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Film Study: We Are The Best (2013)

This is an adaptation of Coco Moodysson’s (director Moodysson’s wife’s) autobiographical graphic novel which she never completely finished.


Three girls in 1980s Stockholm decide to form a punk band — despite not having any instruments and being told by everyone that punk is dead.


  1. The year is 1982. This is the world of punk, and without having the graphic novel in front of me (which looks like it stars punk characters), the director definitely prides himself on being a punk and antiestablishment. In the early 80s punk had supposedly died and New Wave ruled.
  2. The creator of the autobigraphical graphic novel says there were no role models around that time for girls of this age. There were Swedish girl bands, but they were older and their songs were about having sex “and we thought that was disgusting. We wanted to look tougher, like boys.” A modern audience might at first read these girls as proto-lesbian but context is clue; these girls are perhaps a little femme phobic, and have definitely grown up in an environment which equates toughness with masculinity. So that’s where that comes from.
  3.  Stockholm, Sweden. These are city kids who seem to attend public school but without the ‘inner city’ problems you might find in somewhere like America. There’s enough money. That’s where some irony comes in — these girls are too young and too sheltered to really know what they’re standing up against.
  4. Winter.


Self-revelation, need, desire

This is a coming-of-age story. I believe the characters are 13. Mira Barkhammar, who plays Bobo , was actually 13 during filming. Mira Grosin, who plays Klara, was only 11; Liv LeMoyne, as Hedvig, was the eldest at 14. Anything around this age is the classic time for a coming-of-age tale.

In the first scene Bobo has already begun her transformation. She has cut her hair, and we see her mother embarrassing her by pointing out the new short cut to a large gathering of adult friends at a party. Over the course of this story, Bobo learns that she doesn’t need to play second fiddle to her more exuberant, prettier friend Klara. She takes the first step with a boy. Rather than being the follower of Klara, the addition of the conservative Christian Hedvig to their group means that Bobo learns, like Hedvig, to think for herself. She also learns not to let a boy come between her and her best girlfriends.

At the beginning Bobo already knows that she doesn’t want to be like everybody else. This is what has drawn her to punk. But she hasn’t yet learnt to be her own person entirely — she’s under the influence of Klara.

She is wrong about her own uniqueness and individuality. She professes to not care about what others think of her, but she is deeply wounded by rejection from the boys who she doesn’t even like. She’s on the right track to intellectual freedom, but her need for peer acceptance is holding her back.

She is also dismissive of everything and anyone who doesn’t fit her version of cool. She can’t accept Hedvig as a friend without wanting to change her first. She is dismissive of other people’s musical tastes, including Hedvig’s.

At first it seems as if Hedvig changes the most — why isn’t she the (secret?) hero? But take a closer look and you’ll see that even though Hedvig has her hair cut, she hasn’t changed that much; she is solid and independent at the beginning of the film, and remains so throughout. Sure, she’s gained two new friends and become more cool than she was, but she is still the same basic person. Bobo definitely ‘grows’ more than either Hedvig or Klara. Klara doesn’t really demonstrate that she’s changed at all. She thinks she’s the best at the beginning of the film, and even in the final scene she declares ‘I am the best’, showing that she’s all about her own self. She genuinely doesn’t care about other people, or what they think — even when those people are her best friends.


Later in the film, when Bobo is being comforted by Klara after throwing up on Klara’s older brother’s records, Bobo tells Klara that she’s sick of Klara getting all the boys and being invited to all the parties. We don’t know it at the start, but Bobo has a history of rejection. This explains in retrospect why she has been drawn to punk and to Klara, and why she is so upset when Klara hooks up with the punk boy they go to meet.

Story World

The arena is a school and its local surrounds in Stockholm, Sweden.

They are heading into winter time and snow has settled on the ground. This means the characters are forced to basically live indoors, except for the scene on the roof, when Bobo sort of threatens to jump off. The season is significant because it’s an ironic one — coming of age stories are often about ‘blooming’, and therefore spring, but punk is an ironic, subversive, transgressive genre, and so the story inverts the usual season and has Bobo heading in to winter.

The city is an entirely man-made space.

The important tool for the girls is an electric guitar, because an electric guitar will propel them into the realm of ‘cool’, or so they think.

This is a contemporary story set around 2013.

Weakness & Need (& Problem)

Bobo has distanced herself from the crowd, which is fine, except her only ally in the world is Klara, who is an imperfect friend. Klara can be a little callous, and is inclined to take the limelight. Bobo has no self-confidence. Feeling she is ugly, she has cut off her hair and refused make-up to buck the expectations of her gender.

Under Klara’s influence, Bobo also can treat others badly, which appears when the two of them basically bully Hedvig into getting a punk haircut.

Bobo’s crisis at the beginning of the story is that she is not accepted by her peers, namely boys. She has no idea how to fix this and doesn’t even know she wants to.

Inciting Incident

Bobo and Klara impetuously decide to start a punk band and participate in the autumn concert. But they are too late, and the middle-aged woman in charge says they’ll have to come back next year. This annoys Klara so much that she thinks if she can’t play in the autumn concert she doesn’t want to play at all. But they decide to keep playing so they can show everyone just how good they can be.

But actually there is a series of three inciting incidents. This is preceded by the older boys calling them ugly. The girls decide to book the drum room, partly to piss them off and partly because they genuinely want to start a band. The desire to perform in the autumn concert comes out of that.

The audience can see that these girls are nowhere near good enough to play in any concert. They’re full of verve but have no skill. By putting themselves forward, they’re risking further and more permanent rejection, which puts the audience on edge. (Similar to About A Boy.) In this way, the two girls have got themselves into ‘the worst trouble of their lives’.


Bobo wants to be cool in a non-mainstream way. She is a conformist non-conformist. The goal that extends throughout the story — the concrete goal — is to perform in front of an audience and achieve accolades of some kind.

The importance of this desire increases throughout the story because with the addition of an accomplished and gifted musician (Hedvig) they become genuinely accomplished. The stakes become higher because the friendship between Bobo and Klara is compromised over a boy, so they need to reunite, and they can do this by working in unison to perform a concert.


