The Ideology Of Wealth In Stories

Money Lender and Wife

Wealth brings out the worst in people. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches. This is thought to be Cinderella’s rightful place — after all, Cinderella is not a rags to riches story. It’s a riches to rags to riches again story. The high born are thought to be worthy due to their superior bloodline.

In an attempt at subversion, characters in some stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich.

The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal

Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.

— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.

Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together

One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same closed arena and force them to interact with each other. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.

However, there are a few political pitfalls to avoid when doing this.

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Adults

  • Annie Proulx makes use of the rich-poor divide a lot. She takes a rural community comprising simple, rural folk with anti-materialistic values and contrasts them with a rich blow-in. For more on that, see below.
  • In Freaks and Geeks, episode four, Lindsay gets her first class culture shock when she visits Kim’s house for dinner. It turns out Kim has invited her only to prove to her parents that she’s responsible and deserves her confiscated car back. Lindsey is shocked by the chaos and by the state of Kim’s house.
  • Katherine Mansfield herself was a daughter of the upper middle class but she tackled the rich-poor divide in several stories, most notably “The Doll’s House” and “The Garden Party“.
  • Angie Thomas writes about race and class in The Hate U Give. Issues of wealth and privilege come to the fore because the main character is at a private school on academic scholarship.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies — The farming Clampett family become suddenly rich when they discover oil in their backyard. This discovery turns a poor family to rich millionaires. They move to Beverly Hills, California. This is a good example of a fish-out-of-water story. These rustic characters clash with the people of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Rich-poor conflict is useful in Comedies of Manners.
  • Pride and Prejudice is an early example of the Comedy of Manners. No one is poor, exactly — it’s all relative. The Bennett sisters are in danger of becoming poor in future. Their mother’s behaviour is crass in comparison to those of the mega-wealthy.
  • Titanic — both the real story and the various fictionalisations which have emerged since, work well as stories because, when a boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Everyone goes down with it. This makes for an evergreen metaphor about looking after our planet.
  • Stories with dragons (specifically Northern dragons) are metaphors for how hoarded wealth brings one no joy. Dragons have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. (Eastern dragons are different beasts altogether — they are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal.)
  • Tomato Red — the love interest with the red hair feels a grave sense of injustice that they live in a mobile shack whereas other people in their town live in mansions. This fuels her desire to get out of that town, and justifies what she does in order to achieve it.
  • Schitts Creek — The Rose family have already lost all their fortune by the time they hit Schitt’s Creek — a hole of a town the father bought the son for a birthday joke. They are now forced to live there among the regular folk. They may have no money but they have brought their rich tastes and attitudes with them. This makes for plenty of conflict.
  • Animal Kingdom — J’s druggie mother dies of an overdose. At seventeen years of age he has only ever known poverty. But now he is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are running a criminal empire. These are the sorts of people who leave wads of cash lying around.
  • Nashville — Juliette Barnes is now rich, having earned oodles of money as a country pop singer, but she has come from nothing. She grew up in a trailer park. The writers make sure the audience is taken back there, to explain some of Juliette’s back story. Juliette still has her mother in her life, which allows the audience to see rich and poor rubbing up against each other. Other characters undergo a rags to riches Cinderella story as part of the show.
  • Upstairs Downstairs — Is the ultimate in rich and not rich rubbing up against each other. Downton Abbey is very similar. These shows are about class differences. For some of the characters real destitution is one wrong-doing away. Even the mighty can fall.
  • Coronation Street — Even in a working class Northern town where everyone lives from month to month, we still have characters like Mike Baldwin who owns the factory, or Dev Alahan who owns the corner shop. Though these men are far from fabulously wealthy, there is still enough of a discrepancy in wealth to provide interest.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore — our modest main characters make a visit to an ostentatious house with massive lawn ornaments under the guise of cops. When the lawn ornaments get broken this provides some catharsis for the audience because these rich people are not good and the main character is very sympathetic.
  • Fargo — our main dude has a rich father-in-law, which causes all sorts of existential male angst, and therefore the impetus to make real money of his own.
  • Lonesome Dove — Clara’s husband has been a successful horse wrangler. Not only this, he married the love of Gus’s life. Larry McMurtry takes us to Clara’s ranch to make sure we get a taste of The Path Not Taken. Could Gus have had all this, if only he weren’t such a wanderer, basically married to Call?
  • Gilmore Girls — This community offers us the full spectrum of wealth (well, right down to middle-class, anyhow). We have Emily and Richard at the top, with all their cronies. Next we have successful small business owners such as the owner of Doose’s market, and eventually Lorelai and Sooki themselves. Then there are the people who work for others.
  • My Summer Of Love — Tamsin is the privately educated daughter home for the holidays in her family mansion while Mona is the working class girl from the pub. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for these girls to meet — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. Rich girl and poor girl legitimately share the same country road, though one rides a white horse and the other scoots along on a motorbike with no motor.
  • American Honey — Star joins a ‘mag crew’ — a bus load of young people who have been recruited to sell magazine subscriptions across mid-west America. The bus takes them to wealthy suburbs and then to poor suburbs, juxtaposing them. The matriarch of the group is herself from a poor suburb but through psychopathic means has garnered enough money for herself to wear some of the trappings of wealth. She offers commentary on the people who live in these places as she drops her crew off.

