How big is this utopianforest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)
Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.
None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:
In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.
This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.
These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:
Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.
These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.
In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.
Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.
Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.
(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)
So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.
Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).
One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.
All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.
The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.
If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.
THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.
Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.
Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.
With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.
Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.
Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.
“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”
SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH
The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.
A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.
There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.
Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother. They mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877
Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.
Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen a chipmunk in real life. She must have relied upon photos when illustrating the chipmunks, but good reference photos wouldn’t have been easy to come by in England at the time.
The publisher pointed out that Potter’s chipmunks looked more like rabbits. She initially insisted chipmunks DO look like rabbits, but was required to re-do them regardless.
This story is notable for its depiction of bird calls set to words. Like the riddles found in other Beatrix Potter books, and like nursery rhymes in general, my generation of parents may be skipping the teaching of these bird calls set to words. e.g. “A little bit of bread and no cheese” to describe the call of a yellowhammer, introduced to New Zealand by Acclimatisation Societies between 1865 and 1879. My own father taught this to me, but I remain unfamiliar with the calls of European birds.
The calls in Aristophanes’ Birds (produced in 414 bce) must be some of the oldest examples of this on record: Torotorotorotix, Epopoi popopopopopopoi and so on.
Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds North America, Britain, and Northern Europe is a book by John Bevis. Its marketing copy reads: The distinctive and amazing songs and calls of birds: a meditation and a lexicon.
We do have a few New Zealand-specific bird calls set to words, most notably from Denis Glover’s famous poem “The Magpies”, which I learned in school. My parents’ generation were required to memorise poetry and this was one that New Zealanders over about 75 will be able to recite for you, but the skill of poetry recital had died by the time I went through primary school in the eighties. I didn’t memorise a single poem (outside Bible verses).
New Zealand’s magpies are from Australia. Now I live in Australia, surrounded by an array of outstandingly noisy birds. The magpie barely makes an impact against the cockatoos, so it’s no surprise the poem was written in New Zealand, where the magpie remains distinctively loud.
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a remarkably violent story of the kind you won’t see published anew today. The scene where Timmy is wrangled through a very small hole leaves him close to dead. This is Tony Soprano stuff.
A MODERN THEORY
But it’s also a tender story of two male characters spending time together, one looking after another in a way far more typical of feminine caring. I just did an Internet search in case my thoughts on this are already done to death in literary circles, but found nothing. I may plough a lonely furrow, and this may sound facetious, but through my contemporary lens Chippy Hackee reads as a gay man, perhaps gender queer, or some related combo.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TIMMY TIPTOES
This story is written in classic mythic structure. Timmy leaves home, encounters baddies and goodies, must decipher which is which and eventually returns home slightly changed. Beatrix Potter mixes things up a bit by switching the squirrel main character out for a chipmunk, who continues this same linear journey into darkness. It is the chipmunk who faces the biggest big struggle (with the bear). Potter’s empathetic character remains safe.
Timmy Tiptoes and his wife want to collect enough nuts for winter.
Chippy wants a different lover from the one he’s got, or maybe he only wants the freedom to express the feminine-coded act of caregiving in an era where that’s not permitted for men. But that’s just my reading. (It would not have been Potter’s intention.)
Something must happen to upset Timmy’s idyllic life. Turns out this is no utopia at all — only an snail under the leaf setting. There are baddies in these woods. Thieves.
If you are a hibernating creature and your food store gets stolen, that’s a life and death matter.
The birds are unwitting opponents by outing where the Tiptoe couple are hiding their stash.
Squirrels go to great lengths to hide their nuts — they meticulously arrange leaves to make them look undisturbed. (I think Potter would’ve seen that herself.)
Chippy is also an opponent to Timmy despite his caregiving — Timmy just wants to go home to his wife, but Chippy keeps offering up all this delicious food. He becomes too fat to fit back through the hole.
Our main character has no plan other than to get on with his happy, day-to-day life, so in this case the baddies are the ones with the plan — they steal the Tiptoes’ nuts.
Silvertail is a forgetful squirrel, so his plan is to just dig up whosever nuts he finds. Potter was right about squirrels forgetting the location of some of their nut stores, but their memory is far more amazing than even naturalists knew back then:
Depending on the squirrel species and the type of nut, squirrels are generally able to retrieve up to 95 percent of their buried food, research shows.
