THE STRAIGHT WHITE MALE STRIKES AGAIN (AND IS STRUCK…)

These days an article published in the new magazine The Critic, sponsored by Brexiteer billionaire Jeremy Hosking, has made a bit of noise. In their launch issue of November 2019 editors Michael Mosbacher and Christopher Montgomery announced that “Our writers will subscribe to no editorial line nor serve the interests of any party, faction or cause. We ask them to write because we expect them to be honest, and lucidly so. Look to our contributors and fault us if they are not”. However, it seems to me that the critic calling himself (because this is clearly a ‘he’) Secret Author (a “former professor of English and creative writing at a leading British university”) who signs the article “Decline of the English Novel” (https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/july-august-2020/decline-of-the-english-novel/) has a clear agenda. This is dominated by the defence of things as they were when white, straight, middle-class novelists ruled uncontested.

Secret Author bemoans in the July-August issue that the weekend arts sections run full of “a cornucopia of alleged talent”, when, in fact, the “awfulness of most of the fiction” available today is “one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern cultural life”. What’s wrong with the English novel?, he wonders. Three factors: lack of technical ability, the snobbery that has radically undervalued the middlebrow novel, and, brace yourselves, a lack of religious belief and moral standards. Religious belief is not “a fit subject for a novel” (obviously he means Christian belief, for I am sure he would immediately reject fiction about any other religion), “while ‘moral behaviour’ is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week”. I would agree that too many new novels are usually overhyped and that technique could be improved in all fronts, but this appeal to traditional values is plain wrong.

This is where I started thinking that, unless this critic is past the ripe age of 100, he must be a troll. His idea of a good novel is one in which “the fount of all moral goodness flows from a country house in Gloucestershire and the lower orders are portrayed as shiftless and venal”, the kind “no one in these enlightened times would dare to publish it”. If, he sentences, you ignore “God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics (of great importance to a sociologist but a desperate yawn when peddled by writers of both right and left) and some very minor social interactions”. Ah, here is what bothers him: that the ‘others’ who are not white, straight, male and middle- or upper-class have something to say at all, and that their work is appreciated.

The Guardian article by Rhiannon Lucy Coslett, “The Novel is Dead – Again. And this Time, It’s Women Who Have Murdered It” highlights how Secret Author identifies Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney with this “supposed decline” of the English novel (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/10/novel-dead-again-women-murdered-it-sally-rooney). Coslett claims that Rooney in particular “drives men wild” with “jealousy” but I must say that although I am not a man and I have no reason to feel jealous of Ms. Rooney I intensely dislike her novel Normal People. I am not going to fall into the trap of defending anything a woman writes just because I am a woman, though I will certainly refrain myself from attributing to Rooney faults that should be shared by the whole publishing industry, above all, the frantic search for the next masterpiece that burns so many young writers out. Let Rooney and all the others have a career before calling them superb.

I do agree with Coslett, however, that the problem with men like the Secret Author is that they do not understand that the Great White Male Novelist has also been expressing the identity politics of his type but without seeing them as such. The problem is, she says, that he is “still cloaked in too high a regard for some to see he has as much of an identity as anyone else”. I am not sure that I see the connection between high regard and identity, for me this is a matter, rather, of a general failure on the part of reviewers and scholars to make the label “men’s fiction” as visible as “women’s fiction”, or any minority label. Coslett concludes her article by re-assuring the indignant Secret Author that “No one wants to make the Great White Male Novelist extinct – they just want more diversity in publishing” for readers “who truly love books are hungry for a range of perspectives”.

I am afraid this is not true. The title of the interview with new Australian novelist Jessie Tu in the same publication, The Guardian, is “I will probably never read another novel by a straight white male” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/01/jessie-tu-when-you-dont-see-yourself-on-the-page-you-literally-dont-exist). Tu is the author of A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing, a novel about former child prodigy Jena Lien “who, as a young adult, now uses men to fill the void left by fame”. This includes her looking for validation from a powerful “older guy, he’s white, he’s a fucking douchebag” and he is, in essence, toxic but still socially valuable. This seems to define as well the “straight white male author” that Tu will not read again because “Those guys are always going to have readers … I’ll spend the rest of my life reading black writers and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people and LGBTQA people, because there’s so many books out there written by these people who don’t have the platform naturally that conservative straight white male guys have”. I could not agree more, yet at the same time I believe that this is absolutely wrong.

Tu’s words explain much better than Coslett’s what is happening now: a fragmentation of the reading public which can hardly end privilege and promote change. Coslett’s ideal readers “hungry for a range of perspectives” runs the risk of disappearing, if they are there at all, or of never emerging, if they are to materialize in the future. I have no doubt whatsoever that the white, straight, middle-class male writer is still privileged by the critics and very popular with readers but the way to undermine that privilege and that popularity is not at all ignoring him, hoping that, somehow, his work eventually loses appeal and his readers move onto other texts.

The way forward I think is twofold. On the one hand, privileged writers and readers that respond to that basic description need to be made aware of their own identity politics and educated in an appreciation of any other identity politics. On the other hand, the production of the WSMCM writer needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny anyone else passes regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, gender. I’ll cite, once more, black, lesbian, left-wing, working-class Scottish author Jackie Kay, currently the Scottish Makar (or poet laureate), to stress that the moment we examine in which ways Martin Amis is a white, straight, conservative, middle-class, male English novelist we will have gained much. If we only see Martin Amis as a major writer and Kay as an author marked by her identity politics we are stuck in square one. Do create critical categories that speak of ‘white man’s fiction’, or ‘heterosexual male fiction’, etc., instead of just letting WSMCM authors go on undisturbed and even send now and then a Secret Author in their defence.

