THE MEANING OF HARRISON FORD: STARDOM AND MASCULINITY

I have just written a review of Virginia Luzón-Aguado’s new book Harrison Ford: Masculinity and Stardom in Hollywood (Bloomsbury) and there are a few more matters I’d like to consider, for which I had no room there. Luzón-Aguado’s accomplished volume is absolutely recommended to those who admire this American male star but also to those interested in how to write academically about this type of icon. Its only limitation is that Ford (Chicago, 1942) is a living man and an actor far from retirement who can still revolutionise the way male ageing is presented on screen. Believe it or not, Ford, aged seventy-eight, is currently involved in the making of a fifth Indiana Jones film, scheduled for 2022. For reasons possibly of limited word count, though, Luzón-Aguado ends her analysis with 42 (2013), the film which in her view best signals Ford’s transformation into a character actor. This means there are no comments in her book on the end of Han Solo’s narrative arc in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), on The Age of Adaline (2015), which has an interesting comment to offer on Ford’s ageing, or on the controversial Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

As I read Luzón-Aguado’s study of Ford, I was wondering whether I like him as a star and I’m afraid that the answer is no. I like Han Solo and I like Indiana Jones, his two most iconic roles, but I don’t enjoy watching Ford in all of his films. Even so, I have seen most of the forty-four films Luzón-Aguado analyses in her book, which means that Ford has enough star appeal to have put me through diversely failed movies such as The Mosquito Coast or Random Hearts. Funnily, I usually name Blade Runner, in which Ford plays the protagonist, as one of my favourite films; it is then possible to love a film but not its star. In any case, I would name Witness, for which Ford got his only Oscar Award nomination, as my favourite Harrison Ford film and would call attention to the vastly underrated K19: The Widowmaker as a Ford film to rediscover.

Luzón-Aguado writes in her conclusions that she has tried to analyse the ‘fictional truth’ behind Ford’s public persona and she does so very beautifully, calling attention to the triangular tension between the man, the star, and the roles. She also avoids carefully showing a mere fan’s interest, though I assume she likes Ford as a star (otherwise why make such a big effort about him?), and treading on the less savoury aspects of his private life. Not that they are exceptional, but still they do matter.

I remember an article of many years ago by the late Maruja Torres in El País enthusing about Ford’s persona and praising him for having married (in his second marriage) not a star like himself but Melissa Mathison, a scriptwriter known among others for having written Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Close to sixty, in 2000, however, Ford went through a deep life crisis and separated from Mathison, whom he had married in 1983. They got divorced in 2004, after much acrimony and a substantial payment on his side, when Ford was already dating the woman that would become his third wife, Calista Flockhart, twenty-two years his junior. When the two met, in 2002, Flockhart was at the height of her popularity thanks to the title role in TV series Ally Mc Beal (1997-2002) and in a way her marriage to Ford seemed to be the answer to her thirty-something character’s search for a mate. I assume that many who, like Torres, had praised Ford to the skies found themselves disappointed. I am well aware that mixing the private life of actors with their public persona as stars is naïve and immature but I really believe this change of spouse is a factor that negatively affected Ford’s stardom. Interestingly, the year when he separated from Mathison he played a villainous husband in the horror film What Lies Beneath, and I would say that Ford was guilty himself in this way of blurring the lines and mixing the two spheres. The former ideal husband and father, according both to his private life and star roles (in the films about Jack Ryan or Air Force One) suddenly appeared to be far less wholesome, even mortally dangerous.

Ford did not continue playing villains but my personal impression is that as he became tabloid fodder the distance he had kept from the press and the zealous protection of his private life in his remote Wyoming ranch, so far from Hollywood glamour, accentuated a gruffness that must have been present all along. A truly rounded male star must project something exciting that makes you want to meet them in real life and whereas I see that something in actors such as Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, or Chris Hemsworth, I don’t see it in Harrison Ford. Hollywood’s currently best-paid actor, Dwayne Johnson, is a most likeable man which, surely, says something about the kind of masculinity generally preferred today. In contrast, Ford appears to be far less likeable, perhaps because in his 21st century films he has been projecting all along a sense of detachment, even of boredom, with the business of acting. Even his reappearance as Han Solo in The Force Awakens lacks appeal. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The scene in which he is murdered by his son with Princess Leia, Ben Solo (a.k.a. Kylo Ren), lacks pathos as if the actor wanted the whole thing to be done with as quickly as possible. Besides, the realization that Solo did not leave happily ever after with Leia only helps to undermine his cool as most desirable man in the galaxy.