Timmy has his near-death moment when he is squeezed through the hole in the tree. He lies semi-conscious upon his own store of nuts. Meanwhile we are subjected to the heartbreaking scene of Goody, his wife, searching everywhere for him. This Battle happens at about the midway point in the story. But Timmy is saved by the tender care of an (at first) non-gendered, unidentified chipmunk (referred to as the distancing ‘it’), who tucks Timmy into his own bed and even lends Timmy his night cap. Then he keeps Timmy captive by feeding him nuts so he will never make it back out through the woodpecker’s hole. This is Emma Donahue’s Room mashed up with Se7en mashed up with Brokeback Mountain.
Conveniently for the story, wind blows Chippy’s tree over. This allows Timmy to escape and the mythic journey now switches to the chipmunk, whose name we learn is Chippy Hackee, but only after the wives get together to lament their missing husbands.
Mrs Chippy Hackee has been abandoned for reasons that remain unexplained within the world of the story. Nor are we given any clues — she seems a perfectly adequate wife — everything one would want in a chipmunk. I deduce the setting reason for Chippy leaving his wife must be this: Timmy has been busy filling their marital home with his nut store and Chippy is dissatisfied because his wife fails to keep their house clean — the main job of a wife in 1911, and perfectly obvious to Potter’s contemporary audience. An obvious plot hole: Chippy’s new hiding place is no less full up with nuts. The nuts are not the problem in that relationship, people.
We learn via Mrs Chippy Hackee that her husband ‘bites’; i.e. he bites her. She assumes he bites everyone. But we have seen the opposite behaviour from Chippy in his tender loving care for the larger, injured (male) squirrel.
Chippy refuses to go home to his wife even when the tree blows over, leaving him exposed to the elements. He would rather CAMP OUT IN THE ACTUAL RAIN than go home to his wife, who pleads with him nonetheless. He’s in a total slump. He had a soul mate in Timmy — now Timmy has gone home, arm in arm with his own wife, and if Chippy can’t have Timmy he would rather have no one.
The only thing that shoos Chippy home is the appearance of a hangry bear.
And when Chippy Hackee got home, he found he had caught a cold in his head; and he was more uncomfortable still.
More uncomfortable because of the head cold? His wife is nursing him back to health despite his previously biting her. Perhaps Chippy is more comfortable in the caregiver’s role. He’s had a taste of his gender expansive freedom and now he’s stuck being someone’s reluctant husband forever in the strict gender binary of 1911.
I don’t believe for one second that this was Beatrix Potter’s intent for the story. So what is the 1911 Anagnorisis of her Timmy Tiptoes tale?
That home with your wife is better, because wives take care of you. Go home to your family. Be loyal to your heteronormative family.
As for the Tiptoes, they buy a lock for their nut stash. Moral: If you don’t want your stuff nicked, lock it up. Hey, that’s what Chippy thought. (‘Lock up what you love’ doesn’t apply to living creatures, Chippy. You can’t just force feed a lover so he can’t escape through the hole, Chippy.)
The Tiptoes have new babies, which makes Goody’s earlier scene all the more upsetting — she was pregnant with at least three when she thought she’d been abandoned by her husband.
The final illustration suggests the chipmunks remain unhappy. Their discord is symbolised by the bird who swoops down, poked at angrily by the wife with that battered and broken umbrella, to symbolise the battered and broken relationship.
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a classic fairytale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
STORY STRUCTURE OF GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS
Here’s the version I’m looking at:
Goldilocks, wildflower picker, enters the snug little cottage in the woods, knowing or not knowing whose it is, the owners absent as if by arrangement. Three pots of porridge, three chairs, three beds. Too hot, too cold, too high, too wide, too hard, too soft. Just right. The rule of three. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. There has been an intruder!
This is an interesting question, because you could pick Goldilocks or you could pick ‘The Three Bears’, with focus on the Baby Bear, since the target audience is going to identify with him.
I’m going to pick Goldilocks. The human girl is slightly closer to the human child reader, and we’re with Goldilocks when she enters the bears’ house in the woods, which means we’re exploring a new environment along with her. You could also argue that Baby Bear is just as convincing as ‘the main character’, but if in doubt, ask the question ‘Who changes the most?’ I’d wager Goldilocks gets the biggest fright and learns the biggest lesson.
