AN HOMAGE TO MINISERIES

It’s evening, after dinner, time to relax and choose a film to watch from whatever platform you subscribe. This means employing about two hours on consuming a story, leaving aside the fifteen minutes (or more) it may take to select a minimally enticing movie, unless you have preselected and placed some on your list. If you know of a film which you really want to see, that’s fine; if you don’t, at this point you start wondering whether you have the stamina to sit through one hundred and twenty minutes of a possibly mediocre script with perfunctory direction and performances, the typical film rated 6 to 6’5 on IMDB. So why not watch one episode from a series? Sixty minutes at most and then early to bed, perhaps to read for a while; or stay on the sofa and play a videogame. Four hours and four episodes later, you wonder where time has gone and whether you’ll wake up on time when the alarm sounds…

Why is it easier to watch four episodes from a show rather than a much shorter feature film? For the same reason that it is easier to read sixty pages from a novel than a twenty-page short story. All self-contained narratives require an effort to master the rules of a fictional world, whether this narrative is a micro short story or a sprawling twenty-season series (serial?). With a shorter text this effort is not productive because it is spent in a short time. With a longer text, the opposite happens: once the basic narrative rules are grasped, the narrative itself can go on for many pages or many hours, with no additional effort.

When we choose a series over a film, or a novel over a short story, we’re choosing to maximize the usefulness of the effort to engage with the worldbuilding. When the two-hour film ends, we need to begin the process of engagement again with another film. With a series, the same effort stretches for hours, days, weeks, and longer, with no extra investment. Besides, watching a series also solves the problem of what to watch the following days, until the series ends or its appeal diminishes for the viewer. In short, a person watching a different film every day, or reading a different short story daily, must be willing to spend much imaginative energy, whereas someone using two hours a day to watch the same series for a month, or read the same novel, is just engaging with one story, no matter how complex the plot and the subplots can be.

I don’t like series for the same reason that I don’t like novels of more than 400 pages: there must be a limit, I believe, to the time I am willing to invest on just one story. For the reasons that I have explained, I am not too keen on short stories, which generally make me impatient even when they are just a few pages long. I do like movies, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to find scripts that interest me and, so, I am becoming far less willing to invest two hours of my time on watching a movie, particularly if I am reading an attractive book. Unless I am travelling on a train, plane or bus, or reading for work, I don’t really read more than two hours at a stretch for leisure, which means that for me the evening film is in direct competition with whatever book I may be reading. Usually, the book wins.

A solution for those who, like me, don’t like series and are beginning to hate films is watching miniseries. The difference between a series and a miniseries is not that easy to establish, though. In principle, a miniseries is limited to one season; in fact, the word ‘season’ should not even apply to this kind of narrative as a series only has ‘seasons’ if it is properly speaking a series, not a miniseries. To confuse matters even more, it is not easy to distinguish between miniseries and series by number of episodes: to give an example, the brilliant miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) consists of fourteen episodes, whereas the not less brilliant series Sherlock (2010-2017) consists of fifteen episodes distributed in four seasons. Perhaps rather than ‘miniseries’, we should use the label ‘one-season series’, even though this contradicts my previous argumentation. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences of the USA, which awards the Emmys, prefers the label ‘limited series’, and it appears than in the UK the word series is used both for minis and for longer series.

As for the length of the episodes, there are miniseries of just two episodes which are shorter than Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Schindler’s List (1993), which stretches to 195 minutes. The upper limit is marked by the maximum a season can last, though I should think that fifteen episodes is enough. Of course, episodes may last from twenty to ninety minutes, with most lasting forty-five to sixty minutes, so that the number of episodes is no indication of the actual length of a miniseries. War and Remembrance (1988-1989) is said to be the longest miniseries, with its 27 hours (in 12 episodes); its first episode lasts for 150 minutes! To add more data, the two highest-ranking fiction miniseries on IMDB, rated with a 9,4 (I’m here ignoring the documentary miniseries), are vastly different in length: Band of Brothers (2001) lasts for 594 minutes, Chernobyl (2019) only 330.

The miniseries was born long before the word itself, which appeared in the early 1960s (1963 according to Merriam Webster), with the serialized adaptation of novels. In The Classic Serial on Television and Radio (2001), Robert Giddings and Keith Selby attribute to John Reith, the British inventor of public service broadcasting, the idea of using BBC radio to stage plays in the 1930s. Radio drama, and the previous 1920s dramatic readings, inspired the idea of the serialized adaptation of novels for this means of communication, which started a fashion focused on 19th century literary and popular classics. The fashion moved later on to TV. Giddings and Selby note (p. 19) that BBC Television’s 1951 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden in six episodes was the first miniseries; this was followed in 1952 by Pride and Prejudice. According to Francis Wheen’s Television (1985), the immense success in the USA, in 1960-1970, of British serial The Forsyte Saga (1967), from the novels by John Galsworthy, “inspired the American mini-series”, also often based on novels, both classics and best-sellers.

Sorry to use my personal memories, but, as happens, my childhood and adolescence overlap with the period in which the American and the British miniseries boomed. The key year was 1976. Then, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) as I, Claudius, and ABC’s version of Irvin Shaw’s best-seller Rich Man, Poor Man (1969) hit the TV screen with a hurricane force that I perfectly recall. I was ten when Hombre rico, hombre pobre was broadcast by TVE, in 1977, and twelve when Yo, Claudio was finally seen in Spain in 1978, and I do recall their impact with all clarity. I don’t remember having seen Anglo-Italian hit miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977, directed by Franco Zefirelli), broadcast by TVE in 1979, but I certainly remember the huge phenomenon that Roots (1977), based on Alex Hailey’s novel (1976), became in that same year of 1979. Next came other BBC adaptations (I was blown over by the BBC’s 1978 version of Wuthering Heights, which I watched aged thirteen, before reading the novel by Emily Brontë) and the 1980s hits: Shōgun (1980), adapted from the novel by James Clavell; The Thorn Birds (1983) based on Colleen McCullough’s romance; and the North and South trilogy of miniseries (1985, 1986, 1994), based on the novels by John Jakes.

The miniseries that possibly altered most profoundly how literary adaptation should be handled for TV was Granada Television/ITV’s elegant Brideshead Revisited (1981) based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. The eleven-episode miniseries, which launched the career of Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in Spain in 1983. I was sixteen then and I recall being completely enchanted with everything in it. Curiously, Spanish television originally broadcast Brideshead on its second channel, which only reached a minority of viewers and then gave it a second chance on its main channel in 1984. Those were the times before the onset of the private channels (in 1990s) and long before the streaming platforms, when everyone watched the same series. Brideshead Revisited has little to do with all the other miniseries I have mentioned, being a rather subtle exploration of the mismatch between Charles Ryder and the rich but decadent family of his friend Sebastian Flyte. It is also a rather nostalgic chronicle of the end of the big British country houses (the magnificent Castle Howard was the main location), and as such a forerunner of Kazuo Ishiguro’s far more critical novel The Remains of the Day (1989). I was then an easily impressionable teen and got the very wrong impression that English culture was that smart and refined all the time, which is not the case. I also missed the deep classism, which I saw in all starkness when I taught the book a decade later to uninterested first-year students.

Going these days through lists of the best current miniseries, by which I mean of the last ten years, it seems to me that this kind of narrative is now flourishing, though it is also possibly overhyped. I did enjoy enormously The Queen’s Gambit (2020), from the novel by Walter Tevis (1983), but I found The Night Manager (2016), from the novel by John le Carré (1993), much overrated. An important problem affecting miniseries is that the platforms do not distinguish between them and the multi-season series, which means that it is easy to miss the less publicised. The impossibility of subscribing to all the streaming services also means that viewers are constantly missing what they might enjoy. This was going to be originally a post with a list of great recent miniseries to watch, but I myself have access to a very limited selection. This is a topic for another post, of course, but I wonder whether the proliferation of platforms is making piracy grow again, once computer-savvy spectators have come to the conclusion that there is no way to keep up with the ceaseless flow of appealing audiovisual products.

I’ll finish by suggesting that the miniseries might end up killing the film adaptation of novels, which is probably good news. A two-hour film can never accommodate the events of an average-length novel, much less so of any novel over 400 pages. The more flexible miniseries appears to be, therefore, a much more suitable vehicle to adapt novels, as the BBC’s beautiful version of Pride and Prejudice already demonstrated in 1995. The bad news attached to this trend is the temptation to prolong the miniseries for a second season and further, in the hope of turning it into a long-running series based on the attractive of a character or a plotline. An example is The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) now in its fifth season, far beyond the original novel by Margaret Atwood. Showrunners try to exploit the appeal of all the popular series but it’s good to know when to stop, and this is what I appreciate best about miniseries.

I hope you enjoy them, too.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

A PHANTOM GENRE: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE TECHNOTHRILLER

The one who should be writing this post today is my PhD student Pascal Lemaire since he has chosen to deal with the technothriller as his topic of research. However, I am myself curious about some of the points he is raising about this genre, so here I am.

Back in 2014 Pascal published in Hélice an excellent article which is the basis of his dissertation, started this academic year. In “Ain’t no Technothriller in Here, Sir!” (II.3, March 2014, 50-71) he dealt with the fact that both authors and critics deny that the technothriller really exists as a genre, despite the fact that this is a label most readers of popular fiction are familiar with. Pascal tests the hypothesis in his article that “The Techno-Thriller (sic) is narrative fiction set in the near past or the near future about violence in a political context exerted with advanced technologies”, and though, as it happens with any genre definition, soon the exceptions crop up, he manages to name a substantial list of authors and novels connected with the genre and establish some key sub-genres (submarine warfare, WWW III fiction, the Commander’s story and the Commando’s novel). His conclusion is that the technothriller exists at the same level as, for instance, chick-lit exists, that is to say both as a commercial label and a set of features coalescing into a genre most readers can identify. He also claims that “the whole package” survives and should be studied as “a testimony for some of the cultural aspects of the last quarter of the twentieth century up to the present day”. As he explained to his examining board last week, despite being a keen reader of the genre he is approaching it critically; he does not wish to vindicate all its values but to make sure that current scholarship no longer overlooks the existence of the technothriller.

As we discussed these matters in our last tutorial, I was reminded of the revolutionary work that Janice Radway did in the early 1980s, when her reader-response approach to the romance resulted in her indispensable study Reading the Romance (1984). Until then romance fiction was the dirty secret in women’s writing and reading, since feminist criticism regarded the genre as a scion of patriarchal ideology (which it is). Radway, however, proved that romance readers understand quite well how the texts they enjoy are positioned in relation to patriarchy, knowing how the romantic fantasy and sexist submission connect. Their preferences have gradually reshaped the genre towards a more open discussion of the contexts in which feminism offers women hope and comfort as romance seems to offer. Today, in short, no feminist critic treats romance readers in the patronizing way they used to be treated in the past and, the other way around, many authors have incorporated narratives of empowerment in their work which can certainly be called feminist.

The contradiction Pascal will be exploring, then, is why the technothriller, a genre that has been climbing to the top of the best-selling lists for decades, is being ignored by all scholars whereas romance, a genre that used to be marginalized, has received so much attention. The answer, as you can see, in my own sentence: because genres regarded as marginal and that address non-mainstream audiences are seen now as proper objects of academic study but we still don’t know what to do with best-selling authors addressing mainstream audiences (in any genre). Now you may find books such as Deborah Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005: Writing Romance (2014), but as far as I know nobody has written a dissertation on Danielle Steel, possibly the genre’s most popular author together with Barbara Cartland. There is plenty of bibliography on romance and plenty of resources for scholars but we still understand very poorly the phenomenon of the best-selling author and do not know how to argue that authors can be key contributors to a genre or to all of fiction despite lacking literary merit. It will be easier for Pascal to write about the whole genre of the technothriller, in short, than to justify writing a dissertation only on Tom Clancy, the genre’s best-known author after its founding father, Michael Crichton.

Other matters complicate the approach to the technothriller. Supposing Pascal chose to follow on Janice Randway’s footsteps and carry out field work among readers of technothrillers, his work would not be equally welcome for the simple reason that most readers of this genre are cisgender heterosexual white men. This is not a very popular demographic these days among scholars. Just a few days ago I had to explain for the umpteenth time to a feminist colleague that I write about that type of male author because I want to know what they are up to. I find women’s progression in all areas of literature marvellous, and I am happy to see how the more inclusive approach is resulting in the celebration of many trans and non-binary authors, but I still want to know about traditionally binary men because they are producing massive quantities of fiction read mainly by men, and thus generating gendered ideology I want to be aware of. You may ignore all that only at your own risk. Likewise, the technothriller needs to be explored because its plot-driven narratives celebrating technology appeal mostly to cisgender, heterosexual, white men and, guess what?, this is the category of person holding power today in the genre’s home, the United States, and in many other key nations of the world. When former President Ronald Reagan claimed that a novel by Tom Clancy had given him better information than the CIA reports someone in academia should have listened and start paying attention to the genre. This was no joke.