Tu’s loyalty to BIPOC people and LGBTQA people is praiseworthy but also worries me because this battle is not just about who you remain loyal to but about how you re-educate people. Imagine you are a white, straight, male, middle-class man intent on starting a career as a novelist from a position that I am going to call anti-patriarchal and totally respectful of diversity. How would you react to Tu’s words? Why should you be automatically classed with the male writers of the past and be denied any chance to offer a different perspective? What is more, how are Tu’s words and invitation to appreciate BIPOC and LGBTQA authors? Do they want to be put in those categories? Why does Tu, the Australian daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, want to put herself in a category beyond the category ‘writer’? How can Tu and Secret Author communicate at all? Many questions, as you can see.

As a critic working on Masculinities Studies, or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities, I often feel very foolish trying to convince others that we need to read men’s texts from the same identity politics position we use for the rest. Haven’t WSMCM authors received enough attention I am constantly told? Well, yes and no. They have received attention for their art, if you want to use that word, but not for their politics except to criticise how they represent women and the minorities. We have not really looked into self-representation, into how identity politics is altering (or not) the way men write. Secret Author would then understand that the absence of God and of upper-class morality in the current English novel has nothing to do with the rising presence of the women and the minorities but with the abandonment of these issues by the WSMCM writers themselves. Why Evelyn Waugh has no current equivalent might be a pertinent question to ask but within the field of what should be called Men’s Fiction.

This has to do with a strange tension between representation and authorship. As critics we are doing plenty to examine representation, increasingly including in this examination male characters (just see my previous post). But we are strangely reluctant to the see the so far dominant critical categories also as critical categories for authorship. Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam, the authors of Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age which I discussed last week, never think of Pixar as Men’s Cinema in the same way Women’s Cinema is assumed to exist in, for instance, Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (2015).

If someone who is not a WSMCM author creates a text, their difference from the WSMCM norm is always incorporated into the way their authorship is read. However, and I know that I am repeating myself, we have great difficulties to see WSMCM authors as specifically conditioned by their identity even when we discuss how they represent the persons of their same type. It’s an either/or question: either we stop using identity politics for everyone who is not a WSMCM author, of we also use them for WSMCM. We cannot just allow the norm to remain unexamined and split the reading public into mutually ignorant segments. Whatever needs to happen will happen, of course, but one thing we do not need is literary separatism.

Secret Author, I know you are a troll planted there as clickbait for The Critic, which needs all the publicity it can get in this early stage of existence. You might have a point but if there is anyone to blame for falling standards in the English novel perhaps you need to look at you own kind for falling standards in criticism.

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ON BULLIES AND NERDS: READING PIXAR’S BOY STORIES

I have now read Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014) and feel even more disconcerted than I did last week about the boys in the audience for animated children’s movies. Interestingly, Wooden and Gillam are not only academic collaborators but the parents of two boys, their inspiration for writing the volume. We are all used to the idea that Disney is conservative and its filmic products a way of teaching little girls to stay within the confines of patriarchal heteronormativity (which is a biased view, as Amy M. Davis shows) and to the complementary idea that Pixar, bought by Disney in 2006, is the more progressive studio. Much to my surprise, Wooden and Gillam do a terrific, though controversial, demolition job of Pixar’s production until 2013 (Brave, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Cars 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., Monsters University, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Up! and WALL-E). Possibly only Coco out of the rest (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Onward) contradicts their main arguments.

Wooden and Gillam establish, to begin with, that there is a worrying situation concerning boys as, the more girls advance, the more boys retreat. This is not because girls are actively pushing them out of any area but because American boys identify any area in which girls excel as a girlie area, which is slowly but constantly erasing their presence, out of their own accord, from many. This is a phenomenon we know well: the only degrees with a majority of young men are those in Engineering, which does not seem to interest girls so much. In the rest, the girls are the majority and still gaining ground. Borrowing their theoretical framework for masculinity mainly from sociologist Michael Kimmel, Wooden and Gillam paint a bleak picture of contemporary US masculinity, split between the bullies and the nerds (as I noted in my previous post). The patriarchal ‘boy police’, which consists not only of direct bullying but of general social pressure to avoid anything connected with femininity out of a combination of misogyny and homophobia, is preventing American boys from receiving the right guidance to become well-adjusted adults. Wooden and Gillam candidly grant that whereas girls are now well liked “At the heat of the boy crisis, it seems, is the hard truth that we don’t like them very much anymore” (17, original italics). I was surprised to read that this extends to some US couples actively trying to select the sex of their babies, preferring girls.

Using Jesse Klein’s The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America (New York: New York UP, 2012), Wooden and Gillam try to make sense of what has happened to boys for US society not to like them. I am not sure that I agree with all their arguments but the changes in masculinity, they say following Klein, have to do with the emergence of the concept of “body capital”, which has facilitated “the jock cult” (and on the side of the girls the cookie cutter looks of the teen influencers). Whereas in the past any classroom would afford social acceptance to a variety of boys, from the popular jock to the socially awkward nerd, passing through the geek, the super-achiever and the B-grade boys, now all classrooms are radically split between the jock and his cronies and the rest, all pushed into the nerd category by the jock’s bullying. This is a sort of revenge of the jocks: told in the 1990s that body matters more than brain by the combination of shallow lad/frat guy culture and celebrity culture, the jock demands a position of prominence he never had by demeaning those who do not possess his body capital. What he sees in society, with the cult of male sports celebrities, confirms his view of school social hierarchy. The boy that excels in matters which are not sports learns to conceal his abilities so as not to attract the jock’s bullying. The boy that has no special qualities tends to side with the bully, either overtly or covertly for “even young boys know how to read bodies as signifiers of social status” (35), and the one with the ‘right body’ is, definitely, the jock with the six-pack abs.

