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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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 Visit my website


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 ( 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) 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 Visit my website


Last March I published the post “How Entitlement and Villainy Connect” ( to publicise my first monograph in English Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, 2019). Now is the turn to launch my second book in English, Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men ( Both are part of my research in Masculinities Studies and, as such, are necessarily similar. Yet, at the same time they are very different examples of how academic research is done. I think that is worth some comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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American journalist Peggy Orenstein became a much sought-after expert on girls before becoming herself a mother, at which point she realized that theory hardly ever matches practice. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2012) describes the discomfiture caused by her inability to steer her daughter Daisy away from the glaring pink world of girls’ toys and the allure of the Disney princesses. Next came Orenstein’s insightful exploration of sexuality among high school and college female students in the USA, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (2016). As she herself explains, this volume brought in many petitions for a companion study of boys, which she has recently published as Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020). I must clarify that neither volume is specifically addressed to girls or boys but, rather, to the adults interested in their experiences. Boys and Sex is, therefore, similar in its main theses but very different from Respect: Everything a Guy Needs to Know About Sex, Love, and Consent (2019) by Swedish sex educator Inti Chavez Perez. Thus, whereas Orenstein wonders how many US boys really know about the clitoris, Chavez Perez gives his target male readers detailed didactic information about its location and functionality.

Orenstein’s portrait of teen US sexuality is necessarily limited because she focuses her attention on just a handful of informants (87 girls for the first book, about 100 boys for the second) mostly in high school and college, thus ignoring the many youths in other situations. It would be actually interesting to learn whether sex among the young is similar across class and educational differences. Her informants are, besides, overwhelmingly white. Orenstein makes a point of discussing race, especially in the book about the boys, but she deals only with non-white young men immersed in all-white colleges, with all the difficulties this entails. Certainly, their racially-marked position has a significant impact on these boys’ chances to meet sexual partners, given the covert and overt racism they often encounter even in liberal colleges. As you have possibly guessed, the sexuality which Orenstein explores in both books is mostly heterosexual though, to be honest, she does not really endorse its current practices. My impression, from both books, is that lesbian girls and gay guys are navigating ‘the complicated new landscape’, to quote from Orenstein’s title, with more maturity than their heterosexual peers despite still rampant homophobia. Orenstein, in any case, tries to be as inclusive as possible, integrating asexual and trans teens in her twin studies.

Peggy Orenstein, born in 1961, one year after the contraceptive pill was first commercialized, belongs to a post-sexual revolution generation. This means that although there are obvious differences between the 21st century young sexuality she describes and that of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s youth the differences are smaller than with the pre-pill generations. The main difference, obviously, has to do with the emergence of the internet, made accessible in most homes between the early and the mid-1990s, and of the smartphone, popularized already in the 2000s. Computers and smartphones made online porn generally accessible to boys, which is certainly a key factor. Next came the social media and texting apps: MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Whatsapp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011) and so on. If the internet made porn accessible, the social media and the texting apps have put in the hands of teenagers an extremely dangerous tool to make or destroy sexual reputations, as many know. The dating apps, such as Grindr (2009) or Tinder (2012), though satisfactory for many of its users have given the hot body a centrality it should not have in general human sexuality.

I have read Girls and Sex after reading Boys and Sex, and I find that the discourse is very similar in both books, though in Girls the boys are presented with little nuance as almost faceless sexual companions, and in Boys, logically, there is much more detail about who they are. It is not an easy book to read because the portrait that emerges from the average US high school and college boy is very far from flattering. In the case of the girls Orenstein is worried by the distance between the feminist personalities of the girls and their acceptance of sexual practices which are not really satisfactory for them. In the case of the boys feminist Orenstein struggles to combine lessons in respect with the reality of the rape culture rampant in colleges, especially in Greek life (i.e. frat life, in reference to the Greek initials by which fraternities and sororities call themselves). In fact, the most painful sections of the book deal with the efforts made by some young men to understand that pushing your girlfriend down to give you a blow job is part of that rape culture: that push on the shoulders is already robbing the girl of her capacity to give consent.

