Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a silly, fun film, designed to appeal to an audience of teenage boys. The film was produced by Judd Apatow. The script was written by its star, Jason Segel. Some critics have applauded the film for turning the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope on its head.
I don’t aim to review the entire film because then I’d have to watch the entire film, but I’d like to offer a single scene as an example of storytelling which can have damaging real life consequences, depending on what the audience brings.
In common with all Judd Apatow movies, beautiful young women are found at every turn and they all seem to find the underdog Joe Shmoe lead attractive. A classic male fantasy, it would seem.
The problem with this scene, even as fantasy: Jason Segel’s character appears before the receptionist as a stranger. He ‘just so happens’ to be holidaying at the very same resort. Next (as shown in the clip) he makes an awkward (but also really creepy) ironic joke about coming to the hotel to kill his ex-girifriend. Then he laughs, because OBVIOUSLY, that’s just a joke, right?
Any intelligent woman in Mila Kunis’s position would hear alarm bells. She already knows he can’t afford the only room available. She would back away from the desk and hope he leaves soon.
The statistics around stalking and real world intimate partner violence should shock us all. The most dangerous time for a woman — the time she’s most likely to be killed — is when she has just left a man who was formerly an intimate partner. (Rachel the receptionist knows exactly when this pair of strangers broke up because she’s just been told.)
Stalking is still not illegal in many countries, but this is slowly changing. Stalking became an offence in England and Wales in 2012. “About 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.” Here in Australia, stalking laws were first introduced in the 1990s, but it has always been very difficult to prove someone’s behaviour constitutes stalking. “Stalking, as a discrete concept, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, relatively unknown until towards the end of the 20th century.”
In Western society, we have a very strong cultural belief in the romance and intensity of unrequited love as a narrative that conveys magnificent emotional intensity of which humanity is capable. Whether this narrative ends in the object appreciating and reciprocating the love, or the subject dying nobly through loss of this love, the general theme is one which has gained cultural reification across the centuries, enough to be celebrated in literature, performance art and the continuation of historical accounts.
The audience of Forgetting Sarah Marshall knows that Jason Segel’s character is not stalking his recent girlfriend. We know it’s a complete coincidence that he’s at the same hotel. There’s even a setting reason given for the coincidence.
But sometimes, in real life, like the receptionist in that scene, we encounter someone desperately looking for a family member. “Have you seen this woman?” he asks. “I’m so worried about her. I haven’t seen her in a week. I’m worried she may have done something stupid…”
If you ever encounter someone asking you that, I want you to use Rachel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as your negative role model.
Never give details of a woman’s whereabouts to a man who is looking for her. She may have left him for a damn good reason. You can’t tell whether a man is dangerous from his affable Hawaiian shirt, his underdog sob story or his everyman looks. If you’re in attendance for an estranged couple’s encounter, do what you can to keep the woman safe. Maybe don’t check in her former boyfriend if you’re running a resort… because statistics.
It’s also possible a woman doesn’t need help in keeping safe. The backstory might be completely different. But that’s for the authorities to work out. In this scene, the look on Kristen Bell’s face offers more than enough information about her discomfort, and an empathetic character such as Rachel the receptionist would have picked that up.
I haven’t forgotten that these are fantasy women, written, directed and produced by men.
And if everyone watching that scene understood all of that about women and who tends to stalk and murder who, I might accept Forgetting Sarah Marshall as pure entertainment. Instead I worry that movie scripts function as subconscious real life scripts.
Good People is a 2014 film with a screenplay written by Kelly Masterson, based on the novel by Marcus Sakey. This is not a quality film. That said, the ideological issues have remained wholly untouched by paid reviewers, who focused on the problems within the action thread of the plot. Good People is an excellent example of why we need more feminist film critics, not to mention women in the writers’ rooms. The human-relationship thread of this plot makes for a faux-feminist story, created in a room full of men.
The Moral Dilemma of Good People
Discovering a stash of cash in their dead tenant’s apartment, a couple in debt take the money and find themselves the target of a deadly adversary – the thief who stole it.
With a premise like that, the audience is encouraged to scrutinise our own moral code. The story thus begins, with a clear (though contrived) moral dilemma:
If you found a stash of dirty money would you hand it in to the cops?
What if you were about to lose a house you’d been working on?
What if you were about to be evicted from your flat?
What if you desperately wanted to procreate but couldn’t afford IVF?
How far would you go to keep it?
An Overview of Criticism
It’s a little unfair to criticise the film for its unrealistic action thread. Fans of realism should steer clear, but you could argue equally, a realistic romp into London’s gangland is not what this film is about:
Crime thrillers typically have an advantage over the public in that their depictions of illicit worlds need only to look believable. The vast majority of us who aren’t gangsters and detectives require little to be convinced of the realism. But here, viewers will repeatedly call into question the far-fetched nature of scenes designed to keep the plot moving in a contrived fashion.
Reviewer Jane Crowtheruses the term ‘morally dubious’ to describe the decisions made by the characters, in which ‘cold-blooded murder with DIY tools turns out to be entirely excusable, and strangely in a film ostensibly about consequences goes completely unchallenged.’
Good People reminds reviewers most strongly of Straw Dogs, in which characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are terrorised in their home by thugs. Unfortunately the madcap sequence reminds others of Home Alone, which undermines its adult action-thriller cred.
Both films star the ‘ordinary’ guy who is economically unfortunate. Except Llewellyn lives in a trailer and — let’s be real — Anna and Tom of this film are hardly destitute, and if they are, it’s their own damn fault. (More on that below.)
There is a range of ‘evil’ in the opposition web, ranging from common crims right up to a sociopathic, cold-blooded murderer who isn’t in crime for the money anymore, but is propelled forth by his own moral code. He’s in it for vengeance and power. The degrees of bad in the baddies is the best thing about this film, though their evil is completely undermined when they’re proved so easy to trick. (A teacher kills them without using a gun. They have guns.)
The husband makes a decision that implicates his wife, all without telling her. But she sticks by her man and goes along with him.
Soon she is drawn into the trouble, along with a peripheral woman who is used as collateral damage. In No Country For Old Men it’s the wife’s elderly mother. In this one it’s the wife’s best friend and her baby. The female friendship feels completely unrealistic. Women aren’t in the habit of saying shit like, “You’re in a bad mood. Are you on your period?” Not if they’re actually friends, that is. These women are meant to be friends, make no bones about it. The strength of their friendship is tested later in the plot. Male writers need to do better when writing women. A good place to start would be this: Treat women as if women are human, without feeling the need to embellish with extra ‘femaleness’ stuff like talking about menstruation in the one scene when men are out of the room. (This awfully written conversation cancels out the passing of the Bechdel test.)
