A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories

There are thought to be 3 main theories of humour.

  1. Superiority Theory — Hobbes — about the “sudden glory we feel when we see an eminence in ourselves compared to an inferiority in someone else.” This is the guy slipping on a banana peel. But of course misfortune does not lead to humour, otherwise we’d laugh at homeless refugees.
  2. Relief Theory — Freud, of course — we’re a cauldron of desires/sexuality/aggression. We suppress the aggression to express the sexuality and so on. By this theory, humour acts as a means of releasing excess emotion or arousal. Freud’s theory was that jokes are a way of overcoming the censorship of certain taboo thoughts. Humour is the release of the repressed energies they caused.
  3. Incongruity Theory — Something that doesn’t fit is made to fit.

But none of these theories on its own is helpful if you want to go about writing humour yourself. The fact is, humour is the most technical of all writing styles. Treat it like learning magic tricks. Dissect it, emulate the humour you love, get into the zone. Comedy writing is a skill that takes a lifetime to learn.

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these 11 categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only 11 categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

“There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor.”

–Robert Benchley

1. IRONY

First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. […] In relaxed, friendly talk, speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else, thus maintaining a play frame.

Jennifer Coates

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, give or take according to individuals. The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here, especially when it comes to ‘hipster irony’ -ie. being mean, but not really being mean, because everyone knows we’re not mean people, right?

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience’ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is sitting alongside the child.

  • Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.
  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator pointing it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is describes a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. Sometimes the audience knows more than the character. This kind of dramatic irony is called ‘reader superior position’. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself. Then there’s reader inferior dramatic irony. This is less useful in comedy, but is especially common in certain genres such as heist, where the audience is constantly two steps behind the characters and their plans.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does. The younger the reader, the more you should make use of reader superior irony. Young kids are still working out the world and they need to feel smart. I can’t think of an example of reader inferior irony in humorous picture books.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.
spongebob squarepants ironic distance
Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories”

Storytelling Tips From Anne Of Green Gables

Revisiting Anne Of Green Gables as an adult reader, several things stick out:

  1. The influence of Cinderella, the rags to riches story which is often counted as one of the ‘six basic plots
  2. The influence of Pride and Prejudice
  3. Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
a 1945 hardcover edition

 

THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA

In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.

THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.

L.M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.

In no particular order:

  1. Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
  2. Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
  3. Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
  4. Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
  5. These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female weakness was well understood, and made for a good psychological weakness. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological weakness is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
  6. Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
  7. For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.

THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES

It has been argued that Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice, just as many other modern YA novels have been influenced by Twilight (not even considering the vampires).

For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:

  1. Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
  2. Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
  3. There is a Josie Pye character in almost every popular middle grade novel aimed at girls, although these days the little enemy girl is less likely to be rich and dressed in frilly dresses but more likely to be a class president, by-the-books type. (I don’t think this is a great development in children’s literature.)
  4. Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
  5. I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly —  nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.

STORY WORLD

Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favorite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.

Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.

It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.  Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.

—  Catherine Reid

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES STORY STRUCTURE

Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Anne has the same weakness as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.

  1. She’s a destitute orphan
  2. A girl
  3. Red hair

As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog. (You can see the recent evolution in Brave versus Moana, for instance.)

Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.

The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.

What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.

Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s weaknesses has a flipside strength:

  1. She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
  2. She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
  3. She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
  4. She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
  5. She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.

DESIRE

Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:

  1. Stay at Green Gables
  2. Grow darker hair

Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.

The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.

OPPONENT

On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.

Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.

The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.

Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.

Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.

Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.

In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.

There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.

Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.

BATTLE

Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.

By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.

an oil painting of The Lady of Shalott from 1888

Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological weakness — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.

SELF-REVELATION

The Main Plot

Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).

*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.

The Romantic Subplot

When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.

 

RELATED

“Scope for the Imagination”: Imaginative Spaces and Female Agency in Anne of Green Gables

Behind the Scenes: The Editing Copies of The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery

Rereading Childhood: Journeys into Female Imagination

Let’s Talk About Anne of Green Gables and Her Attention Deficit Disorder

Mother’s Day Courage The Cowardly Dog

mother's day courage the cowardly dog

“Mother’s Day” is an episode from season one of Courage The Cowardly Dog. This is where we get some of Eustace’s back story. Until this point in the series, Eustace Bagge has been a singularly unpleasant character. We haven’t see what made him the way he is. In this episode, for the first time, we learn his ‘psychological wound’, or the backstory that explains why he treats others so badly. In stories, as in real life, this is simplistically attributed to deficiencies in the mother.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MOTHER’S DAY”

WEAKNESS/NEED

As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily at peace.

courage-at-peace

Of course this does not last long because of the two people he lives with. Because he is a child (in the body of a dog) he will have to just go along with them, trying to appease them.