What is wrong with Goldilocks?
Oh! I just realized! You know why this struck such a chord with me? No, of course you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been rearranging all of our fairy tale picture books, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about various stories and whatnot, but especially about how Goldilocks is SUCH A JERK. I mean, she breaks into someone’s house, eats their food and breaks their stuff, and somehow we’re supposed to care about/root for her? NO, THANK YOU. Anyway, I love that This is Not My Hat is kind of the anti-Goldilocks.
I’m not so hard on Goldilocks, because I code her as about five or six. She probably shouldn’t have been left to wander into the woods in the first place. In most versions from my childhood, she is illustrated as a well-dressed, upper-class little girl with the Sunday frock and the ribbons. If I was illustrating her, I would dress her in a ragged tunic and bare feet. Because a well-dressed little girl wouldn’t have been afforded that amount of freedom.
On the other hand, this is the escapist longing of that well-dressed, upper-class little girl, who would never be allowed into the woods. Of course.
WHAT DOES GOLDILOCKS WANT?
A lot of children’s stories start out with a character who is basically bored. Goldilocks seems driven by pure curiosity. She’s not a thief, she’s not a starving urchin who has broken in with any purpose.
This information is withheld until the middle, used as a reveal when the three bears arrive back home after a stroll in the woods.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Goldilocks is fascinated by a cabin in the woods, goes in and tries to work out who lives there by conducting small experiments: testing each bowl of porridge
BIG BIG STRUGGLE
The climax (Big Battle) is very obvious: The bears find Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. She is so startled she escapes out the window.
This is one of those fairy tales which is designed to be retold orally, perhaps by adults who have never been taught to read and write. When the bears find Goldilocks asleep, this provides opportunity for a jump scare — a pounce, a tickle and a great burst of laughter. Another fairy tale good for this purpose is Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf eats the girl.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
The rest of the story is chopped off, but the narrative still feels complete because we can extrapolate (guess) the rest.
Goldilocks learns that when you break into someone’s house you might meet with danger.
In any fairy tale, it’s not just the fictional character who learns something, but also the reader:
When [Goldilocks] samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)
I’m guessing those bears were left in peace, at least by Goldilocks. Someone needs to write a story about how Goldilocks became a breaker and enterer, and did three and a half years’ bird as a small-time crim.
An early version is quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Marina Warner writes of the story written and illustrated by Eleanor Mure:
Controlling children through bogeys, rather than lulling their terrors through merriment, inspires many famous tales in English in the nineteenth century. The earliest written version of “Goldilocks”, called “The Three Bears” in a manuscript of 1831, does not feature the little girl of today but another witchy old woman, and in much less benign spirit than the characters of nursery rhymes. At first, she stoves in the chair she sits on and lands, legs flailing, on her bottom; her pranks in this story are at first intended to be funny but turn ambiguous. For the end appals: the bears ‘drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear’, maltreat her for a witch, throwing her on the fire to burn her, and then ‘swimming ‘ her in a pond where, like a reputed witch, she floats. As if this were not enough, they then ‘chuck her aloft of St Paul’s churchyard steeple’. The teller also illustrated her manuscript, which she was giving as a present to her nephew. The three bears’ house is very large, gracious and well-appointed, and stands behind bayonet railings: the little nephew was learning about the social order. Violence in children’s literature changes form, and its targets differ—but it never disappears.
— From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner
This tale has changed a lot over the years, as all fairytales have. Originally, the intruder was an old woman. Then she was aged down, then she was given blonde hair, named ‘Goldilocks’ and has been known as Goldilocks since. Sometimes it only takes one version or illustrator to lead to a big change like that. Snow White was changed permanently by Disney, who gave the dwarves the jobs of miners. Previously they weren’t miners, and they didn’t have those names.
Clothes, or No Clothes?
The Three Bears in The Golden Goose Book, 1905, are not dressed; they live in a charming house that seems to have been transported to the wood from Hampstead Garden Suburb; they are not fearsome except by their sheer size. Their animal faces have deftly indicated human expressions of surprise and censure at their discoveries and absurd parental pride in the antics of the small Bear who wails and grouses like a child or jumps and somersaults in excited fun and naughtiness. Their bear home is full of fancies with punning human words, pictures, ornaments and books turned into their bear equivalents.
— Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Faulty Physics In Goldilocks And The Three Bears
Gets me every time.
Fair enough that the largest bowl of porridge is too hot. Fair enough that the mother’s medium sized bowl is too cold. But how can the baby bear’s even smaller bowl of porridge be just right? If it’s the smallest mass of the lot, it holds its heat for the shortest time. It should be even colder. This just doesn’t make sense.
(Unless, of course, three separate batches of porridge were made from scratch, to cater to everyone’s preferred consistency. I do know families who prepare meals like this.)
There’s a feminist issue in here. I’m sure of it. I understand the three bears went for a walk to let their porridge cool down. Whose idea was that? I presume from the state in which Goldilocks found the porridge, that it was only the father bear’s porridge which had been too hot; I imagine also that the mother bear went along with him, even though her own porridge was probably just right and she wanted to eat it then and there. She should’ve let him go out for his own bloody walk. Then none of this sorry saga would’ve happened.
We Bare Bears is a Cartoon Network show for kids which has a very high rating on IMDb. This is a sure sign it also appeals heavily to the users of IMDb, i.e. youngish men. In short, We Bare Bears has achieved a dual audience, and is therefore in the same league as Spongebob Squarepants, Silver Fang, Gravity Falls and Adventure Time.
If you have trouble following Gilmore girls due to its fast-paced dialogue, steer clear of We Bare Bears. Though designed for an even younger audience, the fast-paced nature of this Cartoon Network series is testament to how much modern young viewers can cope with. Or perhaps they don’t. Perhaps the fast-paced jokes are fast precisely because they are designed for the show’s large cohort of adult fans. We Bare Bears is an animated off-shoot of the similarly named The Three Bare Bears* by Daniel Chong. I think this was a better name. For some reason I find it hard to remember We Bare Bears — I keep thinking it’s Three Bare Bears, even before I knew it originally was.
*I find once you know both titles, it’s even more difficult to remember either title. I wonder who came up with the title, or if anyone else finds it hard to remember?
CHARACTERS IN WE BARE BEARS
CHARACTER ENSEMBLE: THREE OUTCAST DUDES
The three guys who are outcasts is not a brand new idea. Take another kids’ cartoon series Ed, Edd and Eddy which aired from the late 1990s and notice the similarities:
Ed, Edd n Eddy follows the lives of “the Eds,” three preteen boys who all share variations of the name Ed, but differ greatly in their personalities: Ed is the strong, dull-witted dogsbody of the group; Edd, better known as Double D, is an inventor, neat freak, and the most intelligent of the Eds; and Eddy is a devious, quick-tempered, bitter con artist, and self-appointed leader of the Eds. The three devise plans to scam the cul-de-sac kids out of their money, which they want to use to buy jawbreakers. However, problems always ensue, and the Eds’ schemes usually end in failure and humiliation.
The cul-de-sac kids do not include the Eds as part of their group, making the trio outcasts.
We Bare Bears is similar to Spongebob Squarepants in form and audience, though completely new in tone. Think Bob’s Burgers but for kids.
These are not child characters, after all. These are three young men living together as close friends — ‘brothers’ according to them — in what is basically a flatmate situation. These men are also child stand-ins:
Grizz is the self-designated oldest brother who instigates a lot of the action by dint of his enthusastic, often hare-brained plans. Grizz is the extrovert of the group.
Panda, nick-named Pan-Pan, is unintentionally adorable (he wants to be a Manly Man), interested in dating women — the others are full of dating advice but apparently asexual — has lots of allergies and is prone to anxiety.
Ice Bear defies typecasting because although he’s the silent, manly type who is a whizz at martial arts and building gadgetry, he is also soft-hearted and kind, nurturing and maternal. Ice Bear also speaks of himself in third person, like one of the characters in a Seinfeld episode. I think this character has autistic tendencies: One of his favourite things to do is sit alone in the freezer. He’s mostly non-verbal but also highly empathetic though sometimes fails to put his feelings into words, and has many hidden skills which he’s obviously picked up from his own studies. (My autistic daughter thinks this about Ice Bear too.)
