Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey Novel Study

Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey Novel Study

Bad Guys is a bestselling Australian early reader by Australian author and illustrator Aaron Blabey. The Bad Guys series is frequently recommended for kids who enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Treehouse series, stories by David Walliams, Ahn Do Weirdo, the Real Pigeons series, Minecraft Zombie books and other children’s books parents can find at Kmart and Target.

The Bad Guys series is beautifully illustrated with masterful page design. Negative space encourages readers to turn pages quickly, affording a sense of reading achievement. The first person wolf’s voice is funny and draws readers in by speaking conspiratorially.

Due to its popularity, and the unscrutinised idea that boys are best-served when exposed only to books by men, about the adventures of masculo-coded characters, a parents and teachers frequently recommend Bad Guys to reluctant boy readers. Some teachers are using The Bad Guys as a book study in early primary school.

At 2,300 words, The Bad Guys can be read in one sitting, and emergent readers will feel a sense of accomplishment after reading each chapter. Another early reader with a similar wordcount and chapter division is the Mercy Watson series by Kate di Camillo, though this is where the similarities end.

The Bad Guys is written for, read by and enjoyed by the K-3 reader, and if anyone is thinking of using this book as a novel study in class, Scholastic has issued Teacher Notes. I know this book is studied in class among emergent readers.

Aside from everything listed above, teachers love intertextual picture books which break the fourth wall. Many of these are Postmodern e.g. Anthony Browne’s Into the Woods. Another brilliant (but lesser known) fairytale subversion is The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury. If you’re looking for fairytale re-visionings, and you don’t want to get into the politics of gender identity, go with those instead. Perhaps you even teach in an area where you are not allowed to mention this stuff.

The premise of the Bad Guys: Traditionally evil- coded characters are recast as harmless and adorable.

Today I’ll be making the argument that Bad Guys rests upon a horribly damaging ideology, and that everyone involved in its creation is naive to queer history.

If you’d still like to teach this book in the classroom, here are your pre-reading questions! Have fun!

PRE-TEACHING THE BAD GUYS

QUESTIONS FOR STUDENTS
  1. Including books/TV/film and computer games, think of three favourite stories from childhood and list the main characters. What are the genders of the characters? (Maybe some of them are animals. Do animals still have an assumed or assigned gender?)
  2. How many childhood stories can you think of with entirely masculo-coded casts?
  3. How many childhood stories can you think of with entirely femme-coded casts?
  4. Can you think of examples of stories with one femme-coded character among a larger cast of masculo-coded characters? Do you know what this is called? (Here’s the answer with explanation, at TV Tropes.)

Today you’re going to be reading a children’s story whose plot revolves around a close cousin of The Smurfette Principle, except this time, the masculo-coded character will be simply dressing up as a femme.

  1. Can you think of a genre of story or archetype in which femme- characters often get what they want by luring men using their sexuality?
  2. Can you think of a genre of story or archetype in which masculo- characters get what they want by luring women using their sexuality?

Across history, femme-coded archetypes regularly make the jump in public imagination from scary monsters to sexual objects. The witch archetype started out as a post-menopausal, ugly old woman. Now we have sexually appealing witches co-existing alongside the hags, sometimes in the same character. (She is appealing to draw in her victims.)

For instance, C.S. Lewis utilised a desirable version of the witch in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Instead of sex, which is generally considered inappropriate in a children’s book, the white witch draws Edmond in with Turkish Delight. (Food equals sex in children’s literature.) Woman artists have been equally keen to create sexually appealing witches to ‘reclaim the hag’. In her poem “Her King”, Anne Sexton identified with the witch archetype, who she recast as a desirable version of herself. 

  1. Have you ever tried to get what you want by faking an emotion?
  2. Do you know if anyone else has tried this with you or someone else?
  3. If so, how did you know that person’s emotions weren’t real?
  4. In popular imagination, do people think one gender is more likely to fake emotions than another gender? If so, why?

PARATEXT

They sound like the Bad Guys, they look like the Bad Guys . . . and they even smell like the Bad Guys. But Mr Wolf, Mr Piranha, Mr Snake and Mr Shark are about to change all of that! Mr Wolf has a daring plan for the Bad Guys first good mission. The gang are going to break 200 dogs out of the Maximum Security City Dog Pound. Will Operation Dog Pound go smoothly? Will the Bad Guys become the Good Guys? And will Mr Snake please spit out Mr Piranha?