Having said that, there is also a certain sense in which Ford is unique and irreplaceable. The choice of the insipid Alden Ehrenreich to play a young Han Solo in Disney’s mercenary Solo: A Stars War Story (2018) tells a much neglected story about the difficulties Hollywood has to find new major male icons. Chris Hemsworth (b. 1983 in Australia), Chris Evans (1981), or Ryan Reynolds (1976) are perhaps best positioned to play that role but something is amiss. Sean Connery, who hit ninety last week (and famously played Ford’s father even though he is only twelve years older), or Clint Eastwood (also ninety) still preserve a charisma that seems lacking in the younger generation, perhaps with Hugh Jackman’s only exception. This difficulty to find young icons means that we have been witnessing for quite a few years now, perhaps since the beginning of the 21st century, an extraordinary prolongation of the careers of the older blockbuster male stars. The three Expendable films (2010, 2012, 2014)–Ford participated on the third one–offer an extensive comment on his phenomenon with their all-star cast of ageing action actors. The projected fifth Indiana Jones film also comments on the difficulties to find a male star capable of filling in Ford’s niche for younger generations. Presumably, Ford, famous for doing most of the stunts in his films, will this time require a double. I wonder, though, whether it makes ultimately any sense to have a man play the same action role in his late seventies which he played in his thirties and what exactly this says about Hollywood, US masculinity, and filmmaking generally.

Ageing in public is no easy matter and although it does not affect men and women in the same way, it does affect men nonetheless. Perhaps it is more correct to assume that stars with long careers like Ford (he played his first screen role in 1966) have a compound image which not only changes from decade to decade but also as their own audiences age. I am old enough to have attended the original release of Star Wars (1977) and have a first childhood memory (I was then eleven) of Ford as the hot hero Solo, but who is Ford today to an eleven-year-old? His most recent film, a new adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, seems addressed to that demographic but he can hardly generate the same response now. Possibly, any eleven-year-old will be puzzled to realize that this wrinkled old guy with a thick white beard is the same Han Solo of the first Star Wars films they may have seen at home with their nostalgic parents. With this I am not saying at all that Ford ought to retire, just that his persona is not one, but many depending, as I say, on the parallel evolution of his career and that of his audience. The film I have recommended, Witness, was released already thirty-five years ago and this means that in practice for younger audiences Ford may be perceived as a relic from a classical past far in the depths of the 20th century.

This impression that Ford is somehow a throwback to other times is increased by the constant comparisons along his career to classic male stars ranging from Errol Flynn to Gary Cooper. Both Han Solo and Indiana Jones are throwbacks to the 1930s and 1940s adventure film series and it can be argued that, somehow, Ford’s persona was constructed from the beginning as a suggestion that macho cool cannot be a matter of the present. By macho I do not mean that Ford’s image is blatantly sexist, but the other way round: I very much suspect that he has embodied the kind of subtly patriarchal guy that at heart most men, women, and even children prefer. This is a guy that, as Luzón-Aguado notes, can safely display a “manly vulnerability” because this vulnerability is by no means a sign of insecurity. Or of male chauvinism. Perhaps, unlike the current US masculinity which shows so much rampant sexism and homophobia and fear of losing control, Ford’s American masculinity showed in his prime that being a man is a simpler matter: knowing who you are mentally and accepting the limitations of your vulnerable body, with no need to hate others. When Aguado-Luzón says that Ford need not display his sexuality aggressively she does not mean that his roles are asexual but that his sole presence is enough to transmit a reassuring sense of non-sexist manliness. Perhaps this is what is most missed from the male stars of the past and in modern masculinity generally.

