I have started working on the preparation of the Cultural Studies course that I am teaching next semester, and I am thinking these days about women in pop and rock (again, after a long time). About ten days ago the Eurovision song contest took place in Rotterdam, and like half the planet I was fascinated by the Italian winners, rock band Måneskin. However, my fascination was caused not only by their obvious talent and the appeal of frontman Damiano David, but also by the contrast between bass player Victoria de Angelis and the other women in the contest. That contrast is today my focus, together with the thoughts prompted by my reading of Kristin J. Lieb’s Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (2018, second edition).

I must thank my wonderful student Andrea Delgado López for having rekindled my interest in music, which I lost to a combination of things, one of them being my sudden inability to work with the music on when I hit 40 or thereabouts. Andrea has just finished an excellent BA dissertation on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”, and has allowed me to embark her on the project of producing an e-book entirely of her authorship with an analysis of 25 outstanding music videos (available in July). Her list for that project was the reason why I spent a happy day watching 50 music videos as I chronicled here a while ago. Andrea’s perceptive analyses of the videos made me see I need to get back on track and, as they say, there is nothing better than teaching a course to learn, so that’s what I intend to do with the help of my students. The idea is to consider in particular the current position of women in Anglophone pop, and produce an e-book though at this point I’m not sure whether I want it to be critical of what is wrong with women’s presence in that music genre or to seek positive examples. Perhaps both, depending, too, on what students prefer.

So, back to Eurovision. My husband and I are confirmed, though not fanatical Eurofans (we have seen The Story of Fire Saga twice, if that’s an indication of our commitment), and we watched the two semi-finals from beginning to end, feeling as usual disappointed with the elimination of particular favourites (Australia, really?). As we watched, we noticed what we’re calling the legacy of the ‘Eleni school’, after Eleni Foureira, the Cyprus representative in 2018 who did not win but became an instant hit with her song “Fuego”. Eleni’s act consisted of passing as a song of supposed female empowerment –with the memorable lines ‘Oh your love is like wild-wildfire/You got me pelican fly-fly-flyin’”– a song (written by men) about a woman’s sexual availability, a point underscored by her sexy dance routine and revealing outfit. This year many Elenis made it to the final: Elene Tsagrinou, also from Cyprus; Anxhela Peristeri from Albania; Hurricane from Serbia; Stefania from Greece, Natalia Gordienko from Moldova and Efendi from Azerbaijan; perhaps I should add Eden Alene from Israel. That’s seven entries in total and nine sexy ladies (Hurricane are three women) out of twenty-six countries, with no sexy men in sight except for Damiano. The other women who could be seen on stage also followed the sexy script (celebrating curviness, like Senhit from San Marino or Destiny from Malta, or chic, like Barbara Pravi from France), or ignored it (though I loved the backless dark blue dress of the Hoverphonic singer from Belgium). My point, though, is that only Victoria de Angelis was there playing an instrument and not just, basically, exhibiting herself. Apart, now that I recall from Daði og Gagnamagnið keyboard player Árný (though she was not really playing, I think).

So while everyone has gone bananas dissecting Damiano’s presence, his possible consumption of drugs during the show (sternly denied!), and how his upper-middle-class origins make him an ‘inauthentic’ rock idol, I was wondering about Victoria. I don’t use social networks so I have no idea how she presents herself there, and seeing how pretty this very young girl is, I assume there must be tons of comments about her looks, maybe photos she has posted herself. What interested me is that, as I read in an Italian Elle interview, her own idol is Sonic Youth’s bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Gordon). I’ve never been a Sonic Youth fan but I appreciate Gordon’s enormous contribution, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading her memoir, Girl in a Band (2015). The De Angelis-Gordon connection is simply thrilling and I do hope that more women follow it to bring back the figure of the female rock musician, which seems to me to be a bit lost in these times of Elenis and of WAP rappers. Perhaps rock in general is a bit lost, and Måneskin won the contest out of a certain nostalgia, which could also explain Finland’s nice sixth position with Blind Channel’s Linkin-Park style song “Dark Side”.