According to Wooden and Gillam, “The Pixar films, for all their wholesome surface messages, do nothing to rewrite the bully script by which many American kids suffer” (80). Their narratives register, in fact, “disapproval of the extraordinary” (22). They endorse the homesteader ideal of the past which “privileges self-effacement, obedience, and emotional stoicism, hardly healthy values for contemporary boys” (15) and preach that “Maturing out of boyhood requires suppression and conformity” (25). By joining in the “traditional celebration of physical brawn” they “tacitly endorse the social hierarchy that perpetuates our rampant bully culture” (52). This is done mainly by presenting the “gifted and talented” as “ludicrous, creepy, or downright dangerous” (96) and by characterizing them, not the jocks, as the villains even from childhood. The model, they hint, is that of the Columbine High School massacre: the child nerd, or geek, is ostracized and bullied, and left with no parental guidance, and he grows up to be a resentful teen school shooter seeking respect in real life, and a villain (or a loser) in the Pixar films. Wooden and Gillam also note that the worst villains are the guys that disrupt the workings of the market on which companies like Pixar and Disney depend. “Rather than asking the community which values should be taught, the corporation teaches the community those lessons that work in its favor” (130), they conclude.

I am not sure that I completely understand what Wooden and Gillam are arguing, for I do not see the alternative they propose and I do not see the boys in the audience (are the Pixar films for the bullies? Do they go to the cinema? Is going to the cinema nerdish?). If I follow them correctly, the authors want for the boys what studios are beginning to offer the girls: stories in which being outstanding following positive values is rewarded and which offer a lesson in how to mature into being a well-adjusted woman (man in the boys’ case). I am just wondering whether this is indeed what girls are being offered…

Take Frozen, the biggest hit with girls in recent years. Princess Elsa has a unique gift by which she dominates ice but she is forced to conceal that gift because her power is presented to her as a danger to the persons in her circle and to the community. Elsa almost becomes a villain, as she is in the original fairy tale, but learns to ‘let it go’, turn her fear of herself into a positive understanding of power, and enjoy the love of her sister Anna. For all that she is rewarded and becomes the respected, celebrated Queen of Arundel. Yet, in Frozen 2, which I initially loved but now I have serious misgivings about, Elsa feels again unhappy as, somehow, her powers are too constrained in her new role as Queen. The story leads to her gradually shedding away any duties she has towards her community, including passing the crown to Anna. Elsa moves elsewhere to a place that looks very much like Superman’s fortress of solitude to do… what? I thought she was going to enjoy complete freedom but now I read that as solipsism. Or even worse: social limbo. I recently read that, originally, Elsa died at the end of the film, which is very scary for even though this is a Disney film it responds to the Pixar model which Wooden and Gillam criticise: whoever is different needs to be isolated or suppressed. There are happier films with girls, like Disney’s Moana (2016), but Frozen also needs to be read from this dark angle.

I think that the Pixar film that most worries Wooden and Gillam is Monsters University, which most clearly corresponds to the ‘bully society’ pattern they describe, with Sulley as the jock and Mike as the bullied nerd (though my impression is that this is a much inferior film to Monsters Inc., in which Sulley learns valuable lessons about parenting and friendship). I find, however, that children’s animation moves on very quickly and the gaps noted by Davis in relation to Disney and by Wooden and Gillam in relation to Pixar are no longer there. We need to consider, besides, the DreamWorks films (Shrek, Trolls…) and other studios such as Blue Sky (of Ice Age fame).

Anyway, Wooden and Gillam make little of some of the Pixar films that have a happy end for the nerdish male character and I mean here specifically Ratatouille written by Brad Bird (also the director) from a storyline by Bird himself, with Jan Pinkava (also co-director) and Jim Capobianco. I am not very sure about how to read this film, which tells the story of how, defying patriarchal authority, the provincial French rat Remy manages to fulfil his dream: cooking in an haute cuisine Paris restaurant. He does so by establishing a singular partnership with the hopeless garbage boy, Linguini, who little by little learns to appease the bullies in the kitchen, be his own man and, of course, interest the strong female character, aspiring chef Colette. The message here is that, um…, even if you are the lowliest of the low as rat or boy you do have a right to fulfil your dreams which does sound positive to me. The bullies are put in their place and even charmed and, in short, the nerds here triumph. And we love it.

Coco (2017) is even clearer in its anti-bully, pro-nerd message. There have been very serious concerns about whether this film by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from a story by them with Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich plagiarises the Mexican film The Book of Life (2014) directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez, from his own screenplay with Doug Langdale. Unkrich and Molina have claimed that the films just overlap in their visual treatment of Mexican popular culture but I have my suspicions that there is much direct borrowing of visual motifs. The plots, however, could not be more different. The Book of Life tells an embarrassingly cliched story about Manolo, a young man whose father wants him to be a bullfighter but who wants to be a musician and who is involved in amorous competition with his manly rival Joaquín for señorita María. In Coco Miguel, a younger boy than Manolo, also wants to be a musician against his family’s wishes but here the similarities end.

