On Hate Watching Stuff You Hately Hate Hatingly

hate watching

Some people call it ‘hate watching’, but I think this mostly refers to the enjoyment of critique.

Separately from that, I sometimes find genuine enjoyment even while consuming something I can see is hugely problematic. Humans are able to hold discordant views in our brains at the same time. That is our great evolutionary advantage; it may also kill us all.

The standout example of ‘hate watching’ for me is Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan blamed his audience for dumping on Skyler all the while championing Walt, failing to see that Walt — not Skyler — was an increasingly despicable character. We weren’t meant to root for Walt, according to his creator, and if we did, that’s on us, the misogynistic audience.

Not true. Vince Gilligan did such an overly good job of creating empathy for Walt that he failed to turn the majority of his audience later. Perhaps it was a simple writing failure — audiences are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. Perhaps Gilligan’s failure wasn’t in the telling of the story, but in underestimating the amount of misogyny out there.

And I know darn well how it worked, because around the time the story wrapped up on Australian TV I happened to be sitting in a doctor’s waiting room alongside some older guy. We got to talking about TV reception, which led to a discussion about TV. Turns out this guy loves Breaking Bad.

“Oh, me too, what else do you recommend?” I ask him.

He recommends True Detective (of course). He’s not interested in my suggestions. He also tells me he’s grumpy about Breaking Bad because Walt should’ve killed the wife in the first season so we didn’t have to keep being annoyed by her.

We.

Him. Many, many hims in this world.

He disappeared into the doctor’s surgery. Meanwhile, I was privately shocked. Turns out I was one of the few avid viewers who liked Skyler as a person.

Sure, Vince Gilligan can blame his misogynistic audience for hating on Skyler, but his writing room went out of its way to create empathetic characters in Walt and Hank, and unsympathetic characters in Skyler and Marie. That will always annoy me.

I’ll still watch Breaking Bad again one day. I still admire it. But all the while, simultaneously, I’ll be seeing the ideological problems baked into it.

Natalie Wynn is especially articulate on this facet of human nature, in which we can understand something but remain somewhat spellbound.

In this video she expounds upon her full understanding of beauty ideals while at the same time wanting to conform to oppressive beauty standards.

I think her tongue-in-cheek phrase ‘Problematize, critique, cancel’ is especially meme-able.

As Natalie says very well:

Critiquing things doesn’t change our desires. But! It can motivate us to change society and this, in turn, can change our desires.

Critique first; changed desire comes later.

So… keep ‘hate watching’? More importantly, keep thinking. If you feel luke warm fuzzies about every single thing that you consume, it’s probably because you’re not thinking all that deeply about it.

WHERE IS THE HATE WATCHING LINE?

Why can I consume some ideologically problematic media but can’t stand others? Where’s the line?

For me, Breaking Bad gets a pass because the misogynistic reading of Skyler is, as Vince Gilligan intended, partly on the viewer. Sure, he overestimated his audience, but a woke, egalitarian audience isn’t going to read Skyler as terrible. They’re going to see a woman doing her best in a tough situation. If Gilligan got his audience wrong, perhaps that’s because he himself is less misogynistic than most people. (I’ll believe that until he turns into a milkshake duck, which he hasn’t yet.)

In contrast, a film like Nocturnal Animals is way past my line of ‘watchable’, for all of these reasons, and because the creators appear to be showcasing an unchecked misogyny that is all their own.

Masks In Storytelling

masks in storytelling

We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.

For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.

When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.

We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing. Continue reading “Masks In Storytelling”

New Zealand As Depicted In Fiction

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

Will grayson New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2

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

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

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

What is New Zealand really like?

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

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore film poster

Continue reading “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore”

Character Study: Walter White

Following a television trend started by The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad is an engaging example of a modern antihero.

walter white portrait
“I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.” — Vince Gilligan

I have already taken a close look at how the pilot of Breaking Bad engenders empathy in the audience.

In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analysed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.

A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.

By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.

Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.

Robert McKee

Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging: Continue reading “Character Study: Walter White”

Must Heroes Of Children’s Stories Be Likeable?

First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods.

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

Continue reading “Must Heroes Of Children’s Stories Be Likeable?”

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

Carrie movie poster

 

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading “Carrie Storytelling Techniques”

Courage The Cowardly Dog: Doctor Le Quack

All of the Courage The Cowardly Dog episodes including Doctor Le Quack are set in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”

doctor le quack amnesia specialist

 

eustace on the roof doctor le quack

This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.

GENRE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.

The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

In heist stories (farce and caper), the mechanical plot is taken to such an extreme that the plots have the complexity and timing of a Swiss watch, and no character at all.

— John Truby

Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.

Western Symbolism In Doctor Le Quack

Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain. 

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.

However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.

dawn-nowhere

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

WEAKNESS/NEED IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.

DESIRE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.

Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.

— TV Tropes

He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.

OPPONENT OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main battle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.

First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.

le-quacks-office

Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.

le-quack-in-office

PLAN IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.

courage-tries-to-pole-vault-inside

Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.

internet-help

Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.

The duck’s plan is to

  1. Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
  2. Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.

This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.

muriel-bound

le-quack-train-track

This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.

— TV Tropes

The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.

red-dead-screenshot

Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.

courage-blows-up-duck

When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.

stinky-cheese

Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.

rat-cheese

BATTLE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

The final battle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.

exploding-vacuum-cleaner

The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.

SELF-REVELATION IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.

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NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.

le-quack-in-back-of-prison-van

But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

le-quack-breaks-free

The Antihero In Storytelling

 Definition of Antihero

Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler

Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. He says that the word ‘antihero’ makes it sound like a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not the case. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are generally characters who are ‘not yet heroes’. Perhaps Suber would prefer the term ‘unhero’:

The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.

This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.

J.S. Morin

The Function Of The Antihero

Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our real lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.

In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.

A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero

Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini
Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini

In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.

All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.

So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?

I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.

And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.

Robert McKee in a Vice interview

Rise of the Female Antihero

When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex In The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.

More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.

I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main protagonist of Breaking Bad.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”

In Defence Of Unlikeable Women

So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.

They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.

We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?

‘Three Billboards’ Shows The Anti-Heroine Is Finally On The Rise, Junkee

Further Reading On The Antihero

1. Are You Sick Of TV Antiheroes from LA Times

2. The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes from Litreactor. It would seem most antiheroes are male, but this list includes some women.

3. A great definition of antihero, and a list of examples, can be found at TV Tropes.

4. The Likability Trap: We like to root for the antihero, but not for the antiheroine, from Bitch Media

5. A Day In the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero from Toast

6. Writing The Antihero (And Why So Many Authors Get It Wrong) from The Passive Voice

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk

As you can see from the cover art, this picturebook has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffeetable book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.

See here for notes on ‘the’ original tale.

The original Jack And The Beanstalk, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.

Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?

The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of kidlit completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.

In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picturebook township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theater and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.

We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.

What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘.  We love stories starring underdogs.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk treasure
The illustrations in this story are wonderfully atmospheric. I love that there seems to be light coming off the magical can.

Continue reading “Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)”