Then there’s the track with the cop. The cop in this one has a predictable backstory of a dead daughter, who overdosed on drugs. This can be done well. It’s not done well here. The psychology of the bereft cop remains wholly unexplored, whereas in the much better written Happy Valley, the emotions of the police officer who has lost her daughter are more fully explored, including the psychological toll of grief and trauma. Only then does death of a daughter avoid feeling like a cheap gimmick to satisfy the ‘ghost‘ section of the character. (The cop’s wife only exists to make him look better in her reflection — she, like Anna, supposedly works in a caring role.)
The problem here: the storytellers think they have created likeable people. We know this because we can see them pulling out all the writerly tricks. But Tom and Anna are not likeable. Now that is a problem.
Genz does his best to make us like them – they’re grafters in a rough patch who do all those things Hollywood would have us do, like have sushi nights when fertility levels are high or go running along the Thames.
Apart from the obnoxious jogging and expensive sushi and wine nights, that is. It’s worth taking a closer look at why I do not like this couple. Others may feel differently, perhaps because they like the actors. My response went like this:
The physical chemistry between Tom and Anna is depicted as great, but this is masking a deeper problem with their relationship — massive, destructive deception. And the deception is wholly one-sided. (More on that below, but this is the huge sinker for me.)
We’re meant to feel sorry for this guy because he’s been working so hard on this house. (Anna tells her friend he’s ‘always at the house’.) This is a guy who is a hard worker. We’re meant to respect that. But it turns out they inherited the house. They didn’t work hard for that. I know how much housing costs in London. The minute they inherited that massive reno project, this couple were millionaires. If they’re about to lose their wholly inherited fortune, it’s their own stupid fault. I don’t warm to stupid characters.
I don’t like that these are Americans living in London. I feel like this is not their turf. (The book keeps them in America.) I don’t feel they’re part of the landscape. Also, why didn’t they just return to America as soon as shit hit the fan? For them that was always a viable option. They never even discuss it as a possibility.
When the detective visits the house, they’re sitting in the kitchen and the wife answers questions on behalf of her husband. This is insufferable. She’s meant to be doing a bad job of masking her anxiety due to having stolen dirty money, but it’s a super annoying conversational tic in general. She also overshares, to the consternation of the husband. This shows how fish-out-of-water this woman is. Generally, Londoners are not known to overshare with strangers.
Anna is supposed to be a teacher, which is supposed to mean she’s good with babies and children and all the rest, but we never see her doing her job. I know how busy teachers are. I taught in London. Teachers get home at about 7pm each night. But okay, maybe this is summer holidays. Still, if the writers wanted to imbue Anna with some of that teacherly empathy for humankind, they could’ve included one scene in which she’s with the kids that she teaches. She could have been lovingly preparing lessons. Or something to show she’s also got an actual proper job other than getting herself pregnant. (And she does get herself pregnant. We never see her husband go to the IVF clinic with her, which suggests the writers don’t know how IVF works. Or worse, they’re suddenly meant to have conceived naturally, now that the husband’s manliness — or virility — has been put to the test and he passed?)
That scene where we Anna is actually super creepy. Any contemporary audience is used to stories in which an infertile woman steals a baby. This is meant to rely on desperation and grief experienced by women who ‘fail’ to give birth to her own. (In reality, men tend to feel more grief than women when deprived of the chance to become fathers.) When Anna kisses that baby’s head I’m half expecting Anna to steal her friend’s child. That is really not what the writers were going for at all. It takes me a while to get past this possibility in my head.
Anna reveals herself as completely unlikable when she turns up to ‘pet’ her best friend’s baby, then declares that the godmother duty does not involve washing. (It totally would. How hard would it be to offer to take a load of washing home?) This is a soon-to-be mother who has no idea how big a deal it is for a washing cycle to halt when there’s a baby to take care of.
Problems With The ‘Strong Female Character’ Archetype
Good People is an excellent example of why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has fallen out of favour. At first glance it may seem Anna makes for a more feminist film because the writers have afforded her agency. Llewellyn’s wife (whose name I’d have to look up) accepts her fate with grace but she makes no decisions of her own, caught up in a web of male greed and violence. In Good People, Anna is soon revealed to be just as scheming and dangerous as her husband when put to the test. Anna becomes a trickster character, who manages to kill experienced murderers through wit and planning alone.
But female agency alone does not make for satisfying feminist entertainment. There is another huge problem with this film, to do with the underlying ideology.
At the beginning of the film the audience follows Tom and we learn information Anna doesn’t have. This ‘good’ husband tells his work partner that he’s gone over budget (by double!) on the house renovations but he hasn’t told his wife. Then he goes home and is served with an eviction notice. When Anna comes in smiling and happy, ready to have sex with him, he slides the eviction notice under a pile of papers and avoids telling her about any of this.
Clearly, Tom is not a good husband. In real life, this would count as economic abuse.
Partway through the movie, Anna reveals that she knows more about their financial situation than Tom realised. Wives are commonly portrayed in stories as all-seeing, all-knowing — as if women have some animalistic extra sensory perception. Cute. Tom refuses to admit their imminent eviction, however. He hasn’t yet admitted it to himself, you see. We’re supposed to admire his fortitude: He tells his wife that he has some jobs coming up and she doesn’t need to worry. The main issue — the relationship-crumbling issue — is that Tom lied to his wife… so that she wouldn’t worry. This is a man who not only loses their joint fortune, but who infantilises his life partner.
Anna is the ‘cool girl’ archetype. Any self-respecting woman would confront her partner about his enormous deceit. This never happens. Instead she matches her husband in his masculine bravado, and the audience is encouraged to conclude that, wherever our own morals lie, the wife is just as bad as the husband. This aspect is very Gone Girl, which is where the cool girl archetype entered popular culture as a trope. 2014 was also the year Gone Girlhit cinemas. But rather than critique the trope, the writers of Good People are oblivious to it.
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
the Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Good People is clearly a wish fulfilment thriller, in which (supposedly) relatable characters get to go on an adventure without leaving home. They get to exact vengeance on some truly terrible baddies, making London into a (supposedly) better place. They don’t get to keep the huge bag of money, but they come out with what they wanted most of all: a pregnancy.
Clearly, the writers have aimed for a fleshed-out human angle to run alongside the wish-fulfilment action plot. But as so often happens in action thrillers written by a room full of men, the human angle has been completely mucked up. They failed to subvert a sexist trope, instead reinforcing it. They failed to show a healthy relationship, despite their best intentions. In genuinely healthy relationships the partners are economic equals. They speak to each other with honesty. Yet here they are, freshly pregnant, about to drive into the sunset to outro music which suggests this is a woman who will stick by her lying, economically abusive husband no matter what.
More than that, the film has ‘proven’ her to be ‘just as bad(-ass)’ as he is.
Dumplin is a 2018 young adult film based on the 2015 novel by Julie Murphy.
Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.
Like Whip It!, Dumplin is set in a small Texas town in which the tradition of beauty pageantry, and the attendant ideology, divide women into those who subscribe to Pageantry Values and those who do not. Stories set in the world of beauty pageantry create conflict ripe for exploring themes such as:
What it means to be a woman
How women with completely different views can learn to get along in this world as true allies
Since the world of beauty pageantry is a heterotopia, the audience is more likely to identify with the character who is coming into this subculture as an outsider.
