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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FEMINISATION OF LITERARY FICTION: IS IT HAPPENING?

I am reacting here to an article by Johanna Thomas-Corr, published on 16 May in The Guardian: “How Women Conquered the World of Fiction”. The arguments, as you will see, are not 100% new, but they are worth considering (again). The subtitle, by the way, reads “From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?” The keywords ‘buzz, prizes and bestsellers’ reveal that Thomas-Corr is not quite interested in quality but in the public visibility of new authors and novels. The concept ‘literary zeitgeist’, it must be noted, does not refer to genre fiction but exclusively to literary fiction, which is the focus of the article. Incidentally, Thomas-Corr does mention at the end of the piece a longish list of exciting, new male writers. Call me dirty-minded but I very much suspect that her ultimate aim is promoting them (or echoing their promotion by their respective publishing houses).

The main question that Thomas-Corr examines is whether “Men–and especially young men–are being shut out of an industry that is blind to its own prejudices”, meaning that said publishing industry is not treating male writers with the same care it is investing in female writers. The secondary question she examines is whether, in fact, fewer young male writers are currently writing literary fiction. Flippantly, the journalist writes that “Whenever I speak to men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most tell me they couldn’t give a toss about fiction, especially literary fiction. They have video games, YouTube, nonfiction, podcasts, magazines, Netflix”. I myself am a big fan of non-fiction and fail to see why this genre—in my view far superior in interest to today’s literary fiction—is dismissed like that; besides, my impression is that nonfiction is a very egalitarian genre, with a paritary representation of men and women authors (and readers). I do not dispute that young men read less literary fiction than in the past, and less of everything else than in the past, but I do dispute that what they read is not worth considering as quality writing—particularly in view of how genres that interest women, such as romance, are treated.

But, back to the journalist’s argumentation: young men read less literary fiction, which also means they write fewer books in that genre, and, anyway, when they do write them, their novels are not received with the same eagerness as the novels by young women. The reasons for this, the article claims, are that there is an increasing number of women in key positions in the publishing world, as editors and agents, and that women readers seemingly prefer women authors, which is creating a snowball effect. The more you connect women with literary fiction at all levels, the less men are present in it at all levels. This, of course, is disputed by the many male readers commenting on Thomas-Corr’s article and I am certainly convinced that the number of male readers who avoid women’s writing for misogynistic reasons, or basic lack of interest, has been diminishing constantly. In fact, the issue that Thomas-Corr raises is not problematic in genres such as detective fiction, which is written (and devoured) by absolutely everybody. I do have myself some misgivings that, as Thomas-Carr suggests, men are also giving up in fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t mean that they are writing less—I mean that they are giving up on getting the buzz, the media coverage, the awards, seeing that now all that attention is going to women, partly for the novelty of what they are doing, and also because women’s writing is today, in all fronts, far more self-confident than men’s.

The reasons for that lack of self-confidence are not a great mystery. The ‘big beasts’, as Thomas-Corr calls them of the 80s and 90s—“Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro et al in the UK and Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow in the US”—are writers whose candid explorations of the less wholesome aspects of the male soul and body are far less welcome today. I was a young woman who read many books by Roth with great admiration, and an older woman who until recently believed he had been robbed of the Nobel Prize, but I have changed my mind. I am not dismissing at all these writers’ collective effort to rescue the Anglophone novel from the depressive 1970s, but theirs are stories I am no longer interested in. Besides, I have many new women novelists to choose from, and I think this is a process that many women my age have gone through. Having said that, I remain an enthusiastic reader of men’s fiction, but of the kind that energizes me (what I find in science fiction), not of the kind that depresses me. I have just abandoned recent Booker prize winner by Scottish author Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, requiring no reminder of how dreary the life of an alcoholic woman and her loving son can be. As for Sally Rooney, whom Thomas-Corr mentions again and again as a female writer gloriously capable of generating an enormous buzz, I have already expressed here my extremely negative opinion of her awfully depressing, mediocre Normal People. She simply is not the best woman writer around.

Thomas-Corr reports the words of a male agent, claiming that a major problem in the publishing industry allegedly dominated by women is “the lack of interest in male novelists and the widespread idea that the male voice is problematic”, which diminishes the impulse to invest on them. In view of the many difficulties to publish in comparison to their female peers, Thomas-Carr notes, “young male writers have given up on literary fiction” finding “narrative nonfiction (particularly travelogues and nature writing in the vein of Robert Macfarlane) or genre fiction (especially crime and sci-fi)” more accessible avenues toward professionalization. I will not comment again on the disparagement of these genres in comparison to overpraised literary fiction, but I remain baffled by the journalist’s comment that these other genres are “less mediated by the culture and the conversations on Twitter” because it subtly hints that women dominate social media and are using them to police and cancel men’s fiction they dislike. Is this the awful truth??

A (male) reader signing as denisou comments that “People do not need to turn to the newest literary fiction to understand the experience of being a straight man in the world today”, and, anyway, this kind of novel has been offered for decades now. It appears, Thomas-Corr notes, that the only male writer with something new to contribute is the black, gay man, but, obviously, it is absurd to leave outside any kind of promotion and celebration the work of all straight men. “Male writers of colour”, Thomas-Corr writes, “feel they are under-represented” in the lists of thrilling novelties, by which she means straight BAME and Black men. There is, besides, a suspicion that white, straight, working-class men are wrongly put in the same category as their middle-class predecessors. Northern Irish working-class writer Darran Anderson declares, Thomas-Corr reports, that “I have neither the desire nor the means to pick up Martin Amis’s or John Updike’s bill”. Nor should he or any other men writing today.

The issue that may be making all the difference is, in fact, half-hidden in the article. Literary fiction by men became increasingly sexualized from the 1960s onwards, leaving aside the pioneering efforts of D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. The way many male writers of distinction have been portraying sex is, simply, no longer palatable to women readers. Writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, who is not known for including much sex in his novels (I can’t recall a single scene by him), are thus better candidates to lasting fame than Amis, the above mentioned Roth, or others. Generally speaking, misogyny is no longer welcome—though this does not men that women’s writing is wholly free from this taint—and it is particularly unwelcome in sex scenes. What is happening now is that whereas women writers have found a way to write about sex that satisfies (!) women readers, male writers have not. This is why, Thomas-Corr observes, “Male writers definitely seem to be feeling more reticent about sex” and no wonder about it. Excuse my boutade, but what is a literary novel by a man with no sex scenes except a failure of nerve (leaving Ishiguro aside)? The recipe, then, for men to make it back to the literary spotlight is to learn from women new lessons about how to do sex scenes. I don’t mean they have to copy women, but refresh their own style and offer so much sexiness that women readers will go crazy for them. For, as we know, literary fiction has always been about desire.