As a woman in a rock band and a bass player, then, De Angelis is, so to speak, necessary because we have been engulfed by an absurd pop-music model that is too fixated on the sexy singer. I do not discard that De Angelis will also exploit herself or be herself exploited in that way, but my point is that she is not in Måneskin for her looks but, basically, because this is the band she put together (there are rumours she is the real leader). The proliferation of the Elenis is, on the other hand, an export to other geographical areas of a pernicious American model that is not only exploitative but also cruel with the women who do not fit the mould. Malta’s Destiny or Israel’s Netta Barzilai (the 2018 winner) cannot be said to have really broken away from that model, nor has American Lizzo, because they still insist on associating sexiness with the female pop singer (or rapper), a quality male performers needn’t worry about. If Damiano David wants to look sexy, that’s his choice, not an obligation.

Kristin J. Lieb used to be a journalist and a marketing and business development executive and she has an insiders’ view of how the pop industry works. Denying all forms of feminist empowerment through the self-sexualization of women, she is very clear in her book that the artist who remains fully clothed in music videos has the power, and the one who is seen half naked does not. As she notes, male pop stars belong in the former category, women in the latter. She also mentions how in promotional material the face is emphasized in the men’s case and the whole body in the women’s. And, the rawest thing for me, that the career of female acts is planned taking into account their ageing process –that is to say, if you’re wondering why suddenly a certain female artist is all over the place, this might be because her recording company thinks she will not age well and they want to recap their investment as quickly as possible. Before she is no longer fuckable, excuse my French. As for those who lack the looks (according, of course, to a very narrow view of what the ‘looks’ are) but have real musical talent, the industry still offers them a place –as composers of hit songs for the main acts. The idea that female pop artists are brands is not really new but what I had totally missed is that in the end the music is just a small part of a multifaceted brand promotion which touches on many other products. If you want to know about a first-rank brand and the rest, Leib explains, think of who you’d see promoting a line of clothing or a perfume.

Lieb is, I think, very much reductive for even though there is much in common in the presentation of the artists she considers (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Fergie) each has a tale to tell. Beyoncé, it is obvious, controls the game in ways which totally escape poor Spears (legally her father’s ward). She is also quite ambiguous about the role played by Madonna, for Lieb praises her for building a model of self-empowerment –being very harsh on Camille Paglia’s critique of the self-sexualization embedded in it– while at the same time reading almost with sarcasm Fergie’s sexy music videos, which are Madonna’s legacy as well. Lieb also tends to dismiss stars that still have much appeal among their followers and that are much loved outside the USA (like Kylie Minogue) and is not too respectful of the ones that fight hard to come back on her own terms (Fiona Apple). And she positively hates Katy Perry for being a serial cultural appropriator (Lieb loves Miley Cyrus). An added problem is that cultural studies age very quickly. Lieb’s book was issued in a second edition in 2018, but Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa are nowhere to be seen in it.

I do agree with Lieb that self-sexualization is not self-empowerment since you are still pandering to the male gaze but, after coming across De Angelis, my doubt is whether by exposing how the industry works we teach our students to resist the appeal of the current pop stars. Billie Eilish’s new bombshell look and lingerie photoshoot for British Vogue have a far more direct impact on young girls than any crusty discussion by feminist academics of whether she is right to exhibit herself like that (thinking of her fans). I did want to begin my course with the Eilish cover and ask my students how they feel about her sudden abandonment of her signature baggy clothes, but perhaps that will be too prim and counterproductive. Perhaps I should begin instead with a photo of Victoria de Angelis in all her bass-playing glory as an example of other careers women can have in music. And talk about Kim Gordon, still very much active though older, at 66, than Madonna (62), and not botoxed like her. It’s funny how Lieb speaks of the pop star’s obligation to be sexy and young but does not comment on how Madonna’s and J. Lo’s artificial youth conditions older women’s view of themselves even when they do not even care for these singers. The sight of ‘la Lopez’, 51, pole-dancing during the 2020 Superbowl gave me the creeps. Imagine Luis Miguel, also 51, doing that…

Leib blames all this madness on the rise of MTV, when, as the Buggles sang ‘video killed the radio star’. She also highlights digital piracy, the rise of the social media and of the streaming platforms, which require stars to be ubiquitous brands in order to make the money lost when sales of CDs collapsed. The market, of course, is the same for men, but they still get to age naturally and keep their clothes on in all music genres, which shows that gender is shaping music branding indeed. I see, however, no way out of this since the girls who ultimately buy the music and the products endorsed by the female stars (not really the boys, right?) have also opted for an intensive self-sexualization as the young boys look less and less attractive. I hope my students give me some clues about how to break out of this vicious circle.

