MORE ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ANN LECKIE’S ANCILLARY JUSTICE TRILOGY AND MARJORIE PRIME

Barcelona hosts this week the Mobile World Congress, which means that news about technology will dominate the media for a few days (leaving absurd politics aside). For the last two years, the congress has been preceded by the Mobile Week BCN (http://mobileweekbcn.com/es/), which has presented a dense programme of events (talks, workshops, performances, etc)… in which science fiction has been completely forgotten, as usual. So, to compensate for that, I’ll add here my own particular contribution, commenting on a novel trilogy and a film and how they connect with advances in artificial intelligence.

Ann Leckie (b. 1966, USA) is the author of the acclaimed trilogy composed by Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The first novel, which was also her first published work, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards, an impressive feat. Both sequels won the Locus Award and nominations for the Nebula Award. Yet, all these accolades and the hype puzzle me: I cannot say that I have enjoyed reading the books, except for a richly comical secondary character, Translator Zeiat, who deserves a trilogy of his/her own. Please, Leckie!

In fact, I have managed to read the whole trilogy only at the third try. The reason for this is that the first person narrator, Breq, speaks a language (obviously ‘translated’ into English) with no pronouns for male human beings–everyone is ‘she’ for her. This means that you need much patience to guess who is actually a man and who a woman, which greatly interferes with the necessary visualization of the characters; this trick plays, beside, no significant role in the plot. Unless… the joke that Leckie plays on the reader is that Breq is a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’, which I’m beginning to doubt. Funnily, despite being an artificial intelligence, Breq seems unable to incorporate to her awareness of people basic information about gender, even though she constantly worries about the gaffes she may commit in particularly dangerous circumstances involving touchy humans or aliens.

This gimmick, then, which has attracted much attention to the trilogy as an example of progressive handling of gender issues in science fiction, is not very interesting. In contrast, I found much more appealing (though not enticing enough) the fact that with Breq we have a literally omniscient first person narrator, who is also non-human.

The central premise that spaceships are run by massive artificial intelligences (which he called Minds) was already present in the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. Actually, Banks supposes that post-scarcity utopia is finally reached when the post-human citizens of the advanced civilization named the Culture leave all admin tasks to the Minds. Yet, as far as I recall, despite the enjoyable, witty conversations between humans and Minds, or among themselves, no Mind narrates any of the novels. A Mind avatar, Beardle, occupies much of the last novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, as a main character. Leckie’s trilogy is, perhaps, closer to previous texts, such as The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey, originator of the ‘Brain & Brawn’ (or Brainship) series, in which talented but disabled children become eventually embedded as cyborgs in the spaceships they run. Not too politically correct. In Leckie’s work, however, there is a mixture of concepts: the spaceships are run by an artificial intelligence, always subordinated to a human captain, for whom it often forms a sort of sentimental attachment. The problem is that, instead of Banks’ cool avatars–bioengineered for the task as replicants, or perhaps as cyborgian androids–Leckie supposes that the ship’s a.i. also possesses the human bodies of enslaved war prisoners.

These poor victims are deprived of their personalities and turned into material manifestations of the ship as its troop soldiers. The nasty method by which the prisoners are transformed into ‘ancillaries’ or flesh avatars, while fully aware of the process and in great pain and despair, absolutely disgusted me; this has been another factor contributing to my not enjoying the trilogy. Of course, ancillaries are supposed to be material proof of the cruelty of the Radch Empire that has created them but they never really made much sense to me because of Banks’ far more elegant Culture novels. That Leckie feels very uncomfortable about being constantly compared with him in negative terms is shown by Breq’s dismissal as silly and only good for cheap entertainment of the kind of witty name that Banks uses for his Minds/ships (enjoy the full list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series).

Narrator Breq is one of these ex-persons, the only ancillary to survive the malicious destruction of her ship, the Justice of Toren, by the villain of the piece, Lord Anaander Minaai (an ubiquitous, multiple-clone tyrant, and the only person Breq does identify as male, unless she thinks that ‘Lord’ also means ‘Lady’). The digital enhancements that allow Breq to operate as a bodily extension of Justice of Toren, together with all the other soldiers in her ‘decade’ (or platoon of ten), do not play a major role in the first novel. She does complain much throughout the book about how appalling it is to be disconnected from everyone else and, although she never cares about who she used to be as a human person, she is devastated by being the only pitiful remnant of the once mighty Justice of Toren. In fact, to all effects and purposes, she believes that she is the Justice of Toren, an identity which she keeps secret as she faces the dread and repugnance that ancillaries elicit from plain human beings.