Apart from the low popularity of the technothriller’s target readership among scholars today, the genre is also treated as a bastard outshoot by the SF community, which is somehow harder to explain. I’ll take it for granted that technothrillers begin with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and leave to Pascal a more nuanced explanation of the genre’s origins. This novel narrates the frantic efforts of a group of American scientists to halt the spread of a deadly extraterrestrial virus which reaches Earth together with the debris of a military satellite. The Wikipedia page claims that “Reviews for The Andromeda Strain were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel was an American bestseller, establishing Michael Crichton as a respected novelist and science-fiction writer”. This is not true as regards his being a respected SF writer. Crichton was never nominated for a Hugo, and his only nomination for a Nebula was for the film Westworld (1973), which he wrote and directed.

Possibly, Crichton’s bestsellerdom alienated him from most SF fans and from fellow authors struggling to make an impact and also contributed to the alienation of other technothriller writers from SF’s fandom and awards circuit, even though it seems clear enough that the technothriller is a sub-genre of SF, particularly close to military SF. Beyond this matter (bestselling authors need no fandom or genre awards), there is another problem. I once considered writing a book on Crichton and found it an impossible task after noting that his ideological values are now obsolete in many ways, especially as regards gender; the project collapsed after my reading Prey (2002). Joking a bit with his other best-known title, Jurassic Park (1990), I would say that Crichton is now a dinosaur; if you notice, nobody mentions him any more in relation to the film franchise started by Spielberg’s 1993 film, a sure sign that he is no longer respected. Elizabeth Trembley published back in 1996 Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion but I just don’t see anyone updating this volume.

Now, if Crichton is too hot to handle, imagine what it is like to deal with a list of authors mainly interested in technology connected with the military and turning that interest into the stuff of, well, thrilling tales for grown-up white boys. I must say that I am not a reader of technothrillers (though I have seen tons of films based on them, or that are technothrillers in their own right) and perhaps I am wrongly assuming like most of my academic peers that their stance is technophiliac and right-wing, hence not worth discussing and much less defending. Yet, supposing this is the case (even though Crichton himself was very critical about the misuse of science and the impact of techno-corporations), and the brothers and sons of Tom Clancy are indeed in the worst case scenario white supremacists and staunch militarists, shouldn’t we all be aware of what they are writing? There is something else. As I am learning from Pascal, technothriller writers have a very good awareness of geopolitical issues whereas realist mainstream writers insist on depicting the personal lives of middle-class people as if conflict never happened. I am guessing that many readers find technothrillers didactic and, like Ronald Reagan, are learning from them lessons no other writers are providing. Perhaps, and this is for Pascal to say, some of these lessons might be worth learning and not just bilge, as we are now assuming.

If a genre manages to survive in the absence of fandom, specialized awards and scholarly attention, and even still appear on the best-sellers’ list after decades, this means that it is worth considering. Speaking as a scholar who writes about science fiction by men whose values I do not always share, I find it absolutely necessary to explore what interests most male readers. It is simply not true that most are reading now as much fiction by men as by women, or that gender ideology has impacted the writing by men (and their reading) as much as it has impacted women’s. We might have the impression that the world of fiction is now accommodating with no hitch the deep changes in gender ideology that we have seen in the last decades, but I believe this is not the case at all and that just as some women passionately love romance fiction of the more traditional kind, some men must certainly be still addicted to technothrillers, but being very quiet about their addiction simply because nobody is asking them about their preferences. I am glad, then, that Pascal Lemaire cares out of a truly academic interest in fiction by men who are in their shared ideology very different indeed from him. I am very much interested in what he is finding out and I hope many others will be, too.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

ON BULLIES, TYRANTS, AND THEIR SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT: STOP THEM NOW

As I write, the Russian nuclear armament is ready to strike anywhere in, probably, the whole world and both the media and the social media are debating whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might eventually order a strike, and against whom. To the world’s amazement, the Ukrainians are still resisting and Kyiv has not fallen down after six days of fighting. Conventional invasion tactics are being deployed by the Russians less successfully than they expected but, at the same time, Putin has not yet directly threatened Ukraine with nuclear devastation. In this extremely volatile situation, as Putin loses the respect of the Russian people and of most persons in the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who won the 2019 elections vowing to end corruption, has emerged as a great leader, choosing to stay in Kyiv, rather than accept the rescue which the Americans offered.

I want to use my post today to read the Russian assault on Ukraine in gendered terms, since I am a feminist who does research in Gender Studies. The contrast between Putin and Zelenskyy is the contrast between two types of men, showing that whereas masculinity in general is not to blame for the brutal type of violence that war is, patriarchal masculinity is indeed guilty of the worst crimes against humanity. Putin is being compared these days to Adolf Hitler and since I am the author of a book called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), I also have a few ideas to share about the Russian tyrant. The point I made in the book is that Hitler’s atrocious behaviour was the culmination of a pattern linking the fictional and the real-life villain as representatives of patriarchal masculinity. I defined that as the type of male-supremacist, sexist, misogynistic, LGTBIQ+ phobic, racist and generally prejudiced masculinity, only interested in accruing as much power as possible to prove itself.

Patriarchy which is not the same as masculinity but a hegemonic subset, as Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel have theorized, attracts men by promising them a share of the power which hegemonic men have. Although this is a hollow promise, many men fall for it, believing that they have a right to patriarchal power but finding themselves usually disempowered, or less empowered than they wished to be. If their feeling of disempowerment runs high, Kimmel has explained, this results in their lashing out against others less empowered than themselves, a behaviour that explains bullying, couple-related abuse, random criminality from serial killing to terrorism, and so on. Usually, the mechanisms of control, from peer pressure to judicial intervention work, and the would-be-tyrants are one way or another disempowered. In a number of cases, though, the tyrants in the making grow strong in power using sheer violence, within criminal or political circles, until they simply cannot be stopped; or it takes a massive effort—like WWII, perhaps WWIII—to stop them.

For the chapter on Hitler in my book I followed Kimmel but also Hitler’s British biographer Ian Kershaw, to leave aside biographical trivia and read the Führer not as an exceptional individual but as an exceptional case of patriarchal villainy overcoming all controls against excessive empowerment. Hitler, an obscure man with many personal issues, could have failed in his plans to empower himself if German society had been able to impose the necessary checks on him. The situation, however, was so fragile—after the German defeat in WWI, the 1929 crisis, the rise of fascism in Italy and so on—that instead of being stopped, Hitler was endorsed. Recall that he won a legitimate democratic election in 1933 before staging the coup that made him the total dictator of Germany. This is a mechanism we have seen at work recently in the USA, where American democracy almost died on 6 January 2021, after the Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump fascists. Hitler, Trump, or Putin, as you can see, are not important as individuals, as men. What matters here is that the democratic mechanisms are in place so that no tyrant can rise. These men are proof that the mechanism to stop villains from empowering themselves too much often fail, much more so when, as it happens in Russia, they have never really been in place.

In the normal run of things, the men and women rising to power in democratic political systems are motivated by a sense of service mingled with personal ambition to make their mark in History. Of course, they wish to empower themselves and act following their own principles and ideas with no check, but the opposition and the voters are supposed to curb down that instinct. Most politicians in the world, at any level, understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, though, obviously, many cross them on a daily basis to enrich themselves through corruption. J.R.R. Tolkien speaks in The Silmarillion and in The Lord of the Rings of two kinds of power: the power of creation and the power of domination. The first kind is chased by persons who think they can do good on an individual or a collective basis, whereas as it is transparent through the Tolkienian examples of Morgoth and Sauron, the power of domination needs to express itself through oppression, exploitation, and violent submission. It takes an alliance of divine beings and elves to put Morgoth in prison forever (he is immortal) and it takes a second alliance of elves, men, dwarves and hobbits to expel Sauron (another immortal) from Mordor. Tolkien had fought in WWI and he understood very well how patriarchal masculinity proceeds: its need for empowerment is a need for domination, and this is based, here is the main key, on a sense of entitlement.

Everyone feels entitled to something. Whether this is happiness or ruling the whole world depends on the share of power we have. A person with no power at all, a slave, cannot even contemplate feeling entitled to anything, whereas a person with a strong sense of entitlement to power will do anything to quash his/her enemies and rivals. We are seeing this at work in the national Spanish right-wing parties, with the sudden fall out of grace of PP’s President Pablo Casado for daring to interfere with Madrid’s regional President Isabel Ayuso, and in Vox, which is promising empowerment to men and women who feel they are being mistreated by progressive popular opinion and the left-wing parties.

Women, as you can see, feel as much sense of entitlement to power as men, but sexism has so far prevented them from enacting that need beyond a certain level (that of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s Prime Minister, 1979-1990). If men and women had always been treated equally, I would not be speaking of patriarchal masculinity but of oligarchical humanity. Yet, the fact is that women’s sense of entitlement has been harshly suppressed throughout History. Feminism has liberated many women from their shackles but it may have created monsters by inviting all women to defend their choices, which regrettably also include, as we know now, being fascists aspiring to ruling their territory.

If sexism had not been a major factor in History, then, there is no reason to suppose that there could never have been an Isolde Hitler, a Charlotte Trump, or a Natalia Putina playing the same role as their real-life male counterparts. The prehistoric bullies, however, soon discovered that violent males always got the upper hand, whether they were themselves directly violent, or ordered others to be violent, and started in the Iron Age the patriarchal regime that is now leading to climate change and nuclear holocaust. This male supremacist regime based on satisfying the sense of entitlement and the need of power for domination of a select cadre of villainous men is still ruling the world, despite the existence of many peaceful nations, mostly ruled by men and women who understand that wars of conquest and expansion have brought nothing positive in the last thousands of years. If only hypocritically, given their record in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the USA founded their world reputation on the basis that no other war of conquest should be tolerated. They exposed their argument by massacring the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear monstrosities because they felt entitled to ending their lives, but they still hold the argument that no one else should be allowed to enact a similar sense of entitlement over the lives of others.

This leads back to President Putin, whose sense of entitlement to the Ukraine and possibly other nations in Europe—he has directly threatened Finland and Sweden—has suddenly awakened, at a point when his power over Russia seems uncontested and after decades presenting himself internationally as a despot with no imperial ambitions. I can speculate whether Putin, now 69, is going through a personal crisis connected with his ageing as a man, given his ultra-masculine self-presentation—I believe this is the case—but I’m more interested in how the mechanisms to check his rogue behaviour are working. The war scenario in Ukraine is accompanied by other non-military measures elsewhere: massive demonstrations, financial exclusion, pressure to China to stop endorsing the war and so on. Both NATO and the EU have discarded military confrontation, though we’ll see what happens if Putin sets foot in Poland. Inside Russia, anti-Putin protesters are risking detention and worse, influencers are posting anti-war messages constantly, and billionaires beginning to grumble. There are, however, no signs (yet?) of a possible coup—a lonely MP, of the Communist Party, was the only one to oppose the war in Russia’s crowded Parliament. What is at stake, I insist, is not really how Putin should be stopped but how any villain of his kind should be stopped. Tomorrow, it could be Kim Jong-Un deciding next to invade South Korea and launch a volley of nuclear missiles. This is, however, where things get scary because right now, unless an honourable Russian man gets close enough to stop Putin for good, no strong check is in place.

As things are now, Ukraine and perhaps the world are being sacrificed to the personal needs of an ageing white patriarchal man who cannot be satisfied with ruling Russia. A German general was dismissed for arguing in public that Putin’s fears about Russia not being safe enough if Ukraine joins NATO or the EU should be addressed. I agree that his fears should be addressed, but not those concerning Ukraine. It is urgent to understand why one of the most powerful men on Earth feels suddenly so disempowered that he needs to lash out, perhaps ending the planet. What made me cry rivers last Sunday, when I heard Putin’s announcement about getting his nuclear arsenal ready, was not only pure fear but anger against the reluctance to learn lessons from Gender Studies and from the past, instead presenting monsters like Hitler as a mystifying aberrations when they are transparent and easy to understand. Now, here we are, with some idiots lashing out against the allegedly low profile that feminists are keeping in this war (like TikToker @notpoliticalspeaking, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10560821/Man-SLAMMED-saying-unfair-men-fight-war-Ukraine-children-women-leave.html) while we close our eyes to the nature of patriarchal masculinity. Fight it in the streets, or fight it online, but stop it by any means or that patriarchal man in Russia will destroy all the other persons on Earth. This is now much more serious than Hitler ever was, and much more urgent. The genocide he committed, absolutely appalling as it was, may pale beside the planetary genocide we might soon witness—if anyone survives.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

SONGS OF EMPOWERMENT: WOMEN IN 21ST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

First, a note. This is the first post I publish on the date it has been written after four months of silence, caused by the cyberattack that affected the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 11 October 2021 (the blog is hosted by UAB). I was confident that the texts were not lost, as I keep separate copies, but at one point I did believe that I would have to rebuild the whole blog from scratch (eleven years posting, more than 500 posts). This didn’t happen, but I learned an important lesson about the fragility of digital media and its ephemerality. Last week I posted the twelve posts I wrote between 11 October 2021 and 10 January 2022. The ensuing five weeks of silence between that date and today are due to my finally losing the impulse to write without imagining an audience. I don’t know who reads me, and I have never checked statistics, but I realize that every blog needs an audience, if only an imaginary one. So, thank you for being there.

