I was just considering whether to recycle a truncated debate in class last week for this post, when an email message brought me notice of a lecture by the illustrious Prof. Paul Collier, an economist from the Blavatnik School at Oxford University (https://users.ox.ac.uk/~econpco/). His title: “Is the world approaching war again?” This chimes in with my subject today: WWIII may be already happening and will test the limits of our gender system. Yes, it’s bleak.

Last week I lectured on a favourite subject: Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and its film adaptation. A favourite because it is a very candid exposé of the patriarchal military ideals manufactured by the USA and exported to the rest of the world (also, well, it has all those great-looking men). I embarked on a long digression criticising the military code based on the defence of honour, glory and duty, with the help of Leo Braudy’s excellent From Chivalry to Terrorism. War is not a subject that goes down well with young audiences, much less with girls, and my choice of a remote conflict (Leonidas died 480 BC) was, perhaps, less than thrilling to them.

I insisted that what is really relevant is not what happened in Greece at the battle of Thermopylae all that time ago but how we represent war today since war, after all, is so intimately connected with patriarchal violence (and hegemonic masculinity). To engage their interest I asked them what would happen if the terrifying Islamic State extended its hold onto our own European shores, or if Putin invaded NATO territory? Shouldn’t we, as feminist women, also volunteer for combat? How would young men react to the need to enlist? Time ran out without my surprised students answering me back.

If I recall correctly, author Nick Hornby voiced through his protagonist Rob Fleming in High Fidelity (1995) a concern that post-WWII generations would not be up to the task of defending the (British) homeland. I recall explaining to an MA class that for men in WWI being branded a coward was fearful enough to enlist; the young male students simply could not understand this: they’d rather be called cowards, they explained, than engage in murder on behalf of their nation. Fair enough.

Conscientious objection is a product of the Great War, which was, let’s say, a war among equals and as such not a justified war. WWII was quite different, as the threat posed by the Nazis was downright evil (the same applies to the terrorist Islamic State today), and it had to be stopped at all costs. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Vietnam, after the elimination of compulsory military service in most Western countries, we were left with the impression that a) military corps should be exclusively composed by professionals and volunteers, not by citizens called by conscription, b) if WWIII happened, it would be a colossal nuclear affair so short-lived that no actual fighting would happen.

This is not, however, what is happening around the world. Prof. Collier must be either grossly misinformed (which is unlikely) or thinking of WWIII (most likely) for, as far as I know, war has never stopped for a single day on planet Earth. That we, the privileged, have been born and live in peace does not mean that patriarchal violence (in its worst aspect, war) is over at all. Actually, the threats posed by both our Russian neighbours and the Middle East inferno are 100% patriarchal in nature.

I know I am beginning to sound like Maggie Thatcher while waging war on Argentina’s dictatorship but, well, the life of both my grandfathers was marked by their participation on different sides of the tragic Spanish Civil War. How can I forget this? And I have simply no guarantee that what is happening to the young women kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa will never happen in Spain.

So, if Prof. Collier concludes that, indeed, WWIII war is coming if not already here as a constellation of local conflicts, what are we supposed to do? It’s very depressing, I know, as I’m warning that a civilised masculinity and a pacifist feminism can do little in view of the onslaught of the ultra-violent patriarchal Other. If you think I exaggerate about the Islamic State, just think of Putin’s military might. And of what NATO keeps in our backyards. No, the Cold War is not over.

What am I saying, then? Am I calling the authorities to re-introduce military service in Spain, this time for both men and women? Should we become Israel? No, not really –I’m just feeling horrified by the possibility that the story I’ve been told (peace is vanquishing war) is not true but just a pretty utopia, mere wishful thinking.

In case of war, I told my students, lines will be drawn in the West possibly according to age, not gender: everyone below 45 would be fighting at the front, those above 45 would run the home front. The polite smiles suggested they dismiss this scenario as my sick fantasy (too much SF, most likely). And, then, of course, I’m above 45 as they know.

Yet… what do we know about the future? After all, Europe felt more smug and self-confident than ever, thinking that all wars were over until the very eve of WWI. Let’s just hope, then, that we’re not feeling too smug…

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Yesterday I had the unusual pleasure of basing my lecture on a collective volume just issued, in which I participate: Àngels Carabí & Josep Maria Armengol’s (eds.) Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Serendipity dictated the coincidence of publication and lecture, and I very much enjoyed this happy accident. The topic of the lecture was how to define manliness and how to find alternatives to its patriarchal version. I used Harvey Mansfield’s very provocative but cogent volume Manliness to stir my students into the mood I need to introduce the idea of the ‘alternative.’