Bobo’s main ally is her best friend Klara. Klara and Bobo share the same desire of wanting to prove themselves punk and prove themselves to be cool.


The most obvious opponents (though they are numerous they’re basically one personality) are the older boys at school who refuse to take the girls seriously. They call them ugly and try to bar them from the drum room and insist on calling theirs a ‘girl band’. The boys, too, are competing for the goal of performing on stage and winning cool points.

Bobo’s mother is oblivious to Bobo’s inner workings, and doesn’t realise that by drawing attention to her daughter’s hair in front of a crowd she is being excruciatingly inappropriate — Bobo cut her hair to avoid attention rather than to get it — her whole point is that looks shouldn’t matter, so compliments defeat the point.

Fake-ally opponent

Klara is the fake-ally opponent — sometimes ally, sometimes opponent — if only because she does ‘punk’ better. She has a more genuinely punk hair cut. She probably rates higher on the sociopathic spectrum, and is able to genuinely not care. Bobo doesn’t have this luxury. She is empathetic, as demonstrated when her mother breaks up with the latest man friend. By following Klara, Bobo is self-sabotaging, somewhat. Klara wants Bobo to be cool, but she wants to keep her in her place. She doesn’t want her to go out with her brother, for instance, shitting all over the fact that Bobo likes him. Both Klara and Bobo are competing for the exact same goal, so that’s good.

Klara has sufficient complexity to be this person. She knows about the party the boys are having, but hasn’t revealed it to Bobo. She appears to be up-front about everything, but her candour comes across as aggressive. “I just want to check you’re not jealous, or anything.”

The other interesting thing about Klara is that she starts to feel more like Bobo’s ally as the story progresses. By the end of the film they are on a more equal footing, despite Klara maintaining that ‘she’ is the best, despite Hedvig protesting that ‘we are the best’.

In this story, Klara was introduced after Bobo. Klara has no specific plan to bring her friend down — hers is more of an ignorant dilemma.

Changed Desire And Motive/First Revelation & Decision

While the girls started off wanting to perform in the autumn concert not caring that they sounded shit, they changed to wanting to learn their instruments properly after witnessing Hedvig on stage. (The reveal is that Hedvig is pretty good at music, even though she’s super uncool.)


Now they’ll persuade Hedvig to teach them about music, and in turn they’ll draw her out of Christianity so she can be cool like them. (And she won’t bring them down.)

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

The boys continue to undermine the girls.

Klara has a plan to contact some punk boys they know of, so they can go and meet and make boyfriends. But she doesn’t really care about whether the other two make boyfriends. While Klara is not deliberately evil, these scenes give the audience a chance to see the regular dynamic that goes on between these two best friends.


Klara decides to get Bobo back. She calls the boy who liked Klara (though he doesn’t seem to any more) and arranges a meet up. She wants to persuade him to be her boyfriend, not Klara’s. She manages this, though the boy tells Bobo he’ll have to break up with Klara first, then never does. Calling your best friend’s boyfriend is a bit of an immoral action, even if the relationship seems to have fizzled. But Bobo is desperate for acceptance. We see this when she spits on her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Bobo’s actions have now changed in a fundamental way because before this she would never have gone behind Klara’s back, or assumed she could take a boy from Klara.

Attack by ally

There are two plots in this story: There’s the conflict between Bobo/Klara and Hedvig (or Hedvig’s mother), then there is the battle between Bobo and Klara as they each wrestle for power within the relationship.

In the first plot line, Hedvig’s mother is the voice of reason when she calls the girls to her house for tea and biscuits then gives them an example about how they shouldn’t try to change someone just because they want to be her friend. You have to accept people as they come.

In the other plot line, Hedvig (her mother’s daughter) is the voice of reason the whole way through, encouraging the girls to reconcile. She’s not a very outspoken girl, so she needs to be pressed to say much, but there are conversations in bedrooms during which Hedwig refuses to join in with the other two when it comes to shitting over other people’s likes.

Apparent Defeat

Despite every effort to be cool, even cutting her hair short like Klara’s, Bobo still misses out on a boy she really likes. We see how devastating this is for Bobo when she jumps around on the roof, risking her life, trying to divert the hug that’s going on between her best friend and the boy she likes.

Obsessive drive/changed drive

The revelation Bobo has is that: No matter how hard she has tried, she cannot win boys as long as Klara’s around.

She’s going to have to take control.

Audience Revelation

Sure enough, when we see Klara and Bobo in action with the boys, we not only see the day in its own right, but we see the whole history of their friendship. We see that Klara is indeed more popular with the boys (at first) and that Bobo plays second fiddle. We are probably older and wiser (this is a film for adults) and know more about the friendship dynamics than Bobo does. Because of this history, we are now given a little distance between ourselves and Bobo, and we’ll see why she does what she does, by calling the boyfriend.

Gate/Gauntlet/Visit to Death

Bobo spitting on the mirror shows us that she has reached rock bottom in self-esteem. It happens after their visit to see the boys.


Sure enough, there is a showdown between Bobo and Klara when Bobo tells Klara that the boy has been ‘cheating on you… with me’. The fight gets physical and is broken up by pacifist Hedvig. This shows how similar Bobo and Klara are at this point.


Bobo learns that she can’t be Klara, but she is just as worthy as Klara.

Bobo has also learned from Hedvig that you can’t change people in order for them to be your friend, and she applies this same revelation to herself. She can’t change herself to fit her ‘ideal version of a friend’.

Moral decision

Bobo has learned that she must ‘be herself’ rather than be a follower. She demonstrates this resolve onstage with the audience booing at her.

New Equilibrium

This is demonstrated on the bus home in the final scene after their disastrous concert. They have been rejected in the most terrible way — an entire audience turned against them. But they are determined to call themselves ‘the best’ anyway.

Film Study: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Greg […] is coasting through senior year of high school as anonymously as possible, avoiding social interactions like the plague while secretly making spirited, bizarre films with Earl, his only friend. But both his anonymity and friendship threaten to unravel when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia.

Deadline Hollywood


Okay, I admit it. I thought, “This is very much like The Fault In Our Stars.”