There is, in any case, always a bit of a mystery about why certain individuals, male or female, become major film stars. Navigating the Hollywood choppy waters for more than fifty years is already a major accomplishment; being an audience’s favourite for many of these years even more so. It is then necessary to acknowledge these merits in Ford’s case (and, of course, in others). I remain personally very curious to see where his career is going in his old age and, though I have my misgivings, will certainly see the fifth Indiana Jones film. I hope, however, for the sake of the current eleven-year-olds that new male icons appear and that they are what is needed in these troubled times.

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

DISMANTLING PATRIARCHY: RONAN FARROW’S CATCH AND KILL, AGAINST THE TIDE

The Harvey Weinstein scandal exploded almost three years ago thanks to two articles that earned the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service to its authors: The New York Times’s “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (5 October 2017), only available to subscribers, and The New Yorker’s “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories” (10 October 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-aggressive-overtures-to-sexual-assault-harvey-weinsteins-accusers-tell-their-stories). Read it, please, it’s a historic text in the evolution of gender issues world-wide, I really mean it.

According to Farrow’s own 2019 book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, which (oddly) avoids any reference to sex in its title, he would have been able to publish before Kantor and Twohey if it weren’t because his employers at the time, NBC’s news subsidiary, were busy protecting their own predators. In this substantial history of how Farrow wrote his story the tale which emerges is one of how Weinstein managed to fend off the attack because, in essence, he was blackmailing NBC with his knowledge of his fellow sexual predators’ operations. If was then not just a matter of ‘catch and kill’, the practice of silencing victims by using NDAs agreements usually backed with hush money, but of Farrow’s gradual realisation that he need not go far to find sexual predators of Weinstein’s own ilk. If you’re wondering why Farrow ended up publishing the story in The New Yorker, that’s the answer: NBC was not free from guilt and able to cast the first stone. Less afraid to lose his job than others and perhaps protected from his status as Hollywood royalty, Farrow persisted, for which we need to honour him.

Catch and Kill is a superb exercise in journalism, and a wholly recommended read, but it is at the same time a strangely naïve book in terms of what the author is actually doing, which is contributing in a major way to dismantling patriarchy. Ronan Farrow, the only biological child of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, is a sort of intellectual wunderkind who managed to give himself a very solid academic training, perhaps a very unusual one in the field of journalism (he happens to be a lawyer and has a PhD in political science). So to speak, great things were expected of him and great things are to be expected. His onslaught on Harvey Weinstein is one, not just for the legal and judicial consequences of Farrow’s report (Weinstein is now in prison) but for how it unleashed the worldwide #MeToo movement we are all aware of. Kantor and Twohey’s article obviously also contributed to the explosion of that movement and it would be unfair to credit Farrow with all the merit, but it would also be unfair to ignore his task as women’s champion in this matter. Plainly, if it weren’t for Farrow’s obsessive insistence and staunch professionalism many of the women who spoke against Weinstein and described how the culture of sexual predation works in practice would have remained silent. He did act as a knight in shining armour. I hear my feminist readers groaning but this is the truth of the fact.

He also acted as a man plagued by a guilty conscience. It is inevitable, when discussing Farrow’s motivations to refer to the sexual abuse allegations made by his (adoptive) sister Dylan against their father Woody Allen, which the director has always denied. According to Dylan, Allen abused her when she was a seven-year-old child (remember that this is the guy who eventually married another adoptive daughter). Ronan did believe Dylan but as he confesses in several passages of Catch and Kill did not support her ongoing feud with Allen, basically telling his sister to move on with her life and bury the hatchet. Farrow explains that listening to the women abused by Weinstein made him finally understand what Dylan had gone through and he reports a series of calls asking his sister for advice about how to proceed with his investigation of the cases. Her words, he said, were essential in the process.

It is then tempting to read Farrow’s motivation to doggedly pursue the rumours that lead to the testimonials as atonement for the sin of not properly supporting Dylan. It is also tempting to interpret his hunting of the monster Weinstein as a haunting of the abuser Allen. Even the fact that he does not carry his father’s surname (technically Mia Farrow was a single mother when Ronan was born as she and Allen never married) helps stress his position on the side of the women and against patriarchy. I am not sure that Farrow’s being a gay man is a relevant factor but since he does refer explicitly to his partner in Catch and Kill, I must assume that this is also important. I am not so naïve as to believe that gay men can never be sexual predators but in a way a gay man is in a better position to dismantle patriarchy’s heterosexism than a heterosexual man.