‘Alternative’ is a complicated word, as we know in the research team ‘Building New Masculinities’ (https://www.ub.edu/masculinities/indexE). When we started working on the volume, we decided to use ‘alternative’ in the sense of ‘counter-hegemonic,’ which opened up new difficulties as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is far from being clearly defined (it seems synonymous with ‘core patriarchal masculinity’ but many object to this basic description). The idea, however, is that ‘alternative’ should mean anti-patriarchal, pro-feminist, non-homophobic, non-racist… a version of masculinity with a positive potential for imitation.

The focus of the research team is American Literature. This is what the Ministerio funds us to explore but I have doubts myself that Literature has today much influence in publicising and disseminating gendered role models, positive or otherwise. The main focus seems to me to be elsewhere: in music, video-games, comics, film, TV, popular fictions… My team mates and I have made an effort to locate these alternative masculinities, then, in current US novels and plays, with a result which I find both hopeful and discouraging. Hopeful because we have managed to fill in a 244-page book but discouraging because the texts where these counter-hegemonic masculinities are found seem (to me) a little bit too marginal.

This might not be the case for the novels by Toni Morrison or Paul Auster discussed, but the variety of ethnic productions analyzed and my own inroad into Orson Scott Card’s SF (in his saga on Ender Wiggins) suggest that we’re not analysing texts with a high impact on masculinity but calling attention to texts that might have a moderate impact in their most immediate surroundings. This is not intended to discredit the work of my colleagues (which I find excellent) nor my own, of course, but to highlight a simple truth: you may find tons of feminist fiction but there is not a single male author out there with the project of working in favour of liberating men from patriarchal strictures. Actually, the volume suggests that women writers are carrying out this task more intensively (as part of their feminist agenda). It’s urgent, then, to invite men of all ages to generate the ‘missing’ texts.

The first part of Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World has been written by a selection of distinguished names in disciplines that, according to the editors, should engage in a dialogue with Literary Studies. I think this is a very good idea: yes, by all means, let’s learn more from anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.

My class, however, were much dismayed by Michael Flood’s discussion of men’s anti-violence activism, as his chapter paints a very bleak portrait of widespread misogynistic violence and only a mildly positive portrait of the men engaged in fighting it. Instead of feeling inspired, a young man told me he felt appalled by the idea that his peers on American campuses, as Flood explains, needed to be educated in not raping their co-eds. Then, Bob Pease, another illustrious name, with a very long experience in raising anti-patriarchal consciousness among Australian men, writes his chapter: “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful when doing the tasks that are not traditional for men.” Students were quick to see that power always entails oppression, as it is power over someone. A new vocabulary is, then urgently needed –we agreed that the right sentence should be “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to feel self-confident without oppressing anyone.” The idea of a man feeling powerful as, for instance, he bathes a baby makes simply no sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I find the volume very, very interesting precisely because it is an index of the limitations under which the search for alternative, counter-hegemonic masculinities operates. The research results are, I feel, good and solid. What is not so good, much less solid, is the anti-patriarchal resistance described by all the authors. Hopefully, this is a first step in our own effort to raise consciousness. It might well be that we need fifteen to twenty years for young male and female writers to write the texts we’ve been looking for.

I need to add to all this two more comments. One is that teaching Gender Studies within the Humanities is a frustrating affair… as regards the male students. My degree has only 15% male students, which is roughly the proportion in my own class. The problem is that, in addition to being few they are silent. I have simply no idea what they were thinking as I lectured on masculinity, no matter how much I insisted that all big names in Masculinities Studies agree that it is crucial to listen to men. It would be naïve of me to overlook the simple fact that possibly my male students feel insecure and intimidated among so many outspoken young women. Yet I think the girls would be also grateful for their participation in debate.

Second: I asked my students to think of positive, alternative male role models in films and TV as I lectured and to name them at the end of the session. The boys said mostly nothing… The girls were clearly unimpressed by men’s efforts to combine manliness with an up-dated attitude towards gender issues and chose young male characters mostly defined as ‘nice’: caring and sensitive. I have no idea how this matches their real-life practice of choosing boyfriends but, then, I’m no sociologist. My impression, if you ask me, is that we know nothing and that little fiction accurately reflects the real state of gender issues today.