DESIRE

Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back.

go-and-see-your-mother

Continue reading “Mother’s Day Courage The Cowardly Dog”

If I Stay by Gayle Forman Storytelling Tips

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman is a young adult novel published 2009.

if I stay by gayle foreman

 

WELCOME TO THE THIRD GOLDEN AGE

This book is an excellent example of ‘The Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature’, as described by Amanda Craig:

The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye and many more. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Amanda Craig

While I’m a little uncomfortable with the pejorative connotations of the term ‘sick-lit’, it works for critical purposes.

YA SICK-LIT & FEMINISM

There are parallels between Mia Hall and Bella Swan. Twilight is part of this movement — a girl who must make a decision between life and (un)death in an environment that’s largely blueish and grey (though due to rain rather than snow).

Adam is always amazed at how even in middle of summer, even after the sweatiest of encounters, my hands stay cold.

If I Stay

That line reminds me of Bella’s deathly white skin — strangely white even though she hails from Phoenix.

“Aren’t people from Arizona meant to be, like, really tanned?”

“Yeah. I guess that’s why they kicked me out.”

Twilight

Forman’s work, I would argue, is a little more feminist than that of Stephenie Meyer, though part of me feels Forman is going out of her way to distinguish herself from those silly girls when Mia narrates:

I never expected to fall in love. I was never the kind of girl who had crushes on rock stars or fantasies about marrying Brad Pitt. I sort of vaguely knew that one day I’d probably have boyfriends…and get married. I wasn’t totally immune to the charms of the opposite sex, but I wasn’t one of those romantic, swoony girls who had pink fluffy daydreams about falling in love.

#NotLikeOtherGirls Feminism

That could pretty much be the self-description of any teenage girl. Like Bella Swan, Mia Hall is The Everygirl, apart from having one main standout quality: Her prodigious ability with the cello, though even then, most of her ‘talent’ comes from sheer hard work, passion, and a full decade of practice. Bella Swan has no standout talent apart from smelling good to hot vampire boys. So Mia is more like Rory Gilmore in this respect.

This movie adaptation of If I Stay was released in 2014 and stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia.

if_i_stay_poster

Rotten Tomatoes says of the film, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic YA framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.”

Movie review websites aren’t kind to films and TV series made for and by women. I’ve also noticed that the word ‘manipulative’ is a gendered concept, far more likely to be applied to both women and media aimed at women. (I’m sure Joanna Russ would have something to say about this.) I would call this story a ‘tearjerker’ — it is what it is, and many readers enjoy reading stories like these for the cathartic power of sobbing, I think. Which is just as valid a reason to read/watch a movie as the chance to be ‘thrilled’ or ‘scared’ (emotions more robustly embraced by men).

Although the film follows the book quite closely, I’m writing here about the book.

GENRE BLEND OF “IF I STAY” BY GAYLE FOREMAN

At the beginning of the book, 17-year-old Mia already has a boyfriend of six months and is therefore not entirely new to relationships. In a straight romance the partners meet in the first few pages, something keeps them apart for the length of a book and then they get together at the end. At one point Mia narrates that her romance with Adam is a lot more complicated than that which means that, despite the romantic subplot, this isn’t a straight-up romance. More properly this is a love story.

Nicholas Sparks might even call it a love tragedy, if he’d written it.

live-for-love

The out-of-body half-dead narration makes it supernatural, though some may read it as religious. This is not a religious story so much as a spiritual one, borrowing the state of limbo from earlier Catholic teachings, in much the same way as the horror genre also loves Catholic symbolism.

Mia states at one stage that if there’s a God he hasn’t shown up. Readers are therefore free to imbue the story with their own philosophies (though atheist nihilists aren’t well catered for in popular American YA).

Mia’s character arc of finding out which parts of herself are essentially ‘her’ make it a coming-of-age drama.

