IN MIDDLE-EARTH AGAIN: TOLKIEN (AND WILLIAM MORRIS)

I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

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/

AN UNSOLVED PROBLEM: ZYGMUNT BAUMAN’S MODERNITY AND THE HOLOCAUST

The saddest paper I have ever written is “De la Primera Guerra Mundial al Holocausto: El uso de la tecnología en la destrucción en masa del cuerpo humano” (see http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Primera%20Guerra%20Mundial%20Holocausto%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf). I’m thinking again of that paper after re-reading Zygmunt Bauman’s impressive Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). Also, because I see all over 21st century Europe a menacing rebirth of the basic tenets of Nazism. Above all, of the 19th century patriarchal völkisch ideology, focused on the nation’s salvation by a providential messianic leader who embodies its spirit–as he believes and fawning fanatics confirm.

If we are blinded to the equivalence of current populist movements with Nazism this is because most people wrongly believe that Hitler’s main aim from the very beginning of his rise to power was the Endlösung (or Final Solution). This is incorrect: anti-Semitism was present in Hitler’s ideology from the 1920s onwards but not genocide–he was obsessed, above all, by the ideal of a racially homogeneous German Reich and the Endlösung only occurred to him eventually (I follow in this English historian Ian Kershaw). Today, very similar ideologies aim at rebuilding the so-called national territory as a self-sufficient, uniform community purged of external elements. They are not, however, seen as spin-offs of Nazism because anti-Semitism is not part of their outlook. The far-right represented by UKIP is not an anti-Semitic genocidal party: the Nazi völkisch ideology, however, is part of its core beliefs. Call it Nazism, Fascism, neo-Anarchism, or post-Romantic nationalism, it’s all the same basic principle: ‘we’ exist in opposition to ‘them’ and ‘we’ are unique because ‘we’ are culturally and linguistically homogenous–even, God save us, a distinct ethnic group with the ‘right’ values.

This is why it is so important to read Bauman: because he warns us that the problem of how the Holocaust happened has not been solved for good. I’ll proceed, then, to highlight the main lessons he teaches (using his own italics throughout the post).

The first lesson is that although the Holocaust was indeed a “Jewish tragedy” (x) it was not just “a Jewish problem, and not an event in Jewish history alone” (x). The Holocaust, Bauman adds, was a product of “our modern rational society” (x). He warns us very strongly that believing in the exceptionality of the Shoah–an event now about to lose its last survivors to the passage of time–“results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament” (xii, my italics). I worry in particular about what the youngest generations know about this genocide, now that Schindler’s List (1993) is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Also, because most 21st century novels about the Holocaust are trashy, blithely sentimental tales (see https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6066.Best_Holocaust_Novels). Spielberg was accused of committing the same crime but he was never that guilty.

The Holocaust was not at all a pre-meditated plan devised by an evil villain and his henchmen but, Bauman argues, the “outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common” (xii). These factors were closely connected with Modernity in two ways: the rationalization of industry on scientific principles (inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly lines in his car factory) and the establishment of modern-style, machine-aided bureaucracy (IBM, International Business Machines Corporation, was founded in 1911). These had already been applied in WWI to create a colossal machinery of mass destruction. The collapse of German economy and of the Weimar Republic in 1929 helped, of course, Hitler to access power and to undermine from the inside the fragile German democracy. Once the structures of control over his autocratic rule were destroyed following the brutal repression of his political enemies (1930-33), Hitler faced no obstacle, as he had the complicity of the upper classes and the Prussian-style loyalty of the Army. Remember, please, that the Nazis were voted democratically into power and that Hitler was appointed Chancellor legally. By 1938 he already had the law and the executive power united in his dictatorial person.

Bauman insists that although “Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition” (13). The Jewish genocide was not at all an irrational event: “the rational world of modern civilization (…) made the Holocaust thinkable” (13); the Final Solution came from “bureaucratic culture” (15), coolly applying “routine bureaucratic procedures” (15) to human extermination. Bauman stresses that although the mass of Nazi underlings involved in the Endlösung knew very well what they were doing, most pen-pushers had little contact if any with the process itself, mostly carried out far from German offices. Bureaucracy, Bauman accuses, “is intrinsically capable of genocidal action” (106), which does not mean that all bureaucracies and each single bureaucrat act in genocidal ways. Rather, it means that if the most powerful person in Government marks a certain direction, bureaucracy will blindly follow it, and this his what happened in Nazi Germany.