MARKETING COPY

What Happens in Bad Guys: Episode One

  • A wolf assures readers that he’s not really a bad guy, even though he occasionally likes to dress up as an old woman. (He doth protest too much!)
  • Next we see a mock police report, or ‘rap sheet’. The wolf has been arrested by police for crimes such as blowing down houses. So far, so intertextual.
  • Moving from “The Three Little Pigs” to “Little Red Riding Hood“, another wolfish crime listed on the rap sheet is ‘impersonating old women’. Theft of night gowns and slippers is another. If you don’t see comedic treatment of these crimes as a problem, keep reading. I’m about to get into some very disturbing and not-so-recent, not-so-historical history.
  • Next we are introduced to the rest of the cast, starting with Mr Snake, whose list of crimes is genuinely funny. Next, Mr Piranha. His criminal activity is eating tourists. A shark arrives. Mr Wolf stands in front of Mr Shark’s rap sheet so the reader won’t be disturbed by his crimes.
  • These guys drive around looking for trouble so they can be heroes.
  • Note that only the Spanish speaking character farts inside the car, and that a common insult dished out to Hispanic people is ‘Beano’. (Australian authors can be naïve to this sort of racism.)
  • They come across a kitty who needs rescuing from a tree. They manage this while cracking jokes.
  • They decide to bust a whole lot of dogs out of a pound to save them from bad food and other miseries.
  • To do this, one of the characters must get into the pound and open the cages. He produces a dress. The others think he is “going to dress up as an old lady again”, but no, this Bad Guy has other ideas. He means to dress one of his friends in a dress. The shark. Note that when a character decides to dress as a femme himself, this can be read as empowering. When another character forces or coaxes a male character into femme clothing, this is shaming. The shark looks comically startled.
  • The character in charge of the dog pound is a gorilla. Dressed (by a friend) as a reluctant femme, the shark says, “I’m just a pretty young lady who has lost her dog. Please, oh please, can you help me, sir?”
  • The Gorilla will do “anything for such a lovely young lady,” working with the joke that feminine people use ‘wiles’ to manipulate stupid men into doing stupid things. The ‘joke’ puts the audience in superior position because we know full well the shark is masculine, even though the Gorilla is too stupid to see what is obvious. The shark has been drawn to look comically ugly. (As a shark he looks ugly; as a femme he looks comical.)
  • While the shark is distracting the gorilla, the other guys set about releasing the dogs.
  • The Gorilla opens all the dog cages. Meanwhile, the shark melodramatically says, “Oh woe is me, I shall never find my dog!” (because, ya know, feminine types are overly emotional, and femme-coded emotions are also fake).
  • Congratulating themselves for rescuing the dogs, one of the bad guys tells another, “You really do hug more than I’m comfortable with, man.” This is the Friends sit-com variety of joke which makes Friends look homophobic to modern audiences. It’s one thing to not be a hugger (kids should be taught to ask for consent, after all) but this is not that. In this heteronormative story (evinced by the dressing-up femme plot), it feels homophobic, which is not to say parents and teachers can’t use this book as a starting point to talk about consent. I’m saying the book itself does not do it.
  • The Bad Guys agree it felt good to do something nice.
  • The only Spanish speaking character farts in the car again.
  • Note: This ‘dress up’ story is unusual because most transgression comedies (in which a character passes themselves off as something they’re not in order to carry out a plan) the masked character is revealed at the end. In 1980s comedies, characters would regularly throw up after learning an attractive femme is ‘really a man’. We’ve thankfully moved past that. In this story the shark gets away with his ruse. So, in its favour, this story could have been even worse. The Gorilla could have realised the Shark was not, in fact, a beautiful young woman and been horrified to discover a man.

Here’s what cis people need to understand about the REAL WORLD villainous depiction of trans women in the media. How it works: Transphobic people are intentionally inflammatory. They introduce and foster the notion that trans women are aggressive and hysterical. In the lead up to the 2022 election, Australia sees this play out with Deves, ‘death threats’ and DARVO.

In Bad Guys, a male character dressed as a woman behaves ‘hysterically’ (I know this is a problematic word; that’s the point). Even if it works for the plot of the story, how is it funny, given the wider context?

Here’s a simple check you can do if something feels off. Switch out one identity for another; does it still work?

For example: What happens if a girl character disguises herself as a boy to get what she wants? Wait, this is done all the time, especially in historical fiction when girls weren’t allowed to leave the house to go on adventures. Is it hilarious for a girl to behave like a stereotypical boy, and wear ‘boy clothes’? Nope.

Why? This is the disturbing part. Why is that funny, Karen? Because it’s only funny when a character with more power loses some status. Ergo, the gag is only funny because a gender hierarchy exists. Note: This would be subversive if the author and audience were in on the knowledge that there is a gender hierarchy. In the case of Bad Guys, the joke is nowhere complex enough to achieve subversion. A gender reversal gag that is not subversive is… misogynistic.