Enjoy Måneskin, thank you Victoria!

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/


This past Sant Jordi I was given as a present Alicia Giménez Bartlett’s Una habitación ajena (A Room not of One’s Own), originally issued in 1997 and now re-issued in a new, revised edition published to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 (she was born in 1882). Bartlett’s title alludes, of course, to Woolf’s long essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), in which the author argues that women have not been free to write as well as they could because they have lacked a room of one’s own (but recall how Jane Austen wrote great novels half-hidden in a corner of her family’s living room). The bit that is usually neglected in quotations is that the three times Woolf mentions this coveted room she also mentions money, specifically 500 pounds a year, which apparently come from work rather than rent (or maybe not). In short, calling her view with irony ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, Woolf writes that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. What Bartlett adds is that a woman writer must also have servants, whether she likes it or not.

Bartlett novelizes in her book the stormy relationship between Woolf and her two servants, Lottie Hope and Nellie Boxall, above all with Nellie. She takes up in this way the implicit challenge thrown by Woolf herself. In December 1929, Woolf candidly wrote in her diary that ‘If I were reading this diary, if it were a book that came my way, I think I should seize with greed on the portrait of Nelly (sic), and make a story–perhaps make the whole story revolve around that–it would amuse me. Her character–our efforts to get rid of her–our reconciliations’. The researcher that Bartlett invents for her novel tells us that Woolf made frequent mention in a rather acerbic tone of her clashes with Nellie (whose name she always misspelled), her cook and main housekeeper between 1916 and 1934. Bartlett imagines that Nellie learned to keep a diary from observing her mistress and, so, her novel intercalates the observations of the present-day researcher with this diary, and with dramatized chapters written in the third person. Bartlett swears in her author’s note that all the petty misencounters depicted in her novel did happen, as attested by Woolf’s own eight-volume diary. They were all based, according to Bartlett, on Nellie’s progressive realization that her masters’ left-wing political beliefs did not result in generosity towards their servants, whom, in short, they exploited (she was paid only £20 a year). This is a thesis similar to what Alison Light maintains in her study Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury (2007), though she cautions that the Marxist reading is in a way an anachronism, as few employers thought of servants as labour, seeing them instead as persons they kept.

Nellie started working at the Woolfs’ in the middle of World War I, which is a major point of inflexion in the history of domestic service. Last year I read, as background to my teaching of Victorian Literature, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), Karen Foy’s Life in the Victorian Kitchen (2014), and Fiona McDonald’s Victorian Servants, a Very Peculiar History (2010). I learned from them that Victorian middle-class households were complex machineries with high maintenance needs requiring from one to twenty servants, depending on the owner’s status. The Stephens, Virginia’s parents (Leslie and Julia), had ten servants, which means that Woolf and her siblings grew up with all their personal needs catered for. The daily lives of Victorian servants were gruelling affairs, with constant hard-core chores from morning to evening, and no leisure except one afternoon off, a whole day if they were lucky. Pay was never high, and they always depended on the whims of masters and mistresses who could dismiss servants with no severance payment, and with no references though without these getting a new position was impossibly hard. Servants who grew sick or grew old always depended on the charity of their employers. And, of course, only upper servants in rich households (governesses, housekeepers, butlers) could expect to have a room of their own to sleep in; the rest shared cramped accommodation, usually in cold attics. Nellie, indeed, complains all the time about having to share a room with Lottie. When she finally has a room to herself, Virginia feels free to intrude whenever she pleases. A major row erupts, precisely, when an annoyed Nellie orders her mistress to leave her room. Such insolence!

