RETHINKING THE PLACE OF DOCUMENTARY FILMS AND WONDERING ABOUT ACTING

I wrote my last post about a documentary film and I was not really thinking of continuing with the same topic but I came across a very interesting article by Carlos Lara, “¿Debería poder ganar un documental el Goya a Mejor Película?” (“Should a documentary film win the Goya to Best Film?”) so, here I go again. Lara is asking the question in relation to this year’s Goya winner for best documentary, El año del descubrimiento by Luis López Carrasco and to one of the nominees, My Mexican Bretzel by Nuria Giménez Lorang. In Lara’s view, these two films are much better (meaning far more daring) than those in the fiction film category, the winner Las niñas, and the nominees, Adú, Ane, Sentimental and La boda de Rosa. I cannot offer an informed opinion as I have only seen Iciar Bollaín’s La boda de Rosa, which I absolutely loved. I can say, however, that I have found myself not only watching more and more documentary films in the last year but also finding them far more satisfactory than fiction films. Incidentally, I must note that the Romanian documentary Collective is making history at this year’s Oscars, after being nominated in the best documentary and the best international feature film categories. I must also note that whereas 24 women have won Oscars for feature-length documentary films (Barbara Kopple has won twice) only 1 woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for best director. I would say, then, that it is also in women’s interests to make documentary films more prominent and visible.

What Carlos Lara is implicitly asking is why documentary films are less valued than fiction films. Please, note that the label ‘fiction film’ is only used when it is necessary to contrast what we usually just call ‘films’ with documentary films. That is, then, one of the problems: any film which carries an adjective in its label (documentary film, animated film, short film) appears to be in a separate category from the generic category ‘film’, which in fact corresponds specifically to the feature-length live-action fiction film. The supposition, I assume, is that the fiction film is better valued because it is supposedly harder to tell a story from scratch, through scenes performed by actors, than creating a film using animation, or involving scenes from real life, or told in less than 90 minutes. As you can see, the moment this is made explicit, it sounds quite absurd. Only prejudiced convention determines that the feature-length live-action fiction film is accepted as the main category for films. There is, in fact, no specific reason why the other kinds of films are undervalued, except a poor understanding of the effort it takes to make them and of their aesthetics.

Having mentioned the word ‘aesthetics’ I will now ask the question of whether this is all we take into consideration when choosing to watch a fiction film or a documentary. Believe me when I say that trying to define the fiction film and the documentary film for what they do is much harder than it seems, and perhaps aesthetics is the answer to what separates one from the other. Let me take an example on which I have written: the documentary by Rob Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Oscar Award winner) and the fiction film Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant). This was the winner of an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, which went to Sean Penn, and of an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, awarded to Dustin Lance Black. Here the problems begin, for although Milk is not based on a previous work, the connections between Black’s ‘original’ screenplay and Epstein’s documentary are more than obvious. Van Sant, besides, uses original footage also used by Epstein, recreating some of the scenes with his actors.

Anyway, my point is that both films tell in a very talented way the same story: how Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for office (he was a member of San Francisco’s Town Council) was murdered in cold blood, by his fellow councillor Dan White, who also killed the mayor, George Moscone. Now ask yourself how you would like to know about this tragic event: through the documentary or through the fiction film? Just trust me when I say that both tell the story proficiently and in a moving, entertaining way. Advantages of the documentary? It is, obviously, far more informative and has plenty of footage of the real Harvey Milk, and other persons of his circle. Advantages of the fiction film? It recreates far more personal aspects of Milk’s private life into which the documentary does not go, and the acting is very good. I would say that both films are excellent and, in combination, a superb cinematic experience. Yet, we rarely find time for two films on the same topic. In fact, although I see the point in making a documentary once the fiction film has been made, I see little point in making the fiction film once the documentary is available, particularly if said documentary is a great film as Epstein’s is. Consider, if you want another example, why Robert Zemeckis’s fiction film The Walk (2015) exists, since James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008) tells wonderfully the story of how Frenchman Phillip Petite crossed on a wire the distance between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Is it a matter of availability? Of audiences not knowing that certain documentaries exist? Or is it, as I say, a question of aesthetics? Why do audiences prefer the fakery of fiction film to the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary?

I have written the word ‘authenticity’ in inverted comas because this is the issue that bedevils any understanding of the documentary. To put it simply, fiction films can lie as much as they want, even when they recreate real-life events, but documentary films are not supposed to lie, yet they do. In fact, it is quite possible that all boils down to a misunderstanding. Famously, the Scottish father of the documentary, John Grierson, commended in a review Moana (1926) –a film portraying the natives of the South Pacific made by the American father of the documentary Robert Flaherty– for its “documentary” value, which eventually lent this film genre its name. As happens, however, Flaherty’s film was full of staged scenes that he had invented on the basis of the local ‘traditions’ which he forced his native actors to perform; besides, Grierson wrote that Moana was perhaps more interesting for its poetic values. The idea that the documentary documents reality does not come simply from that review and that remark but it is certainly connected with it, and has made it almost impossible to define the genre with precision since not all documentaries ‘document’ reality (many re-create it) and what you may mean by ‘reality’ is also open to discussion. Take, for instance, Goya’s nominee My Mexican Bretzel. Apparently, director Nuria Giménez Lorang uses in it the home movies shot by her grandfather from the 1940s to the 1960s (footage which she found by chance), grafting onto these moving images the melodramatic story of her grandmother Vivian, a story which is, basically, invented. How is that a documentary?

Every time I try to think of some rule that fiction films and documentaries cannot break, there appears an exception perhaps because the two film languages have mixed in recent times. I had never noticed, for instance, that documentaries use music in ways very similar to fiction films, giving some scenes the tone of a thriller, or of melodrama, as the director wishes. Some scholars claim that, ultimately, the basis of the difference between a fiction film and a documentary is a matter of expectations: audiences expect to be told a story in fiction films, but to be enlightened about an aspect of reality they didn’t know in documentaries (as if they were lessons). It doesn’t work like this, either. Just think of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and how much one may learn from it about the Holocaust, even though it cannot be called at all a documentary film like, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Actually, Spielberg’s film created a big scandal by having the cameras enter the showers at Auschwitz, a moment that no other film, fictional or documentary, had dared recreate. Lanzmann was among the American director’s most vocal critics. Yet, this is just a matter connected with historical taboos, not a matter of what films –fictional or documentary– can do.

You may recall that one year ago we were all fascinated by Netflix’s documentary mini-series Tiger King (directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode). There was a hilarious moment (I can’t recall whether it was in the series or in a bonus feature) in which Joe King fantasized about being played by Brad Pitt in a film about his life. That is hilarious not only because there are many obvious physical differences between King and Pitt, but because there is already a great film about King’s life: the mini-series. In a similar vein, let me repeat a curious anecdote I just heard actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate: Philippe Petite, the man who did walk between the Twin Towers, remember?, taught the actor, who plays him in Ron Howard’s film, how to walk on a wire. This is bizarre, not only because just fancy the real-life man teaching the actor how to do what made him famous but also because, according to director James Marsh, Petite is a big narcissist that absolutely wanted to dominate the shooting of his documentary. Why Petite would feel interested in Gordon-Levitt’s performance is something I fail to grasp. Was he flattered in some way? Why not jealous?