Bauman is adamant that whatever allowed the Holocaust to happen between 1941 and 1945 (after the defeat in Russia that made wholesale Jewish deportation impossible and before the extermination camps were liberated by the Allies), “we cannot be sure that it has been eliminated since then” (86). In his view, we still live “in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust from happening” (86). The Holocaust will not happen exactly in the same way again, and no copycat Hitler with the same powers will arise. Bauman’s argument is that just as the Nazis could overcome the moral restraints active in the 1940s, someone else might overcome just as easily our own moral restraints. It is happening right now in the current war in Syria and to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

A note of warning: despite the lessons learned from the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis, we cannot say that the far worse threat of nuclear Holocaust is over. Far from it. As Bauman writes, “In the years leading to the Final Solution the most trusted of the safeguards had been put to a test. They all failed–one by one, and all together” (108). As they are failing now: just last week President Trump broke the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015; the whole world has complained but nothing can seemingly stop Trump. Bauman wrote back in 1989 that during the 1940s “Civilization proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being” (111) but this might apply again to the 2010s, the 2020s or whenever someone finally starts a nuclear war. Nobody will ever again gas 6,000,000 Jews in extermination camps but we need to bear in mind that 600,000,000 persons could be wiped out in a nuclear conflict. Survival could be even worse than death.

Bauman complains that the popular narratives based on the Shoah tend to portray the victims with a dignity which was simply impossible to sustain in real life. He names the 1978 TV mini-series Holocaust (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077025/) as an example of this unrealistic representation of victimhood. Naturally, if the Holocaust were represented in all its crudity, and some films come close (Son of Saul, The Grey Zone) it would be unwatchable–arguably, a sub-genre of torture porn. Perhaps that should be the whole point, though I must say in favour of Holocaust (and of Schindler’s List) that they approached the horrors of the Nazi camps to plain viewers in a way that Claude Lanzmann’s revered, stark 10-hour arthouse documentary of 1985, Shoah, never could manage.

I’m sure that whenever we read about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis we always wonder how we would have reacted. We imagine ourselves (correct me if I am wrong) as either a victim, or an ‘innocent non-Nazi bystander’ and fantasize that, if we knew that our neighbours were about to be deported and gassed, we would heroically save them. Leaving the Danish population aside, and the other well-meaning persons all over Europe who managed to defy the Nazis, this is not what happened at all. After discussing the famous experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo, which proved the propensity of all individuals to abuse fellow human beings if authorised by a superior, Bauman reaches a ghastly but realistic conclusion: “The most frightening news brought about the Holocaust and by what we learned of its perpetrators was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it” (152). The persons who actively participated in the Holocaust were, as a flabbergasted Hannah Arendt discovered during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, normal–perhaps 10% were sadists to begin with but 90% were just carrying out orders (and keeping a low profile if they disagreed with their bosses). This is easy to imagine: think of the engineers designing the bombs that kill children in Syria returning every evening to the comfort of their middle-class homes.

One of the most chilling passages in Mein Kampf (1925), among the many in this crazy book, appears in Chapter II. “There were very few Jews in Linz”, his home town, Hitler recalls. The Linz Jews, he explains, “had become Europeanized in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans” (my italics). Hitler did not “perceive the absurdity of such an illusion” because the Jews were like any other ordinary Linz fellow-citizen, except for “the practice of their strange religion”. Pay attention now (my italics): “As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism”. This, he claims, was something he discovered in cosmopolitan Vienna.

There was a time, then, when young Hitler was not a Jew hater. That he could become eventually the arch-Jewish hater shows that he was persuaded by an already widespread, prejudiced ideology which ignited fanatic flames ready to burst in his brain but also in many other brains. A concatenation of appalling circumstances put absolute power in his hands and then Hitler proceeded to commit one of the worst atrocities the world has seen using, as Bauman stresses, the tools that Modernity had already developed for his grisly project. Bowing before his power, others helped Hitler to use these tools, because they shared his fanaticism and rotten beliefs. They were all, however, normal people–not evil monsters from Hell. As normal as you and me, though convinced that by torturing and killing fellow human beings according to the atrocious ideology embodied by their messianic leader they were working for the good of their nation. They felt morally authorized. Put it the other way round, if you will: tell ordinary people that they must protect the nation and they will do anything–from fighting in wars to committing genocide. This is normal human behaviour, enhanced in our times by Modernity.

Reading Bauman’s volume is fundamental to understand that, as he so convincingly argues, the Holocaust was not an sporadic descent into barbarism but the very essence of 20th century Modernity. Hitler took advantage of the German humiliation after WWI to present himself as the völkisch leader that would return to the nation its lost dignity. He then destroyed not only the Jews but also most of his own nation: the Machine–as J.R.R. Tolkien, another WWI veteran, called Modernity–was at his service both in the camps and in the Wehrmacht. Since there is a relatively short distance between 1918 and 1945 but a much longer time lapse between that date and 2018 we tend to believe that the risk of a new Hitler and a new Holocaust is over. However, as Bauman stressed and Tolkien defended, only the rejection of Modernity itself can save us.