That his family are shoemakers instead of bullfighters is a relatively unimportant matter; what matters is that Miguel’s bildungsroman passes through understanding who the bully is in his personal story and through paying homage to a nerdish ancestor. Since he is universally celebrated in his native Mexico Miguel deduces for a series of wrong reasons that the late star singer Ernesto de la Cruz must be his great-grandfather, when in fact he turns out to be, once he meets him in the land of the dead, a most horrendous bully. The long-lost father that Miguel’s abuela Mamá Coco misses so much is a very different man, and actually a direct victim of Ernesto’s violence. The film is called Coco because what is at stake how the abuela’s gradual loss of memory makes Miguel’s identification of his real great-grandfather so complicated. The title tries not to spoil the film’s surprise discovery of who her father and Miguel’s great-grandfather really was but it might as well be called The Lost One. Talented Miguel, who has inherited his musical gifts from this man, not only vindicates him but also gets rid of his own bully, his Abuelita, who wrongly believes that her grandfather, the lost man, deserted his wife and daughter (Mamá Coco). Coco teaches boys in the audience, in short, to oppose the bully and stand up for themselves, which is what Wooden and Gillam find missing in the other Pixar films.

I haven’t seen yet Pixar’s most recent film, Onward (2020), about two elf siblings in search of their lost father but an enthusiastic IMDB spectator praises the studio for “providing rich a brotherly relationship” as Frozen did for girls. What I am wondering is whether the boys are there, getting the message, or elsewhere… perhaps playing videogames…

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ON GOOD BOYS AND LADS (AND FROZEN’S KRISTOFF)

Next year I’ll teach an MA elective subject on gender in children animated films of the 21st century and I have started the process of selecting indispensable bibliography for my students. I have, then, spent a few great days reading Amy M. Davis’s excellent volumes Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey Publishing, 2006) and Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey Publishing, 2013), both in reasonably priced paperback editions. Both are very good, as I say, though the former is possibly better because it includes a very informative introduction to the history of animation for children in the USA, and to the rise and rise of the Disney Studios. The latter volume is quite curious because Davis uses a far more descriptive style, as if she is carefully finding her way as she writes about men lacking clear directions. You might think that we know everything about gender in Disney films but Davis proves very convincingly that many critiques are based on gross misreadings of the heroines (who are more active than we assume and not so often a princess) and that the male protagonists have been mainly overlooked. Her chapter on the “Handsome Princes” is quite a surprise, painting a portrait of these guys as quite passive men and, in essence, just trophy husbands for the gals.

These days I am also thinking of finally starting the project of a collective volume on the good guys, now that I am done with the villains, and I have been paying close attention to what Davis has to say about the male Disney characters. Clearly, something important happened at the turn of the century, for the good guy generally preferred by Disney Studios started sharing space with the spoiled lad. Davis describes Milo from Atlantis (2001) as a young man with enough “love, integrity, and moral strength” (103) to defeat the villain, whereas Emperor Kuzko of The Emperor’s New Groove (2001) is described as an “over-indulged boy”, “very spoiled” and “selfish” (178, original italics). Following a pattern already present in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the uncaring boy is transformed into an animal (in Kuzko’s case a llama) and needs to become a “true man” (178) before he regains his human form. Milo, in contrast, is a “true man”, which means a good man, from the start. This is why he can play hero and be accepted by the new-style heroine Kida.

Davis dates the emergence of the unmanageable lad to a point between 1999 and 2000 when British magazines FHM and Maxim became exports to the US market, as part of the Cool Britannia wave (182). I think that laddism, as the lad culture has been called, may have been a catalyst for trends already present in the USA by which the good lad became the nerd, and the jock became the frat guy, and a bully. Earlier in the book, David discusses Brom Bones, the practical joker that gets rid of nerdish Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its Disney version (NOT the Tim Burton version). She writes that Bones “is generous, good-hearted and has a lively sense of humour, but he is rough, rude, cocky, and tends to be a bully” (133) though not a cruel or vicious man. It seems to me that the current Brom Bones (in plural) have lost the first half of these traits to keep only the second, feeling authorized by laddism to be the worst version of themselves. The good guy, I insist, is now reduced to being a nerd (as we see, for instance, in the boys of Stranger Things). President Trump is the arch-Brom Bones today, the lad with the ‘grab-them-by-the-pussy’ locker-room talk and acts.

Reading Davis it occurred to me that I have no idea what the little boys in the audience for animated films are like. I know about the girls: they are clever and/or intelligent, self-assured, playful, certain than being a queen (like Elsa) is cooler than being a princess because you don’t need a guy, and very much in search of their own way into the future. But who are they boys? It seems to me that the division into nerds and bullies has done away with the middle ground at which animated films used to aim: the nice boy. I haven’t read yet Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age by Shannon R. Wooden and Ken Gillam and the answer to my query might be there, but I still have a strong suspicion that something is not quite right. I do see the good lad in a film as perfect as Pixar’s Coco (2017) but I am not sure who among the boys Coco appeals to. Or, rather, what I mean is that this tale imagined by Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, though being firmly anti-bully can do little to stop the bullies from being so prominent in the current lad culture. Do not misunderstand me: I am NOT saying that little boys like Miguel in this film do not exist, what I am saying is that they are not popular and respected in real life, though they should, because the lad, the frat guy, the jock are attracting all the attention. And they are not good guys.