CHARACTERS OF DUMPLIN
Women tend to be presented as those who’ve taken the red pill and those who’ve taken the blue*. These days, borrowing from the language of religion, we say ‘woke’ versus ‘not woke’. But this division has been around for as long as the feminist movement has been around. There’s a scene in Six Feet Underwhen Clare tries getting an office job for a while. She complains about the mandatory nylon hose, and complains to a non-woke female co-worker that it’s not fair women have to wear such torturous items. The co-worker says, “Well the men have to wear ties,” as if ties and hose are equal in the comfort department. This interaction served to illuminate two very different types of women, who must nonetheless learn to get along.
* I bet you’re thinking of The Matrix, but don’t forget the idea originated in children’s literature, with Lewis Carroll.
The feminine divide is at its most fraught between mothers and their daughters, in which case a generation gap is also manifest. For this reason, the setting of a beauty pageant is often peopled by a mother who is big into pageantry and a daughter who is decidedly not.
Occasionally, as in Little Miss Sunshine, participation in a beauty pageant is driven wholly by the daughter, with the bemused, fish-out-of-water family along for the ride. However, Little Miss Sunshine is an atypical inversion on the norm.
The ‘rebel daughter’ character in this set-up will have a best friend who shares her basic values but who will also function in the story as the ally who challenges the girl’s views, encouraging her to examine the exact nature of her rebellion, and refining it in to something more manageable for existing among polite society. In Dumplin, the character of Ellen performs this function, and for a good portion of the film the girls are estranged.
Julie Murphy draws on personal experience to create the character of Willowdean (aka Dumplin), who is about halfway there in terms of accepting her body as it is, but has yet to jump the final hurdle. That ‘final hurdle’ is revealed in the Anagnorisis phase of the story, but at the beginning Murphy is good at setting Willowdean up as a fully-developed character:
Her psychological shortcoming is inevitable, after a childhood living in a society where her body is of an unacceptable size and shape. Willowdean does not have the confidence to live life to the fullest, with the ultimate test being ‘getting a hot boyfriend’.
Willowdean’s moral shortcoming is more pronounced in the book than on the screen, where saying this sort of thing out loud would seem even worse than putting it down on paper:
“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.
In the film, Willowdean acknowledges to her best friend that she feels like a bad person, but she doesn’t want to call another fat girl ‘stupid’. In the film, there is no BMI difference between Willowdean and Millie — instead, Willowdean despises her for being ‘stupid’.
It says something terrible about our culture that despising someone for being stupid is more relatable than transferring your own body issues onto someone else. I mean, it’s terrible that there is a hierarchy of terribleness in our fictional characters. It’s quite possible that in ten years time, even this modification for the screenplay — from very fat to stupid — will look horribly outdated. (Well, we live in hope.)
On the other hand, the audience is fully encouraged to criticise Willowdean for thinking these things, and it is later revealed that Millie’s apparent stupidity is actually something else: Enforced Christian politeness and a people-pleasing attitude which overrides her own sense of autonomy.
Willowdean’s outer desire is to join the beauty pageant to teach her mother a lesson — that her pageant stuff is stupid and she’s a fool for being so heavily involved, and for living in the past, when she peaked as crowned winner back in 1991.
Below that conscious desire, Willowdean wants her mother to really see who she is, and to accept her for who she is without constantly asking her to change.
Society in general is another opposition, personified by groups of boys who point out her fatness in public, as if she didn’t already know.
Willowdean’s argument with her best friend goes into another aspect of fat politics — is a skinny (read: not fat) girl ever able to fully understand what it’s like to be fat? Can she ‘join the revolution’? I did like this storyline because it reminded me of my own high school experience. I do think that with sufficient listening and awareness that a skinny person can achieve a passable handle on fat politics. So I like how that relationship evolves, very much. I also like that Ellen seems, on the outside, to conform exactly to the dominant beauty ideal, yet as she explains to Willowdean in the car, she can never escape the constant criticism which is attendant with existing in a female body. Her boyfriend points out her pimples, for instance, and she goes numb. The closer a girl conforms to the beauty ideal, the more society picks on the tiniest imperfections.
When Willowdean finds her dead aunt’s entry form into the 1991 beauty pageant which she never entered, Willowdean takes this opportunity to honour her memory (and help with her own grieving process) by entering it herself as the first fat girl to do so.
There are various barriers to this, of course:
Persuading her mother to sign her entry form
Coming up with a ‘talent’ when she doesn’t have any
Finding a suitable fashion style
The plan takes Willowdean and her assortment of fellow rebels (not yet friends) on a mythic journey to a bar, where Willowdean is introduced to people her dead auntie once knew. Drag queens perform the songs of Dolly Parton. Because Drag Queens are transgressive in their fashion choice, outside the cultural norm, one of the drag queens takes Willowdean under his wing and performs the narrative function of a fairy godmother dressing Cinderella for her ball.
Meanwhile, Willowdean is being actively pursued by the hot guy she works with at the fast food restaurant — a guy who looks a lot older than Willowdean in the film, by the way. He sucks on a lollipop stick in the way bad boys more commonly suck on a cigarette, giving him comical, inverse cowboy cred. We conclude this boy is right for Willowdean because he, too, refuses to conform to the norm. (At least, I think it’s a lollipop stick?)
The anagnorisis and Battle phases of this story are inverted somewhat, or to put it another way, the Anagnorisis occurs in parts, taking place across several scenes around the Battle.
In a beauty pageant story, the big struggle is probably the beauty competition itself (or in Whip It, the beauty competition was replaced by a roller derby comp.)
Dumplin shares this in common with Pixar’s Brave. In both stories, the young heroine gives an impassioned, didactic speech to a crowded room, showing that she has had her Anagnorisis (most of it) before the Battle sequence has fully begun. In Dumplin, I’m talking about Willowdean’s onstage speech about loyalty, which she describes as the signifier of true friendship. (At its heart this is a “Who’s Your True Friends?” story.)
Here’s the important rule I’m noticing if you want to create a story in which the main character’s Anagnorisis comes BEFORE the Battle. (Because for the audience, this is an unexpected inversion.)
The main character may well get her Anagnorisis out of the way before she hits the Battle, newly steeled and ready to win (whatever winning means to her). But the Anagnorisis phase still requires SOMEONE to realise something.
In Dumplin, as well as in Brave, and in Lady Bird, we have a mother and daughter who both undergo a character arc. In effect, two characters each undergo their own Anagnorisis, their journeys interlinked.
In each of these stories, mother and daughter learn to get on better. In Brave and in Dumplin, this is partly achieved by the daughter literally taking on the mother’s care role, caring for her own mother.