Farrow is not a gender issues activist in the sense of being specialized in the field as a journalist. Judging from his other major book, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018), he appears to be a political journalist or perhaps more widely an investigative journalist. In any case, his work reporting Weinstein in the New Yorker and Catch and Kill are enough to put him on the honours list of the men who have opposed patriarchy so far and are opening the way to out not only the monstrous abusers but a whole culture of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, Weinstein has turned out to be one among many in a constellation of harassers in the high positions of all types of business and institutions. This is what is really important: anti-patriarchal men, we learn from Farrow’s reporting, are essential to undermine the regime by which the patriarchal men rule, not only in their own domain but the whole nation. From Weinstein to Trump, it turns out, there are less than six degrees of separation.

Reading these days, after Catch and Kill, Michael S. Kimmel and Thomas E. Mosmiller’s thick anthology Against the Tide: Pro-feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990, a Documentary History (Beacon Press, 1992) a few thoughts occur to me. One is that this book should be much better known. I’ve come across it absolutely by accident even though I am much alert to any volume dealing with the good men who have helped the feminist cause. The other is that I find more optimism in the texts written by pro-feminist men up to 1920, when US women were granted the right to vote in national elections (some states had authorized the female ballot in the 1890s), than in the texts of the 1970s to 1990. By this I mean that there is a clear line of progress which earns women the rights to be educated, to be employed in all professions, to keep their own property, and to vote as one by one the absurd arguments against first-wave feminism fall. Next, there comes what Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor called the doldrums in their book Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (1987). Then some matters progressed but most remained stagnant until the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and the onset of second-wave feminism. The problem is that I do not see much progress in the texts of the 1970s to 1990 in relation to today, or very little. And that is very worrying.

The text before the last in the volume is Senator Joe Biden’s 1990 “Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Violence Against Women Act of 1990” which sought to make all violence against women a civil rights offence apart from a criminal act. Biden wanted the “something horribly wrong” in America’s treatment of women to be made visible and to be destroyed, but I should say that thirty years later matters are much worse. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the USA Constitution written in 1923 by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex has not been passed yet, almost 100 years after its was first submitted to Congress. Biden’s act, proposed jointly with Senator Orrin Hatch, did pass in 1994 and was signed by President Clinton (a feat that should be recalled rather than his hanky-panky) and there is hope that the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket wins the election in November against Trump. Yet, many more Ronan Farrows are needed to force the patriarchs out of power and it is hard to see where they are.

Kimmel and Mosmiller refuse to look into the personal motivations of the men that sided with women and exposed themselves to the derision and the violence from the men who considered them traitors to the patriarchal cause. They warn that many men who helped were far from being angels (their word, not mine); often, men behaved in a pro-feminist way in public and in a patriarchal way at home, even with their own feminist wives or lovers. I don’t think we need angels but we certainly need allies, as their book shows. The question they ask is one that is quite scary: why did men help at all, knowing as they did that their pro-feminist ideas would undermine their own privilege? It is simple, actually. As I am constantly saying patriarchy is not as monolithic as it looks. It has plenty of dissidents for whom the answer to Kimmel and Mosmiller’s question is straightforward: some men help because it is the only right thing to do, and this is what they feel. This is what Ronan Farrow felt: that he was doing a public service by pointing his finger at Weinstein, and this is what the Pulitzer Award committee acknowledged.

Maybe because I am part of a public service, that offered by public higher education, I very much like the idea that advancing equality is a matter of serving the public. What I like about this idea is that public service is done for the good of the community, not in the expectation of personal reward but simply because it is right. The other aspect I like about public service is that it is gender-neutral, meaning that it is open to anyone, of any identity, as Farrow’s work shows. Men doing a public service can hardly be accused of promoting the ‘wrong’ causes, which is why I think that there is potential in the concept as an alternative to individualistic heroism or chivalry (I have called Farrow a knight…). If the cause for equality is seen as a pillar of the community then defending it can be seen as public service, which might help many men to act in pro-feminist ways without being questioned either by men or by women. If equality is presented as a civil right, which is what it is, then there is no excuse to remain uninvolved, just as there is no excuse to condone racism. I am just thinking out loud about what should be the mechanism to recruit more Ronan Farrows to the cause…

Thanks, then, to all the pro-feminist men, those who have helped are those who are helping. Let’s just hope that there is less and less need for their help because patriarchy has been finally defeated and equality is really respected as a fundamental civil right.

