American Childhood From The Late 19th Century

  • American methods of child-rearing were far more lenient than in Britain.
  • Although American ladies’ journals began to promote slenderness and weight control for women in the 1890s, it wasn’t considered necessary to restrict the diet of children.
  • Medical experts advised parents to make sure their children — particularly boys — were not underweight. Between-meal snacks and fatty foods were encouraged.
  • Home was thought of as a refuge from the outside world.
  • Children were believed to be innocent rather than inherently sinful.
  • Indulgence was preferred over strict discipline.
  • Children were considered ‘priceless’. They were given allowances, had lavish birthdays, were allowed treats such as candy bars, ice-cream and Eskimo pies.
  • American children were allowed fruit, salads, oysters, johnny cakes, toast swimming in butter, fish, flesh and game at breakfast, jellies and ices at night, tea and coffee. (In England children were eating bread and milk in the nursery.)
  • American children were treated as ‘robust and confident’ whereas British parenting was watchful and anxious.
  • English family stories (especially those for girls) had little appeal for American children and didn’t do well across the Atlantic.
  • Since American children were allowed to eat, American children’s literature from this time isn’t quite so full of food fantasies as it was in England at this time. (More food fantasies appeared later, during WW rationing in the mid 20th century.)

Notes from Peter Sterns via Carolyn Daniel

Good Girls In Children’s Literature

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very good indeed
But when she was bad
She was horrid!

— a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Contrary to popular belief, the above is not a Mother Goose rhyme but a poem. However, I remember its inclusion — slightly modified — in a book of nursery rhymes from my own childhood.

My version isn't quite this old!
My version isn’t quite this old!

When I recently ordered the box set of Judy Moody by Megan McDonald for my daughter I was reminded of that rather awful poem, and I wouldn’t mind betting the series illustrator has been inspired by Longfellow, because the curl on the forehead is an enduring feature of Judy Moody’s character design.

Judy Moody

‘Good girls must be very, very good or else they are horrid, whereas boys behaving badly are seen to be merely displaying masculine traits’, writes Carolyn Daniel in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. While acknowledging that things have changed since the Victorian era, ‘giving way to a generally more therapeutic style, much contemporary fiction still reinforces traditional stereotypical gender roles.’

There is another nursery rhyme from the early 1800s that epitomises our view of what boys and girls are made of — with the sexism running both ways:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of !”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!

At first glance this poem seems to have been written in a way that favors girls and makes girls’ lives easier. Instead, this poem is terrible for girls (as well as for non-‘boyish’ boys), because as Daniel describes:

There is a sociocultural leniency toward the bad behavior of boys. Boys are, after all, made of slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, and they are culturally expected to be naughty, to get dirty, to wriggle and not be able to sit still, to not make rude noises, to fight and swear. And for this they are judged to be “just being a boy” or “a real boy”, one who will grow into a real man. Concomitantly girls must be good. And, in order to become good girls they must be carefully controlled and constantly monitored.

For consideration

  • What if Peta Rabbit were a girl and her brothers Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were the good little bunnies who stayed at home?
  • Is there a female version of Winnie-the-pooh, who is obsessed over excessive and sweet food in a humorous way rather than as a slight on her character?
  • Would John Moody work as a concept? Is there a male equivalent in children’s literature? There are plenty of mischievous boys, but what about ‘moody’ ones, allegorically named as such, because their emotions are such an important part of their character? (Johnny Cranky, Sam the Surly etc.?)
  • Is stereotypical bad behaviour in girl characters e.g. preening and asking for things she shouldn’t have and talking rudely to (and about) others, perceived as worse than stereotypically boy behaviour e.g. standing up for oneself by using physical violence and threats?

 

The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs is not only an inversion on the classic tale, but also a subversion of the message. Basically, this is a fable for a rape culture world.

2015 edition, with updated font and a new, blue background
2015 edition of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs, with updated font and a new, blue background
The Three Little Wolves older cover
Here is an earlier edition of this picture book, with a soft yellow background and classic serif font

 

As you can see from the back cover, this book was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award.
As you can see from the back cover, this book was highly commended for the Kate Greenaway Award in 1993

Back in 1993, this book was a best seller and did well in a number of big prizes.

Most of the picture books I’ve looked at closely have been written in English, but this one started off in Greek, written by a famous Greek children’s author who is also a sociologist:

Dr Trivizas has published many books on literature, and he is one of Greece’s leading writers for children. He has produced more than a hundred books, all of them currently in print, and he has received more than twenty national and international literary prizes and awards.

— Wikipedia

The illustrations might remind you a little of the soft English countryside depicted by illustrators such as Beatrix Potter. Helen Oxenbury lives in North London and, like Trivizas, has a long list of books to her name. In 2008 she paired with our own Australian Mem Fox to create Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes. Two  years later she co-created There’s Going To Be A Baby with her husband, John Burningham.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE THREE LITTLE WOLVES AND THE BIG, BAD PIGS

ORIGINALITY

At first glance The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs looks easy to take a classic tale and invert the goodies and the baddies. However, nothing interesting comes of this. The author/illustrator have to be just as inventive as anyone creating a tale from scratch. What Trivizas did here was:

He not only swapped the roles of the animals, he inverted the order of the classic story. In the original, it takes the first two silly little pigs quite a while to realise they should be living in a house of bricks rather than of straw or sticks. But Trivizas surprises us early on by having the smart little wolves build their house out of bricks. Where could the story possibly  go from here? As we find out, the ‘big bad pig wasn’t big and bad for nothing’, and as the little wolves build each successive abode more ridiculously strong than the one before (keeping to the rule of three), the big pig makes use of modern technologies (a pneumatic drill) and dynamite to ‘blow’ the house down.  The detail of the pneumatic drill is great — there’s nothing going down a level of specificity to get a laugh.

pneumatic drill

INVERTED MESSAGE

What’s the moral of the story in The Three Little Pigs? There are probably several, but the one I took from the story as a child was that one should always protect oneself from bad characters. The subtext is that bad characters are essentially bad — it is in their nature. Though what I’m about to say is most definitely an adult’s reading of this text, I’m very much reminded of the message that girls, in particular, get as soon as we start to ‘go out into the world’ ourselves: You must protect yourself from bad men. And if you don’t, well that’s your own fault really, isn’t it.

This particular message has been getting a bit of media discussion recently due to the work on domestic violence by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and an increasing awareness of what’s now known as Rape Culture, and the victim blaming that happens with domestic assault. (“Why didn’t she just leave?”)

What I love about the message in this book is that we’re telling children the truth about bad characters. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, if someone with bad intentions really wants to harm us, there is nothing we can do to stop them. A rapist intent on raping, for instance, will rape no matter what. If you manage to stay away from that person, he will simply move on to someone else, so broad announcements to baton down the hatches (don’t get drunk, don’t wear skirts etc.) do nothing. And that’s what happens in this children’s book. Instead, the little wolves have to wait for the big, bad pig to come good. If only real life were this simple, however. The big, bad pig comes good due to The Redemptive Power Of Beauty. In picture books, or especially in fairytales, beauty equals goodness.

 

The other part of the inversion I like is that you can’t tell a baddie from looking at them. Though the big pig is depicted as quite menacing, we are nonetheless conditioned to read pigs as victims and wolves as perpetrators in storybooks.

HUMOUR IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS

Oxenbury must be well aware of the typical child’s reaction upon hearing that a mother is throwing her children out of home. What sort of mother would do that, I wondered as a child. (We set a very high bar for mothers in children’s literature, even when those mothers are animals.) In her illustration — if you look very closely — the adult reader, at least, will notice a few details which depict the mother wolf as a bit of a lush. She has rollers in her hair (and tail), she’s painting her nails nonchalantly even as she’s telling her children to get out, and there is a very small bottle of something hidden in the folds of her bed covers, where she is presumably having ‘hair of the dog’.

Three Little Wolves opening page

On the topic of female characters in this story, there’s no reason why the adult reader couldn’t read the three little wolves as female. This is unlikely to happen because there are no feminine markers either, except one of the little wolves is very taken with his/her precious teapot, and my own stereotyping has me casting this wolf as female.

I like that the kangaroo with the wheelbarrow full of bricks is female. She has to be, of course, if the artist is to include the most wonderful thing about kangaroos — the joeys in their pouch. I like to think that the kangaroo construction worker would have been coded female even without the cute little joey in her pouch. Let’s have more of that in picture books!

Kangaroo

 

Inversion Does Not Equal Subversion: The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt And Oliver Jeffers

The Day The Crayons Quit

The Day The Crayons Quit is a best seller made by two picture book superstars, so I’d like to use it as an example of something which bothers me a lot in children’s literature and film: Gender inversion that ironically supports the status quo.

On the surface, The Day The Crayons Quit contains a message for young artists: Use all the colours in your crayon box. Use them in original ways. (‘Think Outside The Crayon Box’.) And the gender message for boy readers: If you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to use the pink crayon. There is also another message, more implicit than that: Pink is for girls, and girls are one big blob of similar people who ‘colour within the lines’.

Pinkification

The problem with pink and gendered constructs in general.
(Please tell me who created this graphic if you know.)

This is of course a response to the pinkification of toys and games that’s been happening over the past 10-20 years.

1. Do Gendered Toys And Playtime Have Their Place Or Is It All For Profit? from The Mary Sue.

2. Stereotyping Childhood from Don’t Conform Transform. Why does the pink and blue division of toys matter? See also: I’m Dreaming Of A Non Pink and Blue Christmas from the same blog.

3. Beauty And The New Lego Line For Girls from The Society Pages (See also: Retro Lego Catalogue Praises Little Girls’ Imagination from The Mary Sue. And if you’re wondering what the new Lego for Girls looks like, you can see it at Ms Blog.) Here are a couple of retro Lego ads, and as far as I’m concerned, they should still look pretty much like that.

4. Lego For Girls Already Exists. It’s Called Lego from Mommyish, and here’s more commentary on the superfluousness of the new Lego line, which is discussed amid a handy explanation of Stereotype Threat from Don’t Conform Transform. (Girly Lego Sucks, But It’s Selling Like Hotcakes – an update from Jezebel.) And if anyone here is still wondering what the problem is, Peggy Orenstein tells Mommyish Why Those Girly Legos Should Give Parents Pause.