As many researchers have been explaining in recent years, boys now start watching porn at an age before they have had any sexual feelings of their own which they can identify as such, sometimes as young as seven or eight. They get the wrong impression that the heavily staged sex they see on screen faithfully represents actual sexuality. This has a negative impact on girls, not only because they can find themselves disrespected and abused as often female porn stars are, but also because boys expect from them sexual favours which the girls might not be ready to perform and that, most often, are not reciprocated. Blow jobs, Orenstein insists, are now as common as kissing and a practice far more habitual than intercourse with penetration because, pay attention!, somehow blow jobs are not considered to be intimate and teens prefer impersonal hook-ups. Blow jobs, then, are just an indication that the girl is sexually active and of interest to boys. The problem is that, Orenstein explains, few boys are willing to reciprocate with cunnilingus, candidly declaring that it grosses them out and apparently believing that some clumsy vaginal fingering will do. Whether with or without intercourse boys are mostly satisfied with the sex they get but girls report many hook-ups with no orgasms. Why do they keep on accepting bad sex, Orenstein asks them? The girls reply that they don’t want to seem prudish (in my time the preferred slur was ‘frigid’) nor disappoint the boys. The additional problem, Orenstein explains, is that boys are asking for more and more… Because of the porn they see boys are demanding anal sex from girlfriends more than ever to the point that the current marker to establish whether a girl ‘does or does not do it’ is her acceptance of this practice, which is for most women painful and unrewarding. Many girls, though, oblige.

The scenario Orenstein presents is one in which dating that leads to intimacy has been pushed aside to make room for hook-up culture and in which romantic relationships have been delayed to a more adult post-college age. It is important not to ‘catch feelings’ and to perform sex as a sort of sport, with no attachments, which probably explains, I would add, why platonic friendship between men and women has grown. The young are mostly keeping the personal intimacy of friendship and the sexual prowess of the hook-up separate until a later age, when the ‘one’ (or ‘ones’) may appear after a period of experimentation. It wouldn’t sound bad if it weren’t because of some factors: the persistence of the double standard, the unequal sexualization of boys and girls, the use of the social media for bragging and for shaming, and the pervasive presence of alcohol in hook-up culture. And the matter of consent.

I believe that, on the whole, Orenstein makes too much of hook-up culture and too little of the young persons who follow other paths, either because they eschew sex altogether or because they manage their relationships in more intimate, romantic ways. I’ll suppose, however, for the sake of argumentation, that the pattern which Orenstein describes is common to, say, three quarters of young people, leaving the other quarter for the less susceptible to peer pressure. According to her, sex does not happen in US colleges without heavy drinking because sober sex is too serious, and might involve icky, uncool feelings. Casual sex, then, from kissing to anal sex, starts in parties, which boys attend in their daytime clothes and girls dressed up in mini-skirts, tank tops, high heels, their faces obligatorily made up to look sexy. The Dutch courage which drinking gives boys and girls lowers inhibitions but, as we all know, it also lowers the ability to ask for and give consent, hence the countless cases of boys accused of rape who claim they had no idea they were forcing the girl. Orenstein writes that we need to make sure girls enjoy alcohol with no risk to their physical integrity but I myself fail to understand why alcohol is so essential for both boys and girls to express their sexuality. If naturally induced sexual chemistry does not happen, why force it by drinking? The result can only be bad sex for both and, always, a greater risk for the girl of being raped. To her credit, though, Orenstein also describes the opposite situation: one in which boys incapacitated by alcohol to say no are abused by girls who wrongly assume that all guys are into sex all the time.