No wonder, then, that as World War I progressed and the need for factory labour grew in the UK, more and more young women chose to abandon employment as servants. Besides, with prices rising throughout the 1920s and with the constant turmoil of the general strikes called by the unions, eventually the middle classes found themselves unable to employ domestic help beyond one or two persons, as was the Woolfs’ case. A surprising aspect of Bartlett’s novel is her description of the Woolfs’ diverse homes–Monk’s House and Asham House in Sussex, and Hogarth House in London’s Gordon Square–as not particularly comfortable. It is hard for us to imagine middle-class persons living in homes with no hot water and no central heating, but that was common. Bartlett’s Nellie complains all the time about being cold and about having to shift lots of coal constantly. The Woolfs never purchased the modern conveniences appearing in the early 20th century (vacuum cleaners, for instance, were commercialized in 1905). When, tired of their constant bickering and of her frequent threats to leave their service, Virginia curtly dismissed Nellie, she was happy to find a position with a couple who did have all the latest gadgets: actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. She remained with them until 1939, choosing not to follow them to the USA. Instead, she retired to her native village, Farncombe in Surrey, and purchased there a home of her own, where she lived with fellow servant Lottie, until her death in 1965.

I don’t think that Woolf’s relationship with Nellie is extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that it is documented in detail on the mistress’ side and that this mistress happened to be a progressive feminist who believed in women’s independence. For those of us coming from the working-classes the contradictions of middle-class feminism have always been easy to spot, like the glaring absence of domestic service from English fiction. TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) and Downtown Abbey (2010-15, plus the two films, 2019 and 2021), together with Kazuo Ishiguro’s marvellous novel The Remains of the Day (1989), have appeased our curiosity about the lives of the servants in upper-class households. Yet, there is still much to say about the middle-class’ uncomfortable relationship with its servants in the vein of what Bartlett does. Neither Virginia nor her sister Vanessa knew how to cook. Both, Alison Light writes, ‘were irked by keeping servants but resigned to it’. Their resignation has to do with the loss of privacy that became in the early 20th century an integral part of personal life. For the generation of their parents using domestic service was not an issue, but for Woolf’s generation that bond became awkward, an unwanted intrusion in lives that felt exposed because they did not abide by standard social rules. Women like Virginia and Vanessa felt dependent and hated the burden of that feeling. In fact, Virginia would eventually learn to cook to be her own mistress and eat as she pleased. This crucial transition in the lives of middle-class women, from dependent to independent mistress of the house, has not been sufficiently narrated, though. There must be millions of Nellies (and of Virginias) waiting for their tale to be told.

Obviously, middle-class working women have never become independent because we still need domestic help. The servants are gone and, unlike what was promised, domestic appliances have not done away with housework, no matter how much they have simplified it. I just shudder at the thought of doing the washing by hand! We may have the room and the money, but not the domestic freedom that, as I see it, will only come with robotic servants. In the meantime, most of us manage with hourly-paid help (babysitters, cleaners) carried out by working women who manage their working-class homes quite often with the help of a grandmother. I’m sure you must be thinking that if only the men helped more, our domestic troubles would be over. I believe, however, that this is not just a question of getting men more involved in domestic chores but of working fewer hours. 1970s feminism promised a utopia in which individuals would work part-time and there would be plenty of time to share housework, including raising children. As we are now, most middle-class couples in which both members work do need help, as Virginia and Leonard Woolf did a hundred years ago. We might not need live-in help, nor for the same exact chores, but we are still dependent on others. Unless, that is, we choose to keep our homes below the impossible spotless standards of full-time housewives (like my mother). I’m not, then, writing this post to criticize the Woolfs’ at all, but to stress that this middle-class dependence is still hidden in life and in fiction, as much as it was hidden in Austen’s time or in Woolf’s time. It may be swept away by the Roomba rather than under the rug, but it is still hidden.