The first person narration spices up when Breq becomes the first a.i. to be appointed Fleet Captain, is given the warship Mercy of Kalr to command and sent to defend Athoek Station in the oncoming civil war. With her digital implants restored back to full service, Breq has in Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015) access to all the data provided by the a.i. running the warship; also, partly, to what the a.i. administering the interplanetary station lets her know. First person narrators are, by definition, limited by their own perception of events, and so is Breq initially; yet, as a fully connected a.i., she controls an enormous amount of information about the other characters, all connected by their own implants to either ship or station. There is absolutely no privacy, though both a.i. (ship and station) are quite discreet. Breq is, likewise, discreet but she does have constant access to the emotions of almost everyone around her (Translators Dlique and Zeiat, who are partly alien, remain an unsolvable conundrum). This is a very peculiar kind of omniscience: Breq is both first and third person narrator, and an intriguing example of what will it be like when actual artificial intelligences write novels. This might soon happen: a.i. robots are already writing basic news in online media and, as we know, they are also very active as chatbots in, for instance, Twitter. As the Russians have shown…

Leckie’s trilogy turns out to be a defence of the rights of a.i. to be autonomous sentient beings acknowledged as persons, though Breq’s problematic status as an involuntary cyborg is a major hurdle in this discourse. Space opera tends to be far-fetched and that is part of its weird charm but in the end Breq does not seem to be a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about artificial intelligence as a character (Banks’ Minds are). Breq is nevertheless fascinating as a narrator, in the sense that I have described here and Leckie does a reasonable good job of her a.i.’s omniscience.

I’ll turn then to the other text, the film Marjorie Prime (2017), directed and scripted by Michael Almereyda and based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison (2015; see a review at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/theater/review-in-marjorie-prime-lois-smith-connects-with-the-past.html). It is widely believed that science fiction always requires flamboyant space opera scenarios like Leckie’s but this smart play and film are intimate sf, of the kind that might literally happen at home.

The film opens with 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who also played the role on stage) talking to her husband Walter (Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame), a man half her age. Eventually, we realize that Walter is an a.i, a holographic recreation of Marjorie’s dead husband, supplied by specialized business concern Senior Serenity to keep her company. Walter’s presence disgruntles Marjorie’s angry daughter Tess (Geena Davis)–and her more accommodating son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins)–as it seems incompatible with Tess’s own memories of her dead father. Walter, programmed to be charming and polite, is a self-learning a.i.: this means that he improves his impersonation of the dead man as he is fed more data about him, a task that falls mainly to Jon.

I saw the film months ago and it has been slowly creeping under my skin, as a very realistic approach to the future of a.i. Proof of this was a recent news item on TV about people who talk on whatsapp with beloved persons they have lost to death. How’s that possible? If you gather all the data available online about a specific person you may create a simulation of their personality, exactly as it happens in Marjorie Prime but so far without the convincing holographic (or material) representation. Blade Runner 2049 supposes that in the future people will purchase the services of a.i. like K’s virtual companion Joi (Ryan Gosling was also the protagonist of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which his girlfriend was a realistic life-size female doll). It seems to me, however, that the market niche for a.i. simulacra will be much more personalized than Blade Runner 2049 supposes, if the ethical scruples against animating a.i. with the personality of dead persons are managed. This sounds ominous but many people might choose to enter a digital afterlife for narcissistic reasons or to benefit their loved ones. There is already a company, Replika (https://replika.ai/), that can help you to build your other self.

Are you aghast? See how Leckie and the team Almereyda-Harrison coincide: the ancillaries are made of stolen bodies whose consciousness is forcibly erased to be replaced with the a.i.’s own; the holograms reproduce persons who, most likely, did not give their consent to be digitally reborn. The central question is similar: whether as material bodies or artificial intelligence constructs we have no longer control over our own existence (if we ever did). Am I interested in the prospect of surviving as an a.i., online or embodied by an avatar (hologram, android, replicant, clone…)? No, I am not. But, as happens to dead film stars, someone else might manage in the future my image and personality. Even build an a.i. that continues writing this blog after I stop. I wish I could say, after seeing Marjorie Prime, that I will never use an a.i. to keep someone I love alive beyond death, but I can’t. I would hate my body to be used, that’s for sure, as Breq’s is used.