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Children

It’s interesting to see how wealth discrepancy is handled in stories for children. In picture books there is very rarely any social commentary on money. Olivia (by Ian Falconer) lives in a big New York City apartment and must therefore have mega wealthy pig parents, but because she goes through similar dramas as many (white) kids, the reader is not encouraged to mull that one over.

The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett — The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is commonly used to describe an arc in which the main character lives in poverty at the beginning of the story and in wealth by the end. But more commonly in the Victorian era the plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and positin which are thought to be his/her natural birthright. Even Cinderella isn’t a genuine rags to riches tale — Cinderella must have been at least middle class to begin with or she would not have had those middle class relatives.

Ivy + Bean — Ivy seems to come from a richer family. She has a big bedroom with a craft table set up. Money is not mentioned. It may just be that Ivy’s mother is super organised and particular, and likes to dress her little girl in fancy frocks. But an adult reader assumes some discrepancy in income between the households. Ivy is originally depicted as a prissy, unsympathetic character, but after the first book the two girls realise they have a lot in common and become firm best friends. Not only that, Ivy is revealed to be every bit as devious as Bean. The message: Some kids are rich, others not so much, but they’re all just kids in the end.

Wimpy Kid, Dog Days — Holly Elizabeth Hills is one of Greg’s classmates and also an unrequited love interest. Greg tries to impress her but can’t. Her family is shown to be wealthy, playing on the old folk tales in which lovers are kept apart due to differences in class and status. The sister is portrayed as tyrannical, spoiled and selfish. The message: While being rich doesn’t necessarily make a girl undesirable, the existence of the sister conveys the idea that the riches themselves have contributed to her personality. 

Harry Potter — It’s impossible to consider the ideology of wealth in the Harry Potter series without thinking of the rags to riches tale undergone by the author herself. In the Harry Potter universe the Black family is one of the mega wealthy. But Sirius Black was not born wealthy — he inherited 12 Grimmauld Place and this made him rich. He is fairly generous with his wealth. Gilderoy Lockhart is worth quite a bit. Harry Potter himself is also rich, especially for a twelve year old. He has inherited. It is extrapolated that after the series ends Harry goes on to become very rich. The Malfoy family and Bellatrix Lestrange are also wealthy. A lot of these rich characters are intermarried and related, keeping wealth in the family, in aristocratic tradition. The message: You don’t have to be all that great of a person to be born rich, but if you’re good like Harry you may well become rich through hard work, humility and dedication to a cause.

The Hundred Dresses — This book is about a modest, middle-class town whose children are strangers to poverty. Until one day, that is. These days it’s hard to tell the poorest children (in real life) by looking at them — clothing has come down in price and decent chainstore clothing is available cheaply from second hand stores. But in earlier eras clothing was prohibitively expensive and it was easy to tell the poor children at a glance. The message: Don’t judge people on their appearance. There is always more going on than you realise. Show compassion for those less fortunate.

Strays Like Us — Molly Moberly has been poor all her life and is even now living in poverty with a great aunt, but it turns out she has a rich grandmother who will now be her benefactor, of sorts. The grandmother is a lonely hypochondriac who won’t leave her bed. The message: If you have a destitute personality, money can’t buy happiness. You’re better off being modestly poor but mentally well.

POLITICAL ISSUES

  • Disenfranchised people with little power make easy targets.
  • The main character of classic children’s book Heidi is rewarded by material wealth for moral virtue, with the following implicit message: If you are good, wealth will come your way. Ergo, if you’re not wealthy, you obviously are not good enough.

THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY

Institutional classism cannot be confronted without dealing with its accompanying myth of meritocracy, which suggests that if a person has a lower social class than they would like, they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because “anybody can get ahead if they try.” This mentality leads to faulty assumptions that people who have a lot earned it and people who don’t have a lot haven’t tried enough. Debunking this myth presents a challenging dialogue in that it intersects with class privilege, and os those who do have wealth may get defensive that they deserve what they have and have “earned it”.

— Reframing Difference in Organisational Communication Studies by Dennis K. Mumby

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.
— Peggy McIntosh

THE MYTH OF GENTILITY

A Bluebeard retelling like Rebecca feels outdated now because the entire revelation rests on the ‘surprise’ that a genteel, upper-class member of the aristocracy could possibly be a murderer.
The ship has sailed if you were hoping to tell that kind of story.

WRITE PRIVILEGE AS AN INVISIBLE KNAPSACK

Privilege is typically invisible for those who have it. This phenomenon has been pointed out by many since, but in 1993 Peggy McIntosh came up with the phrase ‘invisible knapsack’ to describe privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.