The double standard also continues unabated and made even worse by the social media and the texting apps. Girls, Orenstein explains, need to strike an almost impossible balance between being a prude and being a slut, whereas boys need not worry except by whether their score card is full enough. This matter of numbers is mind-boggling and a question that can hardly be solved for good, for there is no fixed perception about when a person is too promiscuous or not promiscuous enough. According to Orenstein, most teens lie about how much sex they have, pretending they have more than they do, and assume that the others have plenty. The figures she gives are rather modest in view of the apparently widespread hook-up culture but what really matters is the perception of the group to which the teen in question belongs. Some girls might be slut-shamed for a number of encounters others might consider low, some boy Don Juans might be bottom of the list in different places. It’s all relative. What is not relative it how reputation can be ruined to the point of suicide by the nonchalant (or malicious) sharing of sexting and videos, and the use of social media to send detailed reports of the sexual encounters. Even this is subjected to a double standard: girls’ behaviour in bed tends to be openly discussed by uncaring boys but, from what I gather, the girls do not use so frequently the same tools to discuss boys’ deficient performances, hardly ever shaming them as poor lovers or even rapists depending on the case.

All this amounts to something very simple: whereas now is the time for young persons to be enjoying sex with more freedom and pleasure than ever the reality reported by Orenstein and others is quite different. The mixture of porn, alcohol, social media reputation, and hook-up culture has resulted in a sexuality that seems at points a compulsory chore for both boys and girls rather than something genuinely celebrated. As an older person I should be feeling envy but after reading Orenstein I feel both relief and anxiety. I’m glad I am not a teenager today and I worry about what the teens in my family are finding in their love/sex lives. I think I am most dismayed by the idea that for both boys and girls, but above all for the girls, looking sexy (for the others) is so disconnected from feeling sexy (for yourself).

Orenstein portrays boys as persons who mostly truly accept gender equality but who are much confused about what respect and consent mean in a sexual relationship. She also presents them as much more likely to bow down to peer pressure and do terrible things in groups that they would never do individually. Of course, she refers to the USA and within it to specific lifestyles and possibly other cultures are very different. To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with teens here in Spain. Orenstein names the Dutch as the most advanced culture when it comes to teen sex, thanks to the good communication between parents and children. That is an important factor indeed but in the end, the impression I get is that if guys worried less about how they are judged by their male peers and rejected peer pressure against showing their feelings, sex would be much, much better for them and, above all, for the girls. I don’t know how they can be taught to change, though listening to them, as Orenstein does, seems a good way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I am going back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity on which I focused my last post, this time in connection to Tennessee Williams’s popular play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a Pulitzer-Award winner. The 2014 production by the Young Vic and Joshua Andrew, directed by Benedict Andrews, has been available online since last Thursday, as part of the National Theatre’s generous streaming of successful productions while the quarantine of British theatres lasts. With its attractive cast—Gillian Anderson (Blanche), Vanessa Kirby (Stella), Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski)—and its gimmicky revolving stage (by Magda Willi), this version of the play was enormously successful. It has attracted these days a considerable number of new reviews, all also enthusiastic—but with a caveat.

Michael Billington’s 2014 review for The Guardian noted that “The updating to the present sits oddly with a play that talks of period bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and where the feel is of an America on the verge of postwar economic expansion”. Paul T. Davies concurs, six years later. The updating (which remains quite fuzzy, as Billington’s comment indicates), “underlines the problematic sexual politics of the piece. Once we move out of the 1950s, Stanley’s behaviour is even more brutish, and it’s a tricky balancing act as, although Stanley hits his wife and rapes Blanche, members of the audience, of any gender specification, must want to sit on their front porches fanning themselves and wishing for the rains to cool their desire for Stanley down” (, 24 May 2020). I should think that what is problematic is that Stanley, the abuser and rapist, is still connected with desire in any way and that the partial updating of the play does not alter its original sex and gender discourse.

As Williams conceived it, A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of two sisters, Blanche (the elder) and Stella (the younger), during the months of Blanche’s conflictive stay at her sister’s home in New Orleans. The sisters are the last scions of their ancestral home at Belle Rive (in Mississippi) which, as we learn, has been lost to the financial improvidence of the patriarchs in the DuBois family. Blanche has been making a living by teaching English in secondary schools, whereas Stella (no occupation mentioned) is married to WWII veteran and factory parts salesman, Stanley Kowalski.

