“If I Loved You” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010), written by American author Robin Black.
A woman dying of cancer writes an imaginary letter to her new neighbour, who has uncharitably built a fence along their boundary line. This fence prevents her from getting conveniently out of her car in the driveway.
Here’s the subtext: this woman’s garage has obviously been built stupidly close to the boundary line, by someone who would never have predicted a future in which a new neighbour would want to build a fence. This is a comment on how we sometimes do things with great optimism. The optimism comes back to bite us later. Instead of optimism, this narrator now goes for ‘maybes’. (This explains the style of narration.)
That surface level plot about the fence offers a fairly didactic message about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, symbolised by the fence itself. We put fences around ourselves to avoid considering other people’s pain. Continue reading “If I Loved You by Robin Black”
We are at a point now where ableist language is considered just that. Children’s book editors are editing it out. Yet some words, for instance ‘crazy’, are so frequent in everyday English it may seem ‘unnatural’ to leave it out.
The question arises: What to say instead?
The deeper question: Do we need mental metaphors at all? tl;dr Mostly we don’t.
A quandary for writers of middle grade fiction in particular: By about age 10, regular kids have heard all the insults out there. They may hear far more insulting language than adults do on a daily basis. (Did you get called a poo head at work today? I didn’t.)
Yet if you want to write for middle grade, realistic swearing will never find its way into the hands of your readers. (By upper YA, anything goes.)
By all accounts, Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage (released 2017) may be something of a watershed moment for children’s literature, as it contains a lot of swearing. Pullman advocates for more naturalistic rendering of child speech, and because he is a superstar, it was up to him to try and get away with it, paving the way for those coming later. He explains his ideology here.
Why is the video below so funny? Partly because what she says is unintelligible, until the the ice bucket gets dumped on her head. Then we know exactly what she’s saying!
Politics of swearing and childhood aside, what do most traditionally published and popular middle grade authors do when they need to depict swearing and insults without using the actual swearing and insults?
THEMATICALLY RELEVENT INSULTS
Newsprints by Ru Xu is a graphic novel in which birds feature heavily. The insults and swears are therefore often bird themed:
Listen here, Humpy Dumpty, you stay off the roof! (Birds… eggs… Humpty Dumpty…)
For the human characters in Newsprints, the insults draw from cultural references such as nursery rhymes/classic literature and implements of the time. This is a steampunk book, where it’s assumed the children of this Victorian-esque era are reading nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.
Get back here, Bugle Brat!
Catch me if ya can, Tweedle Dums!
Still think you can fly, pal? (‘Pal’ sounds like an insult in this context because it’s ironic.)
In Pax, Sara Pennypacker includes a Haitian character whose swear word is dyableman. The child character learns it from the older mentor and starts using it himself. I can’t speak to the power of the word in Haitian Creole, but it translates as ‘damned, deuced, devilish’ — not at all powerful in translation. I’m wary of taking actual words from other languages, especially in a climate of cultural appropriation, but mainly because unless it’s your native language you don’t know the full power of the word.
Fantasy authors can create entirely new languages and therefore entirely new curse words.
YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER BY ANN DEE ELLIS (USA, 2017)
The 13-year-old main character in this novel comes across much younger than she is on the page, and this is no doubt partly down to the author’s choice of language. Olivia Hales has a favourite ‘curse word’ which is ‘dumb bum’. She uses this over and over again — it’s her thing. If the 13-year-olds in your sphere are speaking like this, you’re hanging out in different circles than I am. However, stories are not the real world. We should be prepared to accept some differences. Perhaps the author/publisher decided to youngify (bowderlize?) the voice because the target reading audience is about 10-years-old. An older character uses ‘crap’, but that’s as cussy as it gets.
When Olivia gets really angry, she doesn’t swear. She indirectly threatens violence:
“Did you know a monkey can rip your face off?”
The girl’s eyes got all big and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yours too.” I said to the other secretary.
And then to the other one, “And yours for sure.”
Bart sees me.