All in all, I am going to argue that what ultimately makes the difference between choosing to see a fiction film or a documentary film has to do with a specific element of the aesthetics of the fictional film: acting. Moana, the film by Flaherty I have mentioned, inaugurated docufiction on the sly, by including staged scenes. Without going so far, many documentaries include recreations of scenes of real life for which there is no footage, usually employing actors in a rather anonymous way, frequently cast just because they look like the real-life person they play. On the other hand, the docudrama is supposed to bridge the gap between the fiction film and the documentary by sticking as closely as possible to the ‘truth’ of events while still being presented as a fiction film. Milk is a docudrama in that sense, and The Walk. I believe, however, that very few spectators think of films based on real-life events as docudramas, since the dramatic license many take is quite generous. I don’t think any spectator is now as naïve as to think that a film wholly based on staged scenes can be trusted. This is why I am claiming that ultimately what gives the feature-length, live-action fiction film its popularity over the documentary is the audience’s preference for acting, to the point that given the choice between seeing a documentary with the real-life person and a docudrama with an actor playing that person, the latter is preferred.

What I have been discovering –or rediscovering– in the last year is that actor-dominated films (= fiction films) are not necessarily more entertaining, or more fulfilling, than narrative or argumentative films in which acting is non-existent or just used at the basic level of re-creation (= documentaries). Despite marvelling at how Tom Hanks plays classic children’s TV star Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), this fiction film cannot compare to the far better documentary film by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), also on Fred Rogers. Indeed, when Hanks and Heller saw together Neville’s film, the actor asked the director why they were making their film at all… An obvious answer is that Hanks could attract viewers to the figure of Mr. Rogers in ways the far less known documentary by Neville could not, though this is not really a merit of fiction films (or of actors) but of their distribution channels. Now that we are used to finding so many documentaries on the streaming platforms the situation might change. My guess is that, if given the same visibility as fiction films, documentary films might grow to be just as popular and valued.

Here is, by the way, a very basic bibliography for documentaries in case you’re interested:
Aitken, Ian (ed.). The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2013 (2006).
Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.
Bruzzi, Stella. New documentary: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2006 (2000).
Ellis, John. Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation. Routledge, 2012.
Grant, Barry Keith and Sloniowski, Jeannette (eds.). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Wayne State UP, 2014 (1998).
McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. Continuum, 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana UP, 2017 (third edition).
Renov, Michael. The Subject of Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Enjoy! (And if you subscribe to Netflix, watch Father, Soldier, Son…).

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

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

MEN AND MASCULINITY IN CINEMA: 103 BOOKS

In case this might interest any scholars working on men and masculinity in cinema, here’s my bibliography of the field, from 1977 to 2020. The selection does not include many books on the filmographies in other languages than English, though there are some volumes that do deal with them and that are included here to mark the beginning of certain trends. I have organized this by decade for readers to see how an academic field grows from nothing to become a fully established area of research.

1970s and 1980s: the prehistory, before the field becomes fully academic. Please note that the interest in exploring men in cinema begins with a woman and in the middle of the second feminist wave, before the establishment of Masculinity Studies in the late 1980s /early 1990s. Also note the attention paid at this early stage to the representation of gay men by activist Vito Russo.
Mellen, Joan 1977. Big bad wolves: Masculinity in the American Film. Pantheon Books.
Spoto, Donald. 1978. Camerado: Hollywood and the American man. New American Library.
Malone, Michael. 1979. Heroes of Eros: Male sexuality in the movies. Dutton.
Russo, Vito. 1981, 1987 (revised). The celluloid closet: Homosexuality in the movies. Harper & Row.
Neibaur, James L. 1989. Tough guy: The American movie macho. McFarland & Co.

1990s: I once read that Cultural Studies were invented by Routledge, and perhaps this statement has a point –you know that a field is consolidated when Routledge starts publishing research on it. Please note the focus on the concept ‘Hollywood’ and the emergence of specific genres (film noir) and periods (the 1950s, the Reagan era). 1993 certainly was a glorious year. Note the attention paid to specific actors and the beginnings of an interest in foreign cinema.
Krutnik, Frank. 1991. In a lonely street: Film noir, genre and masculinity. Routledge.
Silverman, Kaja 1992. Male subjectivity at the margins. Routledge.
Clover, Carol J. 1993. Men, women and chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film. British Film Institute.
Cohan, Steven and Ina Rae Hark. 1993, 2016. Screening the male: Exploring masculinities in the Hollywood cinema. Routledge.
Jeffords, Susan. 1993. Hard bodies: Hollywood masculinity in the Reagan era. Rutgers UP.
Kirkham, Pat and Jane Thumin. 1993. You Tarzan: Masculinity, movies, and men. Lawrence & Wishart.
Penley, Constance and Sharon Willis. 1993. Male trouble. University of Minnesota Press.
Tasker, Yvonne. 1993. Spectacular bodies: Gender, genre and the action cinema. Routledge.
Bingham, Dennis. 1994 Acting male: Masculinities in the films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood. Rutgers UP.
Callaghan, Lisa. 1994. Hollywood images of masculinity: Eastwood, Hoffman, Redford and Schwarzenegger. Oxford UP.
Reckley, Ralph. 1994. Images of the black male in literature and film: Essays in criticism. Middle Atlantic Writers Association Press.
Sklar, Robert. 1994. City boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield. Princeton UP.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. 1996. Westerns: Making the man in fiction and film. University of Chicago Press.
Cohan, Steven. 1997. Masked men: Masculinity and the movies in the fifties. Indiana UP.
Powrie, Phil. 1997. French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the crisis of masculinity. Oxford UP.

2000-2004: 2002 was another glorious year! Please notice the attention paid to national and ethnic masculinities, homosexuality, and, interestingly, children’s cinema –a trend that should, definitely, grow. You’ll find referenced here books on the films by specific directors (this is a trend that has not really caught on) and in foreign-language cinema (a trend now fully blown).
Chan, Jachinson W. 2001. Chinese American masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee. Routledge.
Lehman, Peter. ed. 2001. Masculinity: Bodies, movies, culture. Routledge.
Spicer, Andrew. 2001. Typical men: The representation of masculinity in popular British cinema. I.B. Tauris.
Trice, Ashton D. and Samuel A. Holland. 2001. Heroes, antiheroes, and dolts: Portrayals of masculinity in American popular films, 1921-1999. McFarland.
Abbott, Megan E. 2002. The street was mine: White masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir. Palgrave Macmillan.
Butters, Gerald R. 2002. Black manhood on the silent screen. UP of Kansas.
Clum, John M. 2002. He’s all man: Male homosexuality and myths of masculinity in American drama and film. Palgrave.
Holmlund, Christine. 2002. Impossible bodies: Femininity and masculinity at the movies. Routledge.
Lang, Robert. 2002. Masculine interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood film. Columbia UP.
LaSalle, Mick. 2002. Dangerous men: Pre-code Hollywood and the birth of the modern man. St. Martin’s Press.
MacKinnon, Kenneth. 2002. Love, tears, and the male spectator. Fairleigh Dickinson UP.
Stephens, John. ed. 2002. Ways of being male: Representing masculinities in children’s literature and film. Routledge.
Perriam, Christopher. 2003. Stars and masculinities in Spanish cinema: From Banderas to Bardem. Oxford UP.
Nicholls, Mark Desmond. 2004. Scorsese’s men: Melancholia and the mob. Pluto Press.
Powrie, Phil, Ann Davies, and Bruce Babington, eds. 2004. The trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. Wallflower.
Reich, Jacqueline. 2004. Beyond the Latin lover: Marcello Mastroianni, masculinity, and Italian cinema. Indiana UP.