In Brave, Merida looks after her mother in bear form, feeding her with berries and guiding her in human etiquette. We see that same sequence in Dumplin when Willowdean’s mother is unable to zip up her own dress. (This is a classic unmasking, by the way.) Willowdean reassures her own mother, then goes to find her ‘suitable’ clothes. Dressed in a costume which serves to take the mother out of her cloistered, judgemental and highly circumscribed world, Willowdean mouths encouragement to her unconfident mother. Mother-daughter emotional support has thus been inverted.
The dressing-room scene also finishes off Willowdean’s Anagnorisis sequence for the audience: Mother apologises for calling her Dumplin, but now Willowdean is fine with the moniker. “It’s just a word,” she says, signifying much more to the audience about her newfound body positive attitude.
Willowdean was always going to get the boy. We knew this from the beginning. Her self acceptance means that she’s now sufficiently confident to accept that a hot boy might genuinely want to date her. This is an old, conservative plot line but it’s still being used in 2018, straight out of fairytale princess narrative.
POP CULTURAL REFERENCES IN YOUNG ADULT STORIES
I’d like to say those two will be very happy together, but I hope he likes Dolly Parton. The problem for young adult authors: Which pop cultural references can I use? If I use things I really like myself, I’ll be accused of being hopelessly out of date. But if I use contemporary references, I’ll be accused of being trendy, and trends change so rapidly anyhow.
A lot of young adult authors get around this by creating a slightly eccentric interest for their main character which is deliberately and self-consciously retro. And for contemporary young adult readers, who may not know someone like Dolly Parton, there will be a scene in which a peer asks who on earth that person is.
That way, the young adult author gets to:
Make use of a cultural reference known to them
Avoid being accused of forced trendiness
Know in advance that this is a real icon — Dolly Parton isn’t ever going to be forgotten in the way some of today’s artists will be
Create an interesting eccentricity for their main character
I sense two main schools of body acceptance feminism in this cultural moment.
The first message is to embrace your body type by putting yourself out there. Activists demand to be noticed. Small, everyday actions such as taking a selfie of your culturally unacceptable body and uploading it to social media constitutes a small act of activism which, over the long term, with all body types doing this, will help to expand our cultural notion of physical diversity.
The other form of activism, as explained by Beauty Redefined, is to move beyond the very notion that physical body is a meaningful way to gauge one’s self worth. While loving your body is important, the focus here is very much on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. Under these ideas, one would never set foot in a beauty pageant because there’s no avoiding the fact that the emphasis of such an institution is still very much on the body — no matter what that body looks like.
Dumplin belongs to the first school of body acceptance. Julie Murphy wrote this series specifically to provide models of fat girls confidently entering spaces where there are not traditionally accepted. This is achieved with flamboyance.
In the meantime, new limitations of the inverse kind have popped up. It almost seems like now, if a woman is physically large, she is required to be flamboyant. Flamboyance is no longer a choice. There is now comedy which parodies the very message Julie Murphy worked hard to create in Dumplin — that fat girls shouldn’t hide.
One thing I’m confident saying — fat politics are changing so rapidlythat a book written three years ago will seem ideologically naive to a mainstream audience, if not outright offensive, even if its author is a self-described fat woman herself. In the week of Dumplin’s release on Netflix I have seen tweets to the effect of, “I don’t want anyone’s opinion on the Dumplin movie unless the reviewer is fat themselves”, which is a good indication that the politics of the body are some of the most important — and can be the most damaging — to a young adult audience.
I hope that some of Dumplin’s young adult audience will see themselves in these characters, and that this story’s transition to screen opens up many more interesting discussions.
“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.
When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to a safe country like Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?
In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears. Importantly, the forest exists on the edges of civilisation. On top of a hill, the men make a memorial to their dead friend. This makes use of the symbolism of altitude, and cleverly, turns the area into a two-fold liminal space — between civilisation and forest, between life and death.
One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact. Nightmares feature as a strong thread throughout the film. The entire film could be the main character’s nightmare, in which he dreams he has lost not only one friend but all of them, one by one, plagued by guilt and blamed by them.
The man’s post traumatic stress disorder is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.
This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological shortcoming. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas. The main character must come face-to-face with his demon (the monster). He literally comes face-to-face when the monster uses its creepy hands to grab his face.
The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).
If you’ve watched enough horror you’ll predict who will be picked off first: The cockiest one. And you’ll also predict who’ll be left alive: The weakest one.
Whether we code this story as a nightmare or as a metaphor for the main character’s real life, he has lost all of his close friends by the end. But he has psychologically recovered sufficiently to go with his life. This is a classic pyrrhic victory. (These go hand in hand with tragic dilemmas.)
This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for shortcoming, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.
At this point the men face a moral dilemma, literally depicted by a road (a dirt trail) similar to a crossroad. Forge on or turn back to in solidarity with their injured friend?
If this were a group of women in the same situation it would be more difficult for the writer to come up with a good reason for them not to turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded this luxury.
Competitive masculinity is apparent in the dialogue. The guy who hurts his leg is called an ‘Egyptian princess’. Later Hutch (the embodiment of tough manliness — and also the first to be plucked off) accuses another guy of conjuring up fairy tales, like his daughters. These guys think that being a man is the opposite of being a girl. What would a girl do? A girl would turn back. Hence, they have no choice but to press on. They take a ‘shortcut’ through the woods. This journey will reduce them to children a la Hansel and Gretel.
The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.
Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the conscious desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.
I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.
Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:
We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.
Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)
The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old witch in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.
Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.
This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is genuinely scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.
By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.
The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.
What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows:
EVIL PEOPLE DO EXIST
Out-and-out evil does exist in the world. There are people out there who’d like nothing better than to strangle a man with their bare hands.
To pretend otherwise—to symbolically annihilate evil people in fiction—borders on gaslighting. We need confirmation they exist, because now and again we encounter them in our real lives. Dotted throughout history, sometimes they even rule us.
Actually, I find ‘evil’ a word too freighted with religiosity, but I’ve yet to stumble upon a better descriptor for a character like Tony, without resorting to armchair psychoanalasis. (We might also call him a psychopath.)
WE DO CRAVE ANTI-REDEMPTION NARRATIVES
The redemption story has been popular for a long time, especially in America. But the success of The Sopranos showed there was always room in popular fiction for the anti-redemption arc, running alongside. The story of Tony Soprano is the ultimate anti-redemption narrative and, as such, shucks off a lot of the redemption story’s problems. At first Tony looks like this family guy who’s going to turn his life around by going to see a therapist, but eventually the audience learns — as does his fictional therapist — that for Tony, therapy exists only to allow him to continue in his evil ways.
