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

hoarding

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.

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.)

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

Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)

Header photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash

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. Continue reading “The Gendered Appeal of True Crime”

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 ‘range 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 (weakness/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?

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.’

Will grayson New Zealand

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 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 YA. 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 kidlit utopia.

Perhaps we need a few more narratives about the realities of pet ownership.

One of the most honest kids’ books I’ve seen about wanting a pet real bad is 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

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 the sexism running both ways:

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 favors 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 behavior 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? 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?

 

What is ‘The Fridge Test’?

“You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say, ‘Wait a minute …’” If a film has got the audience until they open the fridge, maintains [director Jonathan] Demme, then that’s all that matters.

So Rose Could Have Saved Jack In Titanic — So What, It Still Passes The Fridge Test, The Guardian

The article also explains that the refrigerator test is a modification on Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘icebox question’.

I suppose as cooling and refrigeration grows more advanced, subsequent generations will find their own terminology to describe the same thing.

Here’s what IKEA thinks fridges might be replaced with by 2025. Maybe a return to ‘ice boxes’?

Ikea concept kitchen 2025