Another matter that strikes me very much reading Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains is how often the word responsibility crops up. Far from being ready to follow in their father’s footsteps the Prince resists the patriarchal demands to find a wife and become himself a husband and father. Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998), written by Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant and Rick Parks, and directed by Tennant, has many interesting things to say about how in the medieval patriarchy which inspired many fairy tales the prince was as much a pawn as any princess. In this film Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) is quite dismayed by the role he must play and resists assuming his responsibility to marry a wife he does not love. In a way, Cinderella (Drew Barrymore) frees him as much as she frees herself by marrying him. The Prince’s plea, however, has attracted little comment because it is usually assumed that he is eventually empowered by becoming the King and, anyway, if he is unhappy in his arranged marriage he can always enjoy the company of a mistress, which is not the case for a Queen. You might think that my talk of Princes assuming their responsibility and refusing to be pawns is positively medieval, but you only need to think of the immense differences between Juan Carlos I and Felipe VI to understand that this is still a vital matter. We have always known that Juan Carlos I solved the problem of his indifference to his wife Queen Sofía with a string of mistresses, the last of whom has caused him to lose his prestige as a respected King emeritus. In contrast, Felipe VI went through a string of girlfriends until he chose, unexpectedly, a divorced commoner to be his Queen, with whom, we assume, he is personally happy. I say this as a convinced Republican, by the way.

Before I get lost in the corruption of the Spanish monarchy as embodied by Juan Carlos I, I’ll get back to the matter of responsibility. Little girls are taught to be responsible for themselves and because, it is assumed, they will want to be mothers someday. My nieces started expressing their opinion about having children around the age of seven, and I myself became aware that this issue was part of my life at that age, when my youngest brother was born. I don’t see, however, my nephew, now nineteen, considering the matter of fatherhood if only hypothetically, as something in his future. My impression is that he is fairly representative of the average lad today: someone who is good company but hardly someone I would define as responsible and taking steps to eventually become a husband and a father. Sorry, baby. I do not mean that adulthood is defined by marriage and parenthood but what I mean is that I see the responsible adult in the little girls in ways I don’t see in little boys. Animated films are great fun but still they address themselves to the responsible little girl who wants to be loved and even admired for who she is. I don’t see the same attitude towards little boys, as if somehow society has given up on them and has no plans to teach them how to become responsible adults. Or perhaps I am exaggerating: parents of boys lends me a hand here!!

Davis claims that for a long time now Disney has addressed its films mainly to boys but its merchandising to girls. My impression is that things are more balanced as regards the films so that for each Tarzan we have a Mulan (no idea, though, why Frozen is not called Elsa and Anna, or Sisters). The matter of the merchandise has its own scary edges. A friend of mine, father of two little boys and very keen on Star Wars, a franchise now owned by Disney, called my attention to how the most popular Disney character among boys, judging by the merchandise, is now Kylo Ren. In case you are not a Star Wars fan, Ren, born plain Ben Solo, is the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, whom he very much admires. In Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) he murders his own father, Han Solo (his mother is Princess Leia). I am wondering right now what kind of father buys his little boy merchandising connected with a patricidal monster, but here you are. In the most recent episode, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Rei does her best to have Kylo Ren show his better self, to no avail. Although there is an even worse villain in the saga, apparently Ren, who has a very cool laser sword, remains a favourite with boys. I hope for our collective sake that I am very, very wrong.

Then, there’s Kristoff in Frozen, whom I keep calling Sven, though that’s his reindeer. Commoner Sámi Kristoff, quite a handsome lad, informs Princess Anna that he sells ice for a living. When she meets the troll family that raised him, his adoptive mother Bulda tries to convince Anna that he is a good choice, though at that early point in Frozen the Princess is not interested at all. Bulda sings then the song “Fixer Upper” wondering “Why are you holding back from such a man?”. “Is it the clumpy way he walks?”, she asks Anna, while other trolls add “Or the grumpy way he talks?”, or his weird feet, or how “though we know he washes well, he always ends up sort of smelly”. Kristoff is said to be “Sensitive and sweet” and have just a “few flaws” that can be fixed with love… if only Anna accepts his “peculiar brain” and his “thing with the reindeer”… Shy Kristoff is also characterised as “socially impaired”. There is much more but Bulda does ask “Are you holding back your fondness/Due to his unmanly blondness?/ Or the way he covers up that he’s the honest goods?” The good guy is, in short, comical relief and it takes a determinate suspension of disbelief to see him become Anna’s love interest in earnest. Songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez has claimed that her own husband and co-writer Robert Lopez was the inspiration for the song, the original fixer upper (a term originally meaning a house in need of repair). This is all great fun, and a change from the idiot Prince Hans Anna chooses as her husband on the same day she meets him, much to Kristoff’s incomprehension, but what is this song telling little boys? No matter how clumsy you are, as long as you’re handsome, a nice pretty girl will choose you…? It’s confusing…

I’ll end here, in all this confusion, and will get back when I read the book on Pixar and think how Poppy’s friend Branch in Trolls fits the picture.