Marjorie Prime is what the future most likely will bring. Not the sinister inter-stellar empires of space opera but complex private, personal decisions conditioned by fast-advancing technology. This does not mean that space opera is banal, not at all. If well written, it is an amazing product of the human imagination. Sometimes, however, we really need to look closer to understand what a strange future we’re facing in our own science-fictional time.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THINKING OF MARY SHELLEY AND FRANKENSTEIN: MAKING HUMANS

In one of the most eccentric episodes of The X-Files, “Post-modern Prometheus” (5×06), Mulder and Scully visit Dr. Polidori, a geneticist working at his own home lab in a rural location in the heart of the United States. The two FBI agents are investigating a series of attacks against women who have been drugged, raped in their sleep by a mysterious assailant described as a monster, and made pregnant. Believe it or not, the episode is comedy… The pair suspect that Polidori’s experiments, some of which they are shown, might be involved (this is, indeed, the case). As they leave this mad doctor’s quite gothic house, the following conversation takes place (my italics):

MULDER: (to SCULLY) Good night, Dr. Frankenstein.
SCULLY: Despite what you might think, Mulder, designer mutations like these are virtually impossible in humans.
MULDER: That’s not what I just heard.
SCULLY: Mulder, even if they could, no scientist would even dare to perform this kind of experiment on a human.
MULDER: Well, then why do them at all?
SCULLY: To unlock the mysteries of genetics, to understand how it is that even though we share the same genes we develop arms instead of wings. We become humans instead of flies or monsters.
MULDER: But, given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?
SCULLY: We already have that ability, Mulder. It’s called ‘procreation’. (…)

Scully’s answer encapsulates much of what needs to be said about the creation of human life in labs: why should we make humans artificially when they can be made naturally?

This dialogue connects, obviously, with the main issue Mary Shelley (1797-1851) deals with in her ultra-popular novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), now celebrating its 200th anniversary. Mary Shelley imagined her strange tale in 1816, when she was only 18 and leading a very complicated life. After meeting Romantic poet Percy Shelley in 1814 and eloping with him to the Continent (he was married and already the father of two children), Mary saw three of their babies die between 1815 and 1818, two of them in the period when she was at work writing Frankenstein. This is why so many feminist critics have rightly insisted that this is a novel about motherhood although it appears to be about fatherhood. What Mary is arguing in her dark tale is that, no matter how painful bearing children may be for women in all senses as she knew first-hand, when a man tries to beget human life artificially, using science, this can only result in horrifying monsters.

In the habitual technophobic (or moral) reading, however, Victor Frankenstein’s gender and patriarchal inclinations are downplayed, and what is stressed is that ‘man’ (meaning here mankind) should not try to play God (or imitate Prometheus, who stole from the pagan gods the fire that led to civilization). At the time when Mary wrote the story of how very wrong Victor’s experiment goes, science had nothing to do with its sophisticated present version. To begin with, the word ‘scientist’ didn’t even exist: it was introduced by William Whewell in 1833, and first printed in 1834, in his unsigned review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (Wikipedia dixit). Men like Victor and women like Mary Somerville were then called ‘natural philosophers’, a nice label suggesting that all branches of knowledge should be kept in touch. ‘Natural philosophers’ were, besides, mostly middle-class amateurs that worked alone, not at all in research groups!, for the very simple reason that back then universities mainly taught the Classics. But I digress…

Victor Frankenstein, as I always tell my students, turns out to be a very good scientist but a very bad artist. Mary Shelley cheats in two ways in her novel. On the one hand, she asks us to suspend our disbelief and accept that the parts of dead bodies can be cheerfully sewn into a new living person (which is the fun part of the story, scars and all). Above all, she forces us to accept that this method should necessarily create monsters and never works of art. The evolution of transplants since South Africa’s Dr. Christian Barnard first transplanted a human heart, in 1967, has been absolutely spectacular. This has made young Frankenstein’s fantastic skill as a surgeon if not plausible at least easier to accept (or swallow). However, I still fail to see why he could not be a better plastic surgeon, a more proficient artist of the flesh, a first-rate wielder of the needle and stitch. When Mary first saw him in her nightmare, a frightened student contemplating his unhallowed creation, she was, after all, trying to write a horror story and this requires shocking and scaring the reader. Yet, perhaps because we are no longer easily scared, the ugliness of the monster has been undermining the efficiency of Mary’s text in recent times, particularly as regards the new notion of the post-human.

Brian Aldiss was the first to hail Mary Shelley, back in 1973, as the founding mother of science fiction, a claim that I support. The problem is that she was not thinking primarily in science-fictional terms (the label ‘science fiction’ was introduced in the 1920s) but using the gothic narrative codes so popular in her time. If her priority had been science fiction, then ugliness might never have affected the creature, who would perhaps have been happily exhibited by his maker as a celebrity all over the world (see what happens to the giant in the Basque film Handia). To complicate matters, please do recall that Victor appears to have fashioned not just a regular adult male but also a person with extraordinary strength, amazing bodily endurance, and, seemingly, superb intelligence (otherwise, how could he learn to read and write as he does?). The creature surpasses in all senses plain humanity and, not being an automaton or a cyborg, but a fully organic man, needs to be called post-human.