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

DON’T WE MEAN MAMMALS WHEN WE SAY ANIMALS? READING SHERRYL VINT’S ANIMAL ALTERITY: SCIENCE FICTION AND THE QUESTION OF THE ANIMAL

In her introduction to her indispensable monograph Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (2010, Liverpool UP) Sherryl Vint writes that “Part of the rethinking the human-animal boundary, then, is recognising the embodied nature of human existence, that Homo Sapiens is a creature of the same biological origin as the plethora of species we label ‘animal’ and that we have greater or lesser degrees of kinship and common experience with them” (8). Thus, she argues, “In reconnecting with animals, we are also reconnecting with our embodied being, what might be thought of as our animal nature” (9).

This type of argumentation, developed among others by Rosi Braidotti, Dona Haraway and a long list on key names in Human-Animal Studies has allowed us to speak of animal rights by analogy with human rights. I would say that this is plain common sense, yet I was flabbergasted to hear one of my colleagues guffaw at the notion and counter-argue that animals can have no rights because rights must be accompanied by duties. We told him that animals have rights just as children do: because they need protection and not because they are expected to fulfil any duties. Supposing we get to that point, as Vint notes, “A future of human-animal dialogue will require humans to accept their responsibility for acts of exploitation and abuse” (86), a responsibility that, although in different ways, also extends to the appalling mistreatment of children.

The issue I want to address here today is quite simple: when we speak of animals, don’t we really mean mammals? Make the experiment, just say ‘animal’ and tell me what you see. Funnily, I see four legs that most often result in the image of a dog, sometimes a cat, a horse, a wolf… I don’t think immediately of a bird, or a reptile, much less an insect and even less of crustaceans. If you say ‘animal’ and the first image that comes to your mind is that of a crab, fine, but then perhaps the question is that ‘animal’ is too big a category and, hence, human-animal relationships a concept that needs to be more nuanced. Surely, our relationship with dogs has nothing to do with our relationship with mosquitos, nor do we ever think of animal rights applying to lice.

I didn’t know that the Spanish word ‘animalista’, still not accepted by the really absurd Real Academia de la Lengua in its dictionary, has a false friend in English: ‘animalist’, which means, according to the Wiktionary, “One who believes in the dominance of man’s animal nature in behaviour. A sensualist”. I use here ‘animalist’ in the sense of ‘animal liberationist’ to claim that though I am an animal rights defender, I have received a very poor education in animal issues and I’m not at all a real animalist. My mother was convinced that her younger brother had caught typhoid fever from a stray she-cat who bit him (the Salmonella typhi bacteria is actually transmitted by lice and flea, which may have infested the cat) and she instilled in my siblings and I a horror of any contact with animals, which I have not really overcome. I have never had a pet, except for a short-lived goldfish, and you will not catch me petting any dog or cat, no matter how lovely I find them. I do share part of my home with the bees, butterflies, birds, lizards, spiders and insects that visit my plants and that I quite enjoy watching (not the mosquitos!) but that’s about it. I’m afraid that I eat meat and consume dairy products, though not as frequently as I used to and even though I enjoy vegetarian and vegan cuisine I don’t see myself consuming them exclusively. Going to the market has its moments of deep revulsion for me, like yesterday trying to ignore the carcasses of skinned rabbits in the poultry stall. And I would totally agree to have zoos suppressed and any associated research done in the wild. That’s the limited extent of my commitment to animal liberation.

