Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.Continue reading “Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler”
Anatole the mouse starred in a series of children’s stories by Eve Titus, illustrated by Paul Galdone in blue, red and white. The ten books were published 1956-1979. Today I’m taking a look at the picture book that opened the series. Anatole was named a Caldecott honour book.
If you love cheese, it’s likely you’ll love Anatole. However, I’d encourage readers to look more carefully at the ideology hiding behind all that delicious cheese.Continue reading “Anatole by Eve Titus & Paul Galdone (1956)”
Arthur’s Eyes (1979) by Marc Brown is an early story of the popular Arthur series, about an ambiguously animal creature (only after looking it up do I understand he’s a brown aardvark) who lives with his nuclear family in an American suburb. This is a well-crafted story and really speaks to its young audience. The book is now over 40 years old. Reading Arthur’s Eyes in 2020, I notice some ideological issues with the plot and characterisation that date the story badly.Continue reading “Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown Analysis”
In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.
Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.
English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:
Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.
In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)
Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance, and also in the character development of Fern in Charlotte’s Web.
There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness byChristopher K Hsee 1, Adelle X Yang, Liangyan Wang.
Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World, written and illustrated by John Burningham (2006), is an excellent example of this modern ideology of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ children, specifically how there is no such thing as good vs bad, but we’re all a little yin yang and can go either way depending on how we are treated.
By the way, how modern is this ‘modern ideology’, really? Despite being reflected in picture books, it is not reflected in the policies of the Australian government. If it were, we wouldn’t be locking up 10-year-olds for crimes, and until last year, that place was in prison.) Australia would not be deporting ‘New Zealand’ criminals who were brought to Australia as toddlers by parents who never got their citizenship paperwork sorted, if we really did believe that environment shapes the child. We would consider those people, for all intents and purposes, Australian. We would let them stay.
In any case, child audiences love to see child characters behaving badly. Watching children get into mischief is a bit like watching robbers carry out a heist: as audience we never know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it. These characters are intrinsically motivated. They’re the opposite of passive. Interest derives from seeing them get out of their predicaments, or suffering in comedic fashion from their own stupid decisions. (Stupid characters who never learn a thing make great comedic stock.)Continue reading “Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children”
Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.
Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.Continue reading “Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories”
Wealth brings out the worst in people. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches. This is thought to be Cinderella’s rightful place — after all, Cinderella is not a rags to riches story. It’s a riches to rags to riches again story. The high born are thought to be worthy due to their superior bloodline.
In an attempt at subversion, characters in some stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich.
The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal
Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.
Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together
One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same closed arena and force them to interact with each other. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.
However, there are a few political pitfalls to avoid when doing this.
Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Adults
- Annie Proulx makes use of the rich-poor divide a lot. She takes a rural community comprising simple, rural folk with anti-materialistic values and contrasts them with a rich blow-in. For more on that, see below.
- In Freaks and Geeks, episode four, Lindsay gets her first class culture shock when she visits Kim’s house for dinner. It turns out Kim has invited her only to prove to her parents that she’s responsible and deserves her confiscated car back. Lindsey is shocked by the chaos and by the state of Kim’s house.
- Katherine Mansfield herself was a daughter of the upper middle class but she tackled the rich-poor divide in several stories, most notably “The Doll’s House” and “The Garden Party“.
- Angie Thomas writes about race and class in The Hate U Give. Issues of wealth and privilege come to the fore because the main character is at a private school on academic scholarship.
- The Beverly Hillbillies — The farming Clampett family become suddenly rich when they discover oil in their backyard. This discovery turns a poor family to rich millionaires. They move to Beverly Hills, California. This is a good example of a fish-out-of-water story. These rustic characters clash with the people of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Rich-poor conflict is useful in Comedies of Manners.
- Pride and Prejudice is an early example of the Comedy of Manners. No one is poor, exactly — it’s all relative. The Bennett sisters are in danger of becoming poor in future. Their mother’s behaviour is crass in comparison to those of the mega-wealthy.
- Titanic — both the real story and the various fictionalisations which have emerged since, work well as stories because, when a boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Everyone goes down with it. This makes for an evergreen metaphor about looking after our planet.
- Stories with dragons (specifically Northern dragons) are metaphors for how hoarded wealth brings one no joy. Dragons have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. (Eastern dragons are different beasts altogether — they are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal.)
- Tomato Red — the love interest with the red hair feels a grave sense of injustice that they live in a mobile shack whereas other people in their town live in mansions. This fuels her desire to get out of that town, and justifies what she does in order to achieve it.
- Schitts Creek — The Rose family have already lost all their fortune by the time they hit Schitt’s Creek — a hole of a town the father bought the son for a birthday joke. They are now forced to live there among the regular folk. They may have no money but they have brought their rich tastes and attitudes with them. This makes for plenty of conflict.
- Animal Kingdom — J’s druggie mother dies of an overdose. At seventeen years of age he has only ever known poverty. But now he is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are running a criminal empire. These are the sorts of people who leave wads of cash lying around.
- Nashville — Juliette Barnes is now rich, having earned oodles of money as a country pop singer, but she has come from nothing. She grew up in a trailer park. The writers make sure the audience is taken back there, to explain some of Juliette’s back story. Juliette still has her mother in her life, which allows the audience to see rich and poor rubbing up against each other. Other characters undergo a rags to riches Cinderella story as part of the show.
- Upstairs Downstairs — Is the ultimate in rich and not rich rubbing up against each other. Downton Abbey is very similar. These shows are about class differences. For some of the characters real destitution is one wrong-doing away. Even the mighty can fall.