[I]f you were accustomed to traditional TV narratives, there were signs that this might be a straightforward one about a man reforming himself through therapy and the love of his family. After all, the first episode began with what could have been a saint’s conversionary vision of the beauty and vulnerability of the world., contained in a flock of baby ducks. It was plausible, too, given the slightly exaggerated cinematography and design of the first few episodes, not to mention the repartee between Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, and the other gangsters, that the show would ultimately turn out to be a comedy more than anything else. Chase often said, quite seriously, that he was never 100 percent sure that wasn’t true.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin
AUDIENCES DON’T NEED AN ‘OUT’
I’m using Brett Martin’s term. By ‘out’, he means ‘a legitimate reason for a character to behave badly’. It was always accepted wisdom that if you wanted your character to behave badly, you’d have to set up the backstory first. As Martin explains:
And then, in week five, Tony strangled a man to death. Right in front of us. In real time. While taking his daughter on a college tour. […] Within a few years of [this episode airing], the idea that a TV protagonist couldn’t kill somebody would seem as fusty and dated a convention as earlier generations not being able to share a bed or say the word ‘pregnant’. What remains shocking in “College” isn’t the death itself; it’s Tony’s unmitigated relish in doing the deed. There is no tortured internal debate—even after his snooping reveals that Petrulio, now masquerading as “Fred Peters,” has a new family and small daughter of his own—no qualms even about Meadow’s presence, other than the inconvenience it poses. Nor is there any suggestion that Tony stands to earn much in the way of credit or prestige by doing away with a rat; indeed, Christopher (whom we’ve already seen dismember a body for disposal in the back of Satriale’s) begs Tony to allow him to fly up and take care of the hit. It is simply a given in Tony’s world: a rat needs to be killed. At least in Chase’s original story, there are none of the “outs'” designed to allow viewers to rationalize and justify what they’re about to see—which is Tony grunting, spitting, exultant, crushing Petrulio’s windpipe with an improvised garrote of electrical wire, the wire cutting deep into his palms from the effort, Petrulio begging for his life between gasps. The scene lasts an unwavering minute and sixteen seconds.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin
Martin goes on to describe how the showrunners did not like this storyline one little bit. Executive Chris Albrecht argued that the audience was going to hate Tony Soprano at episode five, after all the good work was done setting him up as a sympathetic bad guy.
David Chase won the argument, as we now know — and the scene is gruelling. But here’s the concession he made: The executives insisted he insert a scene in which the audience gets to see why Petrulio deserves to be killed.
Chase inserted a scene in which it is revealed that Petrulio not only is dealing drugs in town, but is seen trying to hire a couple of junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. Predictably, the scene feels false and conventionally “TV”. It was the last such concession that Chase would make.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin
The Sopranos can legitimately be criticised as a violent show which almost encourages its audience to revel in gore. And for an unthinking audience, sure, that’s all it is.
But the example of Petrulio’s murder in season one, episode five demonstrates the complexity of such criticism. In contrast, isn’t it a cheaper trick, and completely disingenuous, for to writer to backstories designed solely to persuade the audience that certain characters are legitimately murdered?
Is there any such thing as legitimate murder? Do writers really want audiences to empathise with gangsters? If so, at what point does the story subvert these allegiances? Ever?
WISH FULFILMENT CAN HAVE AN UNCOMFORTABLE FLIP SIDE
If there are differences between stories for adults and stories for children, it runs along the lines of wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment in stories for children is wholesome. It looks like this.
But adults are attracted to fantasies which confirm the duality in all of us. By adulthood, we’ve come head-to-head with our baser instincts.
Wish fulfilment has always been at the queasy heart of of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony’s flame with consistently disastrous results. […] Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undesirable, if conflict-laden appeal.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin
When creating our own stories, it’s worth asking the question early on: What particular wish-fulfilment does my story scratch in the audience?
IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.
THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT
I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.
He’s also one-dimensional.
Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:
In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.
And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.
IT: MODERN MONSTER
IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.
SETTING OF IT
Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.
Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.
CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS
One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:
Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.
I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.
It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.
CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR
Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.
This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.
There’s a nail in the door And there’s glass on the lawn Tacks on the floor And the TV is on And I always sleep with my guns When you’re gone
There’s a blade by the bed And a phone in my hand A dog on the floor And some cash on the nightstand When I’m all alone the dreaming stops And I just can’t stand
That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:
If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.
The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.
Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.
The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.
Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AMERICAN HONEY AND SOMERSAULT
Both are written from a female point-of-view, with a feminine sensibility
Male characters are often the cause of the downfall, and definitely the cause of the downfall at the beginning. In both we have a step-father figure sexually assaulting the young woman supposed to be in his care.
The older women in these young women’s lives are hugely problematic and can’t see past the system which pits young women in sexual opposition to older women, seeing themselves not as mentors but as opponents.
The young woman — the hero — sets out on a mythic journey of her own, pushed out of what sufficed for a home by her wicked step-mother archetype.
Along the journey she meets a range of opponents and allies — her challenge is to understand who is a true opponent and who is a true ally. This is not an easy task, because the people she meets are problematic characters in their own right, with dishonesties of their own. More complicated than that, problematic people can prove allies in their own warped way, by offering a lesson in how not to lead a good life.
The major difference between Somersault and American Honey is the ending, but it’s only a surface difference: In American Honey, Star never returns home. She has found a new home, on the road. But Heidi of Somersault returns home to her mother, in a presentation of a happy ending. I don’t see this as a happy ending. It depends on whether the mother has undergone some sort of revelation in Heidi’s absence. Heidi may be better to stay away from her mother. But this is left off the screen.
STORYWORLD OF SOMERSAULT
The setting is different, of course. Somersault is set in Jindabyne, or ‘The Australian Alps’ — probably not the image of Australia most non-Australian audiences would associate with this country. The narrative takes place at the end of winter, as work for itinerant workers is winding down. Abbie Cornish (who plays Heidi) spends about half the film wrapped up in winter gear and the other half naked as a baby (which I think is partly the point).
Behind closed doors, Heidi reveals her childlike side, conducting imaginary romantic dialogues with Joe in the mirror and poring over her scrapbook. Ms. Cornish, who suggests a teenage Naomi Watts, evokes the full spectrum, from vulnerable child to self-assured young woman, of Heidi’s personality.
Jindabyne feels like a heterotopia even to Australian audiences. There’s a creepy-as-all-get-out crime film, also set in Jindabyne. (The film is called Jindabyne., because that’s all that’s required for a creepy title.) Jindabyne is cold when the rest of Australia remains warm. Three hours from Canberra, even Canberra feels removed to the major cities of Australia, so that’s saying something. (I live near Canberra myself.) As a ski town, Jindabyne is busy at some times of the year. The snow melts and it quickly returns to its semi-deserted state. Horripilation is inherent to such places, which is why Stephen King knew to set a story in a resort town at its deserted time of year. Birds, humans, any kind of wildlife know, instinctively, that when a place clears out, something feels horribly off. It’s probably primal.
There has been heavy post-processing with Somersault, with the blues and whites as a symbol for emotional detachment.
CHARACTERS OF SOMERSAULT
Australian filmmakers are often good at writing authentically naiive dialogue. Their young characters are not mini-adults. They are authentically young. Another excellent example is Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). It’s pretty painful to watch, actually. If only the characters could communicate better, they could live happily ever after. But we talked exactly like this at their age. We didn’t know what we wanted. We certainly did not know how to get it, and neither does Heidi. Nor does Joe, played by Sam Worthington.
