Which computer would your character use?

ON TV, EVERYONE OWNS A MAC: one of the most glaring tropes in modern fiction. The more I notice it, the more I notice it.

Despite the prevalence of PCs in real life, most fictional characters — in novels as well as on TV and movies — are banging away on an Apple Mac. It’s completely disproportionate. I suspect it’s to do with the fact that arty types prefer Macs, and arty types are the ones sitting around creating fictional characters. On their Macs, I don’t doubt.

dell computer mac computer

THERE’S A CHARACTERISATION PROBLEM HERE, PEOPLE.

Some characters just wouldn’t be using a Mac. They would not.

I wonder if I’m falling prey to Apple’s marketing hype, absorbing the idea that Mac users really are different from the average PC user:

Apple’s popular commercials have painted the picture in stark terms: There are two types of people, Mac people and PC people. And if the marketing is to be believed, the former is a hip, sport-coat-and-sneakers-­wearing type of guy who uses his computer for video chatting, music mash-ups and other cool, creative pursuits that starchy, business-suited PC users could never really appreciate unless they tried them on the slick Apple interface.

– Popular Mechanics

This advertising campaign hasn’t really done a lot for those PC users who are by now well and truly sick of all those Mac Evangelists out there. (Have you seen them? They come knocking door to door, arriving on bicycles, carrying satchels with wholemeal sandwiches ‘buttered’ with hummus.)

Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui. [THE MAC USER IS] a superficial semi-person assembled from packaging; an infinitely sad, second-rate replicant who doesn’t really know what they are doing here, but feels vaguely significant and creative each time they gaze at their sleek designer machine. And the more deftly constructed and wittily argued their defence, the more terrified and wounded they secretly are.

– Charlie Brooker

Stereotypes are indeed useful, at least when it comes to painting a character in fiction. There are actual figures on the difference between Mac and PC users. Yes. There are actually people engaged in such meaningful research:

Mac users are more educated, eat more hummus, prefer modern art over impressionist art, and are 21% more likely than PC users to say that two random people are more alike than different.

– Mashable

Some more statistically  likely assumptions about Mac users, from Mashable’s infographic:

Mac users are likely to…

  • be younger
  • value being different and unique
  • be vegetarian
  • consider themselves pretty savvy with technology
  • watch indie films

On the other hand, if your fictional character is a 45 year old accountant who seldom throws parties, likes to fit in, would rather ride a Harley than a Vespa, snacks on sweets rather than salty chips, eats tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, watches Hollywood films and the History Channel on weekends, after consulting the TV Guide, then you’re stretching credibility when you have him typing away on an APPLE MAC.

Statistically speaking, this character needs to be on a PC.

Stereotypes can be challenged in good fiction, but Mac still only have round about 10 percent of the market share. So Macs are appearing way too much in fiction, whichever way I see it.

RANDOM EXAMPLES OF MACS IN FICTION

“…Vivi announced she wanted an outdoor party this year, so we need to have it before it gets cold. I’m doing the invitations on my Macintosh.”

– Caro, from Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Would Caro be using a Mac? Possibly. It’s prudent that this elderly woman calls it a ‘Macintosh’, feeling perhaps that ‘Mac’ implies too much familiarity (and familiar with technology she is not).

When Apple Macs – indeed, when any brand names — pervade a book, it gets to feeling like paid product placement, even if it isn’t. I got to feeling like this reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which both main characters own a variety of computers, with obvious preference for the Apple products:

In the second week of February Salander’s laptop fell victim to an accident… The rucksack tontained her white Apple iBook 600 with a twenty-five gig hard drive and 420 megs of R.A.M., manufactured in January 2002 and equipped with a thirty-five centimeter screen. At the time she bought it, it was Apple’s state-of-the-art laptop.

– Stieg Larsson

This obviously comes from an author who is into the latest computers himself, and who finds such detail fascinating, but there’s nothing quite like offering up specs of the latest computer to date your work. A kinder interpretation would be to say, ‘There’s nothing like offering up specs of the latest computer to place your work firmly in a particular year’. Which it does.

(I would also bet Stieg Larsson was a coffee lover. I’ve recently given up coffee myself, and noticed it mentioned on every second page. Perhaps the Swedes just love their coffee.)

As for my own computer preferences, any character assumptions will have to go on hold. I have a PC, a Linux running on an old laptop, and I’m currently typing on the Mac which lives beside the fire. I do love Macs, but PCs have their own advantages. They’re cheaper, for starters. And yes yes yes, you do still have to buy all the software, but you can build your own out of parts and use open source software. If it weren’t for the PC fewer people would be able to own a modern computer.

The Myth of Classlessness in Apple’s “Get a Mac” Campaign 

I’d like to see more fictional characters making use of a PC, or simply a ‘computer’, because I’m left scratching my head when I see certain unlikely characters making use of an Apple Mac.

Magical Computers: Computers on TV are not like computers in real life

The Author Is Not The Narrator

An author cannot control audience responses to published work. One annoying aspect of audience reception: the assumption that your character is you.

I recall a bookclub discussion which dwelt for a short while upon whether Anne Bronte meant for Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be a sympathetic character or not. Markham is a violent man by today’s standards, and it’s doubtful that Helen had a good second marriage.

