Boy Humour, Girl Humour

red jester painting

In children’s literature and film, the big-name comedy series are male heavy. Even when women write comedy and humour, they have the best chance of striking it big if they write about boys.

Even better? The girls are arch nemeses (or sexualised enigmas) to the funny boys.

Silly as it may sound, critics are still scratching their heads over the question of “can women really be funny?”, which bleeds through into fiction as the question “should women be funny?” or “should we write women into funny roles?” As Dee noted in the AniFem premiere review, female characters as the sensible “straight man” to the hapless, entertaining male lead is a trope entrenched in comedy.

AniFem

CONTEMPORARY BEST-SELLING HUMOUR

At the top of best-seller lists in English speaking countries you’ll find the following humorous children’s books:

  • Wimpy Kid series — male author — boy main character (American but popular worldwide)
  • David Walliams books — male author — a range of adult/child main characters, with old and adult women funny but girl characters kindly and playing straight characters. (Especially big in the UK)
  • Tom Gates books — female author/illustrator — boy main character, highly unsympathetic sister (UK)
  • Beano books — an anonymous variety of contracted authors — boy main characters
  • Treehouse books — male author and illustrator — author and illustrator friends are themselves juvenile characters in the books (Australia)
  • Julia Donaldson picture books — female author/male illustrator — mixture of male and female characters (UK — the female characters who seem to break gender norms but who often actually don’t)
  • Dog Man — male author/illustrator — male characters (USA)
  • No one Likes A Fart — female writer/male illustrator — fart as main character, coded male (Australia)
  • Wonky Donkey series — male writer/female illustrator — male main character
  • Dork Diaries — MG — female author/daughter illustrator — female main character (USA — also has a spinoff series starring male character, Max Crumbly)
  • Pig The Pug picture books — male author/illustrator — male characters (Australia)
  • Hairy Maclary series — female author/illustrator — male gang of dogs and cats (New Zealand)

(As a side note, American bestseller lists feature more serious children’s books at the top, UK has more humour, and Australia/NZ has a higher tolerance for gross-out humour.)

Notice also that even when female characters are comedic, those characters tend to be older or elderly women. There are disproportionately few girls who star in their own comedies. There are even fewer in which boys play the ‘straight man’ to the girls.

A few exceptions exist in anime:

  • Please Tell Me! Gaiko-chan — a cast of teenage girls engage in bodily-functions-based humour
  • Lucky Star — an otaku comedy in which a female cast references and pokes fun at a geeky world traditionally considered the domain of boys
  • Pop Team Epic — absurd, crass, slapstick humour carried out by two leading ladies, Popuko and Pipimi.

In general, though, female characters in anime are cute girls doing cute things, designed to be as appealing as possible. And so when a cute girl engages in shitpost humour, this employs the old ‘dog bites man’ inversion comedy. In other words, it’s even more funny because it’s a cute girl coming out with these crass things.

‘I mean, think of all those films or TV shows where there’s one woman, or one gay, in a script otherwise full of straight men, wirtten by a straight man? Or a book? Fiction and film is full of these imaginary gay men and straight women, saying what straight men imagine we would say, and doing what straight men imagine we would do. Every gay I eer see has an ex-lover dying of AIDS. Fucking Philadelphia. I’ve started to think I should get an AIDS boyfriend, just to be normal.’

‘Yeah – and all the women are always just really “good” and sensible, and keep putting the men, with their crazy ideas, and their boyish idealism, into check,’ I say mournfully. ‘And they’re never funny. WHY CAN’T I EVER SEE A FUNNY LADY?’

– from How To Be A Woman

Continue reading “Boy Humour, Girl Humour”

Hygge is the word English needs to describe children’s literature

Danes are scratching their heads about why an everyday word they’ve been using privately for generations is suddenly taking the English-speaking world by storm. See for example articles such as 11 Ways To Make Your Life More Hygge.

The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is 'Hygge'.
The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is ‘Hygge’.

Hygge is pronounced more like hoo-ga. 

‘Hygge’ is not just a word — it is part of Scandinavian culture. From Wikipedia:

Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food. Christmas time, when loved ones sit close together on a cold rainy night, is a true moment of hygge, as is grilling a pølse (Danish sausage) and drinking a beer on a long summer evening.[4][dubious – discuss] It is suspected the concept of Hygge is part of the reason Danes and other Scandinavians score high on happiness.

A similar concept exists in German.

Gemütlichkeit describes a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.

These concepts don’t exactly match the closest English has, which is something like ‘cosy’:

“Hygge” as noun includes a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action. The word is also used in compositions as “Julehygge” (Christmas-hygge). “Hygge” is also a verb eg. “Lets hygge” and as an adjective eg. “A small, hyggeligt house with grass on the roof”.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

The noun “Hygge” includes something nice, cozy, safe and known, but it should not be confused with the English, Dutch, German or Polish synonym. That word is more a physical state, instead the Danish and the Norwegian word focus on a psychological state.“Hygge” is a state where all psychological needs are in balance.

The antonym of hygge is uhyggelig, which translates as “scary”.

Hygge Picturebooks

Various conventions contribute to the hygge of picturebooks and chapter books for young readers:

Jerry Griswold has his own word to describe this feeling: ‘snugness’:

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

Jerry Griswold, Snugness in The Secret Garden

 

Hygge is more apparent in picture books aimed at girl readers. This is no doubt because hygge is associated with home, and certainly throughout the 20th century, girls in stories stayed home.

Illustrators can evoke hygge with:

  • Yellow, diffuse light coming from lamps and candles
  • Storybook farms
  • Cottages, log cabins, decor reminiscent of pioneer times
  • Well-stocked kitchens (which are metonyms for familial happiness)
  • Houses in rural/semi-rural areas near bodies of water and good trees for climbing (see the work of philosopher Denis Dutton for more on that)
  • Permanently sunny and temperate weather
  • Moons which light up the night as effectively as suns light up the day
  • Beds with lots of covers and plush pillows
  • Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, standalone wardrobes, children’s art on the walls, loaves of unsliced bread, homemade jam in pottery jars, dining room furniture made out of roughhewn wood, fabrics of paisley and gingham, kitchen appliances at least 20 years behind the modern era, shag pile rugs, open fires with yellow flames, bedheads with metal bars on them
  • Aprons, reading glasses, slippers, suspenders on trousers
  • Parents with big bellies and stout constitutions
  • Hedgehogs (in English stories), owls (at night), cats, docile old dogs, robins, sparrows, ‘good insects’ like grasshoppers and ladybugs and ants (not Huntsman spiders)
  • An emphasis on storeys and attics, and away from basements.

Hygge Toys

sylvananian-families

Sylvanian Families are Japanese design (though made in China these days). They were created by a company called Epoch in 1985.

The Japanese are also very good at hygge. (And also very good at horror, a discussion for another day!)

居心地

Pronounced igokochi, the characters transliterate to ‘where the heart is’. (It translates into English as ‘cosiness’. In Japanese you can then say ‘the cosiness is good’ to get ‘cosy’.)

The Problematic Flipside of Hygge Children’s Literature

There is definitely a place/need for hygge in children’s books. Picturebooks are most likely to be read to children just as they fall asleep, and there is a strong preference among consumers — particularly American consumers — to buy hygge books rather than scary ones. (Interestingly, this isn’t a trend shared by the Scandinavians, who have a higher tolerance for scary stories — possibly because their children’s lives themselves are quite hygge.)

  1. In children’s books, a hygge home almost always glorifies the nuclear family in which the father goes out to work and the mother — probably wearing an apron — stays home and keeps house. We are now living in a world where we should be careful of glorifying such a household.
  2. Keepers of hygge are much more likely to be female characters, underscoring the notion that girls and mothers are the natural caretakers and boys don’t have a role there except to enjoy the spoils of a clean house and home cooking.

Gender Inversion As Gags In Children’s Stories

There’s this gag in many humorous children’s stories which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome. It’s when a male character dresses as a female character. This gender inversion in itself is meant to be funny. But why?

gender inversions paddington bear
Very few people talk about sexism in children’s films but to me it sticks out like a shart on a plane.

Humour can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.

– Film School Rejects

I’m a woman! I’m glad my conception of masculinity is not centered on such a bowel-loosening fear of women and femininity that being compared to one is the very worst thing that could ever happen to me as a man.

John Scalzi, responding to twitter abuse comparing him to a woman

Continue reading “Gender Inversion As Gags In Children’s Stories”

The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories

I have looked for this particular storytelling device on TV Tropes, where you can find most any trope under the sun, but haven’t yet found this particular romantic plot device. I’m not sure if I’m one of the only people to have noticed this is a thing — a relatively new thing, I might add — a sort of inverse of the Rescue Romance, which is very old indeed.

AN EXAMPLE FROM ADULT ROMANCE

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This is the passage where Clare first meets Henry (the two romantic leads). Clare is 6 and Henry is 36, which is okay and not weird, because this book is about a time traveler and the real-time age difference is more respectable than that. Anyhow, Clare is in a field, and Henry has arrived naked, and is presently standing partially obscured behind shrubbery. This is written from Henry’s POV:

“Who’s there?” Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast.

“Greetings, Earthling,” I intone kindly.

“Mark! You nimrod!” Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don’t think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

The phrase ‘pissed off goose’ lends a comical tone to this passage; although this scene contains violence, it’s a comic, safe kind of injury that results.

AN EXAMPLE FROM CHILDREN’S ROMANCE

Here’s a version of the same thing from Tangled, which I find disturbingly violent given how realistic 3D animation is getting. The frying pan violence is a recurring gag, and the video below is a montage of each frying pan scene, although the scene in which Rapunzel meets Flynn is an extended female on male act of violence which somehow feels more disturbing than the video can portray:

AN EXAMPLE FROM A MIDDLE-GRADE MOUSE DETECTIVE STORY

From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice
From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice

AN EXAMPLE FROM A POPULAR YOUNG ADULT TV SERIES

I don’t watch Once Upon A Time, but an io9 headline reads: Watch two fairytale characters get turned on beating a man senseless.

Commonsense Media (a website I trust for its balanced written summaries) says that Once Upon A Time is for ages 12+.

Here’s a scene from Pretty Little Liars:

female injures male trope from pretty little liars

INVERSION DOES NOT EQUAL SUBVERSION

I have written about this before in a discussion of Pixar’s film Brave.

There is a long history of male on female violence, which is alive and kicking in comic book world, for starters. But if we want to change this culture (and I admit that this is a big ‘if’, since many feel they’re entitled to their fantasies no matter what kind of place they came from), the way to do it is not by simply reversing gender roles.

SO WHY THE FEMALE INJURES MALE INJURY TROPE?

In other words, why is it cute and sexy for a female to slightly (or significantly) injure a potential male love interest?

I have a few ideas, though nothing conclusive:

  • In an era where women hope for equality in relationships with men, part of that equality includes the illusion of equal strength.
  • Or perhaps the physicality involved in injuring a male love interest is simply a symbol for true emotional and psychological equality.
  • The important thing here is the male’s response. A female character is testing out a male character’s partnership potential by doing something to him which, in certain males, would result in a violent backlash. By responding with humour and kindness, a male character who has just been injured seems safe and attractive.
  • We seem to be firmly entrenched in the era of S&M. I’m going partly by the huge popularity of 50 Shades Of Grey. In a minor way, this trope is perhaps a prelude to kink.

When male to female violence occurs on screen, as well it should, as a reflection of many terrible real-world situations, then we don’t see such stories given a G rating. The male/female strength differential is such that female to male violence is comical, whereas the opposite is never so, yet nor can I accept that it is entirely harmless.

MORE ON TANGLED

I am not a huge fan of this film in general, frying pan violence aside. Others have written well on this topic so I don’t have to:

Feminist Film Review of Tangled from Bitch Flicks

Tangled Is A Celebration Of White Femininity from Womanist Musings