Subversion of reader expectation to challenge long-held beliefs is one of the most difficult — and the most important — thing storytellers can do.
It’s also easy to get wrong. For an example of subversion which fails, see bestselling picture book The Day The Crayons Quit.
The Importance of Subversion In Children’s Stories
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.
Jack Zipes says something similar:
[Schools in the West] are geared towards making children into successful consumers and competitors in a ‘free’ world dictated by market conditions…If storytellers are to be effective on behalf of children in schools…it is important to try to instil a sense of community, self-reflecting and self-critical community, in the children to demonstrate how the ordinary can become extraordinary…Schools are an ideal setting for this ‘subversive’ type of storytelling…if schools want…to show that they can be other than the institutions of correction, discipline, and distraction that they tend to be.
In adult stories, the ‘absurdist’ genre comes closest to achieving the same ends, with absurdism’s emphasis on the corporate world. Perhaps subversive children’s stories are the childhood equivalent of absurdism, minus some of the darkest tropes. The corporation is swapped out for the school.
Inversion Does Not Equal Subversion
Pixar’s Brave was widely hailed as a welcome addition to a corpus of films which most often depict girls as princess types waiting to be saved. (Of all the reviews I have read of Brave, the review from Feminist Disney most closely matches my own impressions of it.)
I’m not the only one who does not consider Pixar’s Brave as a particularly good example of a children’s film which explores gender, pushing its traditional limits. An academic from Emory University explains in this short video that Merida of Brave encourages girls to be independent, but within the fairytale structure of this arc, demonstrates that there are severe consequences to stepping outside gender roles. Merida unleashes a curse by doing so. A better representation of girlhood in animated film is that of Violet from The Incredibles, who uses her super-power of invisibility to create a force field around herself. But there are other issues with this story — again, Violet exists — as most fictional female heroes do — within the realms of her family. She is not given the opportunity to leave the family and seek out independence as many boy heroes do. Pixar’s Up is quite a gender-bender in this sense, because the little boy who befriends the old man is desperate for the love of family rather than separating from the family to seek his boyish independence on the way to manhood. His is a more typically feminine storyline, in which family is important to him.
I didn’t fully understand my own problem with Brave until I took a close look two picture books which parody traditional gender stereotypes. The first is Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and the other, a book called The Dragon Of Brog by Jean Hood. This is from the final chapter in Deconstructing The Hero by Margery Hourihan:
Just as [Babette] Cole’s stories lampoon the stereotypes of large hairy masculinity and the swashbuckling hero who overcomes all difficulties, so Hood’s story ridicules the figure of the brave knight in armour whose profession is mayhem, and appreciation of the joke likewise depends upon familiarity with the originals.
These stories certainly raise the issue of gender, and provide effective discussion-starters for teachers. As Stephens says of Prince Cinders [by Babette Cole] ‘that abjection, humility and passivity now become deficiencies poses the question of why they should be virtues for the female’. But there are problems with these works that go beyond their parodic dependence upon the originals.
Their ridicule of the gender stereotypes is ultimately nihilistic for females. There are no admirable male figures against whom to measure the exploded stereotypes, and the attitudes of the princesses Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] suggest that all males are contemptible nuisances. While this might amuse some girls because it is such a neat inversion of the dismissal of females in so many stories, it offers nothing except a sense of pay-back. Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] themselves are little more than the old male stereotypes in drag: they are arrogant, self-assured know-alls with no empathy for others — hardly positive embodiments of the female. The trouble with dualism is that if you simply turn it on its head it is still a dualism. Inversion is not the same as subversion…
Further, these stories fail to engage with the material they deride. Despite the patriarchal values inscribed in traditional hero tales the fields of folk talk, legend and romance are rich with potent symbols that work at many levels. …
Hourihan does go on to say (of the picture books mentioned above):
Of course these stories do have an ideological content. They are celebrations of self-interest, of ruthless, unconsidered individualism. The behaviour of Smarty Pants and Lisa, who both want to do exactly as they like all the time, exemplifies the strident selfishness of the extremists who give feminism a bad name.
On this, I feel Brave does better. By the end of the film, Merida has changed the local law for everyone; no one will be forced to marry someone unless each is of the other’s choosing. Merida has been an activist for wider social change. However, let’s not mistake this for storytelling gender equality. That will not have been achieved until female characters are fighting for something other than female freedom.
One way of subverting reader expectations is to twist genre expectations.
