Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling

brave movie poster

Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.

A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.

Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids. Continue reading “Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling”

How To Describe A Woman In Fiction

woman feeding birds

How to describe woman and girl characters in fiction? There must be a handbook somewhere. (No, only the entire history of literature.) The following tropes are so common they can be found throughout stories over time, including in books for children. On the other hand, writers of children’s literature are also the most likely to invert established tropes. We see successful subversions from children’s authors.

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS BIRD

She was so little. Like a bird. And some days she looked like she was going to break. Or get shot out of the sky and fall down dead.

— description of the mother in You May Already Be A Winner, MG novel by Ann Dee Ellis (2017)

In contrast, Skellig by David Almond inverts gender tropes in several ways. His young male character brings food to and nurtures another male character. Males serving food anywhere in literature is hard to find, let alone to another male. The gender trope is also broken in that we have a male character described as a bird rather when it’s usually reserved for females. Less remarkable perhaps that the analogy is an owl. Of all the birds, owls are probably the most masculine, owing to their academic, learned, wise anthropomorphism. (In non Western cultures though, owls are connected to the night, the moon and therefore to femininity.)

In the 2017 MG novel Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, Alice receives a dress which has a collar of feathers. This dress makes her feel like she can fly. The dress ‘made her miss the quiet moments she’d once resented, dancing alone in the forest, her heartbeats synchronised to the sounds of the world. This is connected to the more basic cultural idea that women are more connected to nature, owing to our bodily functions which seem gory and base, whereas men are closer to god. That is perhaps an exaggeration and oversimplification when talking about gender differences in modern societies, but historically it’s very accurate. In this book, the main character of Alice has an affinity to nature, and her transformation into a bird-like creature brings her even closer to the forest and the creatures who live within. See also: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

Taking a broader look at characters compared to birds in stories and it becomes clear that when any gender is compared to a bird, that character is vulnerable. If women are more commonly described as birds, that’s because women are more often portrayed as vulnerable.

Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen (2017) is a magical realist middle grade novel in which two male characters are described as birds. The first is an elderly man with a childlike sensibility who can levitate. He may or may not be part of Leelu’s imagination. Eventually, Leelu goes on an urban journey to rescue her brother, who has been beaten up by bad people. This, too, is a gender inversion since historically it’s always the male gender saving the female gender.

[The older brother] lay unmoving, apart from one of his hands, which flickered with movement. His fingers flexed and trembled to their own rhythm; little flutterings that made me think of a bird’s wings beating in flight.

In Mad Men, Don Draper’s pet name for his first wife, Betty, if ‘Birdie’, which sounds a lot like ‘Bertie’ until you listen closely. This does play into a common heterosexual female desire, to feel much smaller than her male partner, and therefore protected. The problem for Betty is that she really is quite fragile and does need protecting from the world by a man.

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS A CAT

women cats describe

In stories for adults, women are birds except when they’re in bed, in which they morph into cats. Purring, mewling and so on. More common in certain genres than others.

What about in children’s literature, which for obvious reasons is absent the sex scenes? (Sex is replaced by food in children’s stories. True story.)

Sometimes the comparison between girl and cat is quite subtle. Do you ever hear boys described as ‘stalking’ away in a huff? Oh sure, there are plenty of actual male stalkers in literature, and quite often they’re rewarded for their predatory behaviour by ending up with the girl, but only girls ‘stalk’ away, which is a weird descriptor when you think about it. How did stalk come to mean two opposite behaviours? When cats stalk their prey, they’re going towards the object, not away from it.

Cass shoves the contents of her tray into the trash and stalks away. Even though she didn’t say it, it’s obvious I’m the reason she’s upset.

—  a lunchroom scene from The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street, MG horror by Lindsay Currie (2017). Notice that like pet cats, girls don’t show their feelings. We can tell exactly what they’re thinking from their body language. (Another dangerous ideology, but commonly underscored in fiction.)