We ended up discussing the life of the author as we tried to work out what the book meant. But is there a danger in doing so? In a world where author’s lives are increasingly public (due to media and social media), is there a danger that fans will look too closely at an author’s life and neglect to look at the words of the novel itself?

Here are a few excerpts from reader reviews of Freedom, written by Jonathan Franzen. I’m no Franzen apologist, but this is an interesting take on someone who created the dreaded ‘unlikeable characters’:

I thought there were two possibilities: 1) That Jonathan Franzen is a complete douche bag himself and that he actually thought he was creating sympathetic characters. 2) That Franzen has an even lower opinion of people than I do and uses his skill to convey an utter contempt for mankind by creating these pathetic excuses for human beings.

Franzen really hates people and, by natural extension, the reader.

i am sure an argument can be made for his low level semi-misogyny [because i think calling him a misogynist is a bit simplistic] makes him quite skilled at writing 1st person accounts of self-loathing neurotic chicks.

Is this something authors worry about, especially when writing a particularly nasty/racist/sexist character — and most especially when creating such a character who suffers no punishment within the world of the story? What a nasty character, we might think. It must take a nasty author to create such a thing. Whereas in fact, the author may think and act the exact opposite, putting it on the table for us to consider. If you’ve seen some of our greatest living crime writers in interview, you may be struck by how benign they are. Some of them are the sweetest little old ladies. We’re told that when crime writers get together they have a jolly time. If they harboured any nastiness in the first place, it’s all been purged in their fiction.

Are there tricks authors use to make it quietly clear that it’s the characters talking, not the authors themselves? Are some voices/points of view more likely to get the ‘presumptuous mimetic’ treatment?

The mimetic way of looking at literary character: Imagining the character is a real person, based on the view that literature is a direct reflection of reality. A mimetic character is presupposed to “mean” or “represent” something. For example, you can give a literary character a Marxist, feminist etc. significance, presupposing that a character is typical for her class/gender.

The semiotic way of looking at literary character: Presupposing that characters, like any other textual element, is made of words alone.

THE SPECULATIVE BIOGRAPHICAL APPROACH

When speculating about the psychoanalysis of Hans Christian Andersen and his well-known tale The Ugly Duckling, Maria Nikolajeva offers the following caution:

This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

MIMESIS AND SEMIOSIS

Nikolajeva highlights a related problem, this time in a different book:

The danger of the mimetic approach to characters is that we can easily ascribe to them features that the author had no intention of providing, merely because “girls always like to gossip”, “boys are naughty,” “schoolteachers are insensitive,” and so on. We can further ascribe to them backgrounds not found in the text, merely on the basis of our experience. … It is equally dangerous, and in my opinion illegitimate, to ascribe to literary characters traits extrapolated from real people, which is easily done when novels contain at least some autobiographical elements. For instance, although there are obvious similarities between Jo March and the author of Little Women, I would not be prepared to search for motivations behind Jo’s behaviour in Louisa M. Alcott’s biography.

Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

For a New Zealand example, I submit that Janet Frame was the author most heavily subjected to pressure from the press to reveal where her fictional and real worlds overlapped and diverged. I suspect this is a gender problem, though by no means exclusive to women:

We live in an age where perhaps the capacity for imagination in the reader is less than it was. I can think of no other explanation why so many readers seem to be interested in memoirs, which are of no interest to me, and don’t seem to have imaginative capacity for fiction that is, well, more imaginative than most of the memoirs I read, try to read, or don’t read. What’s interesting is this: I can’t think of a specific date, but there came a time — not before the 90s in my experience — when you as a novelist began to hear, almost as a first question, “Is the father in this story your father? Is the sister in the story yoursister? Is this character you? Did that happen to you?” When not just the first question but the first assumption from an interviewer was that surely the most interesting or the most credible parts of this novel have to be autobiographical.

John Irving, who gets annoyed when people ask him if his novels are autobiographical

I also suspect this went some way in explaining Frame’s aversion to interviews. She gave only a few in her lifetime. Perhaps she wrote her autobiography partly to answer the questions, hoping this would relieve her of the requirement to talk incessantly about her life.

JANET FRAME ON ‘GENUINE FICTION’

This is from one of those rare radio interviews, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

Janet Frame

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

Somewhat Related

From Salinger To Polanski: How can anyone see the work of J.D. Salinger, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski the same way once you know of their predilection for young girls?

A Continuum of Imaginative Powers

I enjoy stories about characters with wild imaginations, and that may partly explain why I love children’s books. From Where The Wild Things Are to highly symbolic fairytales to post-modern off-kilter realities, children’s literature is full of dreamscapes and fantastic journeys. But stories of imaginative power don’t end with childhood — there are many examples from general fiction of characters who create rich fantasies.

We all have three lives after all — our public life, our private life and our secret life. We rarely get a glimpse into other people’s secret lives. We may occasionally get bits and pieces, from friends and from family, but fiction offers the most in-depth explorations about how others might think. Our fantasy world is part of our secret world. We rarely share it with others.

