Gender Problems In ParaNorman (2012)

The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012
The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012

ParaNorman is an animated zombie flick, light-hearted in its intent, and follows the adventures of an outcast 11-year old called Norman, who sees dead people. They’re everywhere.

I identify with Norman, I really do. These days, whenever I watch a kids’ film, all I see are anti-girl references and tropes. These tropes are like ghosts because only a select few of us seem ever to notice them. Where are the feminist reviewers on IMDb?

I don’t really like to make forceful commentary about a movie I’ve seen only once  but the ParaNorman screenplay, written by Christopher Butler, is freely available online. I read through the screenplay after my visit to the theater  hoping to prove myself wrong about the anti-girl messages in this otherwise deftly crafted film. I was really hoping to love this one, which is created by one of the storyboard artists from Coraline, a genuinely girl-friendly story.

Next, a fellow commenter at Reel Girl argued a pro-feminist ending after seeing exactly the same film. I assume all intelligent commenters at Reel Girl to be among the best educated and most thoughtful in relation to feminism and kids’ films, so I read the script looking for the girl-friendly bits.

While failure to find any may simply be a failure on my own part, after looking closely at the script, I came away feeling even less impressed. Before, I had said that everyone should see this movie and make up their own mind. Now I say, nah don’t bother.

HOW THE MOVIE OPENS

Quoted directly from the script:

An attractive FEMALE SCIENTIST in a gore-spattered labcoat moves fearfully along a wall, passing benches strewn with broken lab equipment. Her ample bosom heaves as she PANTS nervously, mascara-rimmed eyes darting to and fro.

Glass SMASHES on the floor nearby and MELODRAMATIC MUSIC swells. The woman backs into a shadow, not noticing a pair of dead eyes catching the moonlight behind her.

The music climbs to a frenzy as something GROANS horribly into the woman’s ear. She spins around on her stiletto heels as a rotted face looms out of the darkness, drooling through broken teeth, and lunges at her neck.

What isn’t mentioned in the script, but what viewers did see in the opening to ParaNorman, was the woman scientist’s buttocks thrust provocatively toward the audience. Along with the threat of her imminent demise, the audience is invited to admire her rump.

The camera cuts away to reveal Norman and his (dead) grandmother watching one of those old zombie flicks, safe in the comfort of his modern-day living room. His grandmother is appropriately dismissive of this film; the two of them are watching a Night Of The Living Dead type of ridiculous zombie-flick after all, which are so bad they can be appreciated in the modern world only as ironic spoofs of death and femininity and heroism. That’s the point of zombie films, right? They’re ridiculous by nature, and no one can take any single thing they say seriously. Especially the old ones. Except an argument can be made for the exact opposite: that zombie films rely on realism:

The protagonists of these apocalypses are everyman characters, blue collar heroes of modest ambition and means. In the zombie genre, average citizens are thrown into the chaos of the apocalypse, such as Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. Even when the characters are professionals, such as the soldiers and scientists in Day of the Dead, they do not possess pulp fiction levels of ability nor do they stop the apocalypse. They are swept up in the events, helpless to counteract them. The zombie genre demands realism on the part of its human characters, as they are not heroic saviors, but people the audience can identify with.

– from The Survivalist Fetish In The Zombie Genre, Part 2

When viewing zombie stories ironically, bear in mind that even the most ironic sexism is still sexism, and still harmful. Anita Sarkeesian explained it beautifully in a commentary on retro-sexism in advertising. To take The Walking Dead as a more modern example of a zombie story (albeit for adults), this from The Idiot Box:

I feel like something more insidious is at play…I was absolutely shocked to see that a male character from the show who tried to rape a female character at the end of the last season is still being treated as a hero.

Bearing all this zombie- and retro-sexist-background in mind, I’m already wary of ironic sexism in a movie for kids, so when the female scientist’s sexualised rump is presented to us baboon-style in the very first scene, I’m already the tiniest bit uncomfortable. This feels to me like a very cheap way to draw an audience in. I wonder if lots of girl viewers are already feeling slightly excluded from this story, without necessarily being able to articulate why.

However.

Impressed at the grandmother’s dismissive commentary (“That’s not very nice… what’s [the zombie] doing that for?”) I settle in for the rest of the ride. This film is going to poke fun at zombie films, and turn weak-female characterisation on its head, right? I push down the feminist sitting on my shoulder and reason that a middle grade audience will come away with a fuller understanding of zombie tropes, realising that almost everything these days is ironic, and the world will seem a better place as a result of this epiphany.

I can see the creator of this film might well have made this film with such noble intentions, but I’m about to argue that he falls way short.

I’ll also argue that by including a few interesting female characters, namely the grandmother, the drama teacher and Salma (the Minority Feisty), this obfuscates the fact that any female speaking roles are minimal as a proportion of the total, and just as importantly, masks the fact that the female characters exist first to prop up the male roles, and second because they kind of have to be there for realism (boys need mothers, for instance). A look at the surface level of this film and an audience may well come away under the impression that although this is boy-centered-film, it is very girl-friendly to boot.

Here’s why it’s not.

PROBLEM NUMBER 1:

Most female characters in Paranorman are as stereotypical as female characters in the original zombie flicks, without actually smashing through the heavy irony.

The description of Norman’s mother:

Norman’s mother, SANDRA BABCOCK, is emptying the dishwasher. She is in her late thirties, and wears ‘mom’ clothes that do no favors for her figure.

Have you noticed how often the term ‘figure’ is used to describe women, yet how rarely it comes up as an item of importance for men? When is the last time you heard anyone talk about a man’s ‘figure’?

Personaje Sandra Babcock en El alucinante mundo de Norman

Next, the audience is introduced to Norman’s teenage sister:

Courtney Babcock

Breezing into the kitchen through the back door while CHATTING inanely on her cell phone, Norman’s older sister COURTNEY is fifteen years-old and is the bleached-blonde cheerleader archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.

COURTNEY: Oh yeah, he’s r-i-double p-e-d. Like, a seven pack at least. (to Norman) Ew! Watch it!

She pushes her brother out of the way as he drags the garbage outside.

I now have a sense of how the screenwriter thinks about women. A certain amount of character description is necessary in any screenplay. What stands out to me is that Courtney is FIFTEEN — she is sexually underage, yet still exists primarily as a sexual object: the ‘archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.’ (What does this say about ‘every schoolboy’?)

Admittedly, the viewer doesn’t get an accurate number on Courtney’s age. Given her role, I’d assumed her to be more like 17 or 18. Reading the script tells me something I didn’t want to know about her creator.

The next female character is Norman’s drama teacher, who is directing a comically over-the-top play about the witch burnings which happened locally 300 years before.

In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume.

It’s important to this screenwriter that Mrs Henscher is fat: ‘in a…chair too small for the job’. Mrs Henscher has a larger-than-life personality and I admit that her physicality is a good match. I find the second part of the description interesting: ‘who looks like she smells of too much perfume’.

 

Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher's imposing size is emphasised by camera angle
Mrs Henscher’s imposing size is emphasised by camera angle

I include this description of Mrs Henscher first for completion’s sake, but also because I do appreciate this character. She’s interesting. Mrs Henscher is a classic example of the Acrofatic trope, or possibly Stout Strength. She’s a kind of Ladette.

But we don’t see much of her. And I doubt the target audience would identify much: she is presented as an eccentric and formidable teacher, and is as self-absorbed as she is physically powerful. Do I find her interesting because she is a jumble of mismatched tropes, similar to Megan on Bridesmaids, a butch-pearl-wearing woman, rejected by the mainstream but confident in her own right? (The only interesting character in that film, I might add.) At the risk of overthinking it, is this ‘mismatch’ between feminine accouterments and brute strength another kind of ironic novelty trope, which ultimately says something quite negative about femininity and all its associations? If a girl isn’t likely to identify with a female character, do we include her in the count of ‘strong female characters‘, whose very definition is problematic in its own right.

PROBLEM NUMBER 2:

Girl stuff is embarrassing and any resemblance to girls at all means you’re less of a man

ALVIN: Don’t get your bra in a twist, fat boy, this has nothing to do with you! Keep out of my way!

NEIL: Or what?

ALVIN: Or I’ll punch you in the boobs!

NEIL: I don’t have boobs. These are pectorals!

Alvin jabs him in the chest.

NEIL (CONT’D): Ow! My boobs!

A common joke. Yet I can’t think of any middle grade story which makes a joke out of a girl owning a pair of balls. Obviously, that would have the opposite message.

Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.

Gwen Sharp

(The anti-fat jokes running throughout this film I will save for a separate post altogether.)