2005-2009: Hall’s 2005 handbook shows that by this date the label ‘masculinity in cinema’ was already being used in courses in Film Studies, otherwise why publish a handbook? I’d like to call your attention to how Creed’s volume on men is far less known than her seminal 1993 volume on women. Here the glorious year is 2006. Pullen’s volume is the only one dealing with masculinity in documentary film I have found; Zacahry Ingle and David M. Sutera’s edited volume Gender and Genre in Sports Documentaries: Critical Essays (2013), deals partly with women (which is right, as it announces it deals with ‘gender’).
Bruzzi, Stella 2005. Bringing up daddy: Fatherhood and masculinity in post-war Hollywood. British Film Institute.
Creed, Barbara. 2005. Phallic panic: Film, horror and the primal uncanny. Melbourne UP.
Hall, Matthew 2005. Teaching men and film. British Film Institute.
Chopra-Gant, Mike. 2006. Hollywood genres and postwar America: Masculinity, family and nation in popular movies and film noir. I.B. Tauris.
Claydon, E. Anna. 2006. The representation of masculinity in British cinema of the 1960s: Lawrence of Arabia, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and The Hill. Edwin Mellen Press.
Dennis, J. P. 2006. Queering teen culture: All-American boys and same-sex desire in film and television. Harrington Park Press.
Gallagher, Mark. 2006. Action figures: Men, action films, and contemporary adventure narratives. Palgrave Macmillan.
Gates, Philippa. 2006. Detecting men: Masculinity and the Hollywood detective film. State University of New York Press.
Gerstner, David. 2006. Manly arts: Masculinity and nation in early American cinema. Duke UP.
Harris, Keith M. 2006. Boys, boyz, bois: An ethics of Black masculinity in film and popular media. Routledge.
Plain, Gill. 2006. John Mills and British cinema: Masculinity, identity and nation. Edinburgh UP.
Eberwein, Robert. 2007. Armed forces: Masculinity and sexuality in the American war film. Rutgers UP.
Koureas, Gabriel. 2007. Memory, masculinity, and national identity in British visual culture, 1914-1930: A study of ‘unconquerable manhood.’ Ashgate.
Pullen, Christopher. 2007. Documenting gay men: Identity and performance in reality television and documentary film. McFarland & Co.
Baker, Brian. 2008. Masculinity in fiction and film: Representing men in popular genres, 1945-2000. Continuum.
Grønstad, Asbjørn 2008. Transfigurations: Violence, death and masculinity in American cinema. Amsterdam UP.
Patterson, Eric. 2008. On Brokeback Mountain: Meditations about masculinity, fear, and love in the story and the film. Lexington Books.
Cornell, Drucilla. 2009. Clint Eastwood and issues of American masculinity. Fordham UP.
Fouz-Hernández, Santiago, ed. 2009. Mysterious skin: Male bodies in contemporary cinema. I.B. Tauris.
Morag, Raya. 2009. Defeated masculinity: Post-traumatic cinema in the aftermath of war. Peter Lang.
Nystrom, Derek. 2009. Hard hats, rednecks, and macho men: Class in 1970s American cinema. Oxford UP.
Schleier, Merrill 2009. Skyscraper cinema: Architecture and gender in American film. University of Minnesota Press.

2010-2014: Yes, 26 books in five years! I’d like to call attention to Bruzzi’s book, which is the only one I have seen so far which claims that the cinema made by men has a certain style, and therefore we should speak of men’s cinema, as we speak of women’s cinema. I stand by that! I also would like to call attention to Amy Davis’s volume, the first one to discuss masculinity in animated children’s cinema.
Donovan, Barna William 2010. Blood, guns, and testosterone: Action films, audiences, and a thirst for violence. Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Larke-Walsh, George S. 2010. Screening the mafia: Masculinity, ethnicity and mobsters from The Godfather to The Sopranos. McFarland & Co.
Rehling, Nicola. 2010. Extra-ordinary men: White heterosexual masculinity and contemporary popular cinema. Lexington Books.
Cornelius, Michael G. 2011. Of muscles and men: Essays on the sword and sandal film. McFarland & Company.
Donald, Ralph and Karen MacDonald. 2011. Reel men at war: Masculinity and the American war film. Scarecrow Press.
Grant, Barry Keith. 2011. Shadows of doubt: Negotiations of masculinity in American genre films. Wayne State UP.
Gray, Richard J. and Betty Kaklamanidou, eds. 2011. The 21st century superhero: Essays on gender, genre and globalization in film. McFarland & Co.
Greven, David. 2011. Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush. University of Texas Press.
Peberdy, Donna. 2011. Masculinity and film performance: Male angst in contemporary American cinema. Palgrave Macmillan.
Vicari, Justin. 2011. Male bisexuality in current cinema: Images of growth, rebellion and survival. McFarland & Co.
King, Claire Sisco. 2012. Washed in blood: Male sacrifice, trauma, and the cinema. Rutgers UP.
Schultz, Robert T. 2012. Soured on the system: Disaffected men in 20th century American film. McFarland & Co.
Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. 2012. Straitjacket sexualities: Unbinding Asian American manhoods in the movies. Stanford UP.
Alberti, John. 2013, 2016. Masculinity in the contemporary romantic comedy: Gender as genre. Routledge.
Alberti, John. 2013. Masculinity in contemporary popular cinema. Taylor and Francis.
Bruzzi, Stella. 2013. Men’s cinema: Masculinity and mise-en-scène in Hollywood. Edinburgh UP.
Combe, Kirk and Brenda M. Boyle. 2013. Masculinity and monstrosity in contemporary Hollywood films. Palgrave Macmillan.
Davis, Amy M. 2013. Handsome heroes & vile villains: Men in Disney’s feature animation. John Libbey.
Greven, David. 2013. Psycho-sexual: Male desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin. University of Texas Press.
Hamad, Hannah. 2013. Postfeminism and paternity in contemporary US film: Framing fatherhood. Routledge.
Ingle, Zachary and David M. Sutera, eds. 2013. Gender and genre in sports documentaries: Critical essays. Scarecrow Press.
Jackson II, Ronald, and Jamie E. Moshin, eds. 2013. Communicating marginalized masculinities: Identity politics in TV, film, and new media. Routledge.
Meeuf, Russell. 2013. John Wayne’s world: Transnational masculinity in the fifties. University of Texas Press.
Moser, Joseph Paul. 2013. Irish masculinity on screen: The pugilists and peacemakers of John Ford, Jim Sheridan and Paul Greengrass. McFarland & Co.
Deangelis, Michael. 2014. Reading the bromance: Homosocial relationships in film and television. Wayne State UP.
O’Brien, Daniel. 2014. Classical masculinity and the spectacular body on film: The mighty sons of Hercules. Palgrave.