- Coronation Street — Even in a working class Northern town where everyone lives from month to month, we still have characters like Mike Baldwin who owns the factory, or Dev Alahan who owns the corner shop. Though these men are far from fabulously wealthy, there is still enough of a discrepancy in wealth to provide interest.
- I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore — our modest main characters make a visit to an ostentatious house with massive lawn ornaments under the guise of cops. When the lawn ornaments get broken this provides some catharsis for the audience because these rich people are not good and the main character is very sympathetic.
- Fargo — our main dude has a rich father-in-law, which causes all sorts of existential male angst, and therefore the impetus to make real money of his own.
- Lonesome Dove — Clara’s husband has been a successful horse wrangler. Not only this, he married the love of Gus’s life. Larry McMurtry takes us to Clara’s ranch to make sure we get a taste of The Path Not Taken. Could Gus have had all this, if only he weren’t such a wanderer, basically married to Call?
- Gilmore Girls — This community offers us the full spectrum of wealth (well, right down to middle-class, anyhow). We have Emily and Richard at the top, with all their cronies. Next we have successful small business owners such as the owner of Doose’s market, and eventually Lorelai and Sooki themselves. Then there are the people who work for others.
- My Summer Of Love — Tamsin is the privately educated daughter home for the holidays in her family mansion while Mona is the working class girl from the pub. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for these girls to meet — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. Rich girl and poor girl legitimately share the same country road, though one rides a white horse and the other scoots along on a motorbike with no motor.
- American Honey — Star joins a ‘mag crew’ — a bus load of young people who have been recruited to sell magazine subscriptions across mid-west America. The bus takes them to wealthy suburbs and then to poor suburbs, juxtaposing them. The matriarch of the group is herself from a poor suburb but through psychopathic means has garnered enough money for herself to wear some of the trappings of wealth. She offers commentary on the people who live in these places as she drops her crew off.
Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Children
It’s interesting to see how wealth discrepancy is handled in stories for children. In picture books there is very rarely any social commentary on money. Olivia (by Ian Falconer) lives in a big New York City apartment and must therefore have mega wealthy pig parents, but because she goes through similar dramas as many (white) kids, the reader is not encouraged to mull that one over.
The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett — The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is commonly used to describe an arc in which the main character lives in poverty at the beginning of the story and in wealth by the end. But more commonly in the Victorian era the plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and positin which are thought to be his/her natural birthright. Even Cinderella isn’t a genuine rags to riches tale — Cinderella must have been at least middle class to begin with or she would not have had those middle class relatives.
Ivy + Bean — Ivy seems to come from a richer family. She has a big bedroom with a craft table set up. Money is not mentioned. It may just be that Ivy’s mother is super organised and particular, and likes to dress her little girl in fancy frocks. But an adult reader assumes some discrepancy in income between the households. Ivy is originally depicted as a prissy, unsympathetic character, but after the first book the two girls realise they have a lot in common and become firm best friends. Not only that, Ivy is revealed to be every bit as devious as Bean. The message: Some kids are rich, others not so much, but they’re all just kids in the end.
Wimpy Kid, Dog Days — Holly Elizabeth Hills is one of Greg’s classmates and also an unrequited love interest. Greg tries to impress her but can’t. Her family is shown to be wealthy, playing on the old folk tales in which lovers are kept apart due to differences in class and status. The sister is portrayed as tyrannical, spoiled and selfish. The message: While being rich doesn’t necessarily make a girl undesirable, the existence of the sister conveys the idea that the riches themselves have contributed to her personality.
“I have dreams about those shoes. Black high-tops. Two white stripes.”
All Jeremy wants is a pair of those shoes, the ones everyone at school seems to be wearing. But Jeremy’s grandma tells him they don’t have room for “want,” just “need,” and what Jeremy needs are new boots for winter. When Jeremy’s shoes fall apart at school, and the guidance counselor gives him a hand-me-down pair, the boy is more determined than ever to have those shoes, even a thrift-shop pair that are much too small. But sore feet aren’t much fun, and Jeremy comes to realize that the things he has — warm boots, a loving grandma, and the chance to help a friend — are worth more than the things he wants.
Harry Potter — It’s impossible to consider the ideology of wealth in the Harry Potter series without thinking of the rags to riches tale undergone by the author herself. In the Harry Potter universe the Black family is one of the mega wealthy. But Sirius Black was not born wealthy — he inherited 12 Grimmauld Place and this made him rich. He is fairly generous with his wealth. Gilderoy Lockhart is worth quite a bit. Harry Potter himself is also rich, especially for a twelve year old. He has inherited. It is extrapolated that after the series ends Harry goes on to become very rich. The Malfoy family and Bellatrix Lestrange are also wealthy. A lot of these rich characters are intermarried and related, keeping wealth in the family, in aristocratic tradition. The message: You don’t have to be all that great of a person to be born rich, but if you’re good like Harry you may well become rich through hard work, humility and dedication to a cause.
The Hundred Dresses — This book is about a modest, middle-class town whose children are strangers to poverty. Until one day, that is. These days it’s hard to tell the poorest children (in real life) by looking at them — clothing has come down in price and decent chainstore clothing is available cheaply from second hand stores. But in earlier eras clothing was prohibitively expensive and it was easy to tell the poor children at a glance. The message: Don’t judge people on their appearance. There is always more going on than you realise. Show compassion for those less fortunate.
Strays Like Us — Molly Moberly has been poor all her life and is even now living in poverty with a great aunt, but it turns out she has a rich grandmother who will now be her benefactor, of sorts. The grandmother is a lonely hypochondriac who won’t leave her bed. The message: If you have a destitute personality, money can’t buy happiness. You’re better off being modestly poor but mentally well.
Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty.
- Disenfranchised people with little power make easy targets.
- The main character of classic children’s book Heidi is rewarded by material wealth for moral virtue, with the following implicit message: If you are good, wealth will come your way. Ergo, if you’re not wealthy, you obviously are not good enough.
THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY
Institutional classism cannot be confronted without dealing with its accompanying myth of meritocracy, which suggests that if a person has a lower social class than they would like, they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because “anybody can get ahead if they try.” This mentality leads to faulty assumptions that people who have a lot earned it and people who don’t have a lot haven’t tried enough. Debunking this myth presents a challenging dialogue in that it intersects with class privilege, and os those who do have wealth may get defensive that they deserve what they have and have “earned it”.Reframing Difference in Organisational Communication Studies by Dennis K. Mumby
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.Peggy McIntosh
THE MYTH OF GENTILITY
A Bluebeard retelling like Rebecca feels outdated now because the entire revelation rests on the ‘surprise’ that a genteel, upper-class member of the aristocracy could possibly be a murderer. The ship has sailed if you were hoping to tell that kind of story.
WRITE PRIVILEGE AS AN INVISIBLE KNAPSACK
Privilege is typically invisible for those who have it. This phenomenon has been pointed out by many since, but in 1993 Peggy McIntosh came up with the phrase ‘invisible knapsack’ to describe privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.
MUST WRITERS ALWAYS ‘PUNCH UP’?
Writers—especially comedy writers—are often told: when mining character for comedy, always punch up.
This bit of advice means, in effect, that the underdog must win. The underdog has the last laugh. Ideally, the poor underdog is also likeable. That papers over a lot.
But in real life, the underdog often loses. What if you don’t want to create comedy? What if you want to create a realist setting in which rich folk often win, precisely because of their resources? What if you need to say something a bit more… true?
Annie Proulx’s short stories make for an excellent case study in how to create a rounded cast of downtrodden characters who neither win nor lose, but who plod along in their lane, no more or less enlightened than the rich bastards who blow in to their natural worlds. Proulx’s fatalistic world view definitely helps her convey the idea that we are all products of our environment, and that wealth or lack thereof is part of what shapes us. Her rugged, harsh landscapes also lead the reader toward an egalitarian view of humankind, in which everyone is the size of the ant in comparison to the mountains and plains, and everyone is therefore equal.
The Beverly Hillbillies gets a pass precisely because the rich milieu is satirised: The culture and society of Beverly Hills is depicted as obsessive and superficial. The locals have an unhealthy obsession with money, social-climbing, and the latest fashions. The Beverly Hillbillies are, in contrast, straight talking honest folks, who never wear a mask. They know exactly who they are, and are therefore happy in themselves, free from pecking-order pressures.
I’ve never given poor people credit for having noble souls, on the pretext that they are poor and only too well acquainted with life’s injustices. But I have always assumed that they would be united in their hatred of the propertied classes. Gegene has set the record straight on that score and taught me this: if there is one thing that poor people despise, it is other poor people.The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The psychological effect of poverty is what lasts. You can send in rice to heal them and for energy but beware of giving energy to desperate people. They’re going to use it…. The hunger is bad but then you’d need about nine million therapists, who’d never be equipped anyway.Frank McCourt on Writing About Poverty
- Capitalism – anybody can be rich.
- Communism – nobody can be rich.
- Socialism – anybody can be rich but nobody should be poor.
- 10 books about wealth — inheriting it, losing it, hating it, loving it, faking it, making it.
- What The Rich Won’t Tell You from New York Times
- On Being Broke vs. Being Poor from Jezebel
- Will reading make you rich? from Salon
- The Psychology of Wealth from TSP
- How do you get someone to lose interest in their hobby? Pay them to do it from io9
- 10 Things More Likely To Happen Than Winning The Mega Millions from Untitled Magazine
- The mathematical law that shows why wealth flows to the 1% from The Guardian
- The Queen Of Versailles, a movie length documentary, is perhaps the most depressing thing I have seen this year.
- And this movie-length documentary is the best display of genuine assholery ever.
- College Is Only Good for Helping Rich People Get Richer from GOOD
- Desperately Seeking Sugar Daddies. A young woman looks for a rich man to pay her for being a girlfriend. Yes, that’s a thing and I don’t know why I’m surprised, from Thought Catalog
- Is Money More Important For Men? from Good Men Project
- Researcher finds wealth shapes an ideology of self-interest and entitlement from Psy Post
- The Inequality Map from NY Times
- The Future Of Inequality from Overcoming Bias
- If A Parent Who Reads To Her Child Is “Good”, Is One Who Doesn’t “Bad”? from Huff Post Parents, which is really about “denying the antecedent” — a logical fallacy that assumes that because a implies b, then not a implies not b, and in this case it is applied to poor parents, who it is assumed must be uncaring because they don’t do X for their children.
- Is Equality Feasible? an article by Lane Kenworthy (Answer is yes.)
- How Class Works (in America) — an interactive guide from NYT
- Crowdsourcing Equality from Foz Meadows
- My Basic Proposition Is Equality, from Anne Summers. Yes this, this exactly.
- Wealth Inequality In America — perceptions versus reality, on YouTube.
- Free Markets and the Myth of Earned Inequalities from 3a.m.
- What ‘Girls’ and ‘Shameless’ Teach Us About Being Broke and Poor from The Nation
- In Rust Belt, a teenager’s climb from poverty, from The Washington Post
- You Can’t Afford To Lose Your Temper When You’re Poor, as well as a few other things, from Blue Milk
- Rachel Hills points out that ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is a false dichotomy.