That’s if we even have such a world. I have learned over the years that some people do and some people have nothing as organised and detailed as a ‘world’, but we are all creatures with immense imaginative capacity.

Most people spend between 30 and 47 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering…

Scientific American

Why do we want to have alternative worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it.

Joan Aiken

CONSCIOUS DEPARTURE FROM CONSENSUS REALITY (COMPOS MENTIS)

  • No imagination whatsoever — a computer
  • The imaginative power which evolved as a huge advantage — the ability to look at a situation and imagine what might go wrong: worry. Also the ability to plan ahead, by imagining the future. Other apes can do this.
  • The ability to build imaginative worlds based on stories told by others.
  • A gradual expansion of the imaginative worlds of others, leading up to creating one’s own fan-fic or imagining oneself as Super-man.
    • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    • Children’s stories in which the characters dress up in costume and ‘fight crime’ or similar
  • Fantasies become self-generated. The imaginer comes up with original creations, or significantly modifies the creations of others.
    • The short story “What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro details the quiet inner world of an older woman — an imagination furnished by one main incident from her youth.
    • Munro’s female characters often develop imaginative tricks to get on with their lot in lives, whether it’s to deal with loneliness (imagining oneself on “Cortes Island” or to cope with a missing or estranged family member.
  • The imaginer denies unpleasant truths by making up alternative theories or by nurturing their own wilful ignorance.
    • In Helen Simpson’s “In-Flight Entertainment“, Alan won’t hear anything about climate change from the retired scientist sitting opposite, despite living in it.
    • Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield stars Leila, who decides to ignore the old man telling her that she will one day be old.
  • The imaginer creates an expansive, detailed imaginative world or worlds.
    • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — a classic short story by James Thurber. The descriptor ‘Walter Mitty’ is now used to refer to person (usually a man) so caught up in his imagination that he no longer seems to feel the need to work hard to elevate his status in his real life. The modern Walter Mitty might be a guy who gets so much reward from the fantasy World of Warcraft that he quits his job to play it, eschewing the dominant culture’s view of how a man should properly live.
    • “Paul’s Case” by Willa Catha is another short story example from America.
    • “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield is another story about a person with a small life, imagining something different.
    • The character of Bertha in Mansfield’s “At The Bay” series is a bit of a Walter Mitty character. Unmarried, unfulfilled, she imagines all sorts of scenarios with herself as a swept away romantic heroine.
    • But in Mansfield’s “The Escape“, it’s the husband rather than the wife who uses a fantasy world to escape from an unsatisfying married life.
    • My Summer In Love, Emily Blunt’s first film, is about two young women — Tamsin draws the other, more naive girl unwittingly into her re-imagined reality.
    • Similar to My Summer In Love is Peter Jackson’s Beautiful Creatures, a New Zealand film set in my hometown of Christchurch, based on the true story of two teenage girls who murdered one of their mothers.
  • The most detailed of these fantasy worlds are known as paracosms. This is a term most often associated with the Bronte sisters, who invented the rich imaginative country of Gondal. The imaginer dips into these worlds often, probably every day, multiple times per day. This is a power required of novelists and screenwriters, but also the creators of poems and short stories.
    • Bridge to Terabithia — a middle grade novel by Katherine Paterson about two children who invent a fantasy world across the river from their home.
    • Any portal fantasy could be read as the paracosm of the main characters. I consider The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe the collaborative fantasy of Christian-raised children bored in a big house because they’ve been evicted from London during the otherwise traumatic WW2.

Then we encounter the soft line of sanity, in which the imaginer may lose touch of the distinction between imagination and reality, starting with minor distortions, then mixed reality (a term I’m borrowing from Paul Mulgram’s Reality-Virtuality Continuum).

Another word for ‘consensus reality’ might be ‘veridical reality’. Veridical means ‘coinciding with reality’ (whatever reality might be).

UNCONSCIOUS DEPARTURE FROM CONSENSUS REALITY (NON COMPOS MENTIS)

  • False Memory — separate from the unconscious departures below in that not everyone experiences psychosis/dementia and so on, but each and every one of us has a faulty memory.

Helen Hayward makes a distinction between ‘memories’ and ‘reminiscences’:

When it comes to thinking about early loved ones often it is our reminiscences, more than our memories, that spring to mind. […] A reminiscence is an overloaded memory, on to which feelings from another memory — now recalls a past event, a reminiscent relives it. Because a reminiscence contains fantasies which have escaped the ego’s notice — unlike a memory which the ego is able to repress — it can remain in consciousness. If however these feelings do emerge, and the fantasy is unveiled, the feelings are likely to be spontaneously repressed.