2015-2019: Here are all the trends: nationality, ethnicity, specific male stars, genres (with science fiction and romance complementing the analysis in previous decades of film noir, western and actions films), previously ignored decades, and whatever you may wish…
Fain, Kimberly. 2015. Black Hollywood: From butlers to superheroes, the changing role of African American men in the movies. Praeger.
Yu, Sabrina Qiong. 2015. Jet Li: Chinese masculinity and transnational film stardom. Edinburgh UP.
Balducci, Anthony. 2016. I won’t grow up!: The comic man-child in film from 1901 to the present. McFarland & Co.
Bell, Matt. 2016. The boys in the band: Flashpoints of cinema, history, and queer politics. Wayne State UP.
Wooden, Shannon R. and Ken Gillam 2016. Pixar’s boy stories: Masculinity in a postmodern age. Rowman & Littlefield.
Greven, David. 2017. Ghost faces: Hollywood and post-millennial masculinity. State University of New York Press.
O’Brien, Daniel. 2017. Black masculinity on film: Native sons and white lies. Palgrave Macmillan.
Carrasco, Rocío. 2018. New heroes on screen: Prototypes of masculinity in contemporary science fiction cinema. Universidad de Huelva.
Kac-Vergne, Marianne 2018. Masculinity in contemporary science fiction cinema: Cyborgs, troopers and other men of the future. I.B. Tauris.
Allan, J. A. 2019. Men, masculinities, and popular romance. Routledge.
Deakin, Pete. 2019. White masculinity in crisis in Hollywood’s fin de millennium cinema. Lexington Books.
Kelly, Gillian. 2019. Robert Taylor: Male beauty, masculinity, and stardom in Hollywood. UP of Mississippi.
Petersen, Christina. 2019. The freshman: Comedy and masculinity in 1920s film and youth culture. Routledge.
Willis, Joseph P. 2019. Threatened masculinity: From British fiction 1880-1915 to Cold-War German cinema. Routledge.

2020-2021: I assume that Covid-19 has affected academic production because I have only found these titles for 2020 (including my own volume!). Although the bibliography was intended to cover until 2020, I’d like to mention too Shary’s volume, as I think age should be the next big field of research in Film Studies connected with men and masculinities. The representation of little boys and of old men needs to be better assessed.
Barnett, Katie. 2020. Fathers on film: Paternity and masculinity in 1990s Hollywood. Bloomsbury Academic.
Donnar, Glen. 2020. Troubling masculinities: Terror, gender, and monstrous others in American film post-9/11. UP of Mississippi.
Luzón-Aguado, Virginia. 2020. Harrison Ford: Masculinity and stardom in Hollywood. Bloomsbury.
Martín, Sara. 2020. Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men. Cambridge Scholars Publishers.
Padva, Gilad. 2020. Straight skin, gay masks and pretending to be gay on screen. Routledge.
Shary, Timothy. 2021. Cinemas of boyhood: Masculinity, sexuality, nationality. Berghahn.

So you can see how a field of research grows from zero to one hundred –if you’re curious pay attention to which publishers have issued these books and you will see that there is a pattern there. I hope this is useful!

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

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

RETROSPECTIVE FEMINISM: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT AND THE WOMAN CHESS PLAYER THAT NEVER WAS

Like half the planet, I’ve been watching these days Netflix’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10048342) and enjoying it very much despite my total lack of interest in chess. Written and directed by Scott Frank, the mini-series adapts a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, a truly interesting American author. Some of his titles may ring a bell, for they have been adapted for the cinema screen: The Hustler (1959) and its sequel The Color of Money (1984) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). I strongly recommend Mockingbird (1980), on which I wrote here a few years ago (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/10/18/walter-tevis-sf-masterpiece-mockingbird-the-end-of-literacy/). I have not read The Queen’s Gambit, but it seems to have been inspired by Tevis’s own passion for chess (he was an advanced amateur player). Apparently, Tevis wrote in his author’s note that “The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.”

The problem with the novel, however, is not so much that it is a work of fiction about a female chess player, Beth Harmon, who never existed but that it is set in a parallel world in which women (or at least one woman) can aspire to be the best world player. In The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal women are part of NASA’s first missions already because a meteorite strikes the USA in 1952 and colonizing the Moon and next Mars becomes urgent. That, of course, is a science fiction novel. Tevis’s novel and the Netflix mini-series are presented, in contrast, as mimetic fiction but we are never told about the reality of women’s chess players in the 1950s-1970s period that the plot covers. Beth Harmon, in short, is as fantastic a creation as any of Kowal’s lady astronauts but, somehow, we are made to believe that she is more real, which she is not. Beth appears to be a peculiar case of what I will call ‘retrospective feminism,’ that is to say, a female character who achieves something of historical relevance for women at a time when no woman could aspire to the same feat. I’ll argue that this is both positive and negative: positive because it attempts to rewrite history, negative because it is an impossible rewriting and seems to highlight women’s shortcomings instead of our achievements.

As I have noted, I’m not interested in chess because, generally speaking, I’m not attracted to games and much less to those that involve any type of earnest competition. I had to learn from scratch then the basics about how the chess world works by watching the series and doing some quick research online. So, for you to know the current world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 30-year-old Norwegian, and the current woman world champion is Ju Wenjun, a 28-year-old Chinese citizen. Yes, there are separate championships for men and women, though the men’s makes no reference to gender because, in principle, it is open to women. Chinese player Yifan Hou, 24, the youngest woman to earn the Grandmaster title (aged 14) is the top-ranking female chess player in the world and the only woman in the World Chess Federation’s Top 100 players (currently in position 88). So you see how fantastic Beth Harmon is.

An article in The Conversation by Alex B. Root called “Why there’s a separate World Chess Championship for women” (https://theconversation.com/why-theres-a-separate-world-chess-championship-for-women-129293) manages to be confusing rather than convincing as regards this matter. Root writes that “segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially, and make friends with people with whom they share some similar characteristics. Separate tournaments don’t speak to whether there are advantages or disadvantages”. Not convincing… Then, he notes that with about 15% of young players being female in the world, this means that because of the “smaller base of females” there are “fewer women than men at the top of the chess rating list,” which is even more unconvincing. If things were fair, there should be 15% of women players in the top 100, not just one. Only-women tournaments, Root suggests, “may make chess more attractive to girls and women.” Do they…?

The world’s top female player ever, Hungarian Grandmaster Judith Polgár (retired since 2014), totally disagrees with gender-segregated chess. She was at her peak the eighth best world player and famously defeated among others, Magnus Carlsen, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. In an article published last year, Polgár expressed very vocally her opinion that women’s chess limits the chances of women players to do their best. “I always knew,” she declares, “that in order to become the strongest player I could, I had to play against the strongest possible opposition. Playing only among women would not have helped my development, as since I was 13 I was the clear number one among them. I needed to compete with the other leading (male) grandmasters of my time” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/30/chess-grandmaster-women-only-tournament-play-men.) In the school and the children’s tournaments she runs there is for these reasons no gender segregation.

Reading, however, about why women lose at chess in non-segregated competitions I came across two very interesting pieces. One is an article by Omkar Khandekar about India, the nation were chess was born. He quotes Koneru Humpy, a top female Indian chess player, who simply thinks that men are better at chess. She and other players Khandekar interviewed “pointed to a combination of systemic and societal factors, and a dollop of sexism, that hold back women from realizing their potential in chess. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and an overwhelming pay gap in the sport were further deterrents”. Yet, many added that “the game needed some innate traits, and that crucial ‘killer instinct,’ which most women ‘lacked’.” The author of the article believes that it is rather a matter of being historically disadvantaged and thinks that women have progressed spectacularly in recent years, and will eventually catch up with the boys. But not yet. Kruttika Nadig, a top female Indian player, notes that “Fortunately I didn’t experience sexism in the chess world. But for some reason, I found women are a lot more cagey. It was hard for me to find female practice partners. (I would find) guys working with each other, playing with each other… but not that much camaraderie among women.” In her world, Beth Harmon is totally alone, the one woman among men (both allies and rivals) but it must be said that she does nothing to connect with other women; and there is one at least asking to be her chess friend.