A recurring character is the human Korean girl prodigy, Chloe. Another is some sort of hairy, big foot creature reminiscent of a Dr Seuss creation — Charlie. Charlie lives in the woods and is one of those friends who keeps dropping in uninvited, though why the bears (apart from optimistic Grizz) don’t want to hang out with Charlie isn’t entirely clear. I think he’s awesome. There’s also a regular looking woman who crops up everywhere, sort of like a recycled random person. You’ll see her going through the turnstile at the train station or something like that. Sometimes she says something.
Overall, We Bear Bears as a series is about our desire to fit in and be accepted. This has always been a human desire. As Hugh McKay says in his book What Makes Us Tick? we all wish to be taken seriously, most of all. This desire was probably never more true than now, in an age when two versions of each of us exists: The real world person, and the character we project onto our social media. Now we need both versions to be taken seriously, and we’re faced with the complication of recognising our true self amongst the pressure to look great and seem happy.
STORYWORLD OF WE BARE BEARS
A FAIRYTALE SETTING?
Like a good fairytale, this town (actually city — a shot of the bridge tells us it’s San Francisco even though San Francisco is never named) is set next to a vast expanse of woods. This is ostensibly the bears’ more natural habitat (well, Grizz’s natural habitat, at least, so of course he takes charge).
But these bears are tethered to technology. That’s what sets this series apart from earlier big hits from the late 90s and early 2000s (e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog): this is for a generation of kids who are used to seeing people tethered to their smart screens. The Internet is front, right and centre.
A recurring opponent is a duplicitous Koala (not actually a bear, so doubly funny) who has a YouTube channel in which he pretends to be cute, but off-screen he’s a little bastard. He is also very rich. Technology also sends the bears Internet dating, dealing with accidentally posting something online and facing the backlash, anxiety that comes with getting too few likes on your post and other modern dilemmas unheard of just 20 years ago.
The bears are basically people, but their ‘bearness’ is used for comedy as the creatorssee fit. They live in a cave hybrid house, which in one episode is destroyed then recreated.
Within America, New York, Portland and San Fransisco are all thought to be hippie attractors.
There is a distinctly hipster vibe in We Bare Bears, and hipster mentality is both embraced and critiqued.
Chloe’s older classmates at what’s obviously meant to be Berkeley are inclusive types, if clueless about how to actually include a little genius kid. This inclusive vibe is evident throughout the series. In general I am annoyed when male characters are dressed up in overtly feminine attire, as it’s usually to make fun of those characters, but when these bears wear an apron or a girl’s pink, flowery cycle helmet, they somehow get away with it. That’s probably because no one within the world of the story is making fun of them. They face no negative consequences from being kind and feminine. This is highly unusual in a kids’ story, in which boys dressing as girls for punishment is a common gag. In most stories, boys in girl clothes are generally being punished, or at least getting into strife because of it. These hipster writers don’t use gender markers with transgression gags as their aim, though they’re not on entirely safe ground: if the audience finds a male character in female attire funny, where does the laughter come from?
Likewise, issues of race are never written to draw attention to themselves. Chloe happens to be Korean and the bears drink bubble tea, but the Korean aspects of this show do not exist to teach the audience to be inclusive. Story creator Daniel Chong is himself Korean American.
Hipsters may be inclusive in their attitudes, but the hipster wish to do Good has a flipside. In the TOTE LIFE episode the We Bare Bears are shamed for failing to take reusable fabric totes to a pretentious health food store. I find this highly relatable as this has also happened to me, at EcoMeats in Canberra. For the record, I didn’t take a plastic bag, but stumbled back out into the world clutching my meats precariously.
In this episode, the bears end up getting so into tote bags that they filltheir house with the things, which leads to the arrival of an environmental health officer. The messages in this episode are very specific in nature and also specific to this particular time in history when lots of us are worried about climate change, and are struggling to know what we as individuals can do to help the cause. The message here: Buying more stuff to seem environmentally friendly isn’t actually environmentally friendly. Also: Looking like you care for the environment is quite a different thing from actually being good for the environment. Without using the term ‘virtue signalling’, that’s what this episode is about. (Again, who knew the concept of virtue signalling 20 years ago, or even 10? ‘Virtue signalling’ was coined around 2009, but has really only been in common use since 2015, which is when this episode first aired.)
Hipsters, more than any other group, are thought to care about what others think of them. We see them lining up to buy ridiculously overpriced, over-hyped food at food trucks, wearing slouch hats and do yoga. A setting full of hipsters is the perfect setting for an exploration of themes of fitting in.