I don’t think, to sum up, that men are excluded from literary fiction or excluding themselves for lack of interest or of opportunities. I just think that they need to rethink their own representation, and makes it more engaging. I am very much aware that capturing at the same time the attention of the non-reading gamer and of the female serial reader of quality fiction is an almost impossible task, but some nonfiction and genre fiction male authors have managed to do that. As for the portrayal of intimacy that literary fiction relies on, I do see that women handle it now much better and with greater confidence because they see themselves addressing like-minded female readers, and caring far less for the opinion of male readers. Aspiring male literary writers need to ask themselves, therefore, how to meet the challenge of reattracting a larger male and female audience, not by following a woke scenario (please!!!!) but by reinventing the representation of masculinity for our times, including a non-misogynistic sexuality.

And if any woman reading this is the type who proudly declares ‘I don’t read men’, then, I’m sorry for you because too many men were (or are) of the ‘I don’t read women’ persuasion. Let’s not fall into the sexist trap as readers, writers, editors, agents or teachers and let’s keep the conversation open.

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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy Måneskin, thank you Victoria!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?: MASCULINITY IN SCIENCE FICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/

READING MEN’S BOOKS ON MASCULINITY: BARKER, BOLA, KAUFMAN (AND FARRELL)

Raewyn Connell warned in Masculinities (1995, 2006) that we must recognise not only the diverse masculinities but also “the relations between the different kinds of masculinity: relations of alliance, dominance and subordination” because “There is a gender politics within masculinity” (37, original emphasis). As she theorized, masculinity is divided into hegemonic, subordinated and complicit, a division that on the whole is useful to understand the workings of patriarchal masculinity, but that does not take into account the diverse anti-patriarchal masculinities. In fact, though Connell takes it for granted that hegemonic masculinity can be altered and eventually replaced with a different model by resisting it, she tends to forget that, as Foucault stressed in his theorization of power (in The History of Sexuality, vol. I: The Will to Knowledge, 1986), “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95), meaning that patriarchy’s resistance actually comes from the inside as men awaken to their own oppression and defect. The “points of resistance”, Foucault adds, are “everywhere in the power network” though they can hardly result in a “locus of great Refusal” (96). I’ll argue that this is what is happening within anti-patriarchal masculinity. It is building up, though not as a sweeping movement.

I’ve been reading these past weeks a few books, all published in 2019, that speak of that awakening from a variety of positions. Phil Barker’s The Revolution of Man: Rethinking What It Means to Be a Man is a volume by an Australian journalist addressing the men of his nation in a candid, accessible tone aimed at increasing rapport. One needs to love a book that includes a few recipes to convince men of the pleasures of caring for others! J.J. Bola’s Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined has been written for British young men by a black former refugee from Congo (his family migrated to the UK when he was 6), who is now a poet and novelist after being for many years a youth educator. Bola is also a UN advisor on refugee matters. Michael Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution is a book by the US-born Canadian co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign against the violence against women (in 1989). Kaufman is one of the founding fathers of Masculinities Studies, a writer, scholar, and activist. To compensate for the anti-patriarchal tone of these three men, I have also read the 20th anniversary edition of Warren Farrell’s Bible for US Men’s Rights activism, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (1991, 2011). To put myself outside the comfort zone.

You may have frequently heard that men are from Mars, women from Venus, as John Gray’s 1992 best-selling book proclaimed, but having read these four books, it is far more accurate to say that although all live on Earth, some men appear to live on different planets (I’ll leave the women aside, for the time being). You will have noticed that the men living in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada apparently belong to a progressive pro-feminist, anti-patriarchal world, whereas in the USA misogyny is making the fastest inroads. Just last week, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the Supreme Court to revise Rostker v. Goldberg (1981), the case which argued that male-only draft is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and which the judges rejected on the grounds that women were excluded from combat. Since 2013, however, women have been allowed to serve in combat (with restrictions), hence the ACLU’s petition. But here’s the hidden barb. This organization, presided by a woman, is actually speaking on behalf of the National Coalition for Men, who already won a similar case in 2019, when a Texan judge declared unconstitutional the limitation of the Selective Service System by which all male US citizens aged 18-25 need to register with the Government who may then draft them for combat. Although the ACLU, which has a pro-feminist record, claims that “Limiting registration to men treats women as unfit for this obligation of citizenship and reflects the outmoded belief that men aren’t qualified to be caregivers in the event of a draft”, other feminists have noted that a) the NCM has not cared to help women get equality in any other fields, and b) if the NCM really wanted to protect men, they would ensure no young man is drafted. This case is not about granting women equality, clearly, but about subjecting them to the same ill-treatment male citizens are receiving from their Government. This is how patriarchy works.

Allow me to cite from passages from the books by Barker, Bola and Kaufman, and then I’ll move onto Farrell to end. Let me mention that Barker’s volume has a chapter called “The Woman Haters” in which he describes the Men’s Rights Activists inspired by Farrell as “a bizarre, hilarious and terrifying phenomenon bubbling up in society as a direct result of Man Box pressures defining young men’s lives” (41). It is important to say this because criticism of the MRAs does not always come from (feminist) women. Men like Barker have not been brainwashed by feminism but, as he shows, by patriarchy; this is why, once they are free from that burden, it is important that they themselves try to wean other men from the pernicious patriarchal ideology. Both MRAs and progressive men agree that too many men are dying or being harmed by the pressure put on them, though MRAs usually fail to see that this pressure comes from patriarchy, not from women. Barker, who writes that “Women deserve a world of better men” (191), calls for men to use their “beautiful, big, strong man bodies” for good. “Our strength is our weakness”, he argues, “because it allows us to impose our will over others. The belief that it’s okay to do so comes from the Man Box” (197), that is to say, from the narrow mental space in which patriarchy keeps men. He asks fellow men, therefore, to never use their physical power for violence but “to care for those we love”, resisting the “corruptible influence of power” (198). As he concludes, “It’s not too much to ask for a little self-control, is it?” (198). I really think this a key point: admirable as men’s bodies can be, we see them these days mainly as a potential source of violence rather than of care; this needs to change, above all, for men’s sake.