Later, the script describes a comically violent scene in the following manner:

Alvin [the bully] SCREAMS like a little girl, smacks it ineffectually with his spatula…

As Headless Horse writes at The Round Stable, “Clearly our cultural vocabulary could stand to grow up a little bit, and girls deserve to know they’re not afterthoughts—not to the makers of cartoons, and not to anyone else either./The parallels to other fronts in the broad, slow-moving war of social equality are clear: Polite adult company doesn’t use gay as a derogatory term anymore. Nor are words like retarded or bitchy considered welcome adjectives outside of the dialogue of deliberately retrograde fictional characters.” It’s not okay to use ‘gay’ as an insult in a kids’ film, and it’s not okay to use ‘retard’ as an insult, so why is it still okay to use ‘girly’ analogies… as an insult?

PROBLEM NUMBER 3.

The message that girl stuff is vapid

The tiny room is crammed full of posters, pom-poms, plush toys and plastic trophies. Pretty much everything is pink. [pink=girly, no?] Courtney sits talking on her phone, cotton buds between her toes as her painted nails dry.

COURTNEY: So I said to her, “Girl, come back  and talk to me when your basket toss gets twelve thousand hits on YouTube!” Yeah, no, I said that. (listens and nods) Yeah, I’m stuck on lame patrol. Tonight’s gonna be a total yawn.

The audience is constantly reminded of Courtney’s shallow empty-headedness, with exclamations such as, ‘Oh, I broke a nail!’ An adult audience must surely recognise this as comically cliche. I’m not sure a younger, middle grade audience has been around long enough to see an  entire fantasy world ironically.

Let us not forget that in kids’ films, as well as in real life, girl stuff is uncool, and must be rebranded entirely if boys are to have anything to do with it.

Related: Blonde, Self-Tanning Essex Teen Girl Has Higher IQ Than Einstein And Everyone’s Annoyingly Surprised, from Jezebel.

PROBLEM NUMBER 4.

The minority feisty is classically unattractive and only speaks when she’s saying overtly feminist stuff

The ParaNorman wiki entry on the Minority Feisty character of Salma sums up her role:

Not much is known about Salma outside of her name and status as a friend of Neil, as she’s seen hanging with him as well as trusting him enough to give him her number.

Below is a screenshot of Salma. Notice the monobrow and the glasses. She is described in the script as ‘a nerdy Indian kid with braces’.

This is what feminists look like.
This is what feminists look like.

Making use of the screenplay PDF and Ctrl-F, here’s the sum total of Salma’s speaking parts:

SALMA [playing the bossy girl type]: Neil, come on. Let’s go.

SALMA: Why is the witch always a hideous  old crone with a pointy hat and a  broomstick? I don’t believe it’s historically accurate, Mrs Henscher!

SALMA (speaking as her onstage role as a witch): I curse you accusers to die a horrible and gruesome death and rise from your graves as the living dead; your souls doomed to an eternity of damnation!

SALMA (Salma talks into her cell phone with an expression of withering disdain.): So Norman, let me get this straight; you guys all go on this big supernatural adventure and you’re calling me in the middle of the night because you need someone to help you do your homework?

Even though Salma comes out with insightful commentary about what is essentially The Hermione Trope*, her physical presentation and her facial expressions make clear to an audience that Salma is to be perceived as ‘The Wicked Witch Of The West’. From the screenplay itself:

Salma is holding her hand up. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West.

The feminist/wicked witch analogy is underscored in the slapstick, of which Salma is a victim:

Norman is yanked off balance and staggers into Neil who keels over, rigid branch arms unable to stop his fall. He lands on top of Salma, her kicking legs sticking out from under him as though Dorothy’s house had just landed on stage.

Is the audience to laugh when bad things happen to Salma? That’s surely the point of the slapstick.

SALMA [in response to Norman’s appeal for help with his research]: Well, duh. People found guilty of witchcraft weren’t considered people anymore. Norman, your witch was buried someplace else… in an unmarked grave! (reproachfully) If you cared to pay attention some of the time, you would know that we covered this in fifth grade history class… [notice that despite her protestations, she obliges the boys, compliantly] Okay. It says here she was tried in the old Town Hall on Main Street. There may be a record of her execution and burial in their archives.

In short, the audience is encouraged to disassociate ourselves from this sexually unappealing feminist character, who only ever bosses boys around and raises her hand in class to offer intelligent but very annoying feminist commentary. So any feminist observations Salma comes out with are nulled. This feminist character is actually worse than absent. This characterisation is not only anti-feminist, it’s anti-thinking.

*What I call The Hermione Trope: smart girls only exist in stories to help out the boys on the boys’ adventures while she sits at home doing the hard yards by reading books. To be fair, Hermione does join in the adventures even though she must read a lot of books ‘off stage’. I have yet to find a good name for this relationship. It’s evident again in Monster House, a movie with character dynamics very similar to this one, except the Hermione character (Jenny) gets a lot more screentime and is a lot more likeable than Salma.

PROBLEM NUMBER 6:

The commodification of female bodies

MITCH (O.S.)

Neil! Will you get the door?

NEIL: I’m busy!

MITCH (O.S.): Are you freeze-framing Mom’s aerobics DVD again?

ANGLE ON TV, with a still image of a Lycra-clad instructor bending over. Neil quickly turns it off.

NEIL: No!

Needless to say, the ‘Lycra-clad instructor’ is female, and her buttocks fill the screen. I think the reason an audience finds this funny is because of the innocence of it: an older, more worldly young man would have found more hard-core/covert methods of objectifying women’s bodies. This is the sort of humour prevalent in comedies like Ted (2012). But Ted is for adults.

The female buttocks-fill-the-screen thing are (no doubt deliberately) reminiscent of one of the very first images in this film: that of the female scientist in the labcoat whose brains get eaten in that over-the-top Zombie film watched by Norman and his grandmother. After hoping that this film was going to highlight the ridiculousness of that storyline, now I’m convinced that this film only serves to reinforce them, to a brand new and younger audience.

Later, during the zombie invasion:

A corpse stands agog before a billboard. The poster is for a line of “Lady Luck” lingerie and features a buxom woman in her underwear draped over a roulette wheel. The tagline is “FANCY YOUR CHANCES?” The corpse’s one eye pops out of its socket and dangles by its optic nerve.

PROBLEM NUMBER 7:

11-year-old boy speaks in a fatherly and all-knowing manner to an 11-year-old girl, saving the helpless little creature

This is a story in which a boy is chosen to Save The World (or at least, the community).

PRENDERGHAST GHOST: Oh it’s you all right! I’ve been holding back the witch’s curse for years, but now I’m dead. It has to be you!

NORMAN: But I… I don’t know what any of it means!

Norman understands that he is just like the little girl, in age at least.

NORMAN: How could you?! She was just a little kid! She was no different than me!

Here’s the scene where Norman calmly reasons with Aggie:

Norman climbs up a tree root, Aggie’s flames searing his skin and clothes as he gets close enough to touch her.

NORMAN: Then stop. This is wrong and you know it! You’ve spent so long remembering the bad people that you’ve forgotten the good ones. There must have been someone who loved you and cared for you. You don’t remember them?

AGGIE: Leave me alone!

NORMAN: But you’re not alone! You have to remember!

AGGIE: Keep away from me!

Norman reaches the end of the root and jumps. His outstretched fingers shake madly as they approach Aggie’s tiny hand, as though the air is fighting against him.

NORMAN: Remember!

There is a flash of white, and silence.

NORMAN: Sometimes when people get scared they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared, that you forgot who you are. But I don’t think you’re a witch. Not really.

Aggie looks into his eyes.

AGGIE: You don’t?

NORMAN: I think you’re just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her.

He smiles softly.

NORMAN (CONT’D): So we’re not all that different at all.

So why the huge wisdom differential? TECHNICALLY, the little girl has been around for CENTURIES longer than he has. Norman goes ahead and ‘talks the girl down’ from her temper tantrum in the sky.

Admittedly, some of his precocious wisdom has come straight from his dead grandmother, who filled the fairy godmother role much earlier. Grandma Babcock appears seldom on screen, but when she does, she offers some weighty one-liners and theme-revealing advice:

GRANDMA BABCOCK: There’s nothing wrong with being scared Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.

The Grandmother is the only truly positive female character in this film, since I’m discounting the strangely unappealing drama teacher and the deliberately scorned young feminist, Salma.

But Grandma Babcock cannot possibly make up for everything else, even if her lines are some of the most memorable. Arguing that ParaNorman is girl-friendly and then citing the grandmother would be like saying that Cinderella is a feminist story, because the fairy-godmother is very wise and helpful. Just like those old fairytales, ParaNorman is still, at its core, a story about girls waiting in the sidelines for boys to save the day, fairy godmother notwithstanding.