In those five weeks I have been extremely busy editing the tenth e-book I have published with UAB students (see the complete list here). The book is called Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music) and it can be downloaded for free (in .pdf and .epub) from the digital repository of UAB. In its more than 300 very entertaining pages, the reader can find the students’ analyses of a selection of more than 60 songs by currently active women artists using English in their lyrics. Each short essay consists of a biographical presentation of the artist, followed by a commentary on the song, mainly focused on the lyrics, and of the music video. The songs run from 2000 (Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”) to 2021 (Charli XCX’s “Good Ones”). The book is not, however, a history of women singers in the 21st century, but a selection based on the students’ preferences. It is a sort of snapshot of what music by women sounded like in the Autumn of 2021, when I taught the subject from which the e-book derives. And, yes, it comes with a Spotify list, compiled by one of the students.

This is the first time I have ever taught a course on music, and this requires some kind of justification being, as I am, a Literature teacher. It is obvious to me that most of us, born in the 1960s and later, who choose to study for a degree in English did (or do) so out of an interest in Anglophone music. I have always been a keen reader but my initiation into English was through the songs which I would try to translate painstakingly as soon as I bought any new album. Music, however, meaning basically pop and rock, has never been an integral part of English Studies degrees in Spain, and although I constantly told myself that I should teach a course on this topic, I procrastinated until I lost the ability to work while listening to music. With the time devoted to music reduced practically down to zero, I decided that the chance was gone to present myself before students pretending I knew about current trends. This changed last year when I supervised a marvelous BA dissertation by Andrea Delgado López on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”. Andrea also did a research internship with me that we used for her to produce a booklet called American Music Videos 2000-2020: Lessons about the Nation. Andrea wrote for each of the twenty-five videos analyzed a short essay presenting the singer(s), the song, and the video, and this gave me the idea for the e-book.

I told my students in the ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (2021-22) about the projected e-book, candidly confessing I had no idea about what was going on in the world of popular music in 2021. They would have to teach me. Since I believed that we could not cover everything of relevance in one single volume, we focused on the women artists, and I will focus next year on the male artists with my MA students in a similar project. I brought to class a very long list of about one hundred women singers, all of them active, and asked students to choose two each, which they did, adding some new suggestions. I gave them, then, as much freedom of choice as possible, though I made sure that the main names got due attention (some, like St Vincent or Kacey Musgraves, will be probably missed, though, perhaps also Alanis Morrissette). I extended this freedom of choice to the songs, which students selected on the basis of their preferences and also thinking of whether the song and video combination would be productive enough for their essays. In a feedback session which I held at the end of the course, some told me that had been a major difficulty, since many favorite songs had no music video, or because they found the videos less interesting than the songs. I happen to like music videos very much as a strange bastard child of cinema and advertising, so there was never a question of focusing only on a song. Given, besides, our lack of training in music, I feared that students would be unable to write even a few hundred words on lyrics which are often very basic at a poetic or literary level.

Something quite peculiar has happened in relation to the main thesis behind the e-book. I originally announced that we would organize the class presentations of the songs and videos (used as a rehearsal or pre-draft of the essays) around the question of whether the songs women pop singers sing today are empowering. Little by little, we lost track of that question, as we worried mainly about how to continue the presentations with no internet in the classroom because of the cyberattack. We became so interested by the particularities of each singer—from mainstream Jennifer Lopez to indie Mitski, and so many others—that the notion of empowerment lost focus. We did discuss it all the time indirectly, mainly by commenting on the artists’ self-presentation and whether their choices could be called feminist and other issues such as race or class; it seemed to us that depression and abuse, a constant in most singers’ biographies, were somehow antagonists to any notion of empowerment. However, as I went through the second final draft of the essays, I noticed that the students had not missed at all the notion of empowerment, and had in fact addressed their essays mostly to explain how this is not in contradiction with women having been radically disempowered by patriarchy. That is to say, the common thread in the e-book is how women singers, despite being in some cases quite powerful, are constantly subjected to abuse (mental, physical, even commercial) and must send each other a message in favour of self-empowerment. This message is not sent, as I assumed, by songs that celebrate natural strength but by songs that candidly admit that strength is often born of vulnerability. In that sense Madonna, though still the Queen of Pop, is not representative but, rather, Rihanna, whose battered face we all remember and, indeed, Lady Gaga.

Although with variations, most of the songs in the e-book (and, believe me, they are a very representative selection) hold the same discourse: the singer describes how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be either abusive or simply disappointing, next how hard it was to break up with this man because of the strong hold of love on her mind and body; and, finally, how this experience brought empowerment by teaching the woman that she, and not a man, should be the centre of her own life. I found that with few exceptions (such as Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and perhaps Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”), the expression of female heterosexual desire for men had been replaced by the expression of a constant disillusion with heterosexual love and masculinity. With the songs women not only express their personal feelings but aim at giving other women support, inviting them to discuss their own views of love. The classic love song with the triad “I love you”, “I want you”, “I need you” has been replaced by “I once loved and wanted you, but now I don’t need you anymore”; “I will survive” is now “Of course I will survive, why shouldn’t I?” Secondarily, there is also a parallel discourse on femininity, which on the one hand expresses great admiration for women’s superiority (Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”, Halsey’s “I Am not a Woman, I’m a God”) and at the same time a certain acknowledgement of imperfections (as in Celine Dion’s eponymous song), which must be accepted as they are. I have no room here to comment on each of the sixty plus songs—please, read the book—but I think these are the main lines.

In class another topic that came up recurrently is how much pressure these women singers must endure from the social media. Since music videos became popular after the establishment of MTV in the mid-1980s, women singers have had to accept a constant exposure of their bodies to the public gaze. Videos, photoshoots and even performances are subjected, however, to a limited time frame. Social media are not, which means that female singers must now be posting on a daily basis about their activities, their looks, and their private lives trying to please fans but also battling haters. Just a week ago Charlie XCX announced on Twitter that she is taking a break from social media, tired of the endless monitoring and the angry comments by her own fans: “I’ve been grappling quite a lot with my mental health the past few months and obviously it makes negativity and criticism harder to handle when I come across it—and of course, I know this is a common struggle for most people in this day and age.” So it is, indeed, but because of how the lines between being a celebrity and being a pop artist have been blurred, many women singers like Charlie XCX are bearing a brunt that few other professional must endure. It seems to me that the pressure is much lighter on the male singers.

Next year, as I have noted, I will be dealing with the men in current popular music. I do have a list already of bigger and lesser names, and I’m bracing myself for the barrage of sexist, misogynistic lyrics, particularly those coming from rap. I am telling myself, though, that these lyrics must be analysed, also the music videos, from a perspective as constructive as possible. I don’t know, however, what the resulting e-book will tell us. I just hope it is not called Songs of Entitlement, though my deepest fear is that it will.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

A MINI-HISTORY OF WOMEN’S SINGING (IN ENGLISH): THE 20TH CENTURY

This is, no doubt, the strangest post I have ever published, but pending the transformation by my students of this list into a Spotify list (as they promised), here is my selection of 20th century songs by women (in English). I am currently teaching a Cultural Studies course on women in pop, and instead of lecturing to my students on names and titles corresponding to ninety years of women’s music, I produced this list and invited them to spend part of three sessions sampling the goods. In that way I managed, besides, to find an interesting use for the cellphones in class!

Please, don’t think that the list is ready-made and available elsewhere, or that it was easily compiled. I went through lots of websites claiming to offer the best of specific decades and came up with a selection that while surely very imperfect hopefully serves well as an introduction. As you may see, I have placed the women singers in order by date of birth. They appear in the decade when they had their first hit, with some exceptions (for instance, Tina Turner, though famous in the 1960s, appears here in the 1980s when she made her glorious comeback). The list ends in 1999 because my students are working on a collective e-book about 21st century women’s songs (in English), to be published next January. Finally, all the songs can be found on YouTube, which has the advantage of having you see the women in question to better learn (or remember) what wonderful artists they all are.

1920-29: Del blues al jazz
Marion Harris (1896–1944), ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ (1916)
Mamie Smith (1883–1946), ‘Crazy Blues’ (1920)
Ethel Waters (1896–1977), ‘Stormy Weather’ (1933)
Ida Cox (1896–1967), ‘Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues’ (1924)
Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, a.k.a. Ma Rainey (1886–1939), ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (1927), ‘Deep Moaning Blues’ (1928)
Bessie Smith (1892–1937), ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ (1929)
Clara Smith (1894–1935), ‘Troublesome Blues’ (1927)
Bertha “Chippie” Hill (1905–1950), ‘Trouble in Mind’ (1926)
Annette Hanshaw (1901–1985), ‘Am I Blue’ (1929)
Victoria Spivey (1906–1976), ‘How Do You Do It that Way?’ (1929)

1930-39: ‘Big band’, jazz, canciones de películas
Sippie Wallace (1898–1986), ‘I’m a Mighty Tight Woman’ (1937)
Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965), ‘San Francisco’ (1936)
Blanche Calloway and her Boys (1904–1978), ‘I Need Loving’ (1934)
The Boswell Sisters: Martha (1905–1958), Connee (1907 –1976) y Helvetia “Vet” (1911–1988), ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (1934–5)
Martha Tilton (1915–2006), ‘And the Angels Sing’ (1939)
Billie Holiday (1915–1959), ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939)
Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ (1931, cover version 1956)
Bea Wain (1917–2017), ‘Heart and Soul’ (1939)
Judy Garland (1922–1969), ‘Over the Rainbow’ (1939)

The 1940s: More blues, swing and vocal melody
Alberta Hunter (1895–1984), ‘The Love I Have for You’ (1940)
Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972), ‘Move On Up A Little Higher’ (1947)
The Andrews Sisters: LaVerne Sophia (1911–1967), Maxene Anglyn (1916–1995), and Patricia Marie “Patty” (1918–2013), ‘Rum and Coca–Cola’ (1944)
Lena Horne (1917–2010), ‘Mad about the Boy’ (1941)
Helen Forrest (1918–1999), big band singer, ‘Skylark’ (1942)
Vera Lynn (1917–2020), ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (1943)
Anita O’Day (1919–2006), ‘Let Me Off Uptown’ (1941)
June Christy (1925–1990), ‘Tampico’ (1945)

The 1950s: Beginnings of pop
Dinah Shore (1916–1994), ‘Love and Marriage’ (1955)
Georgia Gibbs (1918–2006), ‘Kiss of Fire’ (1952)
Peggy Lee (1920–2002), ‘Fever’ (1958)
Sarah Lois Vaughan (1924–1990), ‘Misty’ (1959)
Doris Day (1922–2019), ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)’ (1956)
Dinah Washington (1924–1963) [O’Brien: ‘the missing link between the blues and the swing of the 1940s and the glorious technicolor of 60s R&B’], ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!’ (1959)
Lita Roza (1926–2008), ‘Secret Love’ (1954)
Julie London (1926–2000), ‘Cry Me a River’ (1953, 1955)
Eartha Kitt (1927–2008), ‘Santa Baby’ (1953)
Patti Page (1927–2013), ‘How much is that doggie in the window?’ (1952)
Rosemary Clooney (1928–2002), ‘Tenderly’ (1952)
Connie Francis (1937 –) [O’Brien: ‘America’s biggest 1950s star’], ‘Lipstick on your collar’ (1959)
Patsy Cline (1932–1963), ‘Walking after Midnight’ (1957)
Debbie Reynolds (1932–2016), ‘Tammy’ (1957)

1950s to 1960s: Motown and the girl group
The Supremes 1959–1977 (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard), ‘Where Did your Love Go?’ (1964)
The Ronettes 1950–1966 (Veronica Bennett (Ronnie Spector), Estelle Bennett, Nedra Talley), ‘Be My Baby’
Mary Wells (1943–1999), ‘My Guy’ (1964)