5. Gender Typed Toys: What The Research Says from naeyc

6. On Vanity And Princess Culture from Blue Milk, talking about dolls and other faux-harmless toys for girls

7. Pink Or Blue: Defining Gender Neutral Parenting – Baby Storm’s parents have not revealed Storm’s gender.

8. Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video)

9. But just because it’s not pink, doesn’t mean it might as well be.

10. Monica Dux conducted an experiment: ‘Walking my baby up and down a busy shopping strip. She was dressed in a lime-green hoodie and pink pants but before I set out I covered her pants with a grey blanket. The immediate assumption from all those who cooed at my infant was that she was a boy.’ The rest of the story is here.

11. Embracing Girly: On Letting Girls Be Who They Are from Don’t Conform Transform: ‘There’s nothing wrong with a child choosing any or all of those things or loving them, but there is something wrong with media and marketers providing only one vision of what a girl can like and who she can be.

12. A short clip from the comedian Jared Logan about the difference between the television commercials for boys’ vs girls’ toys.

13. Feminizing The Masculine, a Pinterest collection which ends up being a visual guide to how pink is used to market to adult women as well as to girls.

14. Are Gender Neutral Spaces Actually Doing Anything?, from Inequality by (Interior) Design

15. Dame Jacqueline Wilson dares her publishers to not put a pink cover on just one of her books, to prove they would still sell, from The Telegraph

16. Loving pink for boys, hating it for girls, from Motherlode

 

pink

 

The Difficulties Faced by Authors/Illustrators In Conveying This Message

Best selling title that it is, lauded for its gender subversion, there are some potential problems in this story.

First I’ll quote Jennie Yabroff who wrote in The Washington Post:

Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.

 Anita Sarkeesian has already explained in detail our culture’s tendency to create a cast of male characters, each with differing personalities, then create a new ‘female’ version, in which her defining characteristic is ‘femaleness’. The audience knows that this is the girl because the creators have slapped a bow on her head, put her in heels and a dress, given her eyelashes or marked her out with pink.

 

This doesn’t just happen in video games — it happens on TV shows designed for children, in computer software used in schools, in advertising, in toys, and of course in mass market picture books.

Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?
Toy makers are in the same moral bind: Consumers want female versions, but how to show femaleness without stereotypical markers of femininity?

Since readers of The Day The Crayons Quit have been acculturated within a system which pinkifies everything associated with girls, it should have been clear to this book’s creators — who presumably understand this tendency in children precisely so they can subvert it — that without gender pronouns, or clothes, or human names, the crayons are all default males.

It should also have been clear to any creators properly schooled up in gender politics that getting the male hero to pass on a message praising his little sister for ‘staying within the lines’ is just the sort of sexist bullshit that turns primary school aged girls into what I’ve heard teachers refer to as ‘colourer-inners’ by the time they hit high school. No, that’s not a grammatically sensible phrase, but an English teacher I once knew used it to refer to her female students who, instead of doing the research and the thinking required before writing any essay, would spend 90 per cent of their allocated time creating an ornamental page border, choosing which shade of paper to print on, then hum and ha over 7 different system fonts without doing any actual work. Having later taught at a girls’ high school myself, I became so exasperated with this tendency that I banned any modification to the Word template at the start of each lesson. Who could blame these girls though, after having been told their entire lives that looking pretty and creating prettiness was the most important thing they should do?

This picture book hardly blows that bullshit apart.

I’m most disturbed by the bit that says:

Okay, listen here, kid! You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I am a GIRLS’ colour, isn’t it?

I’m reminded here of all those picture books for toddlers which are designed to teach children not to be afraid of monsters. The book will then offer up a detailed picture of just exactly what a monster looks like (green and scaly or warm and fluffy) and where it lives (under the bed, behind the curtains). My own daughter was never scared of monsters until she encountered them in other people’s stories, and those first stories happened to be picture books, naturally.

When boys and girls are told that this generic ‘kid’, Duncan, is not using the pink because he is a boy, there is nothing whatsoever within the text or the pictures to say:

AND WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING A GIRL, ANYWAY?

The message is not: Femme phobia is stupid because even though pink is ‘for girls’ girls are just a-okay. No, the message is: You can use the pink crayon even though it’s an icky girl colour. (So long as you use it to make a dinosaur.)

How Might This Book Be Better?

  • The crayons probably do need to be gendered, with 50/50 male/female. The pink crayon could have even been a boy, to really hammer home the ‘pink is for everyone’ message. I’m a bit icky still about all this because in a perfect world these crayons could remain completely ungendered. Also, the pink crayon is not actually marked as female in any other way apart from being pink. Still, if the creators didn’t know that was going to happen, they are surprisingly naive.
  • Don’t praise little girls for colouring within the lines while offering up an example of creative freeform drawing in little boys.
  • Show that Duncan has coloured in the princess rather than creating a dinosaur with the pink. Maybe have the little sister be the one drawing the pink dinosaur.
  • Either get rid of the bit that preaches about pink being related to girls (it should be obvious from the illustrations anyway, for children who already ‘get the cultural message’), or else append with something that challenges the inherent femme phobia.

The first part of the message works i.e. ‘Be creative and original with colour’. But with something as complex as gendered messages, unfortunately inversion does not equal subversion.

This picture book fails in its gender message however. In fact, it makes the whole thing worse.

And the peach thing is a bit problematic, too, as noted by a Goodreads reviewer:

In regards to the “naked crayon” (peach) mentioned by other readers, I believe this refers to Duncan removing the crayon’s wrapper and not the author’s inadvertent implication that peach is the only color equivalent to skin tone. Even so, as others have noted, the illustrations would be improved by diversifying the figures in the book (they’re all colored with peach crayon although brown and beige crayons are referenced), especially since one of the book’s lessons is to experience color in various ways.

 

Gender Problems In ParaNorman (2012)

The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012
The Smurfette Principle Captured In An Image, 2012

ParaNorman is an animated zombie flick, light-hearted in its intent, and follows the adventures of an outcast 11-year old called Norman, who sees dead people. They’re everywhere.

I identify with Norman, I really do. These days, whenever I watch a kids’ film, all I see are anti-girl references and tropes. These tropes are like ghosts because only a select few of us seem ever to notice them. Where are the feminist reviewers on IMDb?

I don’t really like to make forceful commentary about a movie I’ve seen only once  but the ParaNorman screenplay, written by Christopher Butler, is freely available online. I read through the screenplay after my visit to the theater  hoping to prove myself wrong about the anti-girl messages in this otherwise deftly crafted film. I was really hoping to love this one, which is created by one of the storyboard artists from Coraline, a genuinely girl-friendly story.

Next, a fellow commenter at Reel Girl argued a pro-feminist ending after seeing exactly the same film. I assume all intelligent commenters at Reel Girl to be among the best educated and most thoughtful in relation to feminism and kids’ films, so I read the script looking for the girl-friendly bits.

While failure to find any may simply be a failure on my own part, after looking closely at the script, I came away feeling even less impressed. Before, I had said that everyone should see this movie and make up their own mind. Now I say, nah don’t bother.

HOW THE MOVIE OPENS

Quoted directly from the script:

An attractive FEMALE SCIENTIST in a gore-spattered labcoat moves fearfully along a wall, passing benches strewn with broken lab equipment. Her ample bosom heaves as she PANTS nervously, mascara-rimmed eyes darting to and fro.

Glass SMASHES on the floor nearby and MELODRAMATIC MUSIC swells. The woman backs into a shadow, not noticing a pair of dead eyes catching the moonlight behind her.

The music climbs to a frenzy as something GROANS horribly into the woman’s ear. She spins around on her stiletto heels as a rotted face looms out of the darkness, drooling through broken teeth, and lunges at her neck.

What isn’t mentioned in the script, but what viewers did see in the opening to ParaNorman, was the woman scientist’s buttocks thrust provocatively toward the audience. Along with the threat of her imminent demise, the audience is invited to admire her rump.

The camera cuts away to reveal Norman and his (dead) grandmother watching one of those old zombie flicks, safe in the comfort of his modern-day living room. His grandmother is appropriately dismissive of this film; the two of them are watching a Night Of The Living Dead type of ridiculous zombie-flick after all, which are so bad they can be appreciated in the modern world only as ironic spoofs of death and femininity and heroism. That’s the point of zombie films, right? They’re ridiculous by nature, and no one can take any single thing they say seriously. Especially the old ones. Except an argument can be made for the exact opposite: that zombie films rely on realism:

The protagonists of these apocalypses are everyman characters, blue collar heroes of modest ambition and means. In the zombie genre, average citizens are thrown into the chaos of the apocalypse, such as Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. Even when the characters are professionals, such as the soldiers and scientists in Day of the Dead, they do not possess pulp fiction levels of ability nor do they stop the apocalypse. They are swept up in the events, helpless to counteract them. The zombie genre demands realism on the part of its human characters, as they are not heroic saviors, but people the audience can identify with.

– from The Survivalist Fetish In The Zombie Genre, Part 2

When viewing zombie stories ironically, bear in mind that even the most ironic sexism is still sexism, and still harmful. Anita Sarkeesian explained it beautifully in a commentary on retro-sexism in advertising. To take The Walking Dead as a more modern example of a zombie story (albeit for adults), this from The Idiot Box:

I feel like something more insidious is at play…I was absolutely shocked to see that a male character from the show who tried to rape a female character at the end of the last season is still being treated as a hero.

Bearing all this zombie- and retro-sexist-background in mind, I’m already wary of ironic sexism in a movie for kids, so when the female scientist’s sexualised rump is presented to us baboon-style in the very first scene, I’m already the tiniest bit uncomfortable. This feels to me like a very cheap way to draw an audience in. I wonder if lots of girl viewers are already feeling slightly excluded from this story, without necessarily being able to articulate why.

However.

Impressed at the grandmother’s dismissive commentary (“That’s not very nice… what’s [the zombie] doing that for?”) I settle in for the rest of the ride. This film is going to poke fun at zombie films, and turn weak-female characterisation on its head, right? I push down the feminist sitting on my shoulder and reason that a middle grade audience will come away with a fuller understanding of zombie tropes, realising that almost everything these days is ironic, and the world will seem a better place as a result of this epiphany.

