Thursday, August 11, 2016

On This Day: Five Years of Blogging

I quite like Facebook's 'On This Day' feature. On the one hand, it's a daily reminder of exactly how much data Facebook has about my life. But on the other, it's a souvenir of friendships, trips, and events I've often forgotten about. It often makes me reflect on how far I've come in the past decade - from an English Literature undergraduate student, to a stressed-out Masters student learning about gender and feminism in new ways, to an even more stressed-out PhD candidate pulling together medieval literature and modern romance, all the way to the post-doc I am now, multi-tasking a host of professional and personal skills and practices.

Today, Facebook showed me a ten-year old message from a good friend, photographs from a wedding I attended last summer, and it also informed me that on this day five years ago, I published my first post on this blog.

'On This Day' (Amy Burge via Facebook)
The post, entitled simply 'Bevis in London' is about a Middle English romance called Bevis of Hampton (c.1330). It's the story of an exiled English knight raised by Saracens, and the adventures he and his friends encounter as he tries to regain his English heritage. It's long (over 4500 lines), has complex overlapping plots, and features giants, magic, battles, love and betrayal. It's one of my favourite Middle English romances, and it features prominently in what is now my monograph.

The post is about a very small part of Bevis of Hampton. Late in the romance, Bevis returns to England and specifically to London, where he becomes embroiled in fighting in the narrow streets of  the City. Now, many have assumed that Middle English romance is simply a fantasy genre, much like today's romance novels - set in fictional locations, with little regard for reality. However, Bevis of Hampton describes its geography, particularly this London scene, in such detail, that I don't think we can dismiss it as merely fantasy (others have made similar arguments that Middle English romance is more realistic than we think).

In fact, the London locations of Bevis of Hampton are so detailed that it is actually possible to map them onto London streets. Which, with the help of a now-rather outdated version of Google Maps, is exactly what I did. Voila, your very own 'Bevis in London' walking route:

Follow Bevis' medieval footsteps in modern London (created in 2011 by Amy Burge)
 I had a lot of fun making this map and researching this part of medieval London. The map didn't make it into my thesis, but a lot of the analysis behind it did (and this analysis is now in my book). I've always meant to actually walk this route - particularly to see the London Stone which I've always thought was a tremendously underrated London landmark - but in the intervening five years, I've not managed to do so. A friend, teaching medieval romance in London, thought it would make a terrific walking tour for her class - were I to ever teach medieval literature in London I'd definitely make use of this.

Since I published this post, there have been significant advances in the digital humanities, including in GIS and mapping. I remember, when I posted this, having all kinds of ideas for interactive, multimedia applications for this map; perhaps a podcast that tells the story of Bevis as one follows the route, or a website offering Bevis-related content when you click on map locations. At the time, this didn't seem like something there would be much interest in, but five years later, I can see a definite audience for this kind of thing, and a lot more in the way of support and resources for someone like me to actually create it.

Reflecting on this post also made me think about how much has changed for me in the past five years. Five years ago, on 11 August 2011, I was still a PhD candidate at the University of York, with roughly a year to go on my thesis on Orientalism and religion in Middle English romance and modern popular romance novels. Now, that thesis is a book, and I'm firmly embedded in the postdoctoral world of job applications, temporary contracts, writing and publishing. My ideas have developed, my writing is better (although this is certainly an ongoing process), and I'm so much more confident in my research and scholarship.

I look back at that first post with a mixture of embarrassment, pride, and nostalgia. If I could, I'd tell the 2011 version of myself to enjoy that last year of doctoral research, as it would be the last time for a long time (possibly forever) where I could focus in such depth on one specific project. I'd tell myself to worry less about what I didn't know and have more confidence in what I do - that there would be plenty of time to learn what I needed to know in the years to come (and boy, have I learnt a lot in these past five years).

If someone had told me, five years ago, that I'd still be blogging about medieval romance, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Blogging was quite new to me then, and I'm not really sure I knew what I was trying to achieve (a colleague has recently written a brilliant piece on her reasons for blogging which I think, in hindsight, are a lot like why I took up blogging in the first place). But I know now, that if someone asked if I still want to be blogging five years into the future, the answer would definitely be yes.