J.J. Bola called his book Mask Off because “men are taught to wear a mask, a façade that covers up how we are really feeling and the issues we are faced with from a young age” (8). As he warns, “the same system that puts men at an advantage in society is essentially the same system that limits them; inhibits their growth and eventually leads to their break down” (8). I was extremely happy and relieved to come across a passage by a man in which he insists, as I have been doing for many years that “Masculinity is not patriarchy. And while patriarchy is an oppressive structure that imposes the dominance of one gender over another, we must imagine and manifest a masculinity that is not reliant on patriarchy to exist; a masculinity that sees the necessity of the equality of genders for it to not only survive, but to thrive” (20-21). Like Barker and Kaufman, Bola stresses the advantages of feminism for men, claiming that this movement is “actually beneficial to men as it seeks to heal men and remove the pressures that patriarchal society places on them” (66) thus literally saving lives lost to violence and suicide. Bola advises men to let go of the anger that so often dominates their lives because only anger is accepted as a proper emotion by patriarchy, and to shed their mask, and see who they really are (and, yes, he recommends Jennifer Siebel’s excellent documentary The Mask You Live In, 2015).

Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution seems to have been written in reply to a comment in Connell’s Masculinities in which she concludes that 1970s-1980s Men’s Liberation was a “tidal wave of historical change” that “broke” (241) and was never rebuilt. She writes that “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement”, yet she denies that “the project of transforming masculinity” has any “political weight at all” (with the exception of the gay activism arising from the 1980s AIDS crisis). Kaufman, co-founder as I have noted of the White Ribbon campaign, is far more optimistic, this is why he addresses his book to the men willing to join “the greatest revolution in human history: the work to win women’s rights, gender justice, and gender equality” (22). Like Barker and Bola, Kaufman insists that the struggle not only benefits women but also men because “feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever received” (22), in view of how women’s demand for equality also frees men from their obligations towards patriarchal masculinity.

I find it thought-provoking that Barker and Kaufman coincide with Farrell in seeing the renewal of fatherhood as the key to a new masculinity. Barker enthuses about his own father and praises to the skies his daughter for the marvelous relationship he has with her, whereas Kaufman writes that “the single biggest way men will contribute to gender equality and the single most important and positive change that men are enjoying” (175) is what he calls the Dad Shift. Kaufman even argues that “The transformation of fatherhood will be, for men, what feminism has been for women. It is the thing that is redefining our lives in a powerful, life-affirming, forward-moving way” (76), which is not so far from what Warren Farrell writes in his own volume, though the perspective is quite different. I must confess that I was quite surprised by this, until I realized that whereas I have no problem imagining young women as future mothers, I have many problems imagining young men as future fathers.

What Kaufman means is that by integrating caregiving into boys’ lives as we do into girls’ lives we will allow their nurturing skills to develop, which can only result in the prevention of the violence associated to bullying patriarchal masculinity. “Just as I believe,” Kaufman writes, “that transforming fatherhood will prove to be the single greatest contribution by men to achieving gender equality, it may well be the thing that makes the biggest contribution to reducing men’s violence—both against women and against other men” (118). Logically, this raises the question of how men who are not interested in fatherhood fit this view of an egalitarian masculinity but Kaufman calls, above all, for making caregiving central in men’s lives, as it is in women’s lives. My concern is that call comes too late, when many women in the younger generation are rejecting caregiving as a burden imposed on them by patriarchy and when many young persons are declaring their intention not to have children.

Warren Farrell, as he narrates in his prologue to the second edition of The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex used to be a staunch feminist until he went through a deep crisis that left him wondering what actual amount of power individual men have. I have only understood recently that radical feminism’s misguided rejection of all men as a privileged class comes from the Marxist view of class struggle. I must, therefore, agree with Farrell (and with Michael Kimmel) when he says that though men appear to be more powerful than women as a class, they are not necessarily powerful on an individual basis. What Kimmel sees but Farrell is totally blind to is that this is because of patriarchy, the hierarchical organization that allows a circle of privileged men to dominate most women and many other men. As I have noted, Farrell coincides with Kaufman in seeing fathering as “the only career that will last a lifetime” (40) for men, in view of the changing conditions of the job market. Yet, Farrell is so full of spite against women and feminism that it is hard to see how men and women can be co-parents of a child (leaving aside the absence of other types of couples in his book). Showing his true colours, in his conclusion Farrell writes that “Ideally there should not be a men’s movement but a gender transition movement; only the power of the women’s movement necessitates the temporary corrective of a men’s movement” (591, my italics). Of course, he doesn’t mean the type of men’s movement that Connell had in mind, but an anti-feminist movement. As for the word ‘corrective’ I cannot help thinking of a few macho men spanking the feminist girls for having been so naughty.

Reading Farrell, I understand where many of the ideas defended by the anti-feminist extreme right come from, which is why I think his book should be read by feminists like me. Also, by anti-patriarchal male activists. We need all the strength of a solid rhetoric to persuade whoever listens to us that ours if the better future and the only one that guarantees human rights.