Helen Hayward, Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father

Separately we have the departures borne of more serious malfunctions of mind:

  • Psychosis (including hallucinations, delusions, delirium)
  • Dissociative disorders (dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorders, depersonalisation disorders)
    • On TV Tropes there are many examples of Identity Amnesia as it presents in fiction, which is quite different from how it presents in reality.
    • United States of Tara
    • Powers” by Alice Munro is a mish-mash of how various factors affect our hold on reality. The story includes epileptic fits, possibly electric shock treatment and definitely dementia.
  • Folie a deux — a mental disorder (not a mental illness) that two people share and experience at the same time.
    • Possibly Heavenly Creatures, in which two teenage girls thought it was a good idea to kill a mother.
    • In fiction, a related trope is called Infectious Insanity.
  • Dementia

THE IDEOLOGY OF IMAGINATIVE POWER

The corpus of stories about fantasists leads us to the same, culturally-agreed conclusion: Imagination is fine so long as you:

  1. Maintain a clear division between fantasy and reality;
  2. Don’t engage others in your own fantasies without their full knowledge and consent.

We could add an axis based on positive/negative valence. To what extent do a character’s fantasies (etc.) have a positive/negative impact upon their life?

Well, it can go either way. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud knew that reminiscences can indeed lead to unhappiness. His psychoanalysis aimed to lighten this load.

Every memory you have ever had is chock-full of errors. I would even go as far as saying that memory is largely an illusion.

What Experts Wish You Knew About False Memories from Scientific American

IMAGINATION AND LOVE

The world of Eros is the world of the imagination.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote in his work Stanze (1977) that during the Middle Ages, love was seen as a labour of the imagination. In order to fall in love, it was thought that you had to fall in love with an image of another person, recreated from memory. In this way, both memory and love both rely upon one’s imaginative powers. The lover is in love with the (self-generated) image.

THE GENDERED NATURE OF FICTIONAL FANTASISTS

I’ve done no broad study of this, but of the stories I’ve encountered, there seems to be some gendered differences.

  • Both male and female characters are often revealed in fiction to harbour fantasies of various kinds.
  • But if there are victims of these fantasies, the victim is more often a woman, regardless of gender.
  • Male characters seem particularly drawn to the romantic hero — super heroes and war heroes. They imagine themselves saving the day, especially saving girls and women.
  • The male character in “I’m A Fool” displays strong imaginative powers when he spins a story about being a completely different person… to try and snag a girl. Again, this is borne of wanting more power in real life.
  • But sometimes male characters imagine themselves as baddies, like the main character in “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever. To be a bad guy, breaking the rules, is its own form of social capital.
  • Male characters often fancy themselves younger and try to regain their youth by sexual involvement with a girl, sometimes underage as in Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, or the main character of Thomas Keneally’s short story, “Blackberries“, or of Robert Drewe’s “A View of Mount Warning” or any number of similar tales which centre a man’s sexual desires.
  • For female fantasists, there is often a witch overtone. This is definitely the case for Tamsin in My Summer of Love. She draws in her victim with deceit — they dress up and drink ‘potions’ and go into the wilderness. Their final big struggle takes place in a river, with one almost drowning the other. Likewise, the true story behind Heavenly Creatures captured public imagination because two teenage girls seemed caught up in a folie a deux fantasy leading to someone’s death — again, another woman. We are, as a culture, scared of the erotic powers of young women and we imagine that when two young women get together their evil powers are doubled. “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry is also about the dangerous power of contemporary witches.
  • Fictional girls and woman seem more likely to be the creators/initiators of vast, collaborative imaginative worlds. In Bridge to Terabithia it is the girl, Leslie, who comes up with the concept. The boy goes along with it. It’s Lucy who discovers the wardrobe portal to Narnia. In “The People Across The Canyon”, the highly imaginative child just happens to be a girl.

What do you think? Is there a gendered difference in the depiction of fictional fantasists?

TYPES OF DAYDREAMING

An article in Scientific American traces the development of research on the art of daydreaming.

Daydreaming is broken into 3 types:

1. Positive-Constructive Daydreaming

representing playful, wishful and constructive imagery

This not only sounds lovely; it sounds beneficial to individuals and society. Surely it’s by engaging in this sort of daydreaming that we come up with our best ideas.

2. Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming

representing obsessive, anguished fantasies

This sounds like a sort of post-traumatic response, or ‘stewing’, in everyday parlance. Some people seem to do this quite a lot, turning minor arguments into huge ones, but only in their own minds. For obvious reasons we should try not to let our minds engage in this sort of daydreaming.

3. Poor Attentional Control

representing the inability to concentrate on ongoing thought or external tasks 

I now imagine an old-fashioned classroom — the kind with wooden floors and chair legs scraping, and chalk screeching down blackboards, led by a cane-toting teacher scalding Jimmy for staring out of the window. That’s the classic picture of the childlike and carefree pupil of yesteryear, constrained and reined in by the school system until he is old enough to be put to work in the mines.

This kind of daydreaming can stop you from getting things done, sure.

FURTHER READING

Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play.  They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around.  To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.

Psychology Today

As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of “self” is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek’s mealtime introspection makes plain.

An idle brain may be the self’s workshop from The Chicago Tribune

Hearing voices is also a pretty normal thing that happens to people and you don’t have to have a diagnosable mental illness to hear them. This, too, can be attributed to ghosts, or paranormal activity:

Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied voice hearing in psychiatric and religious contexts, has written that “historical and cultural conditions … affect significantly the way mental anguish is internally experienced and socially expressed.” Noting that there is no question psychiatric distress and schizophrenia are “real” phenomena that call for treatment, Luhrmann adds that “the way a culture interprets symptoms may affect an ill person’s prognosis.” Every psychiatrist I spoke to shared the belief that unusual behaviour should only enter into the realm of diagnosis when it causes suffering.