See: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit:

Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

EDIT: After reading the ParaNorman review written by Hoyden About Town, I understand exactly how I haven’t seen the forest for the trees.

Hoyden writes:

It was all going so well until Norman speaks to the ‘witch’ who was actually an 11 year old girl who was executed for witchcraft because she could speak to the dead too. Norman solves the problem of her raining down destruction on the town built around tourism based on her legend by insisting to her that she must forgive and forget. He gets really up in her face about it. Forget that this jury of mainly men (one woman) killed an innocent child for being a witch, that she as an 11 year old must understand that the adults made a mistake because they were scared, that it is her duty to forgive them and go to the grave.

I had to stop my list of complaints somewhere, but I really should have looked more closely at the entire plot and structure of this film, which is predicated upon something very wrong indeed. I’m clearer now on exactly why I found the ending so offensive.

See also: The Problem With Raising Good Girls from Role Reboot. ParaNorman has exactly the same problem as Bland’s story for preschoolers.

PROBLEM NUMBER 8:

Girls stand by and cheer Norman on in stereotypically feminine supporting roles

Either that, or they run away.

The fat woman from the Drive-Thru runs past SCREAMING, her face and T-shirt covered in blood-red ketchup.

Even at the climax, Courtney MIGHT have undergone some sort of character arc, learning to be proactive instead of pathetically passive in the presence of an attractive young man (the one who turns out to be gay* — SUCKED IN COURTNEY, JOKE’S ON YOU), but instead she has only learnt to respect her little brother. She cheers him on like the expert cheerleader she has been acculturated into being as the townsfolk gaze on in wonderment:

COURTNEY (CONT’D): Everybody, listen up! You all need to stop trying to kill my brother! You’re adults! Stop it! I know that this seems crazy, believe me I’m with you on that, but I think he does actually know what he’s talking about!…I’ve cheered the uncheerable, Norman, and I’m not  letting you give up now!

It’s easy to forget that it’s information gleaned from the knowledgeable and hard-working Salma which is what actually Saves The Day. But where is Salma when Norman is busy being congratulated at the end? I don’t even remember.

*See also: Representing sexuality in animation:

In spite of animation’s inherent plasticity and the implication that animation can “resist outmoded notions of… performance” and “carry with it alternative ideological imperatives” (Wells, 1998, p.227) prime time television animation tends to follow the stereotypical representations of most visual narratives when depicting homosexual characters, using the traditions of feminizing, demonizing or ridiculing the homosexual male, or more recently othering such characters by intellectualizing them, or in the case of lesbians, dumbing these characters down to unibrow car mechanic hicks.

PROBLEM 9:

Girls are treated poorly then smile demurely

I’m not imagining things here. This is what it says in the script [parts in parentheses are mine]:

Courtney counters the backseat barbs [from a male character she likes] by smiling demurely

And during a zombie action scene:

VARIOUS ANGLES ON the garish town center nightlife intercut with CLOSE-UPS of the wide-eyed zombies.

Two teenage girls in mini-skirts walk along the curb. A pickup truck crawls by, driven by red necks who wolfwhistle and gesture rudely. The girls GIGGLE.

At no point in this film do girls stand up for themselves.  Except for Salma, who is shot down and sat on.

PROBLEM 10:

Perpetuation of some pretty damn dodgy mars vs venus gender bullshit

This is an interaction between Norman’s parents, in which we are reminded that men don’t ask for directions and women can’t read maps:

PERRY BABCOCK: We’ve already been this way. We’re going around in circles!

SANDRA BABCOCK: Maybe we should pull over and ask someone?

PERRY BABCOCK: Oh, right, you think maybe we should stop at a graveyard and dig up some other eighteenth-century corpses?

SANDRA BABCOCK: It’s not a bad idea.

PERRY BABCOCK: I wish I understood you.

Women, OF COURSE, are completely non-understandable. Unintelligible, even. Yes, women are fucking crazy, and totally useless during a zombie apocalypse.

Related:

At the climax, Norman has saved the day. A boy is pleased to make his Dad proud, but doesn’t care for his mother’s reaction.

SANDRA BABCOCK (CONT’D): My brave little man! I thought I was going to lose you!

NORMAN: Mom, you’re embarrassing me.

SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s my job.

COURTNEY: Good job, Norman.

Perry takes a deep breath and looks at his son. There is relief and a hint of admiration in his eyes.

PERRY BABCOCK: Well done, Son. You did it.

Throughout the film, the mother and father’s dialogue have been equally inane, but in the end, only the mother is found to be stereotypically embarrassing. We learn that while it’s important to make your dad proud, mothers require forbearance.

Limits of the Bechdel Test

The movie does in fact pass. There is a brief exchange between Selma and Mrs. Henscher in the scene where the kids are rehearsing the play. Selma complains that the play not being historically accurate, and Mrs. Henscher replies that the point is to promote tourism, not be historically accurate. Only a few lines, but I think it qualifies.

from a website where people argue about whether a film passes The Bechdel Test.

There is a moment where the little ghost witch girl is talking to her mother under a tree. So this film technically passes The Bechdel Test. But what about The Magowan Test, which I feel is more appropriate for kids’ stories? It doesn’t pass that.

In Conclusion

Feminism is a niche area and anyone who fancies he’s up to the job of writing a feminist screenplay starring middle grade kids would be well advised to do some goddamn reading on the matter. Either that, or leave the feminist commentary right out of it, since stories about boys deserve to exist in the world — just not at the expense of girls.

ParaNorman is an excellent example of the insidiousness of female representation in kids’ films, because with its straw-feminism,  it’s easy to sit back and consider that part taken care of. This mirrors exactly how feminism works the real world, here in 2013: We all see a few women in power and assume feminism has done its job. Instead, I fear we’re heading swiftly backwards.

The Credits

The screenshots above come from the fan-created ParaNorman Wiki. Here’s a very telling screenshot of that site. Notice what’s there and what’s missing?

paranorman-wiki-screenshot
ParaNorman Wiki, 31 Jan 2013

A Further Note On Audience

Kids deserve better: not ‘morality stories’, but yes, they deserve politically correct. Partly because ‘politically incorrect’ can’t be funny in an ironic sense until ‘correct’ has been learned in the first place.

If this were a film for adults, I wouldn’t even bother. Adults — ideally, at least — have a well-honed sense of irony.

It has been suggested that this film is not for little kids. And it’s true that we shouldn’t simply assume that ‘animation=for kids’. When deciding who a film might be for, far better to look at the storyline and themes.

See: At What Age Do We Understand Sarcasm? from io9: “It appears that when kids at around the age of eight or nine encounter sarcasm, they know it’s sarcasm only by tone.”

The protagonists of ParaNorman are 11-years-old. While I could go on at length on a different topic: the infantalisation of entertainment, I don’t feel this particular animated film has enough depth to appeal exclusively to adults. That’s not to suggest that adults won’t also enjoy this film, should they go along KNOWING IT’S A KIDDY FLICK, but surely if a film starring 11-year-olds were marketed as a film for adults, without the added wisdom of hindsight a la The Wonder Years, an adult audience might feel a bit weird about that. The themes in ParaNorman are summed up in far too heavy-handed a manner for this film to be a deliberate appeal to adults. As for the morals, an experienced audience has been there, done that. The slapstick comedy of ParaNorman appeals to an even younger audience who, unfortunately, would likely suffer nightmares (tried and tested). Middle-schoolers are a varied crew, but any parental guidance should by rights focus on the unintended messages mentioned above; with films such as this one, parents aren’t just there to provide a warm presence in the face of supernatural themes. There are more important jobs than that.

What Parents Need To Know about the ratings of this film, from CommonSense Media.

 

Gilmore Girls and Modern Feminism

Why Fans Love Gilmore Girls

A Fan’s Notes On Gilmore Girls from The Awl.

Watching With Your Kids

Here’s a good argument for watching Gilmore girls with your daughter even if you see problems with it. I kind of live by this rule. That’s how my nine-year-old knows that sex is mostly recreational — honestly, it’s TV.

  1. I enjoyed the 90s and early 00s references (which would now mostly go over the heads of a younger audience).
  2.  Fast-paced dialogue. I may have a high tolerance for dialogue-heavy stories. My husband says he doesn’t know how I can follow what they’re saying, even though he likes Reservoir Dogs. Apparently, he doesn’t catch a single word of Gilmore girls.
  3. I most wanted to sit down in front of Gilmore Girls when I was feeling tired or had to do the ironing. On a particularly stressful day, I watched about three episodes in a row. Stepping into the world of Stars Hollow is like stepping into the world of Sylvanian Families, right down to the omnipresent kebab-shop fairy lights and small-town concerns, and the fact that even when the weather is ‘bad’ it is still really, really beautiful, Stars Hollow is pure fiction and therefore borders on cozy fantasy. Technically this is Arcadia, utopia — with more in common with The Wind In The Willows than with general TV dramas for adults. It should probably be considered suburban fantasy, because Stars Hollow is not really much like real life. For starters, there isn’t really much in the way of ethnic diversity. That’s not how I think of America, but then, almost entirely white towns with a token black Frenchman and token Asian families run by tiger-moms may well exist in Connecticut for all I know.