I'm not going to go into detail about all the ways blogging has helped my research and my career, but I'd like to end this post with a thought, prompted by Bevis of Hampton. I've always been fascinated by how the medieval is used, understood, and played with in the contemporary world. Sometimes this is obvious - the medieval-ist world of Game of Thrones, for instance, or the way political rhetoric something refers to the contemporary Middle East as 'medieval' (something else I talk about in my book).

The fact that I can map Bevis' 700-year-old circuitous route through London using modern digital tools reminds me of those medieval echoes. It's one of those moments when our medieval past suddenly re-surfaces and becomes anachronistically visible. It's both exciting and troubling - such a visceral awareness of history can prompt interest and engagement with the past, but it can also make our modernity, so often defined by its distance from non-modernity, seem less secure and more anxious.

The five years in which I've been writing on this blog are not comparable to the 700-year history of the Middle English Bevis of Hampton. However, stretching the analogy of engaging with history as exciting or troubling, I'm happy to say that I'm much more excited than anxious about my particular, personal research history. So perhaps it's time to finally take that pilgrimage to Bevis' London - you're most welcome to join me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Taking myself seriously: A defence of romance

There’s been some discussion recently about what makes a #seriousacademic. That discussion, sparked by this Guardian article, centred on academic and public engagement, particularly on the use of social media tools to talk about research. That discussion has prompted some of my own musings about seriousness and academic research – in particular, why it sometimes feels like my research field isn't taken so seriously.
Next week, I’m doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show about my research. It’s called ‘Can Anyone Write a Romance Novel?’ and it’s part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, where academics are invited to discuss ‘dangerous’ ideas from their research. There are some pretty controversial topics in there. For example, Should we let extremist speak? Are children an environmental threat? Should we still have zoos

And then there’s my dangerous idea: Should we take romance novels seriously

Initially, I thought that my dangerous idea was pretty benign, certainly when compared with some of the other topics on offer. But the longer I work in higher education and the longer I read, write, and publish on romance, the more I’ve realised that the idea of taking romance seriously, particularly in higher education, is anything but benign. 

The problem is that being someone who researches romance sometimes isn’t really seen as serious at all. I’m a #seriousacademic (who also happens to blog from time to time but that’s another issue). I’m a medievalist. I’m trained in gender studies, in literary studies, and in cultural studies. I’ve published my research, including a book on medieval literature, gender, and race. But – and this is the part that people can get stuck on – I also research popular romance. 

I've been asked in a job interview by the head of an English department how I can conduct legitimate academic research on romance novels that are clearly (in his opinion) terribly written. Only after I patiently and carefully explained that the romance genre is diverse and creative and worthy of study did he reply: “I should probably read one”. Casting shade on an entire literary genre without ever having engaged with it is something that happens curiously often with romance. 

On another occasion, when discussing teaching romance to English students with a senior colleague, I was challenged on wanting to include such texts on the curriculum. I suggested that the popularity and diversity of romance, in addition to their ability to inspire discussion about what ‘good’ literature is, should be justification enough. Yet this colleague could not get past the idea that ‘they’re just not good enough to be canonical’ and therefore not worthy of sharing with undergraduates. 

To be fair, it’s not just modern popular romance. Medieval romance has been at the sharp end of criticism from literary critics for hundreds of years, not least from the ‘father of English poetry’ Chaucer himself, who (in the voice of the host of the Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey) declared romance “nat worth a toord [turd]”. In fact, it’s only recently that medievalists have recognised that medieval romance is a great way to find out more about the medieval imagination (plus there are some amazing plots). 

I’m not blaming my colleagues for their particular views on what constitutes good literature. There’s clearly a wider discourse at work that isn’t just (or even mainly) about romance scholars. Romance readers have, for decades, been teased, ridiculed, and even abused for their reading choices. In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that many romance readers have moved to reading romance electronically using ereaders like Kindles (on a Kindle, no one can see you’re reading a romance novel). So, you might ask, why should I expect to be taken seriously when I research something that isn’t taken seriously by anyone?