Blanche has been unable to overcome the serious mental health issues caused by the suicide of her young closeted gay husband, which has led to a scandalous promiscuity and a liaison with one of her seventeen-year-old students, for which she has been dismissed from her teaching post. She is on the run from herself when she takes refuge in the Kowalskis’ home, though she never discloses her actual circumstances. These are dug out by the persistent Stanley, who very much resents Blanche’s presence and her interference in his marriage to Stella, based, as it is apparent, on sexual attraction and a toxic co-dependence. Stella is, nonetheless, happy enough and willing to tolerate occasional abuse from Stanley, despite Blanche’s attempts to open her sister’s eyes. When Stanley realises that Blanche is lying to his buddy Mitch—pretending to be the lady she is not in order to have him propose marriage as a way out of her troubles—he unmasks his sister-in-law. Stanley also rapes her, which breaks the lasts remnants of her sanity. The play ends with Blanche being taken away by a psychiatrist, as a devastated Stella remains with Stanley.

There are a few gender hot spots in the play, which require a negotiation with the audience: the homosexuality of Blanche’s husband and his ensuing suicide; her scene with an underage newspaper boy whom she talks into kissing her; Stanley’s brutal assault on a visibly pregnant Stella; and the rape scene. I do not know the details of the reaction that the play elicited in the original productions, beyond the fact that the rape scene caused outrage (I cannot say how it was performed). Williams himself wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando (Stanley), Vivien Leigh (Blanche), and Kim Hunter (Stella). Brandon had been discovered in the Broadway production (in which Jessica Tandy played Blanche, and Hunter was Stella). Leigh, who was English, had been the quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and had played Blanche on the London stage, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier.

The film adaptation went through a two-phase process of censorship: first, the Code Hays was applied to it and next the Legion of Decency demanded further cuts. This resulted in much confusion about the reasons for Blanche’s overwhelming sense of guilt and in a toning down of misogynistic violence. Whereas in the original play Blanche is in shock because her husband shoots himself after she calls him “disgusting” (having caught him in bed with his ‘friend’), in the film version there is a vague allusion to his enjoying writing poetry too much. The rape scene, which on the stage is directly seen, is hidden in the film by the metaphorical shot of a broken mirror. An interesting twist, though, is that whereas in the play Stella remains loyally by Stanley despite how he has acted towards Blanche, the producers of the film accepted punishing him for the rape by having Stella abandon him. The 1993 restored version brought back into the film the four minutes elided under pressure from the Legion of Decency, but not even then was the content of the plot questioned. Only now are some reviewers beginning to see its appalling gender discourse.

Of all the elements of the play, the most jarring one is no doubt the rape scene. The standard sexist reading has always been that Blanche is ‘asking for it’, both because of her promiscuity and because she is attempting to undermine Stanley’s patriarchal rule in his own home. She attributes his very short fuse to his being a natural brute, uneducated and rough, though Stanley can also be read as one of the many unhinged WWII veterans whose inexplicable mood swings made marital life so difficult after their homecoming. Of course, any interpretation of Stanley is very much complicated by the bodily magnetism of Marlon Brando in Kazan’s film, but when he is played by less attractive actors (such as muscled, tattooed Ben Foster in the 2014 production) the ugliness of his personality becomes apparent. At the root of the play there is, however, something even uglier than Stanley’s patriarchal masculinity. I believe that the author Tennessee Williams, a gay man, rapes Blanche by proxy, using Stanley, to punish her for her homophobia. When the rape scene happens, Stanley has established his dominion over Blanche and he simply needs to call the psychiatrist to get rid of her. The rape is an act that the character needn’t perform but that the author requires to further humiliate Blanche for her own humiliation of her gay husband.