This leads me to the other article, which deals directly with The Queen’s Gambit and can be found on Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/11/queens-gambit-a-real-life-chess-champion-on-netflixs-new-hit). Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion and author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl!, explains that there are many female child players of chess until around the age of 12, when they start quitting. Chess, she says, is social, “So if you’re a girl and you don’t have other girls who are playing at your same age range and level and city, it can start to be less interesting. You might just gravitate toward another sport where you have 10 friends.” This is still a partial explanation: for whatever reason, and unless they are committed, girls seem to start identifying chess as a boy’s game in their teens, possibly when they realize that if they want to go further they need to play in earnest and face the boys’ pressure. “I think”, Shahade claims, “there are two parts to the world. [One] part is very excited to see girls and women play. And then there’s also some undercurrents of resentment. Especially as chess moves online, there are a lot of nasty comments written about girls and women.” The Netflix series, with its insistence on the importance of having a team of friendly, supportive players helping you, may certainly encourage girls, and boys, to see matters very differently. But like any other area formerly dominated by men, it’ll take time to make things more equal.

It is certainly gratifying to see Beth receive lessons and support from men who do care about her but several matters are less gratifying. To begin with, Beth is dependent since childhood on a sedative similar to Librium which, quite incongruously, is linked to her ability to visualize chess matches in her head. The series corrects the representation of this and other addictions eventually to end up claiming that Beth’s talent is not their product. Yet, I worry very much that a young girl, as orphan Beth is when her story begins, possibly around 8 or 10, might believe that there is a link between being a talented player and being an addict. Another complicated matter is Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother Alma (she’s adopted in her early teens), herself an alcoholic. Alma supports Beth eventually but only because this brings in substantial earnings from the tournaments that the girl plays. Alma and Beth bond in unexpected, interesting ways but the mercenary nature of Alma’s investment in her daughter’s success is not too positive.

Finally, there is the matter of clothes… You may visit now the virtual exhibition ‘The Queen and the Crown’ (https://www.thequeenandthecrown.com/) at the Brooklyn Museum and marvel at the costumes designed for both Netflix series: The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. The progress of young Beth Harmon in the world of chess is marked by her gradual physical transformation, not only from child to woman in her twenties but also from terribly dressed ragamuffin to sophisticated 1970s fashion victim. She seems to invest, indeed, most of her earnings in designer clothes. This metamorphosis is a pleasure to watch but it is also a painful reminder that intelligent women characters need to look good to be accepted by TV audiences. The actress who plays Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy, is not an average beauty but she is attractive enough to have worked as a model. Ironically, Beth’s French model friend Cleo tells her that she could never be a model because she looks too clever… It’s a no-win situation.

Going back to the initial question of retrospective feminism, I’m pleased that Netflix has made The Queen’s Gambit and young girls may see in Beth interesting possibilities. I cannot call her a role model because of her many addictions but she’s an amazingly interesting character. I’m just sorry that the chance has been missed to tell Judit Polgár’s real-life story, or the story of the other women trying to compete with the men in the world of chess at the highest possible level. All my encouragement to them.

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

A GREAT DOUBLE BILL ON THE LIVES OF YOUNG GIRLS: CUTIES AND EIGHTH GRADE

You may have heard already of Cuties (original title Mignonnes), the debut feature film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré (b. 1985) author also of the screenplay. Her film, partly based on her own childhood experiences, narrates a turning point in the life of eleven-year-old Amy, a young girl with the same migrant ethnic background as the director. When news that her father is bringing home a second wife, as the Islamic religion permits him, and in view of her mother’s resigned humiliation, Amy starts rebelling. She not only disobeys the injunctions of her stern grand-aunt, the veritable custodian of the family’s patriarchal values, but also joins unbeknownst to her mother a troupe of multi-racial classmates training for a dance contest. Amy’s appropriation of a cousin’s smartphone introduces her to the social networks everyone her age is already using and, what’s more important, teaches her the sexualized dance routines uploaded by older girls that she has her companions imitate. When they take part in the contest, spectators are far from enthusiastic about their bumping and griding and Amy understands that neither world–her family’s repressive understanding of femininity, the so-called ‘liberal’ West’s exploitation of female bodies–can offer her what she truly needs.

When this film was released on Netflix, on 9 September, it immediately caused a major uproar among the most conservative American spectators. A scene interpolated in the narrative in which the director shows the girls fooling around in their sexy dance outfits elicited accusations that this was child pornography. The dance routine the girls display at the contest was found to be unwatchable (that was the director’s intention but for very different reasons). Netflix, which was simply the distributor and not the film’s producer, even had to apologise for the poster showing the girls’ bare midriff (remember the four friends are eleven). Since then, USA Today informs, “at least four state attorneys general [have] asked Netflix to pull the film; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) urged a criminal investigation; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he was unsatisfied with Netflix’s apology; and a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix earlier this month for promoting ‘lewd material of children’” (https://eu.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/10/20/netflix-tiny-subscriber-growth-pegged-cuties-scandal/5991684002/). This is part of an article claiming that the Cuties scandal has lost Netflix perhaps even hundreds of thousands of subscribers (in the USA) after the #CancelNetflix smear campaign connected with the film.

Many others have defended Cuties and the argumentation in its favour is very easy to understand: Maïmouna Doucouré wanted to denounce the sexualization of young girls at an age when they don’t even have a clear understanding of their own erotic impulses (and when their bodies are not even fully developed). She explains with great precision how the process works: the girls want to be liked and for that they imitate what is most appreciated on the social networks–the self-exhibition of young, sexy female bodies. If, as the many likes show, this is a valid strategy for the older girls, it must also be valid for the younger girls, they naively assume; in the absence of any adult who can explain the crucial differences, Amy and her friends go down that path without truly grasping the nuances of what they are doing.

Please note that there is nothing sexual in the film in the sense that there are no scenes between the girls and any boys (a pathetic moment between Amy and her smartphone owning cousin is stopped by him in consternation). The girls’ dance outfits are not age-appropriate, I agree with that, but they are not really different from what you can see among very young cheerleaders or what is promoted these days on Tik-Tok. In fact, let me tell you that when I first heard that there was some kind of trouble with Cuties, I assumed that it came from the Muslim community in France. I supposed they might have been annoyed by the presentation of Amy’s resistance to her father’s patriarchal choices but, as you can see, the scandal erupted in the USA.

This is ironic, to say the least, as the strategies for sexualized self-presentation that French Amy and her friends learn come from the social media invented in Silicon Valley. They come from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and similar, all of them American products routinely used by pre-teens and teenagers all over the world to poison their lives. Proof of this is the other film which I am recommending today: Eighth Grade, also available on Netflix. In fact, my recommendation is that you see the two films together for they constitute a splendid double bill about the lives of contemporary young girls. They might seem unrelated at first sight but you can see for yourself that both narrate a state of matters that must be extremely difficult to navigate, and I say this as a fifty-something adult woman that would not know what to do in these girls’ position.

Eight Grade (2018) has been written and directed by Bo Burnham (b. 1990) an American comedian, musician, actor, filmmaker and poet, who “began his performance career as a YouTuber in March 2006” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo_Burnham) and who is quite well-known as such. This is his first film. I knew nothing about Burnham but I must say that I totally applaud his brave decision to immerse himself in the world of shy thirteen-year-old Elsie Fisher to show the rest of us what it is like to be an American teen girl today. Neither Cuties nor Eight Grade have been made for children but I think it makes perfect sense to see them with the teens in your family, if you have any, not only for them to validate what the films narrate but also to open up a much needed discussion about what girls specifically should accept or reject in their lives.