MUST WRITERS ALWAYS ‘PUNCH UP’?

Writers—especially comedy writers—are often told: when mining character for comedy, always punch up.

This bit of advice means, in effect, that the underdog must win. The underdog has the last laugh. Ideally, the poor underdog is also likeable. That papers over a lot.

But in real life, the underdog often loses. What if you don’t want to create comedy? What if you want to create a realist setting in which rich folk often win, precisely because of their resources? What if you need to say something a bit more… true?

Annie Proulx’s short stories make for an excellent case study in how to create a rounded cast of downtrodden characters who neither win nor lose, but who plod along in their lane, no more or less enlightened than the rich bastards who blow in to their natural worlds. Proulx’s fatalistic world view definitely helps her convey the idea that we are all products of our environment, and that wealth or lack thereof is part of what shapes us. Her rugged, harsh landscapes also lead the reader toward an egalitarian view of humankind, in which everyone is the size of the ant in comparison to the mountains and plains, and everyone is therefore equal.

The Beverly Hillbillies gets a pass precisely because the rich milieu is satirised: The culture and society of Beverly Hills is depicted as obsessive and superficial. The locals have an unhealthy obsession with money, social-climbing, and the latest fashions. The Beverly Hillbillies are, in contrast, straight talking honest folks, who never wear a mask. They know exactly who they are, and are therefore happy in themselves, free from pecking-order pressures.

I’ve never given poor people credit for having noble souls, on the pretext that they are poor and only too well acquainted with life’s injustices. But I have always assumed that they would be united in their hatred of the propertied classes. Gegene has set the record straight on that score and taught me this: if there is one thing that poor people despise, it is other poor people.

– The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

The psychological effect of poverty is what lasts. You can send in rice to heal them and for energy but beware of giving energy to desperate people. They’re going to use it…. The hunger is bad but then you’d need about nine million therapists, who’d never be equipped anyway.

– Frank McCourt on Writing About Poverty

I don’t know who needs to hear this but:

  • Capitalism – anybody can be rich.
  • Communism – nobody can be rich.
  • Socialism – anybody can be rich but nobody should be poor.

ALSO INTERESTING

 

Header painting: The Money Lender and His Wife by Quentin Massys

Bullying In Children’s Literature

bullying children's literature

“Middle school wasn’t much fun for me. We had some bullying going on, and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way.”

— Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

bulling diary of a wimpy kid
Rodrick Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid early films. Rodrick bullies his younger brother.

WHAT IS BULLYING?

Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear.

If two people disagree, that is not bullying.

If two people dislike each other, that is not bullying.

A single episode of aggression also does not count as bullying. This is especially important because an act of retaliation on the part of the bullied does not mean ‘both sides are at fault’.

COMMON BULLYING TACTICS

When authors cover the topic of bullying it can be super helpful to young readers, explicitly teaching what bullying is and how to recognise it for what it is. Even if we as adults have no further advice — I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on how to deal with bullying — recognising bullying behaviour is a huge help to kids on the receiving end of it.

So, what does bullying look like? Some of these are obvious to neurotypical kids but in my opinion even neurotypical kids need explicit training on what bullying looks like. By putting these tactics into words, we are holding kids to higher standards. They then hold each other to higher standards.

  1. Touching someone in anger, or touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched
  2. Saying something nasty then putting ‘just joking’ on the end as a way of blaming others and demeaning the reaction of the victim
  3. Spreading untrue information about a person
  4. Threatening to tell an authority figure that a person has done something they have not
  5. Sharing true but personal information about a person
  6. Taking photos of someone without their consent, worse when shared, even worse via social media
  7. Mimicking the way someone walks/talks/eats etc
  8. Excluding someone because of skin colour/religion/culture and similar
  9. Microagressions are also a subtle form of bullying e.g. constant reference to someone’s difference from the wider peer group
  10. Barring someone from entering or exiting a space (commonly stairwells, toilets, shared play spaces)
  11. Practical jokes and pranks which are designed to humiliate someone, probably in front of a group
  12. Going into someone else’s bag/pockets/locker/desk without their consent
  13. Or more generally, messing around with someone else’s stuff with the intention of annoying them or shaming them
  14. Touching someone’s clothing, especially with the intention of exposing their body to others
  15. Provoking someone to anger, in general, hoping they will explode and get into trouble with teachers and parents
  16. Threatening to withdraw friendship unless someone does what you want them to do
  17. More generally, any behaviour designed to control another person. A lot of the bullying that goes on between girls mirrors exactly the abuse we call ‘coercive control’ when it happens in an adult relationship. Unfortunately, a history of falling victim to coercive control as a child/teenager primes someone to fall victim to it as an adult, too. (We can flip this, but we have to first name it, and teach it explicitly.)

HOW IS BULLYING TREATED IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

Almost any story set in a school or a school stand-in will involve opposition between peers. Bullying is a common topic in children’s literature from chapter books onwards.