This is why you don’t find girls dressed up as boys as gags in comedy.

“So, you’re cancelling authors who joke about men dressing up as women now?”

Onwards, to one of my favourite books, also featuring a masculo-coded character who dresses as a washerwoman… also to get away with something.

Yes, that’s right, the great The Wind In The Willows.

Grahame’s dressing-up plot pans out very differently from this one. Kenneth Grahame was himself queer and his writing corpus suggests he had a better handle on how the gender hierarchy actually works (i.e. with cishet men at the top).

By disguising himself as an old washerwoman to escape jail, the insufferably privileged Toad is brought down a peg out in the real world of the story. Without money and without masculine privilege, the universe offers Toad an opportunity to realise that both his money and gender expression afford him great privilege. Comically, he doesn’t take the opportunity to learn a single damn thing.

This gag exposes the gender hierarchy. It doesn’t reinforce it. Grahame wrote the Toad-escaping-jail sequence so that audiences would laugh at Toad, specifically, not the idea that women (and femme-coded people) get away with things all the time by batting their eyelashes, suggesting the promise of sexual favours.

The notion that women (especially trans women) are liars is, unfortunately for women, as old as gender itself. Julia Serano has written lucidly on this topic, for example in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007). The idea which undergirds Serano’s entire book: masculinity is seen as authentic and femininity as artificial. (This relates to the notion that men are the norm, and that women are a strange subcategory of men.)

Transphobes commonly attack a dichotomy wherein trans equals ‘inferior’, ‘marked’ and ‘artificial’. What if a children’s book were to do the same? Wait… Yep. Any narrative which works with this idea, rather than against it, is doing active harm. This includes early readers for children.

In Bad Guys #1, when Mr Wolf is not dressed up he is presenting as his ‘authentic’ self. As soon as he dresses in women’s clothing he is ‘artificial’. This notion affects all women, but affects trans women worse. Trans women are constantly thought to be ‘acting’ even though they are living authentically:

When you’re a trans woman, you are made to walk this very fine line, where if you act feminine you are accused of being a parody, but if you act masculine, it is seen as a sign of your true male identity. And if you act sweet and demure, you’re accused of reinforcing patriarchal ideals of female passivity, but if you stand up for your own rights and make your voice heard, then you are dismissed as wielding male privilege and entitlement.

Julia Serano, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive

The artificial/natural dichotomy is about femininity, not specifically about trans femininity. However, trans women bear the brunt:

“The idea that “femininity is artificial” is also blatantly misogynistic. Just as woman is man’s “other”, so too is femininity masculinity’s “other”. Under such circumstances, negative connotations like “artificial”, “contrived”, and “frivolous” become built into our understanding of femininity – indeed, this is precisely what allows masculinity to always come off as “natural”, “practical” and “uncomplicated”.”

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

Here’s the thing about gender performance, though. We still know very little about cis gender, let alone trans. We know a few things, though. Studies have shown that when asked to play various genders in a computer game, subjects subconsciously modify their onscreen behaviour to fit their notions of gender.

“Of course, it is true that plastic surgeries and sex reassignments are “artificial,” but then again so are the exercise bikes we work out on, the antiwrinkle moisturizers we smear on our faces, the dyes we use to color our hair, the clothes we buy to complement our figures, and the TV shows, movies, magazines, and billboards that bombard us with “ideal” images of gender, size, and beauty that set the standards that we try to live up to in the first place. The class systems based on attractiveness and gender are extraordinarily “artificial”— yet only those practices that seem to subvert those classes (rather than reaffirm them) are ever characterized as such.”

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

When the shark is dressed up as a woman, he changes his behaviour to act in a stereotypically feminine way, specifically: Sexual attractiveness is now his most important feature and he is (parodically) emotional.

In this experiment, children are asked to ‘run like a girl’.

“But a dressed-up cartoon animal is not a trans woman, so this isn’t the woke insight you think it is.”

Animal characters proliferate in children’s literature but if they talk, they’re humans.

Bigots don’t believe trans women are women, so the fact that the main character is not supposed to be trans is moot. These tropes still lift bigotry and suppress inclusion, even when suppression is not intended by the story creator.

Lindsay Ellis talks about this hyper-literal interpretation of media:

i.e. “A depiction cannot be transphobic if the depiction of question is not of a literal trans person.” […] While the idea of crossdressing men may not be an accurate reflection of trans identity as we conceive it today, it certainly influenced the mainstream understanding of what trans identity even is.