The 1960s: Pop, rock, folk and beyond
Petula Clark (1932–), ‘Downtown’ (1965)
Shirley Bassey (UK, 1937–), ‘Goldfinger’ (1965)
Etta James (1938–2012), ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ (1965)
Nico (1938–1988), with the Velvet Underground, ‘Sunday Morning’ (1967)
Dusty Springfield (1939–1999), ‘I Only Wanna Be with You’ (1964)
Grace Slick (1939–) (with Jefferson Starplane), ‘White Rabbit’ (1967)
Dionne Warwick (1940 –), ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’ (1968)
Cass Elliot (1941–1974), with The Mamas & the Papas, ‘California Dreaming’ (1966)
Aretha Franklin (1942–2018), ‘Respect’ (1967)
Janis Joplin (1943–1970), ‘Me and Bobby Mc Gee’ (1970)
Brenda Lee (1944–), ‘I’m Sorry’ (1960)
Cher (1946–), with Sonny ‘I Got You Baby’ (1965)
Brenda Holloway (1946–), ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’ (1962)
Lesley Gore (1946–2015), ‘It’s My Party’ (1963)
Nina Simone (1933–2003), ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964)
Cilla Black (1943–2015), ‘You’re my World’ (1965)
Sandie Shaw (1947–), ‘Girl Don’t Come’ (1969)
Lulu (1948–), ‘To Sir with Love’ (1967)

The 1970s: Folk, pop, rock, disco…
Joan Baez (1941–), ‘Diamond and Rust’ (1975)
Carole King (1942–), ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (1971)
Barbra Streisand (1942–), ‘The Way We Were’ (1974)
Joni Mitchell (1943–), ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1971)
Debbie Harry (frontwoman Blondie) (1945–), ‘Heart of Glass’ (1978)
Anni–Frid Lyngstad (1945–) and Agnetha Fältskog (1950–) (with ABBA), ‘Waterloo’ (1974)
Carly Simon (1945–), ‘You’re So Vain’ (1971)
Linda Rondstadt (1945–), ‘Blue Bayou’ (1977)
Patti Smith (1946), ‘Because the Night’ (1978)
Dolly Parton (1946–), ‘I Will Always Love You’ (1974)
Emmylou Harris (1947–), ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ (1975)
Olivia Newton–John (1948–), ‘Hoplessly Devoted to You`(1979)
Donna Summer (1948–2012), ‘I Feel Love’ (1977)
Stevie Nicks (1948–) (with Fleetwood Mac), ‘Dreams’ (1977)
Bonnie Tyler (1951–), ‘It’s a Heartache’ (1977)
Kate Bush (1958–), ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978)

The 1980s: the MTV age begins
Tina Turner (1939–), ‘The Best’ (1988)
Grace Jones (1948–), ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ (1985)
Pat Benatar (1953–), ‘Love is a Battlefield’ (1984)
Cyndi Lauper (1953–), ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ (1979, 1983)
Annie Lennox (1954–), (with Eurythmics), ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ (1983)
Chaka Khan (1954–), ‘Through the Fire’ (1984)
Gloria Stefan (1957–), ‘Conga’ (1988)
Siouxie Sioux (1957–) (frontwoman Siouxie and the Banshees), ‘Happy House’ (1980)
Madonna (1958–), ‘Like a Virgin’ (1984)
Belinda Carlyle (1958–) (lead singer The Go–Gos), ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ (1987)
Sade Adu (1959–), ‘Smooth Operator’ (1984)
Suzanne Vega (1959–), ‘Luka’ (1987)
Alison Moyet (1961–) (with Yazoo), ‘Only You’ (1982)
Whitney Houston (1963–2012), ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ (1987)
Tracy Chapman (1964–), ‘Fast Car’ (1988)
Janet Jackson (1966–), ‘Rhythm Nation’ (1989)
Kylie Minogue (1968–), ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ (1987)

The 1990s: Before social media
Marie Fredriksson (1958–2019) (with Roxette), ‘It Must Have Been Love’ (1990)
P.J. Harvey (1959–), ‘Down by the Water’ (1995)
Melissa Etheridge (1961–), ‘Come to my Window’ (1993)
Björk (1965–), ‘Venus as a Boy’ (1993)
Sheryl Crow (1962–), ‘All I Wanna Do’ (1994)
Shania Twain (1965–), ‘That Don’t Impress me Much’ (1997)
Sinead O’Connor (1966–), ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ (1990)
Liz Phair (1967–), ‘Supernova’ (1994)
Toni Braxton (1967–), ‘Unbreak my Heart’ (1966)
Tori Amos (1967–), ‘Tear in Your Hand’ (1992)
Sarah McLachlan (1968–), ‘Angel’ (1999)
Anastacia (1968–), ‘I’m Outta Love’ (1999)
Lisa Loeb (1968–), ‘I Do’ (1997)
Celine Dion (1968–), ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (1997)
Gwen Stefani (1969–) (with No Doubt), ‘Just a Girl’ (1995)
Mariah Carey (1969–), ‘Hero’ (1993)
Jennifer Lopez (1969–), ‘If You Had my Love’ (1999)
Missy Elliot (1971–), ‘Sock It 2 Me’ (1997)
Alanis Morrisette (1974–), ‘You Oughta Know’ (1995)
Aaliyah (1979–2001), ‘You Are Love’ (1994)
Brandy (1979–), ‘I Wanna Be Down’ (1994)
Christina Aguilera (1980–), ‘Come On Over (All I Want is You’) (1999)
Britney Spears (1981–), ‘Baby One More Time’ (1998)

Enjoy!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

BEING THE OTHER, THE OTHER BEING: MASCULINE INSECURITIES IN MATTHEW HAIG’S THE HUMANS AND BLAKE CROUCH’S DARK MATTER

This is the ten-minute talk I gave last week at the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, of which I spoke in my last post. Since we had been given such a short time, I used no secondary sources and focused directly on the two novels I discuss. I was a bit nervous that the paper would seem too informal but nobody complained. So, here it is, with a warning about spoilers.

The exploration of gender in science fiction mostly focuses on women and the LGTBI collective, overlooking heterosexual masculinity, even though most authors have that identity. I consider here what men’s recent science fiction says about this type of masculinity from a critical position informed by Masculinities Studies, though I’ll leave my theoretical framework aside because of time constraints. My focus are two novels set in the present: The Humans (of 2013) by English author Matthew Haig, and Dark Matter (of 2016) by American novelist Blake Crouch. Haig’s novel is a satire and Crouch’s a thriller but, despite their differences, both address a key issue for contemporary masculinity, namely, how to successfully combine the demands of an ambitious career with a pro-feminist family life.

These novels could be Gothic horror about the wife and teen son who gradually realize their husband and father is a stranger. Yet, both are first person narrations that use science fiction (in a light vein) to portray a male individual who needs to understand how men function in the contemporary world. In Haig’s novel, a nameless alien learns to be a caring human man by rejecting the behaviour of the uncaring workaholic it replaces. The family man in Crouch’s novel must defend his well-balanced masculinity from the assault by another uncaring workaholic, his own doppelgänger. Alien and family man have little in common but the authors’ message is similar. Both use science fiction to endorse a positive masculine model, focused on caring for women and children. Neither author explains, though, why a happy family life should involve sacrificing personal careers. In each case, the birth of a son transforms the lives of at least one parent into a less publicly rewarding existence. Arguably, both novels resist above all the impact of parenting on personal life.

In each novel, there is a talented woman who has chosen motherhood over her career but the situation of the husband, both gifted scientists, is different. In The Humans top Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin is a selfish career man, and a disappointing husband and father, who cheats on his wife Isobel and lacks any empathy for his literally suicidal teen son Gulliver. In Dark Matter, Chicago physicist Jason Dessen is a happy family man, in love with his wife Daniela and in syntony with their son Charlie, unconcerned by having ditched his promising career. Each from their angle, Haig and Crouch are very critical of the workaholic career model that makes family life dysfunctional (or impossible) and that relegates women to a supporting role. In The Humans, workaholic Martin is killed when the alien narrator snatches his body. In Dark Matter Jason2, the doppelgänger, is dispatched for stealing Jason’s family life. In his gentle satire, Haig hints that an alien could be a better English family man than a human male, whereas Crouch has his happy American family man kill in a vicious way the workaholic he might have been.

Neither Haig nor Crouch, however, imagine their scientific male geniuses, for this is what Martin and Dessen are, combining their professions with a rich family life. For both, the arrival of a child at an early stage in their careers is a major crisis which forces them and their partners to make crucial choices. Andrew’s wife Isobel abandons her career as a historian to be a mother and to support her husband’s career, later taking up teaching. The unexpected pregnancy of Jason’s girlfriend Daniela makes them abandon their dream careers –hers as an artist, his in quantum physics–to become teachers, too. When each novel begins, the two couples are in their early forties and have been in their relationships for long: 20 years in Andrew and Isobel’s case, 15 in Jason and Daniela’s case. The novels narrate, then, a sort of mid-life crisis.

To give some more detail, Haig’s novel narrates the efforts of a Vonnadorian sent to Earth to stop Professor Martin from announcing his resolution of the Riemann Hypothesis, as this would fast-forward human progress in ways the aliens mistrust. Martin’s identity is wiped out and his body occupied by the nameless alien, who cannot easily adapt to his new life. The professor’s new oddball behaviour is, of course, attributed to a breakdown caused by overworking. On its side, the body-snatcher resists its orders to kill all who might know of Martin’s mathematical breakthrough. The alien refuses to kill Isobel and Gulliver, though he does murder the rival to whom a boastful Martin communicates his discovery. Taking a look at the many certificates of distinction in this man’s office, the alien feels “thankful to come from a place where personal success was meaningless” (89).

As the alien starts valuing Isobel and Gulliver, it discovers that Martin was totally focused on his career, that his wife was unhappy but unable to divorce him, and that Gulliver cannot cope with being the son of a genius. Enjoying the pleasures of caring for the boy and of being cared for by Isobel (since in its genderless home planet, family and love do not exist), the alien decided to become fully human. The attack of a second murderous alien, however, forces the alien to disclose its real identity. Gulliver takes the revelation well, even with relief. As the alien writes, there was no sentimental scene but the boy “seemed to accept me as an extraterrestrial life form far more easily than he had accepted me as a father” (264). Isobel, though, is shattered by the loss of her new happy family life. After this episode, Haig sends the alien abroad, still posing as Martin. But, being comedy, The Humans ends happily. When Gulliver invites his fake Dad back home, claiming that Isobel misses their life, the alien asks whether she misses the original or the alien Martin. “You,” Gulliver replies. “You’re the one who looked after us” (289). No more is needed.

In Dark Matter, Jason2 comes from the universe where Jason rejected fatherhood, and Daniela aborted. He built there the box that gives access to the multiverse. Successful but lonely, Jason2 starts seeking the life that Jason and Daniela enjoy with Charlie. As Jason comments, “If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available” (265). Jason2 kidnaps Jason and, wrongly assuming he will be thrilled to take his place as a single career man, swaps lives with him. In fact, Jason is shattered and only uses the box to get back home and terminate his usurper. Daniela and Charlie take Jason’s eventual revelation that they have been living (for a month) with Jason2 just with mild puzzlement. Yet, despite the reassurances of wife and son that Jason2 was not better than him, a certain doubt lingers. Since Jason’s family never really distrusts this other man (Daniela is, in fact, thrilled with their renewed passion), it appears that Jason is replaceable. Jason is robbed of his life but Jason2 is, on the whole, a good enough replacement, as if Jason’s roles as husband and father were just performances and not an expression of a deeply-felt identity.

To sum up, Haig and Crouch use science fiction to reject the workaholic male genius who refuses to be a good family man. Martin is flippantly replaced by an alien who is better at performing human masculinity than he ever was. As for Jason, by killing Jason2 he eliminates his workaholic self and regains his lost happy family life. Crouch, though, cannot wholly erase the impression that this man is replaceable because he can never prove that Jason is unique. Ultimately, whether a man is selfish or caring, his choices may make him vulnerable. In Haig’s and Crouch’s novels, the ‘other being’ embodies the choices not taken and men’s struggle to combine professional ambition and rewarding family life. It is, therefore, important to highlight science fiction’s contribution to the discussion of these male anxieties. I hope you agree!