STORYWORLD OF “IF I STAY”

if-i-stay-cello-bike

Mia’s family is the sort of cool, rocker family who tend to get sent up in Portlandia (although this family lives elsewhere in Oregon). The father doesn’t even get a driver’s licence until the mother makes him get one, so I imagine he’s a bit like the guy in this Portlandia send-up of hipster cyclists.

if-i-stay-joshua-leonard-chloe-moretz
Mia’s parents are with it in the way Lorelai Gilmore is with it — overtly and ostentatiously cool. The father drinks strong coffee, a habit Mia has emulated. The mother is a terrible cook who loves to eat junk food despite remaining rock chick slim. This is the kind of cool that appeals to a 13 and 14 year old audience. Mia is an evolution on Rory Gilmore.

The nice thing about setting a story in Oregon is that a writer can make full symbolic use of the distinctly four seasons.  If I Stay opens in the season of winter. This is significant to the plot (the car presumably skids on black ice or something) but is also highly metaphorical — this is the darkest hour of Mia’s life so far. When she looks back on her earlier recent past we’ll be taken with her back to happier times in warmer seasons. “It was warmer then”, we are told, when she went on that first date to see Yo Yo Ma with Adam.

As with many American stories, there is the whole Glamorization of New York thing going on. New York is the only place where things can happen. The not-so-subtle assumption here is that even if you make it back to your hometown, you haven’t really made it til you’ve been to New York.

STORY STRUCTURE

There are two threads to this story and this is what makes it an interesting case study. I will call it an ‘alternating plot’. For more on plot shapes in children’s literature see here.

  1. The present — on a snow day the family take a drive and everyone but Mia is killed. Mia narrates as an out-of-body ghost following her sick body around as she is helicoptered to the hospital, then suffers through a succession of visitors.
  2. Flashbacks — how she started dating Adam, how her parents met, how she always feels like the odd one out, family history

Each of these two threads has its own fully-developed story arc. The Storyworld, Mia’s Weakness/Need and the New Equilibrium are common to both of them.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Mia has this nagging feeling occasionally that she was swapped in the hospital — not helped by her father’s jokes — exacerbated by the fact that Mia is into classical music while her family are punk rockers from wayback. This difference is expressed in her physical appearance: Mia is dark haired and dark-eyed while her parents and younger brother are blonde.

Mia is trying to work out who she is, which is probably the need of every single YA protagonist. Here, more specifically, she wonders if she should even continue playing the cello which she has been obsessed with for a decade.

Mia needs to ‘find her tribe’, basically, which is ironically more difficult for a nerdy type kid who is born into a ‘cool’ family, and for an introverted girl who happens to find a boyfriend with friends so different from herself.

 

1. THE PRESENT THREAD

if-i-stay-ambulance
The car crash is the inciting incident and happens in the first chapter, after a happy, warm household has been introduced.

DESIRE

The author sets up a mystery for this thread — Mia knows that her parents have been killed, but where is Teddy? Mia desperately wants to know this information but because she is a ghost she has no ability to ask.

She desperately wants to see her boyfriend Adam. Although she is visited by a succession of relatives, none of these people manage to persuade her to live rather than die.

OPPONENT

The staff at the hospital are set up as opponents, from the grey-haired nurse to the doctor who roughly opens her eyelids to the guards. Willow is the only ‘goodie’ here.

The problem Mia has is one teenagers will relate to; although Mia’s relationship with Adam is as significant as that of an old married couple, Adam is not allowed in to see her because he’s not family.

I’m not sure if Adam would really be banned from seeing Mia in a real life equivalent situation*. Also, since this book was published there have been a few modifications made to hospital visitation rights, perhaps spearheaded by the gay community, though I’m not sure if anything has changed in regards to teenagers and their significant others.

*However, this book is not for fans of strict literary mimesis. It bothers me that the father’s brain on the road looks like a ‘grey cauliflower’. The flesh of fresh brains is pink, not grey. It’s not Seinfeld who wears the puffy jacket — it’s George.

PLAN

With Mia unable to formulate a plan in her non-body, it’s up to the best friends to somehow make it past the curmudgeonly hospital staff to see Mia. Mia watches as they stage an elaborate decoy plan.