Lorelai's House, Gilmore Girls

Indeed, Stars Hollow almost makes you want to rush out and recreate the entire community out of paper. A true fan models their new home on that of the Gilmore Girls. Someone even drew up plans for you.

I believe many, if not most, women have comfort shows, and they tend to be repetitive shows about relationships. When I asked a large group of women to nominate their own virtual security blankets, the same shows were mentioned over and over again: Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, The Office, Brooklyn 99, Seinfeld, and, of course, Friends.

Clinical psychologist Marc Hekster believes that watching reruns of TV shows like Friends is particularly comforting because of the repetition and predictability.

“It’s about an experience of repair, of watching the characters in the show repeatedly having worries, which then get repaired and soothed, usually in the context of other relationships in their lives,” he told me. “It is soothing to see the same outcome every time and know you can depend on it.”

Sydney Morning Herald

IS GILMORE GIRLS STILL GOOD FOR GIRLS?

A GG fan writing for The AV Club has provided a full summary of the first two shows though, as ever, your best bet is by simply watching. Gilmore girls is available on iTunes, and costs less than a lot of other shows, at less than a dollar per episode. (It’s also on American Netflix right now.)

I do have some nagging concerns about this ostensibly feminist show. The first is my usual concern: That a (very) young audience doesn’t necessarily know what’s irony and what’s not. (By *young* — my daughter is seven.)

Funny Gilmore girls quote. Love this. My dr told me today that it's better to look good then feel good! LOL he didn't know the Gilmore's already explained that.

However, this is a show for adolescents. So lets take a look at messages they’re definitely absorbing, all over the place.

1. ANTI-HEALTH-FOOD MESSAGES

Look at it one way and you might conclude that Gilmore girls is a show which depicts a range of body sizes. Compare the Gilmore girls to Melissa McCarthy’s character, whose fat* presence in Hollywood is a constant reminder that anti-fat messages pervade modern culture, especially for women.

*Fat is the non-judgey word, so I’m using it.

But we should look a little further than that. I’m going to argue that Lorelai Gilmore is a strong candidate for an eating disorder not otherwise specified. In Season Six, after Rory moves into the tennis house, Emily says to Rory (partly in jest), ‘You’re not bulimic, are you?’. Rory shrugs it off as ridiculous but I had been wondering the same thing in earnest for quite some seasons by that stage.

(I’m not the only one to have noticed this.)

An entire movement has popped up, in response to the horrible body-checking and anti-fat movement which women have been subjected to since forever sometime last century, depending on your culture. I happened across this inspirational poster on Pinterest and it pretty much sums up the culture I’m talking about:

Eat cake for breakfast

This is certainly one way of dealing with the anti-fat, dubious health warnings we (and in particular, women) are subjected to every single day. I happen to think sugar and transfats are so harmful that our family actively avoids those things, and this informs my opinion, naturally. Turns out Alexis Bledel thinks along the  same lines. In an interview she was asked about her diet, because women in the spotlight always are:

How often do you prepare your own meals?
Almost every day. I try to eat very healthy, organic, local foods, so I do end up preparing my own meals more often than I go out. I prefer to go out for a drink because in that case you pretty much know what’s being poured into your glass, as opposed to what’s going into your food.

– Alexis Bledel’s Mortal Enemy Is the Lat Machine at the Gym

Western cultures everywhere have now got to a point in food history where eating nothing but fast food is about as funny as any other kind of addiction. I.e. not very. (Jezebel fairly recently asked if sugar is the next booze. I say yes.)

Gilmore thought process

Lorelai Gilmore, the character, has responded to the anti-fat messages of the 80s and 90s by rebelling against her mother (who by the way, also can’t cook, but for classist reasons) and also against society in general. She takes bad eating to an extreme, and it forms the basis of a gag in pretty much every episode.

What are we if not world champion eaters?

Lorelai does not keep food in the house, including good coffee, which is partly an excuse to visit Luke at the cafe, but nor does she know how to cook. Lorelai is your stereotypical flighty female who drinks too much coffee for her adrenal health, and prides herself on eating sugary food full of trans fats until she feels uncomfortably full, swaggering around clutching her gut, which never actually sticks out during filming, because the actor does not eat like that.

It’s time to move past this now. A fully functioning human being knows how to boil an egg, women included. Failing to learn the basics of cooking is about as cool as failing to wipe your own backside. It’s not a feminist statement anymore, to support the fast food industry by refusing to keep whole foods in the house. But there’s more to my gripe than that, because after all, Lorelai is an imperfect mother and deliberately written that way.

The bigger problem is that the bad eating habits of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore send an erroneous Maybelline-esque message to all the young women out there who think that looking like Lauren Graham in your thirties is a matter of genes and good luck:

from 1991
from 1991

Looking like Lauren Graham has nothing to do with luck, however, and everything to do with ‘being on a diet since the age of 11’. Does the actress who plays Lorelai Gilmore really eat like this? All I needed to do was google lauren graham diet and I got the answer I expected:

“One thing I’ve learned is I actually don’t like variety very much,” she told SELF. “I like having the same thing over and over: assorted lean proteins, arugula salad, quinoa or brown rice with soy sauce, olive oil, lemon and salt. Those ingredients can pretty much get me through the week.”

From US Weekly:

Since the age of 11, Parenthood‘s Lauren Graham has been watching what she eats. “I’ve been on a diet for 35 years,” the 46-year-old TV star reveals in the May issue of More.

The trope of the skinny girl who can eat anything she wants is common throughout YA literature.

She’s so small; I can’t help but wonder where she packs all the food away.

— Resurrecting Sunshine, YA Novel by Lisa A. Koosis

 

Melissa McCarthy’s character, Sookie, has a far more healthy relationship with food, even if she is more prone to showing the outward signs of insulin resistance. She loves food, prepares it well and along with Jackson, who knows his fresh produce, is no doubt far less vitamin and mineral deficient than Lorelai and Rory.

Speaking of Maybelline, or makeup in general, we never once see any of the female characters without their maquillage. Emily, Lorelai, Rory and even the more down-to-earth Sookie are consistently depicted in full makeup, with not one scene taking place in front of a mirror in which said makeup is applied. There are occasionally scenes in which characters wear even more makeup than usual, such as when Rory sneaks out of her grandmother’s house to see Logan and hopes her grandmother doesn’t see her dark eyes and red lips, but let’s not be fooled into thinking that the less colourful faces of these actresses are somehow makeup free, even first thing in the morning. Perhaps in a town like Star’s Hollow it really is unheard of to spend waking hours without makeup (and also mornings in bed with male partners), but this whole thing smacks to me of another kind of beauty deception. I say this even though there is no place on the planet that looks more like a Sylvanian Families marketing shoot than Star’s Hollow, where everything looks perfect all the time, because honesty about female beauty is more important than ever.

I love Gilmore Girls!! If I ever have a daughter I might even name her Lorelai :)

… loin-fruit that she is, straggled out of bed to grace me with her presence? But then I asked myself,
The closest we see to disheveled is mussed-up hair

Here’s another thing saying pretty much this, about Sex and the City and a bunch of other shows which depict healthy looking women chowing down on junk food: The Myth Of Eating Actresses — And Why It’s Dangerous For Women from The Frisky

Also related: Is eating whatever you want really healthy? from Daily Life.

Gilmore Girls

In the first episode of Season Seven, Lorelai and Rory very uncharacteristically go to play ‘racquet ball’ (an easier version of squash?) but they don’t actually play — they sit on the floor and talk, like petulant teenage girls on strike during high school gym class. When two men walk into the room wanting to have an actual game, Lorelai tells them to go away — they’ve booked it for an hour.

As a fan of certain racquet sports, I find this behaviour extremely annoying. There are only a certain number of courts in the world, and people who don’t want to make actual sporting use of them should go home. To me, that scene feeds into stereotypes about girls and sport.

