ON BULLIES, TYRANTS, AND THEIR SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT: STOP THEM NOW

As I write, the Russian nuclear armament is ready to strike anywhere in, probably, the whole world and both the media and the social media are debating whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might eventually order a strike, and against whom. To the world’s amazement, the Ukrainians are still resisting and Kyiv has not fallen down after six days of fighting. Conventional invasion tactics are being deployed by the Russians less successfully than they expected but, at the same time, Putin has not yet directly threatened Ukraine with nuclear devastation. In this extremely volatile situation, as Putin loses the respect of the Russian people and of most persons in the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who won the 2019 elections vowing to end corruption, has emerged as a great leader, choosing to stay in Kyiv, rather than accept the rescue which the Americans offered.

I want to use my post today to read the Russian assault on Ukraine in gendered terms, since I am a feminist who does research in Gender Studies. The contrast between Putin and Zelenskyy is the contrast between two types of men, showing that whereas masculinity in general is not to blame for the brutal type of violence that war is, patriarchal masculinity is indeed guilty of the worst crimes against humanity. Putin is being compared these days to Adolf Hitler and since I am the author of a book called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), I also have a few ideas to share about the Russian tyrant. The point I made in the book is that Hitler’s atrocious behaviour was the culmination of a pattern linking the fictional and the real-life villain as representatives of patriarchal masculinity. I defined that as the type of male-supremacist, sexist, misogynistic, LGTBIQ+ phobic, racist and generally prejudiced masculinity, only interested in accruing as much power as possible to prove itself.

Patriarchy which is not the same as masculinity but a hegemonic subset, as Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel have theorized, attracts men by promising them a share of the power which hegemonic men have. Although this is a hollow promise, many men fall for it, believing that they have a right to patriarchal power but finding themselves usually disempowered, or less empowered than they wished to be. If their feeling of disempowerment runs high, Kimmel has explained, this results in their lashing out against others less empowered than themselves, a behaviour that explains bullying, couple-related abuse, random criminality from serial killing to terrorism, and so on. Usually, the mechanisms of control, from peer pressure to judicial intervention work, and the would-be-tyrants are one way or another disempowered. In a number of cases, though, the tyrants in the making grow strong in power using sheer violence, within criminal or political circles, until they simply cannot be stopped; or it takes a massive effort—like WWII, perhaps WWIII—to stop them.

For the chapter on Hitler in my book I followed Kimmel but also Hitler’s British biographer Ian Kershaw, to leave aside biographical trivia and read the Führer not as an exceptional individual but as an exceptional case of patriarchal villainy overcoming all controls against excessive empowerment. Hitler, an obscure man with many personal issues, could have failed in his plans to empower himself if German society had been able to impose the necessary checks on him. The situation, however, was so fragile—after the German defeat in WWI, the 1929 crisis, the rise of fascism in Italy and so on—that instead of being stopped, Hitler was endorsed. Recall that he won a legitimate democratic election in 1933 before staging the coup that made him the total dictator of Germany. This is a mechanism we have seen at work recently in the USA, where American democracy almost died on 6 January 2021, after the Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump fascists. Hitler, Trump, or Putin, as you can see, are not important as individuals, as men. What matters here is that the democratic mechanisms are in place so that no tyrant can rise. These men are proof that the mechanism to stop villains from empowering themselves too much often fail, much more so when, as it happens in Russia, they have never really been in place.

In the normal run of things, the men and women rising to power in democratic political systems are motivated by a sense of service mingled with personal ambition to make their mark in History. Of course, they wish to empower themselves and act following their own principles and ideas with no check, but the opposition and the voters are supposed to curb down that instinct. Most politicians in the world, at any level, understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, though, obviously, many cross them on a daily basis to enrich themselves through corruption. J.R.R. Tolkien speaks in The Silmarillion and in The Lord of the Rings of two kinds of power: the power of creation and the power of domination. The first kind is chased by persons who think they can do good on an individual or a collective basis, whereas as it is transparent through the Tolkienian examples of Morgoth and Sauron, the power of domination needs to express itself through oppression, exploitation, and violent submission. It takes an alliance of divine beings and elves to put Morgoth in prison forever (he is immortal) and it takes a second alliance of elves, men, dwarves and hobbits to expel Sauron (another immortal) from Mordor. Tolkien had fought in WWI and he understood very well how patriarchal masculinity proceeds: its need for empowerment is a need for domination, and this is based, here is the main key, on a sense of entitlement.