Adults know way more about how bullying works than a couple of generations ago. This can be traced through fiction (or ask any elderly person about their experiences of bullying in school).

Fictional bullies occurred frequently in school/boarding school stories, and it wasn’t treated as bullying, but more of a ‘character building exercise’, designed to prepare school aged children for a world in which they’ll be ranked in an adult hierarchy.

Today’s authors show a better understanding of the true nature of bullying, in which bullying is a social system, rather than a person:

All kinds of attitudes have changed, mostly for the better. Bullies were hated in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but now, as in Louis Sachar’s Holes, they are both villains and victims.

Amanda Craig, writing about the third golden age of children’s literature

We’re all doing better now, but still have a long way to go. How are adults, specifically adult writers, still getting bullying a bit wrong?

BULLIES WHO LOOK LIKE STEREOTYPICAL BULLIES

“There was a bully at Peter’s school and his name was Barry Tamerlane. He didn’t look like a bully” writes Ian McEwan in chapter four of Daydreamer. The explicit and direct message here is that “There’s no such person who looks like a bully.”

He wasn’t a scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. he wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, boney types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud of hoarse, his eyes weren’t hard and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

I do wonder if there’s an unfortunate implicit message in here, though. When we describe the appearance of bullies, no matter how we do it, we’re conveying the implicit message that if you just study this hard enough, you’ll find you can typecast people according to how they look. ‘Bullies don’t look how you think they look… they actually look like this’, is one possible interpretation of the passage above, when I believe the intention is ‘You can’t pick a bully based on what they look like.’

McEwan does side with the young reader and does what most authors do: He acknowledges the fact that adults will never understand the complicated and subtle social dynamics of adolescents:

Of course, Peter kept out of the bully’s way, but he took a special interest in him. Barry Tamerlane was a mystery. On his eleventh birthday Barry invited a dozen boys from school to a party. Peter tried to get out of it but his parents would not listen. They themselves liked Mr and Mrs Tamerlane, and so, by the terms of grown-up logic, Peter must surely like Barry.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

MODEL VS IMPERFECT CHARACTERS

Authors sometimes set up a character web with ‘model’ children versus ‘imperfect’ children. By the end of the book, the young reader is supposed to have worked out for themselves who is in the wrong, and mimic the behaviour of the model children in real life. An example of this kind of book is Pigface by Catherine Robinson. The focus character learns a lesson when he breaks his leg playing football. While he’s away on the couch, a new boy joins the class. This new boy is preternaturally mature. When our focus character returns to school he realises he should stop calling Harry ‘Pigface’ because he probably doesn’t like it. He has also learned to stick up for other people, and not to judge others at face value. The reveal is that this cool new boy was bullied at his previous school.

This story for emerging readers does not attempt mimesis. It attempts (and achieves) a clear line between bullying and friendly behaviour. The reality is that a boy who was bullied at his previous school is likely to continue to be bullied at a new school, though bullying cultures do differ from school to school. It is possible to start with a clean slate in a new environment, though perhaps not quite so cleanly.

WRITING DEVELOPMENTALLY INCORRECT BULLYING

When do people start forming social hierarchies? As soon as they start interacting with groups of peers. But when does that real ‘mean-girl’ crap start happening?

“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”

The Washington Post

The parent who wrote this article found it first started happening to her daughter in fourth grade. I also have a daughter of that age (in NSW Australia it’s called ‘year four’) and I can confirm it started happening this year. What form does it take? For my daughter, it has involved social exclusion. Friend has a birthday, brings enough cupcakes for everybody, gives extra cupcakes to her ‘besties’, refuses to give cupcake to one girl in particular as some kind of social punishment. It’s easy to almost laugh at this ridiculous example, but if this happened to us in our workplace, we’d be equally wounded. Apart from blatant social exclusion:

The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapist

The Washington Post

Though that article focuses specifically on the types of bullying that goes on among girls, it strikes me that at 8-12 years old, there’s no significant difference between how girls and boys bully others. Boys use this same strategy of ‘mocking, teasing and calling people names’. However, the nature of these names might be different. Because of a cultural emphasis, girls are more vulnerable to commentary about physical appearance:

“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.”

The Washington Post

(No one is saying boys aren’t also picked on due to how they look; the difference is that all girls are judged based on their looks no matter what they look like, whereas physical appearance only comes into it for boys when the boy does actually fall outside the ‘accepted norm’, and ‘the norm’ is wider for boys. Which is of course no comfort to boys who do fall outside the accepted norm for boys. And boys are getting more judgemental about each other’s appearance, unfortunately. Living in the exact same culture, it’s getting worse  for girls as well.)

On a more positive note, this form of bullying has all but disappeared by senior high school.

This opinion piece written by a teenager echoes something I’d already noticed myself:

In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)

While this HuffPost article is painting too broad a stroke with an inflammatory headline about not liking YA novels in general (there are many different genres within that category), the writer is pointing out that bullying takes on a different form altogether once students move through high school. (But it doesn’t disappear completely.)

