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” (BritishTheatre.com, 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.

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


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.

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


‘Lest We Forget’ is a phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” (1897) habitually quoted in war remembrance events. May 8 2020 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi rendition but World War II is not the war I have in mind today. Contradicting my own injunctions to only read positive, ideally utopian books, I have spent many hours this past two weeks reading one of the most impressive American non-fiction works: Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On (1987). This is a terrific account of the early phase of the AIDS plague, covering from the first cases until the public announcement in 1985 that star actor Rock Hudson was a victim of the disease. Shilts, an investigative journalist employed by the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of Californian TV networks, wrote the book with passion and anger. A gay man himself, he waited to take the HIV test until the massive volume was published, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.

Shilts was the author of The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), the biography of Harvey Milk which was one of the sources for Oscar-award winner documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk (2008) was based on Epstein’s documentary. A while ago I wrote a book chapter comparing documentary and film, and explaining the connections between homophobia and patriarchal masculinity (the Spanish version is available online here https://ddd.uab.cat/record/147464). The point I made was that Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (or town council), did not murder him and Mayor George Moscone simply because he was a homophobe but because he felt disempowered by Milk’s election. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay officer ever elected in the USA and when White, a classic patriarchal man, lost his position as supervisor because of his own ineptitude, he blamed both Milk and Moscone for his disempowerment. Moscone’s death was basically read as collateral damage, though, by an angry gay community that has since then honoured Milk as a martyr. His death in 1978 was the catalyst for the beginning of a time of enormously increased visibility for the San Francisco gay community, which knew how to channel their anger into positive activism.

Shilts’s And the Band Played On reads as a second act in the tragedy that Milk’s death was. As he narrates, the new happier period in the life of gay men lasted for just very few years until AIDS emerged. Shilts’s volume, based on hundreds of interviews that he himself carried out, has an immense cast of (real-life) characters, among which several are members of the Harvey Milk Club, a referent for gay activism in the Castro neighbourhood. What Shilts narrates is the story of how the gay community resisted in a suicidal way any measure that might curb down their newly found sexual freedom. Homophobia was much more intense in the 1980s than it is now and many gays feared being ostracized as lepers by the health safety measures dictated by mostly homophobic public officers. The disease, in short, spread far more than it should have if only many gay men had listened to doctors’ advice and refrained from engaging in dangerous sexual practices. Of course, as Shilts notes with bitterness, the advice came too late, when the virus had been probably circulating for years undetected (he dates the first case back to 1976).

I knew, more or less, of the efforts made by the gay communities of San Francisco and New York, mainly, to organize themselves and work on promoting not only safe sex but also the use of innovative treatment. The book is very critical of how irresponsible personal behaviour contributed to spreading HIV (though Shilts is very unfair to Gaetan Dugas, the Québécois Canadian flight attendant that was never really Patient One). This is an important lesson to apply to our Covid-19 crisis: disobeying health measures is lethal, and personal freedom should always be second to safety. Of course, the main difference between AIDS and Covid-19 is that the former was initially associated to gay men, which caused homophobia to increase even further, whereas Covid-19 is not associated to any specific human group. The lesson, anyway, is still valid. It must be noted that Shilts mentions several times how AIDS was never seen as a gay disease in France, where researchers at the Pasteur Institute first isolated HIV. They saw the disease as a sexually transmitted infection which affected both gays and heterosexuals, and which could also be transmitted through other contacts involving blood (transfusions, sharing needles for IV drug use, drawing nourishment through a placenta from an infected mother in the case of foetuses).

As a researcher, though in the Humanities, I worry very much about how scientists do research in critical situations like the onset of AIDS or of Covid-19. Shilts has two main arguments to develop about this. On the one hand, he demonstrates how President Reagan’s administration (1980-1988) did all it could to hinder research for its own homophobic reasons and because Reagan did not want to lose his most conservative voters in the 1984 re-election. Funding only started to materialise when it became evident that AIDS was never a gay-exclusive disease. On the other hand, Shilts exposes how academic squabbling wasted precious years. Academic authorities withdrew funding and shunned researchers working on AIDS for purely homophobic reasons. Yet what seems to me most intolerable is how the peer reviewing system slowed down progress and how certain scientific stars placed their personal careers before the care of AIDS sufferers. Shilts always defends the idea that Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute and Françoise BarrĂ©-Sinoussi were the discoverers of HIV, siding with those who accused Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health of somehow having used the LAV French samples sent to him as the basis for his discovery of the HLVT-III virus (both LAV and HLVT-III were actually the same virus, later called HIV). Gallo was left out of the 2008 Nobel Prize award, which went to the French virologists.