But remember, the sick-lit genre popular in this Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature did not actually start with John Green’s YA novel — it started way back in the late 1990s with The Lovely Bones.

The YA novel by Jesse Andrews Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was published in 2012 and released as a film three years later in 2015. Jesse Andrews was the main scriptwriter for that. Here I’ll be talking about the film because I haven’t read the book.

Apart from a breakdown of story structure, in this post I’d like to touch on:

  • “sick-lit” — yes, it’s a derisive term but what else can I call it?
  • the female maturity principle
  • mothers in coming-of-age stories
  • tear-jerkiness and how to achieve it
  • the metafictive elements of this self-aware coming-of-age tale


“A little friendship never killed anyone.”


drama, comedy >> coming-of-age tearjerker


I’m having trouble with this. Could it really be as simple as:

Sometimes it takes proximal death to teach us the value of life?


The author himself attended Schenley High School, Oakland, Pittsburgh, not that long ago (as of 2017 he’s only 34). The story is set there, and suburban surrounds.

The majority of the film adaptation was actually taped at Schenley High School.  When the cameras showed us the corridors from above I noticed that the tops of the lockers were dusty and the place had a general run-down look to it compared to slightly more glossy depictions of high schools in other teen dramas coming out of America. As it turns out, this may not have been because the set designers were actively aiming for a run-down state school — the real Schenley High School closed its doors back in 2008 after 99 years. This was originally an expensive school to build — one of the first to cost a million dollars, which was a lot back then. In 2013 the historic but closed school was sold to some developers who plan to turn it into luxury apartments. Anyhow, the filmmakers must have scooted in there before that happened. Continue reading

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Hunchback Of Nowhere


Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. (The Hunchback was having another moment.)

As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.



Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picturebooks. There is no battle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.


This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.


We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.

Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.

As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)

The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.

A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without -- squares of light are also used to 'imprison' characters on the screen.

A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without — squares of light are also used to ‘imprison’ characters on the screen.

Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.

Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.

And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.

And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.

The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.

The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.


Eustace wants Courage to fetch his raincoat from the barn.

Courage wants Eustace to let the Hunchback stay. He says to the camera (because Eustace can’t understand him speaking English), “Why can’t he stay in the attic at least?”

The Hunchback wants to avoid getting wet.


Eustace. Had Muriel opened the door to the Hunchback there would have been no story. Muriel is accommodating by nature.


The Hunchback takes refuge in the Bagges’ barn.

Courage has found a friend so he intends for the Hunchback to stay until it’s no longer raining, keeping him safe from the grumpy, uncharitable Eustace.

Eustace plans to annoy the Hunchback and insult him until he leaves.


Instead of a battle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.



We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.

In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.

The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.


There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)



The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a battle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”


Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.

The third part of the battle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.






Eustace has a self-revelation (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.

In stories, revelations often happen in high natural places. Hey, it even happens in the Bible.




Eustace falls from grace and literally falls from the roof. But he’s all right. He is able to get up again slowly.

When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)



The Hunchback says he hopes to find other kind people on his travels.


The Best Quiet Children’s Films

By ‘quiet’ I mean the anti-Dreamworks of yak-yak that drives you crazy when you’re listening to it in the background. These films will help a child to feel calm rather than revved up, especially if viewed without fizzy drink and choc-tops.

These quiet movies are set close to nature, feature classical soundtracks relatively little (if any) dialogue. (For some reason the mother is usually absent.)

Please bear in mind that by ‘quiet’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘appropriate for all kids all of the time’. Quite the reverse. Some of these quiet films are confronting, because when something horrible does happen in a quiet film, it feels all the worse for being isolated from all that babble. That said, my 8-year-old daughter has seen all of them numerous times, and she saw some of them when she was quite young. She tends to absorb story to the extent to which she can understand.

Some of these stories are not for children specifically.

Notice these quiet but often disturbing films are not coming out of America? For a fulsome list we must leave Hollywood.


1. THE BEAR (1988)



My father took me to see this in the cinema when I was ten. It’s still great. Like many classic stories for children, the mother dies. But the mother bear dies on screen, so it’s not like Cinderella or something like that, in which we never even mourn for the dead mother. The other note about this: There is a bear mating scene. I remember asking my dad in the theatre what they were doing. “They’re mating,” he whispered. I still didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew enough not to enquire further right there and then!

It’s essentially a father/son story. It’s actually pretty unrealistic if you know the real truth about male grizzlies, who are in reality inclined to eat their sons. So in fact this is an anthropomorphised story which glamorizes fatherhood after getting rid of the pesky mother (a story we see all to often, even in modern films).

For some reason I still love it.

Young viewers may need to be reassured that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.

Fly Away Home also has a shock opening and follows with a quiet story, but I can’t really recommend it here. My kid finds that one not only quiet but boring.



There’s no talking in this — the sound effects can sometimes be a bit noisy, because the insect world is depicted using human traffic sound effects, but overall this is a great before bed movie and I can’t think of any particularly disturbing scenes. It’s the safest of the films listed here. You’ll even empathise with a spider.



There’s very little talking in this, which is good, because if you’re watching in English you can see they’ve dubbed it pretty badly! (It doesn’t matter.) This appears to be a calm, nature-loving story — until the battle sequence. My eight-year-old fox loving kid burst into tears. But then it gets better… I feel it’s a shame they did this.

Spoiler alert:

[The fox appears to be dead but then it’s not really.]

The moral of the story is that you can’t tame a wild animal. You have to appreciate nature for what it is without anthropomorphizing.



I could list a bunch of Studio Ghibli films here.

In My Neighbour Totoro, we again have an absent mother (sick in hospital), and a story that glorifies the relationship between a father and his two little girls, who move to the country to be near the mother as she convalesces. They enter a spiritual world which feels very Japanese but is wholly imaginative, and meet some cuddly creatures.

This appeals to the younger set, even preschoolers. Another in the same vain is Ponyo. I write in detail about that film here. The mother isn’t entirely absent in that one — the father is.



This is one of the Ghibli films for an older audience (compared to Totoro and Ponyo). The scene where the parents are turned into pigs is confronting for a little kid. But overall the pacing is slow and dreamlike. The parents eventually reunite, after Chihiro learns to work hard. (I thought this was a peculiarly Japanese characteristic of story until I read Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret!)