What a challenge for young writers…

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This morning I was helping my 9-year-old niece to do her homework: a set of terminally boring exercises on how to use punctuation, designed to make any child hate commas and semi-colons for life. The cynical author had the gall of writing an exercise with the wording “Write an exclamatory sentence expressing how you feel right now.” My niece and I burst out laughing, we just could not stop. She came up with all kinds of nasty little sentences, as I wondered what kind of moron thought that generating frustration is educational at all.

Then I thought of my own frustration, produced by a meeting this week in which my university gave us, heads of Department and degree Coordinators, the basic set of instructions to produce yet another reform of our BAs (‘grados’). Basically, the idea is that the decision made back in 2007 to implement 240 ECTS, four-year BAs, is plain wrong. We need to go back to the drafting board and produce 180 ECTS, three-year BAs followed by 120 ECTS, two-year MAs. This way, we’re told, we’ll fit better the European system of higher education and facilitate mobility. Deep sigh. Abysmal sigh.

It seems that seven years ago the smaller universities pushed as mightily as they could to have a 4+1 system, on the grounds that students would leave them to take MAs elsewhere after only three years. My own university, very keen on the idea of the internationally attractive MA, wanted the 3+2 system we need to impose now (and which is apparently based on the British model). From what I hear, though, the universities now taking the lead and forcing the rest to follow are the private universities and, closer home, a public university behaving as a private one. As happened seven years ago, we’ve been told at the same time that we need not hurry and that we must hurry like Formula 1 racers: take the chance to consider in depth what’s been achieved with the new degrees, but prepare the reformed version in less than six months.

The Spanish Government has not issued the decree yet, which circulates just as a draft. This is enough, however, to set anyone’s teeth on edge. The whole key to this mess is that nobody seems to have considered how students will react to the very likely possibility that fees are raised once more. From what I gather, students are to be sold the idea that the three-year BA will not guarantee their professional insertion and will be ‘invited’ to take an MA, so that a) their education will be prolonged for up to five years (like the old ‘Licenciatura’), b) the fourth year will be more expensive –no longer part of the BA but of the MA. Surely, this will push many students out of the more serious part of the university –or is this the plan, that only middle-class students can get MAs and get the best jobs?

I personally have very serious misgivings about the three-year BA in the context of Spanish education, with a notoriously weakened secondary school. In the particular case of the degree I coordinate, ‘English Studies’, I see no way at all we can send into the market graduates with a competent level of English in just three years, particularly taking into account the plans to make the first year common to several degrees. We’ve been told not to approach the BAs as something specific to a speciality, as if they were to be just a glorified follow-up to secondary school. The real specialisation should be that of the MA. But, then, how can we train professionals in a second language? Add to this the last straw: the new law actually allows universities to offer degrees between 180 and 240 ECTS so, technically, we might decide at UAB to defend our current 4+1 system. Now, suppose our neighbours UB opt for the 3+2 system –who, then, would take our degree? And how can you put in the market-place graduates with this diverse education? I shudder to think of future doctors…

The person who gave us all this ‘good’ news, one of us, acknowledged that this is a very bad moment to ask our professional collective to make yet another massive effort: our salaries have been frozen for years, part of them simply stolen by the diverse Governments, we’re overwhelmed by the bureaucratization of education, and, most important, most degrees only started six years ago… But we have to go for it, and brave it with a smile. I am personally depressed and desperate, as I was in the front line during the preparation of the new degrees and endured a great deal of psychological anguish only last year, modifying the whole paperwork for purposes I’m not sure I understand. My successor as Coordinator (I’ll be done by the end of January) is a much more stoical woman and she has decided to take things as they come. Fair enough. She does not have, though, the experience of wasting precious hours in filling in 400-page documents with newspeak that puts Orwell to shame…

I’m very much aware that many European countries have this 3+2 system we need to introduce now but, if I’m not mistaken, these are the countries that back in 2007 changed nothing, as they already had short BAs followed by MAs. We saw our old ‘Licenciaturas’ destroyed, then the new degrees imposed with no time to consider their impact on us and now, once more, we need to imitate educational systems very alien to our own to please… the international students we want to attract to our MAs? That was my impression…

In the meantime, few are thinking of the enormous frustration that the students in our classrooms, engaged in four-year BAs with no future, will feel the moment they learn about this. And as I said, generating frustration is no way to educate anyone –nor to encourage those in charge of educating.