BATTLE

There is a lot of running around the hospital, evading guards and what not, and eventually the teenagers make it to Mia’s bedside.

if-i-stay-running-hospital

It’s been said that every movie (adaptation) could be called ‘Trapped’. This is because all popular stories seem to have a sequence in which the main character sees no way out. Mia’s trapped scene happens after she realises Teddy is dead.

I race through the hospital like a trapped wild animal. Teddy? I call. Where are you? Come back to me!

But he won’t. I know it’s fruitless. I give up and drag myself back to my ICU. I want to break the double doors. I want to smash the nurses’ station. I want it all to go away. I want to go away. I don’t want to be here.

This is an outward scene of the turmoil going on inside Mia’s head. (The author very sensibly wrote the book with some big scenes, making it good to go as a movie adaptation.)

I’m not sure this is a world I belong in anymore. I’m not sure that I want to wake up.

 

SELF-REVELATION

I realise now that dying is easy. Living is hard.

With Adam finally by her side in the hospital, Mia chooses life over death, even though her future will be vastly more uncertain than it was before.

The reveal is also that Adam has actually broken up with Mia right before the accident because she couldn’t promise to spend New Year’s with him.

 

2. THE FLASHBACKS THREAD

DESIRE

Mia wants to get into Julliard after other people sort of suggest to her that it might be a possibility. This isn’t a girl with a burning desire, but a girl who wants to please other people. Although the desire to get into Julliard is more burning than initially revealed, Mia is beginning to establish a nice adult life in Oregon and has a boyfriend based in Oregon. Mia’s desires are conflicting. The parents — cool as they are — serve as a vision of her future she does not want. She wants a life built around music, not the other way around.

Some writers would refer to the Julliard thing as the ‘outer desire’.

Mia’s ‘inner desire’ is to not be lonely. In both threads, Mia is consistently alone. She is alone in her family, alone here on stage during her audition, and if she gets in, she’ll be totally alone in New York, with the rest of her family hailing from Minnesota, the author makes sure to tell us.

if-i-stay-audition

OPPONENT

A lot of YA books feature parents as caring opponent figures but this book shuns that trope altogether with the cool, understanding parents.

Appropriately named Adam is Mia’s first boyfriend, and with this guy Mia must learn how to negotiate and communicate in a relationship. There are plenty of opportunities for disagreements along the way — there’s the cool rock chick he plays with (ultimately revealed to be lesbian in the film adaptation and therefore no threat at all), there’s a Pride and Prejudice sort of beginning in which Adam mistakes Mia’s attitude towards his gigs for lack of interest in him.

We also have an ally and sometime opponent in Mia’s best friend, the one she had a fisticuffs with back when they were eleven. Now they’ll fight to the death for each other. This history means the bffs have an honest, open communication line going between them — in contrast to the shutdown between Mia and Adam — and Kim also fills the role of challenging Mia when she considers giving up the cello. You can’t give up the cello, Kim advises, because she can’t possibly imagine Mia without a cello ‘between her legs’. In other words, Kim points out what the reader has already realised — that Mia’s road to happiness must, at all costs, include the cello.

PLAN

Mia will go through the Julliard application process and avoid making any big decisions until — and only if — she gets in.

She will also spend the year working out who she is, and this at one point involves a makeover scene. In a Betty/Veronica scene readers will instantly recognise, Mia realises she is not the fun blonde chick.

Mia gets into Julliard, as must happen to make a successful story. The reader knows this will happen but it’s not a problem, because the real question we want to know is: Will she choose her boyfriend over New York? (And also, did her little brother die?)

if-i-stay-blonde-wig
In the book the mother is blonde. When Mia puts on the wig, she realises she looks like her mother for the first time.

BATTLE

The big battle scene of this thread is the argument with Adam, who feels Mia has lied to him, mainly by omission, not letting him in on her thoughts as she goes through the process of Julliard acceptance.

There’s a bit of a feminist message to young readers in this battle: Hopefully readers will notice the double standard that’s going on here — Adam expects Mia to do a lot of waiting around for him, busy with his performing and band practice, but he doesn’t want to do any waiting for his girlfriend, while she’s away pursuing her own musical dream. That said, the breaking up battle takes place off the page. Instead we have a very-much ameliorated boyfriend situation, with a guy who realises the double standard and concedes rather than — more realistically, in my opinion — a girl who works out the double standard for herself and points it out to him.