Sometimes women are described as large cats. With irony noted, this article describes women as ‘savage’ in the title for daring to make fun of the way male authors describe female characters.

WOMEN AS UGLY OLD HAG, YET STRANGELY DESIRABLE SOMEHOW

Iris Murdoch’s husband wrote a biography of his late wife after she died. He describes picking her up for their first date:

The door opened. An apparition in what seemed a sort of flame-coloured brocade stood before me. I felt in some way scandalised: dazzled but appalled at the same time. All my daydreams, my illusions and preconceptions about the woman — the girl? the lady? — of the bicycle seemed to have torn away and vanished back into a past which I would still very much have preferred to be inhabiting, given the choice. But I had no choice. The person before me was exactly the same as the one riding the bicycle. I still thought her face homely and kindly, not in any conventional sense pretty or attractive, even if it was a strong face in its own blunt-featured snub-nosed way; and for me it was always mysterious too. But now I was seeing it as other people saw it. Although it was in no way conventional itself its trappings, so to speak, were now conventional. Their appearance disappointed me sadly. They seemed the sort of things that any girl would wear; a silly girl who had not the taste to choose her clothes carefully.

However, gentleman that he says he was, John Bayley fell into bed with Iris later than night and told her in a very sexy way, I’m sure, how he loved her snub-nose.

Later, John Bayley also manages to describe his late wife as a bird:

At happy moments she seems to find [words] more easily than I do. Like the swallows when we lived in the country. Sitting on the telephone wire outside our bedroom window a row of swallows would converse animatedly with one another, always, it seemed signing off each burst of twittering speech with a word that sounded like ‘Weatherby’, a common call-sign delivered on a rising note. We used to call them ‘Weatherbys’. Now I tease her by saying ‘You’re just like a Weatherby, chattering away.’

and a cat, though he overturns the trope somewhat:

The Alzheimer face is neither tragic nor comic, as a face can appear in other forms of dementia: that would suggest humanity and emotion in their most distorted guise. The Alzheimer face indicates only an absence: it is a mask in the most literal sense. That is why the sudden appearance of a smile is so extraordinary. The lion face becomes the face of the Virgin Mary, tranquil in sculpture and painting with a gravity that gives such a smile its deepest meaning.

In any case, John Bayley’s real life use of the trope leads me to question the extent to which men sum up their female dates, balancing their conventional beauty against their inevitable sexual allure, against the social capital their beauty will bring to the man when he claims her for himself and will be judged by her beauty in public. Women worry about our own looks, wondering if we measure up. Men, apparently, also worry about women’s looks, wondering if we’ll measure up.

The most insidious, distasteful thing about men and male characters (proxy male authors) getting caught up in this psychological minefield around beauty standards is the idea that men should be congratulated for finding a non-model girlfriend sexually attractive regardless of her flaws, which are only flaws in his mind anyhow. Don’t nobody get no cookie for that.

A lot of white, male writers love this trope of the strangely alluring but scary woman. Ken Follett opens Pillars of the Earth with a mysterious young woman, who will soon jump our hero in the forest as he’s freshly grieving for the wife who Follett conveniently knocks off in childbirth:

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long, dark brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point in her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner [about to be executed] was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden colour, so luminous and penetrating that, when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ken Follett is a big fan of the ugly woman who is nonetheless fuckable, even if she’s old:

She had been famous, once, briefly. At the peak of the hippie era she lived in the Haight-Ashbury nieghbourhood of San Francisco. Priest had not known her then–he had spent the late sixties making his first million dollars–but he had heard the stories. She had been a striking beauty. She had made a record, reciting poetry against a background of psychedelic music with a band called Raining Fresh Daisies. […] That was a long time ago. Now she was a few weeks from her fiftieth birthday. Her figure was still generous, though no longer like an hourglass: she weighed a hundred and eighty pounds. But she still exercised an extraordinary sexual magnetism. When she walked into a bar, all the men stared. / Even now, when she was worried and hot, there was a sexy flounce to the way she paced and turned beside the cheap old car, an invitation in the movement of her flesh beneath the thin cotton dress, and Priest felt the urge to grab her right there.