This doesn’t mean a return to pre-history–for God knows what Homo Sapiens did to the poor Neanderthals then–but questioning the benefits of Modernity. Many argue that progress and the barbaric go together in Modernity but this seems to be a spurious argument aimed at defending barbarism. It should also be time to move beyond the ideologies of the 19th century with their ethnic and racial obsessions and work for the good of the whole human species. For planet Earth will go on until the Sun goes supernova, whether we’re on it or not.

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/

TUTORING TFG/BA DISSERTATIONS ON VIDEOGAMES IN ENGLISH STUDIES: THE WALKING DEAD AND THE LAST OF US

I have access at home to three consoles, none of which I can operate–the plain truth is that I’m not a gamer and might never be. I do care, however, for how videogames are evolving. Nobody should ignore them if only because for more than a decade they have been generating much bigger business than films. Besides, they are a favourite entertainment among those born from the 1970s onward (but note: around 10% of all gamers are past 50 years of age). There are already two generations of gamers, mainly male but also increasingly female (excuse the gender binarism).

Genderwise, though, the videogame industry is particularly problematic. The news and the social media offer abundant complaints from the women in the field, mostly gamers but also developers and executives. They are routinely subjected to aggressive male chauvinism, a situation specially worrying because it is caused by patriarchal younger men. Women are not told to stay away from books, plays, comics, music, films or series appealing to men. In the gamers’ world, in contrast, misogynistic attitudes are common and result, in the worst cases, in women’s eviction from some particularly masculinist territories.

Why this sexist territorialism? The most recalcitrant men have found shelter in videogames after abandoning other domains of entertainment/culture convinced that they were being feminized: reading, above all, but also any activity that may seem passive, such as seeing films in cinemas or watching TV at home. For the patriarchal men videogames appear to solve two interrelated problems: how to approach entertainment in a more active way and how to keep the alleged threat of feminization away. The moment the more active girls have demanded admission into the all-male territory, the trolls have reacted as what they are. The truth, however, is that videogames are not as active as these patriarchal gamers assume, but rather passive. From a feminist point of view it also must be noted that their opening up towards a more egalitarian stance in some of their most advanced plotlines is not substantially altering their patriarchal narratives. Since I don’t play, how do I know? Easy: I have learned from my students.

Last year an ex-student returned to UAB after an absence of twenty years to finish his degree. In the meantime, Josué Monchán had become a well-known videogame professional as writer, translator and popularizer. It seemed, then, logical for him to focus his TFG on this field, though not so logical that I became his tutor. This was a case of nobody else wanting to take the challenge and of my accepting on the grounds that Games Studies is a branch of Cultural Studies, my area. Josué focused his TFG/BA dissertation on a very popular videogame, The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) inspired by the TV series (now in its eighth season), adapted in its turn from a graphic novel. Having seen a few seasons of the series, I felt confident that I would understand the gist of his research. He explored player’s agency and, to summarize his very sophisticated dissertation, Josué argued that even in the most accomplished games it is impossible to offer as much agency as the player demands. The multiple choices which open up at each plot turn need to be limited, or else force the studio to make a ruinous investment. Enjoy the TFG: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/181036.

In hindsight, I realize that we were after all approaching gaming from a Gender Studies angle, as, basically, Josué explained that videogames attract gamers by lying about the degree of agency they will enjoy. Gamers are ultimately far more passive than the jumping on the sofa fuelled by all that adrenaline suggests. In any case, Josué didn’t look in detail into the gender dynamics of The Walking Dead, a horror survival videogame which narrates how, in the context of a zombie apocalypse, university professor and convicted criminal Lee Everett rescues and afterwards protects young Clementine.

One year later, I find myself tutoring another undergrad student with a great enthusiasm for videogames. Andrea’s TFG deals with The Last of Us–a horror survival game that narrates how smuggler Joel accepts protecting young Ellie in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Talk about déjà vu! A few months ago, I knew nothing about The Last of Us (2013, Naughty Dog), an extremely popular quality videogame, honoured with many major awards and already a contemporary classic. Now I can boast that I have even lectured about it! When Josué invited me offer an introduction to Masculinities Studies to his class in the BA ‘Creación y narración de videojuegos’ (Universidad Francisco Victoria), I cheekily asked to discuss The Last of Us. It was great to share my impressions for once with a male majority in class (12 young men, 3 women).