Everyone feels entitled to something. Whether this is happiness or ruling the whole world depends on the share of power we have. A person with no power at all, a slave, cannot even contemplate feeling entitled to anything, whereas a person with a strong sense of entitlement to power will do anything to quash his/her enemies and rivals. We are seeing this at work in the national Spanish right-wing parties, with the sudden fall out of grace of PP’s President Pablo Casado for daring to interfere with Madrid’s regional President Isabel Ayuso, and in Vox, which is promising empowerment to men and women who feel they are being mistreated by progressive popular opinion and the left-wing parties.

Women, as you can see, feel as much sense of entitlement to power as men, but sexism has so far prevented them from enacting that need beyond a certain level (that of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s Prime Minister, 1979-1990). If men and women had always been treated equally, I would not be speaking of patriarchal masculinity but of oligarchical humanity. Yet, the fact is that women’s sense of entitlement has been harshly suppressed throughout History. Feminism has liberated many women from their shackles but it may have created monsters by inviting all women to defend their choices, which regrettably also include, as we know now, being fascists aspiring to ruling their territory.

If sexism had not been a major factor in History, then, there is no reason to suppose that there could never have been an Isolde Hitler, a Charlotte Trump, or a Natalia Putina playing the same role as their real-life male counterparts. The prehistoric bullies, however, soon discovered that violent males always got the upper hand, whether they were themselves directly violent, or ordered others to be violent, and started in the Iron Age the patriarchal regime that is now leading to climate change and nuclear holocaust. This male supremacist regime based on satisfying the sense of entitlement and the need of power for domination of a select cadre of villainous men is still ruling the world, despite the existence of many peaceful nations, mostly ruled by men and women who understand that wars of conquest and expansion have brought nothing positive in the last thousands of years. If only hypocritically, given their record in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the USA founded their world reputation on the basis that no other war of conquest should be tolerated. They exposed their argument by massacring the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear monstrosities because they felt entitled to ending their lives, but they still hold the argument that no one else should be allowed to enact a similar sense of entitlement over the lives of others.

This leads back to President Putin, whose sense of entitlement to the Ukraine and possibly other nations in Europe—he has directly threatened Finland and Sweden—has suddenly awakened, at a point when his power over Russia seems uncontested and after decades presenting himself internationally as a despot with no imperial ambitions. I can speculate whether Putin, now 69, is going through a personal crisis connected with his ageing as a man, given his ultra-masculine self-presentation—I believe this is the case—but I’m more interested in how the mechanisms to check his rogue behaviour are working. The war scenario in Ukraine is accompanied by other non-military measures elsewhere: massive demonstrations, financial exclusion, pressure to China to stop endorsing the war and so on. Both NATO and the EU have discarded military confrontation, though we’ll see what happens if Putin sets foot in Poland. Inside Russia, anti-Putin protesters are risking detention and worse, influencers are posting anti-war messages constantly, and billionaires beginning to grumble. There are, however, no signs (yet?) of a possible coup—a lonely MP, of the Communist Party, was the only one to oppose the war in Russia’s crowded Parliament. What is at stake, I insist, is not really how Putin should be stopped but how any villain of his kind should be stopped. Tomorrow, it could be Kim Jong-Un deciding next to invade South Korea and launch a volley of nuclear missiles. This is, however, where things get scary because right now, unless an honourable Russian man gets close enough to stop Putin for good, no strong check is in place.

