Stone Mattress Short Story by Margaret Atwood

1949 March, cover by Arthur Lidov ship

“Stone Mattress” is a masterful short story written by Margaret Atwood, published in The New Yorker in 2011. You’ll also find this story in the Nine Wicked Tales collection.

Some years later, in 2018, author A.M. Homes discussed this story with Deborah Treisman via the New Yorker Fiction podcast, noting that this is (unfortunately) a timeless story.

How many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?

Mona Eltahawy (and implied by Margaret Atwood)
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The Tunnel by Anthony Browne

The Tunnel Anthony Browne

The Tunnel is a picture book written and illustrated by British author/illustrator Anthony Browne. The Tunnel was first published in 1989.

SETTING OF THE TUNNEL

In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.

So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.

The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.

There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.

Illustration by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941). …and the next moment he was turned to stone and lay there immovable…” Story illustration for “The Golden Lads” published in The Green Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1892)

Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.

As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.

The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.

Andrey Surnov, Russian digital artist
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Women and Shoplifting in Fiction

1960s Christmas shopping

Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.

How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz, men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.

Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.

gilmore girls humour
from Gilmore girls

Shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)

Real life examples of shopping and shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) genuine reductions
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). Would this cartoon work if the characters were masculo-coded?

CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD

In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)

Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, and also a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.

One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.

That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.

Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.

It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).

CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER

In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.

While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.

Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.

Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.

From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956
From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956

The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.

In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.

The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.

Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples. 

CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN

In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.

As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.

Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.

The character of Hanna in Pretty Little Liars is presented as a cool, calm, confident trickster when she shoplifts this pair of sunglasses, accomplished partly by charming a boy with less beauty privilege at the sunglasses counter.
This scene from Stranger Things is not dissimilar. Eleven literally has supernatural powers on her side. (Hanna has beauty and white privilege.)
Buffy and Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Want, take have”, says Faith, a line very similar to one in a children’s picture book: Wolf Comes To Town. This scene overturns the cliche of girls stealing clothes and makeup, but is a Riot Girl form of feminism in which girls just take what they want, macho style.
This might as well be a contemporary update of Eve daring Adam to steal the apple.
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The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

The Tricksters Margaret Mahy dark cover

The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.

A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.

These three iterations of the tricksters line up with Matt Bird’s head/heart/gut theory:

Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.)
Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love.
Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

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Sewing, Weaving and Spinning in Art

Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, Pieter Pietersz. (I), c. 1560 - c. 1570. Despite their individualized features, it is uncertain whether the depiction of this elegantly dressed couple was intended as a portrait. The scene nevertheless carries a clear message. The man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice.
Man and Woman at a Spinning Wheel, Pieter Pietersz. (I), c. 1560 – c. 1570. Despite their individualized features, it is uncertain whether the depiction of this elegantly dressed couple was intended as a portrait. The scene nevertheless carries a clear message. The man holding a tankard is seducing the young woman, who stares directly at us. She must choose between the spinning wheel and the tankard, between virtue and vice.
Portrait of a Woman, possibly Anne Codde, Maarten van Heemskerck, 1529
Portrait of a Woman, possibly Anne Codde, Maarten van Heemskerck, 1529
Boris Dekhterev - Sleeping Beauty spindle
Boris Dekhterev – Sleeping Beauty
Spinster in een interieur, Jan van Halbeeck, 1600 - 1630
Spinster in een interieur, Jan van Halbeeck, 1600 – 1630
Wevende vrouw, Jan van Halbeeck (possibly copy after), 1610 - c. 1680
Wevende vrouw, Jan van Halbeeck (possibly copy after), 1610 – c. 1680
De spinster, Nicolaes Maes, 1652 - 1662
De spinster, Nicolaes Maes, 1652 – 1662
Peasant Woman Spinning, Thomas Wijck, 1640 - 1677
Peasant Woman Spinning, Thomas Wijck, 1640 – 1677
Vrouw aan spinnewiel, Justus Chevillet, after Johann Kaspar Heilmann, 1762
Vrouw aan spinnewiel, Justus Chevillet, after Johann Kaspar Heilmann, 1762
Spinnende jonge vrouw, Jan Weissenbruch, 1832 - 1880
Spinning young woman, Jan Weissenbruch, 1832 – 1880
Spinster aan het werk, Leopold Löwenstam, 1852 - 1898
Spinster at her work, Leopold Löwenstam, 1852 – 1898
Zeemeermin van Edam spinnend in een huisje, 1403, anonymous, 1643 - 1645
Mermaid of Edam spinning in a house, 1403, anonymous, 1643 – 1645
Spinnende vrouw in gesprek met vrouw, Johannes Alexander Rudolf Best, 1823
Spinning woman talking to woman, Johannes Alexander Rudolf Best, 1823
Nikifor Rashchektayev - The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish spinning
Nikifor Rashchektayev – The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish spinning
Boerderij met spinnende vrouw, Richard Adam, 1654 - c. 1720
Farm with spinning woman, Richard Adam, 1654 – c. 1720
Spinnende vrouw voor een huis, Adriaen van Ostade, 1652
Woman spinning in front of a house, Adriaen van Ostade, 1652
Spinnende herderin, Paul van Somer (II), 1670 - 1697
Shepherdess spinning, Paul van Somer (II), 1670 – 1697
Vrouw met spinrokken en een haspel in de handen, Jacques Callot, 1630 - 1661
Woman with distaff and a reel in the hands, Jacques Callot, 1630 – 1661
Woonkamer met zoon Jantje en spinnende slavin Flora, Jan Brandes, 1784
Living room with son Jantje and spinning slave Flora, Jan Brandes, 1784
Hubert von Herkomer – Eventide – A Scene in the Westminster Union 1878. It depicts women at St James’s Workhouse, in Soho, London. Although sparsely furnished and decorated, Herkomer depicts the workhouse as a relatively comfortable place. Most of the women are sewing. They are painted as ‘crone’ archetypes, and although their mouths are closed, it appears they have long since lost most or all of their teeth.
Phoebe Wahl
Phoebe Wahl
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children's Land), c1920s and 30s sewing
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children’s Land), c1920s and 30s
Bertha Wegmann (Danish, 1847 - 1926)
Bertha Wegmann (Danish, 1847 – 1926)
Floris Arntzenius, (1864 - 1925) Daily chores
Floris Arntzenius, (1864 – 1925) Daily chores
Norman Rockwell - Threading the needle (1922)
Norman Rockwell – Threading the needle (1922)
Samuel Uhrdin. He was born in Siljansnäs Dalarna Sweden sewing
Samuel Uhrdin. He was born in Siljansnäs Dalarna Sweden
In-The-Orphanage-at-Katwijk-Binnen-by-David-Adolph-Constant-Artz-c1870-c1890-3000x2232
In-The-Orphanage-at-Katwijk-Binnen-by-David-Adolph-Constant-Artz-c1870-c1890-3000×2232
by Anton Pieck 1895-1987
by Anton Pieck 1895-1987
Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) night women inside sewing
Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987)
Arthur Hacker - A Difficulty 1888
Arthur Hacker – A Difficulty 1888
Woman Sewing, Carl Larsson, 1912
Woman Sewing, Carl Larsson, 1912
'Young Mother Sewing (1900)' painted by Mary Cassatt
‘Young Mother Sewing (1900)’ painted by Mary Cassatt
THE BITING EYE (1960) André François
THE BITING EYE (1960) André François
Victoria Sewing Machine advertising lithograph. Artist Imp. B. Sirven, circa 1903, France
Victoria Sewing Machine advertising lithograph. Artist Imp. B. Sirven, circa 1903, France
by Marcus Campbell, 1952, sewing machine
by Marcus Campbell, 1952, sewing machine
From the 1944 book What Miranda Knew illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones
From the 1944 book What Miranda Knew illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones
Nans van Leeuwen (1900 - 1995) Dutch cat women
Nans van Leeuwen (1900 – 1995), Dutch illustrator.
Frank Holl - The Song of the Shirt 1874 sewing
Frank Holl – The Song of the Shirt 1874
The Fitting, Viktor Schramm (Romanian), 1900 sewing
The Fitting, Viktor Schramm (Romanian), 1900
Peter Gut sewing
Peter Gut
Carl Larsson, (1853-1919), Sweden The girl weaving red gold bands
Carl Larsson, (1853-1919), Sweden The girl weaving red gold bands
1933 July weaving japan
1933 July
1935 July, cover by Roger Duvoisin
1935 July, cover by Roger Duvoisin, who also illustrated children’s books
Kinuko Craft - Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave weaving
Kinuko Craft – Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave
Carl Larsson- Loom and Thread
Carl Larsson- Loom and Thread
Princess With A Spindle, 1896
Brünhild Schlötter for Sleeping Beauty c1938, castle wheel for a spinning wheel, less commonly depicted in picture books
Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone - Rumpelstiltskin  spinning
Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone for Rumpelstiltskin
Margaret at the Spinning Wheel, from Goethe’s Faust illustrated by Willy Pogány (1908)
Thomas Wilmer Dewing – The Spinner
George Sand The Pink Cloud spinning Svetlana Kim 1982
Kinuko Craft - Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave
Kinuko Craft – Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave
Santa Claus and his Works, by George Webster, published 1888 2
Santa Claus and his Works, by George Webster, published 1888 sewing
World War 2 poster sew for victory
World War 2 poster sew for victory

The header illustration is a poster from World War 2.

The Toys of Peace by Saki

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) tree guns

“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.

Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.

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Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
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Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

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