I won’t list all of the Ghibli movies — all of them are on the quiet side. Their latest film (2016) is The Red Turtletheir first non-Japanese production (though not the first non-Japanese adaptation).



This historical story is the first live action on the list. Of course, the movie poster features the face of a white dude, rather than the Australian Aboriginal children it actually stars. This isn’t specifically a children’s film.

7. MARY AND MAX (2009)


Another fine Australian film, claymation, so appealing to kids but really it’s not specifically for kids. It mixes real life scenery with animation (claymation), similar to the Minuscule movies.

It’s said this movie is not for kids. I think this needs saying because we expect claymation to be only for kids. I say it’s a movie for everyone.



While we’re on the topic of neurodifference, I totally recommend this biopic of the world’s most well-known autistic woman.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Clare Danes as an actor — I felt she touched her hair too much in Homeland — but after watching her play Temple Grandin, I have a renewed respect for her breadth.

Children with sensory processing issues will identify with Grandin. (And may be the reason you were looking for a list of ‘quiet’ children’s movies in the first place.)



Perhaps not what you’d recommend for a kid? It’s true that not all stories about children are for children, and this is a film for adults, based on a short story for adults. Nevertheless, my daughter loved it.

Since it’s about a girl watching on as her parents go through a divorce, I’d not recommend it to a child in the middle of similar trauma themselves.

The entire film rests on the acting abilities of the child actor, who does an amazing job.



Speaking of the wonderful Julieanne Moore…

This is the least ‘quiet’ of all the films above, because it centres on the life of a big family, told from the perspective of a mother’s grown-up daughter. It’s based on the daughter’s memoir. I’d like to include it in this list to bolster the number of mothers. Overall it’s a feelgood film, though the scenes with the moody father might be a bit confronting.

11. WAITRESS (2007)


I’ve written about that film here. After watching this my daughter started an imaginary game of cafes, wearing an apron, writing menus and making food out of plasticine.

It will require prior knowledge of, or a discussion about, babies and where they come from, and how women sometimes end up with babies they didn’t plan, and have to make the decision about whether or not to keep them. This is something which can prey upon young girls’ minds anyway, so I feel such a discussion is never a bad thing. Overall, the message is conservative. The waitress ends up with a daughter, played by the writer/director’s real life daughter. The writer/director was subsequently murdered in real life by a man, but no need to mention that to your kid.

As I keep coming back to, real life is way worse than fiction. Might as well scaffold real life with slightly confronting fiction.



Slut Shaming In The Fantastic Mr Fox Film

The dialogue is fast paced and I suppose an audience too young to get the jokes are also too young to follow fast dialogue.

But there’s a big question  mark hanging over that assumption.

It somehow looks more disturbing written down:


Gender Inversions As Gags In Children’s Film


Humor can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.

– Film School Rejects

There’s this gag in many children’s films which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome.  Continue reading

Short Story Study: Sleeping Beauty In The Woods by Charles Perrault

Sleeping Beauty Angela Carter

If you’ve already read Angela Carter’s original short stories, in which she rewrites famous tales as feminist ones, you may well hear her scoffing silently in your head as you read these ones, mostly by Charles Perrault, who added his own paternalistic, misogynist morals as paragraphs at the ends. And if you’ve never read these tales by Perrault — and you may not have, because many different versions have been written since — it’s worth a look. This tale is quite different from any I read as a child. This is probably because modern tellers of this tale have simplified it.

This 1982 collection of fairytales translated into English from French by Angela Carter is illustrated by Michael Foreman, who has had a prolific career since then. You may have seen his work in the books of Michael Morpurgo for instance. He’s been working from the 1960s through to now. It seems he can produce up to about 8 or 9 books per year — a phenomenal work rate, especially considering his painterly style.


Sleeping Beauty Ladybird well loved tales

In Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty from the 1700s, there is not one but two wicked women — the version I remember from the childhood stories is one of the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales.

In this much simplified story from Ladybird there is no second ‘chapter’. The prince arrives, Beauty and Prince get married and they ‘live happily ever after’. In order to beef out the story a bit we have a succession of princes who try to get through the thick brambles that grow around the castle, but none of them is able to get through until the lucky dude who arrives at exactly the right time, at the 100 year point.

Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been bowdlerised for modern children in a similar way, to the point where you might even get them a bit mixed up if you’re out somewhere and your kid asks you to recount a fairytale from memory. In modern adaptations of both stories Beauty is awakened by a passing Prince, she marries him and they live happily ever after. It’s all good.

There is no happily ever after in the earlier version of Sleeping Beauty; nor is it a tale easily conflated with Snow White.

Illustrators vary how they portray the fairies. In the Ladybird version above, the fairies all look like youthful Miss America finalists from the 1970s, with their long, blonde hair contrasting with the part witchy/part nunnery black costume of the old, evil fairy. Think a bit harder about what this says about women’s worth in general: Women are only ‘good’ if they are sexually alluring. An old woman dressed in a cross between a witch’s costume and a habit is as far away from sexual as you could possibly get. Therefore, we are to assume, she is no good. It’s therefore a slight feminist improvement that the most recent adaptations of Sleeping Beauty tend to feature ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairies rather than this Ladybird woman from the 1970s.

Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty isn’t even the worst one. It seems he sanitised it his own self.

Still older versions of the same tale type, among them Sun, Moon, and Talia, replace the prince with an already married king. In these versions, he rapes the princess while she lies sleeping and she gives birth to twins before waking up when one of the babies sucks the splinter out of her finger. The cannibalistic queen in this case is the king’s wife. Compare The Brown Bear of the Green Glen“.

TV Tropes, Sleeping Beauty entry

Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” describes the enchanted castle in Gothic terms: blood-chilling and full of death. A frequent element of gothic novels is the heroine who falls into a death-like state. The links between death and sleep appear in many gothic works, not just in this very well-known tale. They tend to feature entrapment and towers.