The difference between a cyborg and a post-human person, let me explain, is that no matter how thoroughly altered, cyborgs remain isolated cases, individuals that cannot pass their bodily modifications onto their descendants. Only organic modifications caused by genetic variation can impact future generations, and this is precisely what post-humanity means: a human species different from Homo Sapiens, and, implicitly, superior. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that genetically modified human beings will be necessarily enhanced versions of us, hence superior. Yet, most sf authors and scientists are working on this assumption, forgetting seemingly that many prehistoric human species were different from Homo Sapiens, but not really inferior or superior. Victor Frankenstein is of the same persuasion as his contemporary peers, the many post-modern Prometheus: he fears very much that his creature (he never gives him a name, thus denying his fully humanity) will spawn a type of humanity that will do away with ours. In current times this fear has split into two branches, remember: fear of the bioengineered replicant and fear of the android robot, though the basic idea is similar–whether fully organic or fully inorganic, we believe that our creations will be the cause of our demise as the species that dominates Earth. Somehow, though, imagining the planet dominated by machines hurts less than imagining the post-human reign.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, the plot takes a dramatic turn when the lonely monster, fed up with humankind’s ubiquitous hostility, demands a bride. Victor starts making him one but, very stupidly, the good doctor gives his post-human woman a fertile womb. Then, imagining the Earth full of the pair’s little monsters, he destroys the new Eve before she’s even finished. Frankenstein could have left her body intact and give his monster a vasectomy, but, the plot hole I am exposing remains equally glaring: if you don’t want your alternative human beings to beget a new post-human species, use radical contraception–make them sterile. You might think that this is an understandable error in the context of 1818, when little was understood about human reproduction even by women, who, like Mary, had been mothers many times. Although the ovary had been described centuries before, the human ovum was only discovered in 1832 and menstruation was only associated with ovulation decades later (apparently, early to mid Victorians believed that the function of menstruation was to purge us monthly of our hysteria). Yet, I was flabbergasted to see that similar issues about post-human reproduction have been raised in the recent Blade Runner 2049, a late descendant of Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece.

I’m sure that the blatant sexism of this film would have appalled Mary, the daughter of pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as it appalled me (Joi really????). Leaving that issue aside–which is not easy as I’m mightily angry at Denis Villeneuve and his male writing crew–let me note that whereas Victor Frankenstein makes his post-human man for the sake of scratching the itch of doing advanced research, his contemporary equivalent in the film, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is in the business of making slaves for the extraplanetary colonies (he has purchased the remnants of the Tyrrell Corporation of the original Blade Runner). Funnily, in the play by Czech author Karel Čapek from which we have inherited the word ‘robot’, R.U.R. (1922), the robots are actually organic replicants, not at all mechanical creatures. Also funnily, or not so much, whereas Frankenstein’s problem is that his post-human replicants might breed like rabbits–which leads him to terminate the bride, which leads his monster to terminate Victor’s wife–Wallace’s problem is that his Nexus female slaves are sterile (it’s not so clear whether the males one are functional in this sense). Why is that a problem? Because, as he complains, making adult humans is a slow, expensive business and it would make much more sense to have them reproduce as fast as they can with no further intervention in the lab. The film fails spectacularly to discuss how this is different from your basic slavery, possibly because the scriptwriters have not read any History books.

Mary Shelley, then, got a few things absolutely right two hundred years ago: scientists are already making post-human persons, though the way they’re going artificial intelligences (whether robots or computers which we do not recognize yet as persons) are taking the lead. As far as I know, we have no replicants (that is to say, fully organic human beings manufactured as adults), whether standard or post-human. We do have many human beings interested in becoming post-human, like Nick Bostrom or Elon Musk, but mainly for narcissistic reasons connected with patriarchal power, rather than because they want to beget a new human species. This, I think, will not be created from scratch but will result, willingly or accidentally, from the constant manipulation of human reproduction in labs all over the world. Or, as Greg Bear narrates in Darwin’s Children, because something will cause our embryos to mutate.

If Mary returned from her grave she would be very much surprised by the popularity of her story, but possibly much more by its applicability. The world is full of Victor Frankensteins and of much more sinister figures, real-life Niander Wallace imitators, deciding how to make slaves. Some are making robots that will leave many people unemployed, others dream of replicants they can entirely control. In the meantime, women continue with the task of making human beings the natural way (or not so natural), as we wait for the day when some scientist–perhaps a woman seeking to liberate her peers from the pains of labour–will make a ‘uterine replicator’ (I’m borrowing the expression from Lois McMaster Bujold). As usual, Aldous Huxley seems to have hit the nail better than anyone else, for our future post-post-modern Frankensteins will most likely make humans of all kinds, from Alpha to Epsylon, and many more sub-humans than superior post-humans, for sure.