I can see the creator of this film might well have made this film with such noble intentions, but I’m about to argue that he falls way short.

I’ll also argue that by including a few interesting female characters, namely the grandmother, the drama teacher and Salma (the Minority Feisty), this obfuscates the fact that any female speaking roles are minimal as a proportion of the total, and just as importantly, masks the fact that the female characters exist first to prop up the male roles, and second because they kind of have to be there for realism (boys need mothers, for instance). A look at the surface level of this film and an audience may well come away under the impression that although this is boy-centered-film, it is very girl-friendly to boot.

Here’s why it’s not.

PROBLEM NUMBER 1:

Most female characters in Paranorman are as stereotypical as female characters in the original zombie flicks, without actually smashing through the heavy irony.

The description of Norman’s mother:

Norman’s mother, SANDRA BABCOCK, is emptying the dishwasher. She is in her late thirties, and wears ‘mom’ clothes that do no favors for her figure.

Have you noticed how often the term ‘figure’ is used to describe women, yet how rarely it comes up as an item of importance for men? When is the last time you heard anyone talk about a man’s ‘figure’?

Personaje Sandra Babcock en El alucinante mundo de Norman

Next, the audience is introduced to Norman’s teenage sister:

Courtney Babcock

Breezing into the kitchen through the back door while CHATTING inanely on her cell phone, Norman’s older sister COURTNEY is fifteen years-old and is the bleached-blonde cheerleader archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.

COURTNEY: Oh yeah, he’s r-i-double p-e-d. Like, a seven pack at least. (to Norman) Ew! Watch it!

She pushes her brother out of the way as he drags the garbage outside.

I now have a sense of how the screenwriter thinks about women. A certain amount of character description is necessary in any screenplay. What stands out to me is that Courtney is FIFTEEN — she is sexually underage, yet still exists primarily as a sexual object: the ‘archetype of every schoolboy’s sordid dreams.’ (What does this say about ‘every schoolboy’?)

Admittedly, the viewer doesn’t get an accurate number on Courtney’s age. Given her role, I’d assumed her to be more like 17 or 18. Reading the script tells me something I didn’t want to know about her creator.

The next female character is Norman’s drama teacher, who is directing a comically over-the-top play about the witch burnings which happened locally 300 years before.

In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume.

It’s important to this screenwriter that Mrs Henscher is fat: ‘in a…chair too small for the job’. Mrs Henscher has a larger-than-life personality and I admit that her physicality is a good match. I find the second part of the description interesting: ‘who looks like she smells of too much perfume’.

 

Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, smelling of too much perfume
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher, who comes into her own during the zombie battle. Here she is wearing face mask as war paint.
Mrs Henscher's imposing size is emphasised by camera angle
Mrs Henscher’s imposing size is emphasised by camera angle

I include this description of Mrs Henscher first for completion’s sake, but also because I do appreciate this character. She’s interesting. Mrs Henscher is a classic example of the Acrofatic trope, or possibly Stout Strength. She’s a kind of Ladette.

But we don’t see much of her. And I doubt the target audience would identify much: she is presented as an eccentric and formidable teacher, and is as self-absorbed as she is physically powerful. Do I find her interesting because she is a jumble of mismatched tropes, similar to Megan on Bridesmaids, a butch-pearl-wearing woman, rejected by the mainstream but confident in her own right? (The only interesting character in that film, I might add.) At the risk of overthinking it, is this ‘mismatch’ between feminine accouterments and brute strength another kind of ironic novelty trope, which ultimately says something quite negative about femininity and all its associations? If a girl isn’t likely to identify with a female character, do we include her in the count of ‘strong female characters‘, whose very definition is problematic in its own right.

PROBLEM NUMBER 2:

Girl stuff is embarrassing and any resemblance to girls at all means you’re less of a man

ALVIN: Don’t get your bra in a twist, fat boy, this has nothing to do with you! Keep out of my way!

NEIL: Or what?

ALVIN: Or I’ll punch you in the boobs!

NEIL: I don’t have boobs. These are pectorals!

Alvin jabs him in the chest.

NEIL (CONT’D): Ow! My boobs!

A common joke. Yet I can’t think of any middle grade story which makes a joke out of a girl owning a pair of balls. Obviously, that would have the opposite message.

Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.

Gwen Sharp

(The anti-fat jokes running throughout this film I will save for a separate post altogether.)

Later, the script describes a comically violent scene in the following manner:

Alvin [the bully] SCREAMS like a little girl, smacks it ineffectually with his spatula…

As Headless Horse writes at The Round Stable, “Clearly our cultural vocabulary could stand to grow up a little bit, and girls deserve to know they’re not afterthoughts—not to the makers of cartoons, and not to anyone else either./The parallels to other fronts in the broad, slow-moving war of social equality are clear: Polite adult company doesn’t use gay as a derogatory term anymore. Nor are words like retarded or bitchy considered welcome adjectives outside of the dialogue of deliberately retrograde fictional characters.” It’s not okay to use ‘gay’ as an insult in a kids’ film, and it’s not okay to use ‘retard’ as an insult, so why is it still okay to use ‘girly’ analogies… as an insult?

PROBLEM NUMBER 3.

The message that girl stuff is vapid

The tiny room is crammed full of posters, pom-poms, plush toys and plastic trophies. Pretty much everything is pink. [pink=girly, no?] Courtney sits talking on her phone, cotton buds between her toes as her painted nails dry.

COURTNEY: So I said to her, “Girl, come back  and talk to me when your basket toss gets twelve thousand hits on YouTube!” Yeah, no, I said that. (listens and nods) Yeah, I’m stuck on lame patrol. Tonight’s gonna be a total yawn.

The audience is constantly reminded of Courtney’s shallow empty-headedness, with exclamations such as, ‘Oh, I broke a nail!’ An adult audience must surely recognise this as comically cliche. I’m not sure a younger, middle grade audience has been around long enough to see an  entire fantasy world ironically.

Let us not forget that in kids’ films, as well as in real life, girl stuff is uncool, and must be rebranded entirely if boys are to have anything to do with it.

Related: Blonde, Self-Tanning Essex Teen Girl Has Higher IQ Than Einstein And Everyone’s Annoyingly Surprised, from Jezebel.

PROBLEM NUMBER 4.

The minority feisty is classically unattractive and only speaks when she’s saying overtly feminist stuff

The ParaNorman wiki entry on the Minority Feisty character of Salma sums up her role:

Not much is known about Salma outside of her name and status as a friend of Neil, as she’s seen hanging with him as well as trusting him enough to give him her number.

Below is a screenshot of Salma. Notice the monobrow and the glasses. She is described in the script as ‘a nerdy Indian kid with braces’.

This is what feminists look like.
This is what feminists look like.

Making use of the screenplay PDF and Ctrl-F, here’s the sum total of Salma’s speaking parts:

SALMA [playing the bossy girl type]: Neil, come on. Let’s go.

SALMA: Why is the witch always a hideous  old crone with a pointy hat and a  broomstick? I don’t believe it’s historically accurate, Mrs Henscher!

SALMA (speaking as her onstage role as a witch): I curse you accusers to die a horrible and gruesome death and rise from your graves as the living dead; your souls doomed to an eternity of damnation!

SALMA (Salma talks into her cell phone with an expression of withering disdain.): So Norman, let me get this straight; you guys all go on this big supernatural adventure and you’re calling me in the middle of the night because you need someone to help you do your homework?

Even though Salma comes out with insightful commentary about what is essentially The Hermione Trope*, her physical presentation and her facial expressions make clear to an audience that Salma is to be perceived as ‘The Wicked Witch Of The West’. From the screenplay itself:

Salma is holding her hand up. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West.

The feminist/wicked witch analogy is underscored in the slapstick, of which Salma is a victim:

Norman is yanked off balance and staggers into Neil who keels over, rigid branch arms unable to stop his fall. He lands on top of Salma, her kicking legs sticking out from under him as though Dorothy’s house had just landed on stage.

Is the audience to laugh when bad things happen to Salma? That’s surely the point of the slapstick.

SALMA [in response to Norman’s appeal for help with his research]: Well, duh. People found guilty of witchcraft weren’t considered people anymore. Norman, your witch was buried someplace else… in an unmarked grave! (reproachfully) If you cared to pay attention some of the time, you would know that we covered this in fifth grade history class… [notice that despite her protestations, she obliges the boys, compliantly] Okay. It says here she was tried in the old Town Hall on Main Street. There may be a record of her execution and burial in their archives.

In short, the audience is encouraged to disassociate ourselves from this sexually unappealing feminist character, who only ever bosses boys around and raises her hand in class to offer intelligent but very annoying feminist commentary. So any feminist observations Salma comes out with are nulled. This feminist character is actually worse than absent. This characterisation is not only anti-feminist, it’s anti-thinking.

*What I call The Hermione Trope: smart girls only exist in stories to help out the boys on the boys’ adventures while she sits at home doing the hard yards by reading books. To be fair, Hermione does join in the adventures even though she must read a lot of books ‘off stage’. I have yet to find a good name for this relationship. It’s evident again in Monster House, a movie with character dynamics very similar to this one, except the Hermione character (Jenny) gets a lot more screentime and is a lot more likeable than Salma.

PROBLEM NUMBER 6:

The commodification of female bodies

MITCH (O.S.)

Neil! Will you get the door?

NEIL: I’m busy!

MITCH (O.S.): Are you freeze-framing Mom’s aerobics DVD again?

ANGLE ON TV, with a still image of a Lycra-clad instructor bending over. Neil quickly turns it off.

NEIL: No!

Needless to say, the ‘Lycra-clad instructor’ is female, and her buttocks fill the screen. I think the reason an audience finds this funny is because of the innocence of it: an older, more worldly young man would have found more hard-core/covert methods of objectifying women’s bodies. This is the sort of humour prevalent in comedies like Ted (2012). But Ted is for adults.

The female buttocks-fill-the-screen thing are (no doubt deliberately) reminiscent of one of the very first images in this film: that of the female scientist in the labcoat whose brains get eaten in that over-the-top Zombie film watched by Norman and his grandmother. After hoping that this film was going to highlight the ridiculousness of that storyline, now I’m convinced that this film only serves to reinforce them, to a brand new and younger audience.