And, here the worst nightmare: if each reform is increasingly short-lived, for how long is the new system going to survive? Sisyphus comes to mind (without his original sin).

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You may have heard that millions of I-Phone users were very much annoyed with Apple when they discovered that the new U2 album had been downloaded onto their smartphones without their permission. What you might not know is that the youngest I-Phone-addicts flooded Twitter with complaints beginning ‘who the f*** are U2?’ I wonder whether the 100$ million Apple paid U2 were enough to comfort the ultra-vain Bono… What a downer for his ego…

My subject today is not Bono, however, but (partly) how fast cultural memory fades, as the I-Phone blunder has revealed. We teachers often complaint that our students live in a limited version of the present with little or no insight into the past. Evidently, we are much older and what for them is history is for us living memory (I recall very clearly the huge queues back in 1987 to buy U2’s smash hit album The Joshua Tree). I say a ‘limited version’ of the present, nonetheless, because both U2 and Madonna, whom I mentioned in the last post, are very much alive and adding regularly new work to a very long career already. I wonder, then, what other icons, already deceased, mean to young students.

The particular icon I have in mind is Steve McQueen –no, not the British black film director responsible for Twelve Years a Slave, but the legendary American star of the 1960s and 1970s who died of cancer, aged only 50. Last Tuesday 7 Discovery Max showed the new documentary I am Steve McQueen (June 2014), directed by Jeff Renfro, written by David Ray and produced by Chad McQueen, a loving son as you can see in the film (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2649194/). It’s not my intention to review the documentary (you can see a good review at https://thetfs.ca/2014/09/26/review-steve-mcqueen/ ) but to discuss a few points it raises. This connects with my most recent article (available in 2015), on Manuel Huerga’s documentary Son and Moon (Diario de un astronauta) about Michael Lopez-Alegria. There I argue that documentaries are neglected as key primary sources in the study of masculinities –they show which kind of men we find interesting and from which point of view and this is indeed the case with I am Steve McQueen.

I was 14 when McQueen died which means that for me he was what I’ll call a ‘retrospective icon,’ someone you discover through other persons’ enthusiastic opinions and mainly an actor I have admired on TV, never on a cinema screen. I recall gossip, unlikely as this may sound as I was just a child, about his rocky marriage to pretty actress Aly McGraw (Hola! and similar magazines were a usual presence in my grandma’s home). I’ve caught up with McQueen’s legend later, seeing his films again on DVD, rediscovering above all The Great Escape, The Getaway and the absolutely thrilling Bullitt.

For me, McQueen has a kind of feline attractive: he looked sleek and cool (his nickname was ‘the king of cool’ for a good reason). He had always something boyish about him, the traces of the bad boy he could have been if luck had not placed him on the path of acting. I’ve never found him, though, as evidently good-looking as the stunning Paul Newman, a fellow actor McQueen seems to have admired and envied in equal measure (as shown by his jealous bouts during the making of blockbuster The Towering Inferno). McQueen simply had the most amazing blue eyes (‘piercing’ everyone calls them in the documentary) but he had this funny flat-top head, a longish face with that pointy chin, the deep cheek creases that aged badly, the fit but not really muscular body… The actor whom I thought the most likely candidate to be his heir, the late Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame, was far more beautiful than McQueen. Yet, he did not have what McQueen had: charisma.

I am Steve McQueen contributes with its elegiac tone to the legend around the star precisely by focusing on his charisma, both on the screen and on the race track, as he possessed a heady cocktail of major acting and driving skills. At one point a male interviewee (I can’t remember who) describes him as a “guys’ guy” and you can bet this is a perfect label. The two ex-wives (Broadway star Neile Adams, the mother of her two children, and Aly McGraw) and the widow (ex-model Barbara Minty) share their memories on camera teary-eyed; Minty even presents herself as a kind of female version of McQueen in her pleasure for speed. As happened in the case of Michael Lopez-Alegria in Son and Moon, I was bowled over by this all-round praise of wholesome manliness. To put it simply: if thoroughly admirable men like this existed, women would be much, much happier. And so would men.

I was concerned by a comment in the memoirs published by Anoushe Ansari, a rich business woman who bought herself a ticket to travel to the ISS in Lopez-Alegria’s very reluctant company: he never smiled, she says, a bit wary. This is a very tiny stain in comparison to what the documentary glosses over in McQueen’s life: his constant infidelities, his rough temper, his short fuse. Neile Adams mumbles something about leaving him because she feared him. Also, the documentary attributes McQueen’s mortal lung cancer to the asbestos he was in contact with during his stint in the military. Well, fair enough, though I recalled from my childhood plenty of gossip about his being a very heavy smoker (and habitual drug user).