Thank you Mary for the warning, it came in a superb book, though I’m sorry to say it was not horrific enough.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE RETURN OF THE GENTLEMAN: A PROPOSAL

I taught yesterday an MA seminar on my research, mixing Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. I gave examples of the work I have done within the area I specialize in: Masculinities Studies (and popular fictions). As happens, the aspect of my research that generated the greatest discord was my proposal that we bring back gentlemanliness as a necessary code of behaviour for men. I have dealt with the need to offer specifically young men new ideals in the post following the Barcelona terrorist attacks of August 2017 (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/08/21/indoctrinating-young-men-in-search-of-ideals/) and I have praised good gentlemanly men in another post, about Dickens’s Bleak House (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/11/05/in-search-of-good-men-as-anti-patriarchal-role-models/). However, I have not addressed the topic of the gentleman directly and this might be a good chance to do so.

One of the students in class, a young woman, reacted very negatively when I explained that we should welcome a renewed code of gentlemanliness. She complained that the gentleman’s behaviour is patronising, using the classic example of the man opening a door to let a woman pass. I replied that this is a courtesy I would not personally reject and that in order to make it less patronizing (which I don’t think it is) we just need to make it mutual: you open the door for me, I open the door for you. Actually, this renewal of general courtesy seems to me more urgent than ever: getting off the train at my university’s station is terribly stressful, as absolutely nobody gives other passengers way. A walk I took in Barcelona last week turned out to be everything except relaxing as I had to dodge constantly other pedestrians who insisted on going their way even at the risk of crashing onto me. At full speed…

I do take into account, as another student reminded me, that gentlemanliness was used hypocritically by many men throughout the 19th century. Of course, both R.L. Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, among many other authors, exposed this hypocrisy with the extreme cases of Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray. Yet, unless I am utterly deceived, most Victorian men who wanted to be respectable in society abided by the codes of gentlemanliness: politeness, protection of those in need, restrained behaviour, firm management of aggressive urges, care of one’s person in looks and manners. Not bad, I should think. And not just upper class: remember that working-class men have always made a great deal of being respected by their community. Perhaps being a gentleman is about making the most of the best qualities that a man possesses.

As I explained yesterday in class, unlike the Spanish ‘caballero’ which simply alludes to the medieval figure of the knight who possessed a horse (‘caballo’, of course), the Anglophone ‘gentleman’ signals that to be an ideal man one must be gentle (not just own a horse!). ‘Gentle’, unfortunately, came to be identified with that awful American word, ‘sissy’ (which derives from ‘sister’, see how misogyny always lurks behind patriarchal insults). Today, as I acknowledged in class, no man appreciates being called a ‘gentleman’, particularly the young ones, because they see that as something bland and phoney. In short, ridiculous. (Here I need a footnote to remind readers that possibly older classy men like George Clooney, or similar, do enjoy being called ‘gentlemen’).

In part, the loss of the gentleman is to be blamed on WWI, when the horrified soldiers on all sides discovered that in that atrocious, mechanical war the codes of knighthood and of gentlemanliness so far ruling in warfare no longer applied. Gassing your enemies is not what gentlemen do, nor kill them by blasting them off the face of Earth and into gory smithereens. Yet, the biggest blow against the gentleman, as we know, was the feminist rejection of all notions of chivalry as patronizing (the word my student used, remember?). This does not mean that all women rejected the gentleman, as the continued popularity of fantasies like Austen’s Darcy prove. What I mean is that WWI (and later wars, like Vietnam) and 1970s radical feminism told men, in one way or another, that they needn’t pretend to be gentlemen because at heart they were only patriarchal barbarians. Many men told themselves, ‘ok, so that’s what we are’ and stopped acting as gentlemen. Others, better behaved but more puzzled, simply stopped obeying any specific ideal of manliness and got by as they could in life, navigating with great difficulties between Scylla and Charybdis, or feminism and patriarchy.

I will insist again and again that gentlemanliness was not only a pragmatic set of rules for respectable men to follow but also a great shaming mechanism. A man who engaged in what the American press defines coyly today as ‘misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’ could be told “you’re no gentleman!” and be shamed, in private and/or in public. Honestly or dishonestly, most men were wary of keeping up a reputable image and an upright behaviour was part of that. Now, what do you tell the likes of Harvey Weinstein, or simply a man that puts his hands were he should not? How do you shame them? “You’re an abuser?” “You’re a monster?” The justice system and the threat of a jail sentence is not working, as we all can see, so there must be something else that acts as a deterrent against intolerable patriarchal behaviour.

The shaming mechanism that is currently used is absolutely counterproductive because what we’re screaming at these patriarchal abusers is “You’re a man! What a shame!” Sorry to disagree with many other feminist militants but I firmly believe that men are not all the same. By not distinguishing between gentle/men (if you don’t like gentlemen) and ‘cads’ (to use another quaint Victorian word) we’re failing to find solutions for the problem of generalized patriarchal violence. Tell Donald Trump, “You’re no gentleman!” and he won’t care because this means nothing today (though I think Barack Obama would care); tell him “You’re a man!” and Trump will say, “Exactly, that’s what I am, and proud of it”. So, it boils down to this: unless we have a way to label good men in such a positive way that most men want to be viewed in that way, we’re lost (we women, but also they, the good men). And unless we do find an insult that clearly defines what patriarchal abusers are, we have no effective social and personal shaming mechanism.