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

MY FAVOURITE SCREEN PLAYWRIGHT IS… : CONSIDERING OUR COLLECTIVE NEGLECT OF SCREENWRITING

I am going to avoid the temptation of checking but this must be a post that I have written several times already. This time the inspiration comes from screenwriter Marta González de Vega whose work I did not know and whom I saw presenting the most recent programme of Días de Cine (La 2). I recommend that you see the complete interview with her, which is really very juicy, informative and entertaining (https://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/dias-de-cine/dias-cine-entrevista-completa-marta-gonzalez-vega/5614593/). De le Vega specialises in stand-up comedy, is herself an actor, and this shows. What she said to inspire me is very simple but requires an immense change of mentality: films belong to screenwriters even more than they belong to directors for without a screenplay there is no film (with very few exceptions, I must add). Besides, she added, when you ask spectators what they like about films, they always refer to the story and secondarily to actors’ performance, hardly ever to the technical aspects of directing.

I wrote my master’s dissertation on this very same topic twenty-eight years ago, but that bee in my bonnet is still buzzing hard because I see no change whatsoever in how we understand and discuss films. In the case of the MA dissertation my thesis was that Harold Pinter’s adaptations had received scholarly attention because he was a prestige playwright (he became later a Nobel Prize winner) but there was really no reason to treat other screen playwrights differently. All his screenplays, mostly adaptations like the one that interested me (of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman for a film directed by Karel Reisz) had been published, by Faber & Faber no less!, and studied, so why shouldn’t we do the same for all screen writing? Since 1992 when I started worrying about this a few things have changed and many more screenplays are published than ever, but the core of the matter, which is reviewing, remains stagnant.

The arguments are well known but I’ll repeat (rehash?) them again. If you look at the Oscars, the ones acknowledged as the main authors are the producers: they are the ones that collect the Oscar for Best Picture, not the director. This comes from old Hollywood. The Oscars, first awarded in May 1929, a few months before the October Crash that made moviegoing a cure for collective D/depression , were organized on the assumption that the producer is the film’s originator. It is his or her job to hire the director and the screenwriter, much as a theatre producer hires a director and a playwright. Directors used to see themselves as, basically, craftsmen, at the service of the producer’s vision, though, of course, individuals like Orson Welles broke the rule book by acting as jacks-of-all-trades and beginning to put the director’s name before the producer’s.

This however, did not happen for good until François Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinéma staff decreed in the early 1960s that the real author of the film was the director, and no wonder about it since Truffaut, by then also a critic, had become one the enfants terrible of the Nouvelle Vague. His first film was Les quatre cents coups (1959) but the funny thing is that whereas Truffaut has 28 credits as a director he has 38 as a writer… Most serious reviewers all over the world fell under the charmant spell of Cahiers and started eulogizing the work of the director at the expense of everyone else. Film Studies became consolidated around the same period on the false assumption of the equivalence in authorship between the literary author and the film director, which would certainly have surprised Shakespeare. He, the equivalent of the modern screenwriter in a commercial theatrical business not so unlike the studio system, would have been miffed. The popular movie magazines continued their adoration of film stars (this was the reason why most had been founded: star saleability) but nobody cared to interview the poor screen writers. The last one I saw interviewed all over the place was Scott Z. Burns, and that was because he wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderberg’s film Contagion (2011), the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays patient zero in a plague similar but far more lethal than Covid-19.

When I was a little girl and finally grasped that movies were not real, I assumed that actors were the authors of films. Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston were God to me because they seemed to have the best ideas. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound for, surprise, surprise, stage directors did not exist until the 20th century: the habitual practice was for the main star to make all decisions eventually assumed by this figure. I must have been 12 when I finally realized that directors existed, still having no idea about what they did except for what I saw in films (like Truffaut’s La nuit américane, 1973). I owe my discovery to the great film critic Alfonso Sánchez Martínez (1911-1981), who from 1959 onward educated Spaniards on the art of reviewing. I must have seen him on Buenas Tardes (1970-1974), Revistero (1975) or, most likely, Revista de cine (1976-1979); incidentally, Días de Cine started in 1991. Later, I read the magazine Fotogramas and the movie reviews in El País and La Vanguardia, until I tired of the impenetrable language of the classic Spanish cinéfilo. At least, Carlos Boyero is transparent.

A constant in this training as an amateur film critic, what everyone is and no doubt about it, is that we have got used to the figure of he director by constant exposure but still know nothing about the screen writer. Meryl Streep would be nothing with no lines to say and the best director and producer in the world, but, still, nobody cares for the poor writer. If, happily, director and writer are the same person then matters are at least more or less justified, which possibly explain the, for me, inexplicable popularity of Woody Allen. I am, however, sick and tired of seeing guys like Ridley Scott or Clint Eastwood praised for ideas they never had. Scott has 140 credits as a producer, 52 as director and only 4 as writer, all for short films. When the screenplay is good his films work beautifully; when they are not, his films are unendurable. Gladiator (2000) from a storyline by David Franzoni was written by Franzoni himself, with additional work by John Logan and William Nicholson. Franzoni had written previously Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). Clint Eastwood has 50 credits as producer, 41 as director and none as a writer. Million Dollar Baby (2004) was written by Paul Haggis from stories by F.X. Toole and Gran Torino (2008) by Nick Schenk, from his own storyline with Dave Johannson.

Now let’s play a game. I’ll make a list of the Oscar-Award winners for Best Original Screenplay of the last 10 years and you try to guess what they wrote (sorry, there is no reward for guessing right). Here we go: 2010 David Seidler, 2011 Woody Allen, 2012 Quentin Tarantino, 2013 Spike Jonze, 2014 Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Nicolás Giacobone & Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015 Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, 2016 Kenneth Lonergan, 2017 Jordan Peele, 2018 Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly & Nick Vallelonga and 2019 Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-won… Ready yet? The answer: 2010, The King’s Speech; 2011, Midnight in Paris; 2012, Django Unchained; 2013 Her; 2014 Birdman; 2015 Spotlight; 2016 Manchester by the Sea; 2017 Get Out; 2018 Green Book and 2019 Parasites. No women on this list… In six cases the writer was also the director.