Andrea is analyzing the gender issues in The Last of Us, specifically the allegedly progressive characterization of the female lead, Ellie. The plot (for this is a narrative or adventure videogame) takes one year to unfold; in three of the seasons the gamer plays through Joel, but in one the game is focalized through Ellie. Technically, both are the main lead. I found everything I read about The Last of Us (including some academic work) very interesting. It never occurred to me last year that I should have watched a walkthrough (a video of the game as actually played) to understand gameplay in The Walking Dead. This time, curioser and curioser, I selected a condensed walkthrough on YouTube and spent… 6 hours watching it. The full game, incidentally, takes a maximum of 15/17 hours to play, depending on the gamer’s skills.

Actually, I first watched one hour of a 10-hour walkthrough (this is average, it seems) to get the basics of the gameplay. The 6-hour version was more dynamic but also far more complete than the 90’/120’ plot-driven versions also available. These reduce The Last of Us to its bare bones acting as the equivalent of a possible film adaptation. Let me explain that I chose to spend the 6 hours watching The Last of Us after reaching the conclusion that this is not longer than reading each of the novels my other tutorees are working on (see my previous post). I simply loved the experience!: at one point I even stayed glued to my tablet for 3 hours. Also, please believe me, I was deeply moved by the initial segment and devastated by the end section, like many other YouTube spectators as I saw from their comments.

I understand Andrea’s interest in Ellie, though I have already warned her that women’s characterization in male-dominated media is always limited. I must note that script writer (and co-director) Neil Druckmann tries hard to offer a variety of male characters. They include not only white Joel and his brother but also two loving African-American brothers and what I will call paradoxical examples of homosexuality… and of cannibalism. Druckmann also tries seriously not to stereotype women as sexy toys. The female characters are far less diverse but Ellie, and specially Joel’s partner Tess, offer a convincing example of tough, self-reliant femininity.

What I didn’t anticipate is that Joel’s characterization would shake the foundations of my own Gender Studies research. Here is your classic handsome, rugged, mature Texan, helping Ellie to cross a devastated American landscape, using all the violence he can muster against the zombie hordes. Or, rather, ‘infected’ since they’re living individuals plagued by a scary fungal parasite. Ellie needs protection because she is immune and might be the key to a vaccine, to be developed in a secret lab hundreds of miles away. Why is Joel appealing if all this seems so typically malestream? Because he is not sexist. Or is he?

Druckmann became a father in the course of writing The Last of Us and this explains the emphasis on Joel’s paternal (or paternalistic?) stance towards Ellie. This is complicated, nonetheless, because for her to become his focus of attention, Joel has to lose first his biological daughter, Sarah, in awful circumstances–this is how the game begins. This child is a ‘woman in the refrigerator’, as the trope of the female who dies so that the hero can begin his adventure was christened back in 1999, in relation to the death of Green Lantern’s girlfriend. Still grieving, Joel takes a long time to sort out his feelings for Ellie and trust her own survival abilities but he makes the required effort successfully. He, in short, learns to see Ellie as a complete human being. Add to this that Joel treats Tess as his total equal.

Faced at the end of the videogame with the problem of where his loyalty lies, with Ellie or with the US civilization he is being asked to save (split between a militaristic Government and anarchist guerrilla forces), Joel makes a controversial choice. I can only say that it astonished me because it is coherently heroic but also appallingly villainous. I take my hat off before Druckmann! However, and this is a major snag, Joel takes his decision alone, bypassing Ellie’s opinion and agency even though she is the subject of that choice. Here’s, then, the quandary: is Joel yet another patriarchal chauvinist, or a man with his heart in the right place?

What worries me about Joel, then, is that he seems to exemplify an insidious ongoing trend. Patriarchal storytelling, including videogames, may be evolving towards plots that, while not overtly sexist or misogynistic (even quite the opposite), are still patriarchal. This means man-centred and based on deploying an ultra-violent heroic narrative, in which men make if not all at least most choices. You need to wonder why the two major videogames that my tutorees have chosen (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us) share the same storyline. I speculated in my lecture that Joel, the paradoxically ultra-violent good guy, and his kind aim at claiming back for men the debased role of protector, which explains the zombie/infected scenario. The contradictory feeling they inspire, even in feminist women like yours truly, is that they would be perfect companions in situations of danger. They want to protect us, as the idealized knights did but without the sexism, never mind how oxymoronic this sounds. As one of the young men in class told me ‘this sounds far-fetched, but might well be the case’. What worries me is that this type of effective protector only appears in violent fictions and not in the violent situations of real life, in which justice is needed. If you take the monsters away, could Joel channel his profound protective instinct towards justice? What would happen to his capacity for violence? If Tess had been entrusted with protecting Ellie, would The Last of Us be the same or substantially different, taking into account she uses plenty of violence, too?

I asked Andrea how it felt to be a woman and ‘play’ Joel because much has been written about boys manipulating female characters in videogames but very little, if anything, about the opposite case. Challenging, she said. The right word.

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