Joseph Frankel, The Atlantic

When Reality Doesn’t Match Up To My Imagination by Gretchen Rubin, who comes up with a new term: parallax feeling

The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers from Farnam Street

Children Whose Minds Wander Have Sharper Brains from The Telegraph

The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination from Brain Pickings

8 Movies That Showcase The Imagination from Film School Rejects

On Hate Watching Stuff You Hately Hate Hatingly

hate watching
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.

We.

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.

The Psychology of Hoarding

Benjamin Walter Spiers - _Old armour, prints, pictures, pipes, China (all crack'd), old rickety tables, and chairs broken back'd_ Thackeray
How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Benjamin Walter Spiers - An interior, a still life
Benjamin Walter Spiers – An interior, a still life

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

There was an old man on the border
illustrated by Hilda Boswell

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

RELATED

Header illustration by Benjamin Walter Spiers – Old armour, prints, pictures, pipes, China (all crack’d), old rickety tables, and chairs broken back’d Thackeray

The Gendered Appeal of True Crime

psychological benefits of true crime narrative

When I was in Form 2 (now called Year 8), our teacher set a transactional writing exercise: Does violent media make a culture more violent?

I’d never heard of Rudine Sims Bishop who, five years earlier, in a different hemisphere, had been writing about how story functions as a mirror as well as a window, and also as a sliding glass door. I could’ve applied this to violence as well as to representation if I’d known about it.

This was pre-Internet. I had no opinions on the topic of Violence In Media. My essay got stapled onto the classroom cork board, I remember that much. This was a minor humiliation because the teacher had ruled a red line through my final sentence, which is the one sentence I do remember: ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ My passive attempt at turning punk was thereby stymied for all to see.

I’ve since thought more on this topic. I’m close to someone who sometimes plays first person shoot-em-ups and reads extensively and deeply about war, yet he’s the most laidback, non-confrontational person I’ve ever known. He rejects any claim that there’s a direct causal, one-way link between violent content and violent behaviour.

On the other hand, the analysis of someone like Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) demonstrates that if we regard media as a corpus, the corpus becomes a behemoth and gains the power to influence culture itself. Not one of us is fully immune to that.

More recently I’ve been mulling over the fact that women are the main audience of true crime stories. This doesn’t surprise me at all, in part because I am a woman with some appetite for (thoughtful, well-handled) true crime.

I do get to a point where I can’t take any more, but I am fascinated by the semi-autobiographical works by Helen Garner, who attends trials and then processes her own feelings on the page. (See Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House Of Grief.)

I stopped listening to Casefile (a popular Australian podcast) when I noticed the anonymous host fails to pay victims sufficient respect. In line with the media reports he’s been reading as research, he is inclined to make excuses for male perpetrators of domestic violence.

In contrast, I admire the work of Laura Richards, a British Criminal Behavioural Analyst who critiques true crime shows on her podcast, and who is also active in changing outdated laws which put victims at further risk. Richards has changed the narrative around coercive control. In her discussions, Richards makes a point of acknowledging the victims and humanising them.

TRUE CRIME AND WOMEN

Like all kinds of stories enjoyed mainly by an audience of women, there’s a lot of dismissive harrumphs around the category of true crime. Why would you even read that? Is that not revelling in violence? Aren’t you supporting an industry that requires violence? And surely, surely, violent stories make us more violent, whether or not these stories are ostensibly true. (And what about paying respect to the privacy of victims? An adjacent matter; many families want memories of victims preserved via amplification.)

Women are unquestionably taught to be more fearful than men. Though men are more likely to be the victims of violence, women are more likely to be victims of certain kinds of violence. Women perform all sorts of invisible labour in the name of keeping ourselves safe.

These measures range from ritualistic and self-soothing — e.g. keeping a gun in one’s handbag, to semi-effective at an individual level — e.g. leaving a party before midnight, pleasantly buzzed rather than impaired. (The perpetrator will then find someone else, which is why there should be no broad service announcements urging women to keep safe.)

Are we looking at these true crimes because we can’t look away, akin to rubbernecking past a car accident? Is it because we are trying to understand a foreign mindset? What would make someone do that to another human being? If only we could learn to identify a dangerous person, we might then avoid him.

Perhaps that’s part of it.

A few writers have helped me think about what crime might do to help us, psychologically.

First, a closing paragraph in the second essay of Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay.

In her essay “Slaughterhouse Island”, Jill Christman describes a self-defence class in which she learns: Unless we are able to imagine performing acts of self-defence on a perpetrator, we’ll never be able to carry them out in real life.

In that vein, might reading about acts of violence prepare us mentally? Similar experiments have been done in sport. We know that when athletes imagine putting balls through a hoop, this helps them to actually put a ball through a hoop. (We’re talking at an elite level, when physical prowess is eclipsed by mental preparation.)

Story illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post magazine February 1st 1958 by James Bingham. ‘She hadn’t seen the man until she fitted her key to the door of her apartment. Then he materialised from nowhere’.