Now the other way round. Here are ten Oscar award winners for Best Picture– who wrote them? What! You’ve forgotten about Gladiator already? Shame on you… Here we go: 1990 Dances with Wolves, 1993 Schindler’s List, 1994 Forrest Gump, 1995 Braveheart, 1998 Shakespeare in Love, 2000 Gladiator, 2001 A Beautiful Mind, 2005 Crash, 2007 No Country for Old Men, 2009 The Hurt Locker. Of course, here I am trusting that you know the names of the directors and of the actors, because we do, right? It’s like when we read a book: we make sure to recall the title and the name of the author, correct? Anyway, the solution: 1990 Dances with Wolves: Michael Blake, from his own novel; 1993 Schindler’s List: Steve Zaillian, from the novel by Thomas Kenneally Schindler’s Ark; 1994 Forrest Gump: Eric Roth from the novel by Winston Groom; 1995 Braveheart: Randall Wallace; 1998 Shakespeare in Love: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard; 2000 Gladiator: David Franzoni; 2001 A Beautiful Mind: Akiva Goldsman from Sylvia Nasar’s book; 2005 Crash: Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco; 2007 No Country for Old Men: Joel and Ethan Cohen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy; 2009 The Hurt Locker: Mark Boal.

Of course, I have cheated for I don’t know any of this by heart. I make a point of recalling that Steven Zaillian wrote Schindler’s List as a sort of party trick for the classroom. Everyone knows Steven Spielberg directed this stark black and white portrait of the Holocaust (beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski) and that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes played major roles, but who remembers Zaillian? He is, by the way, the author of the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) based on Charles Brandt book. Perhaps he would be better remembered if the three films he has directed, among them All the King’s Men (2006), which he scripted from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, had been the box-office hit Zaillian needed to be known as a writer-director but, alas!, that did not happen.

Not all screenwriters dream of becoming movie directors just as not all playwrights dream of becoming stage directors. Indeed, why should they? The problem is that stage playwrights need not dream of being someone else because their work is respected. A play by Tom Stoppard is a play by Tom Stoppard no matter who directs it, whereas a screenplay by Steve Zaillian is… nothing for him (except a fat playcheck, since he has big credits to his name) and the world for the director in question, whether this is Spielberg or Scorsese. This is simple to explain: a play by a playwright will be hopefully staged many times in different productions along the years, even in different languages, whereas a screenplay is a prop consumed by one single production. Nobody will come along and make ten different films of the same screenplay (only two at the most) and in different languages. The ‘To Be or not to Be’ monologue has been recited thousands of times; the screenplay written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer for Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi comedy To Be or not to Be has been recited once for the film (if there is a play based on it, that’s another matter). The screenplay, I insist, is devoured by the film, whereas no production can wholly eat up a stage play. Look at Shakespeare…

Now, tell me… Your favourite screen playwright is…

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

CAREER BLOCKERS AND BLOCKED MEN: ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE, AND THE MEN HOLDING BAGS

Today’s post is inspired by two very different items. One is the delicious romantic comedy Always Be me Maybe (2019, Netflix) and the other my coming across the term ‘career blocker’ in a CV sent to my university by a candidate to a teaching post. Yes, very different matters but not really.

The comedy, scripted by its stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, together with Michael Golamco, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, deals with the difficulties of thirty-something top chef Sasha to convince her childhood friend Marcus that they are meant for each other. Her frantic lifestyle, however, suggests that there is hardly room for anyone but herself in it. In the CV I read a woman academic with a similar hectic lifestyle described her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old boy as career blockers. I didn’t know what that meant, and what my quick search revealed is that, yes, this mother was warning prospective employers that her career had been halted at points by her having children. I understand and profoundly respect the need to send this warning but I was, nonetheless, saddened. Put yourself in the children’s shoes and try to guess how it would feel to be described in this way by a parent.

A very quick Google search revealed three basic meanings of ‘career blocker’, a term which, I assume, must be American (how come Americans are so inventive linguistically speaking?). In the article “Avoding Mid-Career Stalling” by Athena Vongalis-Macrow of the volume Career Moves: Mentoring for Women Advancing Their Career and Leadership in Academia (Sense Publishers, 2014, 71-82) which she herself has edited, you may find this sentence: “The lack of participation in networks has been identified as a career blocker for working women largely because most networking has been traditionally organised around male activities and interests” (77). Here the career blocker is, rather, a career lack. In the article “Beware of These Career Blockers” signed by Performance Management Consultants in their web PMC Training, the focus falls on the relational skills. They offer a table in which these binary pairs appear (strength first, career blocker second): Responsive/Too easily influenced, Careful/Too Cautious, Free thinker/Eccentric, Confident/Arrogant and so on (check https://pmctraining.com/site/resources-2/beware-of-these-career-blockers/). The article by Victoria Butt, manager director of Linked In, “Why Career Blockers are Impacting your Salary” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-identify-influence-your-career-blockers-victoria-butt) defines very differently ‘career blockers’ as “those people who will inhibit your career in some way –large or small. On a large scale, they will openly block your promotion in a leadership forum and explain to others why you should NOT be eligible for a promotion/role change; on a small scale, they do not recommend your skills when asked”. Definitely, one’s own children are not it… One day, when I get the courage to do that, I’ll talk about the person who was my career blocker for so many years, and in what sense I am an abuse survivor. Not now, perhaps soon.