2. LACK OF AWARENESS OF THEIR OWN PRIVILEGE

I’m sure a lot has already been said about this: a story about rich white people living in the sort of fictional town which… well… really only exists in fiction. This is easy to criticise. I mean, in real life you don’t have a a busker creating music to the soundtrack of your very own internal dramas. In this sense, Gilmore girls is metafictive. The world does need way more stories about non-white people, granted. Should this be the show to do it? Probably not. The depictions of Lane’s Tiger Mom are stereo-typically Asian and we never do see Mrs Kim as a rounded character; she exists purely for entertainment. Ditto Michel Gerard, the concierge who works closely with Lorelai at the hotel. He is aloof and style-conscious in a stereo-typically French kind of way. This show isn’t about breaking into non-white subcultures.

What this show could do better, though, considering the age of its intended audience, is show some self-awareness of the privilege of its main cast.

For instance, there is an episode near the end of season one in which Lorelai takes Rory to taste test wedding cakes. It later emerges that she has no genuine interest in buying a wedding cake — she is only interested in sampling all the different flavours, for free. This isn’t said, but she’s doing this at the small-business owner’s expense. So although Lorelai Gilmore ran away from her privilege, finding it more stifling than helpful, she has the looks and the breeding and the skin-colour to fit neatly into a secure and fairly well-paid job at the hotel, and although the audience is reminded regularly that this was through Lorelai’s own sheer hard graft, in the real world, there was more to it than that. Lorelai Gilmore has the right accent and the right looks for running an inn, and no amount of hard graft is going to help many, many more women around the world working as hotel cleaners work their way into management by their early thirties.

gilmore!
I honestly don’t know if this is irony. Because yes, Lorelai Gilmore can (and briefly did).

The wedding cake taste-testing incident shows that Lorelai Gilmore lacks the moral compass to steers decent folk away from taking advantage of someone else’s time, even if that someone is a seemingly unimportant middle-aged woman who works in a wedding-cake shop.

Lorelai Gilmore completely misses the point.

In season five, episode fourteen, Rory borrows Logan’s limo and chauffeur to make an emergency trip to Stars Hollow. Upon returning the vehicle, she informs Logan that she ‘fed Frank a sandwich’, as in ‘I filled your car with petrol,’ or ‘I fed your monkey some nuts’. Did I need to mention that Frank is black?

Naturally, for those who watch further, the audience sees repercussions for privilege. Logan is indeed a problematic person whose own bad manners and gilded cage cause him grief. For the younger members of an audience, it’s perhaps worth pointing out the obvious.

That’s also why it’s important to keep watching until Season Six, where the theme of privilege and excess comes to a head. It feels at this point that all of what has come before has been in the sole aid of exploring what it means to be white and young and bright and pretty.

On the topic of Rory’s dropping out of Yale, I feel this failed somewhat in the narrative sense. It was too sudden. After watching five entire seasons of the strong-willed, kind, ever-sensible Rory Gilmore breeze through difficult social situations, offering wit and wisdom to her classmates, to suggest that the comments of one man could derail the plans she’s had for her entire life is not believable. In order for me to believe this of Rory, I needed to see more build-up. I needed to see increasing frustration with her life at Yale. I needed her to perhaps see through the bullshit privileged environment she found herself in. But no, Rory is mysteriously allured by Logan. I wonder if a younger audience has a problem with this love story. I find it unbelievable that a girl like Rory, who has seen both privilege and near-poverty (apparently) in her own family situations, would fall for Logan.

When Rory and Logan steal a yacht (at Rory’s suggestion) the idea of privilege is consciously explored when the judge expresses disgust at rich white kids using the world as their private playground, thereby increasing the number of community service Rory is required do. I feel a sense of unease that Rory’s misdemeanor raises her status among Logan’s friends, who throw a huge party in her criminal honour, each one of them dressing up in stripes. (Not far enough from the underprivileged version of ‘black face’, I feel.) When the camera is on Rory at her community service, the glossy cinematography of Stars Hollow doesn’t fit at all; nothing of the underclass is evident even though she is surrounded by those less privileged than herself. She is soon ordering the others around and they are (completely unbelievably) doing just as she tells them to do. Has she learnt anything at all from this experience? More importantly, has the young viewer?

In Season Six, even the privilege of Paris Geller is challenged after the tax office catches up with her parents. Paris becomes temporarily impoverished, which leads her to seek work in a kitchen at one of Rory’s events with the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), during which Marx suddenly makes complete sense to her. This article reminded me of that scene.

3. MODELLING OF BAD MANNERS

When main characters do bad things, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, the age of the Mary-Sue is over. I find it admirable that Rory Gilmore is written to be an excellent role-model who gets into three top universities through sheer diligence, and demonstrates her intelligence regularly by offering balanced commentary which is wise beyond her years. Such kids do exist. It’s hard to write a character like Rory Gilmore without fans eventually growing to hate her. Rory makes just enough mistakes.

The older Gilmore girls are a different matter. Emily Gilmore (as well as Richard Gilmore — by season four) are monstrous creatures, and I say this even though Emily Gilmore is strangely likeable, or perhaps just nice to watch. In a show designed for a tween audience, that’s okay, because at no stage is the audience invited to identify with either of the grandparent characters. The show is unquestionably about Lorelai and Rory.

But when Lorelai demonstrates bad manners and these bad manners go either unchecked or rewarded, this is another issue. The reason I consider this important is because Lorelai Gilmore is so obviously written to be a role model for viewers of adolescent age: a young, hip, fast-talking mum of the kind that exists in fantasy — the kind who is a teenage daughter’s best buddy. If you’re in any doubt about the power of a character such as Lorelai Gilmore, read this from a twenty-five year old fan of Gilmore Girls who has only more recently come to understand the character’s many shortcomings:

The show became a part of my identity, and also something sacred. A biblical text.

1. Lorelai Gilmore talks loudly and incessantly through every town meeting, every speech and even throughout someone’s funeral. Although she gets shushed quite often, this is always by a pesky old man character. Lorelai giggles and keeps on doing this. It reminds me of assemblies at a girls’ high school.

Gilmore Girls and Freaky Friday

2. Lorelai’s ability to manipulate men with flirtatiousness. During another funeral procession, Lorelai rushes up to the family member who has inherited a building and asks if she can buy it. Carrying the coffin,  he asks if they might discuss it later. Lorelai ignores his request and continues to harass the man. In the gets what the building she wanted, she and Sookie open their inn, and because this has been a longterm goal that the audience has been invited into caring about, to the viewer it seems she has got what she wanted because she was pushy and inconsiderate. I suppose this is a real-estate lesson in its own right. It’s also one you might want to discuss with your young co-viewer.

Gilmore Girls

3. Lorelai does not respect Luke’s ‘no’. A stunningly uncomfortable example of this happens at the beginning of Season Four, as Lorelai sets Rory up at Yale. Since Lorelai is overly-interfering in her daughter’s life (something so obvious I don’t need to go on about it at length here) that she insists Rory get a new mattress. Lorelai has arranged to borrow Luke’s utility van but Luke has said to get it back to him by a certain time, because he needs it. Of course there are mattress related dramas at Yale, and Lorelai ends up bringing home a second-hand mattress… late. Not only has she returned Luke’s vehicle later than he wanted, but she tries to get him to store the old mattress. Throughout that episode the perennially grumpy Luke continues to say no to Lorelai, and Lorelai continues with her pouty, ditzy act that attractive women of child-bearing age can often get away with, playing on the sexual tension that runs between Lorelai and Luke from the pilot episode. It might be worth explaining to a young viewer that good relationships happen when each partner respects the other. If you’re friends (or proto-lovers) with someone and you keep saying no and somehow you end up doing the thing you said no to, over and over again, that ain’t a good relationship. Saying no should be normal.

4. Lorelai actually doesn’t know when to shut-up. This is a big part of her quirky personality, and it’s part of what makes the scripting of Gilmore girls unique. But most of the time the audience is encouraged to find Lorelai’s outbursts cute rather than downright inappropriate. Let it not be said that Americans don’t do irony; Lorelai Gilmore has sarcasm in spades. At times Lorelai says what we all wish we could say, and at other times I feel the audience is invited to be complicit in a bitchy comment (about AV geeks, about someone’s clothing choice, about Kirk in particular) and I’m not sure a young audience is encouraged by the show itself to know the difference.

@Heidi Harris Someone needs to print this and frame it for Granny!

Though the AD/HD population is diverse and is not linked to ‘bad manners’, I think Lorelai Gilmore is an excellent fictional candidate for AD/HD. For many reasons, not least this one.

4. STOCK CHARACTERS WHO SIMPLIFY REAL LIFE ISSUES

What you get from Gilmore girls is a cast of hyperbolic characters. Every one of them has a stand out characteristic which makes them unique (though there is a disproportionate number of characters with OCD type quirks). The trick in drama, even in comedy drama, is to transcend the stock characters. Do characters like Paris really do this?