Cate Shortland’s Somersault reminds me of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. Both are stories about sexual violence against women. Both writers have been careful to include a wide spectrum of men, each representing an archetype. In Somersault we have a lot of bad men, but each is bad in his own way:
The mother’s boyfriend sees nothing wrong with doing sex to his teenage step-daughter when he gets the opportunity. The opportunistic, unthinking, but still very damaging man.
Joe is a product of a masculine culture in which being manly is the only option. His same-sex kiss gives the audience insight into how Joe must be struggling to conform to this role. Joe steps in to be the hero when Heidi is in danger of being raped. Punching a guy in the face is the only tool he has.
Joe’s father is no help to him. We see him briefly, reading the paper, doggedly avoiding any sort of emotional connection with his son, even though the son is desperately seeking that with him. ‘Don’t wake your mother.’ This is a man who fulfils the role of husband and father, but probably only on the surface. He goes through the motions of being a good man but his head is down the whole time.
Joe’s friends exist to show the masculine friend dynamics. Their bonding is done via women, exchanging information about who is sleeping with who, treating sex like a conquest and boast-worthy achievement. Screenwriting gurus will tell you the hero needs a big argument with an ally at some point. The friend will interrogate the hero’s decisions. Heidi has no friends in Jindabyne, so as proxy, it is Joe who has the big argument with one of his friends about how he is living his life. Joe definitely has his own character arc in this film.
Off-screen, we have Irene’s son who has murdered a man. This guy is your ultimate, clear-cut villain. But he’s not interesting. We never meet him. The shades of grey are far more interesting for women writing stories about rape, the male gaze and everything in between.
The guy credited only as ‘staring man’ represents the male gazein general, and foreshadows something even more creepy when Heidi asks for a job at the ski supplies shop.
Turns out this creepy guy (revealed later to be Bianca’s father figure) is another opportunistic type. At first I thought he was a replica of Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, only in another town. But unlike Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, this guy is older and knows exactly what he’s doing. Bianca’s father is deliberately (rather than stupidly, inadvertently) destroying the relationships women have with each other. He goes home and lies to Bianca that Heidi made a pass at him. He is disgusted by his own aroused response to Heidi and turns it outward.
Likewise, Cate Shortland takes the storytelling opportunity to make a distinction between the two men who Heidi ‘invites’ back to her room. One of them suggests they leave, knowing that sex with a stoned person can never be consensual. But when his friend goes ahead with it, he collapses into laughter, prioritising the friendship with his mate over the safety of the young woman. Both are bad; one is slightly worse. On the other hand, is one really worse? Neither of them pull back from the situation.
Heidi is invited back to Bianca’s house and we are introduced to Bianca’s little brother. Bianca’s mother is training him with flashcards to read faces. (An ineffective exercise, by the way, since a description of the expression is written right below the face itself. Presumably the kid can read words if not faces.) Bianca explains to Heidi later that her brother is autistic. In an outdated, 2004 explanation of autism, she explains that her brother lacks ’empathy’, unable to read other people. This is completely inaccurate — we know that now. Bianca describes not empathy (which autistic people have in spades), but social-emotional agnosia.
With increasing autism awareness, storytellers are now making use of autistic characters to say something deeper about their themes. I believe Cate Shortland has written these characters to show us all the different ways in which people misunderstand each other. The autistic boy shows us an exaggerated form of misunderstanding, which means the theme is hammered home strong for the audience.
THEMES OF SOMERSAULT
Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, describes this story as ‘a movie about the looks on people’s faces and the disparity between the surface and the roiling chaos beneath.’ People are different underneath. People are hard to read, even without their clothes. People tell lies. They leave things out.
The anagnorisis for Heidi is not made clear to the audience. What, exactly, has she learned from this experience? She tells her problematic proxy boyfriend she’s glad they met. She’s definitely meant to have learned something from this guy. But what? I believe this is left to audience imagination. I don’t believe she’s learned much about boyfriends, unfortunately.
Here’s what she has definitely learned: She cannot be her authentic self if she goes through life telling lies. Irene has learnt this too. They learn it together. The Battle scene which leads to this anagnorisis is the argument between Irene and Heidi in which Irene evicts Heidi for inviting young men in the middle of the night. These boys create a scene. (The attempted rape and punch to the face is the first stage of the Battle scene, but is not the part that leads to the anagnorisis.) Only then does Heidi’s mask come off. (Masks are very important in storytelling, especially in certain genres, especially at the Anagnorisis stage of a story.) Heidi admits to Irene that her mother is not dead. In turn, Heidi reveals to Irene that she knows Irene’s son is in prison, and demands to know exactly why. Only when the two women are completely honest with each other are they able to find temporary peace. Although I suspect Heidi went on to have many more terrible boyfriends, I imagine she’s more truthful with herself and to them. This alone will have helped her a bit.
Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.
A sobering side-story is howBrave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.
Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.
THE MAGICAL STORYWORLD OF BRAVE
I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.
A fantasy medieval Scotland. This is ancient Scotland in the same way Princess Mononoke is ancient Japan — it’s a vision of the past according to a contemporary audience, when we imagine the world really was ruled by magic. In both Brave and in Princess Mononoke, you’ll find magical spirits in the woods. Here they are known as ‘wisps’ and they play a critical role in the plot, leading Merida first into the witch’s cottage, next on her journey of discovery as she finds out what happened to that guy who asked the witch for strength. (He turned into a bear and stayed like it, upping the stakes for the mother.)
I think this part aspect hits on why I found Brave lacking as a satisfying story: First the audience is told that we must believe in magic. I have an issue with this general ideology. Merida’s father says he doesn’t believe in magic. He is proven wrong as the audience is shown the wisps on screen. “Well he should because it’s true,” says Merida, our viewpoint character. Of course, she means it’s true within the world of this particular story. But I feel we have a problem with magical thinking across contemporary society, and it bothers me when a sympathetic viewpoint character in a story basically tells the audience that you’re fool for not believing in magic. There are ways of writing magic into stories which don’t chastise anyone for failing to trust andbelieve. I prefer those ones.
That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?
Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.
Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.
“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.
I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.
This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.
Merida’s anagnorisis — that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.
STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.
Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”
Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.
When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.
Brenda Chapman, after her firing
It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.
Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.
Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.
Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:
In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:
These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Possible reasons suggested by Myers:
The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.
I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.
Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:
While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.
1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES
These stories are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother. These stories tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.
Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.
There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.
2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother. The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.
Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume
3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories. In these stories, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother. In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.
So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:
Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
Does the mother undergo her own arc?
BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE
The story in a nutshell:
Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.