In Perrault’s version we have not one but two evil women: first the evil fairy, next the evil mother-in-law. The girl never sees her own parents again, for although they’ve made all their staff and attendants fall asleep so she will be well looked after when she awakes, the bereaved parents leave their castle forever and go somewhere far away. There are two distinct parts to Perrault’s version, translated by Angela Carter in 1982. Honestly, it’s not ‘going-to-sleep’ book, as the title may seem to imply. This is a young adult tale, designed to warn young women not to rush into marriage. Now, it baffles me how Charles Perrault drew this particular moral from the tale, considering the girl in question had already been asleep and dreaming of this prince for 100 years!

Sleeping Beauty’s transgression is that she attempts to spin when it’s actually beneath her social class to do so. Spinning kept peasant women alive but will kill her.


Whose story is this? While the title tells us the tale is about ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the girl is only a plot tool of a character. She has zero agency. At first I thought this was a story about the girl, but when I try to fill out the story structure it becomes obvious that actually the main character in this story is her evil mother in law. The whole thing about the evil fairy, that’s what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin: an event to get the story going. In the end, we don’t even think about what happened to that evil fairy.


The good fairies from Maleficent


The mother of the prince — I assume — feels usurped by the beautiful new daughter in law and is envious of the time her beloved son now spends with her.


She wishes her daughter-in-law gone and her son back.


Sleeping Beauty, whose very beauty and privilege of birth mean she has lost her own boy forever.


She will first eat her two grandchildren and then she will eat her daughter-in-law. (She is part ogre.) But her plans change once she realises the son’s wife and children are not dead at all, that they have been hidden in the cellar by a sympathetic servant man. Now she plans to kill Beauty in the most heinous way herself. She orders a huge vat to be brought into the courtyard, filled with horrible creatures. She’ll have the daughter-in-law and her children thrown into it.


This part is much truncated and rather unsatisfying in Perrault’s version. All we know is that the king comes back early from faraway. He gallops into the courtyard and presumably there is some sort of showdown that the reader doesn’t get to read about. The evil queen rather impetuously, I feel, throws her own self into the vat of vipers instead.


The self-revelations of Perrault’s tale are actually ‘reader revelations’ and they come by way of the ‘Moral’ tacked onto the end of each transliteration. Don’t rush into marriage or you’ll end up with a mother-in-law who wants to eat you, is what Perrault gets from the story.


“The king could not help grieving a little; after all, she was his mother. But his beautiful wife and children soon made him happy again.”



Sleeping Beauty love quote

Strangely enough, the cannibalistic nana has been left out of modern versions for kids. But look around at other fairytales and you’ll find that kid-munching mummies aren’t all that rare. These tales date from much earlier eras in which famines were common, and mothers did occasionally eat their own children:

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

But Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child. The child eating mothers of yesteryear are therefore mostly a myth, but have captured the public imagination and been incorporated into oft-shared tales, much like an urban legend of today. (Urban legends often have their origins in bits taken from real-life heinous crimes which have been sensationalised by the media.)


Writing of Sunset Boulevard, John Truby describes Norma’s house in what is a separate kingdom of Hollywood (a fairytale world):

This fairy-tale world, with its haunted house, its thorns, and its Sleeping Beauty, is also the home of a vampire. […] Sunset Boulevard does not end with the death of the hero. The opponent literally descends into madness. Her ability to distinguish fantasy from reality now gone, she is both her character—“Down below, they’re waiting for the Princess”—and an actress performing in another Hollywood movie. As the newsreel cameras roll, Norma walks down the grand staircase of the “palace” into a deep sleep from which no prince will awaken her.

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Annex - Swanson, Gloria (Sunset Boulevard)_06

Maleficent promised to be excellent, as a dive into the backstory of that evil fairy. But the 2014 film did not get good critical reviews. When will filmmakers understand that when you change the best known version of a well-loved tale too much you’re going to run into strife? The other problem for filmmakers though: Which version do you take as the ‘true’ version of the tale? Fairytales change so much, it’s not surprising they make huge alterations themselves in the name of original art.

In 2011, Australia produced a film called Sleeping Beauty — a rather disturbing look into a certain kind of sex work. (The girl is drugged unconscious and used by men with a certain kind of fetish.)



Sleeping Beauties: Transformation and Codification from Karen Healey

Sleeping Beauty, zombified and turned into a comic from Mary Sue

Angela Carter utilised Perrault’s  Sleeping Beauty in her radio play Vampirella and in its prose variation The Lady of the House of Love.

…she felt as if she had become the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty” and this feeling started manifesting itself in her daily behaviour.

a documented case of someone hallucinating a fairytale.

The ‘Forced Sleep Trope’ is used in many different modern stories, in which a character is forced to fall asleep by means of a spell or magic potion. This can get very dark in stories about date rape and so on.

Review: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Rests Uncomfortably and Unsuccessfully Between Nightmare And Wet Dream, from Film School Rejects

Short Film Of The Day: Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty from Film School Rejects

La belle au bois dormant : The sleeping beauty

Pygmalion And Talking Toys In Children’s Literature


Toys have a place in certain types of wish fulfilment stories: The wish to have a friend and also the wish to never die, especially when toys are mended, or when they can be re-wound, in the case of a wind-up toy. (I suppose the modern version would be having its batteries replaced, if this kind of story were more common today.)


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The Mechanical Behaviour Of Fussbudgets In Comedy

Fussbudgets, sticklers, officious types, whatever you want to call them — they are comedy gold. We’ve all had run-ins with them, which makes the comedy aspect universal.

TV Tropes calls these characters Sticklers For Procedure.

An essential component of the comedic fussbudget is ‘mechanical behaviour’. The scene above is from the film Meet The Parents. Note how both women behave like robots. If they really were robots they’d more appropriately fit into horror or sci-fi, but when the setting is realist, their fixed smiles, lack of emotion and recognisable, stock-standard responses enhance the humanity of the straight-man, our underdog hero, and for some reason we find mechanical behaviour in humans extremely funny. The adult equivalent of putting a hat on a dog.

Perhaps it’s even more funny when the mechanical person is a woman, as it often is (though not always, by any means). Is this perhaps because in real life we’d expect more emotion and empathy out of a woman than we would out of a man? In any case, when a woman behaves in this way there’s a distinctly Stepford Wives vibe to it.