As things are now, Ukraine and perhaps the world are being sacrificed to the personal needs of an ageing white patriarchal man who cannot be satisfied with ruling Russia. A German general was dismissed for arguing in public that Putin’s fears about Russia not being safe enough if Ukraine joins NATO or the EU should be addressed. I agree that his fears should be addressed, but not those concerning Ukraine. It is urgent to understand why one of the most powerful men on Earth feels suddenly so disempowered that he needs to lash out, perhaps ending the planet. What made me cry rivers last Sunday, when I heard Putin’s announcement about getting his nuclear arsenal ready, was not only pure fear but anger against the reluctance to learn lessons from Gender Studies and from the past, instead presenting monsters like Hitler as a mystifying aberrations when they are transparent and easy to understand. Now, here we are, with some idiots lashing out against the allegedly low profile that feminists are keeping in this war (like TikToker @notpoliticalspeaking, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10560821/Man-SLAMMED-saying-unfair-men-fight-war-Ukraine-children-women-leave.html) while we close our eyes to the nature of patriarchal masculinity. Fight it in the streets, or fight it online, but stop it by any means or that patriarchal man in Russia will destroy all the other persons on Earth. This is now much more serious than Hitler ever was, and much more urgent. The genocide he committed, absolutely appalling as it was, may pale beside the planetary genocide we might soon witness—if anyone survives.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

RETHINKING WILLY WONKA: ENJOYABLE VILLAINY

[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/]

My brilliant student Pol Vinyeta has written an excellent BA dissertation on one of Roald Dahl’s most popular books with the title “Don’t Trust the Candy Man: A Reading of Willy Wonka’s Enjoyable Villainy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Its Film Adaptations”. Pol chose this topic because it seemed that Matilda (his initial choice) had been dealt with in plenty of academic bibliography but there was a better chance to say something new about Charlie. The idea was to take my own work on villainy, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), and see in which ways Willy Wonka is indeed a villain, or not. We didn’t realize when we started work on the dissertation that Wonka would be constant news because of the fiftieth anniversary of the first film adaptation and the announcement of a third screen version. Serendipity at work, then.

Whereas in my book I took it for granted that the male characters I focused on were downright villains, with no redeeming features whatsoever, Pol concluded in his analysis that Willy Wonka appears to be a case of partial villainy, defined by “certain villainous traits”. In case you are an alien just landed on Earth and never heard of Wonka, allow me to say that in this novel for children Dahl tells the story of how this man –the world’s most renowned and most seclusive chocolatier– chooses an heir for his business among the children selected to visit his fairy-tale, colourful factory. The golden admission ticket is found in one of the myriad chocolate bars for sale, which of course makes Wonka even richer when kids all over the planet start buying his products like crazy. Charlie, a little boy raised in an extremely poor family (location undisclosed), gets lucky and the novel narrates how one by one the other children suffer accidents that result in only Charlie properly finishing the visit. Only then does Wonka disclose his plans for the boy he names his new heir. Among the villainous traits that Pol described are Wonka’s nonchalant cruelty towards the other children, his exploitative treatment of his imported workers the Oompa Loompas, and his sense of entitlement towards Charlie, who is not really given the chance to consider how Wonka appropriates his future. Pol’s thesis is that we do not see Wonka as a downright villain because Dahl uses humour to disguise his worst failings (and I would add because we perceive his rescuing Charlie from poverty as a positive action). Pol has called this villainy that gets away with it ‘enjoyable villainy’ and this is a label that intrigues me.

When one thinks of children’s literature it is quite clear that Lord Voldemort is the most potent villain ever threatening a child. There is some humour in the Harry Potter series, usually connected with the members of the Weasley family, but there is nothing humorous at all about Voldemort. Actor Ralph Fiennes, who played him in the film series, once said that if you take away all the fantasy trappings, Voldemort is an adult man abusing a boy and this is how we need to see him. There is nothing ‘enjoyable’, then, in Rowling’s treatment of this human monster. Perhaps, however, this is exceptional, for villains in children’s fictions are often exaggerated characters and because of that they are sources of humour, even though they may be themselves humourless. Pol mentioned as a case of humourless enjoyable villain the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In less fanciful circumstances, this perpetually cross authoritarian woman might be the stuff of Gothic nightmares but in the context of Lewis Carroll’s hyperexcited fabulation she is laughable. Likewise, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I strongly recommend), Count Olaf is a source of amusement, even though his relentless persecution of the orphaned Baudelaire siblings is hardly fun for them. If we laugh at Olaf’s ridiculous antics this is only because we hope (and we know) he will lose and the Baudelaires prevail.