Later, during the zombie invasion:

A corpse stands agog before a billboard. The poster is for a line of “Lady Luck” lingerie and features a buxom woman in her underwear draped over a roulette wheel. The tagline is “FANCY YOUR CHANCES?” The corpse’s one eye pops out of its socket and dangles by its optic nerve.

PROBLEM NUMBER 7:

11-year-old boy speaks in a fatherly and all-knowing manner to an 11-year-old girl, saving the helpless little creature

This is a story in which a boy is chosen to Save The World (or at least, the community).

PRENDERGHAST GHOST: Oh it’s you all right! I’ve been holding back the witch’s curse for years, but now I’m dead. It has to be you!

NORMAN: But I… I don’t know what any of it means!

Norman understands that he is just like the little girl, in age at least.

NORMAN: How could you?! She was just a little kid! She was no different than me!

Here’s the scene where Norman calmly reasons with Aggie:

Norman climbs up a tree root, Aggie’s flames searing his skin and clothes as he gets close enough to touch her.

NORMAN: Then stop. This is wrong and you know it! You’ve spent so long remembering the bad people that you’ve forgotten the good ones. There must have been someone who loved you and cared for you. You don’t remember them?

AGGIE: Leave me alone!

NORMAN: But you’re not alone! You have to remember!

AGGIE: Keep away from me!

Norman reaches the end of the root and jumps. His outstretched fingers shake madly as they approach Aggie’s tiny hand, as though the air is fighting against him.

NORMAN: Remember!

There is a flash of white, and silence.

NORMAN: Sometimes when people get scared they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared, that you forgot who you are. But I don’t think you’re a witch. Not really.

Aggie looks into his eyes.

AGGIE: You don’t?

NORMAN: I think you’re just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her.

He smiles softly.

NORMAN (CONT’D): So we’re not all that different at all.

So why the huge wisdom differential? TECHNICALLY, the little girl has been around for CENTURIES longer than he has. Norman goes ahead and ‘talks the girl down’ from her temper tantrum in the sky.

Admittedly, some of his precocious wisdom has come straight from his dead grandmother, who filled the fairy godmother role much earlier. Grandma Babcock appears seldom on screen, but when she does, she offers some weighty one-liners and theme-revealing advice:

GRANDMA BABCOCK: There’s nothing wrong with being scared Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.

The Grandmother is the only truly positive female character in this film, since I’m discounting the strangely unappealing drama teacher and the deliberately scorned young feminist, Salma.

But Grandma Babcock cannot possibly make up for everything else, even if her lines are some of the most memorable. Arguing that ParaNorman is girl-friendly and then citing the grandmother would be like saying that Cinderella is a feminist story, because the fairy-godmother is very wise and helpful. Just like those old fairytales, ParaNorman is still, at its core, a story about girls waiting in the sidelines for boys to save the day, fairy godmother notwithstanding.

See: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit:

Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

EDIT: After reading the ParaNorman review written by Hoyden About Town, I understand exactly how I haven’t seen the forest for the trees.

Hoyden writes:

It was all going so well until Norman speaks to the ‘witch’ who was actually an 11 year old girl who was executed for witchcraft because she could speak to the dead too. Norman solves the problem of her raining down destruction on the town built around tourism based on her legend by insisting to her that she must forgive and forget. He gets really up in her face about it. Forget that this jury of mainly men (one woman) killed an innocent child for being a witch, that she as an 11 year old must understand that the adults made a mistake because they were scared, that it is her duty to forgive them and go to the grave.

I had to stop my list of complaints somewhere, but I really should have looked more closely at the entire plot and structure of this film, which is predicated upon something very wrong indeed. I’m clearer now on exactly why I found the ending so offensive.

See also: The Problem With Raising Good Girls from Role Reboot. ParaNorman has exactly the same problem as Bland’s story for preschoolers.

PROBLEM NUMBER 8:

Girls stand by and cheer Norman on in stereotypically feminine supporting roles

Either that, or they run away.

The fat woman from the Drive-Thru runs past SCREAMING, her face and T-shirt covered in blood-red ketchup.

Even at the climax, Courtney MIGHT have undergone some sort of character arc, learning to be proactive instead of pathetically passive in the presence of an attractive young man (the one who turns out to be gay* — SUCKED IN COURTNEY, JOKE’S ON YOU), but instead she has only learnt to respect her little brother. She cheers him on like the expert cheerleader she has been acculturated into being as the townsfolk gaze on in wonderment:

COURTNEY (CONT’D): Everybody, listen up! You all need to stop trying to kill my brother! You’re adults! Stop it! I know that this seems crazy, believe me I’m with you on that, but I think he does actually know what he’s talking about!…I’ve cheered the uncheerable, Norman, and I’m not  letting you give up now!

It’s easy to forget that it’s information gleaned from the knowledgeable and hard-working Salma which is what actually Saves The Day. But where is Salma when Norman is busy being congratulated at the end? I don’t even remember.

*See also: Representing sexuality in animation:

In spite of animation’s inherent plasticity and the implication that animation can “resist outmoded notions of… performance” and “carry with it alternative ideological imperatives” (Wells, 1998, p.227) prime time television animation tends to follow the stereotypical representations of most visual narratives when depicting homosexual characters, using the traditions of feminizing, demonizing or ridiculing the homosexual male, or more recently othering such characters by intellectualizing them, or in the case of lesbians, dumbing these characters down to unibrow car mechanic hicks.

PROBLEM 9:

Girls are treated poorly then smile demurely

I’m not imagining things here. This is what it says in the script [parts in parentheses are mine]:

Courtney counters the backseat barbs [from a male character she likes] by smiling demurely

And during a zombie action scene:

VARIOUS ANGLES ON the garish town center nightlife intercut with CLOSE-UPS of the wide-eyed zombies.

Two teenage girls in mini-skirts walk along the curb. A pickup truck crawls by, driven by red necks who wolfwhistle and gesture rudely. The girls GIGGLE.

At no point in this film do girls stand up for themselves.  Except for Salma, who is shot down and sat on.

PROBLEM 10:

Perpetuation of some pretty damn dodgy mars vs venus gender bullshit

This is an interaction between Norman’s parents, in which we are reminded that men don’t ask for directions and women can’t read maps:

PERRY BABCOCK: We’ve already been this way. We’re going around in circles!

SANDRA BABCOCK: Maybe we should pull over and ask someone?

PERRY BABCOCK: Oh, right, you think maybe we should stop at a graveyard and dig up some other eighteenth-century corpses?

SANDRA BABCOCK: It’s not a bad idea.

PERRY BABCOCK: I wish I understood you.

Women, OF COURSE, are completely non-understandable. Unintelligible, even. Yes, women are fucking crazy, and totally useless during a zombie apocalypse.

Related:

At the climax, Norman has saved the day. A boy is pleased to make his Dad proud, but doesn’t care for his mother’s reaction.

SANDRA BABCOCK (CONT’D): My brave little man! I thought I was going to lose you!

NORMAN: Mom, you’re embarrassing me.

SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s my job.

COURTNEY: Good job, Norman.

Perry takes a deep breath and looks at his son. There is relief and a hint of admiration in his eyes.

PERRY BABCOCK: Well done, Son. You did it.

Throughout the film, the mother and father’s dialogue have been equally inane, but in the end, only the mother is found to be stereotypically embarrassing. We learn that while it’s important to make your dad proud, mothers require forbearance.

Limits of the Bechdel Test

The movie does in fact pass. There is a brief exchange between Selma and Mrs. Henscher in the scene where the kids are rehearsing the play. Selma complains that the play not being historically accurate, and Mrs. Henscher replies that the point is to promote tourism, not be historically accurate. Only a few lines, but I think it qualifies.

from a website where people argue about whether a film passes The Bechdel Test.

There is a moment where the little ghost witch girl is talking to her mother under a tree. So this film technically passes The Bechdel Test. But what about The Magowan Test, which I feel is more appropriate for kids’ stories? It doesn’t pass that.

In Conclusion

Feminism is a niche area and anyone who fancies he’s up to the job of writing a feminist screenplay starring middle grade kids would be well advised to do some goddamn reading on the matter. Either that, or leave the feminist commentary right out of it, since stories about boys deserve to exist in the world — just not at the expense of girls.

ParaNorman is an excellent example of the insidiousness of female representation in kids’ films, because with its straw-feminism,  it’s easy to sit back and consider that part taken care of. This mirrors exactly how feminism works the real world, here in 2013: We all see a few women in power and assume feminism has done its job. Instead, I fear we’re heading swiftly backwards.

The Credits

The screenshots above come from the fan-created ParaNorman Wiki. Here’s a very telling screenshot of that site. Notice what’s there and what’s missing?

paranorman-wiki-screenshot
ParaNorman Wiki, 31 Jan 2013

A Further Note On Audience

Kids deserve better: not ‘morality stories’, but yes, they deserve politically correct. Partly because ‘politically incorrect’ can’t be funny in an ironic sense until ‘correct’ has been learned in the first place.

If this were a film for adults, I wouldn’t even bother. Adults — ideally, at least — have a well-honed sense of irony.

It has been suggested that this film is not for little kids. And it’s true that we shouldn’t simply assume that ‘animation=for kids’. When deciding who a film might be for, far better to look at the storyline and themes.

See: At What Age Do We Understand Sarcasm? from io9: “It appears that when kids at around the age of eight or nine encounter sarcasm, they know it’s sarcasm only by tone.”

The protagonists of ParaNorman are 11-years-old. While I could go on at length on a different topic: the infantalisation of entertainment, I don’t feel this particular animated film has enough depth to appeal exclusively to adults. That’s not to suggest that adults won’t also enjoy this film, should they go along KNOWING IT’S A KIDDY FLICK, but surely if a film starring 11-year-olds were marketed as a film for adults, without the added wisdom of hindsight a la The Wonder Years, an adult audience might feel a bit weird about that. The themes in ParaNorman are summed up in far too heavy-handed a manner for this film to be a deliberate appeal to adults. As for the morals, an experienced audience has been there, done that. The slapstick comedy of ParaNorman appeals to an even younger audience who, unfortunately, would likely suffer nightmares (tried and tested). Middle-schoolers are a varied crew, but any parental guidance should by rights focus on the unintended messages mentioned above; with films such as this one, parents aren’t just there to provide a warm presence in the face of supernatural themes. There are more important jobs than that.