I am Steve McQueen has been produced, as I noted, by a loving son, Chad (the daughter, Terry, died in 1998) and it is very palpably a portrait of a father very much admired privately and, what is more, to be proud of publicly. Something, however, is missing: something which, if you ask me, Brad Pitt possesses right now, that perfect mix: the physical beauty, the personal charisma, the serene manliness and the firm commitment to his big family and to his wife (Paul Newman comes to mind again). Not that Pitt is my favourite male icon (I’m not sure I have one, except Atticus Finch…) but he comes closest than anyone else to what McQueen embodies in his son’s documentary. If Pitt’s not a “guys’ guy,” and I don’t think he is, then one thing I can say for sure is that he is a “gals’ guy” much more than (too) cool McQueen.

This may sound strange coming from a confirmed feminist as I am but I wish that, one day, the “guys’ guy” and the “gals’ guy” become the same person. If only we could have the (cool) manliness without the selfishness and the mysoginy lurking beneath all portraits of manly legends things would be so perfect.

Now go and enjoy Bullitt…

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This post summarises debates in two sessions with my students in which they offered presentations on: Session 1) Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Adele, Lana del Rey; Session 2) Katie Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, and Selena Gomez.

During these sessions, we raised the following issues for debate:

Pop seems to be currently dominated by female performers, with individual male performers occupying a marginal position, except in boy bands (like One Direction). It was hard for us to name male first-rank pop stars beyond Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars.

The pop divas belong to at least two generations, with the oldest being well past fifty (Annie Lennox is 59, Madonna 56) and the youngest in their twenties (Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez were both born in 1992), having started their careers as teenagers.

The older divas are less well-known by younger audiences, for whom Madonna is not the indisputable referent she is for the generations born before the 1990s.

Madonna crucially contributed to the making of the contemporary pop diva the key idea that female performers should control their careers. Before she became a star in the 1980s that was not the case, with most female stars being manipulated by men close to them: managers, producers, partners (a classic example would be Tina Turner).

What is most controversial in Madonna’s case and her legacy is that she chose to empower the pop diva by flaunting her body and her sexuality, turning the object into subject.

This strategy worked fine for her but has resulted in a) an obsession with avoiding the effects of ageing, b) the diva’s own bodily objectification. This, while empowering for other women aware of feminist ideals, can be simply read by sexist audiences as an incitement to reading and consuming the diva as pure sexual object. It is very hard, then, to establish whether the diva’s self-presentation as a sexy, powerful woman is actually empowering.

The case of Adele, who does not present herself as sexualised, suggests that the sexualisation of many pop divas might actually serve to conceal moderate singing abilities (think Britney Spears). Adele’s voice seems an instrument solid enough for her empowerment as a pop diva. Those who have gossiped about her being fat (Karl Lagerfeld) have been harshly criticised, though this seems to be in contradiction with the prejudiced treatment met by fat (or plus-sized) women in ordinary life.

In most cases, the pop diva shows a contrast between her self-assured public presentation and the lyrics in her songs, which display much vulnerability. The diva’s successful career often seems at odds with the feelings expressed in the songs, suggesting she might not want to alienate audiences who believe in an essentialist idea of gender and romance.

The pop diva is an object of intense public scrutiny, particularly as regards her private life: marriage (Beyoncé), dating younger men (Madonna, Jennifer Lopez), being with abusive partners (Rihanna), being with partners who are themselves a celebrity (Selena Gomez). A peculiar case is that of Taylor Swift, who, sadly, has earned a reputation as a (promiscuous?) woman unable to commit because of the many relationships she has been involved in.

Regarding the pop diva and feminism, we have seen varied attitudes with a common denominator: either the pop diva rejects feminism but practices it notwithstanding, or the pop diva publicly embraces feminism after rejecting prejudiced definitions of this word. Beyoncé seems to be using a didactic approach which might be beneficial (though Annie Lennox has questioned her feminism as just tokenism).

Of all the divas explored, Beyoncé is no doubt the most successful and powerful one: her career is very solid, and she is in a stable relationship, married to the most powerful male musician right now (Jay-Z) and the mother of a daughter. She is rich, beautiful and well-liked, perhaps because she seems to be more ‘respectable’ than the other divas (she’s been involved in no scandals).