This brings me back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity in my previous post. A point that kept nagging me after writing it is the matter of consent. According to Connell, Messerschmidt explains, hegemonic masculinity operates on the basis of consent obtained “largely through cultural ascendancy” or “discursive persuasion” (2018: 28). Furthermore, the concept of hegemony would be “irrelevant” if it “only referred to, for example, violence, aggression, and self-centeredness” (2018: 40). The “discursive legitimation (or justification), encouraging all to consent to, unite around, and embody such unequal gender relations” (2018: 46), and not “direct control and commands”(sic) (2018: 120), is the basis of discrimination. The play by Williams survives and is still very much successful because as audiences we have granted our collective consent, agreeing to its “discursive persuasion” about the fact that both Blanche and Stella need to be disciplined into submission. Yet, here’s the contradiction: A Streetcar Named Desire shows that, actually, hegemonic masculinity does not only work by consent, but also by coercion, perhaps in a 50-50 ratio.

Stella appears to consent to her husband’s sexist dominion over her but his savage punch to her face reveals that this consent is granted by a mixture of willingness and fear (both physical and psychological). Blanche is disputing all the time both Stella’s consent and Stanley’s coercion, and this is the reason why she is ill-treated and ultimately declared insane, which is the ultimate coercion (together with her rape). Those who think that she deserves this fate are granting their consent to the hegemonic masculinity practices by which Stanley undoes her resistance to patriarchy, and are in fact complicit with him (and with Williams, who is as patriarchal as his charcater, despite being gay).

There is a scene in which Blanche tells her sister what is wrong with her dependence on Stanley, and for a second we can imagine an alternative play in which Stella is rescued and the two sisters start a new life helping each other to overcome their toxic relations with the men in their lives. It is, in fact, perfectly possibly to turn A Streetcar Named Desire on its head and, without altering the plot, stress its underlying sexism and misogyny—but for that Marlon Brando needs to be forgotten. If Stanley is, in any way, justified or glamorised, then the play serves the cause of hegemonic masculinity. This is why the 2014 production still falls short: Foster’s Stanley has no charm, but Blanche could and should be played as a strong, independent woman slowly going insane under patriarchal pressure, and not as a clueless girly woman constantly blabbing about gentlemanliness.

The way out of granting our consent is by education. The first time I saw Streetcar, the film, I was too young to understand the rape scene but I had been told by family, friends, and reviewers that this was an amazing film which I had to enjoy and respect. So I did enjoy and respect it. The second time, I was educated enough in gender issues to notice that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the cult around the film and Williams, and the severity of Blanche’s victimization—I was shocked to recognize the rape scene for what it was (Brando a rapist?) and by the truth about Blanche’s husband. This third time I should have known better but I was attracted by the presence of my admired Gillian Anderson (Scully in The X-Files) in the main role. That is another form of granting consent: lowering your defences and accepting to be made complicit with an atrocious story of patriarchal control out of admiration for an actor, whether this is Brando or Anderson.

So here I am, apologizing for my lapse, and trying to educate others into withdrawing their consent and to learn the subtle and less subtle ways into which this is elicited from us. Does this mean that you should not see/read A Streetcar Named Desire? Not at all: by all means educate yourself, just do not enjoy what cannot be enjoyed unless you align yourself with patriarchy.

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This is not really a review of Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification by James W. Messerschmidt (2018, Rowman & Littlefield) but a post inspired by a number of passages I have come across in this volume. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hegemonic masculinity is the brainchild of Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (formerly known as R.W. Connell), one of the founding parents of Masculinities Studies. Messerschmidt, Connell’s disciple and academic collaborator, offers here as the transparent title of his volume announces a sort of ultimate guide about how this concept should be understood and used. The problem is that since the concept itself was quite unstable in its origins—poorly formulated, if you want less elegant language—it has generated much controversy about its actual meaning and intended use. Messerschmidt and Connell already published an article back in 2005 intending to fix its use but since they obviously could not succeed, because of the porosity of the concept, Messerschmidt has tried again, sounding a little bit like a disgruntled acolyte offering the definite Bible to errant believers.