HOW BULLYING CHANGES DURING ADOLESCENCE

Bullying among the 8-10 year old set looks completely different from bullying in senior high school. This needs to be reflected in stories.

I Study The Psychology Of Adolescent Bullies is about Donald Trump but offers an insight into how bullying works at each age. The subheading sums it up: Kids who dominate other kids are often popular — for a little while.

Below is the reason given for why middle school is terrible for bullying, though I grew up in a country where middle school was often attached to the primary school — no major reshuffling necessary. I don’t know how the social dynamics are different in those cases but:

Although bullies are never liked, they are popular in certain situations. Our research shows that bullies initially become “cool” during their first year in middle school. We think that this link between bullying and popularity is strengthened by the collective uncertainty associated with the transition to middle school. As youth are trying to acclimate to the new setting, many worry about their own social standing and ask: Where do I fit in? Who should I hang out with? When the future is uncertain, it is vital to know not only where one fits, but also who is in charge. Dominance hierarchies help group members find their places and form alliances, and bullying is among the most primitive ways to establish dominance.

I have noticed in some stories, especially those on TV, middle school level bullying continues long past its due date. By the time students are about 15, explicit, racist or un-woke bullying behaviours have morphed into social dynamics far more subtle. But what does it turn into?

Our research on middle-schoolers also shows that the popularity of bullies wears off after the transition period. That is, after the first year in middle school, bullies’ popularity gradually decreases. […] When a young child is questioned whether he ate the last cookie (even when there are crumbs on his lips), the immature response is: “I didn’t do it.” Children deny the act before they learn that it is socially beneficial to admit the wrongdoing but deny any negative intent. Teens tend to become even more skilful and elaborate on various mitigating circumstances, such as not turning in their homework due to illness or because they were helping an ailing grandmother. These accounts reduce the likelihood of punishment and facilitate forgiveness.

If bullying is still going on in senior high school, it is insidious and covert and ridiculously difficult to deal with. It can usually be denied completely. ‘Social exclusion’ looks a lot like, simply, exercising your right to choose your own friends.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BULLYING

  1. Bullying is a problem that bullying people have. It does not follow that someone targeted by a system of persistent bullying is the one doing something wrong.
  2. Children and teens need friends. Friends aren’t just ‘the icing on the cake’.
  3. In order to be happy, children don’t need a wide circle of friends. Sometimes all it takes is one friend. The difference between no friends and one friend is like night and day.
  4. Unkind behaviour toward children without social status is rewarded with social capital and elevated social status, because it highlights the status differential.
  5. It is not easy — in fact it is an act of rare and unusual bravery — to step in and defend someone with low social capital. Defending a low-status child is like touching someone with “cooties,” so bystanders rarely step in.
  6. A child at the bottom of the social ladder becomes “untouchable.” Even if that child has a delightful personality and loads of friends elsewhere, in a social system in which she lacks social capital, she is not likely to acquire friends. Take away point: a child can have loads of friends in one situation and none in another, because ‘untouchable’ cultures can pop up anywhere if not kept in check.
  7. Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive.
  8. Adults are no more likely to sacrifice their own social capital to stop bullying than children are. Adults don’t magically go through a character arc in which they are immune to all this crap. Most of us quietly become part of the system.
  9. When adults instruct kids to simply ‘walk away’ from bullying, we are indoctrinating them into this system. Parents justify this by going back to the concept of ‘freedom’. ‘My child must be granted the freedom to choose her own friends’.

—Happiness and the Pursuit of Leadership

Can we end the whole “you attract who you are” myth? There are abusive, terrible and mediocre people who latch on to vulnerable, kind and generous folks.

Another myth to abolish: You don’t have to “love yourself” first in order to be worthy of love in return. You are worthy of being loved, of being safe and well-cared for regardless of how you feel about yourself.

— @femmefeministe

RELATED RESOURCES ON BULLYING

Amy Alkon coined the term ‘social greed’ to describe someone’s unwillingness to risk their own social capital without an anticipated return on investment.

The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney Story Structure

The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.

However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.

I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.

Mental Floss

The Long Haul Jeff Kinney cover

ROAD TRIP STORIES

Road trip stories are an established  genre, especially in America, where car ownership also has a long history. The road trip story also seems to have come out of Westerns, in which characters traversed large swathes of land with the hope of finding something better ultimately themselves.

A long tradition of road trip stories meant Kinney had an established structure to work with when writing The Long Haul. He only had to fit his jokes around that. (Yep, easier said than done, of course.)

Here’s what the author has to say about his (lack of?) personal inspiration for The Long Haul:

Q: Some of your childhood experiences inspired the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Is that the case in this book? Do you have a crazy road trip with your family that you were drawing from?

A: I long ago tapped out my own childhood experience. There’s very little of what I went through in this book.