- Is there such a thing as ‘the privileged poor’? from Rachel Hills at Daily Life
- Why Do The Poor Become Parents? from The Dish
- Why It’s Not Altruistic To Help The Poor from Sociological Images
- How Poverty Taxes The Brain from The Atlantic
- Bad Decisions Don’t Make You Poor. Being Poor Makes for Bad Decisions, from Slate
- What’s Killing Poor White Women? from The American Prospect
- Assume Your Audience Contains Poor People from Sociolab
- 7 Things No one Tells You About Being Homeless
- Class Navigation: On being poor from The Toast
- Minimum Wage Was Once Enough To Keep A Family Of 3 Out Of Poverty from The Atlantic
- What Does Living In Poverty Really Mean? a podcast from NPR
- For 50 years, films have largely failed to fight the war on poverty, from Film School Rejects
Header painting: Arthur Dixon – The King’s Daughter
The bestselling, comprehensive, and carefully researched guide to the ins-and-outs of the American class system with a detailed look at the defining factors of each group, from customs to fashion to housing. Based on careful research and told with grace and wit, Paul Fessell shows how everything people within American society do, say, and own reflects their social status. Detailing the lifestyles of each class, from the way they dress and where they live to their education and hobbies, Class is sure to entertain, enlighten, and occasionally enrage readers as they identify their own place in society and see how the other half lives.
What is ‘the self’?
In Medieval times, people believed that individuals had a predetermined life path. You could learn your destiny by connecting with God. Some modern people still think in these terms.
LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE
Academics who study different cultures have come up with various ways of taxonomising those cultures. Some of those grand theories are pretty well-known among laypeople. I’m familiar with the axes of individuality, collectivism, e.g. family oriented vs individualistic. You also get hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.
Recently I listened to cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand talk about her theory of ‘loose’ vs ‘tight’ societies on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.
This spectrum refers specifically to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. We don’t often recognise the rules that are all around us until someone breaks them.
Are you living in a tight or in a loose society?
- Would you avoid crossing the street when the little flashing man remains red, even if there are no cars coming?
- Are you fined for littering, chewing gum or for leaving dog poo on the street?
- Are you currently dressed in almost identical clothing to the people around you?
- Do the city clocks each display the same time?
If so, you’re probably in a tight culture.
Gelfand tells us that the most successful societies tend to sit somewhere between loose and tight.
It’s not just societies we can describe as loose or tight, but each of us living within our society sits at a slightly different point along the spectrum. Situations also vary in tightness — a job interview is a ‘tighter’ situation whereas a party with friends is a ‘looser’ situation.
This metric is independent from other variables like economics and political leaning. Tightness tends to be positively correlated with collectivism but there are many tight, individualistic societies e.g. Switzerland. Brazil is the inverse — they value family but have looser norms.
Looser cultures have more tolerance for difference. This includes tolerance for people of different races and religions. Looser cultures are more open to change, more creative and also have more crime.
Tight cultures are more ethnocentric, have more cultural inertia and less creativity.
EXAMPLES OF LOOSER SOCIETIES/contexts
- Oregon, USA
- New York, USA
- New Zealand
- Public parks (tighter in Pakistan than in the USA)
- Rural areas in China
EXAMPLES OF TIGHTER SOCIETIES/contexts
- Alabama, USA
- North Carolina, USA (honour cultures tend to be pretty tight)
- Singapore (known as the ‘fine country’ — you can get fined for chewing gum)
- Saudi Arabia
- Job interviews
- The military
- Urban areas in China
Why do some countries evolve tighter? It depends on how much threat that culture has endured historically, whether from chronic natural disasters (Japan) or from war, or from population density. Singapore is so tight to allow so many people to live together. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive. However, diversity can override population density when it comes to settling at a point on this continuum. New York is also densely populated but unlike Singapore is loose. Mobility is another lever towards looseness.
Freedom to break rules is not just a geographical thing — it’s also a socio-economic thing. Within the same societies, richer people tend to value individuality while poorer people tend to value conforming to social rules. This is because when rich people break rules, the rule breaking itself is interpreted differently, with far more leniency.
NEW ZEALAND VS JAPAN
I love Gelfand’s theory of culture — it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in New Zealand, rarely leaving New Zealand until the age of 17 when I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan. The hardest thing to adapt to was the tightness of Japanese society. I found the differences fascinating:
- In New Zealand no one cared if we walked down the street eating a sandwich. In Japan however we were given strict instructions not to eat in public. An exchange student had the previous year got into big trouble for eating bread at the school train station.
- In New Zealand I had worn mufti (free choice) clothing in senior high school. In Japan, my host mother requested I avoid wearing my very comfortable, bright red corduroy trousers because ‘people would talk’. In New Zealand, if you’re feeling a bit chilly you put on long sleeves and long pants. In Japan, there are set days when you are supposed to switch from summer to winter clothing and vice versa.
- In New Zealand, small talk has no particular script. There are certain safe topics, such as the weather, but there is not the stock of ‘set phrases’ that has evolved in Japanese. When you write a letter in Japanese, it is mandatory to open with a poetic phrase about the weather. It is also mandatory to include two pieces of paper in the envelope even if you’ve only written on one.
I could list many, many more examples of the differences between New Zealand and Japan’s social norms. Overall, I think the extremely circumscribed lifestyle required of Japanese people is what ultimately sent me back to live the rest of my adult life in the West. Fascinating as these differences are, I prefer living in a looser society long term. These days I live in Australia, which I imagine is similar to New Zealand, leaning loose.
Tight and loose are dynamic constructs. It’s possible that after the mass shooting incident in Christchurch recently that my hometown has veered a little tighter than before.