On screen fiction tends to tell the stories of the outward signs of OCD but more seldom gets into the darker, internal side of obsessive compulsive thoughts. Perhaps this is a failing of the screen compared to the novel. The difference is summarised here by Jody Michael.

Below we have the three girls most significant at Rory’s high school. When I first saw these characters, on Rory’s first day at Chilton, I was a little disappointed. First we have the overdone ‘mean girl’ — Paris, who does get more interesting as the series progresses. Paris is also a great example of a perfectionist who is so hell-bent on getting what she wants she ends up sabotaging her efforts. A lot of super-bright girls surely find themselves in a similar position. As a case study, Paris is fascinating.

The other two (Louise and Madeline) are ditzy rich girls who go boy-crazy after graduation. If this were a slightly more nuanced show, the relationships between these girls could have been written in a far more interesting way. Might tweens have got more out of Rory’s relationships with these three had the interactions been as nuanced as, say, the relationship between Lorelai and Luke, or Lorelai and Rory, or Lorelai and Emily? Instead, these relationships provide nothing more than a jump-off point into a range of bullying related issues, but the show itself does not offer the nuance; that’s up to the viewer. In real life, bullies do not always stand out a mile. Bullies are not always pretty. Most kids are bullies at least some of the time (including Rory, I might add, when she speaks disparagingly to the AV Guy). Bullying changes shape in senior high school. In this story, the overt nastiness typical of junior high school relationships continues through to the end of these girls’ time at Chilton. This doesn’t ring true.

There are still too few stories about the real nature of high school cliques, even though there are plenty of black-and-white mean girls in literature.

Gilmore girls

5. A SHOW WITH FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ISN’T NECESSARILY ALL THAT ACCEPTING OF WOMEN

In one of the earlier seasons, Luke is disgusted by a woman breastfeeding her baby in his cafe. Sure, Luke is disgusted by all sorts of things: children in general and mobile phones in particular. This makes for an interesting plot line when it turns out he has a 12 year old daughter. But the joking way in which Lorelai and Rory react to Luke’s disgust make them borderline complicit. Since there is plenty feminist of discrimination of women breastfeeding in public, anyone au fait with the disconnect between utility and the fetishization of the female breast may well feel uncomfortable with this particular scene.

In episode two of season five Lorelai makes disparaging comments about attending a venue full of women who had not shaved their legs. In Gilmore World, absences of grooming go punished. In the same episode, Lyndsay’s mother approaches Rory in the street and accuses Rory of being a homewrecker. At no point in that same episode is it said that it was not Rory who was married, and therefore Dean’s own fault for breaking up his own marriage.

By the way, there are a lot of jokes about prostitution.

Gilmore Girls

tumblr_m9afkamBF91qgmul2o1_250.jpg 250×350 pixels

I mention this not because I want to shield my daughter from knowing anything about the darker side of life, but because I don’t want my daughter to think, in a superior fashion, that being a ‘whore’ is somehow the best of all insults. That’s a long story, but suffice to say, using whore as an insult is not a very kind thing to do in a world where human trafficking is a huge problem, where lots of countries don’t look after their women and girls, and where the demand for female prostitution is as strong as it ever was in a world where we like to think women make ‘bad choices’.

Explain that one to a tween. Because all she’ll see is that ‘whore’ is an insult. Along with ‘slut’, and similar, with the flip-side being that virginity is a special prize.

To sum this issue up, this show is about women and contains a lot of feminist messages, but feminism has evolved a little since the mid 2000s.

(Bad Reputation blog has an interesting series of posts about widows, and Paris Geller gets a mention.)

6. TRADITIONAL VIEWS ABOUT SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS

To follow from the previous point, if you’re after ‘traditional’ for your tween daughter, this is what you get from Gilmore girls. What you may not get is ‘healthy’ and ‘progressive’.

Everybody’s scared of teenage girls, especially when they have sex. That’s well-known. “I’ve got the good girl,” Lorelai says to herself after over-hearing Rory admit to Paris that she never had sex with Dean. The implicit message is that Paris is the ‘bad girl’ for having sex with a boy… in her final year of high school.

What they are talking about is p-in-v sex, we presume. Until the end of season four, we only ever see Rory kissing, and I think it’s worth mentioning that we only see Rory kissing awkwardly. Alexis Bledel manages wordy scripts with ease, but where she does not shine as an actor is in any scene that requires intense emotion. She always looks supremely uncomfortable with her boyfriends. This makes me wonder about the ethics of asking young actors to perform in this way. The discomfort is so palpable that I wonder about the message: If Rory doesn’t seem to be really, truly enjoying the physical intimacy with her boyfriend, but has boyfriends anyway, are teenagers of high school age nevertheless obliged to make these relationships, even if they are bookish types?

The seasons get slightly more adult in theme as the viewers themselves grow up. When Rory loses her virginity (off-screen), the post-coital scene with Dean is as awkward as any ever were. The Event of Virginity Loss is a big plot point in any story for this audience, but I’d like to see a cultural shift in focus. Why was the break-up of Dean’s marriage resting upon the stretching of Rory’s hymen? Why wasn’t the marriage considered over before that, when it was clear that Rory and Dean had a close emotional connection? Something to discuss with young viewers is the murky definition of ‘cheating’ and ‘affairs’. How much weight do we as a culture heap upon simple physical acts? Is ‘virginity’ really that important? What counts as sex? Bill Clinton started that big conversation. I hope progressive culture has moved a little since Gilmore girls first aired, and that this storyline will continue to date badly. By Season Six, this emphasis on purity is questioned when Emily and Richard arrange for their Reverend to give Rory a talk about saving her ‘gift’ for one special man. Rory handles this with aplomb. (This is another reason why it’s important to watch Season Six.)

Rory’s third sexual partner is Logan. Gilmore girls continues to keep any actual sex off-screen, to the point where adult viewers might feel the relationship between Luke and Lorelai a little weird (though I can imagine it was a little weird for the actors, too, working with each other for several seasons before having to pretend intimacy. I don’t think I’d like to have to do sex scenes with a guy I’d been working with for four years.)

On the topic of Logan and Rory, it happens in Rory’s room at Yale. This scene could be the catalyst of an important conversation about consent with your adolescent daughter. Because as things between the two characters heat up, Logan says to Rory something along the lines of, ‘If you want me to leave, you’d better tell me now.’

This line is used a lot in fiction, and because of that, I’m guessing it’s used a lot in real life, too. (Robert Kincaid says it to Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, for example.)

A problem with this sentence, when used by one partner to indicate that (or ask if) sex is about to happen, is that it suggests an uncomfortable subtext. When Logan says this to Rory, it sounds a lot like, ‘If you don’t want sex then you’d better tell me to stop now, because I’m about to get so caught up in the heat of it that I won’t be able to stop at any point between now and completion, so if you don’t want the full menu, tell me to leave now.’ That is an ultimatum of sorts.

But actually it doesn’t work like that, does it. In fact, boys are fully capable of controlling themselves (if they want to), and a girl can negotiate from the full range of possibilities; sex is not an all-or-nothing proposition. When a boy (or a girl) says ‘If you don’t want this, tell me to leave now,’ it can sound creepily manipulative.

purity-culture-valenti

valenti02

from The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
from The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Other aspects of the sexual side of relationships are explored to a certain extent, and viewers will each make their own minds up about that. Rory experiments with an open relationship but when Logan decides he doesn’t want this, Rory is happy to drop everything for him.

Lorelai sleeps with Christopher after her second break-up with Luke, as a way to confirm to herself that her relationship with Luke is over. As a consequence she ends up using Christopher, and conveys to a young audience that this is one way of ending a relationship for good. Oh, and Luke storms round to Christopher’s house and sucker punches him. In real life, this can kill. (In Australia, the media now uses the term ‘coward punch’, after one such incident led to the death of a young man.)

Is it a teenage girl’s fantasy to have boys fight over her in this fashion? Should it be? Lorelai to Luke in the middle of the street: ‘Next time you get a hankering to punch someone’s lights out, take your anger out on me. I’m the one who deserved it.’ (I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean physically, but nor was it clear that she didn’t.)

7. PRODUCT PLACEMENT AND CONSUMERISM IN GILMORE GIRLS

As the seasons progress, we see more and more product placement (or perhaps I just never noticed it in the first few seasons). I wonder how much Birken paid for the episode in Season Six where Logan buys Rory a Birkin Bag. This is a bag which Emily has wanted her entire life. It’s talked about,  a lot.

The actor who plays Logan is very good, capable of expressing both stoned boredom and strong emotion.

In an earlier episode (Season Five, Episode 20), there is a scene before the opening credits in which Rory and Lorelai each watch their robot vacuum cleaners. Rory is at Yale and Lorelai is in Star’s Hollow. They are sharing a moment. This is probably the scene which smacks most strongly of product placement. It feels just like an advertisement for robot vacuum cleaners. (We don’t see them again.)