The most famous contemporary example of fiction influencing real life is perhaps the true story of Terra Newell of the Dirty John true crime podcast. Terra inflicted fatal injuries upon her mother’s abusive boyfriend after he tried to kill Terra outside her apartment. Terra cites her interest in The Walking Dead as the reason why she knew to go for his eyes. She stabbed at him as she’d seen zombies do on the show.

This is a rare example of a happy ending. John Meehan was impaired due to drug abuse at the time, Terra was at peak strength due to her age, and unusually strong because of her job working with dogs. But Terra’s story has such a cathartic, satisfying ending that Dirty John was a huge success with audiences, first as a podcast and later as a Netflix series. How many of us thought, You know what, if that happens to me, I’m gonna fight like a zombie as well.

Separately, I came across the following article and thought of procedural crime, fictional or otherwise: Seeing The Unseeable: How viewing crime scene photos can be beneficial.

Allowing bereft families to view images from crime and accident scenes can offer them a path to healing.

If a focus on crime detail helps real people in real situations, perhaps when we endure gore in crime story, an audience is somehow — though safely distanced from it — creating our own ‘path to healing’ in what we are led to perceive as a dangerous and violent world.

And if women experience the world more fearfully than men do, it makes intuitive sense that women achieve a higher psychological reward from crime narratives.

Introvert and Extravert Writers

Here’s the kind of introvert/extravert stuff you find in your feed and dismiss as oversimplified “research” clickbait:

If you like sci-fi movies, hate pool parties and watch “The Walking Dead” then chances are you’re an introvert, according to new research.

New York Post

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of personality dualities. That aside, these broad narrative tastes do line up nicely with the intro/extraversion of my own friends and family. So let’s roll with this as a thought experiment. While I can’t work out how the researchers defined introverts vs extraverts in the first place:

  • Extroverts identified excitement as their driving emotion
  • Introverts can be found watching a thriller like “The Walking Dead” or a crime drama like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
  • Extroverts prefer reality-based entertainment. They can be found watching the latest episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” “The Bachelor/Bachelorette,” “The Voice,” and “America’s Got Talent.”

When it comes to writing, do introverted and extraverted writers face different issues? I don’t mean ‘sitting in a room alone for months’ versus ‘marketing the hell out of a published book’, which is a painful disconnect covered elsewhere. I mean, at the story level, might introverts and extraverts be more prone to certain pitfalls?

INTROVERTED WRITER PROBLEMS

Bubbly Best Friends Stealing The Spotlight

I’ve seen literary agents post things like this:

Bubbly best friend

Cheryl Klein continues her thread:

We have all these loudmouth, confident girls in MG — Clementine, Dory, Fantasmagory, Cleo Edison Oliver. Where do they go in YA? Am I just missing them? I asked a writer about this once — I said, “I love this best friend; write a novel about her!” — and she said there wasn’t enough ‘there’ for a novel, int he kind of novels this writer wrote. But I thought (and still think) that’s unfair to the loudmouths. Even loudmouths have things they don’t say; everyone can change with the right kind of pressure. And that’s all you need to build a novel. Or even better: the loudmouth will say the thing that she shouldn’t say, again and again, and that makes a GREAT novel.

This hit home because I am currently workshopping a YA novel about a teenage girl who has a bubbly best friend. Part of her character arc is that she becomes  individuated and self-driven, but my critique group has encouraged me to make my ‘main character’ less of a ‘viewpoint character’ from the beginning. I honestly didn’t mean for the best friend to be more interesting, because I get rid of her partway through the story. When I think back to high school, I was definitely the introverted half of an intro/extraverted pair of BFFs. I, myself, am a viewpoint character.

There’s another issue here, of course: How do you even define a main character? This isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. If I’m ever having trouble working ithis out I ask ‘Which character changes the most?’ but even then, that can be too simple:

  • If the best friend is the offering commentary on the bubbly best friend, doesn’t that still make the best friend THE main character, kind of like what Fitzgerald did with narration in The Great Gatsby, or by Joseph Conrad before him?
  • The character who changes the most might change via the telling of the story itself. In fact, that’s the raison d’être of a storyteller narrator — they come to some sort of realisation because they’re telling this particular story.
  • Viewpoint characters tend to have more reflective personalities, and are therefore more open to development than an interesting but boneheaded character who keeps on keeping on. So defining ‘main character’ cannot be about ‘scope of change’, but — to borrow a Yahoo word — ‘range of ‘interestingness’.

In short, introverts might identify more keenly with the quieter, viewpoint people in real life, but these sorts of people don’t make for the most interesting fictional characters. Exception being: If the quiet character is plunged into a super interesting world or situation.

But if we’re writing a story using a viewpoint character as introverted best friend (a not-so-secret proxy for ourselves), then we need to know we’re doing this. If the most interesting character in your story doesn’t have a fully realised character arc, that could be a problem for readers.