Elsie’s narrative arc is very simple and very simply limited by her eighth grade in school. Most films about teenagers focus on the high school years but this one pays, exceptionally, attention to that grey area between early childhood and adolescence properly speaking. As I recently told my students it’s funny how the -teen suffix conditions an understanding of adolescence in the Anglophone countries. In Spain we take it for granted that adolescence begins at 12, which is in the English language an age in the pre-teen years (supposedly starting at 10). In any case, Elsie, who lives with her divorced dad Mark (a loving, supporting man), faces difficulties that while common to any adolescent since the term was invented 120 years ago are enhanced by the impact of social media in her age group. Having pimples, being body-conscious, making awkward moves to approach someone you like, fighting a losing battle against the most popular girls in class and so on are hardly novelties. What is new is the obsessive documentation in the social media of every single step taken, for good but mostly for bad, and the dangerous pressure this puts on all teens. Burnham has chosen a girl but it would be interesting to see a companion piece about a boy, perhaps the nerdish but also charming guy that befriends Elsie, for no teen is free of that tremendous burden.

It seems to me that all those Americans so offended with Cuties have missed the ways in which Eighth Grade is also lewd, even though these are different. There is a very uncomfortable scene in which Elsie picks a banana, a fruit she hates, to teach herself how to give a blow job, as the YouTube videos she is checking suggest. Her befuddled father catches her in the act, totally misreading the situation, and Elsie tries to eat the banana only to choke on it. This is not at all American Pie-style dirty humour but a comment on how pathetic it is that 13-year-old girls need to give blow jobs in order to be sexually enticing to boys their age (at least to the most coveted ones). Predictably, Elsie is interested in a popular boy that Burnham portrays with no compassion as a total jerk undeserving of her attention; the scene when she tries to awaken his interest by pretending that her private nudie pictures can be seen in her smartphone is another sad moment.

Worst of all is the terrifying encounter with a boy who, as he informs Elsie, just wants to train her into the type of sexual activity that will make her popular at parties and who is miffed when she rejects that kind of favour (though she is in tears at this point). I wonder, then, why Eighth Grade has not provoked and even bigger scandal than Cuties, though I think I know the answer. Even though there is much talk of sex in Burnham’s film, Elsie cannot be said to be sexy (though she is prettier than she assumes). In contrast, even though there is hardly any talk of sex in Cuties, Amy and her friends do look sexy in their dance outfits. Any healthy spectator understands why this is necessary. The ones disturbed by their sexiness are, in short, the dirty-minded individuals that enjoy that sexiness too much. How do they deny this ugly truth? By calling for a witch-hunt against the female film director, accusing her of being dirty-minded. How truly sad.

A personal anecdote to finish. Elsie has a YouTube channel in which she gives advice about how to face the crises of being a teen like her. She has very few followers but it is obvious that the advice she gives is solid. Unlike her everyday shy self, Elsie appears to be confident and quite wise in her videos. The day after I saw the film, my youngest niece (eleven) messaged me to say that she wanted me to buy her a sleeve for her smartphone. Knowing that she had to negotiate this purchase, she offered to upload a video of herself on TikTok and I had to determine how many likes it should get. I accepted her offer but stipulated, thinking of Elsie, that it should be a video in which she said something clever. Ah, no, my niece replied quite cross: either a dance video or nothing; the kind of video I proposed would get no likes… In that way she deprived herself of her coveted sleeve and I learned yet another lesson about young girls and social media. See Cuties and Eighth Grade and learn their lessons.

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

NEW BOOK!: REPRESENTATIONS OF MASCULINITY IN LITERATURE AND FILM – FOCUS ON MEN

Last March I published the post “How Entitlement and Villainy Connect” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2020/03/03/how-entitlement-and-villainy-connect-as-i-explain-in-masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-from-hitler-to-voldemort/) to publicise my first monograph in English Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, 2019). Now is the turn to launch my second book in English, Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men (http://www.cambridgescholars.com/representations-of-masculinity-in-literature-and-film). Both are part of my research in Masculinities Studies and, as such, are necessarily similar. Yet, at the same time they are very different examples of how academic research is done. I think that is worth some comment.

Every mature scholar accumulates a long list of articles published in journals along the years and there comes a time when it makes sense to see how they can be put together as a book. I believed that time had come two years ago, when I first submitted a proposal for the book now published. It is the habitual convention not to reprint chapters of books in other books (or only exceptionally) but is not uncommon to collect together journal articles. Or that is what I had assumed. I have read many books of this type but something seems to have changed because by the time I put my collection together I was told that this type of book was no longer interesting. The editor of the first book series to which I submitted the proposal was even rude to me about this: “why would anyone want to publish work available elsewhere?” he told me in a rather cold email message, which truly surprised (and hurt) me. I attribute this to his being a sociologist used to scientific publication which, certainly, is hardly ever published in collections (unlike what is more habitual in the Humanities). The second commissioning editor I approached was far more welcoming but told me that she’d rather publish new research by me. This is how I finally published Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort a book, which as I explained in my previous post, had been since 2008 in the making.

The very week that Routledge published my book, a commissioning editor from Cambridge Scholars Publishing sent me an e-mail message asking whether I knew of any project that they might publish. I had edited for them the collective volumes Recycling Culture(s) (2008) and Persistence and Resistance in English Studies: New Research (co-edited with David Owen and Elisabet Pladevall). These gather together papers presented at two conferences celebrated at my university, UAB, expanded for book publication. My experience with CSP had been good and it occurred to me then that they might welcome my collection. So they did, and here’s the book, of which I am immensely satisfied. A matter that makes this book very special to me as that I chose for the cover a beautiful selfie that my nephew Álex took a while ago (for a class project in which students were asked to produce a self-portrait). I had originally called the book Focus on Men: Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film, but, as happened in the case of the Routledge book, I was asked to reverse the order of title and subtitle (apparently libraries prefer the more self-explanatory titles). The photo, which shows Alex holding his glasses in his hand, ready to focus on his future whenever he chooses, illustrates very well my ‘focus on men’ concept, and there it is. It’s very beautiful and it makes me very proud to have it on the cover of my book.

I must clarify that Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men consists of six previously published articles and six new chapters (some had been online as working papers for a while, some are new). Here are the contents:

Introduction: Why We Should Focus on Men vii
Chapter One. Queerying Antonio: Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Heterosexism 1
Chapter Two. Heathcliff’s Blurred Mirror Image: Hareton Earnshaw and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity in Wuthering Heights 21
Chapter Three. In Bed with Dickens: Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman and the Problematic Masculinity of the Genius 47
Chapter Four. Recycling Charlie, Amending Charles: Dodger, Terry Pratchett’s Rewriting of Oliver Twist 66
Chapter Five. Between Brownlow and Magwitch: Sirius Black and the Ruthless Elimination of the Male Protector in the Harry Potter Series 87
Chapter Six. Odysseus’s Unease: The Post-war Crisis of Masculinity in Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return and A Son of War 112
Chapter Seven. A Demolition Job: Scottish Masculinity and the Failure of the Utopian Tower Block in David Greig’s Play The Architect and Andrew O’Hagan’s Novel Our Fathers 133
Chapter Eight. Rewriting the American Astronaut from a Cross-cultural Perspective: Michael Lopez-Alegria in Manuel Huerga’s documentary film Son & Moon 161
Chapter Nine. Discovering the Body of the Android: (Homo)Eroticism and (Robo)Sexuality in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Novels 186
Chapter Ten. Educating Dídac, Humankind’s New Father: The End of Patriarchy in Manuel de Pedrolo’s Typescript of the Second Origin 213
Chapter Eleven. Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Problem of the Flawed Mentor: Why Anakin Skywalker Fails as a Man 232
Chapter Twelve. The Anti-Patriarchal Male Monster as Limited (Anti)Hero: Richard K. Morgan’s Black Man/Th3rteen 251