Like almost everything ever, we also see Rory working on an Apple laptop in her room at Yale. I wonder if someone on the set wanted a new Apple laptop that week?

Rory Gilmore and Apple Inc. Photograph
Ah, remember when Apple laptops were this huge? With colours?

I don’t think product placement is in itself a huge problem, and if you’ve made the decision to watch TV, you’re probably highly aware of it. But it’s something I would point out to a young viewer as part of media literacy.

The consumerism of the Gilmore girls, on the other hand, is over-the-top. When Lorelai orders fast food she orders enough for a football team (or perhaps a TV camera crew?). When the Gilmore girls go shopping they really go shopping. This would be realistic enough, I guess, if Lorelai were not a hotel manager, which would certainly pay enough to live a comfortable lifestyle (at least in this country) but not enough to waste money on ice-creams in winter before deciding it’s too cold for ice-cream and dumping it straight into the bin. Throwing food and goods out on a whim is a luxury most of the world does not have. And even if they did hypothetically have it, the environment cannot sustain that attitude towards material items.

Then there’s the unresolved issue of Lorelai’s borrowing a significant sum of money from Luke when she opens her own inn. Are we to assume she has paid it back before we see her jump straight back in to her wasteful spending? After breaking up with Luke (again) she throws out everything that reminds her of Luke, including a waffle maker because Luke made waffles. We never find out if she has paid Luke back.

8. ON THE SORE TOPIC OF SEASON SEVEN

I’d been prepped on this because The Internet does not collectively approve of season seven. A ‘truly stale Pop Tart’, even.This is the season that Sherman-Palladino did not write. Fans of the show saw a distinct change in tone and didn’t like how the plot progressed.

But since I’d basically been hate watching the first six seasons, I wondered if I might suddenly like the seventh? How’s that for logic?

I immediately detected a change in tone. When Kirk ploughs into the side of Luke’s diner, Rory’s retelling of the incident to Lorelai shows an uncharacteristic lack of empathy for Luke, who inherited the building from his father. Likewise, it’s not like Rory to be reflecting nauseatingly about what Logan’s gift of a rocket meeeeans for their relationship. The pre-season-seven Rory Gilmore would not have pretended to know its significance when her absent boyfriend calls to ask if she ‘got it’ (the rocket and the joke). This is especially infuriating after six seasons (almost — apart from her reason for taking a break from Yale, which was also out of character) of Rory Gilmore being the level-headed, wise one.

Do the new writers really get the character? Even her dialogue sounds a bit more ‘Valley Girl’ (as it’s apparently known), with more ‘likes’ and ‘I mean’s and various hedge phrases. Why? Why do this, when the fast-paced witty dialogue is really the thing that makes this show standout from various others on the Disney channel? This was especially obvious in Rory’s first scene in episode two of this season, as she complains to Lorelai about how much she wanted to travel the world (presumably on her boyfriend’s money), but her rich boyfriend doesn’t want to see her until Christmas. Rory even says ‘Oh yay’ and ‘Nutso!’ to which Lorelai responds ironically ‘Spoken like a true grown-up’. I sense from this counter dialogue that the writers are aware of what they’re doing to Rory, but they’re doing it anyway. After a while the dialogue seemed to regain its usual tone, but perhaps I just readjusted my expectations. For a while it seemed as if Luke’s daughter April had become ‘the new Rory’.

As for Lorelai, I’m convinced the season seven writers don’t think much of this character, because Lorelai Gilmore’s faults seem magnified, somehow. She talks all the way through a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity at Yale University’s parents’ weekend. She’s not talking about astrophysics, by the way, but complaining that Emily has attended even though she’s not a parent but a grandparent. Earlier that day we saw Lorelai prepare for her trip to France by listening to a Teach-Yourself-French CD. Instead of attempting the actual French, she thinks it’s hilarious to speak the English in a mock-French accent, which I’m sure the French will think hilarious. By this point it’s cringeworthy. The writers could have done something more clever such as have Lorelai make a genuine mistake, or crack a French pun — after all, the character of Lorelai Gilmore is supposedly very smart.

HOWEVER. Honestly, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the writer who left at the end of season six, left season six in a mess. It was a difficult job for the writers of season seven to claw the plot back ‘on track’, and although the final episode was predictable, I felt that it tied everything up nicely. There was no ‘rescued by a rich boy’ kind of happy ending, and I have to admit I had been dreading that possibility.

SO IS GILMORE GIRLS ANY GOOD? QUALITY-WISE?

TV-wise:

The characters are exaggerations and the non-white characters are caricatures.

Small-town life is equally caricatured, and nothing important ever seems to happen without the whole town assembling, or pressing their noses against a window (quite literally, at one point in Luke’s Diner). In other words, if it doesn’t happen in front of an audience, it doesn’t have the same gravity. This is a narcissistic show.

On that point, the actors always look as if they’re performing on a stage. This is part of the style, and is partly due to the fast-talking, but can be annoying if naturalistic is your thing.

The usual cheap tricks of long-running sitcoms are employed. It annoyed me that they used the very same actress (who you may even recognise from Twin Peaks) to play two different characters.

Some scenes are definitely tighter than others. There’s no real suspense — this is coziness itself — and the cliff-hanger at the end of each season is of average intensity, usually revolving around relationship conflict. This elevates the role of the Gilmore girls’ relationships with men to an important plane, despite being outwardly a show about mothers and daughters and female friendships.

If you watch the episodes too close together, Lorelai’s relationship cycle is extremely irritating. PICK A MAN, ALREADY. OR DON’T. JUST DON’T.

For a younger audience:

There’s something very calm and embracing about the atmosphere of Stars Hollow and surrounds. This is pure, unthinking escapism. In that regard, Gilmore girls works, and it would also work for girls whose lives are far less stable and privileged than that of Rory Gilmore. It’s nice to pretend that we are Rory Gilmore, insofar as that leap is possible. The coziness might well have the opposite effect, of reinforcing to a girl in the opposite of Rory’s position just how lucky other people can be.

Rory Gilmore is a fairly rare character in that she is a smart, feminine girl who the audience sees actually studying. She doesn’t magically come up with all the answers behind the scenes, playing sidekick to two boys. Rory makes certain things cool: coffee, flowing dresses and reading for pleasure. Throughout seven seasons, Rory is shown reading a wide variety of books. Here’s the Rory Gilmore reading list. This show might even prompt a non-reading fan to pick up some of these books. (I’ve only read 27 of them, but I aim to read many more before I’m dead.)

And here is a list of fictional TV characters who love reading. And The Lisa Simpson Book Club Tumblr. (Lisa Simpson is still the best and greatest female TV character, IMO. Everything I say about Rory Gilmore uses Lisa as a yardstick.)

What else to do, after you watched all of the Gilmore Girls?

You could watch Bunheads, but don’t get too into it because you will find it stops abruptly: The Cancellation of Bunheads: Why TV’s Most Underrated Show Deserved Better

There is, naturally, a Bunheads Wiki for true enthusiasts.

Or you could read Lauren Graham’s YA Book.

Where Are They Now? — Lots of actors had small parts on Gilmore Girls and then made it big.

What I Learned From Growing Up With Rory Gilmore from Bitch Media

Gilmore Girls And Third Wave Feminism from Candice, points out that Sooki St James was originally intended to be lesbian but networks weren’t ready. Also, Luke was originally a woman but notes came back that there needed to be ‘more testosterone’.  Also more on the topic of lack of diversity.

Gilmore Girls turned this viewer into a feminist.

8 Lessons Gilmore Girls Taught Me About Feminism

An academic paper on the Gilmore girls versus reality

3 Excellent Books About 9 Year Old Girls

The following three books are all about 9 year old girls and the reviews below are from Kate De Goldi on her regular children’s book slot on Saturday Morning With Kim Hill (Radio New Zealand).

Although these books have their protagonist’s gender and age in common, their ambience is different. All three of them are also books that have grown out of previous literary traditions, referencing other works. All of these books leave space between the lines, without over-explaining. This is partly what makes them seem more believable. [I can’t wait to read them for myself.]

 

The gap between prize-winning books and books that are best-sellers, which are talked about and promoted a lot.

The two books on this list which have won big awards (the first two as yet) exemplify that gap. They are incredibly literary but also accessible. There is intellect and emotional intelligence behind them. These are the kinds of books that are really important for children because they teach children how to think about things in different things that may not otherwise come across.

The Higher Power Of Lucky by Susan Patron

This is a good crossover novel. There’s a musicality in the writing and the most endearing of characters.