There is a passage in And the Band Played On which, as a researcher, I found very scary. The French team isolated the virus in 1983, one year before Gallo. They did try to publish their research in the USA but, Shilts writes, “they were inexperienced at writing papers for American scientific journals. They did not present their data as well as American scientists. The Pasteur’s primary spokesman, Dr. Luc Montagnier, lacked the charisma and forcefulness of Gallo”. Peer reviewing, Shilts notes, was also used to prevent the French team from publishing, with prestige journals using reviewers connected with Gallo’s employer institution or others with a known animosity against Montagnier. That this kind of corruption could happen made me even more indignant than the shenanigans of the Reagan Government, for these were no surprise. Call me naïve but I should have thought that national or personal arrogance should play no role in science at times of crisis. Reading Shilts is not at all reassuring in that sense. I would expect personal irresponsibility and political interests to be the cause of many deaths, as we are seeing in the case of Covid-19, but the details of how some scientists misbehaved in the early 1980s in relation to AIDS are simply revolting.

Just this morning I received the Catalan bulletin for research, this time a monographic issue on Covid-19. As you may imagine, and I assume this is the same all over the world, the bulletin is pretty bombastic about the magnificent work of local researchers. I am sure that they are doing their best but what irks me is the nationalist angle at a time when this is the last thing we need. There are, at least, two news items about international matters publicizing the existence of the Covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition and the Coronavirus Research and Innovation Portal of the EU. More importantly, the bulletin includes a short piece defending the need for international open research, which highlights the Global Research on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) portal run by WHO, and other initiatives mainly referring to open access repositories, among them Elsevier’s Novel Coronavirus Information Center. I cannot say, though, whether publications available there, like The Lancet or Cell Press, have made their peer reviewing processes more agile. Shilts describes the overwhelming frustration of early AIDS researchers forced by indispensable journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to wait a minimum of three months before publication (remember these were pre-internet times) and not to leak any information to the media under penalty of article withdrawal. The media, I must complain, should be giving us information about all this: how science is being run right now, and not just the endless lists of figures which in the end mean very little.

And the Band Plays On narrates in the last segment the process by which the first antibody tests were put on the market. This will ring familiar: the tests were not made available to all who needed them, they were not 100% reliable, and did not necessarily result in the isolation of infected patients. Like Covid-19, HIV can be carried asymptomatically (the virus, it was determined, may take years to attack the immune system) which is why testing is so important. In case anyone thinks that HIV is under control, think twice: 700000 persons died last year of this disease all over the world. The number of new infections has gone down in most countries (South Africa remains a hot spot) and the rate of survival is much higher, with HIV carriers keeping the disease in check for decades. It must be noted, though, that only two persons have been cured thanks to stem cell transplants “from donors with a genetic mutation present in less than one percent of Europeans that prevents HIV from taking hold” (https://www.sciencealert.com/hiv-cured-london-man-still-has-no-trace-of-infection-nearly-3-years-after-treatment). The second patient was pronounced healthy just last March. Note that here is no vaccine yet, after 35 years of quite dynamic research. 35 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. This week a series of clinical trials have started in different labs of different nations, which sounds promising; there is talk of a functional anti-Covid-19 vaccine for 2021. Apart from questions of funding (remember covidiot President Trump withdrew US funding from WHO?), researchers are now facing ethical dilemmas such as whether it is legitimate to infect healthy persons for the experiments (logically, you could not do that with HIV), because there is always a risk of death. One hundred vaccines are currently being developed (see https://www.bioworld.com/COVID19products#vac). Now, try not to think of the still missing vaccines for AIDS.

Shilts explains that US citizens were shocked into the realization that AIDS was there to stay when they saw images of Rock Hudson’s ravaged physique in his last public appearance (on a TV show with former co-star in many films, Doris Day). Hudson still denied he was suffering from AIDS but his death in October 1985 was used to instil into the nation a widespread fear of the new plague, for good and for bad reasons. We have not gone yet through a Rock Hudson moment, that is to say, we still lack an image so potent that we finally understand what Covid-19 is about. We are being fed images of happy survivors and of hard-working doctors and nurses, but I don’t think we really understand that this coronavirus is potentially lethal for all, hence the daily acts of disobedience.

The US media, Shilts complains, were guilty of misinforming his fellow citizens about the urgency and gravity of the AIDS crisis but he is himself an outstanding example of the best investigative journalism. Read his book, pay him homage, and hope that current journalists are also doing their best.

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


The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther PujolrĂ s tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily BrontĂ«, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

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