I must say that it was not easy at all to come up with this final list, which is limited, as I say, to what I have published in journals (at any rate relatively little in comparison to what I have published in collective books). The other matter that worried me very much was how to place the articles, written in very different periods and circumstances, in a way that made sense. The other book, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort, is a monograph designed from scratch to cohere as much as possible. Yet in this one I had an immense variety of articles, from Shakespeare to Richard K. Morgan. I decided that perhaps that was the key: look at the chronology of the texts analysed and try to organise the volume this way. Of course, I have deviated from my own rule because the three chapters dealing with Dickens come after a chapter on Victorian Wuthering Heights but deal with 21st century texts. I wanted to build a nice gradation so that the reader would be taken gently from the 16th to the 21st century, from Elizabethan drama to post-cyberpunk. I hope it works… Of course, the articles were not written in this orderly fashion. The oldest one, the chapter dealing with Hareton in Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, originates in the lecture I gave back in 2001 in my official examination to get tenure, whereas the most recent piece happens to be the chapter on Asimov’s amazingly attractive robot R. Daneel Olivaw, which I wrote in 2019. It is, in any case, a real pleasure, to see together work that has a similar intellectual origin but that was until now scattered in very many different places (or that had been rejected in some cases by unsympathetic peer reviewers and, yes, I mean the chapter on Sirius Black, which with six rejections is my own personal record).

I must express here my absolute frustration with how the demands of our academic tasks prevent us from concentrating on writing books. I truly believe that both monographs and collections should be our main focus in publishing and not articles and chapters in collective books. Do not misunderstand me: shorter pieces are important and, as I am arguing, it makes good sense to collect them now and then in books. What I do not accept, and protest against, is the fact that books count so little for research assessment (at least in Spain). When I apply to be assessed in 2023, my next deadline, the Routledge book will only count as one of the five publications I need to inform about, even though it is 110,000 pages long and has nine chapters which equal nine articles. The idea that a book counts the same as a 5000 word article is simply ludicrous but these are the rules which assessment agency ANECA follows, inspired by the scientific fixation with the paper. I will not include my CSP book among my most valuable publications, not because I think it is not representative of what I do as a researcher (quite the opposite) but because ANECA will most likely argue that it is research corresponding to an earlier period. Actually, I will include one of the articles reprinted as a book chapter but referencing its original publication in a journal. This lack of enticement to publish monographs is, I think, a serious error for it is in monographs where we express our most sustained intellectual efforts. Articles and book chapters are fine but they are short bursts of energy in comparison to writing a monograph, which is steady, focused intellectual work (what we learn to do in doctoral dissertations).

The other matter that needs to be born in mind, apart from ANECA’s criteria, is time. I have managed to publish the monograph and the collection in about two years because my university scrupulously respects the legality marked by the decree known as ‘Decreto Wert’ of 2011. According to this decree, researchers with at least three six-year periods of research validated by the Ministerio can be allowed to teach 16 ECTS instead of the habitual 24 ECTS. I have been in this privileged situation for the last five years (if I recall correctly), which explains my productivity. The monograph was written in a period of one year during which I had no teaching duties. The collection has been assembled during Covid-19 lockdown, which has certainly facilitated matters to me not because I had less teaching to do but because I had no long commute to take my energy away. Now that I’m back to teaching face-to-face I have no time or energy to start a new book, even though title, chapter list and bibliography are ready and waiting.

Back to Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men, I’m quoting my own text in CSP’s website to note that collectively, these essays argue that, although much has been written about men, it has been done from a perspective that does not see masculinity as a specific feature in need of critical appraisal. Men need to be made aware of how they are represented in order to alter the toxic patriarchal models handed down to them and even break the extant binary gender models. For that, it is important that men distinguish patriarchy from masculinity, as is done here, and form anti-patriarchal alliances with each other and with women. This book is, then, an invitation to men’s liberation from patriarchy by raising an awareness of its crippling constraints. This begins, I add, by showing men how they are represented (mostly how they self-represent) in order to see where the positive models and the negative failures are. I find that, on the whole, men’s fictional representation is far less flattering than feminist criticism, focused on women’s deficient representation by men, usually assumes. The flaws are there for all to see, if you care to look, whereas the positive models are few and far between. A matter that puzzles me very much is that whenever positive models emerge they are not human (Asimov’s Daneel), are destroyed by their authors (Sirius Black and others), or prevented from bringing on deep changes. This is because, I believe, men have no collective agenda to improve their self-representation as, unlike women, they do not see themselves as a class (or so-called ‘minority’) but as a constellation of individuals. Please, recall that I always distinguish between men and patriarchy and that I would like to see men becoming collectively aware of the way in which they can be anti-patriarchal. I have found in the texts analysed some anti-patriarchal attitudes but not a sense that this is an actual position that can be actively assumed by a majority of men.

Enjoy!!!

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

THE MEANING OF HARRISON FORD: STARDOM AND MASCULINITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON BULLIES AND NERDS: READING PIXAR’S BOY STORIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, tell me… Your favourite screen playwright is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: MORE GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (2000-2020)

I woke up this morning thinking ‘ok, time to write a bit’. But, what about? I wanted originally to rant and rave about the absurd ideas that I have come across these days reading new bibliography on Wuthering Heights but it is hard to put one’s heart into academic stuff as if this mattered in the current circumstances. Then I told myself ‘maybe you need to write about the black mood you’re in, in case anyone shares the feeling’ but, though I might do that next week, I don’t feel rational enough today (add to this that it is raining quite hard). Besides, everyone is writing opinion pieces about the impact of Covid-19 and I don’t see what else can be added, except a huge scream (no good to fill a post). It’s a no-win situation: Covid-19 seems to be the only relevant matter and it is next to impossible to think of anything else, but at the same time thinking of the coronavirus is exhausting and one needs to focus on something else… or go mental.

So, for the time being, I’m going back to the elective course I’m teaching and offering another round of recommended documentaries. They are filling in my time beautifully and if you have problems, as I’m beginning to have, reading fiction for pleasure because it is hard to stay focused, then watching documentaries is a good alternative. The list that follows has a first section on gender/sexuality and a second miscellaneous list which I have called ‘Icons of America’.

2011 Miss Representation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1784538/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro. Siebel is also the director of The Mask You Live In (see below), which is a sort of companion piece to this film. As the clever title indicates Miss Representation describes how the media misrepresent women’s image to keep us enslaved to a view of who we are which only favours the interests of corporations, which are the interests of patriarchy. It created quite a stir but then, typically, it has taken almost a decade for a variety of younger women’s movements to do something more or less effective about the same issues.

2012 How to Survive a Plague, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2124803/ by David France. The plague here is AIDS, for which, we must remember, there is not yet a vaccine even though the disease has been around for thirty years. France documents the efforts of ACT UP and TAG to transform the deathly plague into a chronic condition many persons live with through long years. Exactly what we need right now: a plan to stop the new plague based on people’s own activism and regardless of what the incompetent politicians in government do.