Tight/looseness is a concept Gelfand prefers to reserve for describing societies rather than individuals because the terminology can get confusing once we start using the same word to describe both. (That’s what happened to the word ‘collectivist’, which is applied to both societies and to individuals.) When describing individuals, be mindful of an important distinction — we’re referring to mindsets rather than ‘personalities’.
Psychologists can do experiments that make people tighten up — all we need is a perceived threat and we tighten up. However, it takes a lot longer for tight mindsets to loosen up. Psychologists are currently trying to work out a way of loosening up a society that has become too tight to allow for adaptability.
SOCIAL NORMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”Morrissey
During her interview with Carroll, Gelfand mentions picture books, which got me thinking about whether picture books, as a corpus, swing loose or swing tight.
Elmer is the story of a patchwork coloured elephant. Do you remember how Elmer ends? Hint: The story does not end with Elmer painting himself grey in order to fit in.
Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.
(Elmer’s Special Day has since been turned into an app, if you happen to own an Apple touch device.)
Other examples of picture books in which the reader is encouraged to break the mould:
- Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
- Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
- Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch
- Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
- Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
- Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds
- A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
Carla’s lunch box is filled with odd delights like the Olive, Pickle and Green Bean Sandwich, the Banana-Cottage-Cheese Delight, and the unforgettable Chopped Liver, Potato Chips, and Cucumber Combo. To Carla, they are delicious and creative lunches, but her teasing classmates are unconvinced and abandon her at the lunch table to eat her bizarre sandwiches alone. One day, however, tables turn when Buster—the worst tease of all—forgets his lunch on the day of the picnic and Carla thoughtfully offers him her extra sandwich. Her own spirited nature helps Carla teach her classmates that “unusual” can actually be good.
Avocado is feeling just fine in the fruit and veg aisle at the supermarket – until a young customer asks a difficult question: “Is an avocado a fruit or a vegetable?” Avocado doesn’t know the answer either – and the question won’t seem to go away!A brilliantly funny book about identity and being confident in your own skin – featuring the world’s most popular superfood!
Penguins aren’t the only animals with problems. . . . A second hilarious collaboration from picture-book superstars Lane Smith and Jory John!
Can you guess what’s making this giraffe self-conscious? Could it be . . . HIS ENORMOUS NECK Yes, it’s exactly that–how on earth did you figure it out?
Edward the giraffe can’t understand why his neck is as long and bendy and, well, ridiculous as it is. No other animal has a neck this absurd. He’s tried disguising it, dressing it up, strategically hiding it behind bushes–honestly, anything you can think of, he’s tried. Just when Edward has exhausted his neck-hiding options and is about to throw in the towel, a turtle swoops in (well, ambles in, very slowly) and helps him understand that his neck has a purpose, and looks excellent in a bow tie.
Little Nic’s Big Day by Nic Naitanui and Fatima Anaya
“Nic Nat” is an AFL player (Australian Football). This story is conveys the idea that everyone can be different and still be friends. In the story there is a boy who loves to dance ballet.
A heart-warming celebration of all the wonderful ways kids are truly themselves.
Wake up, little Nic. It’s your very first day!
Your school clothes are ready. Let’s get on our way.
Mum, I’m not sure. I’m a little bit wary.
Will I make friends? Will it be scary?
Nic is nervous about his first day … but with the help of his mum and a whole class of new friends, it might just be the best day ever.
‘I wrote this for tots, teens and all human beings. Let’s embrace our differences and celebrate our diversity!’ – Nic Naitanui
Gelfand uses American muppet characters to illustrate various loose vs. tight personalities, with Bert (or Ernie and Bert) at the tight end, Animal at the loose end.
Bert doesn’t even want to play a simple guessing game. Animal, on the other hand, performs Bohemian Rhapsody on stage and doesn’t bother getting the words right.
In 1990s Japan, it’s telling of the tightness that there was a TV game show in which the contestants had to perform a pop song from memory without getting a single word wrong.
The following is a topic for someone’s PhD, but I put it to you that people who write for children and who are drawn to children’s publishing tend to swing loose, compared to their surrounding culture. The big publishing houses in America cluster in New York, which swings loose. If they were clustered in Alabama, we’d probably see children’s books swing slightly tighter.
Instead of looking at the geographical spread of publishing houses, safer to look at the stories themselves. What is the dominant ideology regarding following the rules? Gelfand has noticed many picture books place emphasis on Being Yourself. But who, exactly, has the luxury of being themselves?
In tight cultures such as Japan, children are taught to be keen self-monitors, to look at their own actions and be aware of how they are fitting in. Structure and conformity is prioritised in these societies.
In loose cultures, children (and adults alike) need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. In loose cultures we are going to encounter a lot of unexpected behaviours and weird situations. Picture books such as those listed above seem to have a message which teaches children to be comfortable with ‘weird situations’. To encounter a patchwork elephant is the ultimate weird situation, picked as metaphor for looseness by David McKee.
MIGHT SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT A CHILD’S RESPONSE TO A PICTURE BOOK?
Socio-economic difference in regards to social norms can be seen in children by age three. Working class parents teach their children that rules are important. Upper class kids are more likely to laugh when puppets in a lab break the rules.
I refer you now to the great corpus of carnivalesque children’s books. With Gelfand’s research in mind, might carnivalesque stories be decidedly middle class?
SOCIAL NORMS AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
The ideology of looseness = good persists right through the age-range of children’s books, intensifying in young adult literature. Below is a rare critique of this ideology, by someone who lives in New York (a loose city), but whose biography shows was educated at a private girls’ college in Pennsylvania (possibly tight):
“Not like the other kids” is a dangerous ideology, and it’s one that constantly gets peddled, especially to the kinds of teens who are choosing to spend their free time reading YA novels. Out of all the toxic ideas I believed as a teenager, this is probably the one that I’m still struggling the most to get away from. And it’s not one I’m happy to see repeated in literature, or in the communities discussing literature.