SELF REVELATION

The message for both Mia and to young readers: Even if he’s got a lop-sided smile, live your own life before settling down. Otherwise you’ll end up like Mia’s mother — happy in her own way, but suppressing her own creative dreams for the sake of family, stuck in safe suburbia, (symbolically dying first because you’re a bit of a martyr).

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This book has a bittersweet ending characteristic of the Third Golden Age. Although she’s alive, Mia has lost her entire family and will need a lot of physical therapy. (Fortunately there is a sequel. We get to see how Mia does in her recovery.)

This book is, at its heart, a celebration of life over death. (All themes sound cheesey when you put them in a single sentence.) But what will the Fourth Golden Age of Children’s Literature bring us? An evolution on this type of story would surely be the glorification of death over life? Or perhaps there will be a backlash all the way back to full, Enid Blyton-esque health.

Finally, what is all this life and death stuff all about? What’s the main message here? Surely, surely, it’s about more than the opportunity to have a good wallow for a while, contemplating our own mortality.


Ultimately, there may be a strong feminist message in If I Stay, and that’s where this story is nothing like the Twilight series. For Mia, ‘life’ = ‘her own life’. On the flip side we have ‘settling down in Oregon with a band boyfriend’ (who will probably end up ditching his musical dreams by the time he hits his 30s), which for her is a kind of ‘death’.

 

What’s behind the wide appeal of horrible, brooding, YA boyfriends?

young adult boyfriend

THE RECIPE FOR A YOUNG ADULT DARK PARANORMAL ROMANCE BOYFRIEND

  1. Handsome
  2. In a white kind of way
  3. Muscled but not too muscled — not like he works at it
  4. Well groomed and fairly nubile — not much body hair
  5. Remarkable eyes and gaze
  6. A bit older than the female protagonist
  7. A bit taller
  8. Maybe a bit richer (though sometimes he’s an underdog, financially speaking). All of this ‘a bit more’ refers to ‘hypergamy’ — the longheld view that husbands should be a little more more of everything (except beautiful) than their wives.
  9. Not like other typical guys — interested in literature rather than sport
  10. Though he’s not the uncoordinated, klutzy type either
  11. Loves reading, though he may be embarrassed to be seen doing something so sensitive and girly
  12. Perhaps writes poetry in his spare time
  13. May be on the periphery of a group of guy friends but is basically a loner
  14. Inexplicably falls instantly in love with the beautiful (though sometimes just girl-next-door looking) female protagonist
  15. There will be some reason why he cannot be with her right away (he’s a teacher/vampire/she’s already taken…)
  16. But he must be with her nonetheless, though their love is based on very little really
  17. This might lead to some stalking
  18. Or otherwise taboo/unethical boundary crossing
  19. And will definitely lead to much brooding
  20. Because he is not fully in control of his own sexual impulses
  21. Cannot stand seeing her with another boy
  22. Even if they’re just friends
  23. There will probably be a lot of mansplaining, in which he explains things about love and life to the female, and even if she balks occasionally, the reader/viewer will actually see he has a point
  24. He is experienced in love. It helps his attractiveness that he’s had previous girlfriends; as long as this girl is his last, that’s fine.

See more at: BroodingYAHero twitter account.

Ezra French Food
Pretty Little Liars, impressed by money and autonomy, because at this age it’s a pretty low bar

THE APPEAL OF THE YOUNG ADULT BOYFRIEND

Unless you are — or have been — a heterosexual adolescent girl, the appeal is a little hard to understand. Even if you ask an adolescent girl, she might not be able to tell you. If she is woke she’ll be keen to point out that he is only a fantasy, and fantasies are just that. She knows he is not real.

Still, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where sexual fantasies come from. Especially when they’re commonly held throughout a culture. Even fantasies do not exist in a cultural bubble:

