Pig The Winner, written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, is another picture book in the widely-loved Pig The Pug series. I suspect these will become Australian classics in the same way the Hairy Maclary books became New Zealand classics.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.
There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)
First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.
“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.
I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.
Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.
REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON
Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.
I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.
— Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid
Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.
Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.
Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)
Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic.
(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)
I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.
Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)
But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.
Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:
- Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
- Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
- Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
- Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
- Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
- Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
- Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
- Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
- Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
- The Laughing Man — Quacker — Quack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
- The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
- Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
- Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
- Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
- Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
- Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
- Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
- Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
- Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
- Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
- Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.
— Sam Eddington
There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.
- Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
- The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:
I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.
- Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
- For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.
Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.
She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.
Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.
Miranda has her own minor moral weaknesses.
[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.
Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.
Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.
Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)
The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.
A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.
Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.
Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.
Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.
So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.
Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.
I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.
The Self-revelation comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:
Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.
Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.
I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)
Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.
The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.
Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.
Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.
There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.
And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.
“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…)
- Good goosebumps!
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?
When coming up with replacement swears, make sure to find the equivalent number of words. They’re basically half rhymes or like something from the clues of a cryptic crossword e.g. Monday to Friday to replace Mother Fucking (courtesy of Snakes on a Plane).
Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.
An episode of Every Little Thing podcast (F**k yeah, Can Cursing Make You Stronger?) interviews a woman whose job includes replacing profanity in Hollywood blockbusters with tame versions. Children’s writers, I’m sure, would be keen to get their hands on her handbook.
One example from the handbook: Clown flusher to replace Mother fucker, which the podcast conversationalists agree, sounds more offensive — offensive to clowns, at least. And what does flushing mean? The mind is encouraged to think about this, and it doesn’t go to great places.
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.
- The Onion recently lampooned this human tendency to crave trammels.
- Writers sometimes do very well with trammels. Unleashed creativity is a sprawling, scary thing.
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.
Recently the Woman’s Hour podcast talked about a gendered comedy trope which I’d never really noticed was gendered: the socially aspiring, snobbish female.
Hyacinth Bucket is a standout example, along with:
- Linda Snell from The Archers
- Audrey fforbes-Hamilton from To The Manor Born
- 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.
When women on Twitter were asked what they’d do if men had a curfew in October 2018, many answered the same: We’d go outside and enjoy the freedom. Turning invisible would be similar, and I think it serves the same basic wish fulfilment: The wish to move freely in the world.
In storytelling, invisibility is a fairly common trope, but it doesn’t always serve this exact purpose. Writers use it in a variety of different metaphorical ways.