But the protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist if they were just like all the other kids. Would they?YA Subscription
On the Mindscape podcast interview, Sean Carroll quips that ‘all those stories about Hollywood rich kids who refuse to follow the rules are just the truth’.
Gelfand responds that the socioeconomic-looseness relationship is, like many things, curvilinear.
In The Giver, Lois Lowry uses the motif of a mirror (and a character’s lack of interest in it) to signal that the individual is less important than the group.
Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.The Giver
Trained in the magical art of shadow-weaving, sixteen-year-old Suzume is able to recreate herself in any form – a fabulous gift for a girl desperate to escape her past.
But who is she really? Is she a girl of noble birth living under the tyranny of her mother’s new husband, Lord Terayama, or a lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama’s kitchens, or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands?
Whatever her true identity, Suzume is destined to capture the heart of a prince – and determined to use his power to destroy Terayama. And nothing will stop her, not even love.
FURTHER READING ON SOCIAL NORMS
- Michelle Gelfand’s book is called Rule Makers, Rule Breakers.
- Gelfand has a tight-loose mindset quiz that you can take on her website. (As would be expected for someone who grew up in New Zealand and later experienced Japan, I scored ‘moderately loose’.)
More on some of the books listed above…
PEARL BARLEY AND CHARLIE PARSLEY BY AARON BLABEY
Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.
SUNDAY CHUTNEY BY AARON BLABEY
This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.
Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.
Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)
Here is a great interview with Aaron Blabey.
MILO ARMADILLO BY JAN FEARNLEY
A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.
I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.
Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.
The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.
WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR WORLD? BY BOB GILL
This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.
I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.
(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)
NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED BY MO WILLEMS
I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.
In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.
LUKE’S WAY OF LOOKING BY NADIA WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATED BY MATT OTTLEY
Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.
One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.
Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.
Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.
GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE BY GILES ANDREAE ILLUSTRATED BY GUY PARKER-REES
The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.
This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.
LA COSA PIU IMPORTANTE BY ANTONELLA ABBATIELLO
The most important thing for the rabbit is having long ears, but the giraffe doesn’t agree: it is better to have a long neck to reach the most supple leaves on the top of the trees, isn’t it? That’s how a passionate discussion among the animals of the forest starts, during which each one of them celebrates their own main feature as the best that one could have.
Meanwhile the pictures consequently modify the appearance of the participating animals bestowing the praised feature to each of them. It is only thanks to a wise owl that the animals are persuaded to stop their crazy game of imagining themselves all the same, and each one finally starts to feel important for their own peculiarities. … [This book] represents an invitation to look at diversity as a richness.The World Through Picture Books
ZOMBIES DON’T EAT VEGGIES!
A parent/child inversion in which the child wishes to eat vegetables while the parents (who are zombies) hate them.
Mo Romero is a zombie who loves nothing more than growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. Tomatoes? Tantalizing. Peppers? Pure perfection! The problem? Mo’s parents insist that their niño eat only zombie cuisine, like arm-panadas and finger foods. They tell Mo over and over that zombies don’t eat veggies. But Mo can’t imagine a lifetime of just eating zombie food and giving up his veggies. As he questions his own zombie identity, Mo tries his best to convince his parents to give peas a chance.MARKETING COPY
The child eventually ‘comes out’ as being different (a veggie eater), and feels like an LGBTQ metaphor which I wasn’t expecting. Maybe we’re supposed to read it as coming out as a vegan? I guess readers will apply their own interpretation to this supernatural plot. The message? It’s okay to be who you are. No matter what, your family will accept you.
This isn’t the same advice given to teens, of course, who are well advised to do whatever they need to do in order to keep safe before they can escape the many bigoted families who are still in plentiful supply.
SPORK BY KYO MACLEAR AND ISABELLE ARSENAULT
Picture books as listed above teach children ‘You are fine the way you are’. Closely related: the instruction to just be yourself. Underlying this message is the ideology that there is such a thing as the One True Self.
Is there such a thing? And even if there is, might these ideas stop being useful after a certain age? This notion is very Western.
I loved Sean Carroll’s interview with Joseph Heinrich at the Mindscape podcast. They talked about the WEIRDness of the West. (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.) The discussion drove home to me just how Western my readings of narrative is. They put into words a few ideas I’ve been nascently interested in myself, such as how in the West, we’re obsessed with the notion of the ‘one true self’. To behave differently in different situations is considered two-faced (in a bad way), but in non Western cultures, this is considered necessary. In tentpole stories from the West (ie. Hollywood), a ‘happy’ outcome is for a character to learn who they ‘really are’, as if the ‘one true self’ is even a thing.
A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic wordYiyun Li, Chinese born American writer who emigrated to America age 23
Main aspects of a WEIRD person:
- WEIRD people are individualistic rather than relational, focusing on individuals’ attributes and aspirations instead of thinking about relationships between people (leading to overconfidence and a tendency to self-enhance rather than to humility). A lot of emphasis is on creating a unique, high-value individual self. This kind of thinking pushes us into going to the gym and reading interesting books.
- WEIRD cultures are much more interested in guilt. (If you don’t do well, it’s clearly your own fault.)
- Analytic rather than holistic thinking. Looking for categories, assigning properties rather than looking at background relationships in context.
- A concern with impartial principles over the kind of in-group loyalty and social relationships that govern so much social structure.