Comfortable But Passive Scenes

Another issue which may or may not be related to introversion (I suspect it’s also related to age, gender and writing experience): Boring sitting-down-drinking-tea scenes. I wrote about that last week in my analysis of The Cat Returns. Some tea-drinking scenes are almost culturally compulsory, as in anime out of Japan, but The Cat Returns writers get around this by combining a static tea-drinking scene with slapstick action and witty dialogue.

These passive scenes often crop up as a Chapter Two. Most of us have done it, I’m sure:

  • Chapter One is an action scene with witty dialogue and an interesting situation. We use every tool in our belt to hook the readers in.
  • But then we need to introduce the family. So we show the character at home.
  • Maybe the character sits down to watch TV or makes a cup of coffee or goes out the back for a smoke with a cop colleague.

I’m not sure if introverts are more likely to write these passive and safe Chapter Twos, but I do think introverts are more comfortable in these scenarios in real life. So it’s probably tempting for us to take an emotional break — as writers — by rescuing our main characters and letting them enjoy a cuppa in peace before moving onto the next uncomfortable situation. But that’s not what will keep readers turning the page. Not even introverted readers, many of whom apparently like The Walking Dead! (One action scene after another, judging from the season I endured.)

Tea Drinking Scenes are sometimes necessary when writing realism, and I’m not advocating for getting rid of them at all. An example of a Tea Drinking Scene fraught with tension and quiet conflict can be seen in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro. Even the objects in the kitchen are described in dramatic terms.

Films are all about dialogue. It’s not inherently interesting to watch character sit around and talk, so filmmakers have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeve. Some of them are described in this video.

EXTRAVERTED WRITER PROBLEMS

Too Much Excitement

I can’t identify with extraversion problems myself, but here’s one for consideration: If extraverted writers are indeed drawn to excitement, it may be the more extraverted writers who propel their readers into sturm und drang before setting up the main character’s psychology (shortcoming/need/desire).

It may be extraverted writers who forget to juxtapose action and dialogue heavy scenes against the quieter ones, allowing the reader to take a breather and to offer a change in tone.

 

What do you think?

Header artwork is “A Little Tea and Gossip” by Robert Payton Reid, 1887.

New Zealand As Depicted In Fiction

How is your country generally depicted in fiction, by writers outside your country? New Zealand in fiction, not surprisingly, is the stock country for ‘a place really, really far away.’

Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand.

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

In the English light-hearted drama Last Tango In Halifax, a relative who came from New Zealand to England had made a REALLY big effort to be at a wedding celebration, and therefore his very presence was amazing.

In Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (or Perfect Snogging, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), the main character’s father is sent away to New Zealand to work, which is a plot device to keep him really far away.

Angus-Thongs-and-Perfect-Snogging-2008-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-Online

New Zealand sometimes even gets a mention in American fiction. Even in Breaking Bad! In this case, New Zealand is the stock country that ‘no one knows anything about’ and is the perfect place for Americans to go if they want a new start. Forget that in order for an American to enter New Zealand with intent to live you actually need a visa. (Works both ways!)

Jane Margolis: Do you know what this is? [refers to a bag full of money]
Jesse Pinkman: It’s a whole lot of cheddar.
Jane Margolis: This is freedom. This is saying, “I can go anywhere I want. I can be anybody.” What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? South America? Europe? Australia?
Jesse Pinkman: Is New Zealand part of Australia?
Jane Margolis: New Zealand is New Zealand.
Jesse Pinkman: Right on. New Zealand. That’s where they made “Lord of the Rings”. I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art. Right? Like, you can paint the local castles and shit. And I can be a bush pilot.

from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2

Sometimes, though, ‘distance’ equals ‘stupidity’ or ‘naivety’. Which makes me wonder what Americans think New Zealand teens do with their time. Because New Zealanders are watching the same shows, listening to the same music, wearing the same fashions, more or less. I’m pretty sure Kiwis know more about American culture than the other way around.

Wit from Riverdale actress. Riverdale is an American TV show.

That’s because America has a long history of exporting its culture, while admitting very little in.

What is New Zealand really like?

Here’s an article from a European whose version of New Zealand — from books introduced by his Kiwi girlfriend— turned out to be quite different from the New Zealand he met when he eventually visited the country.

The YA market is currently dominated by books from the US, so it’s refreshing to read something that relates more closely to our part of the world. NZ [as a setting] is perfect for Australian teens as it is familiar in many ways, but still exotic in others, which adds a point of difference.

Our cousins to the West: the challenges and opportunities of the Australian literary market

The Easy Acquisition Of Pets In Children’s Stories

A child who reads heavily may well be under the impression that the acquisition of pets requires about as much thought as a well-chosen piece of jewellery.

Yesterday I rewatched Bridge To Terabithia — a perennial favourite at our house. I can’t remember if this also happens in the book version, but at the end of the movie Leslie’s father says he was going to gift Leslie’s dog to Jesse but couldn’t quite part with it.

bridge to terabithia pets

Today I read Madeline in London, in which the girls visit Pepito at his new home and decide to give him the gift of a retired horse.

Madeline pets horse
“But in London there’s a place to get a retired horse to keep as a pet.”

Children’s literature is full of stories about boys who save up enough money to buy a dog. The real cost of dog ownership — the food, the registration, the annual vaccinations, the worming and flea treatments — are never factored into the cost.

where-the-red-fern-grows pets

There’s a reason for this, of course.

