that is constantly repeated: men also suffer from gendered violence, this might not be so obvious but it is also very harmful. Fine, if that is the case, please come out, you male victims of women’s abuse. Men are doing much better than they used to in reporting sexual abuse endured as children (by men…). So, if you’re being abused by your women, instead of pretending that patriarchal terrorism does not exist, do tell us what is happening to you and we will help you. Promise. What is not at all acceptable is a situation in which the women victims are made twice invisible by denying that they matter (I won’t even speak about the children killed this year, and those made orphans by furious, violent, lethal patriarchal monsters). And, yes, I support the call to speak about the survivors of violence, and not only the victims, for it seems to me that the exclusive focus on brutality contributes to patriarchal terrorism as an invitation to commit copy-cat crimes.

More dismay: the women themselves, and how we are contributing to our own discrimination. The women who voted for Donald Trump, the women who support Putin in Russia, or ISIS in Europe and the Middle East. The women who bully other women in school and on the internet, or beat them up. The women who publish sexualized photos of themselves and call this invitation to a demeaning use of their persons a free feminist act. The women who let themselves be used in fashion campaigns that are an invitation to abusive misogyny. The women incapable of working with other women in alliances to end inequality, at any level. The women who exploit other women they employ. The women who allow their girls’ genitalia to be mutilated. The women who reject feminism as if it is an infectious disease. The women who abuse the word feminism to defend absurd choices. I could go on…

Next, the lack of awareness and the refusal to know. I often feel like an abolitionist speaking to slaves who adamantly reject the idea that they are enslaved and, so, will not contribute to their own liberation. I wonder what it was like for the real abolitionists. I was teaching a seminar on Shakespeare within an MA course and we were discussing how having actresses play male roles (Hamlet, Richard III…) does not really alter the patriarchal nature of the plays, which, logically, reflect their time and society. One of the young women in class basically said that patriarchy is what it is and cannot be altered. Well, I replied, if that were the case you wouldn’t be here in class as a student and I would not be teaching in a university classroom. No reaction.

It might be the case that because I teach Victorian Literature I am particularly sensitized about the times when women had no rights whatsoever but it baffles me that young women take two oxymoronic things for granted: a) that patriarchy is basic human nature, b) that their rights are guaranteed. Patriarchy is NOT the same as human nature–it can and it must be changed and it is certainly changing, but not fast enough. If patriarchy was human nature, our lives as women would have remained unaltered for ever and I would not be writing this post; I’d be minding my ten children and be possibly illiterate. The problem with patriarchy is that it is not disappearing fast enough, and it’s clear to me that full equality can never be reached as long as patriarchy persists. 170 years? What a joke…

The other matter, that our rights are guaranteed, is another big joke. Right now the biggest best-sellers in the USA are George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Orwell’s classic is a horrifying story about how any individual can be coerced into completely submitting to an ideology, no matter how hard s/he tries to rebel. Big Brother, no mistake about it, is the personification of patriarchy. In Atwood’s dystopia she narrates how fast and how easily women are deprived of all their rights in the early stages of the fundamentalist dictatorship that overpowers democracy in the USA. As happened to me while reading Houellebecq’s Submission, I was horrified by the good men’s reaction: the husband of Atwood’s protagonist does not defend her rights, he just offers her his personal protection (don’t worry if you cannot work anymore, I’ll support you). This kind of, shall we say?, secondary complicity is to me even far more scarier than downright patriarchal terrorism. In the event of a frontal attack against women’s rights, then, there is no guarantee that all women would fight for them, and no guarantee either that the good men would confront the evil patriarchs for us. Atwood got it right. And so did Orwell: it’ll be everyone for themselves. And violent coercion.

And here’s my main worry: it may be impossible to imagine a situation in which Africans would be again kidnapped and sent to America to be enslaved but 150 years after the formal end of slavery, a brutal racism against African-Americans persists. Likewise, homophobia and all forms of LGTBI phobia persist despite the changes in legislation. As for us, women, yes, we may vote, study, work in the professions and make a thousand choices we could not make before the 20th century but the pressure of misogyny is not easing out, whether it results in bloody murder or in what Luis Bonino called ‘micro-machismos’, that is, the small everyday acts that make our lives harder: from a sexist joke by a workmate to a partner’s dragging their feet until we lose patience and clean the dishes ourselves. How our energy, talent and time is wasted is a scandal if we think of how necessary women are for the survival of the human species and our progress as a civilization.

I discussed in my previous post two examples of positive female characters addressed to a children’s audience, Judy in Zootopia and Poppy in Trolls. I insist that this is crucial: let’s find positive role models, women who have been bold to change, and who have changed life for us by giving us more choices. Madame Curie, rather than Kim Kardashian, if you know what I mean. And may 2017 be better for women than 2016 was, though I very much doubt this will be the case. We may be as bold as we can to change, but if patriarchy is not altered nothing significant will change. And this, good men reading me, is our common enemy.

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/.