What Parents Need To Know about the ratings of this film, from CommonSense Media.

 

Problems With The Redemption Story

redemption
The Redemption Story has a structure of its own. Specifically American in origin, the redemption plot is now seen across the globe. This is a story common to fiction and non-fiction alike.

[R]edemption in particular is a popular, and particularly American, narrative. “Evolving from the Puritans to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah Winfrey… Americans have sought to author their lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility,” McAdams writes in an overview of life story research. “The stories speak of heroic individual protagonists—the chosen people—whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world does not wish to be redeemed.”

The Bible might be sold as a short story collection subtitled ‘Stories of Redemption’. Inside we have standout examples such as:

  • The Story of Noah
  • Abraham and Isaac
  • Ruth
  • Potter
  • Lost Sheep
  • The Prodigal Son
  • Saul of Tarsus

Jonah Lehrer (or was it?) writes that the Redemption Story is very powerful in American politics, also:

  • Ben Franklin went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation
  • President George W. Bush was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking
  • John McCain was a prisoner of war

It applies to some of the best-loved American celebrities:

  • Lehrer also mentions Oprah Winfrey, who had a troubled childhood
  • Drew Barrymore was a child star who came through addiction
  • Nicki Minaj grew up in a violent home in Queens

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The opposite of a ‘redemption story’ is known as a ‘contamination story’. Contamination stories end on a tragic note.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

PROBLEMS WITH THE REDEMPTION STORY

Barbara Ehrenreich criticises this mindset throughout her book Smile Or Die.

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting, redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

Captain Awkward reserves special hatred for the redemption story, because the narrative has a far-reaching impact on real people. In this post, she explains Why We Don’t Diagnose People Through The Internet. At first glance this doesn’t seem to be related to The Redemption Story, but filling in the gaps, armchair diagnoses are terrible for a number of reasons. One of those reasons: It shifts focus from the victim back onto the abuser. If we assign a reason for an abuser’s abuse, that allows us to make another tiny little leap onto a redemption arc for that person.

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

— Captain Awkward

THE TYPICAL STRUCTURE OF A REDEMPTION STORY

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, wrote a book called George W. Bush and the redemptive dream: A psychological portrait. New York: Oxford University Press. McAdams specialises in the psychology of redemption. He also wrote The Art and Science of Personality Development, which includes a chapter called “Generative Lives, Redemptive Life Stories”.  

Whether fiction or non-fiction, McAdams explains what a redemption story looks like:

  1. EARLY ADVANTAGE  —  the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start
  2. SENSITIVITY TO SUFFERING — the protagonist describes how they noticed the unfairness of the world
  3. MORAL STEADFASTNESS — the protagonist lives their life guided by a strong sense of right and wrong
  4. REDEMPTION SEQUENCES — moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state”
  5. EDUCATION PROVIDED BY THE HARD TIMES — the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people”

Here’s a Christian way of putting it. I’ve annotated with common writing terminology:

The Bible portrays the behavior of mankind cyclically. [CIRCULAR PLOT SHAPE] From a high point of alignment with God’s character and will, man’s conduct deteriorates and sin increases. [PSYCHOLOGICAL AND MORAL WEAKNESS] Sin’s natural fruit is confusion, pain and suffering,[MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER SUFFER HARD] and these grow as individuals and societies move farther from their Creator. As sin increases, harm increases. Eventually the pain reaches a point where people yearn for salvation. [BATTLE] God raises up a man or woman, a deliverer, to lead the people back to Him; to help them realign with His will. [SELF REVELATION] Through this deliverer, the Lord brings people back to Him. [NEW EQUILIBRIUM] This is the Cycle of Redemption.

M.D. Harris

Let’s see how the structure of a redemption story lines up with the basic narrative structure suggested by storytelling experts.

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED — in fiction, protagonists need something wrong with them at the beginning. The hero of a redemption story is more like a superhero in that they have special powers which cannot be realised due to external factors. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, personally.
  2. DESIRE — the hero in a redemption story starts to desire a different world because they have noticed injustice all around them.
  3. OPPONENT — the opponent is the society
  4. PROBLEM — mistakes and hardships — addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc.
  5. BATTLE — I’m guessing that’s described, too. How hard it was to overcome such hardships.
  6. SELF-REVELATION — corresponds directly to the redemption sequences
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM — ‘the protagonist commits to prosocial goals’

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

One of the main messages to come out of America is: ‘Believe in yourself and you can do anything you set your mind to’. Many American children’s books express that message in the subtext.

Why are such stories so popular? Lehrer speculates that these redemption narratives ‘better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life’.

To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth.

EXPORTING THE DREAM

The Redemption Story can no longer be described specifically American. Dan Hade goes into the extent to which American stories have spread across the globe. The USA has been exporting its stories for several generations now, and it seems the most popular story worldwide resembles some version of the redemption story.

Harry Potter is a British example. In  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry feels unworthy of the House of Gryffindor. By the end of the story, Harry has all the proof he needs that he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Ron and Neville also learn to believe in themselves.

2017 update: Is it any wonder so many Hollywood movies are about terrible men seeking redemption? We’re continuing to see them, by the way. Maybe the post 2017 era will see fewer of them. One of the most egregious examples of 2017 is Godless. See this review for more on that, and save yourself the trouble of suffering through it.

THE OPPOSITE OF A REDEMPTION STORY

It’s worth pointing out that America has also produced some tentpole anti-redemption stories, probably in reaction to the popularity of its inverse.

  • Deliverance is one example, a film based on a novel by James Dickey.
  • Hud is another, written by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s general outlook on life is a pessimistic one — Lonesome Dove (which he wrote later) is often described as a great Western when it is in fact a typical anti-Western.
  • Perhaps the inverse of a redemption story is a revenge story, in which case True Grit is a good example.

Notice that in all four examples above, a main character ends with a missing limb.

Gilmore Girls and Modern Feminism

Why Fans Love Gilmore Girls

A Fan’s Notes On Gilmore Girls from The Awl.

Watching With Your Kids

Here’s a good argument for watching Gilmore girls with your daughter even if you see problems with it. I kind of live by this rule. That’s how my nine-year-old knows that sex is mostly recreational — honestly, it’s TV.

  1. I enjoyed the 90s and early 00s references (which would now mostly go over the heads of a younger audience).
  2.  Fast-paced dialogue. I may have a high tolerance for dialogue-heavy stories. My husband says he doesn’t know how I can follow what they’re saying, even though he likes Reservoir Dogs. Apparently, he doesn’t catch a single word of Gilmore girls.
  3. I most wanted to sit down in front of Gilmore Girls when I was feeling tired or had to do the ironing. On a particularly stressful day, I watched about three episodes in a row. Stepping into the world of Stars Hollow is like stepping into the world of Sylvanian Families, right down to the omnipresent kebab-shop fairy lights and small-town concerns, and the fact that even when the weather is ‘bad’ it is still really, really beautiful, Stars Hollow is pure fiction and therefore borders on cozy fantasy. Technically this is Arcadia, utopia — with more in common with The Wind In The Willows than with general TV dramas for adults. It should probably be considered suburban fantasy, because Stars Hollow is not really much like real life. For starters, there isn’t really much in the way of ethnic diversity. That’s not how I think of America, but then, almost entirely white towns with a token black Frenchman and token Asian families run by tiger-moms may well exist in Connecticut for all I know.

Lorelai's House, Gilmore Girls

Indeed, Stars Hollow almost makes you want to rush out and recreate the entire community out of paper. A true fan models their new home on that of the Gilmore Girls. Someone even drew up plans for you.

IS GILMORE GIRLS STILL GOOD FOR GIRLS?

A GG fan writing for The AV Club has provided a full summary of the first two shows though, as ever, your best bet is by simply watching. Gilmore girls is available on iTunes, and costs less than a lot of other shows, at less than a dollar per episode. (It’s also on American Netflix right now.)

I do have some nagging concerns about this ostensibly feminist show. The first is my usual concern: That a (very) young audience doesn’t necessarily know what’s irony and what’s not. (By *young* — my daughter is seven.)

Funny Gilmore girls quote. Love this. My dr told me today that it's better to look good then feel good! LOL he didn't know the Gilmore's already explained that.

However, this is a show for adolescents. So lets take a look at messages they’re definitely absorbing, all over the place.

1. ANTI-HEALTH-FOOD MESSAGES

Look at it one way and you might conclude that Gilmore girls is a show which depicts a range of body sizes. Compare the Gilmore girls to Melissa McCarthy’s character, whose fat* presence in Hollywood is a constant reminder that anti-fat messages pervade modern culture, especially for women.

*Fat is the non-judgey word, so I’m using it.

But we should look a little further than that. I’m going to argue that Lorelai Gilmore is a strong candidate for an eating disorder not otherwise specified. In Season Six, after Rory moves into the tennis house, Emily says to Rory (partly in jest), ‘You’re not bulimic, are you?’. Rory shrugs it off as ridiculous but I had been wondering the same thing in earnest for quite some seasons by that stage.

(I’m not the only one to have noticed this.)

An entire movement has popped up, in response to the horrible body-checking and anti-fat movement which women have been subjected to since forever sometime last century, depending on your culture. I happened across this inspirational poster on Pinterest and it pretty much sums up the culture I’m talking about:

Eat cake for breakfast

This is certainly one way of dealing with the anti-fat, dubious health warnings we (and in particular, women) are subjected to every single day. I happen to think sugar and transfats are so harmful that our family actively avoids those things, and this informs my opinion, naturally. Turns out Alexis Bledel thinks along the  same lines. In an interview she was asked about her diet, because women in the spotlight always are:

How often do you prepare your own meals?
Almost every day. I try to eat very healthy, organic, local foods, so I do end up preparing my own meals more often than I go out. I prefer to go out for a drink because in that case you pretty much know what’s being poured into your glass, as opposed to what’s going into your food.

– Alexis Bledel’s Mortal Enemy Is the Lat Machine at the Gym

Western cultures everywhere have now got to a point in food history where eating nothing but fast food is about as funny as any other kind of addiction. I.e. not very. (Jezebel fairly recently asked if sugar is the next booze. I say yes.)