Leaving aside the arguments for why wider society doesn’t take romance and its readers seriously (spoiler: it’s because it’s written and read by women - Laurie Kahn’s recent film Love Between the Covers does an excellent job of setting this out), I want to focus on a different point – why we should take the academic study of romance seriously. 

Academia is supposed to be a place where we analyse and expose the kinds of discourses that surround romance novels, not where we, either subconsciously or knowingly, replicate them. When any discussion around romance is shut down – when we don’t teach undergraduate students about literature and value and choice – we are sustaining that narrow-minded attitude that doesn’t take romance seriously. 

We study other popular literary genres all the time; I have seen modules, journals, and funded research projects devoted to thrillers, crime fiction, detective fiction, and adventure novels. What’s ironic is that we study and research popular romance all the time, we just don’t call it that (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Pamela, 50 Shades of Grey). 

So, as I plan to set out in my show next week, I think it’s time that we start taking romance seriously. It’s time that we recognise (and value) its position as the most popular form of genre fiction in the world. It’s time that we showcase the rich, evolving history of romance that stretches from ancient literature to the most contemporary publications. It’s time that we stop blindly criticising something we haven’t read, and instead invest our energy into finding out what makes this fascinating, diverse and, yes, popular genre tick. In short, when it comes to romance, it’s time we start acting like academics.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Men, sex, and mountains

forest and mountains of Zion National Park
Zion National Park, Utah (photo credit: Amy Burge)
Summer can be an interesting time for academics. For many of us, the months of June, July and August mean no teaching, an end to marking, exam boards, meetings and all of the things that keep us so busy during the rest of the academic year. This means that summer often becomes a time when we get on with those things we don't have time for the rest of the year - namely, research (and perhaps the odd holiday). 

In others words, men, sex, and mountains. 

Let's start with the men. I'm currently at the start of a research project looking at cultural masculinity in romance texts. Basically, I'm interested in how different parts of the male hero's identity work together (ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality). I'm testing out some ideas this summer with a couple of conference papers.  

In June, I gave my very first keynote at the conference Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. My paper was about masculinity, race, and genre fiction titled "Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance".

Organised by the Postgraduate Contemporary Women's Writing Network, it was a great day, with lots of papers presented by graduate students in what was an intellectually rigorous and supportive day. The excellent Laura Vivanco wrote a report on the whole conference, including my paper, at her website blog. You can follow the tweets from the event via #CWWRomance16.

A couple of weeks later, I gave a shorter version of my paper at the Sixth International Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance in Salt Lake City, Utah. There was lots of tweeting from the conference at #IASPR16. 

Now, onto the sex. 

This refers to an ongoing research project about sexualisation and the history of sexuality. In other words, what can medieval attitudes to sex and relationships tell us about the modern world?

At the end of June, a guest post I wrote for the history of sex blog Notches was published. Titled "Thinking Medievally: The Sexualisation Debate and Medieval Advice Literature", the post draws on my current research thinking about what late medieval advice literature can tell us about contemporary sexualisation concerns.

And as a bonus, later this summer (on 16 August), I'll be giving a talk as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: "Can anyone write a romance novel?"  

The blurb for the show is as follows:

Amy Burge did a whole PhD on romance novels (yes, you can do that) and reckons there’s more to them than you think. Come along to this sixty-minute collaborative writing session and decide for yourself if romance novels deserve more esteem. Amy will introduce you to popular motifs and you’ll get a chance to suggest characters, costumes, settings and even the title! Will you leave with a higher opinion of this seemingly frivolous genre?
Harlequin Mills & Boon have even kindly agreed to send me 50 novels to give away free at the show! It will be the first time I've done anything quite like this, and I'm really looking forward to hearing the audience's ideas and having a discussion with a much broader audience than we usually get as academics. If you're going to be in Edinburgh at the time, you're more than welcome at the show