2012 The Invisible War, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2120152/ by Kirby Dick. You may recall how in G.I. Jane (1997, Ridley Scott) Demi Moore’s character, a Navy SEAL trainee, is raped to teach her the lesson of how to endure that kind of attack in combat. Dick’s film shows how rape is used in real-life to teach women in the military the lesson that they are not wanted. What the brave survivors who learned to fight together teach is another lesson: being raped by your own brothers in arms, men you trust, is much worse than anything that can happen in combat –and should never be covered up the military hierarchy.

2014 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3319508/ by Mary Dore. This documentary should be mandatory viewing in all (secondary) schools and universities because it is a thrilling overview of how Second Wave feminism started and unfolded. With plenty of original footage and interviews with the women protagonists, it is indeed not just a documentary but a document of immense interest. Of course if you see next Miss Representation you also become aware of how much is done daily to repress women’s defence of our own personal freedom.

2015 The Mask You Live In, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3983674/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Another documentary that should be mandatory viewing, in this case for offering an exceptionally accurate and straightforward exposure of how patriarchy is damaging masculinity. The ‘mask’ refers here to the patriarchal demand to be tough, express no emotion and be in control, which is turning many men into unhappy persons and in the worst case scenario suicidal mental wrecks.

2019 At the Heart of Gold: Inside the US Gymnastic Scandal, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8299654/ by Erin Lee Car. Prepare to cry your heart out. Dr. Larry Nassar, posing as a lovely, trustworthy friend, managed to abuse sexually hundreds of American girl gymnasts, including those in the USA Olympic team. He told girls that his gross manipulation of their bodies was just medical treatment, which left his victims confused and feeling guilty for suspecting their ‘friend’ of a misdemeanour. Until a girl unconnected with the world of gymnastics sounded the alarm about Nassar’s methods… and the rest finally awoke to the reality of what had been done to them.

2001 War Photographer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309061/ by Christian Frei. The Swiss director documents here the amazing career of American war photographer James Nachtwey (who is not really retired yet). The film shows a selection of Nachtwey’s iconic works, interviews the man himself (who comes across as incredibly serene) and follows him into combat using ingenious photography technology. Wondering whether it is right to invade the intimacy of the victims of man-made disaster Nachtwey concludes that he is a necessary witness. He is also a most humane one.

2006 Finding Vivien Maier, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2714900/ by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof bought at an auction a box full of old negatives which, when developed, turned out be photos by an unknown master photographer. His search led eventually to the discovery of Vivien Maier, an anonymous woman who had worked as a nanny in New York and who, as her secret hobby, documented life as she saw it. This raises many questions: would all trace of Maier have disappeared without Maloof? How many geniuses we have never heard of have been lost?

2010 Bill Cunningham’s New York, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1621444/ by Richard Press. A delicious portrayal of a unique man. Cunningham was a New York Times photographer for many years, in charge of documenting street fashions and social events connected with this field. Humble, not at all in love with luxury but with a sharp eye for personality and innovation in fashion, Cunningham left an amazing legacy while keeping his personal life and identity protected from inquisitive eyes.

2003 My Architect, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0373175/ by Nathaniel Kahn. The architect in question is first-rank American architect Louis Kahn, here portrayed by his son, Nathaniel. Note that the title is not My Father, or My Father the Architect, because what Nathaniel explores here is the question of why workaholic geniuses like his father cannot really be good parents. Or husbands, for Nathaniel was Louis’s extramarital son. Nathaniel does admire his father, and gives a loving account of his main buildings, but he still wonders why those took precedence over family life.

2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436231/ by Jeff Fuerzeig. This is a strange documentary a strange artist mainly because, as happens with the documentary on Cobain (see next), much of the material used here comes from the artist himself. Johnston suffered from mental disorders that went undiagnosed for a long time, and whose imagery closely connected with the religious beliefs of the family ha had tried to leave behind. The documentary focuses on the issue of whether Johnston’s musical and artistic genius came from his mental imbalance, implicitly suggesting it did.

2015 Cobain: Montage of Heck, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/ by Brett Morgen. A terrific ‘montage’ of artwork, videos and handwritten texts by Cobain himself and his family, complemented with key interviews, Morgen’s film approaches Cobain from childhood to his suicide on a quite intimate basis. The image that emerges is that of a happy child for whom suddenly life turned badly after his parents’ divorce, and who was heading all the time towards disaster. Everyone loved Cobain for his music but he only loved drugs, because, quite clearly, he didn’t love himself.

2015 Janis: Little Girl Blue, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3707114/ by Amy Berg. A candid portrait of Janis Joplin, America’s most extraordinary (white) blues singer and a woman who taught herself how to be free. Unlike Cobain, Joplin comes across as a woman who loved her life but who, like him, could not control her addictions. In her case the tragedy was not caused by mental instability or lifelong depression but by a tragic accident in her chaotic life as an addict. John Lennon once said that people take drugs because society makes life unbearable but Berg’s film suggests that artists like Joplin just could not keep their distance from the deadliest fad of their times and circle.

2015 What Happened, Miss Simone?, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4284010/ by Liz Garbus. Nina Simone was rescued from oblivion by a 1987 commercial for a perfume featuring one of her songs. She had been a musical star, a powerful Civil Rights activist, and a singular example of female liberation in the 1960s but threw everything overboard to start a downwards spiral of her own making. Simone moved, of all places, to Liberia, stopped performing, resurfaced in France, drowned in loneliness and diverse substances… What happened, indeed?

2013 20 Feet from Stardom, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2396566/ by Morgan Neville. This is a bittersweet look at the mostly African American women who work as backup singers for top international stars. Talented and gifted with beautiful voices that illuminate many favourite songs, these women remain anonymous and, judging from what the film narrates, hardly ever succeed in walking those twenty feet. As happens with secondary actors, perhaps audiences simply should pay more attention to their contribution.

2017 Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5651050/ by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. An intimate portrait of classic Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga, produced by their son and brother Todd Fisher. News of Carrie’s sudden death were too much for her mother, and the film pays here posthumous homage to both. Bloom and Stevens explore not only their careers but also what it is like to be the child of Hollywood royalty.

2018 RBG, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7689964/, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Every time US Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) gets sick, the heart of progressive America flutters. When she goes the country will lose not only a beloved personality but also the person preventing the institution she works for from falling into the dark side of total conservatism. Cohen’s and West’s film is an undisguised hagiography, an in-your-face homage to a very special woman who does really deserve it. Mimi Leder’s recent On the Basis of Sex (2018), with Felicity Jones as RBG, also deals with her career.

2010 Marwencol, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1391092/ by Jeff Malmberg. I don’t see much point in making fiction films based on previous documentaries. In this case, I almost missed Marwencol because I didn’t like much Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen (2018). What is embarrassing in Zemeckis’s film is, however, fascinating in Malmberg’s. Mark Hogancamp was the victim of a brutal attack and, left to deal as well he could with the aftermath, he found comfort in building in his backyard a toy town, Marwencol, where he staged a WWII saga but also found healing. His photos are pure art of a personal, strange kind.

2016 Gleason, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4632316/ by Clay Tweel. Steve Gleason, a successful NFL football player, saw his life take a tragic turn when he was diagnosed with ALS. This film documents his making of a series of videos for the baby his wife expects, as both battle with the effects of this degenerative disease and become fund-raising activists. An admirable example of love for life against all odds.

Enjoy!

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