Gilmore thought process

Lorelai Gilmore, the character, has responded to the anti-fat messages of the 80s and 90s by rebelling against her mother (who by the way, also can’t cook, but for classist reasons) and also against society in general. She takes bad eating to an extreme, and it forms the basis of a gag in pretty much every episode.

What are we if not world champion eaters?

Lorelai does not keep food in the house, including good coffee, which is partly an excuse to visit Luke at the cafe, but nor does she know how to cook. Lorelai is your stereotypical flighty female who drinks too much coffee for her adrenal health, and prides herself on eating sugary food full of trans fats until she feels uncomfortably full, swaggering around clutching her gut, which never actually sticks out during filming, because the actor does not eat like that.

It’s time to move past this now. A fully functioning human being knows how to boil an egg, women included. Failing to learn the basics of cooking is about as cool as failing to wipe your own backside. It’s not a feminist statement anymore, to support the fast food industry by refusing to keep whole foods in the house. But there’s more to my gripe than that, because after all, Lorelai is an imperfect mother and deliberately written that way.

The bigger problem is that the bad eating habits of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore send an erroneous Maybelline-esque message to all the young women out there who think that looking like Lauren Graham in your thirties is a matter of genes and good luck:

from 1991
from 1991

Looking like Lauren Graham has nothing to do with luck, however, and everything to do with ‘being on a diet since the age of 11’. Does the actress who plays Lorelai Gilmore really eat like this? All I needed to do was google lauren graham diet and I got the answer I expected:

“One thing I’ve learned is I actually don’t like variety very much,” she told SELF. “I like having the same thing over and over: assorted lean proteins, arugula salad, quinoa or brown rice with soy sauce, olive oil, lemon and salt. Those ingredients can pretty much get me through the week.”

From US Weekly:

Since the age of 11, Parenthood‘s Lauren Graham has been watching what she eats. “I’ve been on a diet for 35 years,” the 46-year-old TV star reveals in the May issue of More.

The trope of the skinny girl who can eat anything she wants is common throughout YA literature.

She’s so small; I can’t help but wonder where she packs all the food away.

— Resurrecting Sunshine, YA Novel by Lisa A. Koosis

 

Melissa McCarthy’s character, Sookie, has a far more healthy relationship with food, even if she is more prone to showing the outward signs of insulin resistance. She loves food, prepares it well and along with Jackson, who knows his fresh produce, is no doubt far less vitamin and mineral deficient than Lorelai and Rory.

Speaking of Maybelline, or makeup in general, we never once see any of the female characters without their maquillage. Emily, Lorelai, Rory and even the more down-to-earth Sookie are consistently depicted in full makeup, with not one scene taking place in front of a mirror in which said makeup is applied. There are occasionally scenes in which characters wear even more makeup than usual, such as when Rory sneaks out of her grandmother’s house to see Logan and hopes her grandmother doesn’t see her dark eyes and red lips, but let’s not be fooled into thinking that the less colourful faces of these actresses are somehow makeup free, even first thing in the morning. Perhaps in a town like Star’s Hollow it really is unheard of to spend waking hours without makeup (and also mornings in bed with male partners), but this whole thing smacks to me of another kind of beauty deception. I say this even though there is no place on the planet that looks more like a Sylvanian Families marketing shoot than Star’s Hollow, where everything looks perfect all the time, because honesty about female beauty is more important than ever.

I love Gilmore Girls!! If I ever have a daughter I might even name her Lorelai :)

… loin-fruit that she is, straggled out of bed to grace me with her presence? But then I asked myself,
The closest we see to disheveled is mussed-up hair

Here’s another thing saying pretty much this, about Sex and the City and a bunch of other shows which depict healthy looking women chowing down on junk food: The Myth Of Eating Actresses — And Why It’s Dangerous For Women from The Frisky

Also related: Is eating whatever you want really healthy? from Daily Life.

Gilmore Girls

In the first episode of Season Seven, Lorelai and Rory very uncharacteristically go to play ‘racquet ball’ (an easier version of squash?) but they don’t actually play — they sit on the floor and talk, like petulant teenage girls on strike during high school gym class. When two men walk into the room wanting to have an actual game, Lorelai tells them to go away — they’ve booked it for an hour.

As a fan of certain racquet sports, I find this behaviour extremely annoying. There are only a certain number of courts in the world, and people who don’t want to make actual sporting use of them should go home. To me, that scene feeds into stereotypes about girls and sport.

2. LACK OF AWARENESS OF THEIR OWN PRIVILEGE

I’m sure a lot has already been said about this: a story about rich white people living in the sort of fictional town which… well… really only exists in fiction. This is easy to criticise. I mean, in real life you don’t have a a busker creating music to the soundtrack of your very own internal dramas. In this sense, Gilmore girls is metafictive. The world does need way more stories about non-white people, granted. Should this be the show to do it? Probably not. The depictions of Lane’s Tiger Mom are stereo-typically Asian and we never do see Mrs Kim as a rounded character; she exists purely for entertainment. Ditto Michel Gerard, the concierge who works closely with Lorelai at the hotel. He is aloof and style-conscious in a stereo-typically French kind of way. This show isn’t about breaking into non-white subcultures.

What this show could do better, though, considering the age of its intended audience, is show some self-awareness of the privilege of its main cast.

For instance, there is an episode near the end of season one in which Lorelai takes Rory to taste test wedding cakes. It later emerges that she has no genuine interest in buying a wedding cake — she is only interested in sampling all the different flavours, for free. This isn’t said, but she’s doing this at the small-business owner’s expense. So although Lorelai Gilmore ran away from her privilege, finding it more stifling than helpful, she has the looks and the breeding and the skin-colour to fit neatly into a secure and fairly well-paid job at the hotel, and although the audience is reminded regularly that this was through Lorelai’s own sheer hard graft, in the real world, there was more to it than that. Lorelai Gilmore has the right accent and the right looks for running an inn, and no amount of hard graft is going to help many, many more women around the world working as hotel cleaners work their way into management by their early thirties.

gilmore!
I honestly don’t know if this is irony. Because yes, Lorelai Gilmore can (and briefly did).

The wedding cake taste-testing incident shows that Lorelai Gilmore lacks the moral compass to steers decent folk away from taking advantage of someone else’s time, even if that someone is a seemingly unimportant middle-aged woman who works in a wedding-cake shop.

Lorelai Gilmore completely misses the point.

In season five, episode fourteen, Rory borrows Logan’s limo and chauffeur to make an emergency trip to Stars Hollow. Upon returning the vehicle, she informs Logan that she ‘fed Frank a sandwich’, as in ‘I filled your car with petrol,’ or ‘I fed your monkey some nuts’. Did I need to mention that Frank is black?

Naturally, for those who watch further, the audience sees repercussions for privilege. Logan is indeed a problematic person whose own bad manners and gilded cage cause him grief. For the younger members of an audience, it’s perhaps worth pointing out the obvious.

That’s also why it’s important to keep watching until Season Six, where the theme of privilege and excess comes to a head. It feels at this point that all of what has come before has been in the sole aid of exploring what it means to be white and young and bright and pretty.

On the topic of Rory’s dropping out of Yale, I feel this failed somewhat in the narrative sense. It was too sudden. After watching five entire seasons of the strong-willed, kind, ever-sensible Rory Gilmore breeze through difficult social situations, offering wit and wisdom to her classmates, to suggest that the comments of one man could derail the plans she’s had for her entire life is not believable. In order for me to believe this of Rory, I needed to see more build-up. I needed to see increasing frustration with her life at Yale. I needed her to perhaps see through the bullshit privileged environment she found herself in. But no, Rory is mysteriously allured by Logan. I wonder if a younger audience has a problem with this love story. I find it unbelievable that a girl like Rory, who has seen both privilege and near-poverty (apparently) in her own family situations, would fall for Logan.

When Rory and Logan steal a yacht (at Rory’s suggestion) the idea of privilege is consciously explored when the judge expresses disgust at rich white kids using the world as their private playground, thereby increasing the number of community service Rory is required do. I feel a sense of unease that Rory’s misdemeanor raises her status among Logan’s friends, who throw a huge party in her criminal honour, each one of them dressing up in stripes. (Not far enough from the underprivileged version of ‘black face’, I feel.) When the camera is on Rory at her community service, the glossy cinematography of Stars Hollow doesn’t fit at all; nothing of the underclass is evident even though she is surrounded by those less privileged than herself. She is soon ordering the others around and they are (completely unbelievably) doing just as she tells them to do. Has she learnt anything at all from this experience? More importantly, has the young viewer?

In Season Six, even the privilege of Paris Geller is challenged after the tax office catches up with her parents. Paris becomes temporarily impoverished, which leads her to seek work in a kitchen at one of Rory’s events with the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), during which Marx suddenly makes complete sense to her. This article reminded me of that scene.

3. MODELLING OF BAD MANNERS

When main characters do bad things, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, the age of the Mary-Sue is over. I find it admirable that Rory Gilmore is written to be an excellent role-model who gets into three top universities through sheer diligence, and demonstrates her intelligence regularly by offering balanced commentary which is wise beyond her years. Such kids do exist. It’s hard to write a character like Rory Gilmore without fans eventually growing to hate her. Rory makes just enough mistakes.

The older Gilmore girls are a different matter. Emily Gilmore (as well as Richard Gilmore — by season four) are monstrous creatures, and I say this even though Emily Gilmore is strangely likeable, or perhaps just nice to watch. In a show designed for a tween audience, that’s okay, because at no stage is the audience invited to identify with either of the grandparent characters. The show is unquestionably about Lorelai and Rory.

But when Lorelai demonstrates bad manners and these bad manners go either unchecked or rewarded, this is another issue. The reason I consider this important is because Lorelai Gilmore is so obviously written to be a role model for viewers of adolescent age: a young, hip, fast-talking mum of the kind that exists in fantasy — the kind who is a teenage daughter’s best buddy. If you’re in any doubt about the power of a character such as Lorelai Gilmore, read this from a twenty-five year old fan of Gilmore Girls who has only more recently come to understand the character’s many shortcomings:

The show became a part of my identity, and also something sacred. A biblical text.