Vint’s book has opened my eyes to how science fiction dreams of communication with aliens from outer space because, as noted, any communication with animals needs to face the ugly issue of our ceaseless exploitation of animals, from direct consumption to their anthropomorphised use in fables, fairy tales, and children’s fiction, passing through lab experimentation or their use as beasts of burden. Vint refers to diverse sf short stories in which animals and humans manage to communicate but the conversation is far from friendly. We suppose that if our pets could talk they would express feelings of tenderness and appreciation for us but it is obvious that not even the most pampered dog or cat in the world would meet their owners’ expectations. Perhaps if animals really could speak we would soon wish they kept silent, for they would have very few kind words for us. They would complain about their enslavement. Hence, Vint argues, our preference for the myriad alien species of science fiction, most of which (whom?) are clearly based on animals. The many reverse plots of conquest, beginning with Wells’s War of the Worlds, amplify our fears and assuage our guilt as we fantasize about what it would be like to be on the receiving end, overpowered by a master species of aliens that would treat us as we treat animals.

I have written here about the current Covid-19 crisis as an alien invasion and I still think that the way things are unfolding, with the figures for infected individuals and casualties mounting sharply on a daily basis all over the world, this is a very bad sci-fi B-movie. Viruses, I must clarify, are not living creatures but “free forms of DNA or RNA that can’t replicate on their own” and that need a host to survive (https://www.livescience.com/58018-are-viruses-alive.html). They cannot really be said to be alive because they do not obey the seven rules of life: “all living beings must be able to respond to stimuli; grow over time; produce offspring; maintain a stable body temperature; metabolize energy; consist of one or more cells; and adapt to their environment”. Viruses have genetic material but are not at all like bacteria and left to their own devices they remain inert. They appear to be descended from ancient RNA molecules that “lost the capability to self-replicate” for unknown reasons, hence their parasitical grafting onto complex living organisms whose cellular reproductive capacities they hijack. Who would have thought, after so much debating on the sentience of animals and AIs, and so much imagining complex aliens, that human civilization would be on its knees because of a dumb non-living piece of genetic code just trying to survive?

Viruses and bacteria (which are neither animals nor plants because they are “single-celled, prokaryotic organisms in comparison to animals and plants which are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms”, https://australian.museum/learn/species-identification/ask-an-expert/are-bacteria-plants-or-animals/) do not occupy any room in Vint’s book perhaps because our relationship with them deserves a separate volume –and now possibly thousands of them considering this supposed ‘new normality’ which does not materialize. This leads me to the matter of size, which I think is totally underplayed in our relationship with animals. What is driving us crazy these days is that Covid-19, like any other virus, cannot be seen by human eyes, which is why most of us are wearing masks to protect us from infection. Allow me to be stupid once more and let me ask you to imagine how different things would be right now if Covid-19 was the size of a butterfly. And the other way round: we find butterflies harmless and beautiful because they are small, but try to think of a butterfly the size of a German shepherd and now tell me whether you’d welcome any in your garden. We love whales and elephants but this is because they are harmless to us.

Vint refers often to how this animal alterity is a relatively new situation caused by urbanisation; she cites a study which discovered that some American kids draw six-legged chickens because the drumsticks they eat at home come in packs of six at the supermarket. This is certainly an aberration, like our having pushed slaughterhouses out of city centres, out of the sight of the consumers who cannot identify which part of the animal they are eating anymore. However, I do not quite see what the target situation is for animal activism, which appears to be again, too little nuanced in this respect. I think that there is a mixture of targets, actually, perhaps not wholly realistic or compatible with each other. Stopping animal consumption is one, with veganism as an ever more popular option (but wouldn’t this make current cattle disappear eventually?). Stopping animal experimentation is another (or at least, stopping unnecessary experimentation that has nothing to do with health issues). Stopping extinction and protecting wildlife is another, though whether nature can be ‘natural’ again is a major doubt. Maybe it is already post-natural.

Then there is the matter of being eaten. One of my doctoral students is working on a dissertation on that topic and Vint certainly addresses it in her book. To my surprise, there is much more than I had ever imagined on the experience of persons who have survived situations in which they were prey, I mean books and documentaries. Recently, a woman was killed by a white shark off the coast of Maine, more or less where Peter Benchley set his best-selling novel Jaws, the one that inspired Spielberg’s blockbuster. I am all in favour of protecting species and their habitats, and correcting the misinterpretations of animal behaviour (white sharks are not the evil monsters of the film) but every time I watch a nature documentary there comes that moment when a predator attacks a lesser animal seen being devoured still alive in all detail. I am not saying that nature red in tooth and claw is not worth fighting for, what I am saying is that I find that aspect of nature often too sanitized in accounts of animal activism.