This is not a story in which a repressed female character with no voice learns to discover her voice. Merida knows her mind from the beginning of the story, which is exactly the thing that makes Brave a slightly different take on the Female Maturity Formula:
Merida … clearly has a voice early in the film. And by standing up to her parents and refusing to go through with the betrothal, it does seem as if she has both agency and an established subject position as a headstrong tomboy. She uses her mother’s language – ‘That’s what you’ve been preparing me for’ – against her, to establish her own position on the issue. Merida represents the capacity to act independently of social restraint: her vehemence at the idea of marriage does, in a way, make the viewer question dominant social ideologies, especially as Merida opposes the marriage plot trope, where Disney Princesses before her rarely question the concept of falling in love and/or getting married. (As a matter of fact, the heteronormative romance between princesses and young men they hardly know drives the plot of almost every Disney film.
Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.
Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.
‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.
Merida in a voiceover
Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.
Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.
The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.
The most irritating thing about this movie — to me — is the elongated male big struggle scene going on at the castle all the while Merida and her mother are on this emotional journey, into the subconscious symbolised by the forest. There’s a real ‘boys will be boys’ ideology going on here. Of course men fight each other, that’s what men do… Isn’t it funny watching them go at it, though?
Merida herself encounters a variety of big struggle scenes, escalating in stakes:
Fights with her mother about being ladylike, in a montage sequence
Fights with her mother at the dinner table about ladylike amounts of food
Fights with her mother about getting married
Faces the witch in the forest, who seems amiable but turns out to be an opponent later — a false ally opponent, who in the end turns out to have done the right thing for Merida. Good-bad-good witch.
The mother turns into a bear. This is an annoying turn of events because she could have told her father what had happened and what she’d done. He had the power to stop the men marauding the bear, were they to find her. Instead, Merida confides to her three little brothers, and none of them thought to tell the father, either. Presumably this is because the father is pretty useless. Hence, unsatisfying.
In the forest, Bear Elinor fights the baser nature of herself while Merida helps her through it.
After Merida’s big speech, in which she and Elinor have part of their anagnorisis, the story should really be over now, but no. The writers didn’t have a movie-length amount of material, so what did they do? Wrote another elongated rough n’ tumble big struggle scene, centring on the men marauding around the castle after the bear. The stakes are ostensibly very high — if they catch Elinor they will kill her. But this entire sequence feels like a carnivalesque insertion into a story which started off as a mythic journey, and I’m not sure it works to pad a mythic story out with carnivalesque hi-jinx. It feels like… padding.
Here’s a typical reaction from one reviewer:
The film takes an odd turn and seems to lose momentum temporarily once the spell is cast.
What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.
I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the mother-daughter relationship?
One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.
BRAVE AND THE STORYTELLING ROLE OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION
Why does Elinor transmogrify into a bear? Why indeed? It’s a little scary for the youngest viewers. My daughter was scared by this scene when she saw it in 2012, though the rest of the story is set in a kind of forest utopia.
First there’s the story reason for why she turns into a bear:
The fact that Elinor gets turned into a bear comes as no surprise: the witch’s cottage Merida stumbles upon is full of bear carvings. On a superficial level, the viewer is expected to read the figure of the bear as being synonymous with the body: the bear is unruly, large, disruptive, and in need of direction, and Mor’du, the demon bear, supports this description.
Dig a bit deeper though, and transmogrification itself seems to symbolise the changing state of the female body, especially as she becomes a mother:
As a woman, Elinor signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, and as a bear she is able to restrict the shaping, manipulation and stereotyping of the female body. […] Reduced to her body, the once articulate Elinor is defined by her animalistic needs. Elinor-asbear embodies monstrous motherhood. She is physically overwhelming, monstrous in shape and size, and dominates space and situation; in short, she is too large and too powerful to ignore.
Importantly, only Merida is able to see that the bear is her mother:
[A]nd with good reason: Elinor’s inability to control her fertility (Merida’s three younger brothers eat some of the abject cake and turn into bears as well) and repress her sexuality make her ‘monstrous’ in male eyes.Tharini Viswanath
Transmogrification demonstrates the centrality and importance of language, and of communication in general, because if you won’t listen to each other, you might as well be unable to communicate:
Until Elinor transforms into a bear, the two women talk past each other, and may be speaking two languages as different as English and Bear. As McCallum notes, ‘meanings are always, to some extent, culturally constructed, and the learning of another language entails learning the cultural codes through which a linguistic community represents and makes sense of the world’. Both Elinor and Merida need to learn to speak each other’s ‘language’ in order to communicate, a task they are able to achieve only when faced with dire consequences. Arguably, this language difference is also one of intergenerationality.
Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.
Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.
Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.
Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:
Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.
By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.
My questions revisited:
Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.
American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, is the granddaughter of Thelma and Louise — a road journey with classic mythic structure which follows the coming-of-age (or not) of an 18-year-old named Star. Star comes from a tough background — the classic orphanedunderdog, with a mother who has overdosed, and an auntie(?) who requires Star to look after her young kids rather than looking after Star, who definitely needs protection, from the abusive guy she’s got hanging around.
Star has an allegorical name — an ironic name, because this kid will never be a starlet. Refreshingly, she doesn’t even want that. Star explains to Jake that her mother chose it because we’re all made of ‘Death Stars’. Now it’s not ironic. This is an example of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — Star has already had this character arc. She’s lost her mother to meth. She’s faced death before. By this point in her 18-year-old life she’s learning to live with the fact that we’re all headed for the grave. This explains her hedonism. When Star explains her name to Jake, this is more of a revelation to the audience than to Star herself. Star has not fully come to terms with death — that takes some decades. She mulls it over on several occasions — when she realises the trucker she hitched with has been carrying a load of cattle, and when she accidentally steps in blood (or what looks like blood) in a ditch.
It’s inevitable that a disenfranchised kid like Star will fall into bad company, because most any company is better than what she’s starting out with. Bad company rolls into town as a band of magazine hawking troubadours in the guise of magazine salespeople, with a subculture reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. They’re headed to Kansas — synonymous to most outside Kansas with The Wizard of Oz — another mythical journey starring a girl. Arnold encourages the connection with a cut to a pair of sparkly red shoes which belong to Star’s little cousin. But this is no dreamland. This crew are outlaws with their own set of rules. They punish each other physically for coming last in their sales ranking system. This is headed by a matriarch rather than a patriarch, and reminds me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. The matriarch as villain is an interesting device in a feminist film, and at this cultural moment almost a necessary one, to avoid the hackneyed old ideas of women as one hundred percent victims of the patriarchy, or the dreaded Female Maturity Formula, in which girls have already been through their character arcs, existing only as models for boys to have theirs. We need more female villains. Krystal is wonderfully complex. We get just enough to wonder about her backstory.
Other reviewers have doubted the entire premise of this road trip — who buys magazines anymore? Andrea Arnold lampshades this by having Star ask it up front. What’s never clear is if there are any magazines. If there were, they wouldn’t make money. My interpretation is that there are no magazines. People are paying for a scam. The magazines exist only to justify the begging. Why else do they need to travel so far to get away from each town?