1. Lorelai Gilmore talks loudly and incessantly through every town meeting, every speech and even throughout someone’s funeral. Although she gets shushed quite often, this is always by a pesky old man character. Lorelai giggles and keeps on doing this. It reminds me of assemblies at a girls’ high school.

Gilmore Girls and Freaky Friday

2. Lorelai’s ability to manipulate men with flirtatiousness. During another funeral procession, Lorelai rushes up to the family member who has inherited a building and asks if she can buy it. Carrying the coffin,  he asks if they might discuss it later. Lorelai ignores his request and continues to harass the man. In the gets what the building she wanted, she and Sookie open their inn, and because this has been a longterm goal that the audience has been invited into caring about, to the viewer it seems she has got what she wanted because she was pushy and inconsiderate. I suppose this is a real-estate lesson in its own right. It’s also one you might want to discuss with your young co-viewer.

Gilmore Girls

3. Lorelai does not respect Luke’s ‘no’. A stunningly uncomfortable example of this happens at the beginning of Season Four, as Lorelai sets Rory up at Yale. Since Lorelai is overly-interfering in her daughter’s life (something so obvious I don’t need to go on about it at length here) that she insists Rory get a new mattress. Lorelai has arranged to borrow Luke’s utility van but Luke has said to get it back to him by a certain time, because he needs it. Of course there are mattress related dramas at Yale, and Lorelai ends up bringing home a second-hand mattress… late. Not only has she returned Luke’s vehicle later than he wanted, but she tries to get him to store the old mattress. Throughout that episode the perennially grumpy Luke continues to say no to Lorelai, and Lorelai continues with her pouty, ditzy act that attractive women of child-bearing age can often get away with, playing on the sexual tension that runs between Lorelai and Luke from the pilot episode. It might be worth explaining to a young viewer that good relationships happen when each partner respects the other. If you’re friends (or proto-lovers) with someone and you keep saying no and somehow you end up doing the thing you said no to, over and over again, that ain’t a good relationship. Saying no should be normal.

4. Lorelai actually doesn’t know when to shut-up. This is a big part of her quirky personality, and it’s part of what makes the scripting of Gilmore girls unique. But most of the time the audience is encouraged to find Lorelai’s outbursts cute rather than downright inappropriate. Let it not be said that Americans don’t do irony; Lorelai Gilmore has sarcasm in spades. At times Lorelai says what we all wish we could say, and at other times I feel the audience is invited to be complicit in a bitchy comment (about AV geeks, about someone’s clothing choice, about Kirk in particular) and I’m not sure a young audience is encouraged by the show itself to know the difference.

@Heidi Harris Someone needs to print this and frame it for Granny!

Though the AD/HD population is diverse and is not linked to ‘bad manners’, I think Lorelai Gilmore is an excellent fictional candidate for AD/HD. For many reasons, not least this one.

4. STOCK CHARACTERS WHO SIMPLIFY REAL LIFE ISSUES

What you get from Gilmore girls is a cast of hyperbolic characters. Every one of them has a stand out characteristic which makes them unique (though there is a disproportionate number of characters with OCD type quirks). The trick in drama, even in comedy drama, is to transcend the stock characters. Do characters like Paris really do this?

On screen fiction tends to tell the stories of the outward signs of OCD but more seldom gets into the darker, internal side of obsessive compulsive thoughts. Perhaps this is a failing of the screen compared to the novel. The difference is summarised here by Jody Michael.

Below we have the three girls most significant at Rory’s high school. When I first saw these characters, on Rory’s first day at Chilton, I was a little disappointed. First we have the overdone ‘mean girl’ — Paris, who does get more interesting as the series progresses. Paris is also a great example of a perfectionist who is so hell-bent on getting what she wants she ends up sabotaging her efforts. A lot of super-bright girls surely find themselves in a similar position. As a case study, Paris is fascinating.

The other two (Louise and Madeline) are ditzy rich girls who go boy-crazy after graduation. If this were a slightly more nuanced show, the relationships between these girls could have been written in a far more interesting way. Might tweens have got more out of Rory’s relationships with these three had the interactions been as nuanced as, say, the relationship between Lorelai and Luke, or Lorelai and Rory, or Lorelai and Emily? Instead, these relationships provide nothing more than a jump-off point into a range of bullying related issues, but the show itself does not offer the nuance; that’s up to the viewer. In real life, bullies do not always stand out a mile. Bullies are not always pretty. Most kids are bullies at least some of the time (including Rory, I might add, when she speaks disparagingly to the AV Guy). Bullying changes shape in senior high school. In this story, the overt nastiness typical of junior high school relationships continues through to the end of these girls’ time at Chilton. This doesn’t ring true.

There are still too few stories about the real nature of high school cliques, even though there are plenty of black-and-white mean girls in literature.

Gilmore girls

5. A SHOW WITH FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ISN’T NECESSARILY ALL THAT ACCEPTING OF WOMEN

In one of the earlier seasons, Luke is disgusted by a woman breastfeeding her baby in his cafe. Sure, Luke is disgusted by all sorts of things: children in general and mobile phones in particular. This makes for an interesting plot line when it turns out he has a 12 year old daughter. But the joking way in which Lorelai and Rory react to Luke’s disgust make them borderline complicit. Since there is plenty feminist of discrimination of women breastfeeding in public, anyone au fait with the disconnect between utility and the fetishization of the female breast may well feel uncomfortable with this particular scene.

In episode two of season five Lorelai makes disparaging comments about attending a venue full of women who had not shaved their legs. In Gilmore World, absences of grooming go punished. In the same episode, Lyndsay’s mother approaches Rory in the street and accuses Rory of being a homewrecker. At no point in that same episode is it said that it was not Rory who was married, and therefore Dean’s own fault for breaking up his own marriage.

By the way, there are a lot of jokes about prostitution.

Gilmore Girls

tumblr_m9afkamBF91qgmul2o1_250.jpg 250×350 pixels

I mention this not because I want to shield my daughter from knowing anything about the darker side of life, but because I don’t want my daughter to think, in a superior fashion, that being a ‘whore’ is somehow the best of all insults. That’s a long story, but suffice to say, using whore as an insult is not a very kind thing to do in a world where human trafficking is a huge problem, where lots of countries don’t look after their women and girls, and where the demand for female prostitution is as strong as it ever was in a world where we like to think women make ‘bad choices’.

Explain that one to a tween. Because all she’ll see is that ‘whore’ is an insult. Along with ‘slut’, and similar, with the flip-side being that virginity is a special prize.

To sum this issue up, this show is about women and contains a lot of feminist messages, but feminism has evolved a little since the mid 2000s.

(Bad Reputation blog has an interesting series of posts about widows, and Paris Geller gets a mention.)

6. TRADITIONAL VIEWS ABOUT SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS

To follow from the previous point, if you’re after ‘traditional’ for your tween daughter, this is what you get from Gilmore girls. What you may not get is ‘healthy’ and ‘progressive’.

Everybody’s scared of teenage girls, especially when they have sex. That’s well-known. “I’ve got the good girl,” Lorelai says to herself after over-hearing Rory admit to Paris that she never had sex with Dean. The implicit message is that Paris is the ‘bad girl’ for having sex with a boy… in her final year of high school.

What they are talking about is p-in-v sex, we presume. Until the end of season four, we only ever see Rory kissing, and I think it’s worth mentioning that we only see Rory kissing awkwardly. Alexis Bledel manages wordy scripts with ease, but where she does not shine as an actor is in any scene that requires intense emotion. She always looks supremely uncomfortable with her boyfriends. This makes me wonder about the ethics of asking young actors to perform in this way. The discomfort is so palpable that I wonder about the message: If Rory doesn’t seem to be really, truly enjoying the physical intimacy with her boyfriend, but has boyfriends anyway, are teenagers of high school age nevertheless obliged to make these relationships, even if they are bookish types?

The seasons get slightly more adult in theme as the viewers themselves grow up. When Rory loses her virginity (off-screen), the post-coital scene with Dean is as awkward as any ever were. The Event of Virginity Loss is a big plot point in any story for this audience, but I’d like to see a cultural shift in focus. Why was the break-up of Dean’s marriage resting upon the stretching of Rory’s hymen? Why wasn’t the marriage considered over before that, when it was clear that Rory and Dean had a close emotional connection? Something to discuss with young viewers is the murky definition of ‘cheating’ and ‘affairs’. How much weight do we as a culture heap upon simple physical acts? Is ‘virginity’ really that important? What counts as sex? Bill Clinton started that big conversation. I hope progressive culture has moved a little since Gilmore girls first aired, and that this storyline will continue to date badly. By Season Six, this emphasis on purity is questioned when Emily and Richard arrange for their Reverend to give Rory a talk about saving her ‘gift’ for one special man. Rory handles this with aplomb. (This is another reason why it’s important to watch Season Six.)

Rory’s third sexual partner is Logan. Gilmore girls continues to keep any actual sex off-screen, to the point where adult viewers might feel the relationship between Luke and Lorelai a little weird (though I can imagine it was a little weird for the actors, too, working with each other for several seasons before having to pretend intimacy. I don’t think I’d like to have to do sex scenes with a guy I’d been working with for four years.)

On the topic of Logan and Rory, it happens in Rory’s room at Yale. This scene could be the catalyst of an important conversation about consent with your adolescent daughter. Because as things between the two characters heat up, Logan says to Rory something along the lines of, ‘If you want me to leave, you’d better tell me now.’

This line is used a lot in fiction, and because of that, I’m guessing it’s used a lot in real life, too. (Robert Kincaid says it to Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County, for example.)

A problem with this sentence, when used by one partner to indicate that (or ask if) sex is about to happen, is that it suggests an uncomfortable subtext. When Logan says this to Rory, it sounds a lot like, ‘If you don’t want sex then you’d better tell me to stop now, because I’m about to get so caught up in the heat of it that I won’t be able to stop at any point between now and completion, so if you don’t want the full menu, tell me to leave now.’ That is an ultimatum of sorts.

But actually it doesn’t work like that, does it. In fact, boys are fully capable of controlling themselves (if they want to), and a girl can negotiate from the full range of possibilities; sex is not an all-or-nothing proposition. When a boy (or a girl) says ‘If you don’t want this, tell me to leave now,’ it can sound creepily manipulative.

purity-culture-valenti

valenti02

from The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
from The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Other aspects of the sexual side of relationships are explored to a certain extent, and viewers will each make their own minds up about that. Rory experiments with an open relationship but when Logan decides he doesn’t want this, Rory is happy to drop everything for him.

Lorelai sleeps with Christopher after her second break-up with Luke, as a way to confirm to herself that her relationship with Luke is over. As a consequence she ends up using Christopher, and conveys to a young audience that this is one way of ending a relationship for good. Oh, and Luke storms round to Christopher’s house and sucker punches him. In real life, this can kill. (In Australia, the media now uses the term ‘coward punch’, after one such incident led to the death of a young man.)

Is it a teenage girl’s fantasy to have boys fight over her in this fashion? Should it be? Lorelai to Luke in the middle of the street: ‘Next time you get a hankering to punch someone’s lights out, take your anger out on me. I’m the one who deserved it.’ (I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean physically, but nor was it clear that she didn’t.)

7. PRODUCT PLACEMENT AND CONSUMERISM IN GILMORE GIRLS

As the seasons progress, we see more and more product placement (or perhaps I just never noticed it in the first few seasons). I wonder how much Birken paid for the episode in Season Six where Logan buys Rory a Birkin Bag. This is a bag which Emily has wanted her entire life. It’s talked about,  a lot.

The actor who plays Logan is very good, capable of expressing both stoned boredom and strong emotion.

In an earlier episode (Season Five, Episode 20), there is a scene before the opening credits in which Rory and Lorelai each watch their robot vacuum cleaners. Rory is at Yale and Lorelai is in Star’s Hollow. They are sharing a moment. This is probably the scene which smacks most strongly of product placement. It feels just like an advertisement for robot vacuum cleaners. (We don’t see them again.)

Like almost everything ever, we also see Rory working on an Apple laptop in her room at Yale. I wonder if someone on the set wanted a new Apple laptop that week?

Rory Gilmore and Apple Inc. Photograph
Ah, remember when Apple laptops were this huge? With colours?

I don’t think product placement is in itself a huge problem, and if you’ve made the decision to watch TV, you’re probably highly aware of it. But it’s something I would point out to a young viewer as part of media literacy.

The consumerism of the Gilmore girls, on the other hand, is over-the-top. When Lorelai orders fast food she orders enough for a football team (or perhaps a TV camera crew?). When the Gilmore girls go shopping they really go shopping. This would be realistic enough, I guess, if Lorelai were not a hotel manager, which would certainly pay enough to live a comfortable lifestyle (at least in this country) but not enough to waste money on ice-creams in winter before deciding it’s too cold for ice-cream and dumping it straight into the bin. Throwing food and goods out on a whim is a luxury most of the world does not have. And even if they did hypothetically have it, the environment cannot sustain that attitude towards material items.

Then there’s the unresolved issue of Lorelai’s borrowing a significant sum of money from Luke when she opens her own inn. Are we to assume she has paid it back before we see her jump straight back in to her wasteful spending? After breaking up with Luke (again) she throws out everything that reminds her of Luke, including a waffle maker because Luke made waffles. We never find out if she has paid Luke back.

8. ON THE SORE TOPIC OF SEASON SEVEN

I’d been prepped on this because The Internet does not collectively approve of season seven. A ‘truly stale Pop Tart’, even.This is the season that Sherman-Palladino did not write. Fans of the show saw a distinct change in tone and didn’t like how the plot progressed.

But since I’d basically been hate watching the first six seasons, I wondered if I might suddenly like the seventh? How’s that for logic?

I immediately detected a change in tone. When Kirk ploughs into the side of Luke’s diner, Rory’s retelling of the incident to Lorelai shows an uncharacteristic lack of empathy for Luke, who inherited the building from his father. Likewise, it’s not like Rory to be reflecting nauseatingly about what Logan’s gift of a rocket meeeeans for their relationship. The pre-season-seven Rory Gilmore would not have pretended to know its significance when her absent boyfriend calls to ask if she ‘got it’ (the rocket and the joke). This is especially infuriating after six seasons (almost — apart from her reason for taking a break from Yale, which was also out of character) of Rory Gilmore being the level-headed, wise one.

Do the new writers really get the character? Even her dialogue sounds a bit more ‘Valley Girl’ (as it’s apparently known), with more ‘likes’ and ‘I mean’s and various hedge phrases. Why? Why do this, when the fast-paced witty dialogue is really the thing that makes this show standout from various others on the Disney channel? This was especially obvious in Rory’s first scene in episode two of this season, as she complains to Lorelai about how much she wanted to travel the world (presumably on her boyfriend’s money), but her rich boyfriend doesn’t want to see her until Christmas. Rory even says ‘Oh yay’ and ‘Nutso!’ to which Lorelai responds ironically ‘Spoken like a true grown-up’. I sense from this counter dialogue that the writers are aware of what they’re doing to Rory, but they’re doing it anyway. After a while the dialogue seemed to regain its usual tone, but perhaps I just readjusted my expectations. For a while it seemed as if Luke’s daughter April had become ‘the new Rory’.

As for Lorelai, I’m convinced the season seven writers don’t think much of this character, because Lorelai Gilmore’s faults seem magnified, somehow. She talks all the way through a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity at Yale University’s parents’ weekend. She’s not talking about astrophysics, by the way, but complaining that Emily has attended even though she’s not a parent but a grandparent. Earlier that day we saw Lorelai prepare for her trip to France by listening to a Teach-Yourself-French CD. Instead of attempting the actual French, she thinks it’s hilarious to speak the English in a mock-French accent, which I’m sure the French will think hilarious. By this point it’s cringeworthy. The writers could have done something more clever such as have Lorelai make a genuine mistake, or crack a French pun — after all, the character of Lorelai Gilmore is supposedly very smart.

HOWEVER. Honestly, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the writer who left at the end of season six, left season six in a mess. It was a difficult job for the writers of season seven to claw the plot back ‘on track’, and although the final episode was predictable, I felt that it tied everything up nicely. There was no ‘rescued by a rich boy’ kind of happy ending, and I have to admit I had been dreading that possibility.

SO IS GILMORE GIRLS ANY GOOD? QUALITY-WISE?

TV-wise:

The characters are exaggerations and the non-white characters are caricatures.

Small-town life is equally caricatured, and nothing important ever seems to happen without the whole town assembling, or pressing their noses against a window (quite literally, at one point in Luke’s Diner). In other words, if it doesn’t happen in front of an audience, it doesn’t have the same gravity. This is a narcissistic show.

On that point, the actors always look as if they’re performing on a stage. This is part of the style, and is partly due to the fast-talking, but can be annoying if naturalistic is your thing.

The usual cheap tricks of long-running sitcoms are employed. It annoyed me that they used the very same actress (who you may even recognise from Twin Peaks) to play two different characters.

Some scenes are definitely tighter than others. There’s no real suspense — this is coziness itself — and the cliff-hanger at the end of each season is of average intensity, usually revolving around relationship conflict. This elevates the role of the Gilmore girls’ relationships with men to an important plane, despite being outwardly a show about mothers and daughters and female friendships.

If you watch the episodes too close together, Lorelai’s relationship cycle is extremely irritating. PICK A MAN, ALREADY. OR DON’T. JUST DON’T.

For a younger audience:

There’s something very calm and embracing about the atmosphere of Stars Hollow and surrounds. This is pure, unthinking escapism. In that regard, Gilmore girls works, and it would also work for girls whose lives are far less stable and privileged than that of Rory Gilmore. It’s nice to pretend that we are Rory Gilmore, insofar as that leap is possible. The coziness might well have the opposite effect, of reinforcing to a girl in the opposite of Rory’s position just how lucky other people can be.

Rory Gilmore is a fairly rare character in that she is a smart, feminine girl who the audience sees actually studying. She doesn’t magically come up with all the answers behind the scenes, playing sidekick to two boys. Rory makes certain things cool: coffee, flowing dresses and reading for pleasure. Throughout seven seasons, Rory is shown reading a wide variety of books. Here’s the Rory Gilmore reading list. This show might even prompt a non-reading fan to pick up some of these books. (I’ve only read 27 of them, but I aim to read many more before I’m dead.)

And here is a list of fictional TV characters who love reading. And The Lisa Simpson Book Club Tumblr. (Lisa Simpson is still the best and greatest female TV character, IMO. Everything I say about Rory Gilmore uses Lisa as a yardstick.)

What else to do, after you watched all of the Gilmore Girls?

You could watch Bunheads, but don’t get too into it because you will find it stops abruptly: The Cancellation of Bunheads: Why TV’s Most Underrated Show Deserved Better

There is, naturally, a Bunheads Wiki for true enthusiasts.

Or you could read Lauren Graham’s YA Book.

Where Are They Now? — Lots of actors had small parts on Gilmore Girls and then made it big.

What I Learned From Growing Up With Rory Gilmore from Bitch Media

Gilmore Girls And Third Wave Feminism from Candice, points out that Sooki St James was originally intended to be lesbian but networks weren’t ready. Also, Luke was originally a woman but notes came back that there needed to be ‘more testosterone’.  Also more on the topic of lack of diversity.

Gilmore Girls turned this viewer into a feminist.

8 Lessons Gilmore Girls Taught Me About Feminism

An academic paper on the Gilmore girls versus reality

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

Book Apps With Female Leads

Geeks With Juniors have compiled a list of 10 book apps with female leads.

Book Apps With Female Leads

What I love about this list:

  • GWJ avoided using that increasingly problematic phrase ‘strong female characters’. (Since not all female heroes should have to be upstanding citizens, or anything special, in fact.) Instead GWJ are using words like ‘brave, independent, and unique’.
  • Our app Hilda Bewildered is on the list!
  • Our character Hilda is a deliberate subversion of the idea that female leads (especially those that happen to be royalty) need to be strong and ‘feisty’ and morally upright and I guess GWJ picked up on that.

On the other hand, I’m sad that lists like these are still necessary, but they most certainly still are.

The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling

When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.

What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults because it is Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:

Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.

This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:

A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.

Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:

  1. Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
  2. Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)

Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.

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