Read today, in 2021, Una habitación ajena may elicit a negative response about the privileged members of the Bloomsbury group and the social hypocrisy of the bohemian (English) middle-class, with its abstract left-wing politics and its inability to be truly interested in the persons they employed in their homes. I would be, however, careful about how we approach the portrait of the Woolfs. Looking at the book cover illustration, which shows Woolf sitting comfortably in an armchair as Nellie stands behind in her maid’s uniform, I cannot help wondering whether Bartlett does all the housework in her home. I don’t think J.K. Rowling does. Or less wealthy writers. The vision of a society in which every woman (and man) has a room to be creative in, sufficient money, and no need for domestic help is right now a utopia, for either we combine being creative with doing all our housework, or we employ someone else and enter the relations of dependence that Woolf bemoaned. I’m sure many middle-class persons have excellent relations with their paid help which are mutually satisfactory, but I don’t quite see how the working-class women employed by middle-class women in their homes can enjoy the same freedom of artistic and intellectual creation. Perhaps their daughters will, but then they will need somebody else’s domestic help, too.

Thus, until the day when the Nellies of this world are housekeeping robots with no need for a room of their own.

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/


I find book reviews a very hard genre to write. This is why I marvel every time I come across great reviews in GoodReads that cover plenty of ground in just a few paragraphs, written apparently by readers who simply enjoy sharing their opinions. It has come to a point in my own reading when I hardly take up a book without first checking what the GoodRead members have to say—or in which, lazily, I check their opinions when I sense something is off with a book but cannot be bothered to think for myself. I do have a GoodReads account but I have never posted a review precisely because I need plenty of motivation to write them. My reviews, besides, would simply amount to ‘Yes, read the book’ or ‘Please, avoid’, with no further nuance. I would not get many likes for them.

I happen to believe, however, that all serious scholars have the duty to review academic books now and then. I started in 1997 and have reviewed since then 25 books, so about one volume a year. I have just handed in my 25th review, the reason behind my post today. I wrote my first review once I was already a doctor but there is no reason why doctoral students cannot write reviews, I think. It just happened that my supervisor(s) never spoke to me of that possibility. My dear colleague Felicity Hand, then editing an issue of our defunct Department journal Links & Letters, was the person who convinced me that I could and should write a review. To be honest, I was terrified because the book she gave was a collective volume edited by a person I happen to have much respect for, and I did not see how I was authorized at all to offer an opinion on her work. What if I didn’t like her book? This is indeed a difficulty when writing reviews early in your career: a negative review can make you enemies. I know of a doctoral student who had the great idea of reviewing in negative terms a collective volume in which most academics in his field participated, including some in his own research group. I can tell you he did not endear himself to any of the authors. So, even though what I am going to say will sound rather awful and hypocritical, as a general rule only review books that you enjoy and of which you can write positive reviews.

In that sense, I have got lucky because I have enjoyed all the books I have reviewed, even when I asked for them not knowing whether I would like them (with one exception, see below). Sorry, I have forgotten to clarify that you may send an unsolicited review directly to a journal (most journals have a review editor) or ask to review a book from their list. When a scholar publishes a book, s/he sends the publishers a list of journals where the volume could be reviewed. The publishers offer then review copies to the journals, which keep lists. In my area, Science Fiction Studies, the Science Fiction Review, Extrapolation and other journals regularly publish their lists of books for review, which I get through diverse mailing lists. If I see an attractive title, I ask for it. The Spanish journal Nexus, by the way, also keeps a list of books for review. If you want to review a book that you have already read, it would be a good idea in any case to contact the journal where you want to publish to ask whether they would be interested. Not all journals welcome unsolicited reviews.

It is not a very good idea to review books by persons you know, from best friends to mere acquaintances, unless you are sure a negative review might not be a problem. A negative review of a book by a senior scholar who might be important in your future career is not, as I have noted, the kind of review you want to write. But a bad review of a friend’s book can lose you a friend, remember that too. Do I mean that you should write positive reviews always whether you like a book or not? No! What I’m saying is that you should try to review only books which you value as good books, regardless of who the author is.