A matter which makes me feel disgruntled is Messerschmidt’s cavalier approach to feminism and the fact that he does not even mention Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), an omission that I simply fail to understand in a volume about how gender changes historically. Butler is a philosopher and I’m thinking that perhaps citing her in a treatise on sociology is not kosher, but this is the equivalent of writing about power and ignoring Foucault. Reading Messerschmidt’s account of how 1970s and 1980s radical and socialist feminism ‘failed’ to explain patriarchy, I am reminded of why Masculinities Studies always sounds suspiciously misogynistic. At least he does. Look at this: “Radical feminism made distinctive and original contributions to feminist theory, yet got entangled with biological arguments as the foundation of ‘patriarchy’” (2). Poor things, the silly women!

What seemed to cause the entanglement was that patriarchy, Messerschmidt says, was formulated as an ahistorical system of female oppression which was ultimately too broad-ranging to make any sense. This is why theorists in the social sciences gave up any attempt to further refine the definition of patriarchy in the 1980s. If you ask me, I think that the radical feminists got it right in many ways: patriarchy is not ahistorical but can certainly perdure despite profound historical changes because its main bases as regards gender (misogyny and homophobia) endure. Patriarchy is infinitely flexible and, as I have been arguing, currently it is beginning to invest more energy on organizing society hierarchically on the basis of individual power than of gender. But let me go on.

Now, according to Messerschmidt, Connell took the new feminist theorization of gender in the mid-1980s and started talking about gender relations instead of patriarchy; an important reason why this turn happened is that gay men started explaining their own masculinity in relation to heterosexual masculinity, revealing how they were empowered as men in relation to women but disempowered as homosexual men. In Gender and Power (1987) Connell formulated the concepts of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in the way in which they were known throughout the last decades of the 20th century (please note that Butler’s Gender Trouble was published just three years later and has had really a much bigger impact). The main point, Messerschmidt clarifies, is that Connell “concentrated on how hegemonic masculinity in a given historical and society-wide setting legitimates unequal gender relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities” (46, original italics). That is to say, hegemonic masculinity is not a set of actual men or a set of actual features that define masculinity but a set of values that are practiced by certain groups of men (that I would not hesitate to call patriarchal). The aim is to keep femininity and non-hegemonic masculinities in a position of inferiority. Connell also came up with the division of the non-hegemonic masculinities as complicit, subordinate, marginalized, and protest masculinities.

If you want another angle on the same matter, hegemonic masculinity combines a variety of techniques of domination into one. It is, plainly, masculinist sexism, as defined by feminism, and homophobia, but also racism, ethnic supremacism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, and all other prejudices combined into one. Messerschmidt describes a situation in which there is not one but a sort of local, regional, and global network of hegemonic masculinities in charge of policing the gender borders. All of them “must be culturally ascendant to advance a rationale for social action through consent and compliance” (76) for, and in this you see the Gramscian roots of the concept, hegemonic masculinities operate on the basis of consent, not coercion. In contrast, Messerschmidt explains, “Dominant masculinities are not always associated with and linked to gender hegemony but refer to (locally, regionally, and globally) the most celebrated, common, widespread, or current form of masculinity in a particular social setting” (76). If I understand this correctly, Donald Trump is an example of how hegemonic masculinity is practiced (after all he was democratically elected), whereas Barack Obama would be an example of dominant masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity need not be admired but it is obeyed, contributing to gender inequality, whereas dominant masculinity is respected and admired but might have little impact on gender divisions.