In contrast, the most controversial pop diva seems to be Miley Cyrus as her extremely sexualised self-presentation can be alternatively read as an expression of (feminist) freedom or an unwise choice which degrades her as an artist. A crucial issue in this sense, as she used to be a teen idol playing Hannah Montana, is which effect this may be having on younger women who used to follow her as a role model. This would also refer to ex-Disney stars like Britney Spears or Selena Gomez.

Ethnic and racial issues are hard to pinpoint: the white divas are not perceived as such, yet for the non-white divas race does not seem to be a major issue, possibly because non-white performers have always been a prominent part of pop. The fact that Madonna is white and Beyoncé African-American seems irrelevant as regards their success, since they reach all kinds of audiences (Beyoncé, though, possibly has a high value as role model for other African-American women performers). Other, like Jennifer Lopez, seem to be exploiting an ethnic identity (Latino) of which they do not really participate.

Most importantly, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone has the right to criticise these divas or curtail in any way their self-presentation. This has always been a problem with feminism, as it usually appears to be unfairly censorious and fixed on rigid rules.

My own point of view is that as women we need positive role models that contribute to our empowerment. The pop divas are, arguably, the most visible face of women’s empowerment, much above politicians, business women or scientists. The problem is that their intensive sexualisation may actually undermine the possibilities for women to be empowered, particularly for those who choose not to present themselves in this way, or for whom this might be a serious obstacle (who would take a sexualised scientist seriously, whether man or woman?).

Their individual right to choose how to run their careers (and lives) clashes then with our collective need for role models which carefully avoid confusing self-empowerment with self-exploitation. A misogynist or a male chauvinist contemplating Rihanna’s half-naked body will not see an empowered woman but a confirmation of his own views that women are nothing but sexual objects.

Finally, the standards of beauty set by these attractive pop divas may even have a negative impact on the world of music itself, in the sense that less attractive women of great talent might feel inhibited from pursuing a career. Adele may be an exception, but if we consider the case of Spanish singer Rosa we see how, instead of adapting audiences to the diva’s original physical appearance, she has undergone a drastic process of transformation to suit audience’s preferences for slimmer women. In contrast, what is needed for women in careers with a great public projection is the same acceptance for variety that benefits men (think, for instance, how differently the body shapes of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé have been read).

Just a little comment: as I noted, there are individual academic studies of some of these divas (Madonna and Beyoncé in particular) but no publication addressing the issue of what is a pop diva and how this figure is constituted today.

Fascinating, really…

PS: See my own articles about
*(with Gerardo Rodríguez) Kylie Minogue, https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Forget%20Madonna%20Rodriguez%20Mart%C3%ADn%20AEDEAN%20Cadiz.pdf
*The Scottish diva (Annie Lennox, Sharleen Spitteri, Shirley Manson), https://www.raco.cat/index.php/DossiersFeministes/article/view/102499/153671

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Sorry, this one is very long…

I’ve given hints here that I could a tale unfold if I wrote about my au-pair days back in 1985-6. I have just signed a reference letter for a girl student to be an au-pair in Britain and this brings back many complicated memories. I had a very hard time being an au-pair but, as I told this girl, this is an experience I would never erase from my life.

In these days of Erasmus grants, I guess that being an au-pair is not as popular as it was among girl students of English in my time. I decided to take a gap year between my second and my third in the five-year ‘Llicenciatura’ (BA) in ‘Filologia Anglesa’ because I was not making progress in English as fast as I wanted. Also, to be honest, I needed a change of air, as I could put up no longer with my father’s demands that I worked full-time (the money I made by teaching part-time went into books and fees). Once I decided to be an au-pair, I also decided to take the Proficiency examination, as that would provide a clear focus to my stay abroad and would help, as it did, in finding teaching jobs once back.

Just when I returned they started offering the first Erasmus grants. I never applied, fancy asking my father to send me abroad… I’ve often wondered how many poor students are by-passed as I had to be.

I worked for a grand total of five families in one year: one in Lincolnshire, one in Humberside, three in London. What went wrong? I applied too late and was sent, they told me, to the only family who would have me in October (most au-pairs started in September). This family was too poor to keep an au-pair so they soon chucked me out. My Spanish agency washed their hands of me, I was found another family by a local agency. I was given a big house to clean, owned by a couple formed by an older man… and a previous au-pair. It took me much tact to navigate her jealousy. I hated, anyway, being alone all day long in the middle of nowhere and decided to head south to London.