And as for the mountains... well, this isn't a metaphor for the amount of work I've given myself this summer, but a literal reference to the peaks I saw on my holiday in the USA between the conferences and the blog posts and the Fringe show. Because a bit of quiet reflection and repose is one of the most important summer tasks of all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

‘Not our responsibility?’: Equality and diversity in university teaching

Tutors are part-time, adjunct, assistant, sessional or casual staff essential to many universities’ teaching provision (Beaton and Gilbert, 2013), but often labelled as lost, invisible, intangible: an ‘academic underclass’ (Brand, 2013; Sharaff and Lessinger, 1994, p. 12; as cited in McCormack and Kelly, 2013, p. 94).  Such a view of tutoring only supports the idea that equality and diversity are not the responsibility of this group of teaching staff.

But, as Emma Watson eloquently put it in her speech to the UN in September 2014 launching the #HeForShe campaign, "if not me, who? If not now, when?". And actually, tutors are hugely important to front-line undergraduate teaching in most universities  - I'm sure we all remember being taught by PhD students or by recent PhD graduates. 

Tutors are often the teachers who spend the most time with undergraduates and are their main teaching point of contact. So it's clear that equality, inclusion, and diversity are the responsibility of tutors, and those who support the development of tutors, like me, need to think about how we can help.

So what kinds of support do we offer to tutors? The first thing we did was to explicitly highlight University and national policy on equality and diversity.  We were finding that, for whatever reason, tutors were not aware of these policies, so we began by telling tutors that these documents exist.

We then drew out points from University strategies and policies which were relevant to the teaching roles of tutors. In particular, we highlighted the mainstreaming of common learning adjustments as outlined in the Accessible and Inclusive Learning policy. These are actions agreed by the University that all teaching staff  should do, regardless of whether they think there is a need to (so whether they think there is a student with disabilities in the classroom). This is intended to make learning more acessible for everyone, and is also helpful in tackling the fact that many disabilities (including things like dyslexia) are not outwardly visible. These actions include things like:
  • Providing presentation slides for seminars at least 24 hours in advance of the class
  • Giving key words and formulae to students at least 24 hours before the class
  • Telling students about changes to rooms, classes, or courses by email
  • That students are allowed to record any teaching for their personal use
  • That all teaching staff should wear a microphone where available (even if it doesn’t appear that there is a need for it).
We also provide additional resources for tutors on ways to make teaching more inclusive and accessible, for example, the Race Equality Toolkit, which offers practical advice and tips), Teachability (for general help with teaching that is accessible to students with disabilities) and advice on netiquette for online teaching.

Above all, it's important for tutors to recognise that inequalities exist. Women are hugely under-represented in Engineering and Technology, for example (2014/15 saw 15,790 women and 85,225 men enrol at UK universities in this subject area: source - HESA), so tutors working in these areas can be aware that the women in the room may be more likely to be talked over or interrupted (this Bitch Media article collates some of the research on this)

For those tutors who are lucky enough to be able to pick their own teaching material, diversifying the curriculum (including texts by women, by black and minority ethnic authors) is one good way to be inclusive - former Edinburgh University Students' Union (EUSA) officer Imogen Wilson has written a blog post about this. Making your curriculum more diverse is sound advice, although it's often relevant only for staff with control over the content of their teaching.

I'm aware that these are only first steps. In terms of my role, we can work more closely with other parts of the University doing work around equality and diversity in learning and teaching, such as the Student’s Association (EUSA) and the Support Services who provide training and resources for staff more widely. Equality and inclusion in assessment and feedback (much of which is carried out by tutors) will likely be a focus for the future.

But, for now, I hope this is an important start to recognising that creating equality, inclusion, and diversity is the responsibility of all teachers, no matter their role.


I presented a paper on this subject at Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Sharing experiences and Best Practice at King’s College London in March 2016.

An earlier version of this post was published at IAD4Learn in May 2016



Beaton, F. and Gilbert, A. (2013). Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development. Routledge: London.