  1. The Fantasy Of Love At First Sight — this article makes a distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity
  2. The Erotics Of Abstinence — lengthy months of yearning, which is at least half of the fun. Stephenie Meyer’s books are well-known for this aspect, and are thought to stem from her Mormon background, which preaches abstinence before marriage.
  3. The Expectation Of Hypergamy — in which the man is always a little bit more of something — a bit taller/richer/older/streetwise.
  4. The Fantasy Of Being Looked After Unconditionally And Forever — a return to the safety of the early years and I’m sure we could get all psychoanalytic right here. The girl only has to exist — he doesn’t ask anything of her.
  5. The Fantasy of Being Delivered From Obscurity by a Dazzling, Powerful Man — like one of those classic novels in which the ordinary but pretty common girl is chosen by the lord of the castle or something. Because until very recently, that has been a woman’s only hope at social mobility. (In Titanic you see the same thing but the economics are in reverse.)
  6. The Florence Nightingale effect — in which a caregiver develops romantic and/or sexual feelings for his/her patient, even if very little communication or contact takes place outside of basic care. A depressed/melancholic/damaged man seems appealing because in order to be attracted to someone as a partner you have to feel you can improve their life in some way. Our ghosts make us vulnerable. Vulnerability is attractive. Of Edward Cullen it has been said that “His anguish makes him volatile enough to keep things interesting but dependent enough that he will never be tempted to leave.”
  7. Stockholm Syndrome — feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor
  8. The Wish To Have A ‘Real Man’ — in a culture in which men and women are increasingly similar in life expectations
  9. The Wish To Have A Fantastic Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Pressure You To Have Sex — related to the erotics of abstinence above.  A boyfriend who can’t/won’t have sex with you is a safe person to have when you’re both terrified and curious.
  10. The Desire To Be Dominated — not always in real life, but quite often in fantasy, as was discovered by E.L. James. There are various opinions on this. Some argue that the desire to be dominated comes from emancipation. When women take on more responsibility in their real lives, they like to fantasise about having no power in their sex lives. Which leads me to the question: What are the fantasy lives of women living in strongly patriarchal societies? Do those women also have domination fantasies, when they are not allowed to drive, or leave the house, or decide who they’re married off to? That would be an interesting comparison.

 

Ezra Aria holding hands
First year tortured English teacher inappropriately holds hands with senior in Pretty Little Liars
Jessie taking the piss out of Luke
Jess from Gilmore Girls
Jess possessive
Of Rory’s boyfriends, Jess is perhaps the most possessive and creepy.
Jessie outbidding Dean
Jess has just made a concerted attempt to ‘out-do’ Dean and supplant him as boyfriend, catching the prize of smalltown pretty girl. Though Rory’s onto him, that doesn’t stop her from falling for it.

Sleep my bella

Edward plays piano
Even better if he can play a musical instrument. Or dance. It’s a better indicator than big feet.

Dollhouse Symbolism In Storytelling

Dollhouses in fiction serve various main functions:

  • Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
  • A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
  • Fakery
  • Girlhood and naivety

The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.

However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

See also: Tom Thumb, Thumbelina and Other Miniature Tales

Tale Of Two Bad Mice Doll House

The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls

Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps her mother disapproves of and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.

Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.

— Gilmore girls wiki

Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents — and the big fancy dollhouse — represent.

Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends

Monica's doll house

The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.

Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.

 

Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series

Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family — a typically Mormon aspiration — is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.

Big Love Pam who loves dollhouses

But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an apparent utopia.

A dollhouse is meant to be looked at — at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative — and they are storybook in their nature; staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side of the house.

Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.

The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.

Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.

All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.

My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film

My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.

Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.

The Doll’s House, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield

This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.

“The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.

The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”

“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.

Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.

“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.

The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

This story is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:

[T}his was a great disappointment to him–he found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could nto push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.

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.

I believe many, if not most, women have comfort shows, and they tend to be repetitive shows about relationships. When I asked a large group of women to nominate their own virtual security blankets, the same shows were mentioned over and over again: Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, The Office, Brooklyn 99, Seinfeld, and, of course, Friends.

Clinical psychologist Marc Hekster believes that watching reruns of TV shows like Friends is particularly comforting because of the repetition and predictability.

“It’s about an experience of repair, of watching the characters in the show repeatedly having worries, which then get repaired and soothed, usually in the context of other relationships in their lives,” he told me. “It is soothing to see the same outcome every time and know you can depend on it.”

Sydney Morning Herald

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 Seasons Of Storytelling

In stories for children, as in stories for adults, emphasis on the seasons and the circular nature of time gives a story a feminine feel. Each season carries its own symbolism, but it’s not a clear delineation.

gilmore-girls-a-year-in-the-life

With the recent Gilmore girls revival we now have agents/editors asking for similar story structures.

gilmore-girls-story-structure-agent-wishlist

What would that mean, exactly, to write a story with a similar structure to Gilmore girls?