Tracing the Roots of Pop Culture Transphobia (A YouTube video)

Lindsay goes on to say:

In Western culture, crossdressing has often been used as a shorthand for deception but not always maliciously so. In fact for most of history crossdressing men are portrayed as neutral or more often comical.

Lindsay Ellis

She gives the following examples:

  • Achilles in “The Iliad” to get out of fighting in a war
  • Viola in Twelfth Night, who takes up service for Duke Orsinio disguised as a young man called Cesario
  • Tootsie
  • Bosom Buddies
  • Some Like It Hot, in which men dress up as women to gain access to women’s spaces
  • White Chicks

Lindsay draws a distinction between ‘true’ gender reveals used as a comedic reveal (as in Some Like It Hot) and ‘true’ gender reveals used to horrify (Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, thought to be inspired by mass murderer Ed Gein).

Subverting and challenging mainstream ideas in fiction is very difficult to do well. We give insufficient credit to those authors who do a magnificent job of it. They’ve not only mastered the art of storytelling, but also evince a deep understanding of how the world works, and of their story’s place in history.

This is not an example of successful subversion. The question lingers: To what extent should authors be expected to write against bigots? If writers create work with the worst bigot in mind, that’s not going to lead to great storytelling. However, content creators for children constantly underestimate the damaging gender ideas children have already learnt (and internalised) by middle childhood.

“So, do you also have a problem with a male wolf dressing up as grandma in Little Red Riding Hood?”

No, because “Little Red Riding Hood” is not a story juxtaposing femininity against perverted masculinity. It’s about safety versus the wild.

We need to factor in a trope’s history before determining whether it is problematic or not. On that point, some people equate black face to drag i.e. they feel if white actors aren’t allowed to larp as Black people, why are men allowed to dress up as women? Isn’t that mocking womanhood? History is vital here because the history of blackface is completely different from the history of drag culture. Blackface: Maintains a race hierarchy with whiteness at the top, made by white people for white people to mock people of colour. Drag: A response to a strict gender binary, working to convey the reality that gender rules are arbitrary nonsense. These histories could not be more different. (Ergo, don’t ever compare blackface to drag.)

Now let’s take a look at the history of Little Red Riding Hood. This started as an oral tale chiefly told among women as they sew, weave and spin. The Grimm Brothers later got hold of it and turned it into something far more patriarchal (the woodcutter saves the girl). But let’s imagine how it was told in its earliest days: Women (some of them grandmothers) telling the tale to children. This tale is a ‘jump scare’ story. The teller (remember, often a grandmother) gives the young child a scare at the end. What makes it so deliciously scary? The possibility that this sweet old lady telling the story might be a wolf herself!

After the Grimms got hold of it, Red Riding Hood served to teach young women to protect themselves from men when going about their daily tasks outside the home. I co-wrote and illustrated a subversion of that take in “Lotta: Red Riding Hood.

The Wolf of “Little Red Riding Hood” disguises himself as a grandmother because ‘old lady’ is the danger-inverse to ‘wolf’. That’s the main reason for this particular gender swap. There’s also the moral that appearances can deceive, so we should always be wary. (Even of little old ladies!) However, the grandmother is presented as grandmother before she is presented as ‘feminine’. In fact, grandmothers are infamously thought to be devoid of sexuality, which is culturally tied to gender. More traditional tales of “Little Red Riding Hood” do not contain the subtext that women, in general, are not to be trusted. (At least, not in that way. Girls can be relied upon to not do as they’re told…) By desexualising the grandmother (and making her bedridden), this ancient tale has problems, but does not suggest artificiality lurks inside femininity.

Not all re-visionings are helpful to women and other marginalised genders, and I count Bad Guys in that. Here’s why. Just as the Grimms changed the ending (inserting a man as saviour rather than letting Red Riding Hood defeat the wolf herself), Aaron Blabey has added two problematic tropes in his humorous re-visioning that were never there before:

  1. The criminality of ‘cross-dressing’
  2. Sexualised manipulation on the part of the femme character

“Criminialised Transness In The 20th Century”

‘Cross-dressing’ is a term used by transphobes and trans-misogynists to describe the clothing trans people happen to wear. Outside meta discussions about bigotry, it’s a word to avoid.

Without actually using that word, Bad Guys #1 posits cross-dressing as a crime, which is, unfortunately, entirely in line with 20th century history of trans experience.

In Australia, ‘cross-dressing’ is no longer coded in criminal law. However, trans people continue to live in fear of vigilante violence, both in public and within intimate relationships. Trans identities remain illegal in many parts of the contemporary world. Last year was one of the worst in recorded history for hate crime against trans people, especially against Black trans women.