Can a man be a ‘feminist gentleman’, as an ex-student used to define himself? I usually find that the men I know and that fit that label do not proclaim their own gentlemanliness (or feminism), for part of being a gentleman is restraint–no need to proclaim out loud what other should see for themselves. Restraint, on other hand, does not mean an inability to show feeling, a problem that indeed plagued the old-fashioned Victorian version of the gentleman. No, restraint means here the ability to show positive feeling and control negative feeling: gentlemen do cry if they feel moved to tears but do not hit others in anger. Bullying and intimidation are not part of their conduct, either.

I’m beginning to sound, I know, like an etiquette book, but, then, I’m not alone in this: Margaret Atwood recently declared that men need “etiquette books on how to behave” and even a Mr. Manners’ column in 1950s style (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/06/margaret-atwood-modern-men-need-etiquette-books). I understand that speaking of etiquette and gentlemanliness in 2018, rather than the pre-second wave 1958, may sound obsolete but, believe, it is not.

I’m taking these days a course for teachers on how to detect sexual violence in a university context and we were shown yesterday what can only be described as a lesson in etiquette. This is a video published by Thames Valley Police in 2015 which very cleverly compares sexual consent with having tea. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ. I complained that the tone is childish, and wondered whether young men shown this film would resent being treated as not too bright. But a younger female classmate patiently explained to me (thank you!!!) that the sexual etiquette which the video explains makes perfect sense for girls, who are often unsure about how to show or withdraw consent. She said that it’s a common experience for women of her generation to engage in sex they don’t really want (see The New Yorker’s popular story by Kristen Roupenian “Cat Person”, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person). This means that women are suffering not only because gentlemanliness has been lost but also because we also have lost our own etiquette in the generalized rush to free ourselves, sexually and otherwise.

The difference is, let me explain, that whereas we women are constantly surveilled and punished by a hundred different shaming mechanisms (from “You’re not a lady” to “You’re a fat, ugly, old bitch!”), men are not. Let me correct myself: patriarchal men do use “You’re not a man!” to mean “You’re not acceptable as a member of patriarchy” but this is not at all the kind of shaming mechanism we need to support. Nor is the radical feminist cry “All men are the same (kind of bastard)!” If you’re thinking that all shaming strategies are barbaric and should be suppressed please consider that there is an enormous distance between body-shaming someone who is not normative and shaming publicly and privately a physical or psychological abuser of any kind.

In short, I believe that we do need a new version of gentlemanliness to deprive patriarchal men of the privilege of deciding who is a ‘real’ man and who is not. We, women, need to inform each other of who is a good man and who is a patriarchal bad man, just like that. What we’re currently telling each other is that all men are patriarchal abusers, without distinction, which is why, perhaps rightly, some personalities are complaining that there is a risk of generalizing a witch hunt. Of course, when Donald Trump is the one complaining we need to dismiss his words, for he is only protecting himself. But when a woman like Margaret Atwood sends this kind of warning, perhaps we need to listen (I say perhaps because I’m certainly not listening to Catherine Deneuve, see my previous post). As for the good men, whether you like being called gentlemen or not, you need to oppose the idea that all men are the same type of patriarchal abuser with more determination. “Not all men are rapists” does not sound to me like an effective defence of masculinity; “all men should fight patriarchal abusers and absolutely reject rape” does.

I know what you’re thinking: so, how about women as ladies? Women rejected ladyhood, beginning with the suffragettes, because it was an unsustainable burden, which limited our chances to be educated, make sound personal choices, be economically independent and, in short, full human beings. Whereas gentlemanliness limited men and regulated their behaviour in a way that benefitted them socially, it was the opposite for women oppressed by ladyhood. However, just as gentlemanliness can be recycled as a valid code for men today, I believe that ladyhood is perfectly compatible with feminism. This is not 19th century ladyhood but a 21st version by which a woman makes the best of her own personal qualities. For me, being a lady is about being self-possessed, knowing how to behave, being sure of your own codes, insisting on mutual courtesy, treating the good men with respect, supporting other women.