I’ve always had road trip fantasies, and I’d love to rent an RV, a really souped-up RV, and go cross country with my family. But on the book tour I’ve really gotten to see a lot of the country in buses and I’ve realized that it’s nice to have a driver. I think it’s very impractical—it’s not very likely that I’ll end up on a road trip with my family with me in the driver’s seat.

Mental Floss

If you go to IMDb you’ll see that The Long Haul film has garnered a miserable rating of 3.6. I can’t say whether the film structure was a success, but the producers are fighting against another big struggle: The original characters have now aged out of their roles so brand new actors are playing beloved characters. This has not pleased the established audience.

What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?

Jeff Kinney does what others have done to avoid that fragmented feeling you can get from road trip stories:

  1. The whole family is in the one big car. The family members themselves are each other’s main opponents. Greg himself has his brothers (each quite different in the nature of their opposition). The male family members are in constant opposition to the mother’s feminine wish to create a happy family situation by turning into the uber-Mom, over-organising everyone, enthusing over activities but coming up short. The scriptwriters packed even more characters in the car by bringing Rowley along for the ride. (Rowley is absent in the book.) Along the way they are joined by a baby pig.
  2. An enduring opponent is the Beardo family aptly named by Greg because the father has a beard and Beardo rhymes with Weirdo. The illustrations show this family to be a rather hapless ‘white trash’ sort of family off on a very similar family adventure. Sure enough the Heffleys keep running into them. The Beardos are the enduring opponent. Interest and comedy ensue, since this Beardo family does literally nothing to the Heffleys, but Greg gets it into his head that they are mastermind criminals basically following them about to steal all their stuff. This single family who they keep comically running into means fewer disparate opponents are needed overall. This helps avoid story fragmentation.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LONG HAUL

The Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature

The Long Haul is a home-away-home structure but with lots of little self-contained stories scattered along a linear-circular shape.

The Long Haul story shape

Although Kinney wrote the novel with a mind to movie-levels of character shortcoming/desire/opponents and so on, the screenwriters seem to have changed a few things. (Bear in mind I’m not putting myself through actually watching it):

  1. In the book it is the mother who has the desire. Greg passively goes along with his mother’s plans, garnered from a cutesily named ‘Family Frolic’ magazine. In the film, however, the family has the more specific goal of attending Meemaw’s 90th birthday party, and Greg has his own concrete goal to derail the route, ending up at a gaming convention.
  2. The birthday party is assumed to be a sombre gathering, due to the birthday person being female and also extremely old. When the boat flies into the swimming pool we are to derive carnivalesque enjoyment from seeing a staid event livened.
  3. In a movie length feature there needs to be more happening. In the book ‘everything that can go wrong has gone wrong’ but in the film there is even more drama e.g. Dad gets the van stuck in mud and ends up spattering everyone trying to push the vehicle out.

Within this overall structure of a comic journey, Jeff Kinney’s books function more like comic books. The Long Haul can also be regarded as a series of vignettes, each following its own complete story structure, linked together by the overarching comic journey of the road trip. If you read with that in mind, you’ll find every single one of the ‘skits’ follows 7 part structure beautifully. I’ll take just one to illustrate. This is the skit starting on page 68, where the family have stopped at a motel. Greg is trying in vain to get to sleep.

WEAKNESS/PROBLEM

Greg is stuck in a cheap motel when he would rather be at home in his own room in his own bed. He is tired. He needs to sleep.

DESIRE

To go to sleep comfortably and with peace and quiet.

OPPONENT

Mom and Dad have the bed. (They are also snorers.) Manny has the sofa. These characters have taken the best sleeping positions. The kids from the hot tub also disturb his sleep.

PLAN

When Greg has a plan, the first plan doesn’t work. Something always goes slightly wrong, which leads him to his next plan. Greg’s problem solving abilities lead him to comic places:

  • Greg and Rodrick check the closet for a cot of an air mattress but there is nothing.
  • Rodrick gatehrs up the sofa cushions and makes a bed for himself, turning him into another opponent. (If Rodrick hadn’t got the cushions Greg could have them.)
  • Greg decides to sleep in the closet, on top of a pile of towels. However, there is a TERRIBLE smell in the closet. He looks around to check a mouse hasn’t died in the vent.
  • He covers his nose with a washcloth but the smell gets WORSE.
  • He hears snoring so tries to put in earplugs. But it is dark and he can only find one.
  • The kids from the hot tub wake him up from the corridor. They are playing on a cleaning cart.
BIG STRUGGLE

Greg steps out of the motel room to get the kids a piece of his mind. One runs away in tears. The father comes out. Greg runs back into the motel room and chains the door.

anagnorisis

There are no ‘self’ revelations in ongoing comedy series. Only audience and character revelations, for example “Oh, he got out of the scrape due to the opponent’s lack of wits. Good.”

Greg has made a successful escape because the father hasn’t worked out which door Greg ducked into.

NEW SITUATION

The father eventually stops pounding the door next to Greg’s and goes back to his own room. Greg hangs up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door in case he comes back. Greg worries all night and does not get a good night’s sleep.