The question is that in comparison to either the Red Queen or Count Olaf, or any other villain in children’s fantasy you can think of, Willy Wonka is a very strange character. He is not at all like Olaf in wanting to deprive a child of their means of subsistence but he is not that far from Olaf in his cavalier approach to the safety of the children who visit the factory. Humour in Dahl’s novel is based on the idea that, with Charlie’s exception, the other kids (ages 9 to 10) are insufferable brats: Augustus Gloop is an obese boy who can’t stop eating; Violet Beauregarde is an appallingly rude, gum-chewing, vain girl; Veruca Salt (surely the ugliest name ever for a little girl) is a dreadful spoiled brat, and Mike Teavee is a coach potato who only thinks of watching television. Their unseemly ends (if they end at all, it must be said) are presented by the author as well-deserved punishments and gloated over by Wonka to the consternation of the parents. In fact, the whole point of the book seems to torment these children for a) there is no reason the golden tickets could not have found their way to better children, b) Wonka could have selected his heir in many other ways, c) nice Charlie’s presence among this bunch is that of an odd-man-out. Someone here is a sadist who hates a certain type of child, and I’ve never been sure whether this is Dahl or Wonka. Either way, the message sent is not very encouraging and seems to appeal to the lowest instincts of the young readers rather then attempt any re-education of the insufferable visitors.

Then, there is the matter of the Oompa Loompas. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964 when it was till acceptable, it seems, to present Wonka’s tireless workers as tiny exotic indigenes from an unnamed land. In the first pictorial representations the Oompa Loompas were represented as African pygmies. By 1971, when the first adaptation was filmed, this was problematic enough for them to be played by actors in orange make-up and green wigs, though said actors were dwarves. In the 2005 version by Tim Burton Indian-Kenyan actor Deep Roy, also a dwarf, was cast as all the Oompa Loompas, as if they were clones. Why Wonka’s enslaved worked are short, non-white persons has been never satisfactorily explained, though there seems to be a connection with (of course) Snow White’s seven companions and, more directly, with the Munchkins in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. I cannot imagine, however, how this unmistakeably racist aspect of Dahl’s novel is going to be treated in Paul King’s forthcoming third adaptation. Ironically, Dahl wanted Charlie originally to be a black boy, but his editors told him nobody would buy a book for children with that type of protagonist.

Because of Pol’s dissertation, I have recently revisited the 1971 version with Gene Wilder as Wonka and found it a film few contemporary children might enjoy. Reviewing it recently in The Guardian, Guy Lodge calls it “a clunky film that Roald Dahl rightly hated”. Apparently, even though the author appears as sole author of the script, this went through many changes he was never informed about. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers to play Wonka and, siding with him, Lodge announces in his subtitle that “The years haven’t been kind to Gene Wilder and his underplayed performance as the sadistic chocolatier in a cheap and poorly made adaptation”. I must say that although Wilder’s creep factor is significant I found Johnny Depp’s 2005 Wonka even creepier with his silly page cut and his ultra-white teeth. Pol claims that Depp’s recent scandals have destroyed his performance to the eyes of adult spectators that would possibly not share this film with their children, and I would agree. Even without the scandals, though, I find very little to enjoy in Burton’s version which, besides, seems to be a forerunner of the current deplorable trend to justify villainy with melodramatic stories of abuse suffered by the villains in childhood (here Wonka’s father was a dentist who did not allow his son to eat sweets). The announced new film, with cute Timothée Chalamet as Wonka goes in that same direction.

For me, proof that Dahl was not sure about what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was about is the fact the failed sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) does not deal at all with Charlie Bucket’s assumption of his role as Wonka’s heir but with rather nonsensical space adventure on board the magical elevator. Apparently, the original novel was inspired by Dahl’s participation as a schoolboy in the testing of new products by Cadbury in the 1930s, and by its rivalry with the other great English chocolate maker, Rowntree. I think it makes perfect sense that the child Dahl’s fantasy of being able to visit and maybe own the place where the secretive chocolatiers of Cadbury made their product grew into the adult writer’s fantasy about Wonka’s factory. I also believe that this is what made the novel so popular: not Wonka himself, the Oompa Loompas or the brats’ fates, but the idea of the factory (just as Harry Potter appeals to kids mainly because of Hogwarts). Possibly, this is why so many outlets exploit that spirit (it seems that diverse coffee shop chains offer Willy Wonka brews for adults). In my view, though, Dahl did not make the most of his material, not knowing how to establish a relationship between Wonka and too-nice-to-be-true Charlie, and undermining the sense of wonder created by the factory with the ill-treatment the other kids get. I put myself in the shoes of Charlie’s parents and I would be far from charmed by Mr. Wonka’s attentions towards my child, which are pretty much proprietary, and not really clear at all (just consider why Wonka has no children of his own).