Look what happened to me. I wrote a review of a collective book edited by a person that, without being a close friend is someone I share time with if we meet at conferences. I had a good opinion of this person’s work and asked to review the new book. I soon saw that the book was quite a catastrophe but tried, anyway, to highlight in my review mostly the good points, trying to conceal the most glaring weaknesses. It seems this didn’t work well, for the book editor of the journal in question asked me to revise the text not once but twice, which is very unusual. Things went down so quickly that I ended up withdrawing my review, the only time I have done that. I simply saw no point in antagonizing my academic friend, and I preferred not to publish a bad review. Other scholars might think this is stupid of me, and that negative reviews are something we should accept. Possibly. I just happen to prefer being constructive, much more so in a world as small as ours in which not even great books get many reviews. Authors spend a long time, sometimes years, writing academic books, as I know myself, and I just feel bad saying publicly that they have not done well. On the other hand, one must be careful never to write a review which is ridiculously enthusiastic, for that is not criticism–that is publicity.

Reviews run usually from 1000 to 2000 words (but pay attention to what each journal expects). Each of my posts here is between 1500-2000 words, and very often I write here about books I have just read. This means that writing a book review should be easy for me, but whereas I write a post in about two hours, depending on inspiration, I spent about twelve hours writing my most recent review (1895 words). Why’s that? Because a book review is a formal exercise, with exact rules that I cannot break as I do in my posts. Here are some of these rules:

• you need to describe the book for prospective readers, but the review cannot simply be a synopsis
• you must be familiar with the precedents of the book in question (but remember that reviews do not usually include a bibliography of works cited) and be able to contextualize it
• you need to judge the book according to what its author claims it does (in the introduction), not according to what you would like the book to be
• you are required to comment on the structure of the book, if only briefly, and be able to pick up deficiencies, if any, but don’t overdo it
• a review must engage with the ideas expressed in the book (identify a thesis, the main arguments), which means that you assume the position not only of a reader but also of a fellow writer, as if you were able to write a similar book–this is for me the hardest part, for I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and imagine what it must have taken to have written that book
• never be smug, never be patronizing and much less insulting but don’t overdo praise
• be formal, you can never say ‘this is a glorious volume’ (much less ‘this book is awful’)

In terms of structure, reviews should begin by presenting the volume, as noted. Then the precedents (i.e. similar books already published) must be mentioned and compared to the new volume; perhaps also other books by the author. Next comes the paragraph(s) about the book’s strong points, and then (hopefully) minor comments on what could be improved or is missing. Finally, the conclusion, ideally recommending the book for its good qualities. In my last review, I had to include information about whether the volume in question could be accessible to a wider, popular audience; this puzzled me a bit, as the instructions came from an academic journal and the book was also academic. There is a similar book with a simpler academic jargon and so I could add a comment about this matter, but I found the request a bit unusual. Only academics read academic books, and only academic read reviews of academic books. We do, don’t we?

In terms of an academic CV, writing a review is not of great value, though when I passed my state examination for tenure back in 2001, the half a dozen reviews I had published were noted as a positive contribution. I don’t know what the official accreditation agencies think of reviews, and I am not aware that they are ranked in the databases which index everything we publish. To be perfectly frank with you, in the last five years or so I have been reviewing books not thinking of my CV at all but because I could not afford the volumes in question. The last book I have reviewed costs 99 euros (hardback edition) and even though we are not paid for reviewing, I feel that in this case I have earned those 99 euros (and no need to pay for taxes!). So that’s another good incentive to review. I assume that the publishing houses know about this, which is why in many cases reviewers are only offered the .pdf of the text. I hate reading .pdf…

To sum up, if you’re a doctoral student reading this post and are in your second or third year it might be a good idea to think of publishing your first review. I don’t know whether the tips I have offered here will help, and whether my position—review only the books you truly enjoy—is orthodox but this is what I do myself. And if you are a career academic with other priorities, let me remind you that even though reviewing will not do much for your CV, one can always learn plenty from paying close attention to how our colleagues write. Besides, we can hardly expect others to review our work if we do not write reviews ourselves.

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/


This is a self-translation of my part of the article originally in Catalan which I have just published with Miquel Codony on the website El Biblionauta. I have not translated Miquel’s section but comment on it at the end of my own text.