I’m going back then to my initial question: when we say ‘animal’ don’t we really mean mammal? Shouldn’t we distinguish in a more nuanced way how we relate to fellow mammals rather than insects and birds? And within this more nuanced positioning, shouldn’t we consider how our relation with the animals we eat and exploit is very different from that with the animals that prey on us, from mosquitos to white sharks? And how about viruses and bacteria? They are also natural… I don’t know what the alternative for the word ‘animal’ might be but as it is used today I just find it too unspecific, too abstract. No wonder some people are confused and think of animals as beings that cannot have rights because they have no duties…

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

(MIS)ADVENTURES IN (MIS)CASTING: VISUALISING CHARACTERS

I start reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) by the recent Nobel Prize co-winner Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, and I am dismayed to realize that the first-person narrator I have visualized for about fifteen minutes as an old man is an old woman. Her name is mentioned at the very end of the first chapter when my neurons have already made the effort of seeing this person as a man, for I must ‘see’ who is speaking; for a few more pages ‘she’ is still ‘he’ in my mind until the wrong image is corrected, with an ugly jolt.

Tokarczuk, the author, has seemingly forgotten that she is writing a novel, not making a film, and has taken for granted that her readers will understand her first-person speaker is a woman. But, why should we? Because we have read the blurb on the back cover? Seen the trailer for the film adaptation by Agnieszka Holland? I grow quite annoyed and end up finding many other flaws that make me intensely dislike this totally overhyped novel by this totally overrated Nobel. [SPOILERS ALERT] If you want to narrate a crime story in which the first person speaker is the criminal you need to do it upfront in an American Psycho in-your-face confessional style, not trying to build up any kind of suspenseful mystery, for God’s sake! [END OF SPOILERS]

My other adventure is casting is more satisfying. My ex-student Laura Pallarés sends me a copy of her first novel Pájaros en la piel, the story of the very intriguing relationship between a young Catalan woman in her early twenties, Júlia, and her Swedish father, Joseph. He and Júlia’s late mother had met when both were seventeen but Joseph ignores that their brief summer romance had resulted in a daughter. When he seeks Júlia out the scant age difference makes it hard for them to bond as father and daughter, as they seem to be more comfortable being friends although of an uncomfortably close kind.

Júlia, the author says, looks like Lily Collins, though this English actress is about ten years older. I imagine Júlia, rather, as Catalan actress Laia Costa, currently thirty-five, in a more youthful version (both Costa and Collins are pretty brunettes with interesting eyebrows and lively eyes). If I see her as Collins, then I’ll need to think of Júlia as an English-speaking girl, which is confusing. Joseph, a cosmopolitan artist, is given a Spanish best friend which justifies why he speaks the language so well. Knowing that he is Swedish, blond and blue-eyed, he is easy to cast: he looks like Alexander Skarsgård who, aged forty-three, could really play Joseph in a possible Netflix adaptation (I wish there is one!). Here’s the funny thing: Laura tells me she was not thinking of any specific actor for Joseph but it seems other readers have told her about casting Skarsgård in the role. Well, it was either him or Eurovision Song Contest winner Måns Zelmerlöw (aged thirty-four) for I cannot think of other Swedish men…

‘Why cast actors in roles in fiction at all?’, you may be wondering. And my reply is, ‘why do you ask? Don’t you do it as well?’ I do not know when this habit of mine started but I assume it is widely shared, and made necessary by what I have often commented about here: the diminishing amount of description in contemporary fiction. Novels offer today less information about characters than screenplays with authors supposing, I insist, that readers have not a mental theatre in the sense of the stage theatre but a mental theatre in the American sense of the word, that is to say, a mental cinema. I don’t have one and so I find myself increasingly struggling with visualization.

If failing to see space is bad enough, imagine what it is like not to see characters, either… Hence the constant casting (or even checking the IMDB.com credits before I start reading a novel in case there is already an adaptation). Not that you need a long description to present a character, mind you. This is for instance Long John Silver’s presentation in R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white”. That’s him, no need to go fishing about for the perfect cast. Why, I wonder, is this gone?