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 AND SEX: RETHINKING LABELS IN VIEW OF NEW EVIDENCE

A recent article in The Washington Post announced that “1 in 6 Gen Z adults are LGBT: And this number could continue to grow.” Gen Zers are the persons born between 1997 and 2012 (or 2015 depending on the sources). They are, thus, between 6 and 24 years old, but the article refers specifically to those over 18. Journalist Samantha Schmidt describes this demographic as “a group of young Americans that is breaking from binary notions of gender and sexuality—and is far more likely than older generations to identify as something other than heterosexual.” Yes, this is indeed cause for celebration, but we’re speaking about 16.6% of Gen Zers at most, meaning that 83.4% still see themselves as binary and heterosexual, a reality nobody really knows how to approach.
Schmidt’s data come from a Gallup survey declaring that 5.6% of all US adults identify as LGTB, whereas the percentage was 4.5% in the previous survey of 2017 (3.5% in 2012). The survey has other very interesting figures: “More than half of LGBT adults (54.6%) identify as bisexual. About a quarter (24.5%) say they are gay, with 11.7% identifying as lesbian and 11.3% as transgender;” only 3.3% give other self-definitions regarding gender and sexuality. Gallup confirms that 3.1% of Americans identify as bisexual (most of them are women), 1.4% as gay, 0.7% as lesbian, and 0.6% as transgender (which is a gender identity, not a sexual identity). The figures for Generation Z are 11.5% bisexual, 2.1% gay, 1.4% lesbian and 1.8% transgender (other 0.4%). “The pronounced generational differences” Gallup concludes, “raise questions about whether higher LGBT identification in younger than older Americans reflects a true shift in sexual orientation, or if it merely reflects a greater willingness of younger people to identify as LGBT.”
My view is quite different: what the survey unveils, at least for the USA, is that the label LGBT might soon implode, as bisexuality, which is increasingly accompanied by individuals’ declaring themselves genderfluid, is undermining any essentialisms that may still survive in this label. I don’t want to go too much into this complex territory for fear of offending anyone but I must ask how a gay man and a genderfluid bisexual person can be grouped under the same label since the former’s identity depends on binary constructions which are totally irrelevant (and unwelcome) for the latter. The Gallup survey seems to speak, rather, of a future in which the majority will still be heterosexual but diminishing (maybe down to 60-50%), followed by a very large group of bisexual persons (perhaps even 20 to 25%), next homosexuals (gays and lesbians), then transgender people, and then others (what happened to intersexuals and asexuals in this survey?). There will come a time, therefore, when the label LGTB, or LGTBIAQ+, whatever you prefer, will have to be reconsidered. As far as I am concerned, I welcome any news that speak of a greater variety of identities for people, related both to gender and reality. I find it cool that persons may refer to themselves as bisexual and genderfluid rather than be repressed for refusing binary labels (even though bisexual is also a binary label, pansexual being the non-binary term). However, I am left with two important questions: how do we speak of heterosexuality in this changing context? And why is sexuality still so important to define a person’s identity?
About ten years ago I wrote a little book called Desafíos a la heterosexualidad obligatoria [Challenges to Compulsory Heterosexuality] (yes, you can download it for free) and last week I was interviewed on it by Maria Giménez for the radio programme ‘Feminismes a Ràdio 4’ (here’s the podcast, in Catalan). I must say that my book has one very negative review on GoodReads, calling me awfully patronizing, and I have not re-read it since then for fear of really sounding condescending. I wish that person could explain to me over coffee why I sound so terribly to them but I think I can guess: the point I made in the book is that we need to establish a better dialogue between LGTB persons and the heterosexuals I called ‘heteroqueer’ (borrowing the word from Jackson Katz), that is to say, the persons who, like myself, do not care at all for heteronormativity. Or maybe it’s just that my tone is really patronizing, for which I apologize.
Heterosexuality is not an invention of patriarchy, but it is certainly the case that patriarchy has used it to constitute the norm by which all other sexual identities have been repressed: that is what we call heteronormativity. This has been used to repress heterosexuals themselves, forcing us to understand sexuality as a tool for procreation, which of course it is not (or not only). In case you didn’t know, the word ‘heterosexuality’ emerged in the 1920s, long after homosexuality (coined in 1869) to name a perversion: the sexual practice by man-woman couples who had sex without intention to reproduce. Heterosexuals, it turns out, know very little about the history of the concept and, unlike LGTB persons, have a very poor understanding of our own sexual identity. In fact, my book came about because I was harping all the time about this to the LGTB members of the research group I belonged to (Body and textuality) and its principal investigator, Meri Torras, asked me to write the volume and be done complaining, for which I thank her (though, as you can see, I am not done complaining).
‘Heteroqueer’ has never caught on but, as I did when I wrote the book, I still feel that the label LGTB forgets the heterosexuals who are not heteronormative and firmly reject heteronormativity. The position of heterosexuals in identity activism is as uncomfortable as the position of men in feminism (or whites in racism): we may be accepted as allies, but never as members integral to the movement. This is fine by me, but, just as I think that men can help feminism by undermining patriarchy, I believe that heterosexuals can help (and do help) LGTB persons by undermining heteronormativity. If it is a matter of renouncing privilege, then I think this can and must be done. My point is that just as it is not right to promote androphobia and identify all men with the patriarchal enemy –as French radical feminist Pauline Harmange has done in her recent book I Hate Men– it is not right to see all heterosexuals as the very embodiment of heteronormativity. As a heterosexual woman I stress that the patriarchal construction is heteronormativity, not heterosexuality, and, being in favour of the demolition of normativity for good, I declare myself an anti-patriarchal, anti-heteronormative heterosexual woman. This is my choice, and, if reading this you think that I am a deluded person who cannot see that her gender and her sexuality have been conditioned by patriarchy, maybe you’re being patronizing…
Having said that, I must say that I am totally fed up with the insistence on sex and what I will call ‘sexnormativity’. Heteronormativity has been used to repress people horribly into thinking that sex should be connected with reproduction, but now that sex has been disconnected from reproduction (not too successfully, thinking of how many women need to have abortions every year) we are in the grip of this constant compulsion to be sexual beings all the time. I wrote ten years ago and I will insist now that human affectivity goes beyond sex, not only with one’s partners but generally in life. I’m really sick and tired of reading so many articles and books about how we connect with other persons in bed while nobody seems to care about how we connect with others as friends, in a work-related context, in the neighbourhood, etc. I agree, of course, that sex needs to be discussed as openly as possible, both in its good and its bad aspects, but there seems to be a kind of sex police out there monitoring how often we have sex and with how many partners, from adolescence to the day we die. To be honest, I fail to understand why sex has this hyperbolic presence in our lives, though I very much suspect that this is not examined in depth because the main promoters of its omnipresence are sexnormativist men. I am not disputing the discourse of sexual liberation but wondering why this aspect of human behaviour is taking up so much personal and social energy, at the expense of other forms of human affectivity.
So, going back to where I started, I will insist that both LGTB and heterosexuality are labels that need to be revised and reconfigured, even lost if that would help everyone be happier. As regards gender, as much as I like the label ‘genderfluid’ I still think that we do not have yet the cultural markers –from fashion down to person’s names– that can help genderfluid non-binary persons make themselves visible. We do need them urgently. I do not doubt for a moment that humankind would be better off with more variety, and with many more genderfluid pansexuals. But, above all, I would like to have sex become less ubiquitous in the media, the social networks, and so on, so that people can be free from compulsory sexnormativity. Perhaps I’ll eventually write a book called Challenges to Compulsory Sexuality. And try to be less patronizing…