I have been working on gender and science fiction for a long time from a feminist point of view and I need, therefore, to constantly reflect on the place of women authors and on the representation of female characters in this field. In 2008 I published an introductory piece on this subject, “Mujeres y ciencia ficción”, which was followed by a more formal article in 2010, with a very similar title, “Mujeres en la literatura de ciencia ficción: entre la escritura y el feminismo”. I have recently written the article originally in Catalan “The ethical impact of robotics and digital technologies: Carme Torras, from The Vestigial Heart to Enxarxats” –for the monographic issue of the Catalan Review on current Catalan SF, which I currently co-edit with Víctor Martínez-Gil and should be published in 2022– and in this article I make the first academic reflection on the place of women in this genre and in this language. According to my own figures, the Catalan female authors of SF are around 20-25% of the total and, thus, you can speak without a doubt about women’s Catalan SF.

The problem is that when thinking about women and femininity, we tend to lose sight of how men treat masculinity and whether there have been recent changes. I’ve been doing Masculinity Studies for a couple of decades now, but I didn’t understand a very important question until I wrote in 2016 an article about Black Man (2007), a remarkable novel by British author Richard K. Morgan, known for the trilogy about Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon 2002, Broken Angels 2003, Woken Furies 2005). I complained in this article that Morgan allows his monstrous hero, Carl Marsalis, to make a deep and totally pertinent reflection on the patriarchal evil that power-hungry men do, but he does not let this man seek justice for all, only allowing him to take revenge at a personal level. The author told me in an interview that all his heroes are great individualists, but when one of the peer reviewers of my article (published in Science Fiction Studies) asked me why it was not possible to imagine Marsalis as the leader of a social change beyond what Morgan claimed, I finally realized that this is the main question: while women often feel attracted to science fiction because it imagines a better future for us, which we might call post-feminist, men do not have a vision for the future about masculinity nor plans to change it, which is why they are trapped in the individualist vision Morgan expresses even when they have a clear anti-patriarchal stance. Most women, I would add, are striving to achieve the utopia promised by feminism, but men do not have a utopian horizon that motivates them to improve for the future as men. There are simply no plans.

Traditional Golden Age science fiction fulfilled part of this function, full as it was of scientific heroes and space explorers who inspired many young readers personally and professionally. I think, however, that since the 1950s there are already signs that something was breaking in the field of masculinity, perhaps related to the massive trauma of World War II, a conflict which transformed many ordinary good men into murderers but forced them to keep silent about how they felt (the Vietnam War ended this enforced silence). This had already happened in World War I but the scale of WWII was bigger and included, let’s not forget, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most unpleasant male characters I have ever come across is neurosurgeon and World War III (yes, III) refugee Dr. Martine in Bernard Wolfe’s novel Limbo (1952, available in the SF Masterworks collection). I haven’t checked my hypothesis in depth but my impression is that the portrait of male characters in SF has never recovered the positive tone of the technophilic science fiction from the Golden Age, and never will.

One might think that this issue is closely related to the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s and the revolution that texts such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) meant from the 1970s onward in the treatment of gender. I think, however, that the war waged by the female authors has never consisted of attacking the representation of masculinity in their works (well, some have done that) but mostly of improving the view of femininity in the SF by men. And I think this is a war that has been won. I still find sexism and misogyny in some of the 21st century SF novels written by men, with presentations of female characters that refer to their body and sexuality above all else, but in general professional, efficient, strong women abound in all these imaginary futures. David Weber, the American author of military SF, has a long series of fourteen novels (begun in 1992) about Officer Honor Harrington, a woman who climbs up the ranks of the Space Fleet to the highest level. It could be said that women like Harrington are essentially male characters with a woman’s body, but what matters here is that both Weber and many other male authors are perfectly capable of writing SF about female characters admired by men and women. On the contrary, that men write SF about admirable men no longer happens, or seldom.