There, I was placed with a Greek family from Cyprus in Mill Hill, about one hour by tube from central London. I learned to dislike intensely suburban life, as I felt stranded all the time. Finally, I started attending school in preparation to taking the Proficiency exam. My lady employer, who’d placed entirely in my hands her huge house and also two little children for many hours, told me she did not care for my studies. Also, she had me working Saturday mornings, which left me with no time to go sightseeing with the other au-pairs… I decided to leave and found a family in Hampstead with two teen boys.

I loved Hampstead. Also, the couple who employed me were cultured persons and would point out to me interesting places in London, as they noted my eagerness to learn. I read non-stop as I was given free use of their library. Only later did I join a public library, something I should have done much earlier. This would be my first recommendation to would-be au-pairs: join a library, ideally a reading club –or any other club where you can make friends. Back to my tale: things grew stale between this unpredictable lady employer and myself; I grew awfully nervous around her and had all kinds of little domestic accidents to the point that she threw me out one early morning. Luckily, I had already met an elderly lady who promised to take me in if necessary and she honoured her word.

I was employed by this lady and her husband, both retired and living on their own, for the last five months of my stay. I was happy with them. My tasks were simple and clearly defined. They did talk to me and held actual conversations beyond giving me orders. Not all was perfect but I just wished I had found them at the beginning. The funny thing is how I found them: thanks to an ad on the window display of a local newsagent. Perhaps the most intelligent thing to do is to travel where you want to work as an au-pair and find an employer this way: face-to-face, in their own home.

I had a very romantic notion of what being an au-pair was about of which I was quickly disabused. It took me a while to understand that my diverse employers did not see a university student in me but just cheap foreign domestic help. Many hired me because they could not afford proper live-in help. I was never employed just to babysit, much less so in the house where they had the two little children. At that time Spain had a military service for young men and I used to joke that I had passed mine in Britain…

My best memories are of my free time roaming the streets of London (how I loved Hampstead, really!). I made friends but they were all au-pairs like me, which was not ideal to improve my English. The natives, of course, had no need to meet au-pairs (mere servants) at all. I never felt part of any family, none of my employers bothered to show me around or asked me questions about who I was and why I was in Britain. Other au-pair girls were much luckier than I, other faced a much worse deal.

I did pass the Proficiency examination, which comforted my poor, suffering mother. In those days my family had so little money I was not even back for Christmas, Dickensian as this may sound today. Cell phones did not exist and I wrote many, many letters. I returned a completely different person, much more confident, having proven that, if necessary, I could support myself by the sweat of my brow. I was a working-class servant for one year, and this I will never forget. Also, I read so much that I taught myself possibly the equivalent of two university years.

Yes, I often think of my employers, gossiping about that terrible Spanish au-pair they had back in 1985-6 and her itchy feet…

Beatriz (and all the other au-pairs in the world): my very best wishes, I hope you enjoy the experience.

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This intense Harry Potter period of my life seems never to end… I’m currently teaching Oliver Twist to my Victorian Literature class on the usual pretence that they have all read the book and can follow my analysis. Well. Since they need to learn how to write a paper, I explained to them what a conference is and why papers are written, taking the chance to publicise an oncoming event at my own university: a conference on monstrosity (December 2014, Las mil caras del monstruo, https://visionesdelofantastico2.weebly.com/) to which I have submitted a paper on Voldemort. Now, that caught their attention… and mine to their alertness. Three students actually waylaid me at the end of my lecture to demand that I teach again the Harry Potter elective… a tall order!

This is why I decided to use the last 15 minutes of my lecture yesterday to a) present the connections between Oliver Twist and the Harry Potter series, b) introduce students to the concept of intertextuality (first coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966). In the process I learned that the majority of students in class have read Rowling’s saga (and enough Dickens to follow me, good…). Also, that there must be something uncanny in the links between the two authors and the two characters because a girl student got goosebumps several times as I lectured (her physical reaction was certainly intense).

So here we go. Intertextuality, a notoriously wide-ranging term, replaces the old-fashioned idea of ‘influence’. It is, despite the looselessness of its meaning, very useful to discuss how texts keep a dialogue with each other, which can be more or less willed, more or less direct. Some intertextuality is explicit (James Joyce’s Ulysses), some implicit. We can see this for Oliver Twist as well: Terry Pratchett wants us to see at first sight that his novel Dodger connects with Dickens’s work, Rowling is not particularly interested in establishing a connection but this is visible enough and very strong at some points. Uncannily so.