We have a slight variation in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The audience, as well as Steve Martin’s character, is shown the robot’s human side first before she snaps into robotic mode. This makes the comedy all the sweeter when she slips out of it again at the end of the scene, and turns into a Jerkass who sticks to the rules just because she knows it will inconvenience someone who’s just been rude to her.

The ‘Computer Says No’ series of Little Britain sketches uses the same mechanical behaviour — the more sketches you watch the funnier they become, because you know the line that’s coming. But here is the first one:

These are all examples of extreme robotic behaviour, but if we widen the definition, it includes any situation in which X occurs and Character does Y. Catherine Tate’s creation Lauren is funny because we know, after any provocation at all, she will embellish the initial slight and eventually she will ask, ‘Am I bovvered?’ and  ‘Are you disrespecting my family?’

Weird Food Messages In Children’s Stories

There is a lot of bowdlerization when it comes to stories for young children: Publishers and writers sanitise them, make them more obviously didactic, punish bad characters, remove swear words, guns and cigarettes, all in the name of getting books past the gatekeepers of children’s literature: Parents, teachers and librarians.

There’s one thing that should be part of this bowdlerization however, and isn’t: The use of fat and overweight characters as a short cut for morally lacking. Some authors do this, others always avoid it, but some of the best-selling authors are still doing it. The situation is even worse in children’s film.



There don’t need to be any fat characters in a book for the book to be saying something about body size. When a character is constantly described as slim/slender/size six etc for no good reason in the story, the ideology is that body size is important outside every other achievement.

If you read the Sweet Valley High series, you can probably tell me off the top of the head that the twins were ‘perfect size sixes’, because it was mentioned a lot.

Those who read the Baby-Sitters Club series will remember that Claudia is always described as thin with good skin  — all this even though she eats lots of forbidden junk food, like the Gilmore girls.

The Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club series were retrograde even in their heyday, but this trend hasn’t gone away.

In the young adult novel Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan (2011), the main female character is described as ‘slender’ in the introductory thumbnail description. When the mother is introduced, we are told that mother and daughter look similar, but the mother is ‘not as slender’. Then again, at the beginning of chapter five we’re told:

One moment Kieran had been staring at Waverly’s slender back, imploring silently, Don’t go. Get off the shuttle.

Not only is the ‘slender’ thing mentioned again for no good reason to the plot, the reader is treated to yet another vision of a girl through the pervasive male gaze. Even in fiction — stories set in wholly imagined futuristic worlds, no less — girls can’t escape this constant judgement on their bodies.



Gossip Girl Take A Chance On Me


A series of Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar has recently appeared in stores. These stories feature a group of girls from New York City who live a pampered lifestyle and whose concerns revolve around fashion, friendships, and boys. Bulimia is framed as just part of the lifestyle:

Fudge-frosted brownies on little white plates sat temptingly on a shelf at eye-level. [Blair] picked one up, examined it for any defects, and then put it on her tray. Even if she actually decided to eat it, she could always throw it up later.

It wasn’t much, but at least she had that much control over her life.

For girls who are unhappy about their body image, this normalization of a symptom of a psychiatric illness is surely dangerous. This narrative privileges disordered eating as an expression of control and offers bulimia as as sort of twisted recompense for disappointment.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature


YA fiction often positions fat as shorthand for countless negative qualities the writer is too unmotivated to develop – like presenting bullies as fat kids, which reinforces fatness as something sinister and deserving of scorn – or as the genesis of a butterfly story, which reinforces fat as a quality one must jettison to uncover the true self (which naturally is thin and beautiful). Of course there are other ways in which fatness is portrayed, but those two immediately came to mind.

Shapley Prose


If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

— Adventures in Storyland


captain pirate parrot spatula

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Pirates Misfits Queen Victoria

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.


The Fat Man cover

This book is widely studied in Year 9 throughout New Zealand high schools.

Maurice Gee’s description of Muskie’s obese body in The Fat Man evokes disgust and abjection. His gross rolls of fat seem to provide evidence of contamination by the (unhealthy, fat-laden) foods he has eaten. He embodies excess; his body shows that he has consumed more than his fair share, suggesting that somewhere, someone has gone without. Obesity is, in Western culture, indicative of exceesive appetite, of a lack of self-control, of laziness, and of an unwillingness to conform to accepted paradigms of beauty. Arguably it also signifies a lack of morality. Susan Bordo argues that the firm, developed body has become a symbol of “correct attitude;” that one “cares” about oneself and how one appears to others. While muscles express sexuality, it is a controlled, managed sexuality that is “not about to erupt in unwanted and embarrassing display.” In contrast, the obese body signifies the wrong attitude and a lack of care about body image. It connotes voracious and uncontrolled (sexual) appetite.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature


Fantastic Mr Fox (film adaptation)

Roald Dahl did not like fat people. (I wonder what he made of his granddaughter becoming a plus-size model.) The man himself was ‘rakish’. I mean, he looked like a rake, which is what ‘rakish’ should probably mean. In fact it means: Having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance. But I’m not going to let common definitions stand in my way here.

One could argue that Roald Dahl didn’t much care for little people either, or any kind of person at all, really, especially short men (‘You might say he’s kind of a pot-bellied dwarf of some kind’), but Dahl makes sure to specify that Walter Boggis is fat because he eats three chickens at every meal, perpetuating the erroneous message that fat people are fat because they eat a lot. (The descriptions of the farmers are what makes Fantastic Mr Fox what it is, and Dahl’s descriptions are quoted verbatim in the film.)

The science behind weight-gain is complicated, this simplistic view of overweight and obesity — the view that fat people get fat because they eat a lot — is simplistic and flat out unhelpful. Robert Lustig, who knows a lot more than most people about this topic, being an endocrinologist, takes a far more modern approach toward cause and effect when it comes to obesity: fat people eat a lot because they’re growing. If this is true, then blaming fat people for eating too much is like blaming a strapping teenage boy for eating too much.