Comedy cartoon series need some sort of repeating visual gag. In We Bare Bears the stand-out example is that the bears get around by piling themselves on top of each other. The bottom bear walks while Grizz, at the top, gives orders and enjoys the view. This not only looks funny but says something about the social hierarchy. In one episode the bottom bears realise this isn’t fair, and their sense of injustice comprises the central psychological conflict. (Grizz ends up back on top after he ‘proves himself’ by defeating a pack of wolves.)
This visual gag is reminiscent of the stone age car in The Flintstones, in which Fred Flintstone ironically causes his family more effort by insisting on ‘driving’ a car, when they might as well just walk and do away with the car altogether.
Courage The Cowardly Dog repeats in each episode the dog’s transmogrification as he struggles to communicate danger to his underwhelmed owners. CatDog features their very body as a joke, and a house set up to accommodate a creature which is half cat, half dog. Another cartoon series with a number of recurring visual gags is of course The Simpsons. Any fan doesn’t need to be told what those are.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WE BARE BEARS
We Bare Bears makes use of a variety of different comedy structures to mix up the laughs. Not only that, some episodes are clearly designed to be more funny than others. The episodes which flash back to when the bears were abandoned orphans are full of pathos, and my daughter feels quite sad watching them. The first of these, in which we meet the bears in a cardboard box on the side of the road, even turns into a musical.
The pilot episode follows a commonly used story structure, borrowing tropes from the Mystery/Detective genre. Because this is the pilot episode, the writers are also charged with the task of setting up the rules of the world.
The first thing we’re shown about the bears is their obsession with their phones. A mid-shot on the bears’ hands show them putting their gadgets carefully into a shared backpack, talking about how important their phones are. Next they play basketball with a team of human teenagers, showing us that in this world we are to accept that it is ‘peopled’ with a mixture of human and animal characters and no one is to bat an eyelid. This is the bears’ ‘normal’ life (though later episodes show they’re not particular fans of basketball — this is just something they do when it suits).
The problem (inciting incident) is that after these bears played basketball they forgot their backpack with the phones. When they go back to the court, the bag — and the phones — are gone.
In typical children’s stories police are kind and omnipresent. Ironically in this show, the bears approach an uninterested police officer who turns out to be a parking warden. So asking the police for help doesn’t work out. In a nearby diner they come up with another plan. Panda draws highly rendered sketches of everyone he remembers on table mats. They are reprimanded for wasting table mats and for ordering nothing more than iced water.
They try to bribe the pigeons with stolen sachets of sugar because surely the pigeons saw which guy took their stuff. The audience learns that in this world, some animals are more anthropomorphised than others. (The bears are young men in animal bodies; the pigeons are naturalistic pigeons, but seem to be able to understand English, perhaps.) See also: Why so many talking animals in picture books?
The bears go on a journey to the library. “Why would the pigeon take us here?” “Because it lied to us!” The comedy comes from the fact that the pigeon is not anthropomorphised in the slightest and wasn’t ‘leading’ the bears anywhere.
At the library, the Internet is used to help solve the mystery — they can somehow track their phones’ whereabouts. Courage The Cowardly Dog was created when viewers were just started to make use of the Internet for research purposes. In Courage, the computer is personified, treated as a sage who dishes out ‘secrets’ and vital information which Courage couldn’t get any other way. Fast forward to 2015 and if a show is set in a world with the Internet, it makes zero sense if the characters don’t make use of it at every juncture, just like people do in real life. However, this still feels pretty new. Story creators are still choosing oftentimes to ignore the Internet, setting their stories in a world without it. If every modern storyteller had their characters tethered to their phones and computer stories would indeed get pretty boring, but because this doesn’t feel done before, the technology itself (here: GPS tracking, hidden recording capabilities, free library Internet) presents its own problems. Technology is almost a character, at times helpful, at other times leading them astray.