One aspect which provides structure to Gilmore girls is the seasons. Rory’s life (like any diligent high school student’s) is determined by the school terms, in turn different according to season. Stars Hollow holds regular annual events which are also connected to seasons, be it Halloween pumpkins, picnic hampers or Christmas festivities.

In television miniseries, the seasonal structure isn’t new. Take for instance the Disney adaptation of Little House On The Prairie. Each of the three episodes has distinctly different seasons.

little-house-on-the-prairie-disney

The fact is, this story structure is very old, especially in stories for and about girls.

The straight (non-reversed, un-ironic) version looks like this:

SUMMER

Characters exist in:

  1. a troubled, vulnerable state or
  2. in a world of freedom susceptible to attack

The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

— Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

AUTUMN/FALL

Characters begin their decline.

Alternatively, or as well as this decline, autumn lends a cosy feel which takes us back to childhood especially — this is a Northern Hemisphere thing, and works well for American audiences, who have Thanksgiving, Halloween and football matches in the fall.

The late scenes of Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and Marlena by Julie Buntin both occur in a damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that signals the end of girlhood.

Movies in which autumn features heavily:

  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Autumn in New York is a movie in its own right, but…
  • …another film which features autumn in New York is You’ve Got Mail! You’ve Got Mail spans the entire year through the seasons, but the fall scenes are thought to be the best.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (think of Hagrid’s hut with all the pumpkins)
  • Stepmom — fall in Connecticut
  • Hocus Pocus and other Halloween movies like Practical Magic — because for North Americans, fall is synonymous with Halloween
  • Dead Poet’s Society — for its back-to-school feel. (Australian students return to school while it’s still well and truly summer, so this is a Northern Hemisphere thing.)
  • Remember The Titans and Rudy — because fall is football season
  • Pieces of April — because fall is Thanksgiving season
  • Little Women — because a lot of the story takes place in the fall

WINTER

Characters reach their lowest point.

Middle grade novel Skellig by David Almond is a story which makes use of seasonal symbolism. When Michael discovers Skellig, his luck begins to change. “Winter was ending.” The season of death and dormancy (especially for Michael and Skellig) is about to give way to the rebirth of spring-a kind of second innocence.

However, there’s winter and then there’s winter. A winter blizzard is dangerous, but a landscape covered in snow has the opposite effect, evoking hygge, or as Jerry Griswold puts it, evoking snugness. 

There are, of course, certain times of year and day that are more conducive to evocations of snugness. Winter, especially after snow has fallen, and Christmastime are special in this regard; consider, for example, the tableau of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, all gathered together around the fire when father returns at Christmas; or Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” when “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” And as for time of day, the moment for nesting is when sleep comes; here the great tableau may be in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi when grandfather, both when Heidi first arrives and when she returns from Frankfurt, steals up the ladder to look at the slumbering child in the nest she has made for herself from hay in the attic. To be brief: a snug place is a place where one can sleep peacefully.

Jerry Griswold

SPRING

In the spring, characters overcome their problem and rise.

This short film, called Spring, follows a girl’s trip out of the dark forest, which gradually blooms into a more welcoming arena.

A story might start in springtime. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:

The things that happened to Emily Bartlett that year!

It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.

Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.

— Beverly Cleary

SUBVERSION OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM

However, a writer may choose to avoid the cliche by turning it around. So the character declines in spring and is rejuvenated in the winter. This not only short-circuits the audience’s expectations but also asserts that humans, though of the natural world, are not enslaved by its patterns.

What about the seasons and writing for children?

If writing for children is different from writing for adults, surely it’s because our main audience has not seen enough of the world  or of literature to have noticed cliche, which becomes more noticeable the older/better read you become.

Maria Nikolajeva, academic of children’s literature has made the following observations about:

THE TREATMENT OF TIME IN BOOKS FOR GIRLS AND BOOKS FOR BOYS

This is a fascinating concept, and something I’d not noticed until it was pointed out, by Maria Nikolajeva in Children’s Literature Comes Of Age. Earlier in the book she defines books for boys (often adventure) and books for girls (horse stories etc, and those starring girls) which these days tend to have pink somewhere on the cover. In an ideal world there’d be no such thing as sex differentiation in books. Because gender is not genre. But I’m quite radical like that.