I want to throw a car in his face.
It’s interesting what we think it’s okay to expose middle grade readers to. Nothing worse than dumb bum? But threats of violence as used in the real world is okay, so long as they’re hyperbolic. (No fear of someone actually throwing a car in your face.)
At other times the swearing is humorous, in a much-younger-than-13 kind of way:
“I am so sorry my daughter called me a butthead piece of butt face.”
“You scared the earwax out of her is what you did.”
While certain stand-alone taboo curse words are out in this middle grade novel, dismissively sexist language passes the gates. For example, Olivia constantly refers to her father’s love interest as ‘the redhead’, objectifying a woman by metonymically referring to her as a body part. There is also ableist language, but only used indirectly, not by the viewpoint character with whom we are expected to empathise:
There was Carlene and Bonnie and stupid Jared who called me a retard.
I offer this as an argument against publishers and authors removing naturalistic swearing from middle grade fiction. If it’s okay to use sexist and ableist language as used in the real world, why not use stronger yet (counterintuitively) more neutral swear words?
LOVE SUGAR MAGIC BY ANNA MERIANO (2017)
Love Sugar Magic is an own voices novel partly designed to introduce non-Spanish speakers to Mexican culture. The following snippet of dialogue is worded in such a way that the reader learns the Spanish word for cockroach, and also thinks they’ve got new insider knowledge on a good insult:
“Come on cucaracha,” Marisol yelled. She called Leo “cockroach” whenever she wanted to be nasty without getting in trouble for using bad language.
WHEN I REACH YOU BY REBECCA STEAD (2009)
One way to get around swearing, which actually relies on the reader knowing the swear word in the first place:
And as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word “poop”.
The effect is two-fold:
The author can’t be accused of introducing readers to new language because they won’t know what the mother said unless they already know it.
The young reader feels smart and mature for knowing exactly what the mother really said.
This leads me to my next point, which is why I have a liberal attitude around kids and exposure to swearing: A lot of ‘funny swears’ are very obviously based on real swears. The following chart sounds very American to me — none of these would be used in Australia unless the speaker were making a point of sounding American. A word like ‘bull snot’ is so obviously a ‘safe’ alternative to ‘bull shit’.
But then why is the bodily excretion of snot more acceptable than the bodily excretion of shit?
Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.
Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary. My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ withiin a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home. Continue reading “Hotels and Motels In Stories”
In stories, characters change. The change may be tiny; it may be massive. Apart from ‘range of change’, there is another way of thinking about the nature of your main character’s arc: Do they end up free at the end?
Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century that all stories are basically about the victory of mind over matter. Howard Suber says something similar in his book on film: That every movie could be called ‘Trapped’.
I’d like to build on this idea because although it describes most stories, it doesn’t describe all.
Here’s what we can say for sure: All characters desire freedom, in fiction as in real life. And if they seem to crave imprisonment, like the main character in King Rat, for instance, that’s because they’ve ironically found their own kind of freedom within a state of imprisonment.
Some people call it ‘hate watching’, but I think this mostly refers to the enjoyment of critique.
Separately from that, I sometimes find genuine enjoyment even while consuming something I can see is hugely problematic. Humans are able to hold discordant views in our brains at the same time. That is our great evolutionary advantage; it may also kill us all.
The standout example of ‘hate watching’ for me is Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan blamed his audience for dumping on Skyler all the while championing Walt, failing to see that Walt — not Skyler — was an increasingly despicable character. We weren’t meant to root for Walt, according to his creator, and if we did, that’s on us, the misogynistic audience.
Not true. Vince Gilligan did such an overly good job of creating empathy for Walt that he failed to turn the majority of his audience later. Perhaps it was a simple writing failure — audiences are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. Perhaps Gilligan’s failure wasn’t in the telling of the story, but in underestimating the amount of misogyny out there.
And I know darn well how it worked, because around the time the story wrapped up on Australian TV I happened to be sitting in a doctor’s waiting room alongside some older guy. We got to talking about TV reception, which led to a discussion about TV. Turns out this guy loves Breaking Bad.