A stark and disturbing example of transgender identities and the police can be seen in Nazi Germany. Not many people realise this, but trans people were doing pretty well before Nazis took over. By ‘doing well’, I mean police were told to lay off the ‘female impersonators’ if they experienced themselves as women rather than as men, disguising themselves for (wholly imagined) nefarious purposes.

In other countries of the early 20th century, that accommodation was never made. Of course, Nazis were disturbed to see trans progress and set about exterminating trans people, a sure sign that more widespread atrocities are to follow.

Under the Trump administration, trans people were no longer listed in the annual commemoration of the Holocaust. The reason given: ‘transgender’ wasn’t a thing back then. In this lecture, Dr. Laurie Marhoefer explains why that argument is bullshit, and also talks about pre-Nazi transgender activism in Germany. As part of that, understand the highly problematic and widespread view that trans women are inauthentic, and dressing up in disguise, presumably to commit (further) crime (because gender non-conforming clothing was a crime in its own right).

In The Bad Guys #1, the ‘man’ dressed up as a ‘woman’ does so in order to commit crime. The idea that men dress up as women and commit crime is a falsehood perpetuated by news outlets such as England’s The Daily Mail, who flat out make trans crime statistics up. There are no statistics about the numbers of trans women in UK prisons, and there are also no statistics which say half of all trans people in prison are there because of sex crimes, yet they have reported that ‘trans individuals’ perpetuate crime (hoping conditioned bigot readers will interpret that to mean trans women are perpetuating sexual crimes against cis woman prisoners).

But, as Lindsay Ellis says in her YouTube video, the people most likely to be harmed, in prison and out, are trans women themselves. It’s not the trans women doing crimes here. Aaron Blabey uses this trope for comedic purposes in a children’s book, priming young readers to accept the claptrap coming out of The Daily Mail.

Other countries keep slightly better statistics:

One study in California found that when transgender women were automatically housed with men, they were thirteen times more likely to be sexually assaulted than male prisoners in the same facilities.

Lindsay Ellis (quoting a 2009 paper by Jenness, Maxson, Matsuda and Sumner.

Why do bigots kill trans women? Among other reasons, they perceive they’ve been tricked.

Now think again about the plot of Bad Guys #1. Trickery. The trickster is a masculo-coded character disguising himself as a femme. Remember, bigots don’t think trans women are women, so they kill because they think a masculine person is disguising himself as a femme. (Hey, maybe these bigots started learning tropes from children’s books before pasting trashcan ideas onto real people?)

This isn’t garden variety trickery, either. Tricksters are common in all kinds of story, but it’s mainly female tricksters (written by men) who use their ‘feminine wiles’ to get their way, by bringing hapless men to their knees. Neither man nor woman comes off well in this trope, but the ‘stupid man’ of the fictional trope doesn’t have a dangerous real-world analogue. The stupid man is funny precisely because he is so stupid, yet the universe still gives him what he wants. (That’s the exact trope used in this book.)

Bad Guys #1 combines two damaging tropes, and by doubling them up, this compounds the effect:

  1. Man dressed in women’s clothing is gender-bending to trick, fool and get away with something
  2. Woman manipulates hapless man with manipulative sexual wiles

What do you get when you add a ‘cross-dressing’ gag to a stale tricky-woman trope? Transmisogyny.

“Can’t we just call it drag, rather than transmisogyny?”

Well, we could, if this were drag: Gender expression with the aim of expanding and enlivening rather than binarising and shutting down.

This is not an example of drag. This is gender inversion as gag, and it serves to reinforce stale stereotypes about women, and more specifically trans women.

“But kids don’t see this stuff. You’re bringing adult wokeness to a simple children’s story.”

You might as well say, “Well, so long as you don’t know how trans people are treated and what the Nazis did to trans people, you can enjoy this book just fine!”

The media are a powerful socialising agent of the modern era. Children’s books are ‘media’.

Plus, kids are sponges. Their brains are built to absorb. If this weren’t the case, kids would not pick up native fluency in up to four mother tongues at once, without ever mixing them up. Their sponge-like brains, watching everything, even when it’s not explained in words, turn babies from floppy, meaty little lumps into walking, talking, screeching humans with opinions of their own, all within the space of a few years.

If you don’t think kids absorb harmful tropes as well as the good ones, you’re vastly underestimating kids.

If you, as an adult, cannot see the transmisogyny of this story, that only proves we’re swimming in it.

Those who tell the stories rule the world.

Native American Proverb