Does all this amount nonetheless to a good, solid case of ‘enjoyable villainy’? I think it does, and I thank Pol for teaching me that some villains are only partially so because humour makes their villainous traits acceptable. On the whole, I would have been happier with a less ambiguous characterization for Wonka –one in which, for instance, Charlie accepts the prize but calls him to task for his awful exploitation of the Oompa Loompas who are then given proper contracts. On the other hand, though children are good at enjoying black humour, often present in TV cartoon series, I wonder what exactly they ‘enjoy’ when reading Dahl’s Charlie. In Matilda this little girl’s parents are despicable persons who must be punished and the lesson learned is that whoever neglects a child only deserves disrespect. The girl protagonist is empowered, and so are the little readers. Willy Wonka embodies Dahl’s notion that bad parenting is to blame for badly-behaved children and so parents and brats are one way or another punished by him, but this is done with great cruelty and appears to have no bearing on passive Charlie’s empowerment (except, of course, that he is a naturally good boy and is rewarded for that). We might simply say that Wonka is too flamboyant and too free to bow down to anything, and this is why he is enjoyable despite his villainous traits. Still, I believe something is amiss. The humour, it seems to me, hides the shortcomings of the novel rather than be an integral part of the story of how Charlie met Wonka.

As for the new film, do we really need more villain origin stories? I should think that we don’t. We need new stories, and breaking out of this constant recycling of what talented writers (like Dahl) did in the past as we consider in more depth how their works survive in our day, and the enjoyability of certain villains. Thanks Pol!

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

HOW ENTITLEMENT AND VILLAINY CONNECT (AS I EXPLAIN IN MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY: FROM HITLER TO VOLDEMORT)

I have been delaying this post in the hopes that some of our local Spanish universities would have bought by now the monograph I published back in November 2019, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Masculinity-and-Patriarchal-Villainy-in-the-British-Novel-From-Hitler/Martin/p/book/9780367441463). This has not happened yet, though you can check here where the volume is available near you (https://www.worldcat.org/title/masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-in-the-british-novel-from-hitler-to-voldemort/oclc/1140353245&referer=brief_results). I’m told there the paperback edition will be published next year, when I’ll continue my own personal marketing campaign, of which this is post is, unashamedly, an item.

It is hard to say how long it has taken me to write this book because the idea first occurred to me back in 2008 (I spent a sabbatical then gathering bibliography), but technically the book expands on a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1996). Since 2006-7 I had been teaching the seminar (in Spanish) “Representations of Heroism” within the Cultural Studies module of the MA in Literatura Comparada: Estudios Literarios y Culturales of my university. I taught the last edition in 2016-17, so you can say that the book, which connects with my discourse on villainy for this seminar, was started back in 2006 and has taken thirteen years to be written. That might be the case, though the actual writing, from contract to publication, took about twenty months. If I have managed the feat of producing a monograph this is only because my teaching workload is now lower (thanks to the Government decree of 2012 by Minister Wert which few universities are applying), and because my Department allowed me to organize my teaching so that I could spend a complete year on the book (apart from tutorials for BA, MA, and PhD dissertations). I am already at work on another book, but I’m not sure at all that this window of opportunity will ever present itself again, considering that it has taken more than twenty-five years of my career for the past one to materialize.