One Swedish essay on narrative differences in books for boys and books for girls stipulated that male time is linear, while female time is circular…. Time in books for girls and in books for boys is closely connected with place. Not only is male time linear, but male space is open, as books for boys take place outdoors, sometimes far away from home in the wide world. Male narrative time is structured as a series of stations where an adventure is experienced, a task is performed, a trial is passed. Time between these stations practically does not exist. The text can say something like “after many days full of hardships they reached their destination…” The male chronotope is thus corpuscular, discontinuous, a chain of different separate time-spaces (“quants”) which are held together by a final goal. These separate chronotopes may also correspond to chapters in adventure boos: each chapter is self-contained, even if some threads can run from one chapter to another. It is easily observable in classic stories such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1876) or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (1943).

The chronotope in books for girls is completely different. The space is closed and confined. The action mostly takes place indoors, at home (alternatively at school). Time is cyclically closed and marked by recurrent time indications: (“It was spring again,” “It was Christmas again”). Three classical girls’ books, Little Women (1868), Anne Of Green Gables (1908) and Little House In The Big Woods (1932), are very good illustrations. Any gaps in time can be easily filled by the reader, who knows that it takes time for plants to grow or for snow to thaw, that the school year is full of homework, that housework is the same year in and year out. Female narrative time is often extended to several years with certain recurrent points. The chronotope is continuous both in time and space. Spatial movement in girls’ books means merely a change from one confined space to another likewise confined one — for instance, from the parents’ home to a boarding school, from the heroine’s childhood home to her husband’s home, to “the doll house,” an image often used by contemporary writers trying to break this pattern; one example is Maud Reutersward’s A Way From Home (1979), the Swedish title of which is “The Girl and the Doll House.”

The female narrative chronotope is also based on our conceptions of male and female nature…Female time is circular, follows the cycle of the moon, and consists of recurrent, regular events of death and resurrection, seasonal changes and so on. … Linear male time is a product of enlightenment and is the spirit of action and progress.

…there are many deviations… As in all other areas, in chronotope structures of children’s books of the past ten to twenty years there is also a merging of male and female, a disintegration of the epic chronotope, and some bold innovations.

Nikolajeva’s book was published in 1996, so another 10 or 20 years have passed even since then. I’d be interested to know what has happened. Are stories for girls still mostly set inside? Do books for girls run by the moon?

EXAMPLES OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sometimes, winter is a metaphor for depression. As an example, see Blackdog by Levi Pinfold.

In the similarly named, earlier title by Pamela Allen, Black Dog, more is made of the significance of the seasons with inclusion of the following double spread:
Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Axel Scheffler

In Stick Man, illustrator Axel Scheffler demonstrates the passing of time with the following montage:

Stick Man Julia Donaldson seasons_600x810

In the Australian picture book Tanglewood, too, we have a page of thumbnail illustrations depicting the passage of time via the seasons.

Tanglewood seasons by Margaret Wild

Beatrix Potter

Handy quotes Lewis on his own memory of reading the Beatrix Potter book “Squirrel Nutkin” when he was young: It “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” The subject of childhood, even more than old age, seems always to be about its ending. My favorite chapter was the last one — about death in children’s literature, but also about endings generally.

NYT review of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult By Bruce Handy

The examples above are all picture books, but stories which emphasis cycles are common in stories for (or about) older girl readers. Julie of the Wolves is an excellent example. This novel is a Robinsonnade earlier feminist novel with explicitly ecological themes.

Miyax (Julie) must kill to remain alive herself, but her killing is always shown to be part of the ongoing life cycle that must continue if life is to be sustained on the tundra. […] The ideology […] is explicitly ecological, but it contains an implicitly feminist message as well, for this ecological veneration of life cycles inherently praises the interconnectedness of life cycles that feminist texts so often embrace. Rather than unfolding with the linear plot-line that is common in children’s realism, Julie of the Wolves contains an embedded narrative structure that parallels the text’s consciousness of cycles. […] Nothing in Miyax’s life happens in isolation, and nothing occurs in a straight line. Instead, she moves forward, makes mistakes, and moves forward again. Thus, the narrative structure parallels the nonlinear nature of Miyax’s life and the cyclical nature of the novel’s setting.
As for the cycles of the female body, the text openly addresses how a teenager living in isolation deals wtih menstruation by clearly stating that she has not yet reached menarche. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Obviously, the association of cycles and femininity are to do with menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. The female body goes through clear cycles of birth and rebirth, while men just get older and die.