There was a controversy around this book and it has been banned by certain libraries. The reason becomes apparent after reading the first two paragraphs which is about something overheard at an alcoholics anonymous meeting and includes the word ‘scrotum’, which is what got it banned.

We are thus planted firmly in the world of reality. This is a book peopled with true-to-life characters. Yet the writer brilliantly channels her idea and possibly her memory of a nine-year-old’s worldview. She has achieved a highwire act in balancing the informed worldview of an adult writer but making it seem totally through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

The premise of the story is that Lucky has misunderstood something her foster/stepmother has said and thinks she’s going to be abandoned.

The two sequels are pretty good as well.

 

Flora and Ulysses by Kate di Camillo

This is SF for children because Ulysses is a squirrel who has been given superpowers by being sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

The language in this book is complex, and demonstrates wider understanding of literature, for example in the way comic books are not accepted as proper literature. The characters are excellent, as are the friendships.

But the genius here is that di Camillo has written something demanding but also accessible and very interesting to its target audience. There’s no reason why a book cannot be both of those things, as demonstrated by this one. An 8 year old would understand exactly what’s going on.

The adults are viewed with quite a lot of scepticism by the children.

 

Dappled Annie and the Tigrish by Mary McCallum

More beautiful writing: clear, clean but textured.

There’s an animism underlying the whole story. The protagonist has made friends with a hedge. This requires an imaginative leap on the part of the reader. Having hedges uproot themselves and run off could easily be twee or whimsical, but this story isn’t like that at all. The writing is so muscular, beautiful and persuasive. The visuals are beautiful.

The setting must be somewhere between the 50s and the 80s – because of the lighthouse — you can’t quite tell the exact era but this doesn’t matter, which is an achievement in itself. The story thus appeals across the ages.

Picturebook Study: The Rainbow by Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers

rainbow-crew

 

Published in 2001 by Lothian Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Books specialising in Australian tales), this is an adventure story about three boys who find something gruesome in the wild. I was reminded a little of Stand By Me.

rainbow-crew-characters

 

This story is written from first person point of view, and the reader is therefore encouraged to identify with this voice. This is the voice of a younger brother, who tags along with his older brother and friend. Like the reader, the first-person narrator is an outsider. This makes it easy to identify with him. In the picture above, the narrator is shown trailing behind. The two older boys are together, both physically and emotionally. The younger boy is also a bookish boy, who writes of his love of storytelling. He loves that his teacher reads Robinson Crusoe aloud. This is the sort of character oft picked to be the narrator: Such lovers of everyday beauty are the best characters for picking out details.

As you can see, the landscape is distinctively Australian, with the ochre pastels depicting local fauna. Pastel is a good choice for depicting characters who stand in for the ‘everyreader’. Pastel does not allow the depiction of fine details, so like the most rudimentary smiley face icon, these featureless faces could be anyone. They could even be you. There is also something eerie about a featureless face, and this book offers eerie in broad, Australian daylight. The strength of pastel as a medium is in its ability to render texture. The texture of the footpath looks beautiful on the page. The picture of a boy’s shadow next to a police officer’s feet also gets around the problem that medium to close up shots would have — the boys’ faces are able to remain indistinct to the reader.

rainbow-crew-pastel

 

 

Death is uncomfortably close in this story — the circle of life is explored from the start, when the little brother expresses concern about feeding one little fish to a bigger one. The older boy tells him that this is the law of nature. ‘I don’t suppose you ever eat lamb roast on weekends?’ In this way, child readers are asked to think about their own role in the cycle of life and death.here is the story of a girl’s drowning years before. The illustration to accompany this text on the recto side of the page shows dark corners, shaded from the sun by trees, and dark water holes which remind me of traditional illustrations of Waltzing Matilda. (And we all know how that ended.) Even the father is gone, mentioned in past tense. The ephemeral nature of objects themselves is also part of the story. ‘My drawings for the Audrey were gone, although that was to be expected. Certain things aren’t made to last.’

There is big talk of the kind frequently seen in storybooks — the bigger boys tell the younger, more gullible boy made up tales about things they have seen floating down the river, including a hand waving from a caravan. The younger boy says it was probably The Queen, lending a little bit of humour, and this almost always has the effect of making a dark tale darker.

And then all three boys get spooked after happening upon bones. The carcass looks ominously human. After alerting an uninterested policeman, they learn that these are dog bones. Although there is no human death in the world of this story, it is just distant enough to be a menace. In many stories for children, dogs are as human as the characters, so although the death is brushed off by the adult, the death of a dog is significant for a child. It is a death all the same.

There is another small death, of sorts, at the end of the book when the younger boy sits by a window. Geoffrey and Bruce are no longer interested in playing with him much at the creek — they only go down to the creek if they can take girls. This is the death of childhood, seen first in the older boys, but which is inevitably coming for the younger one too.

What about the crystal, found when the narrator went back to the creek to look for his mother’s lost hammer? The crystal makes a rainbow across his page, like the one he saw right before they found the dog bones. Rainbows can symbolise many things of course, but in this story I think that the intermittent appearance of rainbows symbolise those flashes and memories of childhood we get, even after the mystery and childlike wonder of the world has dissipated. Like the character in Chris Allburgh’s The Polar Express, this child narrator grows up, but manages to cling onto some of the beauty of boyhood.

 

3 Retro Picturebooks

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three ‘animal’ picturebooks on Radio New Zealand.

Blue Moon Bird by Sabrina Malcolm

This picturebook is really charming. Sabrina Malcolm is principally an illustrator, possibly best known to New Zealanders via her collaboration with Melanie Drury on Koro’s Medicine.

De Goldi was drawn to it but at first couldn’t work out why. Then she realised it was probably the slightly retro feel. The illustrations have a palette and design influenced by the 70s. That’s deliberate of course. Even the toys are retro. The pictures are intricate. The MC has red hair of course, like all good heroes and heroines!

This is a very simple, modest, unassuming story with a very alluring opening, echoing people as various as Roald Dahl, but other authors right through storyland history. The story is incredibly compacted.

The text is very beautifully designed throughout, incorporated into the visuals.

The middle page spread is particularly beautiful.

The story is about loneliness and friendship. Shaun Tan explored those same ideas with The Lost Thing (in an entirely different way, of course).

The writing is very economical. The pictures star, but the writing is also very good. There’s a lot of momentum.

This is an adventure a boy has all by himself. The adult caregivers are mentioned but never actually there, so the young readers know the boy has safe harbour.

Blue Moon Bird would be a lovely story to read to an under 5.

 

Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

Mal Peet is an English author and illustrator best known for young-adult fiction:

Elspeth Graham is Mal Peet’s wife. They have collaborated on two beautiful picturebooks which have been illustrated by some wonderful artists. Elspeth does a lot of work on books for young/learner readers, and does a lot of research for those books. She comes up with an idea that entrances her for one reason or another. For Cloud Tea Monkeys she got very interested in merchants who took long, dangerous journeys to find foodstuffs. She and Mal go for walks. She talks passionately, then he picks up the ball and then writes the story. They didn’t meet the artists at all. These days it’s much more likely that you’ll have had discussion with your artist.

These stories are beautifully written.

The sentences are of varying lengths. The word choice is excellent, and unusually for a picturebook, the colon and semi-colon is used beautifully as well. (It’s a triumph!)

In terms of a story to grip, first of all it paints a place, a child, a culture and then the line, ‘Inside the house, the mother coughed.’ Twice, because this is going to be really important to the story.

The illustrations are by Juan Wijngaard, who is Dutch, born in Argentina, and studied art in Britain but now lives in California. He has also illustrated the work of some brilliant authors such as Jan Mark and William Mayne.

Cloud Tea Monkeys is enchantingly old fashioned (which is by no means a criticism). This is old-fashioned in quite a different way from Sabrina Malcolm’s work — the illustrations in this book are reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There are little line drawings throughout, but they are framed on the opposing side of the text, which is very much like books from the 50s and 60s.

Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

The artwork in Mysterious Traveller is equally beautiful. P.J. Lynch is an Irish artist.

Again, the story is alluring in the Arabian Nights kind of way. A baby is left by travellers who get caught in a sandstorm, found and raised by a man. She eventually becomes his eyes.

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham wanted to write picturebooks that were longer than usual because they grew sick of having to read nine picturebooks every night before bed. Kim Hill hesitates before calling these picturebooks because the text is so thrilling. [This includes some assumptions about picturebooks!] These fall somewhere between chapterbooks and picturebooks. It probably would take a couple of nights to read a single story.

The words on the tongue are a genuinely sensuous experience.

These are gift books — books that will be read over and over again.

Well done Walker Books for bringing us back to that kind of book, and well done to Mal and Elspeth for insisting on it.