Another reason why it has taken me long to write this book is that, once I hit on the idea that my topic should be villainy and not heroism (on which far more has been written), I had basically the whole field to myself. Believe it or not, there is very little direct bibliography on villainy, and what is available deals mainly with specific villains and not with the concept itself. Typically, I started with lists of villainous characters and soon got mired into what promised to be the beginnings of an encyclopedia. That was not, however, the kind of book I wanted to write. Nor a history of fictional villainy, though now that I’m done writing my own book this is a project that I wish someone else would write (not me!). The problem of how to select a corpus and structure a coherent volume plagued me for years –as I kept myself busy doing a thousand other things– until I ask my previous PhD supervisor, Andrew Monnickendam, for help. His advice was very simple but very helpful: narrow down the field to a genre, a period, and a nationality. Since most bibliography on villainy deals with recent American audio-visual products, here was the solution to my needs: I would focus on the British novel since WWII.

Why? Reason number one: the fictional construction of villainy is rooted in British culture, beginning with the Devil and Vice in the morality plays, following with Shakespeare, Milton, the Gothic novel, Dickens… Should I go on? The villain is, most definitely, not a product of American culture. Reason number two: the villain’s audiovisual presence often depends on novels that have been ignored or that, even when they are very popular, are seen as vehicles for the hero. I wanted to put together a variety of cases that would help me stress a crucial point: there is a remarkable coherence in the presentation of villainy across different fiction genres; this has been overlooked simply because no one was paying attention. Third reason: Adolf Hitler had to be in my book as the real-life villain that changed the rules of representing villainy. I knew from the very beginning that my book should be called From Hitler to Voldemort, though Routledge preferred the title to act as subtitle, and have the volume be called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction, which was originally my subtitle.

Here is the table of contents:
Introduction. Defining the Patriarchal Villain
Chapter 1. Adolf Hitler: The Threat of Absolute Villainy
Chapter 2. Big Brother and O’Brien: The Mystique of Power and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity
Chapter 3. Morgoth and Sauron: The Problem of Recurring Villainy
Chapter 4. Steerpike: Gormenghast’s Angry Young Man
Chapter 5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Larger Than Life: The Villain in the James Bond Series
Chapter 6. Richard Onslow Roper and the ‘Labyrinth of Monstrosities’: John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Villains
Chapter 7. Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart Trilogy: Democracy at Risk
Chapter 8. Big Ger Cafferty, Crime Boss: The Constant Struggle to Retain Power
Chapter 9. Voldemort and the Limits of Dark Magic: Self-empowerment as Self-destruction

This is quite similar to the list I started with, although Chapter 4 was originally split between Mervyn Peake, Grahame Green (Brighton Rock), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I soon realized that Peake’s Steerpike demanded more room and I gave it to him. As you can see, some chapters deal with very well-known texts, others not so much (Chapter 7 is the first academic essay on the Urquhart novels by Michael Dobbs). One thing that bothered me is that the list of primary sources for each chapter ran from just one book (Orwell’s 1984 in Chapter 2) to twelve (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Chapter 5) and even more (Ian Rankin’s many novels in Chapter 8). I discovered, though, that the strict word-count which I had to respect (110000 words), helped me to stay focused. Of all the villains here considered, I was most surprised by Tolkien’s Morgoth, a relatively little known character because he appears in the pages of The Silmarillion, not an easy book to read. If you’re wondering who Morgoth is you need to know that he is Sauron’s much admired master.

How did I tackle Hitler’s immense figure, you may be wondering? A turning point in my research was Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1997) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (2000). Kershaw, an English political historian, discusses Hitler’s rise and fall in relation to how the mechanism of power operates and why German society failed to control his crazed tyranny. Kershaw rejects evil and psychopathology as explanations for Hitler’s personality, and that was what I needed. I added to Kershaw’s interest in power my own interest in gender, and I developed thus my main thesis, namely, that villainy is the expression of the patriarchal sense of entitlement to power in its highest degree. For me, Hitler is not exceptional as a man who believes himself entitled to power in the patriarchal context of his own society, but rather a representative of a type of masculinity we now call toxic but should simply be called patriarchal. What was exceptional in his case, as Kershaw explains, is that all the mechanisms to stop Hitler’s excessive entitlement failed. The hero, I argue, personifies those mechanisms but in Hitler’s case there could be no German hero since he had presented himself as such. The Allies had to play that role but they did so among so many tensions that WWII was soon followed by the Cold War.