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/

DONALD TRUMP: PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY AT WORK

A year ago I published a monographic volume called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort in which I aimed at showing how real-life and fictional villains embody patriarchy’s promise of power to complicit men. Some fulfil that promise to a degree so hyperbolic that they need to be eliminated, hence the need for heroes. Most ambitious patriarchal men, however, understand that there are legal and ethical limits to their power. They struggle anyway to take their empowerment as far as possible, risking a downfall but protecting themselves effectively whether they are called Mark Zuckerberg or Vladimir Putin. In other cases, such as that of Hitler or Voldemort, the massive sense of entitlement overwhelms all caution, resulting in a series of missteps that lead to an eventual downfall. I believe this is what we have seen this past week with Donald Trump’s enticement of his followers to take the Capitol and prevent Joe Biden from being formally proclaimed as the next US President. Trump has gone too far in his villainy, heroically stopped by the Senate and Congress, but although he seems to have reached the end of his political career (if the impeachment proceeds he will be banned from holding any kind of public office), the future looks uncertain. Most tyrannies end with the death of the tyrant, but we still need to see how democracy copes with a living would-be tyrant.
The assault on democracy of last January 6 has been brewing since the very day Republican Trump won the Presidential election against Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2016, if not earlier. As I have written here diverse times, I blame American women for Trump’s win: many more men than women voted for Hillary Clinton, and that says all we need to know about the failure of feminism in the United States. I do not particularly sympathize with Senator Clinton but given the choice between her and the patriarchal monster Donald Trump, I would not have hesitated to vote for her. The question, then, is why American women allowed Trump to be elected, both the liberal women who did not bother to vote at all, and the conservative women who voted for this pussy-grabbing narcissist. How the man who was mostly considered a joke by 80% Americans in 2015 could become the US President in 2016 is a gendered matter indeed. In view of how he has degraded the American Presidency to limits unthinkable before his election, I believe many US voters owe a deep apology to Senator Clinton. I do not know what kind of President she would have been but one thing is certain: a much better one than the resident monster at the White House.
The one thing I most clearly remember about the 2016 election was President Obama saying in an informal TV intervention, addressing Trump himself, something along the lines of “the difference between you and me is that I will be remembered as an American President but you won’t, you’re not qualified”, implying that he would never be elected. There was in this remark both total lucidity (Trump indeed was not qualified) and a bit of arrogance, which possibly has incapacitated the Democratic Party from fighting Trump more adequately. Just as I blame the Democratic women for not having mobilized all American women in favour of Hillary Clinton, I blame the Democratic men for not having been more effective in counteracting Trump’s worst traits as a patriarchal man. Joe Biden’s calm, sedate personality (from what I see) seems to be what is needed now, but throughout the four years of this nightmare I have been wondering, much peeved and annoyed, why former President Obama was not opposing Trump more forcefully. I understand that an implicit rule of American politics prevents former Presidents from criticising their successors but I believe that Obama has gone too far in obeying that rule. I very much doubt that Trump will show so much leniency towards Biden, particularly if he still thinks of a hypothetical 2024 re-election but even if that goal is out of bounds for whatever legal reasons. In most democracies there is an opposition leader keeping the Prime Minister on their toes, and I believe that this figure is sorely missing in US politics. The President has, in short, too much power.
Surprised as I have been by the barrage of disrespect with which President Trump has been treated by late night show hosts and a variety of political critics, I have been even more surprised by the tolerance shown towards his behaviour. Yes, Trump was impeached, but this is a man whose personal demeanour is simply outrageous. He has shattered all the limits, from being known as a sexual abuser to making constant diplomatic gaffes in his dealings with the likes of Putin or Kim Jong-Un. Any other democratic leader in the world would have been ousted by far less, and new elections called to replace him. And that’s another weakness, I think, of the American democracy: its inefficient electoral system. I am not siding at all with Trump’s claim that the system is fraudulent (funny how he never raised the issue when he was himself elected) but noting that it is too inflexible. Supposing the impeachment had progressed or the 25th Amendment invoked, this would still have left Americans in the hands of Mike Pence, who, as Vice-President, has seconded each of Trump’s steps. That he chose to stay in Capitol and certify Biden’s win does not exonerate him from his responsibility in maintaining President Trump in power for four horrendous years. There should be a mechanism to call for new elections in case the US President behaves, as Trump has done, despicably. I will possibly eat my words if/when Joe Biden resigns and VP Kamala Harris becomes the first woman President of the USA, but it still seems to be anomalous that Americans are stuck with their choices for four years no matter what might happen.
Another issue I wish to raise is that of the Grand Old Party’s complicity with Trump. The GOP or Republican Party elected him their candidate, whereas, please recall this for future reference, Hitler ran for Prime Minister supported by his own Nazi Party. Donald Trump seemed initially the kind of fringe figure that would try to enter US politics using his own platform (in the style of Kanye West’s Birthday Party and the other third parties that backed independent candidates in the recent election). What is astonishing and disgusting is that the same Republican Party that backed Abraham Lincoln could back Donald Trump. I have not forgotten about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but in comparison to Trump they appear to be now excellent Presidents. It was even funny to read Bush’s press statement complaining that the USA are not a banana republic as the current incumbent at the White House believes, but also tragic. While democratic leaders all over the world worried how Trump’s behaviour would inspire other right-wing populists, the right-wing populists in power mocked the ineptitude of their American colleague. The Republican Party, and particularly Trump sycophants such as Ted Cruz or the extremely dangerous Josh Hawley, are to blame for the brutal attack against democracy perpetrated by the Capitol rabble as much as Trump himself.
This leads me to the concept of ‘the people’ and Trump’s argument that the closing down of his violence-mongering Twitter account is an attack against the right wing. The social media are not directly responsible for the possibly unsolvable political polarization of our times in all democracies because they were not created with that purpose. However, they are guilty of remaining passive as the fanatical political divide grew. Within democracy, there is room for the expression of diverging political views, but those views that threaten democracy itself, whether they are communist or fascist, need to be firmly rejected. Trump and his followers are using the classic Nazi argument in protecting extreme right-wing positions as a legitimate political stance but one thing is the democratic right and quite another the undemocratic extreme right. In that sense, all popular revolts that aim at invading Parliaments are undemocratic, hence intolerable and punishable by law. One thing is taking the Bastille to start a revolution against absolutist monarchy, and quite another taking the Capitol to deny the legitimate election of a new US President. The vandals assaulting the Capitol last Wednesday are not an expression of the American people, but its enemy, and so is Trump.
About the man himself, I’ll just say that the scariest thing about him is that there could be someone even worse, by which I mean more intelligent. The biographical volumes Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (a.k.a The Truth about Trump) by Michael D’Antonio (2015) and Too Much and Never Enough (2020) by Mary Trump (Donald’s niece and a reputed clinical psychologist) describe in all detail the sociopathic personality of this immature, self-loving man. Yet, as happens in Hitler’s case, there is a major risk in stressing the singularity of an individual man whose rise is actually symptomatic of the society to which he appeals. Hitler rose with the complicity of the German upper classes at a time of profound economic crisis when the social anger of the disenfranchised masses had to be diverted away from Communism and given an outlet. Hitler was willing and able to play the role of German hero, to make Germany great again, and eventually escaped the control of his enablers, sinking the nation into chaos. Still, had he been unwilling and unable, I’m sure that some other messianic figure would have played the role, with the same or even worse consequences if that is conceivable. In Trump’s case the GOP was responding to eight years of Obama’s presidency, which exposed the deep racism of American society, and to a deep social fracture caused by the rampages of US capitalism amongst the less privileged segments of the white population. Trump was there to channel their grievances, despite being himself (supposedly) a key businessman, but, I insist, it could have been someone else, as shown by the number of ambitious men in the GOP biding his time as he falls. In short, you may send Trump to jail for life but what the USA needs is a much deeper structural change that prevents someone even worse from rising. For if he rises, the next assault against the Capitol will be carried out by fully armed militias that will not hesitate to execute the people’s representatives. Just think how much worse last week’s invasion could have been, perhaps the beginning of a second Civil War, in the hands of a more capable man.
Patriarchal villainy works, precisely in this way: it maintains a structure of power that is occupied by successive patriarchal men. The men themselves do not matter very much, and it is hopefully a sign of American patriarchy’s decadence that it has been unable to single out a more intelligent man than the clownish Trump. What matters is the structure and how it connects with privilege, and the sense of entitlement of the already privileged. In this case, please note that whereas Hitler came from the impoverished middle classes, Trump comes from American business aristocracy (though I insist that everything indicates he is not as rich as he claims). In that sense, democracy is just a slight deviation from the patriarchal norm stating that those with power rule but it is certainly preferable to any other system, if only because now and then it allows for genuine change. Of course, although I am calling the system ‘patriarchy’, we should not believe this is just an association of men–as we can see, there are now men and women on both sides of the democratic divide; the horrid thing is that the undemocratic women have been freed by feminism to express their undemocratic ideologies. For each Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez there is a ‘Trump in heels’, as State Senator Amanda Chase has described herself, though they are not democratic political equivalents: the former protects civil rights guaranteed by democracy, the latter does not.
I want to finish by appealing to the democratic right wing. I do not agree with your constant attempts to curb down personal freedom and to enable big business to rule our lives but democracy cannot be sustained without your firm defence. It is up to the Republican Party to regain lost honour and stop Trump and all other aspiring tyrants by impeaching him so that he can never hold office again, and it is likewise imperative to make sure that no other person like him will ever represent the GOP. The right wing should not oppose the democratic left wing but fight the undemocratic extreme right wing (as much as the undemocratic extreme left wing, of course). The Washington Post has been carrying since 2017 as its grim slogan ‘Democracy dies in darkness’, borrowed from journalist Bob Woodward, and this has almost happened in the nation that supposedly stands for the defence of democracy all over the world. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were days that will live in infamy, but at least in those cases the enemy was external. 6 January 2021 will also live in infamy, but this time the enemy is American and wants democracy to end. This is how patriarchal villainy operates and it is something that all honourable conservative politicians should acknowledge to protect fragile democracy from any aspiring patriarchal villain.