That all this is less than perfectly defined appears more than evident when Messerschmidt explains, in what reads like a gender tongue twister, that “Although hegemonic masculinities and emphasized femininities at times may also be dominant or dominating, dominant and dominating masculinities and femininities are never hegemonic or emphasized if they fail culturally to legitimate unequal gender relations; in this latter scenario, dominant and dominating masculinities/femininities are thereby constructed outside relations of gender hegemony” (125). I fail to understand this. There is clearly a great difference between Trump and Obama and how they connect with gender inequality, or how they connect in their different masculinities. But as Presidents of the United States they both belong to the same patriarchal system that has made it practically impossible for a woman to be elected President. Obama did not graciously withdraw when Hillary Clinton announced her intention to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in 2008 and Trump cheated her of a Presidency she had actually won in 2016. Hillary possibly lost much support because many women saw her as either too patriarchal herself or too radical as a feminist, but the point is that the 2020 female Democratic candidates have been also swept aside. As things are now, there is, then very little difference between hegemonic and dominant masculinity because the only way towards gender equality is that these categories are abandoned. Or, alternatively, that the dominant masculine model becomes what Connell and Messerschmidt have called ‘positive’ masculinities and femininities, a label so vague that it could mean anything. I myself prefer using anti-patriarchal, so that the enemy is clearly defined both for men and for women outside patriarchal circles.

When Messerschmidt says that “The hegemonic masculine social structure consists of different types of power relations” (133) it seems evident to me that he means patriarchy. Hegemonic masculinity is “continually and pervasively renewed, recreated, defended, and modified through social action” (133) because it is, plainly, the ideology of patriarchy by another name. Whereas the patriarchy defined by radical feminists was (allegedly) a monolithic, ahistorical institution designed to oppress women, Connell’s hegemonic masculinity is the same dog but with a historical collar, devoted not only to oppress all women but also all the types of men that resist its rule or lack sufficient power to join the ranks. Hegemonic masculinity can be found at the local, regional and global levels where patriarchy exists because it’s the same thing. Or, the other way round: I have altered the definition of patriarchy to make it a more useful concept than hegemonic masculinity. Sorry to sound so smug, but Messerschmidt also sounds smug… In plain words: all types of discrimination consist of “different types of power relations”. He and Connell call that hegemonic masculinity, I call it patriarchy, following my feminist predecessors.

Both they and I, however, are trapped by the same problem: the persistence of gender binarism. Messerschmidt continually alludes to attitudes that are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, having besides accepted Jack Halberstam’s notion that there is something called ‘female masculinity’. For me, matters look different: if, to give an example, being a nurturing person has been traditionally associated with women, this does not mean that nurturing men are expressing a ‘masculine femininity’. It just means that as society progresses and prejudice diminishes certain attitudes will be seen to be gender neutral. Being, for instance, self-assertive will cease being connected with masculinity to be gender-neutral, just as being blond is gender-neutral. I read recently, besides, that the generation born in the 2000s and later increasingly resists being defined by binary gender labels, which will affect how both masculinity and femininity are understood. Yet, here we are, speaking of men and women as if nothing is moving. The day will come when the moment a baby is born the parents will be told ‘congratulations, it’s a person’ and not ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’.

What am I ranting and raving about, then? It seems to me that when the use of an academic label fails to please those who created it, as Messerschmidt’s censorious volume evidences, then the problem lies with the label, not with its users (or abusers). I would say that further discussions are a waste of time (here I am wasting my time) while what really matters, how patriarchy follows its rampant path of destruction, goes on. Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performance may also have its flaws but it is useful to explain why patriarchy persists and how it can be changed: patriarchal masculinity is very good at adapting to the changing times without losing much power, whereas anti-patriarchal masculinities are very good but less successful at opening up masculinity to other styles of performance, including its very dissolution into gender-neutral variants. I grant that before the emergence of hegemonic masculinity there was not a single concept to explain the simultaneous oppression of women and of marginalized men, and that Connell and company have made a reasonably good job of explaining how men who feel entitled to power find the perfect niche in their circle to express their sense of entitlement, from Trump down to the unemployed man who lashes out against wife and children. I also grant that patriarchy is not an ideal label to explain how gender and power intersect but perhaps this is because we’re struck with binary labels that cannot help. To be blunt, the behaviour of the lesbian woman who batters her wife cannot be explained by invoking hegemonic masculinity, or masculine femininity, because it has to do with power in ways for which we still lack a name. I have been struggling to find an alternative to patriarchy, but this is what I have for now.

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