Back to the film, Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s unbelievably fat — which may be genetic — but he also eats three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch, supper, and dinner. That’s twelve in total, per diem’. The phrase ‘which may be genetic’ smacks to me of self-consciousness, since the filmmakers understand full well that this is not a very nice thing for Badger to point out. These filmmakers steamroll right over the complexities, however, and sure enough, Boggis is a greedy, unpleasant man. His overweight body correlates with general slovenliness: ‘never takes a bath’. The audience sees him picking his ear.

But then of course we have Farmer Bean, who provides comic effect by being the opposite. So are Dahl and the filmmakers really poking fun at fat people, if they’re equally willing to have a go at skinny ones?

Well, I don’t know if they’re having a go at skinny ones, or at the eating disordered. Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s probably anorexic, because he never eats anything. He’s on a liquid diet of strong, alcoholic cider, which he makes from his apples’.

Sure, ‘not eating’  is technically the definition of ‘anorexic’ (babies are ‘anorexic’ when they fail to drink milk), so Farmer Bean is unquestionably anorexic, but I squirm a little at this, because the popular interpretation of ‘anorexic’ is of ‘anorexia nervosa’, a serious mental health disorder which is more deadly than any other mental health disorder. Especially for young women.

So was that line really necessary? Really? When food related disorders are at an historic high? And if it’s really a case of sticking to the original story without politically correct modifications, is this really the sort of story that we need to bring back to life from 1970? As it turns out, I’m a big fan of modernising classic tales. Politically correct re-written versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five? Gimme that any day. I loved those tales, but I don’t want my daughter to think that boys and ‘tomboys’ have all the fun.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book)

Charlie wins the golden ticket

Roald Dahl believed that adults have a relentless need to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” His story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, drives home his views. Charlie is a polite, passive child. He respects his elders, is hard working, unselfish, thoughtful, and he knows how to control his appetite. Every year on his birthday, Charlie receives from his poverty-stricken family “one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself”.

He would place it carefully in a small wooden box that he owned, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold; and for the next few days, he would allow himself only to look at it, but never to touch it. Then at last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble — just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on, and so on. And in this way, Charlie would make his sixpenny bar of birthday chocolate last him for more than a month.

This passage exemplifies the qualities Dahl apparently appreciates in a child: civilized manners, frugality, and, most importantly, restraint and control. It is interesting to note, however, that Charlie finds his golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory through an act which is ostensibly transgressive. When Charlie’s father loses his job the food situation at home becomes “desperate. Breakfast was a single slice of bread for each person now, and lunch was maybe half a boiled potato. Slowly but surely, everyone in the house began to starve.” “Every day Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner…The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath. It seemed doubtful whether he could go on much longer like this without becoming dangerously ill”. Charlie finds a fifty pence coin in the snow and, instead of taking it to his parents so that they can buy food for whole family, he goes straight to the nearest shop and buys a bar of chocolate. (Incidentally, the shopkeeper strikes Charlie as being particularly “fat and well-fed”. Charlie “crams large pieces” of the chocolate bar into his mouth. Significantly, he is described as “wolfing” it down. “In less than half a minute, the whole thing had disappeared down his throat”. Charlie buys a second bar, reinforcing his transgression, and it is under the wrapper of this Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight that he discovers the Golden ticket. Roni Natov points out that questing heroes often have to “break some taboo” and “revolt” against the familial/social structure in order to create change. Tradition must be subverted so that evolution can occur. This, she reveals, is at the heart of the hero’s quest. It is significant that Dahl carefully constructs Charlie as being in extremis before his transgressive act takes place.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature


In contrast, all the other children in the story who find golden tickets, have excessive appetites and desires, and show the deleterious influences of consumer-media culture. Veruca Salt is an acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She is acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She screams at her fahter, lying on the floor for hours, “kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way” until she gets what she wants, producing the ultimate display of “pester power.” Nine-year-old Mike Teavee, on the other hand, is described by Dahl as a “television fiend”. He is an avid consumer of gangster films, the more violent the better. He wears “no less than eighteen toy pistols of various sizes hanging frombelts around his body” and indignantly resists being deprived of the TV even for a short time. He thinks that gangster movies are “terrific… especially when they start pumping each other full of lead, or flashing the old stilettos, or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters! Gosh, what wouldn’t I give to be doing that myself! I’ts the life, I tell you! It’s terrifice!” The Oompa-Loompas’ song provides the vehicle for Dahl’s critique: television is a “monster”; chldren should be kept away from “the idiotic thing”. It hypnotizes them, making them lethargic and mindless to the point of being “absolutely drunk”.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniel points out that Dahl was an early writer to hold this view, which has since become a lot more common. Though Mike Teavee is an example of an over-consumer of media, it is Augustus Gloop of course who is an overconsumer in the most literal sense — he eats too much.

Gloop’s body, and his face in particular, seem to embody the food which produced it. His head is a currant bun! Furthermore, reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s raw-cooked dualism, which he aligns with nature/culture, suggests that Augustus’s doughy face evolkes notions of precultural primitivism and irrational mindlessness.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Also of note: Dahl blames Gloop’s mother for overfeeding her child and making him fat.

In psychoanalytic terms, it could be argued that Augustus has failed to properly separate from his mother, signified by his insatiable and transgressive desire for food. He is stuck in the oral phase, the phase of maternal influence. Food is the wrong object for his deire; he ought to have turned to the father/phallus in order too achieve proper masculine subjectivity. Augustus is connoted as monstrous and denied agency by his inappropriately directed and excessive desire.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The more modern version of Augustus Gloop is of course Dursley from Harry Potter.