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

IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY…

I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of déjà vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China Miéville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of Miéville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see Miéville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

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

WOMEN, ROCK, AND THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: CELEBRATING VICTORIA DE ANGELIS

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 https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

VIRGINIA AND NELLIE: THE WOMAN WITH NO ROOM OF HER OWN

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 https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SHAME OF THE NATION: ON WATCHING EL SILENCIO DE OTROS

It is habitual in scholarly work that a text illuminates another text quite by chance, in that phenomenon usually called serendipity. Reading the second edition of Sarah Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004, 2014) to fill in a serious gap in my list of books read, I have found myself considering in the light of what she writes a documentary everyone in Spain should see: Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s multi-award winner El Silencio de Otros (The Silence of Others, 2019). What Ahmed writes about shame in her volume has helped me to process my own feelings of shame regarding what the documentary narrates even though, as you will see, the cases in question are quite different.
I find that Ahmed writes in a rather abstract way, as if she were a philosopher mainly, and after finally reading her book, I realise that she is one of those big names whose texts everyone plunders following their own interests and not necessarily what she says. Of course, I am going to do exactly the same here. Incidentally, I have been amazed to learn that Ahmed is now an independent scholar, having severed her ties with all universities. This happened in 2016 after she discovered that her employer, Goldsmith’s College in London, had been turning a blind eye on a long list of sexual abuses perpetrated by its male professors. I applaud her brave decision, though few of us at a far more modest academic tier can take that kind of dramatic step (I also wonder to what extent her leaving helped the female students—but I digress).
Briefly, El Silencio de Otros (available on Netflix) deals with how the Ley de Amnistía passed by the post-Franco new democratic Parliament has prevented the crimes of Franco’s henchmen from being investigated. The film’s focus falls on a variety of cases, from the recovery of the remains of persons executed by the anti-Republican military rebels to the suffering of the victims of torturer Billy el Niño, passing through the thousands of babies stolen between 1940 and 1990. All these cases are grouped under the Querella argentina, the name received by the class action lawsuit investigated by Argentinian judge María Romilda Servini de Cubria between 2010 and 2015 (with no sentences whatsoever). She accepted the case on the principle of universal justice at the request of two descendants of victims of the Francoist regime. This was after Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón was expelled from the judiciary for trying to investigate the crimes, on the grounds that he was breaking the Amnesty Law of 1977.
The documentary focuses on a variety of persons, but two elderly women stand out among them: María Martín, who lost her mother, and Ascensión Murieta, who lost her father, both to the brutal action of murderous Francoist squads decimating the ‘reds’. María, the classic Spanish village grandmother clad in black, opens the documentary pointing at the road crossing her village and claiming that her mother and other victims lie under it. Garzón’s own lawsuit mentions 114226 victims whose bodies were then missing; less than 10% have been disinterred and properly buried thanks to the Ley de la Memoria Histórica of 2011 and other legislation previously passed by regional Governments. I must clarify, however, that most identifications, if not all, have been carried out by the NGO Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, not by the authorities. I had assumed that most victims were piled in the mass graves of cemeteries, in lonely spots in the woods and in road ditches, but it had not occurred to me that cars might be rolling over dead bodies on a daily basis. That seemed far worse than the decision by the Málaga Town Council, withdrawn in 2017, to place an area for dogs on top of mass grave number eight in the local cemetery of San Rafael, one of the biggest collections of Francoist mass graves in Spain. Seeing the cars roll by, I felt not only sorrow for María and her mother but also a very deep shame about the nation where I live.
In Alfredo Sanzol’s excellent play En la Luna (2012) two characters discuss, if I recall this correctly, the problems one has to rescue the remains of her Republican grandfather from the road ditch where he was thrown by his executors. The scene happens in 1990, and the other character, a man, comforts her saying that all will be well because, surely, they cannot have the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992 with so many bodies still unclaimed. That scene still strikes me because Sanzol stresses in this clever way the idea that Spain has never been subjected to the international scrutiny that other countries have faced, including the Argentina of Justice Salvini. In her country and in other post-dictatorial democracies, all the Amnesty Laws passed to protect criminal regimes where annulled so that the crimes against humanity could be judged. Spain, in contrast, has always taken the position that forgiving works better than judging, applying a ‘let bygones be bygones’ policy that the Socialist-sponsored Ley de la Memoria Histórica has barely eroded.
An argument often invoked is that the Civil War, anyway, happened a long time ago, which disregards both the abuses committed by the long dictatorship and the existence of survivors from the war itself. The other main argument is that, anyway, the ‘Reds’ were also genocidal murderers who killed thousands arbitrarily during the Republic and the war, and who would have likewise exterminated many fallen foes had they won. This argument, often invoked by right-wing persons of Francoist leanings, does acknowledge the crimes, as it can be seen, but justifies them on the spurious grounds that the ‘others’ were equally brutal. I doubt this is the case, but even so the Ley de Memoria Histórica is not limited to the Republican victims but to all victims. Yet, since no descendants of the Civil War winners are digging mass graves or road ditches to rescue the bones of their grandparents this possibly means that the victims caused by the Republicans were not that many, or that they are properly buried. I cannot explain otherwise the indifference to the obvious suffering of persons like Ascensión Murieta, who lost her father Timoteo in 1939, when she was only six, and could only ease her pain the day his body was found in 2017, as El Silencio de Otros shows.
Sara Ahmed refers in The Cultural Politics of Emotion to the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia, that is to say, the indigenous children mostly of mixed race forcefully but ‘legally’ removed from their families by a combination of the Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions, between 1905 and 1967, in some case as late as the 1970s. The appalling idea behind this mass kidnapping was that the children could be in this way assimilated into the white Australian nation, though, of course, this awful crime only resulted in deep personal and national trauma. A formal apology was presented in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, though at the time Ahmed was writing Prime Minister John Howard had adamantly rejected all calls for an apology. The situation, as you can see, is quite different from the Civil War and the dictatorship in Spain though, at least until 2008, the key question was similar: those in power refused to acknowledge a crime against humanity and apologize for it. Ahmed worries that shame can be acknowledged hypocritically so that those who apologize do so to continue a false narrative of national unity. Yet, she worries above all by how the lack of shame then embodied by Prime Minister Howard undermines the communal ability to “identify with a national ideal” (111). Although acknowledging the “brutal history” is not a magic solution, shame appears to be a positive step so that “the shame of the absence of shame” (111) can be overcome, always taking care that this witnessing might not “repeat the passing over” of the victims “in the very desire to move beyond shame and into pride” (111).
Most importantly, in cases such as that of the Stolen Generation, the shame is not only faced internally but externally, before “international civil society” (112). Ahmed, a British-born Australian, writes that “Being seen as an ideal nation is here defined as that which will pass down in time, not in our memories, but in how we are remembered by others. The desire for shame is here the desire to be seen as fulfilling an ideal, the desire to be ‘judged by history’ as an ideal nation” (112). In her conclusions, Ahmed writes that “The projects of reconciliation and reparation are not about the ‘nation’ recovering: they are about whether those who are the victims of injustice can find a way of living in the nation that feels better through the process of speaking about the past, and through exposing the wounds that get concealed by the ‘truths’ of a certain history” (201). In the Australian case, and in others like Argentina or Chile, the international mechanism of shame has more or less worked (remember that Justice Garzón managed to have Augusto Pinochet arrested in London in 1998 but the monster walked away free thanks to the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and President George Bush senior). What is extraordinary about the Spanish case is that the international mechanism of shame has had no effect: Justice Salvini was simply not allowed to interrogate either witnesses or the accused in Spain (extradition was, of course, denied), whereas Amnesty International’s calls to the Attorney General’s Office of Spain to investigate and prosecute the crimes have been ignored. Watching El Silencio de Otros I felt shame at the lack of shame, particularly because I do not see on the horizon any apology, much less any serious, committed investigation.
I find the idea of being proud of one’s nation quite silly for there is no nation truly free of fault. At least, though, I would like not to feel ashamed, as I can only feel for as long as 100000 fellow Spaniards remain buried in mass graves or under the tarmac daily tread on by rushing cars. I would be very proud if the Spanish Parliament agreed by unanimity to put each of these victims in the family graves where they belong, because that would mean that a first step into healing the nation had been taken. But since this is a fantasy, we must live in shame. So far, we have done quite a good job of hiding this deep national shame, so much so that Franco’s heirs are daily gaining power, as if they have nothing to apologize for. In view of all this, it is logically easier for me, and for many others, to deny that we are Spanish and to cling with all our might onto the idea that we are Catalan. Not really because we are independentists, or because Catalonia is a perfectly civilized haven, but because being Catalan is not internationally connected with any specific shameful events. It’s a little like being Danish if you know what I mean.
By the way, if you watch El Silencio de Otros and come across calls to abolish the Amnesty Law of 1977, be careful. As happens, the law was passed to free those unfairly accused and imprisoned by Franco’s regime, though it has had the side-effect of helping the Francoist henchmen to escape prison. This law does need to be abolished but only to be replaced by a new law that finally applies internationally accepted legislation about crimes against humanity to Spain—and that lifts the veil of shame under which we still live.