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/

RECALLING TIMES PAST: ACADEMIC LIFE 1980-2020

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

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

RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON GENDER: A FEW NOTES ON RECENT MATTERS

My post today has to do with a direct question asked by one of my MA students (to what extent is gender natural?) and with issues raised in the paper proposals of my Victorian Literature students, all about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. So, here we go.

As you will recall, if you’re familiar with Dickens’ novel, the blacksmith Joe Gargery is constantly abused by his wife, Mrs. Joe, who is also psychologically and physically abusive towards her own youngest brother, Pip, whom she has raised in the absence of their dead parents. In relation to this, one of my students quotes a passage from an article by Judith Johnston which reads: “Mrs. Joe’s given name is never revealed in the text, significantly she takes the patronymic, Mrs. Joe, rather than any female name, because Mrs. Joe is a violent woman, possessing a violence more usually male than female” (1992: 97). So, violent women are not really feminine but masculine, hence her name. To begin with, we learn eventually that this woman is called Georgiana Maria like her mother and I have still known in my time women identified by their husband’s names, for instance in the name cards on mailboxes (Sr. Juan García and Sra. de García).

I would say that ‘Mrs. Joe’ is either old 19th century low-class usage or this woman’s way of showing that she owns her husband and not the other way round. I see however no sense in the description of her violence as “more usually male than female” because it sounds like an attempt at exonerating all women from the charge of being violent: Mrs Joe feels masculine, therefore she is violent; if she were really feminine she would not be violent. Sorry but violence is violence and if it is committed more often by men in couples this is because usually the balance of power falls on the husband’s side. In Mrs Joe’s case she has claimed all the power over her abused husband Joe, who not only does not resist the situation but seems, like many other victims, even complicit with it (he does try to excuse Mrs Joe on the same grounds battered wives excuse their husbands). If, as Johnston does, you claim that a woman who abuses her partner is being masculine, then you are saying that victims are always feminine or feminized, thus associating femininity with victimhood. You are also denying women’s capacity to inflict violence on others while being no doubt feminine women. And their victims manly, as Joe is.

Let me give you a chilling example of violence committed by women, which left me reeling with shock this week. In Málaga they have judged a young single mother in her early twenties who abandoned her seventeen-month-old baby girl to die of starvation while she lead what has been described as a frantic night life. Obviously, baby Camelia is not only the direct victim of her mother but also of the social values by which this young woman convinced herself that her right to have fun every night went beyond her duty to take care of her daughter. The mother had been offered help by the local authorities but she neglected to claim it. Instead, she got into this routine of abandoning her daughter every day for long hours, until she locked her in a filthy room for good, to die alone.

There is no way this type of violence can be coded masculine yet if we code it feminine, which it appears to be in view of the mother’s gender, we are emphasizing that caring for children is a typically feminine ability which this woman is somehow lacking. In fact, the readers’ comments in the newspapers where I have read about this crime always emphasize that poor Camelia’s death is doubly heinous because her mother, who should have cared for her, abandoned her to die. The father, a violent guy banned from seeing his daughter under a restraining order, is never mentioned, though presumably he also had the duty of taking care of the baby. My point is that if caring for others were truly natural in biological women, as growing breasts is, this young mother would have naturally taken care of her baby. Her disinterest, and cruelty, show that there is nothing natural in mothers’ caring for babies, but plenty of socializing since childhood, when we girls are all given dolls to learn the ropes. By the way, the young mother appears to be mentally healthy, she is no psychopath, though we no doubt find her behaviour monstrous.

Were am I going with all this? I’m expressing my tiredness with the way we attribute human behaviour (not only violence) to supposedly gendered traits. If a woman in assertive, then she is masculine. If a man is caring, then he is feminine. This persistent binarism is an obstacle for progress because for as long as individuals identify with a gender and that gender is identified with a set of traits there is no way gender can be reconfigured for good. I am beginning to think that Judith Butler’s notion of performativity works fine in theory but very poorly in practice.