This week I have put myself through another kind of trouble regarding the visualization of characters consisting of completely changing an image in a second reading. I am currently working on Iain M. Banks’s non-Culture novel The Algebraist for an article on masculinity in SF and, so, I needed to look again at the human protagonist Fassin Taak. When I say look I really mean look. When I first read the novel a few years ago I did it with no pencil in hand, just for fun, and I let myself go. Fassin is a sort of cultural anthropologist with an alien species known as the Dwellers, who live in gas giants like Jupiter. You might think that visualizing the Dwellers, who look “like a pair of large, webbed, fringed cartwheels connected by a short, thick axle with particularly bulbous outer hubs onto each of which had been fastened a giant spider crab” might have driven me crazy but no, I think I get the idea. Fassin has driven me crazy precisely because he is human and supposedly easier to visualize.

The name Fassin Taak gives no clues whatsoever: Fassin is a French surname, as far as Google tells me, and Taak appears to be a Dutch word for ‘talk’. I have found no men called ‘Fassin’ in real life as a first name so no help there. The only description Banks volunteers, and just in passing, is that Fassin has brown curly hair (no length or thickness noted) and light brown skin. He is two metres tall, looks a decade younger than his forty-five ‘body years’ and is handsome, though at the end of his rough adventure he looks older and somehow emaciated. For reasons unknown to me I saw Fassin as a colleague in another UAB Department initially, perhaps because this guy seems very keen on his scholarly pursuits and so does Fassin. This time, however, I decided to really focus and look at Fassin in the face.

A comment by the narrator suggests that the human civilization to which Fassin belongs is the result of alien abductions of Central American, Middle East and Chinese individuals (or just of their DNA) around the fourth millennium before Christ. Together with the light brown skin this indicates that Fassin is NOT white though the curly hair suggested to me that he must be of Middle East descend. This led me to Antonio Banderas because I had been re-reading Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead and Banderas played the Arab protagonist in the adaptation, The 13th Warrior. However, I was a bit scandalized to see Banderas rather than a proper Arab actor play that role and I Googled the words ‘handsome Arab man’ to check other possibilities for Fassin.

Here’s the joke: all men appearing under that heading were as light-skinned as Banderas, who looks totally white to me. Not Alexander Skarsgård white but white enough (a bit darker than me but Spanish white nonetheless). Anyway, I found a photo of a gorgeous Arab man with a nice beard and lovely green eyes and he has become my new Fassin Taak. I have no idea who this Arab man is and I totally avoided checking him up in case he is a celebrity but he has done me a great service of being the perfect Fassin Taak. When I saw a couple of illustrations by Banks’s readers I positively guffawed… MY Fassin Taak, with his love of hard partying and his ability to cry his green eyes out whenever he is struck by emotion is the real thing. At some points he looked a bit too much like green-eyed bullfighter Cayetano Rivera but I got rid of that and Fassin is now for good and for ever a Middle-East guy with shoulder length curly hair of soft locks, dark lips, bright green eyes and suitably light brown skin. Now the problem is that I have no idea what he is wearing, not what his cyborgian light gascraft looks like. Deep sigh…

Banks is no better and no worse than many other writers in describing characters. In fact, he is quite good if you consider how many alien species he describes in his books. The problem with him and any other writer coming after the Modernist revolution and the eruption of film is that they have stopped caring for physical description. In a world obsessed with racial issues like ours, this neglect of description is a real mess, for readers must be told which skin tone each character is but writers feel somehow embarrassed to go into that kind of detail. The result is that the first-person speaker may be a black woman but if we are not told we see by Pavlovian default a white man simply because we are used to that kind of character dominating fiction. I’ll be very happy to be contradicted in this by any of you (if anyone is reading me). Funnily, 19th century writers, who were on the whole very fond of description, did use illustrations to accompany their work but in our extremely visual time using illustration for fiction is a total taboo, except of course for children’s fiction.

I know I am repeating arguments already presented here, and I hope I am not boring my reader but it’s funny how in the middle of this tremendous crisis on identity politics and representation, character description occupies so little room. I don’t think at all that describing character better infringes on readers’ rights to imagine as they wish. I really think that writers are not fulfilling their part of the pact and helping us readers to share what they have imagined for their own sake as much as for ours. So, please, use more description!

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