— The Hammer of Eden, Ken Follett. First detailed description of a woman character in the story.

It’s the ‘but’ that gets me. You find a woman sexually attractive or you don’t. What’s with all the buts? Are we to congratulate our male hero for finding her attractive despite everything? Is this a perverse kind of Save the Cat moment? Jeez, I think I just made a terrible connection there.

WOMEN AS FOOD PRODUCTS

Women of colour will tell you how often they are described as food products, especially hot beverages. (Cocoa, coffee, mocha…) Or food in general, especially sweet ones (caramel, toffee, carob, biscuit, chocolate, honey).

To avoid:

Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.

Sara Hockler

Yet we do still see this in modern children’s books, and I’d like to draw your attention to the gendered nature of it.

Nina’s huge eyes are focused on me now, like saucers of brown paint. If I had to classify them in pastel terms, I’d say they’re cocoa bean.

The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street by Lindsay Currie (2017)

Girls do look different from boys. Girls wear different clothes, different hair, move differently, and eventually there’s sexual dimorphism. But don’t default to a long history of tropes when describing girls and young women, because your story stands on the shoulders of every story which came before.

And that isn’t always a good thing.

Happy Valley Season One Storytelling

Happy Valley promotional poster

I’m very picky these days about crime fiction, because so much of it revolves around the plot of a raped and murdered woman. In the worst of these stories, the audience is encouraged to participate in the sadomasochistic pleasure of the killer. Even in the best, it’s worth examining our cultural fixation on these stories, and the conflation of sex with violence in various aspects of real life.

Contains spoilers, as usual.

Happy Valley is a British limited crime series with two seasons of six episodes each — a novelistic approach rather than episodic a la The Bill or CSI. The viewer must watch it from beginning to end in the right order to get the full impact. Like many others, the plot revolves around the rape of an offscreen young woman and her subsequent suicide; the onscreen murder of a beautiful young police officer and the abduction; rape and drugging of yet another young white woman. Exactly the sort of thing I’ve learned to avoid, but for a few differences: Continue reading “Happy Valley Season One Storytelling”

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline book cover

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading “Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline”

Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Brave, of 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading “Monster House Film Study”

Inside Out Story Structure

Inside Out

Inside Out is a Pixar animated film released 2015. It was an instant worldwide hit. Inside Out is fascinating from a writing point of view because it  an example of the female myth form, which we haven’t seen much of over the last 2000 years but which is now making a comeback.

Inside Out And Neurodiversity

All children must learn at some stage how to recognise and name their own emotions. This is harder for some than others. Even among the neurotypical population, a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty identifying how they feel. Continue reading “Inside Out Story Structure”

Boy Humour, Girl Humour

gender and humour

In children’s literature and film, the big-name comedy series are male heavy. Even when women write comedy, they have the best chance of striking it big if they write about boys. Even better? The girls are arch nemeses (or sexualised enigmas) to the funny boys.

Silly as it may sound, critics are still scratching their heads over the question of “can women really be funny?”, which bleeds through into fiction as the question “should women be funny?” or “should we write women into funny roles?” As Dee noted in the AniFem premiere review, female characters as the sensible “straight man” to the hapless, entertaining male lead is a trope entrenched in comedy.