From John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story:
The great flaw of using a prefabricated metaphorical symbol web is that it is so self-conscious and predictable that the story becomes a blueprint for the audience, not a lived experience. But in this flaw lies a tremendous opportunity. You can use the audience’s knowledge of the form and the symbol web to reverse it. In this technique, you use all the symbols in the web but twist them so that their meaning is very different from what the audience expects. This forces them to rethink all their expectations. You can do this with any story that has well-known symbols. When you are working in a specific genre like myth, horror, or Western, this technique is known as undercutting the genre.
Jeffrey Eugenides is a writer for adults who likes to subvert genre. Below he talks about his books The Marriage Plot (a novel) and Fresh Complaint (a short story collection):
I guess I wanted to subvert the genre. You have lots of stories where you have an older male preying upon a younger woman, so I was just trying to subvert the conventions of that kind of story. In that respect, [Fresh Complaint is] like The Marriage Plot, where I was trying to subvert the conventions of the marriage plot.
I think we’ve come to a point in literary history where anything you try to write, you’re quickly aware of the precedents of that kind of story. And there’s only two ways to do something new. One way is to make fun of the convention, to send it up. Which is all well and good, but tends to leave a kind of aroma of irony after it, which is a little bit superior in tone and mocking.
If you still care about your characters, and care about the world, you stay in the realistic mode, but subvert the tale and the normal telling of the tale by trying to express a different side of the experience. I didn’t want to make fun of the marriage plot only to make fun of it. I also wanted to write about young people in love, and what it feels like to be in love. I don’t want my work to just show how false things are, and how inauthentic everything is. Life doesn’t feel inauthentic or false to me. It feels quite real. And I’m concerned with it.
Subversion, Irony, Satire and Parody
Another problem with subversive humour, such as irony, satire and parody, is that the audience doesn’t necessarily come to the party. This is true of audiences of all ages, and may be especially true of young audiences.
Subversion involves foiling the expectation of your audience. Subversion aims to challenge pre-existing views. This is hard to achieve because the writer must intuit what the audience will expect, as well as what they already believe to be true about the world. The writer must have a solid understanding of psychology and of cultural tropes. (Note that simple inversion does not equal subversion.)
Irony has a very wide meaning and various subcategories and very much deserved its own post.
Satire is the ridicule of vice or folly. Its ostensible goal is to take an individual person, a type of person, an individual folly, or a type of folly, and expose it to public scrutiny. Satire doesn’t have to be funny, though it very often is. Satire makes a political comment. Gulliver’s Travels is a very old example — a biting work of political and social satire by an Anglican priest, historian, and political commentator. Jonathan Swift parodied popular travelogues of his day in creating this story of a sea-loving physician’s travels to imaginary foreign lands. The Paddington Bear movie offers a gently satirical view of a particular kind of middle-class white English person.
Parody: A parody mimics the style of a particular genre, work, or author. The purpose is to mock a trivial subject by presenting it in an exaggerated and more elegant way than it normally deserves. Parodies are the most popular and widely used form of burlesque. An example (and subcategory) of the parody is the mock-heroic. Mock-heroic stories imitate the form and style of an epic poem (like Homer’s Odyssey); which is quite formal and complex. Mock-heroics induce humor by presenting insignificant subjects in the long, sophisticated style of epic poetry. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories are often mock-heroic. In “The Half-Skinned Deer” we have a mythical hero who doesn’t quite make it back home. In “The Mud Below” we have a rodeo rider who thinks he’s a cowboy, but in fact he knows nothing about horses, or any of the traditional skills; he wants to become the bull — a symbol of masculinity — but is of course beaten by the bull. In children’s stories, you’ll often find a parody in the form of a carnivalesque tale.
As Heather Scutter comments with regard to jokes in children’s fiction, “apparent subversion may prove, on deconstruction, to mask a form of socialization which actually reinforces existing cultural values and beliefs, and encourages the child [reader] to accept the status quo“.
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature by Carolyn Daniel
I recently took a close look at the taxonomy of humour as suggested by the main guy at The Onion. One of the categories he suggests is, of course, Irony. In that post I question whether young readers necessarily understand irony, which is a main feature of children’s humour, but then modern books (especially picture books) are aimed at a dual audience. Even in middle grade, about half the jokes in a David Walliams books are decidedly ‘adult’ — not surprising given that Walliams comes from an adult comedy background.