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

GENDER IN 21ST CENTURY ANIMATED CHILDREN’S CINEMA: NEW E-BOOK BY STUDENTS

This post is intended to be a sort of ‘making of’ of the new e-book I have edited and which has been written by the students in my MA course on Gender Studies this past semester. It is my ninth project of that kind (see the full list at https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). These e-books gather together short essays, and in some cases longer papers or brief factsheets, written by students as part of their assessment but mainly with a view to online publication. The new e-book is called Gender in 21st Century Animated Children’s Cinema and it can be downloaded for free from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/236285. I have also uploaded onto the digital repository of my university a narrated PowerPoint corresponding to the symposium presentation “Collaborative authorship: Publishing E-Books on Fantasy and Science Fiction with BA and MA students” (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/236037), which more or less repeats what I describe here (but with illustrations!). This is what I presented at the meeting on born-digital texts to which I referred a few posts ago.
I started publishing e-books with students both in the BA and the MA degrees in English Studies because my university, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, invited all teachers to take advantage of the possibilities open by the digital repositories inaugurated in 2006. In 2013-14 I taught a course on Harry Potter for which I asked my students to write a brief essay about their experience of reading the series. When I saw that the essays had quality and interest I put together a volume which I published online in the digital repository. Then I put together a second volume with the academic papers written to obtain the course grade. These were my first two publications with students, in this case fourth-year BA students in the degree in English Studies, with a C1 to C2 command of English. Next, in 2015, I published a volume gathering together work written for a fourth year BA course on Gender Studies, including again personal essays and papers. I published a second volume a few years later, in 2018.
In the previous four publications I had worked with quite large groups of about 40 BA students. For the next two, Reading Sf Short Fiction: 50 Titles and Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema, I worked with much smaller groups. The science-fiction short fiction guide was written by only 15 BA students enrolled in an elective monographic fourth-year course on this genre. The e-book about gender in sf cinema was written by just 8 MA students in my Gender Studies course, with a similar C1 to C2 level. This is the minimum number this kind of project needs as each of the students had six films in their hands, which also meant six essays for the e-book of about 1500 words each. Of course, I could have chosen to cover less than 50 films, but this is quite a nice number if you want to cover minimally an extensive field. My two most recent projects before the new e-book were Frankenstein’s Film Legacy, written by a group of second year BA students with a lower B2 to C1 level, and Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Film written by a group of 4th year BA students. This e-book is the most complex publication I have edited so far because I was not familiar myself with about 50% of the films and I had to learn about them as I taught the course. It is also a very long volume, with 90 essays.
All these e-books, published as .pdf files, are available for free from the digital repository of my university. They have generated together more than 22,000 downloads in six years, from a long list of nations all over the world. The most successful one is the short fiction guide which accounts for about 40% of the downloads, and seems to be particularly popular in the United States. I cannot explain its success except that it appears to be the most practical of the e-books I have published with students.
The last e-book has been written by 13 MA students of diverse nationalities (Spanish, American, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian) who have produced excellent work analysing how animated children’s cinema deals with gender issues. The novelty of the e-book and of the course is that unlike what is habitual in academic work it does not focus on a single animation studio. I did read in preparation for the course the two books by Amy Davis on Disney and another book by Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam on Pixar. There are, however, no academic books yet on studios such as DreamWorks, Laika, Illumination, Blue Sky and so on. In contrast the e-book includes films by all these and others. The films are in any case all of them English-language films mostly made in the United States because they have been studied in an English Studies degree.
It was by no means easy to focus just on 50 titles, the maximum a small MA group can cover, even though it was my criterion to work only on 21st century films. I am myself a keen spectator of that kind of animated film so I relied on my previous knowledge of the genre to organise the course. Even so, I went through many lists of the best, taking into account that the films should also be interesting from a gender issues perspective. However, I must say there I discarded very few on those grounds for, as my students found out, all films for children implicitly address gender issues. An annoying problem was that many of the films made now have sequels and I found it very difficult to focus just on the first film and disregard the sequels. Perhaps I should have done that but I decided that taking a look at the franchises made sense to see precisely how gender evolved in them, or not at all.
Generally speaking, from the first film, Monsters Inc (2001) to the last, Onward (2020), there has been a general improvement in the treatment of gender though within a rather conservative pattern. Again generally speaking, the female characters are better represented, with many more strong, independent girls and women. Nevertheless, the influence of the Disney Princess stereotype still persists, even in films that try to opposite it openly. Besides, most films addressed to children have male characters as protagonists, even though it is by no means true that men or boys are always positively represented. The other matter that we established is that most animated films addressed to children are stubbornly heteronormative. There were hints that some characters could be gay or lesbian but only in Onward, that is to say last year, did we come across an openly LGBTI+ character, who has, it must be noted, a very minor role. So, on the whole the treatment of gender issues has improved but very slowly and we hope that the pressure put on the studios after the #MeToo campaigns and others will help to make animated children’s films generally more progressive and closer to what the march of gender progress demands.
For those who might be interested, this is how I taught the course. I used two of the ten teaching weeks for an introduction to Gender Studies and to animation, based on four 90’ lectures. Then I used the rest of the eight weeks for students’ class presentations of the gender issues in each film, with two to four 15’ presentations per session, apart from a teacher’s mini-lecture also of about 15’. I offered students a sample presentation, and I myself participated in the course as one more student. Each of us had four films in our hands. When we had to move online because of Covid-19, I kept the same format, though instead of streaming live presentations we used narrated PowerPoints that were later commented on in the corresponding forum. I don’t know whether this was the effect of certain competitiveness but the PowerPoints were in some cases simply spectacular. All students did much more than I asked them for. I must say that if the course had been run face-to-face it would have been impossible to deal with all the material that they uploaded after we went online, with most presentations running to 20 minutes instead of 10 to 15, as I had initially asked. The presentations were intended to be a draft of the essay that students later submitted; this was based on my own sample essay (including credits, film poster, three reasons why the film is interesting, a 1500-word essay). In total we covered 57 films, so the e-book contains 57 essays. I encouraged students to use for both the presentations and for the essays three secondary sources, including film reviews and academic secondary sources. Luckily, this time I had a research assistant helping all of us to find bibliography. We have found some academic work for most of the pre-2010 films but not so much for the more recent films, hence the importance of the film reviews.
I must note that I corrected in depth the essays, handed in two weeks after each presentation, but I did not grade them yet. If they were good enough, I accepted them for publication; if they required revision I returned them for a second draft, to be delivered one week before the final grades were due. That was the case with about 30% of the essays. This might surprise some but I asked students to self-assess: 50% of the final grade came from the essays, 30% from the presentations, and 20% from the forum contributions, that is to say the questions they asked their classmates. All assessed themselves fairly, though I upgraded some marks after going through the revised essays. Once I gathered the 57 essays together (216 pages, 105000 words), I spent about 35 hours revising them for the final publishable version, with most of that time used to correct the second versions of the essays for which I had asked students to rewrite.
I didn’t ask students to see all the films and I have not checked or valued in any way how many they did see, but I assume from their comments that they were familiar directly with at least half (in some cases more, in others less). Regarding the approach to Gender Studies, I have allowed students to express their own views and ideas freely. I am myself a feminist specialised in Masculinities Studies but I have not imposed on my students a single criterion (at least, I hope I have not done that). In any case, rather unified criteria emerged from classroom discussion with very little discrepancy, perhaps because the films are on the whole rather conservative, as I have noted, and they were quite easy to analyse and criticise. The students were clearly much more progressive and advanced in their understanding of gender than the studio executives.
I am extremely proud of my students’ great work. Thank you Rubén Campos, Manu Díaz, Cristina Espejo, Silvia Gervasi, Maria Guallar, Naiara López, Jessiah Mellott, Raquel Prieto, Alba Sánchez, Thu Trang Tran, Jamie Wang, Ting Wang and Helena Zúñiga for a wonderful experience in the midst of a hard time that seems hardly the best for doing good academic work. I hope your e-book is immensely successful!

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

THE DAY I WATCHED 50+1 MUSIC VIDEOS: A NEGLECTED PLEASURE

One of my BA dissertation tutorees has asked me to work on Childish Gambino’s fascinating, controversial music video “This is America” (2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch/VYOjWnS4cMY) and I’m happy to have the chance of returning to a film genre that I neglect too much. Ages ago (or so it seems), I published the essay “El cuerpo en el videoclip musical: Más que carne fresca” (in Meri Torras (ed.), Corporizar el pensamiento: Escrituras y lecturas del cuerpo en la cultura occidental. Pontevedra: Mirabel, 2006. 175-194), which came from a seminar on the same topic which I taught at UAB. I will always remember a hilarious moment in it. I had decided to debate with students The Prodigy’s video for the song “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). I had more than a little distaste for the lyrics (just a monotonous repetition of “Change my pitch up!/ Smack my bitch up!”) but the video directed by Jonas Åkerlund is still one of my favourites. It narrates from a first person point of view a riotous night in London, with plenty of booze, drugs, and sex. The spectator assumes that the invisible protagonist behind the camera must be a man but the big final reveal is that this is actually a young woman. When I walked into the room, I saw that one of the students was an elderly lady and, ageist me, I worried that she might be scandalized. Funnily, when the video was over, she raised her hand and asked me very eagerly “can you play it again, please?” Everyone laughed.
I wrote a few years later another article on a music video, “Unstable meanings, unstable methods: Analysing Linkin Park’s song ‘What I’ve Done’” (José Ramón Ibáñez Ibáñez & José Francisco Fernández Sánchez (eds.), A View from the South: Contemporary English and American Studies. Almería: Editorial Universidad de Almería, 2011. 150-157), in which I showed how even when a song is popular there can be very little agreement on what it actually means. The song appears to deal with a man’s regrets about his past misbehaviour, either because he has been a drug addict or because he has been abusive in a relationship, or both. In contrast, the video directed by one of Linkin Park’s members, Joe Hahn, shows the band playing in the desert with the performance intercut with a montage of documentary images, mostly showing the conflicts in which the USA have been involved. Chester Bennington’s passionate singing changes radically depending on what you decide the song is about: a heart-felt apology from a single man speaking for himself perhaps to a woman, or a heart-felt apology by an American man ashamed of his nation and asking the world for forgiveness. And this just because some images were added to a performance in the music video.
Back to my student. She is also taking a Practicum with me consisting of doing academic activities connected with Literature and Culture. Since the actual content is very open, I have employed her so far as my research assistant for my MA course on gender in animated children’s fiction and will employ her now producing a guide of the best American music videos of the 21st century (for online publication on UAB’s digital repository and under her name, not mine). This is for two reasons: one, I think that working on other music videos will enhance her understanding of Gambino’s video for her BA dissertation; two, I very much wanted to learn from a much younger person about the current state of the music video. There are always lists of the best at the end of the year and, inevitably, I stumble upon this or that music video on YouTube or browsing the international press. I must say that, unfortunately, I seem to have lost my former passion for pop and rock, which lasted until I became incapable of working with the music on and found listening to it outside working hours incompatible with the lots of reading I need to do. Besides, I could never accomplish the transition from the album to the Spotify list, without which following the ups and downs of current music styles is hard enough. I know, more or less, who is who but if asked to name ten great songs of the last decade I would be lost. Yes, quite sad –perhaps I should teach a course and get back on track!
I agreed with my tutoree that she would select 50 great music videos of the 21st century and then we could decide how to write about them for the guide. She sent me the selection last week and I spend a few wonderful hours on Saturday enjoying a list if not of the best at least of the very good music videos which the past two decades have given us. My student has mostly chosen elegant, well-made videos that illustrate great songs by a notable variety of US performers. I’m not going to comment on the list itself (I keep that for when she publishes the guide) but I will say that, as she and I know, all lists are bound to be very personal even when the person making the selection tries to be as open-minded as possible. Everyone has favourites and in the immense world of popular music there is no way two persons can agree on what is best. It is, besides, very hard to say in which ways a music video is a quality work, for, surely, some great videos corresponding to not so popular songs must pass unnoticed, whereas other videos get noticed just for the song, not because the video has any filmic values. Surely, the video for Luis Fonsi’s hit “Despacito” has no special values as a film, despite being the second most played video on YouTube ever (behind “Baby Shark”!). Even worse, some music videos have become extremely popular for very wrong reasons, and I’m thinking here of the exploitative images in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.
This leads to me to video number 51 –“WAP”. My student did not include it in her selection but “WAP” is no doubt the most talked about music video of 2020. Here are some notes. “WAP” is a song published by New York rapper Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar in 1992) featuring Texan rapper Meghan thee Stallion (Megan Jovon Ruth Pete, b. 1995). The song, which mixes hip hop, dirty rap, and trap, deals quite explicitly with sexual matters, with both artists singing and rapping about women’s sexual preferences and their expectations regarding men’s performance during sex (‘wap’ incidentally is an acronym for ‘wet-ass pussy’). “WAP” was generally well-received for its expression of female sexual agency but its dirty lyrics (https://genius.com/Cardi-b-wap-lyrics) were also a source of enormous controversy, with some criticizing them for their vulgar language. There was quite a backlash from conservative politicians (i.e. Trumpian Republicans) who even asked for some form of censorship, though their complaints mostly helped “WAP” to become an even more popular hit. Most progressive media outlets defended Cardi B’s raunchy song as an expression of black female empowerment through popular American culture’s reverence for the rebellious artist.
The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsm4poTWjMs), directed by the extremely experienced Collin Tilley but with plenty of input from Cardi B herself, made the controversy even more vivid, with figures such as British comedian Russell Brand arguing that there was little difference between pornographic sexualization by men and the supposedly self-empowering presentation of the women in it. The video shows Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion, dressed in sexy outfits by haute couture designers (Nicolas Jebran, Thierry Mugler), walking in an extravagant mansion full of powerful women similarly dressed. The imagery uses plenty of animal print decorations and psychedelic colours in the style of Willie Wonka’s factory. A pool scene offers a sensual dance routine (by JaQuel Knight) imitated countless times on TikTok. The video features non-singing cameos by Kylie Jenner, Normani, Rosalía, Mulatto, Rubi Rose, and Sukihana, all contributing to enhancing the representation of female power. The video was celebrated, like the song, and soon hailed as one of the best of 2020, if not the best. However, beyond its sexiness, the video became a source of criticism for its use of live animals (with big cats appearing as pets for rich women) and for the presence of white celebrity Kylie Jenner. Cardi B defended her choice, arguing that race should not be a consideration (Jenner has been often accused of appropriating black culture) and that Kim Kardashian’s sister also appears as her personal friend.
There is an immense difference between Gambino’s “This is America” and Cardi B’s “WAP” but both have something in common: they are a wonderfully compressed representation of a rich bunch of interconnected issues, and require a savvy audience to make sense. I understand why my student is interested in the former far more than in the latter. Gambino’s issues, focused on racial discrimination in the USA, seem to be far more serious socially speaking than Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion’s hymn to the hyperactive vagina. Yet, each knows its audience very well. Gambino throws one allusion after the other to events every black person in the USA should be able to identify whereas Cardi B appeals to those who follow the ins and outs of celebrity culture and of black female empowerment in the American music circuit. If you don’t know any of the celebrities appearing in the video, you will be mystified –though I remain mystified about why Rosalía accepted appearing in a sort of torero outfit without singing at all. Kylie Jenner’s presence is not, in my view, insulting in racial terms but because unlike Rosalía she is no artist and Cardi B hardly needs her to endorse her own art. Gambino, by the way, appears naked from the waste up in his film but this is not intended as a sexy display of his quite sexy anatomy. In contrast, Cardi B and her colleague Meghan display their curves in all their glorious abundance. In one of the scenes Cardi B’s breasts are quite visible, even though the nipples are covered, and this is when, like Russell Brand, I did doubt whether this was empowerment or self-exploitation. My own idol, Kylie Minogue, has found much more classy ways of being her own woman –and no, this is not prudery but a certain tiredness after seeing women claim power by showing their bodies for the last thirty five years, since Madonna started the trend. I recall dealing with the exact same issue in my 2006 article regarding a video with Jennifer Lopez…
See? These tiny films, lasting on average 3 minutes, are food for thought in ways much longer films are not. Half advertisement, half art the music video still survives and, from what I see in my 50+1 songs exploration, has a great future ahead. I’ll make sure to be more alert to it.