AniFem

CONTEMPORARY BEST-SELLING HUMOUR

At the top of best-seller lists in English speaking countries you’ll find the following humorous children’s books:

  • Wimpy Kid series — male author — boy main character (American but popular worldwide)
  • David Walliams books — male author — a range of adult/child main characters, with old and adult women funny but girl characters kindly and playing straight characters. (Especially big in the UK)
  • Tom Gates books — female author/illustrator — boy main character, highly unsympathetic sister (UK)
  • Beano books — an anonymous variety of contracted authors — boy main characters
  • Treehouse books — male author and illustrator — author and illustrator friends are themselves juvenile characters in the books (Australia)
  • Julia Donaldson picture books — female author/male illustrator — mixture of male and female characters (UK — the female characters who seem to break gender norms but who often actually don’t)
  • Dog Man — male author/illustrator — male characters (USA)
  • No one Likes A Fart — female writer/male illustrator — fart as main character, coded male (Australia)
  • Wonkey Donkey series — male writer/female illustrator — male main character
  • Dork Diaries — MG — female author/daughter illustrator — female main character (USA — also has a spinoff series starring male character, Max Crumbly)
  • Pig The Pug picture books — male author/illustrator — male characters (Australia)
  • Hairy Maclary series — female author/illustrator — male gang of dogs and cats (New Zealand)

(As a side note, American bestseller lists feature more serious children’s books at the top, UK has more humour, and Australia/NZ has a higher tolerance for gross-out humour.)

Notice also that even when female characters are comedic, those characters tend to be older or elderly women. There are disproportionately few girls who star in their own comedies. There are even fewer in which boys play the ‘straight man’ to the girls.

A few exceptions exist in anime:

  • Please Tell Me! Gaiko-chan — a cast of teenage girls engage in bodily-functions-based humour
  • Lucky Star — an otaku comedy in which a female cast references and pokes fun at a geeky world traditionally considered the domain of boys
  • Pop Team Epic — absurd, crass, slapstick humour carried out by two leading ladies, Popuko and Pipimi.

In general, though, female characters in anime are cute girls doing cute things, designed to be as appealing as possible. And so when a cute girl engages in shitpost humour, this employs the old ‘dog bites man’ inversion comedy. In other words, it’s even more funny because it’s a cute girl coming out with these crass things.

Continue reading “Boy Humour, Girl Humour”

Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling

main character function diversity

Most of us writing about story pick one of the following terms and stick with it:

  • Main character — shortened to MC
  • Hero(ine) — the feminine form has pretty much died, though we still often say ‘actress’
  • Protagonist — which these days means ‘main character’

On this blog I use these terms at random, though I’ve started to drift away from ‘hero’ in favour of ‘main character’. When I learned that technically ‘protagonist’ means ‘the character who starts the action’, I dropped it completely, because it bothers me to use a word ‘incorrectly’ even though language does change.

The more I reflect on this terminology, the more obvious the need for some clarity. We have entered an era in which it’s no longer acceptable to write the same stories about the same few kinds of people. It’s time we move past tokenism. Our main characters need to be as diverse as they are in real life.

But how do you say who is the ‘main character’ in a story? Any story? This isn’t as clear cut as it seems. John Truby has a pretty good method which works most of the time: Who changes the most?

Pair this with guidelines shared by John August back in 2005: What’s The Difference Between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist? In 2016, the Draft Zero guys discussed John August’s post in relation to Mad Max, Star Trek and a couple of other films.

I’m particularly interested in how these ‘functions’ of character can be useful when critiquing a story in terms of diversity. We’re never going to progress beyond faux-representation in narrative unless we start thinking en masse in terms of what John August calls ‘character function’. Continue reading “Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling”

Humour Writing And Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob and Patrick

SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.

This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.

Here I use Stephen Johnson’s 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob.  I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.

It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)

First a note about the structure. Continue reading “Humour Writing And Spongebob Squarepants”

Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories

moral dilemma

When it comes to stories for adults and stories for children, there’s not much in it. But children are faced with different moral dilemmas.

What Is A Moral Dilemma?

First, Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

— Donald Maass

Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of MG level and below have moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different? A story like Wolf Hollow has a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.

Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?

Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.

Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact

Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:

Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.

Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.

The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.

Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences

To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.

Continue reading “Moral Dilemmas And Children’s Stories”