Freshly free of childcare responsibilities, Star’s road trip kicks off. Road trips are hard to write well. They tend to feel splintered — one damn encounter after another. The road trip is by nature a linear plot shape — a masculine plot shape. But when road trips star girls and women, they tend to look a little different. Star’s trip is circular, as they move through areas completely foreign (wealthy and built-up) back to a poor area which reminds Star of her own home. Female journeys are more likely than male journeys to be circular in this way.
We now get to see the childlike side of Star, who isn’t ready for the world of work. She plays the fool, gets high, and doesn’t know a violent man when she sees one. If Jake promises her ‘a present’, she’s putty in his hands. She’s come from nothing, so a present equals love. This movie is basically a love story — or can we call it that? It’s not a love tragedy, either. Like Arnold’s Fish Tank, this is the arc of an emotionally neglected teenage girl falling in with a bad older man, then finally making her escape, or not.
Arnold makes sure we empathise with Star by giving her numerous Save The Cat moments — twice she rescues an insect. Eventually she uses her sex work cash to buy groceries for neglected kids. Star has a strong moral code, in opposition to Jake’s. She has no time for lying and bullshit. Her reaction alone tells us a lot about her backstory — she’s had nothing but lies and bullshit her entire life. She’s also empathetic because she doesn’t want for much, and we see that as an endearing thing. She meets a trucker and tells him she wants lots of kids and her very own trailer. It never crosses Star’s mind that she could maybe have an actual house. The truck driver himself comes across as extremely empathetic — unlike the truck driver in Thelma and Louise, he’s not turned into the villain — he’s big into boats but despite driving miles for his job, he admits he’s never been to the ocean. He’s not young. We know he maybe never will. This could be Star in three decades’ time — it’s quite possible Star will live her life dreaming. And is dreaming enough? That’s where the symbolism of the magazines come in. If anyone wonders why people would still buy them, the trucker gives us the answer — the magazines are dreams — dreams that even poor people can hold in their hands. The trucker buys two subscriptions, and for him, that will have to satisfy his love for actual boats.
The film employs only a couple of professional actors — the rest are amateurs recruited from carnivals and suchlike. This feels like cinema verite. Each of them looks interesting and distinct. It feels like the actors were left to ad lib. You really feel like you’re in the bus with these young people, for better or for worse. If you’ve ever been on a bus trip, to summer camp, stayed in a hostel, flatted, or partied, you’ll get this.
There’s commentary about rich and poor in America as the bus travels from mega wealthy to poverty stricken areas, where the problems look different. When Star gets to the house of neglected children we’re given closeups of photos pasted without frames to the wall, a near empty fridge, Mountain Dew. This is how we’re shown, tis could be Star’s own house. She’s missing her little cousins and now she’s back in Texas, where she grew up with her meth-addicted mother, she’s come full circle. This is the beginning of her epiphany, though we never get to see what that epiphany is. Maybe she realises this is her entire lot in life, which is why she buys food for these strangers with her sex work money. Or maybe she realises she can use situations like these as a negative example, and start planning to get out of it. The overall message is egalitarian — echoed in the film credits, which list only names, with no distinction between actors and film crew. Krystal explains that poor people will buy magazines because they feel sorry for you, but rich people will buy them because they feel guilty for being rich. Krystal’s take on life may or may not be accurate, but this is how Arnold encourages to view the rich and poor as basically the same, only with different angles on the same societal problem of late stage capitalism.
There’s commentary about homophobia — it’s subtle, but one of the gay characters doubts he can go door to door in redneck country. Subtext reading: he’s not safe here. There’s little commentary on race — this is not Andrea Arnold’s story to write. Our main girl is a woman of colour, but this is a story about white America. It’s clear these white kids identify with Black culture — they have a love for rap and call each other the n-word. It’s left up to us to decide why these kids align themselves with a culture that’s not entirely their own.
The ending is left open for the viewer to extrapolate. Jake gives Star the turtle and she sets the turtle free. Then she joins the turtle in the water. One interpretation: Star is now free like the turtle, having experienced a revelation. Meanwhile, the others dance over a fire to Raury’s tribalistic anthem ‘God’s Whisper’. If that’s not religious imagery of rebirth, I don’t know what is. Then again, Star has given away Jake’s (stolen ring) present before — is this the part where Star finally sees this violent, coercively controlling man for what he is? Maybe. But if she doesn’t see it now, she never will. Take a close look at the lyrics to God’s Whisper, though — you may need to look them up because the song feels morphed and warped in the film — and it’s clear Star has realised who Jake really is:
I won’t compromise I won’t live a life On my knees You think I am nothing I am nothing You’ve got something coming Something coming because I hear God’s whisper Calling my name It’s in the wind I am the savior (Sing it again!) Savior Savior (I can’t hear you! What?) Savior (What?) Savior
The outro music is “I Hate Hate” by Razzy Bailey — an ironically breezy tune with children backing up in the chorus.
That’s why I’m singing now I hate hate, everybody sing it with me I hate hate, let’s all get together now I hate hate, the good Lord above Don’t you know I love love Oh, you got to have love
“I Hate Hate” can be interpreted in two ways. The singer either despises ‘hatred’, or they really, really hate something (with the double ‘hate’ serving to emphasise). I interpret this choice of song as Star’s acknowledging to herself that she hates this man, but this experience isn’t going to stop her from living life to the full. It’s okay to acknowledge the bad stuff, and that’s how we move on. Mind you, the irony could have a darker side. She could acknowledge this guy’s terrible and yet choose to stay with him.
For us, Star’s journey ends here. Does she use this newfound hatred to escape? For all we know, this young woman could keep traveling these American highways forever, trapped in a hot bus with a bad man and a stifling, drug-addled rag-tag crew who don’t seem to see abuse when it’s right in front of them. This is the water they swim in, and this is how abuse works. Streetwise matriarch Krystal does see it, but she’s toxic and ignores it. She may even revel in watching it play out, accepting the abuser back when she promised his victim he was gone.
Why do girls fall for these guys? Many outsiders have wondered that about women who stay with bad men. Star’s journey in American Honey affords us a view of destructive attraction from the inside, because Shia Labeouf makes an excellent job of him. He’s been well-written, too. We should now be left with a little insight for how these relationships happen, and empathy for the girls involved.
Although American Honey is comparable to Thelma and Louise, I make the comparison mainly because there are so few road trips starring women. Arnold avoids the problematic, overdone trope which concludes Thelma and Louise — that in order to achieve perfect freedom, a female character must pay the ultimate sacrifice: her life. (In stories about men, it’s more often the male best friend who pays with his life.) I am left hoping for the very best for Star. I think she might be okay now that she’s a little more worldly. More importantly, the real-life audience might be a bit more okay, too. Watch this with your young adult daughters and discuss with your sons.
Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.
Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.
ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE TITLE
The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.
FAIRY TALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES
Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.
In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.
Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.
Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.
There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.
Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).
In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.
Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)
The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.
One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.
The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.
Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.
A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.
The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.
Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.
After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.
Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.
Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.
Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.
In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat. This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.
Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.