Extremely successful individuals, then, have no inner or outer career blockers, whereas the rest of us are subjected to them. The gender discourse implicit in the CV is that for a woman becoming a mother is a major career blocker, whereas for a man it need not be, though I think that what is at stake is the construction of personal careers based on masculinist patriarchal models that value competitiveness above all. Whereas men still enjoy the complicity and help of many career wives, few women have the luxury of enjoying the support of a career husband. And this where chef Sasha comes in. She longs to have a baby but when the film begins she is in a relationship with an ambitious man who just sees her as a prop in his own business emporium but not really as a person to found a family with. Who does Sasha turn to? To childhood friend Marcus, as noted. What is the main argument she uses to seduce him to her view of things? That he has blocked his career as a musician at all points and accepted a job, a lifestyle, and even a girlfriend that are not good enough for him.

The problem with this argument is that it still doesn’t work well with men, hence the film’s title: Always Be my Maybe. Apparently, this is a witty distortion of a song by Mariah Carey, “Always Be my Baby”. In the film’s title the certainty of ‘always’ is destroyed by ‘maybe’ for the problem is that love stories involving career women are still fraught with all sort of problems. I was watching yesterday Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), a post-modern take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and at one point the Prince Hal character Scottie (Keanu Reeves) falls in love with an Italian peasant girl. Next thing we know, he has transformed her into a well dressed Portland socialite, with no comment required. Her social ascent seems as credible to me today as it was in 1991, I only need to think of Cristiano Ronaldo’s girlfriend Georgina Rodríguez as an example. The opposite case, the guy who adapts his life to that of a career woman is still complicated. Very much so.

Thus, in Always Be my Maybe there is a running gag about Marcus’s inability to match his outfits to each occasion. This is put down to his being working-class but it is really down to his being a man sartorially at odds with the glamorous world of Sasha. Of course, she is not just a cook, but a star chef, though the film makes a point towards the end of endorsing small scale homely restaurants rather than the elite places she runs. The point I am making is that although the likes of Georgina Rodríguez have made a career out of their social climbing, triggered by a man’s erotic choice, in this film comedy comes from the difficulties a regular guy has with accepting a place by the side of a successful woman. This is not even a case of his being considered less manly but of how his decisions not to pursue a career are chastised in the film’s discourse.

There is a more or less general consensus that a career is better than a job, as a career is vocational and if you play your cards well you eventually become your own boss, reap the corresponding economic rewards and live the upper-class dream (or at least upper-middle class). In the film Sasha pulls herself by the bootstraps and gets all this, except that she has no man to share it with, whereas Marcus is content enough until Sasha starts pointing out that actually he is unhappy. In fact, she is projecting her own unhappiness and does so by a constant process of harassment, without quite realizing that if Marcus had been as successful as a musician as she is as a chef he would hardly be there for her. They would be in another film: in Damien Chazelle’s nasty La La Land, that awful film in which love becomes the main career blocker for the man, and so he turns his back on the woman, a successful actor. Always Be my Maybe is much more fun and so it reaches a sort of happy ending but one that provokes just a half smile and not the full confidence that romance will work. In this sense, all romantic comedy is dead.

If you move on five years into Sasha and Marcus’ story what you will probably get is a couple with one or two kids squabbling because she is still running her career at the same hectic pace and his as a musician has not really taken off. Marcus, who is not interested in the lifestyle of the wealthy, might resent his new life as an imposition and try to be the nonchalant dude he was as often as possible. I can easily picture him spoiling a few dinner parties when guests ask him what he does apart from being Sasha’s husband and the father of her kids. This is not a question a woman who has chosen to be a wife and mother would resent but here Marcus has not chosen being a house husband but pushed into becoming something that hardly exists: the working-class husband of a middle-class, ex-working-class woman. Holding her handbag at parties might jar after just a couple of events.

If you’re familiar with Always Be my Maybe you may be wondering when I am going you mention race and ethnicity, for Sasha is American-Vietnamese and Marcus American-Korean. The answer is that I am not because a sign of the normality of racial matters is that they needn’t be discussed. It does matter very much that this romantic comedy enhances the presence of Asian-Americans on the screen and that it has something quite interesting to say about the invisibility of Keanu Reeves’s ethnic background so far, but to me it is essentially a text about class, not a very popular subject these days. Specifically, it is a text about the difficulties of an upwardly mobile de-classed woman to find a mate, for the men in her new circle are too career-minded and the men in her former circle are too little career-minded. Where is the middle ground, Sasha wonders? The solution, as noted, is pushing Marcus very hard up the social scale but, again, this is a very, very complicated choice. Keanu, who plays an obnoxious version of himself, is there, by the way, to test Marcus’s insecurities when faced with a top male star.

I think, in short, that when thinking of gender, careers and career blockers we tend to forget class issues connected with upward social mobility, which is what this romantic comedy has forced me to consider. I do not know if there is a study of who career women of working-class backgrounds end up partnering with and though I assume it is mainly middle-class men, I am really curious to know. I think that men of the same background have the choice of marrying either working- or middle-class girls for women from the lower social strata can adapt far more easily than men of the same class to new social circles. I do wonder how many Marcuses are there holding bags for their career wives and my guess is that very few, if any. So cheers to Wong and Park, and Golamco, for making us think of this neglected topic.

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