“Oh, me too, what else do you recommend?” I ask him.
He recommends True Detective (of course). He’s not interested in my suggestions. He also tells me he’s grumpy about Breaking Bad because Walt should’ve killed the wife in the first season so we didn’t have to keep being annoyed by her.
Him. Many, many hims in this world.
He disappeared into the doctor’s surgery. Meanwhile, I was privately shocked. Turns out I was one of the few avid viewers who liked Skyler as a person.
Sure, Vince Gilligan can blame his misogynistic audience for hating on Skyler, but his writing room went out of its way to create empathetic characters in Walt and Hank, and unsympathetic characters in Skyler and Marie. That will always annoy me.
I’ll still watch Breaking Bad again one day. I still admire it. But all the while, simultaneously, I’ll be seeing the ideological problems baked into it.
Natalie Wynn is especially articulate on this facet of human nature, in which we can understand something but remain somewhat spellbound.
In this video she expounds upon her full understanding of beauty ideals while at the same time wanting to conform to oppressive beauty standards.
I think her tongue-in-cheek phrase ‘Problematize, critique, cancel’ is especially meme-able.
As Natalie says very well:
Critiquing things doesn’t change our desires. But! It can motivate us to change society and this, in turn, can change our desires.
Critique first; changed desire comes later.
So… keep ‘hate watching’? More importantly, keep thinking. If you feel luke warm fuzzies about every single thing that you consume, it’s probably because you’re not thinking all that deeply about it.
WHERE IS THE HATE WATCHING LINE?
Why can I consume some ideologically problematic media but can’t stand others? Where’s the line?
For me, Breaking Bad gets a pass because the misogynistic reading of Skyler is, as Vince Gilligan intended, partly on the viewer. Sure, he overestimated his audience, but a woke, egalitarian audience isn’t going to read Skyler as terrible. They’re going to see a woman doing her best in a tough situation. If Gilligan got his audience wrong, perhaps that’s because he himself is less misogynistic than most people. (I’ll believe that until he turns into a milkshake duck, which he hasn’t yet.)
In contrast, a film like Nocturnal Animals is way past my line of ‘watchable’, for all of these reasons, and because the creators appear to be showcasing an unchecked misogyny that is all their own.
Margo from The Good Life (Penelope Keith is especially good at playing these characters)
Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) from Keeping Up Appearances
Sybil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers
Doreen from Birds of a Feather
In literature, Britain has several archetypal socially climbing women:
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice
These women living in the 1800s had no choice but to be socially climbing, because for them, living in a patrimony, marrying well was a matter of life or death.
Although the trope is very old, the socially climbing female a little out of fashion at the moment. Note that those sit-com examples listed above are concentrated in the 1970s and 80s.
The standout modern example in England right now is Pauline from Mum, written by Stefan Golaszewski, who grew up on those older sit-coms. However the tone of Mum is quite different. Margo can laugh at herself on The Good Life, but Mum is ‘impenetrable’.
We do still see them as a part of a wider cast in a show starring a different kind of comedic character. Fleabag’s step mother (from Fleabag) is another modern example of the socially aspiring woman.
You tend to see these women in the following situations:
She affects an accent which she perceives to be higher class, but gets it wrong.
She is completely self-absorbed and blind to other people’s wishes.
Her fashion choices are over the top, whatever that means for her milieu. Her choices are perceived by the actual powerful class as kitsch (‘stuff other people unaccountably like’)
There will be something about her home environment which stands out as very ‘her’. With Hyacinth it is her home decor, full of flowers and perfectly dusted. She’s often holding a duster.
There will be a skeleton in the closet which comes off in each episode to great comedic effect. This is the ‘mask coming off’ comedy trope.
If she’s a mother she’s either overbearing or distant.
This is a white and heterosexual archetype.
If she’s married, her husband is henpecked and mild-mannered.
She is disgusted by people who she perceives as lower rank than herself.