FURTHER TECHNIQUES

  1. Greg’s unreliable narration and thirst for drama where there is none is one good source of comedy.
  2. Rodrick’s general stupidity provides a lot of comedy, for example locking dinner inside a safe after mistaking it for a microwave. Rodrick’s general stupidity is later subverted when he comes up with a wonderful idea. The technique: Setting Rodrick up as stupid but upending expectations by affording him random strokes of genius. all comic characters can be used in this way. We feel we’ve gotten to know them, and then they surprise us.
  3. Ticking Clock technique. The screenwriters had a big birthday to get to and they couldn’t be late for it. That provided an overarching ticking clock for the film. In the book, Mrs Heffley is taking her boys on a largely unscripted tour of the country, guided only by the low stakes Family Frolic suggestions. To increase tension, there are several gags in which Kinney puts a time limit on a goal. For example, when the father takes an important call from a client and everyone has to be quiet, Manny loses his dummy. Greg knows exactly how long he’s got before Manny starts hollering, shattering the illusion that the father is in his office and not on a family road trip.
  4. This book includes what academics may call ‘intertextuality’ and publishers may call ‘great marketing’ with the mother’s idea to take along a cut out character which is clearly from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, but which in the book is ‘Underpants Bandits’ by Mik Davies (a close enough palindrome for middle grade readers to get).

The Plot Of Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Dog Days cover

Some have said that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have no plot, including Jeff Kinney himself. Is this really true? If so, the perennially popular Wimpy Kid series defies a ‘law’ of storytelling — a first of its kind.

Yesterday I read another book from the Wimpy Kid series and decided Dog Days story has a ‘meandering plot’.

Today I take a close look at a random Wimpy Kid book from my daughter’s shelf to see what people really mean when they say Jeff Kinney’s books have ‘no plot’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOG DAYS

How Events Are Connected

The scenes in a Wimpy Kid story are made up of events in the present (on the day of writing), events of the recent past (the last few days) or flashbacks from weeks/months/years ago.

One event in the present can spark an event in the past, providing a natural segue. Where there is no natural segue, Greg writes a new entry under a different day of the week.

  • PRESENT: Mother insists Greg goes outside to play because Greg is in his room by himself under a blanket.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg goes to country club with Rowley where a girl they invited ditches them
  • FLASHBACK: Greg complained to Mr Jefferson about the fruit smoothies and other things but after complaining was uninvited to the country club
  • Greg’s mother makes him go to the local pool, which is a comedown from the country club.
  • FLASHBACK: Being terrified of the hairy naked men in the changing room
  • PRESENT: Greg learns the family can’t afford to go to the beach this year.
  • FLASHBACK: Last year he wouldn’t go into the surf because he realised sealife uses the sea as their toilet. He did enjoy a ride called the Cranium Shaker.
  • PRESENT: Mother says they’ll have a fun holiday at home hanging around the local area. Greg is looking forward to his birthday and the final Lil Cutie comic running in the paper.
  • ONGOING PRESENT: Argues with father about sleeping hours, screen time.
  • PRESENT: Greg’s photo album, with big gaps in it due to him not being the first born. “I’ve learned that photos aren’t an accurate record of what happened in your life, anyway.”
  • [Segue = Manny and mother seashell photo opportunity] FLASHBACK: Watching the same thing happen to his little brother, Greg realises mother bought seashells, buried them at the beach then took photos of Greg ‘finding’ them.
  • [New thread] Mother takes Greg to get haircut at a salon where old ladies get theirs done. Greg gets addicted to soaps.
  • [Segue = tabloids at the hairdresser] Grandmother isn’t using the phone because she read in a tabloid that they erase the memory of the elderly.
  • RECENT PAST: Mum has been throwing out grandmother’s tabloids but Greg has been reading them before they get thrown out.
  • PRESENT: At the hair salon, Greg had a long wait.
  • RECENT PAST: The old ladies who work there have been gossiping to him.
  • PRESENT: Mother interrupts story about Mr Peppers and Greg never gets to hear the end.
  • PRESENT: Greg is now hooked on soap operas. Mother tells Greg to invite Rowley over. They go to the basement and riffle through Rodrick’s stuff. They find a horror film. They’ve never seen one before so Greg arranges for Rowley to stay the night.
  • FLASHBACK: Last summer the boys had a sleepover in the basement. Rowley slept next to the boiler room because Greg is scared of it. They got spooked. This gag is a minor ghost story in which Greg tries to persuade his parents the house is haunted. But it was only one of Manny’s dolls.
  • RECENT PAST: Last night (it’s more feasible that Greg is writing his diary the day following a sleepover) the move was about a muddy murdering hand which walks. They spent the rest of the night in the bathroom with the lights on and were found this morning by Mr Heffley.
  • PRESENT: Yesterday mum gave Greg a lecture on horror movies. She has decided to start a reading club, which isn’t supposed to be a punishment but to Greg it is. This morning a few neighbourhood boys turned up.
  • FLASHBACK: When Greg was 8 years old he borrowed a book from the library but is now terrified of the librarian because he’s sure he owes thousands in fines for losing it.
  • PRESENT: This time it’s only Greg and Rowley at the book club.
  • FLASHBACK: About a book with a scantily clad woman on the cover which Greg has read, and the book doesn’t have any women in it.
  • PRESENT: Greg is the only one left in his mother’s book club.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg hasn’t been able to get through his assigned reading because he’s distracted by the thought of the muddy hand coming to get him.
  • and so on