Of course, as a student pointed out yesterday, the list which follows might simply be pure coincidence. Or have just dubious value, I’ll add. Precisely, it was my intention to alert students to the fact that intertextuality tends to be extremely subjective, hard to prove persuasively, and always open to criticism.

Now, consider (sorry about the spoilers):

*Harry and Oliver are orphans. They both spend a miserable childhood, which includes a stay with unsympathetic pseudo-parents (the Dursleys, the Sowerberrys) with a particularly nasty foster mother. They’re both bullied in this foster home by an older boy (Dudley, Noah).
*The trope of the mother’s death is displaced in Harry Potter to Tom Riddle’s birth, the difference being that Merope Gaunt lets herself die after giving birth. Both Agnes (Oliver’s mother) and Merope become pregnant by men who keep with them a relationship beset by problems (Oliver’s father actually seduces the poor woman and tricks her into a false wedding, no matter how much he loves her; Merope bewitches Tom Riddle Sr. with a love potion).
*Both Oliver and Harry are protected by their dead mother’s blood: Harry literally and also in the person of his unkind aunt Petunia; Oliver by his much kinder aunt Rose Maylie, who saves him from his life of crime and the persecution of the main villains.
*Harry and Oliver are roughly the same age (11) when they leave behind their known environment for a new world of which they know nothing: the world of wizarding and the world of crime, respectively. I might argue that Fagin is a wicked version of Dumbledore but I’ll let that be…
*Both James Potter (Harry’s father) and Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford Sr., are characters with moral flaws: James used to be a bully at school, as his victim, Snape, reveals; Leeford was quite dishonest about his marital situation with Agnes.

Here comes my favourite bit: Mr. John Brownlow. This is a rich bachelor gentleman, with a London establishment of his own, and the closest friend of Oliver’s dead father. When after many incidents Rose puts Oliver again in touch with him, Mr. Brownlow ends up offering Oliver a happy home and adopting the boy. The moment I named Sirius Black my students understood that he is Brownlow’s equivalent in the Harry Potter saga, with a difference: he dies too soon, too cruelly. Essentially, once he is rescued from Fagin and Sykes’s hands (thanks to Nancy, another Lily Potter sacrificial figure), Oliver has no role in his own story, except that of offering forgiveness. In contrast, Rowling forces his boy to face his arch-enemy alone, once he’s lost his protectors (Sirius but also Dumbledore, Snape). Dickens, always a sentimental man regarding children, would have been horrified at her cruelty. I am.

Finally, both Oliver and Harry make me wonder about their goodness. Dickens defended himself from criticisms against Oliver’s idealisation claiming that the boy represented a ‘principle of good’ beset by evil. There is a wonderful scene in which Nancy throws a tantrum, full of rage against Fagin’s physical ill-treatment of the boy; her point is that Oliver will soon become a degraded criminal, there’s no need to add abuse to this. Shortly after this explosion, however, Fagin tells Monks, Oliver’s arch-enemy, that the boy is impossible to train for a life of crime as he has nothing to scare him with. Harry seems, likewise, impervious to the attraction of the dark side, no matter how often Voldemort insists that they’re quite similar. In both cases the reward for this triumphant inner goodness is a happy (middle-class) family life with the difference, as I have noted, that the child Oliver is rescued by others from evil (imagine a nice aunt Petunia helping a stable Sirius raise Harry), whereas Harry must grow up and rescue himself.

The goosebumps of the girl student and the wand watching my back as I write (Sirius’s of course) suggest to me that other operations apart from rational intertextuality are at stake in this kind of connection. Most likely, I need Jung’s collective unconscious and not Freud’s idea of the uncanny to explain them, though there’s something truly uncanny at work. Brownlow, based on a well-known Victorian philanthropist of the same name (secretary to the Foundlings Hospital Dickens knew so well) suggests that something resonates in us when we read about unprotected children. I firmly believe Freud was too focused on the little and big dramas of the patriarchal nuclear family to note other figures we set much store by, and which, somehow, Brownlow (adoptive father) and Sirius (godfather) embody. Dickens understood this, by the way, much better than Rowling, which is why he paid homage with his fictional character to the man employed in real life to protect abandoned babies.

I’ll keep on thinking about that. You, too.

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