These women strive to be powerful (that’s their Desire) but they are not in fact powerful. They therefore surround themselves in people who are less powerful than themselves. They may have a kind of lackey best friend.
As you can probably tell, her psychological weakness and moral weakness is perfectly set up and inherent to the trope — she feels inferior and she steps all over others in an attempt to rise above her own station.
This lackey best friend (or neighbour, or sister) will be a ‘see saw’ character, who is very, very nice and a people pleaser. Other people pleasers are vicars, postmen, people working in service industries, and they all tend to crop up to allow this woman full comedic flight. It’s not as fun to watch her come up against someone with more power than herself because we don’t really want to see her get quashed, but in a show such as To The Manor Born, it is satisfying to see Richard, with far more actual power, afford her a certain respect.
It may be necessary for the audience to feel a little sorry for these women, in lieu of actively ‘liking’ them. We will usually be shown her ‘behind the scenes’ self. That might be the character without her make-up, with her hair looking wild; her poor relations; her economically destitute situation.
The archetype rests upon the stereotype that women are impossible to please; flighty, capricious — for husbands there is ‘no winning’. These women are insatiable, unable to be satisfied, so you shouldn’t even try. Pacifying her is your best bet. This stereotype can be deployed with much malice or less — the degree of sexism depends partly on how it is written.
THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AUSTRALIA
Australian audiences understand this comedy trope perfectly. Our own standout example is Kim from Kath and Kim. Kim is stupid rather than wily, which is what keeps her in her position of no power.
However, it is said on Woman’s Hour that this trope is a specifically British one which we don’t really see much in America. The closest example they could think of was Monica from Friends, who aspires to have everything tidy, but it’s not really the same thing.
THE SOCIALLY ASPIRING WOMAN IN AMERICA
Why don’t we see much of this woman as a comedy trope in America? Probably because social climbing is actively encouraged. Why would you not aspire to have more capital, economically, socially and otherwise?
I do think America has a related trope: the woman who wants to be more sexually alluring than she is perceived by those around her. It’s the Bouquet/Bucket dichotomy only in relation to sexuality. This gag only works if the woman in question is not perceived by the audience as sexually alluring, in the same way the Bucket joke doesn’t work unless we all read B.U.C.K.E.T. as ‘bucket’. The actress who plays her cannot conform too well to the Western female beauty standard.
Sometimes the character is indeed sexually alluring by everyday standards, but that’s the only nice thing about her. Every other attribute is exaggeratedly terrible. Regina George from Mean Girls is the stand out example of that. We see this archetype in British comedy as well, for example Jen’s insistence on wearing too-small shoes in The I.T. Crowd.
However, I do think America is starting to embrace this comedic archetype, perhaps because the culture is starting to question the American story that everyone can rise above their station given enough work.
I’m thinking of Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, whose accent is a comedic affectation. This character considers herself queen of the town despite being widely disliked. However, Moira Rose does have an admirably wide vocabulary:
Moira owns a vast collection of precious wigs, which is the classic trope of putting a headdress on yourself as a ‘crowning’ glory. Moira is a very camp character as well — she revels in putting on ‘the mask’, and knows exactly what she’s doing. Someone like Hyacinth Bucket doesn’t seem to realise she’s wearing a mask at all.
Perhaps Moira Rose is the modern, ’empowered’ version of the socially aspiring woman: she has no power, but she takes it anyway, knowing no one is about to give it to her for free.
As a teenager I loved Fade by Robert Cormier. Fade is a creepy story about a teenage boy who learns he has inherited the superpower of invisibility. If I read it again today I’d probably find it even more creepy than I did then — stalking is sexualised, women are objectified, etc. Time puts a new spin on that story.
Fade is an example of literal invisibility in storytelling. This is invisibility as a kind of wish fulfilment; what would you do if no one saw you do it? Personally, I would enjoy walking at night in summer, free from high UV, harsh Australian sunlight and street harassment.
“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008 edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.
My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.
Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.