My theory of power is, unlike Kershaw’s, gendered but despite my focus on the patriarchal masculinity of the villains I have studied, I believe that entitlement is a negative quality present in both men and women with patriarchal inclinations. That is to say, although patriarchy has so far accumulated most power and deployed a series of strategies to keep non-white, non-heterosexual, non-upper-class men and all women subordinated, patriarchy is so attached to notions of power that as those excluded from power rebel (= empower themselves) it may welcome them in its patriarchal hegemonic circles. This is why, as I have written here before, I find the notion of empowerment very suspect. I decided not to deal in my book with female villains because to really understand villainy in women you need to find them in a post-gender context –while I wrote the book, then, I produced a chapter on Alma Coin, the female villain of The Hunger Games, for a book on the Final Girl. Women, my claim is, may feel a strong sense of entitlement to power, too, but so far this has been denied by patriarchy. If, however, patriarchy becomes less gender-obsessed while still retaining its obsession with power, we might see a female Hitler one day.

At this point, though, I have made it my mission to offer an anti-fascist diagnosis of what makes patriarchal men tick, claiming in the process that we urgently need positive representations of men as alternatives to patriarchy (see my previous post). It has been inevitable, logically, to speak of the heroes in connection to the villains but what I have found out is mostly depressing. The heroes offered by the British authors I have selected are mostly weak and disempowered –often crushed by the loss of male honourability– or plain nasty. I was surprised by how deeply Ian Fleming disliked his James Bond and dismayed by how fond Mervyn Peake was of Titus Groan, to me a young man on the verge of either worshipping or becoming someone like Hitler. My authors are all white and male because I wanted to see, precisely, how they deal with the tale of the hero and the villain, which is so central to hegemonic patriarchal culture. The only woman I chose, though, J.K. Rowling, provides, as I have been arguing again and again, the best possible model of anti-patriarchal heroic masculinity (borrowing from Tolkien’s Frodo). Harry Potter, however, seems to be too good for our macho-oriented times.

Throughout the writing of the book and afterwards I have been daily testing my thesis that what we call evil is actually entitlement based on a patriarchal understanding of power. Evil, in my view, is an interested patriarchal construction designed to mystify us about the operations of entitlement. Let me explain myself. Hitler acted as he did because he felt himself entitled to taking other European lands for the expansion of the German people, and to eliminating other European bodies that (for prejudices widespread at the time) he abhorred. He went further than any other villain (except for Joseph Stalin, of course) but you could say that all of human life is organized on the principle of how we express our own sense of entitlement depending on the power we wield and our disregard of punishment. From colonial occupation down to leaving your motorbike parked in the middle of the pavement everything is a matter of entitlement. Our own sense of personal privilege, our belief that we can do as we wish because we can (= we have the power) overcomes all sense of solidarity with the rest of the species. You might think that there is an enormous difference between bothering pedestrians and killing six million Jews (and many other persons) but this is a matter of degree (I’m NOT being flippant). Let your child’s sense of entitlement go uncurbed and you have a potential fascist in your hands. The rest is a matter of opportunities (the many Hitler had), befuddling your enemies (as he did with his impressive PR Nazi apparatus), and acting fast (while the victims considered appeasement policies that would never appease).

So, if the premise of my book works well readers will stop seeing patriarchy as a mechanism for women’s repression (it’s a hierarchical social structure based on power), and will deny the existence of evil (what matters is entitlement). Readers will also see female villainnesses, specially femme fatales, as the pathetic creatures they are, with their ultra-sexualised bodies, and will perceive how the villain’s masculinity is shaped by patriarchal doctrines. The way I see it, the hero has been invented by patriarchy to solve one of its main weaknesses: if you structure society on the basis of power, sooner or later an individual will claim too large a share, and this will endanger the other powerful individuals. The hero acts out, therefore, on behalf of patriarchy, to limit its excesses but not at all to challenge its hierarchy-oriented, pyramidal construction.

I ended the book with a plea that one day we find other stories to tell, in which there are no heroes because the power-hungry patriarchal villains are gone. I have no idea what these stories might be, or whether they will be exciting at all, but we really need to see beyond power, abuse, and suffering and think of new plots – for the sake of our survival as a species.

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/