Children’s books are not set in the real world. They exist on a continuum between utopia and real — and if it’s set in a realistic world (or, lately, a hyper-realistic one) it’s probably young adult literature. As for middle grade novels and chapter books, these are largely privileged worlds in which there is always enough to eat, always a place to come home to and populated by adults who basically care for children.

These are also worlds in which any child who really wants an animal companion can have one. They will roam free and look after one another.

As long as the child saves enough money to buy the pet in the first place, subsequent costs are magically met, even in the poorest households.

I point out the obvious because a disappointing number of adults buy pets without factoring in the enormous cost of pets. My mother, who worked at the SPCA for some years, was constantly dealing with members of the public who approached the charity for help paying medical bills for sick pets, because they hadn’t planned ahead. These adults are still living in a children’s literature utopia.

Perhaps we need a few more narratives about the realities of pet adoption. One excellent example is The Stray by Molly Ruttan. A family finds a grubby sort of creature of indeterminate species and because it doesn’t have a collar they decide to take it home and make it part of the family. Not another one of these books, I thought. But this was not a happily-ever-after adoption story; it turnjed out to be more of an E.T. story. Grub is not happy with his new ‘family”. The family recognises his unhappiness and only now go out of their way to look for Grub’s own family. (They haven’t extended empathy to the unseen parents of Grub, who will be worried out of their minds.) An alien ship arrives and Grub happily goes back to his own family.

A story such as Grub is ostensibly about a pet (in the body of an alien), but at its heart, is about adoption. Adoption stories can be super problematic when treated lightly and unthinkingly in children’s literature. As a negative example I offer up Gaston.

One of the more emotionally honest kids’ books I’ve seen about wanting a pet real bad is The Pigeon Wants A Puppy! by Mo Willems.

the-pigeon-wants-a-puppy

While the unthinking acquisition of pets are generally considered great in stories for children, when it happens in a story for adults we get an uneasy feeling. In the 2014 film Wildlike, an uncle suggests to his niece that they buy a dog together. This foreshadows abuse.

Good Girls In Children’s Literature

In stories as in real life girls and boys are held to different standards. How does this play out in children’s literature?

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very good indeed
But when she was bad
She was horrid!

a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Contrary to popular belief, the above is not a Mother Goose rhyme but a poem. However, I remember its inclusion — slightly modified — in a book of nursery rhymes from my own childhood.

My version isn't quite this old!
My version isn’t quite this old!

When I recently ordered the box set of Judy Moody by Megan McDonald for my daughter I was reminded of that rather awful poem, and I wouldn’t mind betting the series illustrator has been inspired by Longfellow, because the curl on the forehead is an enduring feature of Judy Moody’s character design.

Judy Moody

‘Good girls must be very, very good or else they are horrid, whereas boys behaving badly are seen to be merely displaying masculine traits’, writes Carolyn Daniel in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. While acknowledging that things have changed since the Victorian era, ‘giving way to a generally more therapeutic style, much contemporary fiction still reinforces traditional stereotypical gender roles.’

There is another nursery rhyme from the early 1800s that epitomises our view of what boys and girls are made of — with gender essentialist neurosexism working in both direction:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of !”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!

At first glance this poem seems to have been written in a way that favours girls and makes girls’ lives easier. Instead, this poem is terrible for girls (as well as for non-‘boyish’ boys), because as Daniel describes:

There is a sociocultural leniency toward the bad behaviour of boys. Boys are, after all, made of slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, and they are culturally expected to be naughty, to get dirty, to wriggle and not be able to sit still, to not make rude noises, to fight and swear. And for this they are judged to be “just being a boy” or “a real boy”, one who will grow into a real man. Concomitantly girls must be good. And, in order to become good girls they must be carefully controlled and constantly monitored.

For consideration

  • What if Peta Rabbit were a girl and her brothers Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were the good little bunnies who stayed at home?
  • Is there a female version of Winnie-the-pooh, who is obsessed over excessive and sweet food in a humorous way rather than as a slight on her character?
  • Would John Moody work as a concept (rather than Judy Moody)? Is there a male equivalent in children’s literature? There are plenty of mischievous boys, but what about ‘moody’ ones, allegorically named as such, because their emotions are such an important part of their character? (Johnny Cranky, Sam the Surly etc.?)
  • Is stereotypical bad behaviour in girl characters e.g. preening and asking for things she shouldn’t have and talking rudely to (and about) others, perceived as worse than stereotypically boy behaviour e.g. standing up for oneself by using physical violence and threats?
From Karen's Opposites by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1963
From Karen’s Opposites by Alice and Martin Provensen, 1963

SEE ALSO

The Female Maturity Principle In Storytelling

Australian writer John Marsden did write a picture book about a naughty girl. It’s called Millie. Have you heard of it? If not, there may be a reason for that; it hasn’t found longterm resonance.

Storytellers are often told to give their characters moral shortcomings (ie. a way in which they treat others badly). It’s worth considering as we write our character (and form opinions on other people’s fictional characters) whether we are holding the girl characters to higher standards of likeability.