Brand, T. (2013). Foreword: The lost tribe. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. xv-xviii). Routledge: London.

McCormack, C. and Kelly, P. (2013). How do we know it works? Designing support interventions to meet the real needs of new part-time lecturers. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. 94-113). Routledge: London.


The image of the equality symbol was created by Mutxamel and accessed as public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Acts of God: Force Majeure, masculinity, and the #femfog

A black and white photograph of a white man shown from the waist upward flexing his bicep muscles
Masculinity has been on my mind this month. As someone who researches the subject (I’ve written about the medieval and modern Orientalist romance hero), I often spend time thinking about the way men are represented, the kinds of discourses that are used to talk about men and, of course, how this relates to the way we think and talk about women. Yet two things have recently brought men and masculinity to the front of my thoughts. 
First, I watched a movie: a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure (2014). This film had been on my Netflix watchlist for a while and it was one of those long, January nights, so I thought I’d stick it on. The film is about a middle-class Swedish couple, Tomas and Ebba, who take a week’s ski trip to the Alps with their two children. There are plenty of indicators straight-up that suggest all is not well: Tomas, is constantly on his phone; the couple barely talk to each other; and the way the film is shot suggests some kind of menace is just around the corner (lots of lingering shots and dramatic music). 

Indeed, not long into the film, it looks as though disaster has struck. On their second day of skiing, the family are eating lunch seated outside at a slope-side restaurant. The sound of an avalanche cannon is heard (used to create controlled avalanches to clear snow) and everyone on the terrace turns to look. At first, people are taking photographs and pointing, but then it becomes apparent that the avalanche is headed directly for the terrace and is showing no sign of stopping. Panic sets in, and people start to run. 

What happens next is a key moment that defines the rest of the film. As Ebba and Tomas realise that the avalanche is headed straight for them, Ebba immediately grabs her children, while Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves and flees, leaving his wife and children behind. The screen is filled with white, as snow dust envelops the terrace: the avalanche has stopped just short of the restaurant. As the mist clears, Ebba dusts herself and the children off and they silently resume their lunch as Tomas, uncomfortably making jokes, returns to the table.  

Tomas’ decision (conscious or not) to flee, leaving his family behind, opens a fissure in his relationship with Ebba as they both struggle to reconcile certain masculine values – the man as hero – with Tomas’ actions. This kind of man, this kind of hero, is what popular romance studies calls the ‘alpha male’: the ‘commanding’, ‘demanding’, ‘self-assured’, ‘passionate’ man of ‘status’ (Mills & Boon 2010: n.p.). As romance scholar and editor Sarah Frantz writes, ‘the hero represents patriarchal power in all its glory by being the richest, or the strongest, or the most beautiful, or the most emotionally distant man the heroine has ever known’ (2002: 18). 

And this is precisely the kind of masculinity Force Majeure lambasts; Tomas is not the alpha hero we (and Ebba) expect him to be (that Ebba wishes in some way for a Harlequin Mills & Boon hero is made clear later in the film in a scene where she is carried down a ski slope by Tomas in an act of atonement for his earlier cowardice). 

While discussions of the nature of masculinity have become more visible in recent years, there is a long history of cultural artefacts critiquing and challenging models of masculinity, not least the Middle Ages. Medieval romance, the most popular secular genre in the late Middle Ages, regularly presented men in a particular range of public roles: knight, father, husband, priest. Medieval romance masculinity was not far removed from the alpha masculinity of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; Rachel Dressler points out that strength and military skill were valued in romance heroes (Dressler, 1999), who are typically adventurous, brave, and handsome knights (Colwell, 2002). Yet, medieval romance, too, queried this performance of masculinity, challenging its definitions and revealing a contemporary anxiety about gender identity (I’ve written about this in the romance Floris and Blancheflour in another blog post). So, questioning and interrogating masculinity is not a new thing. 