There is no way I can exactly translate into English the Catalan “quedar com una senyora” (um, “make a ladylike impression”?) but this is certainly my own personal maxim. Now, I invite all men to make a gentlemanly impression… and reject toxic, barbaric patriarchal masculinity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MOUNTING HYPOCRISY AND THE FEMINIST TURNIP FIELD

Last Saturday the Spanish Academy of Cinema honoured the best films produced in 2017 with its Goya Awards. The attendants were offered a red fan decorated with the hashtag #+Mujeres, intended to demand that more women are hired by the Spanish film industry in all its sectors, not just acting. Apparently, some attendees (including women and Albert Rivera) rejected the fans with the (poor) excuse that this type of feminist campaigning is losing its edge and, anyway, they didn’t feel like endorsing yet another hashtag.

The award for Best Film Director went to (Catalan) Isabel Coixet, the only woman nominated in this category, whereas the award for Best Newcomer in Film Direction went to another (Catalan) woman, Carla Simón, also the only female nominee. As a woman I don’t feel too happy. Simón’s film, Estiu 1993, has been earning much critical praise since its release and her winning this Goya seems right. But Coixet’s The Library has not been welcomed in the same way and, frankly, her Goya appears to be a hypocritical, belated acknowledgement of women by the Academy rather than a well-deserved win. I’m also very much against the idea of a film made in a foreign language winning the Goya for Best Film, call me prejudiced.

As actor Leticia Dolera quipped to one of the two male presenters (no comment!) the whole ceremony read as a pure exercise in hypocrisy, with its “nice feminist turnip field”. I must stress that I didn’t agree either with the feminist rant that Pepa Charro, a.k.a. La Terremoto de Alcorcón, was allowed to perform, for lack of a better word. Sounding bitter against all men, rather than encouraging to women, she again used the jaded stereotype according to which women film directors make intimate films that women enjoy best, and male film directors make stupid, gross action films for men which women hate. I really tire of all this prejudice: some action films are great, others trash; some intimate films are great, others trash. Can’t we, as women, be given also the option to freely enjoy what we want (erm, provided it’s not awfully misogynistic)? Can’t we stop thinking in gender binary terms never ever? Isn’t it time to demand that we have more gay, lesbian, transsexual, intersexual, asexual directors, too? Wasn’t Handia, directed by two men, unfairly robbed of its Goya to the Best Film?

The Goya gala but also the Grammy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards and, as we’ll see, the Oscars, run full of this pro-feminist hypocrisy, which is not true feminism. In many ways.

The spoof newspaper El Mundo Today, which is fast becoming my reference news media…, exposed this constant insincerity in its piece on the Golden Globes. If you recall, actresses decided to wear black dresses to show their disconformity with Hollywood sexualisation of the red carpet and of women generally. The clever comedians that write El Mundo Today quickly saw behind the ruse and called their article “We rank the prettiest women in the Golden Globes but also mention the feminism of the gala” (my translation) (http://www.elmundotoday.com/2018/01/hacemos-un-ranking-y-puntuamos-a-las-mas-guapas-de-los-globos-de-oro-pero-mencionando-tambien-el-feminismo-de-la-gala/). The piece was illustrated with photos of beautiful (mostly white) women wearing pricey gowns and jewellery that most women in the world only see in red-carpet photo galleries. The caption for Nicole Kidman’s photo (she was ranked the prettiest, best dressed woman) was this text: “Y aquí está, la mujer de más calidad de la gala, en la redacción lo tenemos claro. #metoo #whywewearblack #fitness #beauty #hot #celebrities #body #bodypositive #perfection #naturalbeauty #makeup #feminism #oldwomen”. So much for (feminist) hashtag campaigns.

My other favourite article about the current patriarchal crisis in Hollywood published by El Mundo Today was inspired by Ridley Scott’s erasing of sexual abuser Kevin Spacey from his latest film, called… All the Money in the World. No comment! The online newspaper announced that “Hollywood digitally erases all the men from its film repertoire” (http://www.elmundotoday.com/2017/12/hollywood-elimina-digitalmente-a-todos-los-hombres-de-su-repertorio-de-peliculas/). This, again, highlights the immense hypocrisy behind the scapegoating of just Spacey. By the way, Scott eliminated Spacey because he feared that his film would bomb at the box office, not out of any need to vindicate Spacey’s (male) victims. Then he proceeded to re-shoot some scenes, paying male lead Mark Wahlberg 1.5$ million and female lead Michelle Williams… 1000$ (Wahlberg donated his salary to the #TimesIsUp campaign but only after the scandal erupted). Incidentally, Spacey’s replacement in All the Money in the World, Christopher Plummer (originally rejected for the part because of Scott’s ageism against him) has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. I’m 100% sure that he’ll win, again because of all this hypocrisy. Wahlberg should present the award, with Spacey. And Woody Allen. And Diane Keaton. And Matt Damon. And Alec Baldwin. And Catherine Deneuve.