On a more positive note let me tell you about men and skirts. A few weeks ago a boy somewhere in Northern Spain, the equivalent of a high school senior, decided to wear a skirt to class, just to give it a try. He was taken to the school psychologist who, it can be surmised from the questions, treated him as a possible case of transgenderism, which he is not. Mikel, as the boy is called, was later punished by his parents, which led him to publish a TikTok video narrating that strange day in his life. The reaction was a collective protest by male students like him all over Spain who turned up the following day in school wearing skirts. The idea they supported, by the way, was not that each gender had the right to use other genders’ clothing but that clothing should be genderless. I still think we’re far from seeing young Spanish boys wearing dresses but, since girls wear trousers and nobody thinks today of them as men’s wear that might happen. We need time, and not only here. Look at the hullaballoo caused by ex-One Direction’s Harry Styles and his recent Vogue interview, in which he appears modelling dresses. “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself,” the cover blurb reads. And he’s right.

So, why do we limit individuals, telling them that what they do is ‘too feminine’ or ‘too masculine’ if they feel that is part of who they are? And the other way round, why do we limit persons telling them that they must be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ for that is in their nature? I’ll insist again that though bodies are a biological fact (though much more open to interpretation than we assume), our gendered behaviour is a social construction, still too depending on stereotypes attached to gender roles that should have been discarded long ago.

At this point, then, perhaps I need to mention Minister Irene Montero’s new law to regulate official gender identity in Spain, also known as the Ley Trans. I must say that this is very similar to the Scottish law that caused J.K. Rowling to make a series of concerned comments after which she was accused of being transphobic. Basically, the two laws grant transgender persons the right to identify themselves in official documentation as individuals of a specific gender regardless of their biological bodies. As you can see, the intention is to make it easier for trans persons to be officially men or women just by stating their preference and without having to completely transform their bodies, if they choose so. Thus, a teen starting transition might immediately choose their new official identity rather than wait for years for a judge to grant that right on an individual basis, as it is done now.

The problem is that in areas in which biological sex is still determinant, such as sports, this may have negative effects for a biological male might apply to compete as a woman (by gender, not by sex). Leaving Rowling aside, I must notice that a group of what the press has dubbed as ‘historic Spanish feminists’ (Amelia Valcárcel Bernaldo de Quirós, Ángeles Álvarez Álvarez, Laura Freixas Revuelta, Marina Gilabert Aguilar, Alicia Miyares Fernández, Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, Victoria Sendón de León and Juana Serna Masiá) sent the Minister an open letter opposing the law (see https://blogs.elconfidencial.com/espana/tribuna/2020-11-05/carta-abierta-gobierno-ley-trans-igualdad_2820287/). They worry about the confusion between sex and gender in Montero’s projected legislation and about the new vocabulary erasing the materiality of women’s bodies, which “makes women invisible and erases us with the excuse of inclusivity.” In fact, what I find most interesting about the letter is the call to erase gender rather than to make it even more visible by law. Why not have official documents suppress all reference to gender? Having said that, it would be interesting to see what would happen if suddenly millions of women in Spain declared they want to be men officially, a point my feminist colleagues have not contemplated in their writing but that in principle the new law might sanction.

My rambling post, in short, wants to remind you of the fact that the more we think about gender, the less we seem to agree or even understand what is going on. I am currently working on quite a complex novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, in which most human beings are free to choose how to modify their bodies and in which the protagonists are a female-identifying gynandromorph and a male-identifying androgyn. This is 300 years in the future but to be honest I can’t even imagine how people will feel about gender in 3 years’ time. When this novel was published, in 2012, less than ten years ago, talk of non-binary persons was non-existent, whereas now it is all the rage (leaving by the way, Montero’s binary law quite obsolete). What is natural and what is biological in gender matter is harder and harder to decide. My hope is that one day we will stop being masculine or feminine in binary fashion, and even non-binary, to be just persons. That sex and gender, in short, could be factors as small in our lives as whether we like apples or pears. That would be a relief.

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/

THE VICTORIAN PATRIARCH AND HIS QUEER FRIEND: JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN

Looking for a Victorian Literature topic suitable for an MA dissertation I came across very enthusiastic reviews in GoodReads for the novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) by Dinah Maria Craik (née Mulock, 1826-1887). I’m sorry to say that though I have come across occasional references to this once popular author, I had never heard about this novel. I asked my colleagues but none had read it, though one remembered having seen the 1974 BBC adaptation (the other two were made in 1915 and 1938). I downloaded the novel anyway (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2351) and it turned out to be a totally engrossing rags-to-riches story about the titular character, John Halifax, narrated by his best friend, Phineas Fletcher (yes, like his ancestor, the real-life Jacobean poet). Craik made a most peculiar choice of narrator for Phineas is not only clearly in love with his friend John but also, once he marries, the third adult in his household, together with his wife Ursula. These Victorians never cease surprising me!

Phineas, 16 and the son of a Quaker tannery owner, meets orphaned working-lad John, 14, when the younger boy volunteers to take the older disabled boy home. The name of Phineas’ debilitating disease is not mentioned but it is understood that is has a debilitating effect and causes regular episodes of deep pain. Later in the novel Phineas overcomes it enough to walk for himself but here he still moves about in a singular hand carriage (the novel is set between 1784 and 1825, for you to understand the medical context). During this episode Phineas is fascinated by John, whose “face had come like a flash of sunshine” because he is “a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine”. He himself makes the connection between his sudden interest in John with the Biblical story of Jonathan and David, whom the former loved “as his own soul”. Indeed, once they become close friends, Phineas often uses the name of David for his friend, though towards the end of the novel he calls that impulse just a youthful folly.

In view of this candid Biblical declaration and of the many passages in which Phineas reports how pleasurable it is to be carried in John’s powerful arms and how fulfilling their conversations are, I expected that there would be plenty of academic work on Craik’s novel as a homoerotic text. This is not the case. I came across a very juice post by Clare Walker Gore, signing as silverforketiquette, “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel” (2016) https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name-queer-desire-in-the-mid-victorian-novel/ but, as happens, most articles and book chapters dealing with John Halifax, Gentleman focus on Phineas’ disability and have been written from a Disabilities Studies point of view. They do focus, as Gore does, on the matter of whether Phineas’ disability places him in a ‘feminine’ position, which defuses any implicit homoerotic association with John but not his interpretation as an openly queer character. It appears that one of the original reviewers, R.H. Hutton, observed in his review “Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax” (North British Review 29, 1858, 253-262) that “it is hard to suppress the fear that Phineas Fletcher will fall hopelessly in love with John Halifax, so hard is it to remember that Phineas is of the male sex”. But this is disingenuous for despite his disability and his assumption of a necessary celibacy because no woman would marry him (he thinks) Phineas is not feminine or asexual but a queer man. The original Victorian readers seems to have been satisfied that as long as there is no chance of sex between the two men, their friendship is perfectly acceptable and so are Phineas’ frequent references to their mutual love and, above all, their mutual caring for each other.