This brings me to the second thing. In mid-January, my Twitter feed exploded with the revelation that a prominent and respected medievalist in the field of gender and sexuality, Allen Frantzen, had written a series of anti-feminist posts, including one in which he offers advice to men on how to escape the ‘fem-fog’ [donotlink]: "the sour mix of victimization and privilege that makes up modern feminism and that feminists use to intimidate and exploit men." I found it shocking that a scholar whose work I cite in my own book could write such a venomous and, frankly, poorly argued piece about gender and masculinity. For example, Frantzen writes:

"I refer to men who are shrouded in this fog as FUMs, fogged up men; other terms come to mind. They may might [sic] not be feminists but as they wander through the mist of politics and polemic about women, they feel like they should be feminists. They think feminism is good for everybody and they want to be nice to women. Life in femfog is the price a man pays for women’s acceptance and approval. These are goals many straight men desire, even crave, because men want to have sex and they know that adored women are more likely to grant sexual favors…

My aim in this … essay is to help you clear the fog of feminist propaganda. Grab your balls (GYB) and be the man you want to be without looking over you [sic] shoulder to see if she thinks you are ok. Men in the femfog are on the blue pill (BP). Once you choose the red pill (RP), you are on your way out of the fog."

Plenty have written responses to Frantzen’s writing, pointing out its misogyny, inconsistencies, and poor argumentation. For example, Jeffrey Cohen posted on the blog In the Middle, and on the same site, Dorothy Kim reflected on the issue in light of wider problems of racial and ethnic diversity in medieval studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education even ran an article on the furore. 

What I find most disappointing about Frantzen’s posts, is that there is the potential within them for some really strong, feminist arguments about masculinity and culture, and how men can be forced into particular performances of masculinity which can be damaging (for both men and women). In one post [donotlink], Frantzen describes masculinity thus:

"a man is masculine when, in comparison to other men, and often in competition with them, he strives to be both the best version of himself and the best of the men around. He may not succeed in the second aim, but he must succeed in the first. In the gym, we aim to be stronger and more persistent than other men. We work out longer and harder. In traffic, we are more patient and drive more skillfully (and cautiously) than they do. We remember that the restraint of power (or speed) can be as effective as power (or speed) itself. At home or at work, we have more honor. We tell the truth when telling a lie would be easier. In every case, the masculine man says 'I can do better.' Then he does it."

Elsewhere on the site, Franzten writes:

Remind your friend that men are expected to die for women. Men are expected to give up safe places for women in emergencies, for example. Why?...

Big gaming websites--The Rational Male, for example--repeatedly emphasize that strong, successful men are more desireable [sic] than weak men. In gender politics, weak men are "mother-may-I? feminists" (that's Donovan's term, but any other--"sweetie may I?"--is just as unmanly). Weak men run their views on sex and gender by women for approval.

A man who thinks for himself and knows something is more manly than a suck-up feminist afraid to say what he thinks. I'm guessing she will get that. Power is sexy. Wimpishness is not sexy. GYB.

GYB (Grab Your Balls) is, by the way, is what Frantzen encourages men to do in order to become more manly (a strange connection between the social performance of masculinity and biology). 

So Frantzen’s 'man' is competitive, strong, self-sacrificing, successful, powerful (and therefore sexy), in possession of balls to grab, and definitely not feminist. The masculinity Frantzen describes here is both hegemonic and hierarchical – a man is defined by characteristics which privilege him in a Western cultural system (white, heterosexual, physically strong, handsome, wealthy, successful) and he is, or strives to be, the best of those men. As Frantzen writes, "masculinity is competitive, not just comparative"; "there is no masculinity without an audience of men."

It is precisely this model of masculinity which is critiqued in Force Majeure. Tomas is expected to be strong and self-sacrificing, and it is his failure to perform this that creates a crisis in the carefully maintained heterosexual gender roles of their (white, middle class) marriage. The director, Östlund, in an interview published in The Guardian, says:

"One of the most painful things that can happen to a human being is to lose their identity… For men, losing our identity is very connected with being a coward. That’s what annoys me when women think Tomas is an arsehole. Because they’re as much victims of gender expectation as anyone else. In our society there’s a slight feeling of shame about being a man. Trying to deal with [our] basic behaviour and put it into culture today...

