The title of today’s post is that of the volume I have edited together with my dear friend Isabel Santaulària, Detoxing Masculinity in Anglophone Literature and Culture: In Search of Good Men. Published a couple of weeks ago, the volume has been in the making for almost three years from conception to publication, a long process during which the image of men has been further deteriorating.
Isabel and I are concerned that patriarchy will never be demolished unless men (and women) are offered male figures that can be admired and whose behaviour can be imitated, just as we, women, are being offered admirable female figures to serve as our role models. Part of the reason why the toxicity associated to masculinity is growing is that men who are told that their patriarchal conduct cannot be corrected find comfort in aberrant patriarchal men who preach that masculinity can only be patriarchal and blatantly so. I personally believe (and preach…) that masculinity can and should be anti-patriarchal, for patriarchy is a system of oppression based on power which presents itself as masculinity itself when in fact it oppresses many disempowered men. Besides, as we are seeing, many women are keen supporters of patriarchy understood as a hierarchical social organization based on power, hence on violence, bullying and repression against most underprivileged individuals (most of society).
Isabel and I decided that a collective volume rather than a monograph written by the two of us would be more productive regarding our joint project of finding good men in anglophone fiction of all kinds (novels, short fiction, drama, cinema, series) and non-fiction (documentaries, memoirs). That was our main aim: finding characters or men from real life represented in a variety of texts who could be celebrated as examples of detoxed masculinity. For that end, we invited a variety of scholars, mostly based in Spain, with whom we had previously collaborated, or that we simply knew from academic life, and who in many cases we call our friends. Two of the authors, however, we have met for the first time as contributors to our volume, which has been a very nice surprise.
In our call for papers, we explained the purpose of the book and asked our contributors to propose chapters that reflected this need to find good men. In the process, nonetheless, and partly because our editors at Palgrave shifted the order of title and subtitle, what should have been a book about good men already present one way or another among us, has ended up being a book mostly about the problem of whether masculinity can be detoxed, that is to say, separated from patriarchy. The hard process of detoxing masculinity and even narrative itself has become central in about half of the chapters, with only the other half focusing on good men.
Our volume consists of sixteen chapters, subdivided into five sections: literature, transnational fictions, fantasy, science fiction and a section we ended up calling ‘close to life’. All editors know that in open calls for papers like ours the main difficulty is organizing the chapters, which might be too miscellaneous to fit any kind of framework. We opted for a chronological order, from Austen to current SF TV series, with the final section as a sort of coda. I know this is for reviewers to say, not for an editor, but I am personally very much satisfied with how the very diverse chapters are in dialogue with each other, highlighting the dark areas where toxic patriarchal masculinity is present and offering hope for an anti-patriarchal liberation of men.
Part I, Literature, begins with David Owen’s “The Visible-Invisible Good Man in Jane Austen’s The Watsons”, an article which, intriguingly, proposes that although toxic patriarchal characters apparently dominate this unfinished novel, the author presented in a secondary character a man who deserves much praise from the harassed heroine: a gentlemanly clergyman. Austen, of course, idealized masculinity in characters like Darcy and Mr. Knightley, but she struggled to convince readers that less appealing men (I’m thinking of Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) also embody a desirable type of male goodness. I’ll leave the problem of how hard it is to write appealing good men that are not particularly sexy for another post, but I’ll just note this is a major problem. In “Ishmael’s Detoxing Process: Escaping Domestic Homogeneity in Moby-Dick”, Rodrigo Andrés stresses how male communities, like the one on board Captain Ahab’s Pequod, can be schools for detoxed masculinity; if you wish, we can read indeed Melville’s masterpiece as the process by which Ishmael outs as unacceptably toxic his captain’s masculinity. Dídac Llorens-Cubedo examines in “From Brutal to Spiritual Men in T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Drama: Sweeney and Beyond”, how Eliot passes from the primal, earthy Sweeney of the poems to the more sophisticated, self-conscious male characters of his later plays. Gerardo Rodríguez-Salas discusses in “Hybrid Masculinities in D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Blind Man’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’” how masculinity can be detoxed when very different men are forced to be in contact and the inacceptable values of the toxic man are thus exposed to the reader as an anti-model.
The section of transnational fictions opens with Sarah Zapata’s “Of Tender Hearts and Good Men: Reading Australian Masculinity in Tim Winton’s Fiction”, an author my co-editor and I knew nothing about, but who is a well-known example of how Australia can question its own male stereotypes. Winton defends an ethics of care, and a caring masculinity, which I personally see as one of the most feasible strategies to detox masculinity, if men can be convinced that care need not be gendered feminine as it is still now the case. Bill Phillips “‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’: The Making of Michael ‘Digger’ Digson”, deals with the fiction by Caribbean novelist Jacob Ross, characterized by an honest, no-frills presentation of toxic patriarchal masculinity but also by the alternative embodied by its protagonist. Pilar Cuder-Domínguez examines in “Black Masculinities in the Age of #BLM: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty” how difficult it is for bi-racial Levi Belsey to become a good man in view of the prejudices against young males like him, and how tempting it is to embrace them.