Richard Morgan told me that his heroes are dangerous men I wouldn’t want to have coffee with, and since that conversation I run the ‘coffee test’ whenever I read a SF novel starring a man –would I want to meet him for coffee? I would certainly like to meet Miles Vorkosigan, protagonist of the very long saga published since 1986 by Lois McMaster Bujold; Fassin Taak, hero of Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist (2008); and Fitz Wahram, the main male character of 2312 (2012), a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. The rest of them don’t interest me that much, or disturb me, or scare me… Without going so far, these are in many cases men with serious deficiencies when it comes to socializing, almost always clumsy in relations with women, and with a not very seductive profile. Some still play heroic roles, such as Pandora’s Star’s Wilson Kime (2004) by Peter Hamilton, or Jim Holden from James S. A. Corey’s series Expanse (2011-), but not many more; and I should certainly mention the serious shortcomings of these and other male characters. Holden, for instance, congratulates himself on his honourability in a scene from Leviathan Wakes (2011) in which he celebrates not having abused sexually a woman under his command who is too drunk to give her consent. Ramez Naan’s Nexus (2012) begins with a distasteful scene in which the protagonist Kaden Lane, presented as an engineering genius, practically rapes the woman he is having sex with. I’m frankly surprised at how many male protagonists are not people I would like to meet and the question is whether this is a shared impression (it is for many GoodReads readers). Where, in short, are the great male characters of 21st century SF, the men of the future?

In fact, I would say that the authors are using SF not to imagine a positive and admirable future for masculinity but to deal with the insecurities and fears of today’s men. For example, in Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016), physicist and engineer Jason Dessen has a very bad time trying to return to the universe where he is a good father and husband when he is impersonated by another man. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the protagonist —who also goes by the name Charles Yu— is stalled in a temporary loop he cannot leave unless he finds his father, lost in another temporary loop. In Spin (2005), Robert Charles Wilson’s beautiful novel, melancholic Tyler Dupree can’t get the woman he loves (and who loves him) because he doesn’t know how to make her see that nothing really separates them. In Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006), Siri Keeton loses half his brain to prevent deep epilepsy and the result is a man who understands the patterns of human behaviour but feels no empathy at all. I could go on… Perhaps the worst thing is that when authors try to write an attractive hero in the old style, with self-confidence and even personal beauty, this either sounds false or results in totally unbearable types, such as the repellent Darrow in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (2014). And if you liked Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) I am sorry to say that in Ready Player Two (2020) the rather nice hero Wade Watts becomes a dangerous, selfish man that totally outdoes Elon Musk with his supposedly benevolent plans for world domination.

Since here I am talking about science fiction originally in English because this is the territory which I know better I invited my Biblionauta colleague Miquel Codony to give his view of Catalan SF for the article, which then became a joint effort. Miquel found in Michelíada (2015) by Antoni Munné-Jordà (a clever retelling of the Homeric Illiad) and in the space opera Adzum i els monoculars (2020) by Sergi G. Oset, a satirical vein opposing heroic hypermasculinization. He also found humour, in this case at the expense of the anti-hero trapped by apocalyptic catastrophe, in Marc Pastor’s L’any de la plaga (2010). Miquel also mentions “a sophistication of the emotional scenarios” usually allowed to male characters in alternate history within Catalan SF, highlighting Els ambaixadors (2014) by Albert Villaró and Jo soc aquell que va matar Franco (2018) by Joan-Lluís Lluís. His conclusion is that the representation of the male characters by male authors in Catalan SF is now “being filled with nuances and variations that respond to a transformation —without direction, perhaps, chaotic and insufficient— of the meaning of one’s own perception of masculinity in our society”. I find this extremely perceptive and helpful.

My questions might not be the relevant questions –indeed, I asked myself as I wrote why SF male authors should be made responsible for regenerating masculinity, since nobody else seems to be interested (except women!). I’ll finish by citing Raewyn Connell’s classic Masculinities (2005). “In the first moment of Men’s Liberation,” by which she means the 1970s and 1980s, “activists could believe themselves borne forward on a tidal wave of historical change. The wave broke, and no means of further progress was left on the beach”. What follows is quite harsh: “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement. But taking a cool look around the political scenery of the industrial capitalist world, we must conclude that the project of transforming masculinity has almost no political weight at all –no leverage on public policy, no organizational resources, no popular base and no presence in mass culture (except as a footnote to feminism in a critique of the excesses of masculinity therapy)” (241). No wonder, then, that not even the SF written by men can imagine a bright future for a renewed masculinity, finally free from patriarchy.

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