Animal Farm is often named as a satire on dictatorship, but Margaret Blount questions its success as such:
[Animal Farm] is a chronicle of the sad sameness of human nature and the ultimate absorption of every revolutionary movement — the endlessly turning wheel of conquest, power, corruption and decline. If you removed the moral, it would be no more memorable than the kind of sermon that tells one what ought to be done by giving a gloomy and prophetic chain of consequences that will be brought about if one persists in the way one is going.”
— Margaret Blount
The Satire Paradox
“The Satire Paradox” is a podcast from season one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series. This tenth episode is well worth a listen for those interested in children’s literature because there are particular implications for writing humour directed at an audience who are at a developmental stage of learning what is ironic, what is told straight. I say there is particular significance for child audiences, but as Gladwell points out, adults are hardly immune from interpreting a stand-up comic exactly in line with how they already see the world.
Basically, leftie comedy news anchors in America are popular with both right and leftwing voters because their jokes are interpreted in whichever way the audience sees fit.
Children And Irony
A child’s ability to understand irony depends on all sorts of things, including culture and subculture. A child from a heavily ironic family will naturally learn to pick irony, and use it, at an earlier age. Certain cultures — Japan is one I know about — accepts and expects far less irony than typical Western subcultures. Even within the West, there’s a subculture called ‘hipster irony’, in which any sort of racist/sexist/ageist joke can be told with the shared understanding that the speaker is not really racist/sexist/ageist. This shared understanding binds subgroups together. However, hipster irony has justifiably come under some fire for perhaps actually reinforcing ideas the group purports to disagree with.
Children don’t understand all the different kinds of irony all at once.
- Earlier studies believed that children didn’t understand irony until the age of eight or ten, but these studies were conducted in a lab environment and ‘irony’ was mainly limited to ‘sarcasm.’
- Later studies suggest children can understand hyperbole by age four.
- It takes another two years before children can start to get a handle on sarcasm.
- Sarcasm remains one of the easiest forms of irony for children to understand.
- Sarcasm and hyperbole are associated with positive experiences for children. (I would have guessed that sarcasm is not an overall positive form of communication.)
- Euphemisms and rhetorical questions are associated with conflict.
- Fathers are more likely to use sarcasm.
- Mothers are more likely to use rhetorical questions.
Adults and Psychology
It’s not just children’s writers who should be thinking about this.
In the “What Is Technology Doing To Us?” episode of The Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris talks to Tristan Harris, who touches on a peculiar psychological bug in which humans can be told a story, then told in the same paragraph that that story is blatantly untrue, but later it turns out we’ve forgotten the ‘it’s untrue’ part of the message and accidentally held onto the story. This is perhaps because the human brain is wired really well to remember story. Harris touches on this phenomenon again in the “Living With Violence” episode, in which Gavin de Becker gives the audience an example about violent kangaroos, then tells us that everything he just said is totally wrong. Be careful when using this trick to try and persuade your audience of something. They may end up misremembering that kangaroos give clear signals before they kick you in the mouth. (They don’t.)
Humans have a bunch of memory errors. It pays to be aware of these if you’re ever called to the jury.
Some questions for writers of children’s humour
- If your viewpoint character expresses nasty views towards another person/group of people (I’m still seeing a lot of hatred directed towards fat people), will the young reader understand that ‘this is the character being awful because they are awful’, or is this character modelling the behaviour the author means to call out as wrong?
- Who is the likely audience for your particular story? Sophisticated kids with hipster parents, or do you think there’s a chance this has an international audience?
- If your subversive humour will be understood only by a certain proportion of young readers, does this matter? Menippean satire is a subcategory of satire aimed at attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. (Alice In Wonderland is an example from the children’s book world.)
- Are you hoping to make fun of an individual (real or fictional) or of a group? Menippean satire passes criticism of the ideas of certain character tropes and on the single-minded mental attitudes, or “humours”, that they represent: the pedant. Common victims include the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack and the seducer. In children’s stories it’s commonly the schoolyard bully, the evil teacher, the overprotective parent, the prissy blonde girl.
- If you are going for Menippean satire, if your subversive humour were inadvertently swallowed as straight, does this harm any group of people?
What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend from NPR, in which the Movie Girlfriend trope is gender swapped.
Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer is a paper by Keeling and Sprague which discusses the female hero as opposed to the ‘heroine’, which may be considered a different thing altogether — a ‘hero in drag’.