Issues of Class

With regard to Dahl;s construction of these characters…notions of class and race are also implicated. Although Charlie has middle-class manners and mores, he is an idealistic representation of the British working class. Veruca Salt belongs decidedly within the despised nouveau riche category and is presumably American, since her father is “in the peanut business”. Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are also affiliated with America; Violet by her incessant gum-chewing and Mike by his penchant for American Westerns and gangster movies. Augustus’s last name suggests he might be German. The class and race issues implied here are significant in relation to the nuances of excessive and vulgar appetite and childish monstrousness. There are marked differences between historical notions of childrearing in britian and America. The austere diet of British children was deemed to have character building properties while, in contrast, American childrearing methods were seen to be vulgar and overindulgent and associated with the nouveau riche. Dahl’s cultural conservatism marries with Dick Hebdige’s claims that populist discourses about culture and taste in Britain in the 1930s-60s tended to focus on the “leveling down” of moral and aesthetic standards and the erosion of fundamentally British values and attitudes. This perceived decline in standards was believed to stem from “American ization” (an influx of American mass culture encompassing good,s production techniques, music, etc.), and reflected fears of the homgenization of British society.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The modern reader can even make the link between the hammering down of Gloop’s body in the story and the American trend for plastic surgery, which has also crossed the Atlantic.


At TV Tropes you’ll find a breakdown of various types of makeover scenes which are very common in ‘ugly duckling’ stories. Many of these are coming of age stories.

[Many narratives feature] the transformation or makeover of children’s bodies so that they comply with accepted paradigms of beauty or, in the case of the younger children, properly controlled childhood. John Stephens has shown that, semiotically, the trope of the makeover, so often used in contemporary teen fiction, is frequently framed as a central metonym of growth and a movement toward subjectivity and maturation. It supposedly demonstrates to the character concerned that “she can transform her life and thus realize her full potential.” On the one hand, such discourses reiterate the notion that bodies, especially female bodies, are transformable, and on the other, they act to endorse cultural beauty paradigms and the imperative that female bodies should be transformed. … The changes… reflect the individual’s movement toward a more mature self. Thus “what appears inscribed on the body’s surface [is seen to] function as a pointer to the depths within. In countless movies, magazines, and teen (or young adult) novels, aimed at girls, the make over is shown to be the way to transform the self and notably, to achieve agency and happiness through social acceptance. Most significantly, even when a range of body morphologies is confirmed as “natural”, it is always the slimmest body types that are valorized.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature


The Modern Taboo

Anorexia seems to be considered an acceptable topic for young readers. Obese children, on the other hand, are rarely featured in contemporary children’s literature and are unlikely to be explicitly condemned as they often are in the classics. …Dudley Dursely…proves to be an unusual exception.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Voracious Children was published 10 years ago, and in good news, the fat acceptance movement and some exciting new authors seem to have had a positive impact on the young adult landscape in particular. Until recently the standout examples of fat characters in children’s literature were:

  • Blubber by Judy Blume — fat bodies used as learning tools for others
  • The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger — but the sequel completely undoes any fat-positive messages
  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements
  • The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Madeleine L’Engle only ever has fat characters in her books who are bad

Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the best YA novel I have had starring a fat protagonist* because:

  • Eleanor is still fat even when she doesn’t get enough to eat, which to me reads as a sign of poverty, which it is in the real world, rather than a symptom of greed or bad character
  • Eleanor is not depicted as a ‘beautiful girl’ but in a fat body and there is never any ‘If only she lost weight she’d be hot’ sentiment
  • She ends up in a romantic relationship with someone who does not have body image issues. It’s not a Shrek-like ‘Know your level’ sort of message.
  • Eleanor has a fulfilling teenage sex life and her overweight is a non-issue when it come to that.
  • [SPOILER ALERT HIGHLIGHT TO READ] Rainbow Rowell also avoids that thing where every fat girl has to find her true love by giving us a bittersweet ending.
*It is never actually clear in the story whether Eleanor is genuinely fat or if she just thinks she is, which might be seen as problematic.

Eleanor & Park is a part of a new wave of YA novels written by (mostly female) authors who have a much better handle on fat politics than authors who came before. Some examples from around the Internet (which is probably mostly to thank for fat acceptance in the first place):

  • Sweet by Emily Laybourne
  • Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
  • Looks by Madeline George
  • Earthly Delights by Kerry Greenwood
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
  • Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff (about a boy rather than a girl)
  • Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
  • Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Hungry, Crystal Renn’s memoir
  • This Book Isn’t Fat Its Fabulous by Nina Beck
  • All About Vee by C. Leigh Purtell
  • Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina

One of the problems with the marketing and packaging of books about fat girls, though, is that the book covers often depict food, whereas almost every YA novel with a beautiful protagonist shows the protagonist, or at least a part of her body on at least one of the cover versions. (Often headless, admittedly.) Where are all the headless fat girls on book covers?

Modern Books To Avoid (due to problematic/conflicting messages)

I have not read many of these. Some I have tried reading and given up partway through. Others I do appreciate as stories, but when I look more closely at the fat politics I definitely know what people are talking about. If you’re looking quickly for a book a fat kid might love, perhaps make use of this list as a rough shorthand?

  • Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky
  • Everyday by David Levithan
  • Sugar by Deidre Riordan Hall
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Huge by Sasha Paley
  • Artichokes Heart by Suzanne Supplee
  • Looks by Madeleine George
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
  • Shrink to Fit by Doner Sarkar
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green


If you’re au fait with the film of Tim Burton, check out: 10 Examples Of Tim Burton Hating On Fat People from Film School Rejects

They say one of the gifts of getting older is you don’t care as much what other people think of you. And as I come to the end of my 30s this does seem true, with one notable exception. All the women I know, and I include myself, still spend far too much time engaging in ”confessional” food talk.

– SMH, Would You Like Some Stigma With That?

Calling Melissa McCarthy a “Female Hippo” isn’t being a critic; it’s being a bully, from Hello Giggles

Where Are All The Fat Female [American] Politicians? from Jezebel

Fat Jokes & Chris Christie: What If He Were a Woman? from The Broad Side

James Gandolfini: An “Unlikely” Sex Symbol? Yup; Men Get Fat-Shamed, Too from Bust Magazine

Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. From Women on TV Step Off The Scales


Are Thin Women The Enemy? from BBC News

Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity, an abstract from PLOS One

Fat from The Rumpus is a long read written about the experiences of being a lifelong overweight male.


Body Size Stereotypes.

Obesity Campaigns: The Fine Line Between Educating and Shaming from The Atlantic

The truth about fat women and self control from Live Science

The Privilege Of Assuming It’s Not About You from Sociological Images

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