The section on fantasy is the one most openly devoted to good men. Auba Llompart celebrates in “‘Some Wizards Just Like to Boast that Theirs Are Bigger and Better’: Harry Potter and the Rejection of Patriarchal Power”, how Rowling’s hero demonstrates his innate goodness by rejecting the instruments of his heroic empowerment after managing to control and suppress villainy. In “A Lover Boy with Battle Scars: Romance, War Fiction, and the Construction of Peeta Mellark as a Good Man in The Hunger Games Trilogy” Noemí Novell describes how the genres named in her title shape Suzanne Collins’s still unsung hero. Listening to Noemí enumerate Peeta’s admirable traits a few years ago was truly inspirational, one of the reasons why Isabel and I knew ours is a necessary volume, excuse the lack of modesty. Isabel Clúa pays homage to an author very much missed in “Masculinity and Heroism in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: The Case of Good Captain Carrot” analysing how Carrot, the true heir to Ankh Morpork, chooses service to the community as a policeman rather than power as a monarch, keeping his real identity under wraps.
The section on science fiction begins with “Skywalker: Bad Fathers and Good Sons” by Brian Baker, a chapter in which the author boldly claims that the impossibility of detoxing the Skywalker men, from Anakin to Kylo Ren passing through Luke, results in Rey’s paradoxical embodiment of good masculinity (or of goodness itself if you prefer to see her as a degendered, non-binary heroic figure). Paul Mitchell’s “Changing the Script of ‘Human Is’: Re-visioning the Good (Hu)Man in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” considers the irony by which, as this episode narrates, Silas Herrick’s patriarchal masculinity is suddenly detoxed when his body is occupied by a benevolent alien entity. In “Between Therapy and Revolution: Mr. Robot’s Ambivalence Toward Hacker Masculinity”, Miguel Sebastián-Martín examines another case of promising but very complex detoxing which requires the healing of a deep split in the mind of the hacker hero.
Finally, the section close to life brings together three chapters focused on the mundane, rather than fantasy or SF. “A Few Good Old Men: Revising Ageing Masculinities in Last Tango in Halifax” by Maricel Oró-Piqueras and Katsura Sako proposes that the protagonist of this acclaimed British TV series, Alan Buttershaw (played by Derek Jacobi) is an example of the good old men who have embraced caring and revealed their vulnerability in the process of ageing. I believe Maricel and Katsura are very much right to call attention to how older men have undergone a rather deep process of detoxing which is often overlooked. My own chapter “Let the Little Children Come to Me: Fred Rogers, the Good Man as TV Educator” is a celebration of a truly admirable good man, who made it his life’s mission (for he was an ordained Presbyterian minister) to educate American children; his teachings in support of mutual respect were always much more radical than it seemed. Isabel Santaulària’s chapter “The Part of the Iceberg That Doesn’t Show: Romance, Good Husbands, and Mr Julia Child” vindicates Paul Child as the great good man behind a great woman, the amazing fine cuisine populariser whose career prospered thanks to his support.
I do know that editors (or co-editors) are not supposed to praise their own volumes but here it has been my intention to thank our contributors for their marvellous chapters, which needs to be done. In the Spanish academic world we are obsessed with regimenting every researcher into Ministry-funded research groups, but as I hope Isabel and I have proven, fruitful research can be done outside that framework and at a very low cost (Palgrave does not charge for publication unlike other publishers I could mention).
I’ll conclude by noting that I am writing this celebratory text honouring our contributors and hoping the resulting book is successful after joining a demonstration in my university against a very toxic male colleague whose patriarchal misbehaviour has run rampant for years. Last week, another male colleague received a prison sentence for having sexually harassed a female doctoral student for two years. It is, then, extremely difficult to feel admiration for men right now, after finding myself surrounded by very angry young students (both women and men), tired of the very evident power patriarchy still has and of what appears to be a terrific backlash against fundamental rights. We are seeing in the news, besides, too many reports of horrifying gang rapes by underage males against other female and male minors. Something is terribly amiss. This disheartening feeling and the evidence of criminal conduct convinces me even more that we need urgently positive male figures, as many good men as we can find, so that patriarchal toxicity is finally addressed and, hopefully, eliminated.