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

THE NARRATIVE AND AESTHETIC PROBLEMS OF UTOPIA: RECONSIDERING ITS LACK OF APPEAL

Last week I had the great pleasure of participating in the seminar “El miedo y la esperanza: utopías y distopías en las artes y la cultura de masas” (Fear and hope: Utopias and Dystopias in the Arts and Mass Culture, https://escolaeuropeadhumanitats.com/es/trobades/el-miedo-y-la-esperanza-utopias-y-distopias-en-las-artes-y-la-cultura-de-masas/) within the Escola d’Humanitats run by the magazine La maleta de Portbou. I must thank Prof. Antonio Monegal for his invitation. It is not habitual in my hectic profession to be asked to debate ideas with others and after the seminar was over I felt immensely satisfied to have benefited from a great conversation lasting for six hours –what a luxury! I must note, incidentally, that the seminar was originally programmed for March 2020 in Tarragona, but had to be delayed because of Covid-19. The meeting last week was moved to Barcelona but I must say that it became a hybrid event, with three of us participating from home and the rest in the La Caixa venue of Palau Macaya. The dystopia we are living in right now made it impossible for me to see my colleagues’ faces, except for those online, as all were using facemasks. I don’t how this will look in the future documentary film that is to come out of our meeting, particularly when this is seen once the pandemic is over, hopefully at the end of this dystopian year of 2021.
I tend to forget that Spanish academia favours an encyclopaedic approach in contrast to the argumentative discourse preferred by Anglo-American academia. Thus, whereas my own contribution –a discussion of Iain M. Bank’s utopia the Culture– was focused on a single author and a novel series, my colleagues’ contributions gathered together a great variety of titles, with possibly Iván Pastor’s panorama of current comics being the most wide-ranging. This worked well since it allowed for abundant discussion among all of us also in a wide-ranging fashion which was, after all, the object of the seminar. The participants, I must note, were not only academics but also practising artists and writers (some also academics). I found it very refreshing to meet them, and I also felt awed, as I tend to feel a little silly discussing authors in front of other literary authors… (I refer here to Laura Fernández and José Ovejero).
I must note that my contribution was the only one exclusively focused on utopia, even though the seminar was supposed to deal with both utopia and dystopia. This is not at all a criticism of my colleagues’ excellent talks but a way of stressing a major problem: the utopia/dystopia ratio works overwhelmingly in favour of the latter. At one point Prof. Monegal mentioned that IMDB mentions about 150 productions connected with utopia, but about 1500 related to dystopia; one to ten, then. The torrent of titles that came under discussion was, therefore, necessarily dystopian because this is what interests audiences –or, at least, what they are being offered by artists of all kinds. In fact, an issue that was raised is to what extent the insistence on the dystopian text is a capitalist ruse to keep all of us under control. A society that has no illusions about its future will not demand any changes and will most likely adapt to whatever little is offered in the way of social advances. At some point in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s the very idea of a positive, brighter future was lost and without it there is very little that utopia can do to be appealing. Dystopia, in contrast, confirms again and again (or sells) the generalized impression that any utopia is necessarily misleading.
In my own contribution I insisted on a question that seems to me of great importance, namely, that utopia is never as easy to narrate as dystopia. Take, for instance, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. At the end of the story an epilogue hints that the formerly dictatorial civilization of Panem has been rebuilt as a democratic nation, under the leadership of the former rebels. It would have been very interesting to narrate Katniss Everdeen’s participation in that rebirth but Collins chose instead to involve Katniss in a plot twist that totally deprives her of any power she might have and that strands her in a domestic situation most of us judge to be just barely happy. Collins, of course, could have proceeded and narrate the building of a new utopia in a reformed Panem but instead she has published a rather dull novel about how tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow came to be: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Indeed, most of Collins’ readers expected her to go further back into the history of Panem and narrate how the United States became that dystopian monstrosity, which says plenty about the sad mood in the American nation. It is my personal opinion that we do not need more stories about the fall into dystopia that may ring prophetic, but new stories about how to build utopia beginning with current dystopia. They can be still full of incident and strife, and be exciting in its proclamation of a new beginning. I would agree, however, that narrating stories about utopia once this is in place might not be that thrilling. As Iain Banks once explained, persons who live in a utopia can also experiment disappointment or conflict but whatever crisis you choose to narrate it would be just too similar to what you might find in the typical middle-class novel in which the social background is inexistent. This is why he preferred to narrate the clash between the utopian Culture and those less advanced civilizations that resisted its intervention.
Apart from the problem of its narrative limitations, utopia seems to have another significant problem of an aesthetic kind. This was made evident by Fito Conesa’s observations about a series of rather kitsch utopian images which turned out to be propaganda for the Jehova’s Witnesses. What he suggested is that any ideally pastoral image of happy people in a lovely environment makes us cringe rather than feel elated and I would attribute this cringeworthy effect to the steady undermining of beauty as an artistic category and of the sentimental in the current structure of feeling. Beauty, of course, is not gone as an aesthetic category but it is not something we actively seek in connection to the utopian future –we may admire the beauty of certain individuals or natural landscapes, but beauty is not at all connected with social living. When it is, as happens in the orbital for the very rich of the film Elysium, beauty is offered as a marker of privilege, not as a communal aspiration. In contrast, the ugly landscape of dystopia seems ubiquitous and even socially inescapable, a constant feature of the future because it is already a dominant feature of the present all over Earth. If a beautiful human-made, communal landscape appears in fiction, then you can be sure that it hides something behind, usually of a sinister nature (think of the film The Island).
Utopia, in short, is not cool either narratively speaking or in its aesthetics, whereas dystopia has managed to be cool both as a tale and in looks. How can this double handicap of utopia be counteracted? To be honest, I don’t know, being neither a narrator nor an artist. One thing I can say, though: capitalism is infinitely flexible and it will certainly accommodate any utopia that is attractive to a significant number of people. If one day someone makes a truly good adaptation of a Culture novel by Iain Banks and the image of its utopia works well, that might start a new fashion. If it were in my power, I would go further and establish a well-endowed competition for utopian stories (though I would make it a condition that they are not separatist with, for instance, women-only civilizations or blacks-only civilizations, on the utopian principle that the elimination of prejudice should be paramount). Leaving aside the nightmare that Covid-19 currently is, I’m tired of that sinking feeling that dystopia produces, whether it comes from the daily reading of the news or the fantasies of depressing storytelling (ten seasons of The Waking Dead? Why?!).
One of the participants in the seminar, artist and academic María Ruido, complained that what most disgusted her is the habitual treatment of basic human rights as a utopia, in the sense of something unfeasible. She worries, most rightly, that the Covid-19 crisis will further undermine any social protest and will even push back the achievements of the last decades as regards workers’ rights and women’s rights. María and I stressed that the utopias behind these rights –Communism, feminism– have not been fully developed but should be given some room in any utopia to be. I believe that feminism is currently the only functional utopia in the sense that all women, even the non-feminists, are motivated by the idea that our future must necessarily be better until it is truly good. The many strong female characters in fiction and the many bold women in real life model their lifestyles on this utopian aspiration (whereas men wander lost in the now decadent patriarchal dystopia). In contrast, what has become almost taboo is any discussion of work and by this María and I meant something quite similar: not just the appalling lack of quality of most occupations but also the enormous amount of time that work takes.
Between 1820 and 1920 the average working hours went from 76 a week to 42, but in the last 100 years nothing has been done to reduce our weekly toil from 40 to 30 or less. We are told again and again that this would bring chaos, with more unemployment, lower pay rates, etc. but it just seems impossible to believe that productivity remains the same as in 1920. Something needs to be done and change demanded. The utopia spoused by 1970s radical feminism as regards the family had to do with this, precisely: the domestic model defended was a household in which each member worked no more than four hours a day, so that there was sufficient time to raise children and enjoy leisure of a constructive, active kind. Instead, we work very long hours, with more instability than ever and with hardly any chance of truly reconciling work with private life. Any attempt to reverse this trend is immediately branded communist agitation and dismissed as an afront to common sense. Thus capitalism thrives and utopia dies, while we consume as if there is no tomorrow the dystopian tales that capitalism itself sells to us.
Let’s create, then, utopia anew, for the sake of the future, with uplifting tales and pleasure in beauty.

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

RECALLING TIMES PAST: ACADEMIC LIFE 1980-2020

As someone wrote recently, it makes sense to think of the 1970s as 40 years ago but how can 1980 be 40 years ago? This has come to my mind in relation to a question asked by one of my Master’s students. He wanted to know whether, on the whole and considering our current access to countless sources of information, academic writing has improved in the Humanities. This question started my recollection of the times when I didn’t have access to the Internet, much less to a computer. Having been born in the mid- 1960s, I’m old enough to have seen a dramatic change in academic work in my own lifetime. As this student told me, there will be far less difference between the academic life of people born in the 1990s and in the 2020s than there is between the academic life of the people born like myself in the 1960s and that of those born in the 1990s. I can only say that he’s totally right.
So let me go back to 1980, the year when I started secondary school. The first papers I handed in were handwritten, a situation which continued for at least three more years until my fourth and last course, what used to be called Curso de Orientación Universitaria (College Orientation Course). If you think that what comes next is the arrival of a PC to my working-class home you are in an alternate universe. What I got then, when I was 17, was my grand-father’s second-hand typewriter, a rather basic, heavy Olivetti. I recall in one particular instance a long Literature paper which I wrote by hand and my mom typed late into a Sunday evening; she had been an admin clerk before marrying, and still had the typing skills that I have never acquired. The typewriter in question, however, had a few glitches, one of which was that the Spanish orthographic stress key was broken. This means that the accents in my paper, which was in Spanish, were all open, in Catalan style. My teacher forgave me because she knew from what kind of home I came from.
This state of matters continued for a while. I enrolled as a university student in 1984, that Orwellian year. I continued using a typewriter, though I seem to recall a lighter new Olivetti made of plastic, with some suspicion that it was not mine but, again, someone else’s. I continued writing handwritten and typed papers based, of course, on school library resources until 1987. I spent the year 1986-87 in England as an au-pair girl and all my communication with my family and friends was through handwritten letters and the occasional phone call from a phone booth. Only when I returned from England did I finally have access to a computer, that of my boyfriend at the time, a nerdish type who grasped how important PCs would be before this was generally understood. All this time, please notice, I was still using library resources: those of my own university, the Autònoma, and the resources of the British Institute in Barcelona, which were in many cases better than what I found at UAB.
After completing the five-year Licenciatura, I started in 1991 my doctoral studies. Doctoral programmes consisted of two years of taking courses with a third year for writing your first dissertation, or tesina. I still wrote mine using bibliography on paper from libraries because although the Internet had already been born it only existed in very limited military and scientific circles. I recall purchasing dozens of articles, very expensively photocopied, from the British Library. I started work on my doctoral dissertation in 1993, spending one year in Scotland (1994-95), still with no internet access, not even e-mail. Like back in 1986-87, all communication with family and friends was done though snail mail and phone calls (no cell phones yet!). I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996 still without an Internet connection, though the novelty then was the introduction of email in our communications. This means that if you wanted to publish an article you would snail-mail the hard copies of the article accompanied by a cover letter and then whether the article was accepted or not would be communicated to you in the same way, by letter.
The first academic websites were started then, in the mid-1990s, and some look as they did originally. I was going through the Victorian website the other day and I realised that the layout and most of the texts that you can find there possibly come from that time. The same goes for many other websites built in the 1990s on a voluntary basis that need a revamp but will be lost for lack of volunteers. My post-doc life begins in 1996, when home Internet access also became generally available, but without a flat rate, which means that any prolonged consultation with any website could potentially cost a lot of money. In 1998 I became a consultant at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the first online university in Spain, and that was an interesting position because the job included free Internet access. Telefónica eventually offered, around 2000, a flat rate, which was really the moment when the Internet took off in Spain (and so did illegal downloading of music, films, books…).
From 2000 onward, then, we academics started having access to many online sources, which means that composing a bibliography became quite easy. Months of research could suddenly be done in one afternoon sitting before your computer, accessing catalogues anywhere in the world. However, what truly made the difference was database access. A catalogue tells you what is available and where, but the database usually contains part of what is available as downloadable texts and that makes an enormous difference. You might have a bibliography which is 200 entries long but if none of those sources is really accessible there is not much point in its bulk. The wonder of research in the last 15 years, then, is not only that any list can be quickly compiled but also that you can download onto your computer in just a few hours many sources, particularly articles in journals. Books remain a grey area of research because not so many are accessible from college libraries as e-books. Universities subscribe to article databases but there are not equivalent book databases, which is the reason why everyone is using Google Books but keeping quiet about it. The price of academic books has gone through the roof so that few researchers and even few libraries can actually purchase books, which may easily cost 100 euros or more (a non-illustrated hardback). So, thanks Google!, you know what for.
The abundance of sources does not necessarily mean, however, that we are producing better research or better academic writing. A typical article in the Humanities usually contains around thirty secondary sources. They take less time to be located but still take a long time to be read. In the past, before the 1990s, when theory exploded, researchers in the Humanities could get away with using a maximum of ten sources for each article. This is a luxury that we can no longer afford. The proliferation of bibliography might seem to be a benefit and in many senses it is. Yet, at the same time, it has resulted in a style of writing that is very constrictive. Most articles I read these days consist of a long barrage of quotations taking the introduction and usually two thirds of the article itself, leaving just a little corner, usually less than one third of the article, for the actual discussion of the text supposedly analysed in it. Before so much bibliography was available and used, literary criticism was literary criticism, that is to say, it was an exercise in reading focused on what the primary source did say. The voice of the scholar had to be strong because it had to sustain the whole analysis, and so you got classics of literary criticism such as Leslie Fiedler, Tony Tanner, John Hillis Miller, Marianne Thormählen, Catherine Belsey, Elaine Showalter and so on.
Now there is very little room for one’s own voice among so many secondary sources, and to be honest this is one of the reasons why I started writing this blog: I was losing my voice in my own academic production. Since the need to publish has grown enormously, this means that you have less time for each of the articles or chapters you write; many sources need to be read diagonally, looking for that quotation which will contribute to your own article. Articles are more frequently quoted than books because a) they are more easily found in databases, b) can be read more quickly. Nobody uses bibliographies in which most items are books that must be read from beginning to end, for a quotation ends up costing too many working hours. That’s our reality. All this constant flow of bibliography, then, is coming when we have least time to benefit from it: to sit down and absorb whatever may be new and exciting. In my worst days I think that literary criticism is dead and we are just endlessly circulating the secondary sources without really paying much attention to what the literary authors themselves are saying. Post-1990s academic rhetoric, in short, has eaten up academic creativity in Literary Studies, and even in the apparently less conventional Cultural Studies.
This can be very daunting for a beginner in the field but, like all rhetoric, academic writing has a playful side. You need to look at academic research as a complex game, with rules that need to be mastered. I do not mean that scholarship is trivial or banal. I just mean that in order to get published you need to learn how to play the game, and this includes understanding which sources you need to check and how valuable they are for you. Having said that and although I’m not going to praise those times when literary criticism was written by hand and based on what your university library housed, we have certainly lost an indefinite something. The Internet has brought the world to our fingertips, but our brain still needs time to process information and deliver solid discourse. Yet time is what we most lack now, in our frantic effort to excel when more people than ever are in academia.
In a sense, then, the cyberpunk dream of the 1980s–if only we could access all the academic riches computers contain–has become if not a nightmare, certainly a source of anxiety, for those who rule academic life have decided that we need to use that flood of information to generate a flood of academic work and so increase the deluge until nobody can really follow it. The solution is to work on one’s own little corner, and play the game as best one can.