Craik’s novel has often been read as a paean to the ‘captains of industry’ in Carlyle’s famous phrase but, actually, John just gets lucky several times in this tale of social mobility. First, he just happens to be near Phineas when his services are needed and, most crucially, his wife Ursula is a gentlewoman and an heiress (though not without difficulties). Once Halifax gets his foot into the tannery that Phineas’ father runs he does his best to prove his mettle, that is true, but John has his friend constantly scheming to his advantage and even giving him an education. In fact, those who expect a spectacular story about John’s social rise will not find it, for the scale of the novel is far more local and personal than I expected. In any case, Craik emphasises above all an ethos of mutual care and this is what binds John and Phineas. When, as Craik has it, the Fletcher tannery fails and Phineas finds himself an adult orphan with no working skills, John returns the favour received by inviting his friend to be a permanent member of his household, thus creating quite an interesting triangle.

Phineas’ most frank acknowledgment of how he loves John comes in the passage when, remembering the last day he spend alone with his friend before his courtship of Ursula started he writes that “that Sunday was the last I ever had David altogether for my own—my very own”. Phineas, however, finds that “It was natural, it was just, it was right” that John wished to marry: “God forbid that in any way I should have murmured”. To his wife-to-be Phineas declares that “John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me” and from that she deduces not that there is something improper going on between the men but that her future husband “must be very good”, hence a good choice for her because “good men are rare”. There is no question of jealousy between friend and wife at all, quite the opposite: they soon find themselves comfortable in each other’s company. Once John is married, Phineas tells his readers that now “others had a right—the first, best, holiest right—to the love that used to be all mine”; seeing his David happy, Phineas writes, “I rejoiced both with and for my brother” though he does miss him from their common house. He is welcome into the newlyweds’ home in his first visit as a ‘brother’ as this is what he becomes to both for more than thirty years.

I believe that what makes John Halifax, Gentleman even more interesting as a text, then, is not only that Phineas and John’s first youthful friendship becomes brotherhood but that this is sanctioned by Ursula and so becomes the pillar of their triangular association. By sheltering Phineas, John saves him from poverty (his only income comes from some houses rented by working-class families) without making him feel dependent. Phineas claims that he “resisted long” the invitation to join John and Ursula’s household, for “it is one of my decided opinions that married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close and dear, living permanently with them, to break the sacred duality—no, let me say the unity of their home”. Yet, his presence, far from breaking this unity turns him into Uncle Phineas, a sort of third parent, in quite a singular way; after all, he is no blood relative of the married couple and the three are more or less the same age. I cannot think of any arrangement like this in current times (though it is true that in Great Expectations Pip lives for more than a decade with his close friend Herbert Pocket and his wife Clara, and their children). Apart from being the reporter for the reader’s benefit of his friend’s life, Phineas becomes an essential part of the family when he is given an important task: “the children’s education was chiefly left to me; other tutors succeeding as was necessary” and a governess for the younger girl. Do let me know where else, in fiction or in real life, you have seen something similar.

The last part of the novel, once the three protagonists are in their fifties and John has become “the patriarch of the valley”, as Phineas calls him, is not totally voided of the queer discourse of the first part, with some peculiar interventions from Ursula. When she catches Phineas looking at John during a party and considering how great his ‘brother’ looks for his age, Ursula knowingly voices aloud this very same impression. And when she falls seriously ill, she implores “Phineas, if anything happens to me, you will comfort John!” In a contemporary novel, the words would carry an unmistakable message but coming from an 1850s novel, they can only mean ‘be my husband’s support’. I imagine that Craik may have realized that she had a problem at the end of the novel for, if John died first, Ursula and Phineas would be forced to either go on living together (hardly conceivable) or separate with much sorrow to avoid an awkward situation. If she died first, then could John and Phineas go on living as brothers in the former’s mansion? I’m not telling you, of course, what solution Craik found, only that it does reveal the fragility of this unique triangular couple.

Of course, for this arrangement to work John can be the object but not the subject of a queer love, and this love must be disconnected from any kind of possessiveness. On John’s side there is no doubt that what he feels is a very deep affection for Phineas that not even the label brotherhood explains well; in fact, two of John’s sons quarrel and fail to speak for each other for years, a situation that is simply unthinkable in John and Phineas’ case. Phineas says that John’s main quality in tenderness and if we were not so obsessed with sexuality we would see that this is the foundation in this novel of a type of love between men that we understand very poorly. I believe that Phineas’ love for John is closer to homosexuality but though subtly erotic it is not sexual, which puts the novel in the territory of the homoerotic. I have no idea whether Craik was aware of what she was doing in having her two male character bond so intimately but, looking at things from another perspective, perhaps the novel and the triangular arrangement works so well because sex is not part of the equation. This may sound absurd to 21st century readers and proof incontrovertible of Victorian prudishness but it can be enriching now and then to explore human affection beyond sexuality. I am aware that by using the word queer I am sexualizing Phineas’ love in many ways but perhaps this is so because we lack a nuanced vocabulary to discuss friendship apart from sexuality. Don’t we?

Craik could have narrated her novel in many ways and, obviously, using a third person omniscient narrator was one. Her choice of Phineas as a first person narrator certainly complicated very much her approach to her main character, for Phineas had to be given necessarily a place as close to John as possible. He could still have played the role of Uncle Phineas and continue living in his own home but Craik possibly decided that this would limit her access to the dynamics of John and Ursula’s domestic life. It is true that at moments Phineas plays the role of fly-on-the-wall (he often sits in his corner by the chimney in the family’s drawing room with none noticing him there) and that his feelings are no doubt subordinated to those of his ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ but I believe that without Phineas John’s story would by no means be as interesting. If he manages to be a gentleman fully accepted in society, this is because Phineas imagines him as such carried by his affection for the ‘homeless lad’ he first meets. In fact, though John is himself a very generous man, nothing compares to Phineas’ generosity towards his friend, in terms of how little he gets personally out of their living together for, logically, Ursula and the children come first. Judging by our own criteria, Phineas’ life is a sad case of unrequited homosexual love, and it can be certainly read like this, but seen from another point of view, and considering that he lives in the early 19th century, he makes the most emotionally of his bond with the otherwise classically patriarchal John.

If you’re into Victorian fiction, please do not miss John Halifax, Gentleman, and see how you would feel in Phineas’ shoes. Fascinating…

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/