The most reproduced character in Hollywood is the man as the hero. From an ideological perspective, if we hadn’t reproduced that main character it would be impossible to send young men into war. Men are made to feel like they should stand up and protect someone. We should sacrifice ourselves for a bigger meaning."

What Östlund manages to say (in a less offensive way than Frantzen) is that the societal and cultural structures that load men and women with particular roles and behavioural expectations are damaging for everyone, and it is this societal expectation (the bigger meaning Östlund describes) that is to blame. 

Frantzen (quite rightly) labels this bigger meaning 'patriarchy', and argues: 

"in patriarchal systems, men had to shut down their emotions and any signs of weakness. It is important to remember that you and I, and our fathers and grandfathers, and their grandfathers, were not part of the patriarchs’ triumph. Patriarchy was and has been good for some men, but not for most of us. We too are its victims. We pay a high price for the power patriarchy gave to some men, even though feminists think it has benefited all of us…
Men who display weakness do not deserve to be shamed for being whole men. Men are far more likely to be shamed for their weaknesses than women are, since, traditionally, society has expected more of men than of women."

Leaving the matter of the accuracy of this statement aside, where Frantzen goes (very, very) wrong here, is that rather than following his own logic and recognising that the root of the problem is ‘society’, he instead points the finger at feminism and, by extension, women. It is, for Frantzen, feminism (or the femfog) that "keeps men in the dark or at least in the murk" and allows women to "rise to power … at men's expense."

My point, and I think this is where Frantzen makes a grave error in his argument, is that the bigger meaning is not created by women for their own benefit. The bigger meaning is a society where gender roles damage all of us, forcing us into roles and responsibilities and values that we just can’t live up to. Unfortunately, it seems that Frantzen’s approach is too clouded with misogyny to see this bigger picture; patriarchy is bad for everyone, and the goal of feminism is getting rid of it – this is not about men versus feminists. 

Writing about Force Majeure, Yvonne Roberts writes:
"The film is a feminist dissection of modern masculinity conducted by a man – with laughs. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “Men act, women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. In Force Majeure, the roles are switched... Ebba observes as the power of her husband dissolves into a puddle of tears. For Ebba and Tomas and the increasingly distressed children, au fait with divorce, nothing is as it was – or is it? That is the scale of the catastrophe – there is no hero."

What Force Majeure does, more successfully than Frantzen, is to show that the kind of masculinity that society expects – heroic, brave, strong – simply doesn’t exist (just as the oppositional feminine role of cowardly and weak is not demonstrated by Ebba, as we might expect). What the film does is show us how hollow and how unreliable these models of masculinity are for everyone: no-one can truly embody them and we shouldn’t hold people to them. This is, at root, what Frantzen is saying, it’s just that Force Majeure puts it much better. 

What we need to do is to move beyond the simplistic and constricting labels of gender – labels created and upheld by a patriarchal society – and understand men and women as individuals, without expecting them to demonstrate particular kinds of behaviour based on their gender. 

For this, Frantzen will be disappointed to realise, we all need feminism. 


Image is Eugen Sandow: Life of the Author as told in Photographs, from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.


Colwell, Tania (2002), ‘Medieval Masculinities: Transgressions and Transformations’, Our Medieval Heritage: Essays in Honour of John Tillotson for His 60th Birthday, ed. Linda Rasmussen, Valerie Spear and Dianne Tillotson, Cardiff: Merton Priory Press, pp. 137-156.

Dressler, Rachel (1999), Steel Corpse: Imagining the Knight in Death. Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West, ed. Jacqueline Murray, London: Garland, 1999, pp. 135167. 

Frantz, Sarah S. G. (2002), “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power, Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America, ed. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson, Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp. 1736. 

Mills & Boon (2010), ‘Living and Loving with the Alpha Male!’, leaflet.