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

AFTER WATCHING THE CROWN: WONDERING WHY I CARE…

Needing entertainment I chose to spend close to 40 hours watching the four seasons of Netflix’s The Crown (2016-). It has been impossible these last few weeks to ignore the abundant articles and blog posts on the alleged misrepresentation of the British Royal Family in the new fourth season, released in mid-November, as I just got curious. As you possibly know, so worried is the British Government about this matter that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, asked Netflix last week to insert a warning at the beginning of each episode declaring that the series is intended to be fiction. I am under the impression that most spectators are aware that the series is not a documentary, but it seems there is some concern that the younger generation might take The Crown as a reliable history lesson. Naturally, there is also concern that the living persons represented in the Netflix series may be offended by their portraits, or even the object of social media attacks. The main worry in that sense is the Royal Family’s inability to protect Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, for the renewed wave of hatred against her as the late Princess Diana’s rival for the love of Charles, the Prince of Wales.
I recall in all detail the shock of hearing about Lady Diana Spencer’s tragic death in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris on Saturday evening, 31 August 31. I heard about the lethal car crash the following morning, when a neighbour told me, still amazed by the grim news. Diana was nothing to us, and I personally had no admiration for her, but she was an immense celebrity and still very young, just 36. There have been rumours to this day that MI5 had followed orders by Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to have Diana killed, fearing that the by then divorced ex-wife of Prince Charles was about to marry Muslim Harrods’ heir Dodi al Fayed supposedly because she was pregnant by him. The supposition behind these rumours was that the Crown did not want the future King, William, to have a Muslim half-brother. I find all this conspiracy theory nonsense, though it appears that Diana really had the intention of marrying a Muslim, Pakistani surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, and was dating al Fayed, who also died in the crash, just to make this other man jealous. That’s the thing about the Royals… they make you engage in gossip, whether you are naturally gossipy or not. Anyway, on the day news of Diana’s death reached me, it was clear as daylight that the car crash had been provoked by the relentless pursuit of the media. The paparazzi started pestering young Diana the day it was known she was dating Prince Charles and, I have no doubt whatsoever, eventually caused her death; it was manslaughter though not direct murder. I fail to understand why this type of harassment is tolerated when any ordinary citizen chased by another citizen has the right to report this to the Police as a crime.
On the whole, I have enjoyed far more the three seasons of The Crown previous to the point when my own memory of events started. Once Diana appeared in season four, memory and dramatization got entangled and I started questioning not so much the truthfulness of the series as finding it too focused on the triangle formed by the Princess, Charles, and Camilla. For the first three seasons, the series works in a far more appealing way, with each episode being a self-contained narration of a particular crisis. And in that sense in can be taken as an History lesson, not because it tells the truth but because it send you rushing to Wikipedia and other sources to check for yourself. On average, I have spent about 30 minutes reading online for each episode, sometimes finding that the events narrated were quite different but also learning about matters I knew nothing about, or just very little. Looking back, I find that episode 3 in season 3, dealing with the Aberfan disaster, which claimed in 1966 the lives of 28 adults and 116 children when a colliery spoil tip collapsed in this Welsh mining town, was not only extremely poignant but also, on the whole, a valuable lesson on the Monarch’s duties. Now we are used to the images of Kings and Queens comforting the families of the victims of disasters or terrorist attacks but at the time this was a novelty, and whether this is strictly how Queen Elizabeth II behaved or not, the reflection that show-runner Peter Morgan (also author of most scripts) presents is valuable. Of course, what he offers is an interpretation based on his own personal thesis about the events narrated but if his views have currently more weight than those of the British historians, then we need to consider why giving reliable History lessons to the general public is generally such a daunting task. In this time of fake news and when American historians are begging President Trump not to destroy crucial documentation when he leaves the White House, as it is assumed he will do, this is more important than ever.
Season four, I read, has been quite traumatic to watch for those Britons who recalled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s mandate (1979-1990) in all detail. If you closed your eyes and listen to the marvellous Gillian Anderson, here playing Thatcher, you will certainly get goosebumps–at least, I did. Anderson has done better than Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011). Yet, having spent 1985-86 in Britain as an au-pair, a period which included my stay for a few months in the borough of Finchley in North London, Thatcher’s own electoral district or constituency, I missed more about her mandate. Yes, the Falklands War was there (though no way she got into it distracted by her son Mark’s going missing during the Paris Dakar rally), and the final crisis that pushed her out of her long-held Prime Minister seat was there, but not the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the Poll Tax crisis and other events. Instead, we got the appalling soap opera that Charles and Diana’s romance was from its very onset.
The problem, perhaps, is that in current times each of us has become an amateur historian and we all have theories about what did or did not happen. I read an article by a woman journalist who claimed that now she finally understood Lady Diana, but to understand her I believe that the 2017 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words (also on Netflix) works much better. Not only because it reproduces interviews secretly taped to help journalist Andrew Morton to write his best-selling tribute Diana: Her True Story (1993) but because, ironically, it is easier to understand Prince Charles by listening to Diana’s own testimonial. The Crown argues that Diana was treated with total coldness by the Royal Family and by Charles himself, and so she is presented as their victim, but her own words present her as a victim of her own immaturity and of a grand vision of herself that Charles’ choice of her as his bride fulfilled, with horrific consequences. At many points of the documentary Diana is heard saying that she expected guidance from her husband, who was thirteen years her senior, but instead only got contempt for her immaturity. Peter Morgan has, in any case, a similar theory about Charles’s upbringing and treatment by his parents: that he received a cold-shoulder when he expected warmth and, yes, guidance. These were, then, two misguided individuals led to marry for the Crown’s convenience despite being woefully ill-suited to each other–which happens all the time, though in far less politically significant circumstances.
The history of the British monarchy as told in The Crown is, of course, a fascinating tale about how Western ideas of marriage have changed. Despite initial difficulties caused by Prince Phillip’s reluctant subordination to his wife, who is also his Queen, and his sense of emasculation as a man, the couple agree that divorce can never be an option. The real-life couple have been married for 73 years, and I must wonder whether theirs is one of the currently longest-lived marriages on Earth. The marriage may have survived with some infidelities on his side, as Peter Morgan hints in his series (though recall how Prince Phillip said it was hardly possible to commit adultery with a policeman shadowing his every move), but it is still there, whereas three of the couple’s four children have got divorced: Charles, but also Anne and Andrew; only Edward, who wed Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, is still married.
The episodes of The Crown dealing with Princess Margaret are in this sense pitiful to watch: her relationship with divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend ended when she chose her privileges as a Princess over a civil marriage to him and a private life away from England; later, she did marry in Westminster Abbey with the acquiescence of Crown and Church but her union with talented bisexual photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones was anything but placid. The message we are given is not really that the Royals are failing to do their duty by staying married, but that the changes in the idea of marriage, from life-long commitment accompanied by a high degree of personal compromise to a relationship supposed to provide sexual and sentimental fulfilment, has changed radically. Of course, the old-fashioned model may have worked for Elizabeth and Phillip, but we are now seeing in Spain how the long-lasting union of the still married Juan Carlos and Sofía, was a sham all along. The united front they presented was crucial for the transition into democracy, but the former King’s long stream of mistresses and his shady financial dealings is revealing to us not only the less palatable aspects of his personality but that Spain on the whole respected a man who did not respect the women in his life, beginning with his wife, nor his fellow Spanish citizens.
In all this matter of the Windsors, the most intriguing participant is, no doubt, Camilla Parker-Bowles, née Shand. In hindsight, it is quite clear that Charles and Camilla should have married not long after they met in the 1970s but most biographers agree that she was seen as a commoner (which Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are) and was sexually too experienced (Lord Mountbatten advised Charles to marry a virgin); besides, as Charles’s junior by just one year she was ready to marry while he was told to sow his wild oats before wedding anyone. As we all know by now, in 1973 Camilla married Andrew Parker-Bowles, a man all accounts agree that she did love, and had to watch his ex-boyfriend marry the virginal Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. I was astonished to listen to Diana herself explain in the 2017 documentary that she had avoided having any boyfriends, and had kept herself “tidy,” just in case that became required. The girl, nicknamed Duch by her family, had fairy-tale dreams of marrying at Westminster Abbey one day, perhaps even being a Queen. I’m not saying that she was a calculating teen, but there is something unsettling about a woman that decided to remain a virgin till marriage in the late 1970s/early 1980s. That was unusual. Anyway, in past times, or not so past if we think of Queen Sofía, Diana could have played her assigned role as future Queen and tolerate Camilla as the official mistress. That, however, was not to be, and the irony is that now Camilla is finally Charles’ wedded wife. They married in 2005, in a civil ceremony (as Camilla is a divorcee), though Camilla is known as the Duchess of Cornwall, not the Princess of Wales because that was Diana’s title. If Charles is ever crowned, which seems doubtful, she would be Princess Consort, though it is known that the British heir wants his wife to be crowned Queen. I was going to write ‘fat chance’…
When the credits of the last episode rolled, my husband and I burst out laughing. He had joined me in the second season, attracted by the high quality of the dialogue written by Morgan and his other scriptwriters. The reason why we laughed is that we found ourselves at specific points feeling deep empathy for some of the characters, despite our republicanism and general mistrust of families who inherit absurd, anachronistic privileges. We have, then, embarrassed ourselves a little bit by following the lives of Queen Elizabeth’s family. I read that Prince William and Prince Harry are very much against the addition of a sixth season dealing with their lives to the planned five seasons, and I doubt that I’ll watch more of this show. To disconnect, in fact, I watched one episode of the hilarious, over-the-top The Windsors, also on Netflix, and a few episodes of the new Spitting Image. I must, in any case, take my hat off to British monarchy and British society in general for their ability to endure misrepresentation and satire with no major political damage. Here in Spain we are light years away from that.

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