- WEIRD people are more future-oriented, or more willing to extend their selfhood to other places and times and act in a way that benefits the future self. (Deferring gratification is a Protestant thing.)
- On the topic of time, WEIRD people think about time in absolute sense. Many of us learned to read time on a clock with numbers, where the hand moves around the clock. That’s actually a number line, a linear number line that’s been wrapped around in a circle.
- WEIRD people think that there is virtue in being the same when acting with different sets of people, whereas non-WEIRD societies take for granted we would act differently in different circumstances. Non-WEIRD people have classifactory relationships, evident in customs such as calling someone ‘uncle’ who is not your uncle. This reminds you to treat this guy as you’d treat an uncle, rather than as you’d treat a same-age friend. WEIRD cultures valorise the ‘single unified self’ that behaves the same way to all different people in all different circumstances. There is popular discourse about finding your true self. “It’s somewhere in there. If I can just find it, I’ll be happy.” In contrast, non-WEIRD cultures consider it wise and sensible to not always present the same face in a different situation.
Act Like Someone Else
In an interview on the Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams [milkshake duck], dismisses the common advice to ‘just be yourself’ whenever you’re faced with a difficult situation in which you don’t feel confident. Instead, he advises to act like someone else. He argues that everyone acts all the time, according to how they think they are expected to perform.
- What do you think of this advice?
- Do you think you have an ‘essential self’?
- If so, when does this essential self come out? Are some people better at acting parts than others?
- How do you think you are at acting the role that is expected of you? Do you think that people who can act the part end up doing better overall than those who can’t/don’t?
- Does the expectation to act different parts according to circumstance vary from culture to culture?
We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works so we embrace it.All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin, page 2
The Problem With Expressive Individualism
In research on American high schools, one finds the idea that American schools are intertwined with notions of “expressive individualism” – the idea that human beings should find out and be true to who they really are on the inside. Might this also contribute to school shootings?
Suburban high schools, in particular, are seen by the middle class as places to accomplish expressive projects. Sociologist Robert Bulman points out, for example, how Hollywood films set in suburban settings focus on student journeys of self-discovery, while urban school films focus on heroic teachers and academic achievement. In the same vein, many suburban school shooters see what they are doing as acts of self-expression.
Reading stories of school shootings, one often finds moments in which the shooters claim that something inside, whether hatred or frustration, needed to find expression. An example of this is the manifesto left by Luke Woodham, who shot two students in 1997. “I am not spoiled or lazy,” he wrote, “for murder is not weak or slow-witted, murder is gutsy and daring.” The school became the place where Woodham thought he could express the gutsy and daring person he found on the inside.Why security measures won’t stop school shootings
Much of the world’s most popular memoir and fiction — from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — centers on the idea that we might go out into the unknown and come back having found our singular, definitive self. Motivational speakers build brands on that idea.Cody Delistraty
Hollywood films share ideologies in common with children’s stories. Individuality as prized in humans is one example:
Parents and schools should place great emphasis on the idea that it is all right to be different. Racism and all the other ‘isms’ grow from primitive tribalism, the instinctive hostility against those of another tribe, race, religion, nationality, class or whatever. You are a lucky child if your parents taught you to accept diversity.Roger Ebert
- 10 Reasons Why Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit The Earth, from io9
- How Rare Are Your Physical Traits? (a YouTube video)
- Philosopher John Locke on personal identity. Locke once said that if you took a Prince’s memories and implanted them into the brain of a cobbler, the cobbler would be the Prince, because memory is what makes the person.
On Reddit/funny someone posted this picture:
Reddit users thought immediately of Gotye’s music video for Somebody That I Used To Know.
But the first thing I thought of was Elmer the elephant:
Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don’t stand out–under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes–for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.
But the delicate scales of popularity suddenly shift, and Stargirl is shunned for everything that makes her different. Somewhere in the midst of Stargirl’s arrival and rise and fall, normal Leo Borlock has tumbled into love with her.
In a celebration of nonconformity, Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity–and the thrill and inspiration of first love.
Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.
A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.
Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.
THE MAGICAL SETTING OF BRAVE
I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.@LizzRoinett, Twitter video
A fantasy medieval Scotland. This is ancient Scotland in the same way Princess Mononoke is ancient Japan — it’s a vision of the past according to a contemporary audience, when we imagine the world really was ruled by magic. In both Brave and in Princess Mononoke, you’ll find magical spirits in the woods. Here they are known as ‘wisps’ and they play a critical role in the plot, leading Merida first into the witch’s cottage, next on her journey of discovery as she finds out what happened to that guy who asked the witch for strength. (He turned into a bear and stayed like it, upping the stakes for the mother.)
I think this part aspect hits on why I found Brave lacking as a satisfying story: First the audience is told that we must believe in magic. I have an issue with this general ideology. Merida’s father says he doesn’t believe in magic. He is proven wrong as the audience is shown the wisps on screen. “Well he should because it’s true,” says Merida, our viewpoint character. Of course, she means it’s true within the world of this particular story. But I feel we have a problem with magical thinking across contemporary society, and it bothers me when a sympathetic viewpoint character in a story basically tells the audience that you’re fool for not believing in magic. There are ways of writing magic into stories which don’t chastise anyone for failing to trust and believe. I prefer those ones.
That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?
Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.
Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.
“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.
I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.
This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.
Merida’s anagnorisis — that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.
STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.
Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”
Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.
When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.Brenda Chapman, after her firing
It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.
Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.Tharini Viswanath
Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.
Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:
In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:
These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Possible reasons suggested by Myers:
- The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
- Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.
I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.
Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:
While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.
1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES
Oedipal narratives are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother.
They tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.
- Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
- Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
- My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.
There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.
2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother.
The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.
- Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
- Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume
3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories.
In anti-Freudian narratives, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother.
In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as: nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.
So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:
- Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
- Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
- Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
- Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
- Does the mother undergo her own arc?
BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE
The story in a nutshell:
Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.Tharini Viswanath
This is not a story in which a repressed female character with no voice learns to discover her voice. Merida knows her mind from the beginning of the story, which is exactly the thing that makes Brave a slightly different take on the Female Maturity Formula:
Merida … clearly has a voice early in the film. And by standing up to her parents and refusing to go through with the betrothal, it does seem as if she has both agency and an established subject position as a headstrong tomboy. She uses her mother’s language – ‘That’s what you’ve been preparing me for’ – against her, to establish her own position on the issue. Merida represents the capacity to act independently of social restraint: her vehemence at the idea of marriage does, in a way, make the viewer question dominant social ideologies, especially as Merida opposes the marriage plot trope, where Disney Princesses before her rarely question the concept of falling in love and/or getting married. (As a matter of fact, the heteronormative romance between princesses and young men they hardly know drives the plot of almost every Disney film.Tharini Viswanath
Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.
Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.
‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.Merida in a voiceover
Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.
Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.
The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.
As I mentioned above, Merida’s plan is pretty terrible. Her initial plan works.
“I’ll put a spell on my mother and then she won’t make me get married.” In other words, I’ll change my mother rather than sacrifice my own bodily autonomy. After that her plan is to follow the magic.
The most irritating thing about this movie — to me — is the elongated male big struggle scene going on at the castle all the while Merida and her mother are on this emotional journey, into the subconscious symbolised by the forest. There’s a real ‘boys will be boys’ ideology going on here. Of course men fight each other, that’s what men do… Isn’t it funny watching them go at it, though?
Merida herself encounters a variety of big struggle scenes, escalating in stakes:
- Fights with her mother about being ladylike, in a montage sequence
- Fights with her mother at the dinner table about ladylike amounts of food
- Fights with her mother about getting married
- Faces the witch in the forest, who seems amiable but turns out to be an opponent later — a false ally opponent, who in the end turns out to have done the right thing for Merida. Good-bad-good witch.
- The mother turns into a bear. This is an annoying turn of events because she could have told her father what had happened and what she’d done. He had the power to stop the men marauding the bear, were they to find her. Instead, Merida confides to her three little brothers, and none of them thought to tell the father, either. Presumably this is because the father is pretty useless. Hence, unsatisfying.
- In the forest, Bear Elinor fights the baser nature of herself while Merida helps her through it.
- After Merida’s big speech, in which she and Elinor have part of their anagnorisis, the story should really be over now, but no. The writers didn’t have a movie-length amount of material, so what did they do? Wrote another elongated rough n’ tumble big struggle scene, centring on the men marauding around the castle after the bear. The stakes are ostensibly very high — if they catch Elinor they will kill her. But this entire sequence feels like a carnivalesque insertion into a story which started off as a mythic journey, and I’m not sure it works to pad a mythic story out with carnivalesque hi-jinx. It feels like… padding.
Here’s a typical reaction from one reviewer:
The film takes an odd turn and seems to lose momentum temporarily once the spell is cast.Reelmama
What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.
I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the mother-daughter relationship?
One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.Tharini Viswanath
BRAVE AND THE STORYTELLING ROLE OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION
Why does Elinor transmogrify into a bear? Why indeed? It’s a little scary for the youngest viewers. My daughter was scared by this scene when she saw it in 2012, though the rest of the story is set in a kind of forest utopia.
First there’s the story reason for why she turns into a bear:
The fact that Elinor gets turned into a bear comes as no surprise: the witch’s cottage Merida stumbles upon is full of bear carvings. On a superficial level, the viewer is expected to read the figure of the bear as being synonymous with the body: the bear is unruly, large, disruptive, and in need of direction, and Mor’du, the demon bear, supports this description.Tharini Viswanath
Dig a bit deeper though, and transmogrification itself seems to symbolise the changing state of the female body, especially as she becomes a mother:
As a woman, Elinor signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, and as a bear she is able to restrict the shaping, manipulation and stereotyping of the female body. […] Reduced to her body, the once articulate Elinor is defined by her animalistic needs. Elinor-asbear embodies monstrous motherhood. She is physically overwhelming, monstrous in shape and size, and dominates space and situation; in short, she is too large and too powerful to ignore.Tharini Viswanath
Importantly, only Merida is able to see that the bear is her mother:
[A]nd with good reason: Elinor’s inability to control her fertility (Merida’s three younger brothers eat some of the abject cake and turn into bears as well) and repress her sexuality make her ‘monstrous’ in male eyes.Tharini Viswanath
Transmogrification demonstrates the centrality and importance of language, and of communication in general, because if you won’t listen to each other, you might as well be unable to communicate:
Until Elinor transforms into a bear, the two women talk past each other, and may be speaking two languages as different as English and Bear. As McCallum notes, ‘meanings are always, to some extent, culturally constructed, and the learning of another language entails learning the cultural codes through which a linguistic community represents and makes sense of the world’. Both Elinor and Merida need to learn to speak each other’s ‘language’ in order to communicate, a task they are able to achieve only when faced with dire consequences. Arguably, this language difference is also one of intergenerationality.Tharini Viswanath
Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.
Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.
Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.
Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:
Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.Tharini Viswanath
By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.
My questions revisited:
- Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
- Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
- Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
- Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
- Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.
I’ve written much more about how Brave is not a successful subversion of gender tropes in this post.
Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ILLNESS
When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.
Continue reading “Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature”
The Secret Garden […] presents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature