Boy Humour, Girl Humour

gender and humour

In children’s literature and film, the big-name comedy series are male heavy. Even when women write comedy, 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.



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)
  • Wonkey 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.

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


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!)


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.


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.


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:


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


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


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.


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.


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

The Most Dubious Gender Ratio In Children’s Stories

If you’re buying a book for a child and you have no idea what to get, and no time to read children’s books yourself, there is a rule of thumb to keep in mind.

Geronimo Stilton_600x439

If you find the story features one female and three main male characters

AND the female is described in relation to the main male

AND she has extra eyelashes/a pink female signifier…

You can guarantee this is a sexist story.

The girls in Geronimo Stilton love frivolous things like shopping.
The girls in Geronimo Stilton love frivolous things like shopping.

See Also

The Smurfette Principle the Wikipedia explanation

The Minority Feisty from Reel Girl

The Female Maturity Formula In Modern Storytelling

Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature

Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages

Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows

Boys read for pleasure as much as girls

The three to one ratio is typical across all of children’s literature, in case you are thinking Geronimo Stilton is a standout example. This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe,
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.

Monsters Vs Aliens

Common Wish Fulfilment In Children’s Fantasy

Genre fiction and children’s fiction often functions to allow the reader to experience a particular form of fantasy. Some wishes are considered more worthy than others.

Wish Fulfillment Children's Literature


The classic book that is entirely about what happens when you wish: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, published 1902. Nesbit had a firm grasp on the main reasons children read, and each chapter explores what happens after certain wishes are fulfilled.

The moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for! Also, simply having your wishes come true doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. Every outcome has unpredictable consequences. Other people are always caught in your life web — you can’t make a personal wish without it affecting your community.


Neil Gaiman has proposed a gender divide when it comes to wish fulfilment in stories.

Boys: Boys are bigger, stronger, faster, invisible, can fly. The wish fulfilment fantasies of boys are historically given more weight — seen as aspirational, part of normal, healthy development.

Girls: Girls’ real lives are based on lies. Their parents are not their real parents — they are secret princesses. There’s a promise of transmutation.

Some wish fulfilment fantasies in genre fiction read largely by girls is historically dismissed as banal, silly, crazy. The wish fulfilment of dark paranormal romance is one example. Girls wish for a handsome hero saviour but also wish to put aside the problems they face in everyday life — responsibility, body dissatisfaction and also the feeling of being unsafe, which girls must deal with as they enter the dating world. 


In adult fiction, the wish fulfilment aspect of story enjoyment is no less hidden — it may simply be invisible.

There are many literary stories about a middle aged man who falls in love with a much younger, beautiful woman. Or a troubled girl comes under the wing of a much older man and he helps her out. When there’s an element of regret in the story, this, too, is a form of wish fulfilment. A story which succumbs to this sort of wish fulfilment is Million Dollar Baby. Another is The Homesman. A story which could have succumbed to this kind of regret but manages to rise above is the film Wildlike, with the screenplay written by Frank Hall Green, whose work you may know from Foxcatcher, Precious, 127 Hours and Mud.

Apocalyptic fiction such as The Walking Dead or The Road explores the wish of a man to save himself and his own tribe using his most macho attributes and weaponry, outside the bounds of the safer, more banal real world in which he lives.

The entire genre of Westerns were about a male wish fulfilment to expand the American empire, travelling from small town to small town as a travelling angel character.

This piece about Game of Thrones and similar stories talks about the damaging wish fulfilment of wanting to rise above another group of people and come up roses with no ill-consequence for yourself.

Games such as Grand Theft Auto, surprisingly, aren’t really about enjoyment. They’re about “The Ideal Self At Play” — a.ka. self-actualisation.

“It’s the very reason that people play online RPGs,” Bartle said. “In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.” In video games, we are free to be who we really are—or at least find out who we really are if we don’t already know.

Men Reading Newspapers In Children’s Fiction

Boys studying for GCSEs were more likely than girls to read print products such as comics, with 38% saying they read newspapers at least once a month compared with 30% of girls of the same age.

The Guardian

Breakfast time is an especially useful time for fathers to catch up on the morning news. Mothers, on the other hand, are busy minding everyone else’s breakfast. Even in modern picture books, it is rare to find a woman with a keen interest in world news and politics.

Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

Mog The Forgetful Cat

The Useless Donkeys


That one’s from 1979.

Cat In, Dog Out

published 1997
published 1997

It starts young — Cat In, Dog Out is for emergent readers.

City Cats, Country Cats by Barbara Shook Hazen


Another early reader, this time from the Getting Started Road To Reading series issued by Golden Books which doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to gender diversity.

I’m guessing the figure next to the boy is a Dad cat because of the lack of feminine markers such as an apron and bow on the head and defined eyelashes. The illustrator obviously understands the importance of modelling behaviours for kids, having depicted the son behaving just like his father, so I assume she also realised that even characters in picturebooks model behaviours for young readers.

It’s likely the figure in the background doing the grocery shopping is meant to be the mother, or someone else’s mother. But readers do have some power when approaching books like this — because, in this case, the characters are devoid of gender markers, the adult co-reader can indeed choose to gender the newspaper cat as the mother and the shopping cat as the father.

Peace At Last by Jill Murphy


Fungus The Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs

Fungus the Bogeyman

The wife Mildew wears an apron and has obviously served her husband breakfast while he sits down to relax and read.

Malcolm In The Middle pilot newspaper

Perhaps the epitome of personal care over breakfast — a spoof of the ‘father reading newspaper over breakfast scene’ that happens in pretty much every traditional story? Is a traditional scene spoofing traditional gender roles understood as a spoof by child viewers, or does it simply serve to reinforce those roles?

Fantastic Mr Fox, film adaptation

Fantastic Mr Fox breakfast

Peppa Pig — Daddy Loses His Glasses

Peppa Pig daddy loses his glasses

Peppa Pig has been criticised for its perfect representation of femininity with its mocking, useless father. Apparently it sends boys the wrong message. But what message does it send girls?

Olivia series by Ian Falconer

From Olivia and the Missing Toy

Olivia And The Missing Toy

from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

The Adventures Of Beeckle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat (2014)

The Simpsons

Homer reading newspaper

It’s difficult (impossible?) to find a screen cap of Marge reading the newspaper but I did find one of Lisa, since Lisa is the designated smart kid.

Lisa Simpson reading newspaper

And here’s Brave. I don’t find Brave an especially riveting movie, but along with other gender inversions, here we have a father in action while the mother reads something important (though not a newspaper) at breakfast.

“BRAVE” (L-R) MERIDA amongst the triplets: HARRIS, HUBERT and HAMISH; KING FERGUS and QUEEN ELINOR. ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Sex In Stories For Teenagers

The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.

Daily Life

These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 combined with my own.

You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.

A Librarian

The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.

— Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex

One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.

— Banned Books Week, NYT

Films such as American Pie are where boys are learning about sex from the male perspective.
Films such as American Pie are not specifically for teenagers but about teenagers. In this franchise, boys are learning about sex and we see a male perspective.

You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:

  1. We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
  2. We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.

Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.

Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below: Continue reading “Sex In Stories For Teenagers”

Tough Boys Read and Write (In Private)

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t read a novel all the way through until after high school. Blasphemy, I know. I’m an author now. Books and words are my world. But back then I was too caught up in playing ball and running with the fellas. Guys who read books — especially for pleasure — were soft. Sensitive. And if there was one thing a guy couldn’t be in my machista, Mexican family, it was sensitive. My old man didn’t play that. Neither did my uncles or cousins or basketball teammates. And I did a good job fitting myself into the formula.

But there was something missing.

– Matt de la Peña writes about the shame of reading and creative writing for boys in a hyper-masculine subculture


I’d just like to point out that when it comes to boys and reading, it’s not the books that are the problem. There are already plenty of books out there that boys would like, and authors don’t need to start making all of their protagonists a certain type of boy in order for boys to read them. The problem is not the books; the problem is the culture.



Some interesting info: This is very reminiscent of the Baby X experiments, in which it was discovered that people reacted differently to a baby’s behavior depending on whether or not they believed the baby to be male or female.  People were asked to watch a video of a baby reacting to a startling image (a Jack-in-the-box popping up), and describe the baby’s emotional state.  When people believed the baby to be female, they described the baby as being scared and upset; when they thought the baby was male, they perceived the baby to be angry.  This was very telling, as it showed that literally identical behavior could be construed differently based on the perceived gender of the subject.

Now imagine a lifetime of gender specific socialization- male anger is par for the course while the same emotion in a woman is personal weakness. Ha oh sorry don’t have to imagine THAT’S REALITY