This structure of scenes does make the plot seem in complete disarray (or ‘plotless’) but if you take away all the flashbacks and asides, there is a linear progression from ‘beginning of summer’ to ‘end of summer’. This is a Robinsonnade in the sense that Greg doesn’t go anywhere — unlike The Long Haul he is ‘marooned’ at home for much of it.

SHORTCOMING

I’m pretty sure Greg Heffley is on the psychopathic spectrum. His creator Jeff Kinney has said he never meant Greg to be a role model, but looking at the way he treats his friends, family and neighbours — he has no affinity to any of them. Not even to the dog who comes to stay. That personality trait leads to the inciting incident…

Without knowing (or caring) who has to pay for it, Greg and Rowley rack up a huge fruit smoothie at the country club snack bar, where Rowley’s father is a member. The reader sees him doing this, and like Greg, we pay no mind as to who is paying for all these drinks.

Some authors would introduce the issue of payment near the start, but in this story a lot of extraneous gags happen before we even realise this will be a problem. We are, however, shown within the first few pages that Greg has been drinking fruit smoothies.

DESIRE

On the first page we see that Greg only wants to sit inside under a blanket and play computer games all summer.

OPPONENT

As usual, the main opponent is Greg’s mother, who says it’s ‘not natural’ for boys to be spending so much time alone in their room. So she forces him out of the house.

PLAN

Greg plans to mooch of Rowley’s family’s country club membership while enjoying all the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle, despite not really liking Rowley all that much. His unreliable, ironic narration has him complaining about the girl who ditched him and Rowley for the better-looking lifeguard. “The lesson I learned is that some people won’t think twice about ditching you, especially when there’s a country club involved.”

BIG STRUGGLE

Another reason this story feels without structure is because we’re mostly used to a structure which builds to some sort of climax. This is achieved partly by a series of big struggles which (in most stories) build in intensity until the big, final showdown where the hero comes close to death. There’s nothing like that in this book. Greg has many, many small big struggles but these don’t lead to anything massive. The whole point of these events in Greg’s empty summer is to demonstrate the wide-open, goal-less days in the Every Boy’s summer.

ANAGNORISIS

Turns out this is essentially a story about a father/son relationship. But in Greg Heffley style, the deep and meaningful messages found in serious literature is parodied. Greg doesn’t learn much at all:

I guess some people would say that hating a comic is a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship, but the truth is, me and Dad hate LOTS of the same things.

Me and Dad might not have one of those close father-son relationships, but that’s fine with me. I’ve learned that there is such a thing as TOO close. [An image of Rowley on the toilet talking to his father at the vanity.]

NEW SITUATION

The holiday is ‘pretty much over’ when Mrs Heffley finishes the photo album. This final montage of the photo album is a one-image per gag rundown of each incident, but from the mother’s point of view. This provides some ironic distance between the mother and son’s version of events, and highlights the unreliable nature of Greg’s narration. We are reminded that the mother, too, only has a small part of the story of her son’s summer to document as she hasn’t the foggiest idea about all that goes on.

THE PLOT SHAPE OF DOG DAYS

Dog Days is far from plotless. If it appears plotless that is because it’s an example of a ‘meandering’ story structure, in which one event leads to flashbacks and asides. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense. He covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society. Ulysses and Alice and Wonderland are well-known examples of the meandering plot, which foregrounds other aspects of story over the desire, plan and big struggle of the main character.

Dog Days is also a spoof on ‘serious literature’ of the sort put on summer reading lists by gatekeepers of children’s literature such as teachers and mothers. This is depicted by Mrs Heffley’s book club idea. If serious literature is meant to add to a child’s life, Greg’s summer is full of ‘mind-rotting’ activities eschewed by concerned adults such as playing video games, watching soaps, imbibing gossip at the beauty salon and reading trashy comics. No matter what Mrs Heffley tries to do to enrich her son’s life, Greg finds a way of turning even a trip to the pool into something ‘as bad as’ a horror movie.

The message of this book is that there is no message. Father and son remain united only by their common dislike of a comic, in which Jeff Kinney lampoons the mawkish comic strips often found in 20th century American newspapers. The epiphany, likewise, is that there is no substantial epiphany. In this respect (and this respect only), Dog Days is similar to Annie Proulx’s The Half-skinned Steer — another upending of a common mythic story structure.

By the way, do you  know why ‘dog days’ refer to the hottest days of summer (in America)? Here in Australia we don’t even use that term, and here’s the reason why.