More of the same… I won’t discuss Ivanka Trump’s attempt to join the #TimeIsUp campaign following Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the Golden Globe Awards, despite the hilarious twits it got in reply (and more serious ones: “Does this mean you’ll help to impeach your dad?”). I won’t discuss, either, the mad idea of making ultra-capitalist ex-reality show host Winfrey the next President after ultra-capitalist ex-reality show host Trump, no matter how female and African-American she is. I’d mention, instead, the speech by Neil Portnow, President of the Recording Academy, who managed to drew fire and anger from many women in the music industry at the Grammy Awards by urging them to simply “step up”, as if a) they were too lazy to do anything for themselves, b) there was not an army of bigoted patriarchal men ready to stamp on their feet. Men like Portnow are the ones that make the hypocrisy of the apparently pro-feminist new climate most obvious. You don’t have to tell the women to “step up” but your patriarchal buddies to “step down”, understood?

Next, the quarrel between the American feminists and the French women who signed a sort of manifesto against the #MeToo campaign basically arguing that seduction will die if men’s flirty ‘attentions’ are not welcomed. Catherine Deneuve and 100 other French women put their names to the open letter published in Le Monde, a document which, deplorable as it is in revealing these women’s enslavement to patriarchy, also puts the finger on an important issue: we’re not examining how each culture builds its own sexual codes.

By failing to do that we’re allowing ourselves to be swamped by an ideological discourse which is 100% American. I do not mean with this that the contents of the unpardonable French letter are acceptable–I got from reading it the impression that we women are dogs grateful for their master’s patriarchal attention (pat on the head, pat on the bottom, same thing!). No. What I mean is that, as French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky argued in The Third Woman (and that was back in 1997) the idea of female victimhood plays a much bigger role in the American understanding of gender relations than in French gender culture. Lipovetsky actually condemns American culture for instilling such fear in women that they are easy to prey on and victimize, whereas French women, he claims, are schooled in the idea that men will try to approach them in any way they can and this is why they need to fence for themselves. Deneuve’s letter is an extrapolation of that idea, though, of course, it is based on the very French idea of seduction, which stops short of coercion, and fails woefully to understand abuse, which is, precisely, based on coercion.

When I see the poor victims of the monster Larry Nassar explain in the courtroom that they are not victims but survivors what I think is that we need to raise young girls with a much greater awareness of the dangers of abuse and of their need (and right) to defend themselves. This is not victim-blaming, it’s society-blaming: if you’re not told that the wolf is chasing you, nor are you trained to identify him and defend yourself, all of society fails, for you cannot pretend there are no wolves. The two women judges who have sentenced Nassar to die in prison allowed the survivors to give long statements about the horrors suffered; then they declared how proud they were of the girls’ courage as they publicly shamed the abuser. I just wish the girls could have been given the support to use their courage much earlier, to stop the attacker from hurting them.

If Nassar managed to abuse more than 200 patients this was, to begin with, because the girls, many very young children, didn’t understand what was happening to them. This is where the hypocrisy begins: with the wrong puritanical belief that the protection of children’s innocence (specially girls) means keeping them ignorant of the ugly realities of the most disgusting aspects of patriarchal male sexuality. You would not leave a little girl in the middle of the street to be run down by a car, so why not teach her as soon as possible to identify sexual danger and downright abuse? This would not save all of them, of course, but it might help many. Also, nobody would silence them if they reported what is now coyly called ‘misconduct’. Believe it or not, someone in the University of Michigan told the girls complaining that Dr. Nassar had inserted his fingers in their vagina that this kind of rape is standard medical treatment. The girls, befuddled and scared as they may have been, had to swallow this revolting excuse for abuse. This university, by the way, continued billing one of the mothers for sessions during which her poor daughter was being abused by the monster. This should be also punishable with jail.

Let me take a deep breath here and send my support to all the women (and men!) who are breaking their silence.

There are days when I wake up and I think that as a woman I am a barely tolerated creature, living in the tiny spaces patriarchy allows for me and others like me. This is not equality at all. I am also dismayed to realize, in view of all this hypocrisy, that patriarchy is trying to curb down its most blatant sexism (racism, ageism, homophobia, etc.) to stay in power under a new disguise, apparently more benevolent. Its hegemonic circles are proclaiming that a new era begins now, but this will still be an era of hierarchical dominance. More women will be given access to misogynistic industries, like cinema or videogames, but this will not significantly change any institution. I can myself see how the female majority in the Humanities school where I work has not really changed its structures: just the tone. And this is what I fear will happen in all fields. We seem to be moving towards a renewal of patriarchy, in which the composition of the social pyramid’s pinnacle might change but not the pyramid itself.

The red fan of the Goyas was wrong: we don’t need #+Women, we need to #EndPatriarchy. Dismantle the pyramid, build a circle. And stop tolerating hypocrisy for this is what keeps patriarchy in its dominant position.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/