That night the bears go to ‘the place’. The audience needs no filling in: We are familiar with finding our phones using ‘Find My Phone’ apps and so on. The bears catch sight of a human guy wearing ‘their’ backpack. (Experienced story consumers know that this is probably not their backpack but an identical one.) To the tune of a Pink Panther-esque jazz soundtrack, the bears climb up the fire escape and are able to spy on this guy watching basketball on TV through his window. (In fiction, fire escapes are basically never used for escaping actual fires.) They will go into this guy’s house ‘ninja style’. (The audience may have noticed this at the very beginning of the episode when he put his nunchucks into the backpack, but Ice Bear is a ninja master.) Grizz is distracted by a packet of chips on the floor. Then they are distracted by the TV and reveal themselves. They manage to steal the backpack anyway, but don’t get far, stuck out on the ledge. This is the ‘near death’ sequence, which in a straight drama would be followed by a anagnorisis.
“Oh ho ho, that was close, fellas!” says Grizz, which is comical because they’re still at the height of danger, frozen in the spotlight, high off the ground.
They are magically surrounded by police choppers. It seems the writers are now making use of the children’s story trope in which the police are omnipresent and highly responsive. But ironically, it seems to be not in the bears’ favour.
Looking inside the backpack, they realise they’ve got the wrong bag. This contains a CD (anachronistically, unless of course, this guy is a hipster.)
The waitress down below complains that these bears only ordered ice-water and wasted all the table mats. They’re no good. The bears seem to have some sort of anagnorisis. “It looks like the real criminal might have been us and now we have to face the consequences,” says Grizz. Then, in a Thelma and Louise sort of ending, “Guys, if we go down, we do it all together.”
They are told not to jump all at once, but that’s exactly what they do (because they are a team). The safety trampoline coincidentally propels them into the lair of some sort of pigeon mafia. We accept this coincidence because this phase of the episode (the big struggle, anagnorisis, new situation) isn’t meant to take much time. In a way, these sequences have to happen — Grizz’s dialogue, in a self-aware way, takes the audience through the ‘motions of story’.
A policeman tells the bears they did them a huge favour stumbling onto the pigeon criminals. They’re one of the ‘most elusive of gangs’. The policeman hands the bears back their bag.
Grizz is again afforded comically on-the-nose dialogue: “Oh, so that pigeon at the park really was misleading us!” thereby answering a question the audience had. (To what extent are the pigeons anthropomorphised in this setting?)
The policeman offers yet another twist on the mystery: “Oh, this guy is actually working for us. He’s wearing a wire. Ain’t that the cutest thing? Nobody’s pressing charges, but don’t ever do that again!” The double ending is a spoof on noir thrillers, and is all the more funny because the twist comes so soon after the mystery is resolved. The writers seem to be saying, “We know this kind of story needs a twist, so here’s your ridiculous twist!”
The audience is given the briefest sense of the bears’ new situation when Grizz says, “You guys wanna watch a movie?” which is a great line because it shows the bears have learned nothing. They’re just as likely to blunder into adventure in time for the next episode, and will never get any older or wiser.
The “VIDEO DATE” episode is a good example of what’s known as ‘Imposter Comedy’, though the writers only make use of the first few steps then through in a reversal.
I have previously written about this kind of comedy (also known as ‘transgression comedy’) in regards to The I.T. Crowd. Basically, here’s the structure:
Transgression with a mask (in which ‘mask’ is basically some sort of deception or disguise)
Transgression without a mask
Dealing with consequences
Growth without a mask
In episode 21, Panda sets up a webcam date with a French woman but is supremely nervous about it. After rehearsing the conversation with his bear brother flatmates, the conversation is not going well, so Grizz and Polar Bear step in to take his place after painting themselves up as pandas. In a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels sort of twist, when Panda’s mask comes off the romantic interest on the other side of the screen reveals that she is not actually French — she is from ‘Joisey’, and when the website accidentally had her down as from Paris she just ‘went with it’.
Discontent: Panda hasn’t got a girlfriend. (Of all the bears Panda is the only one who seems interested in dating, even though the other two are always full of dating advice.)
Transgression with a mask: The other bears step in, pretending to be Panda.
Notice that in this episode of We Bare Bears there is no real spiritual crisis or growth. The just desserts are that the bears not the only ones who can lie online. The viewer is reminded that ‘you never know who you’re talking to on the Internet.’
As a side note, I do find stories in which a group of young men gang up to dupe a single young woman for sexual gain inherently creepy. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels like this, and it is almost mandatory to create a female character as wily and duplicitous as the male characters if you’re going to write a story like this. (Please don’t.)