Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor

a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Continue reading “Unreliable Narration In Storytelling”

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy

Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid cover

Television tie-ins, film versions and highly illustrated diaries of the Wimpy Kid ilk are all consumed in abundance. Such books should not be despised as merely unchallenging, or even pernicious (as Enid Blyton once was by disapproving parents and teachers); welcoming, accessible work, full of deftly harnessed silliness and engaging illus­tration, plays a critical role in the reader’s deve­lopment, teaching by stealth the power of a punchline or a single phrase or word, and makes the act of reading pleasurable in a way that ­data-driven literacy objectives often do not. Predictable formulae, comforting, unchallenging narrative arcs and repeated re-reading allow a child to build a solid foundation of enjoyment from which he or she can go far.

Imogen Russell Williams

THE AUDIENCE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

By this point in his career, Kinney knows his audience really well.

“Kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand them. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them.”

“You can’t really write for kids or you might write down to kids.”

ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN

Continue reading “Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy”

Liars In Storytelling

secret-keeping pig the fibber

Liars are everywhere in stories. Stories themselves can be considered giant lies (which tell a deeper truth). The trope of the mask is a part of all this. Certain genres demand a ‘mask’, or, lying.

That’s because entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
  11. Cinema in general

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2

THE TRUTH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘Self-Revelation‘ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING

LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.

This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.

teenage girls in narrative are often portrayed as liars

LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.

In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.

Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.

The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.

In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.

 

LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The hero has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.

 

LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.

In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.

Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.

Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.

 

LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR

It comes from Jane Austen:

The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.

The Guardian

Secret-Keeping And Lies In Children’s Literature

Many books for children explore the ideas of truth, lies and secret-keeping. Young characters commonly keep secrets from adults. Often (especially in portal fantasy) it’s because the adults simply wouldn’t believe the children (that there’s a world on the other side of the wardrobe; that there’s a creature who grants wishes that last for a day). This is a ‘plot level’ secret, and serves to keep adults out of the story. That’s one of the main challenges for children’s authors — keeping adults from solving all the kids’ problems.

In other stories, secrets are thematically and didactically explored.

It’s an accepted fact in child development that humans are not born liars. We do not have the capacity to lie until we have developed theory of mind. Once we have learned to lie, we usually do it badly. Gradually, over the course of childhood, we learn that — even if the rule books say differently — lying is at times necessary. There is good lying and bad lying, or at least, lying that will get you into trouble and lying that will get you out of trouble.

This is complicated stuff. It’s no wonder so many of the great works of children’s literature touch upon it. Some stories are all about the lying.

A Few Case Studies

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Tom’s Aunt and Uncle tell him there is nothing in the yard except for a small area of pavement and some rubbish bins, so when Tom finds a vast, rich fantasy world after opening the back door at midnight, he is incensed that he was lied to. Tom already has a keen sense of right and wrong. When he has his Aunt and Uncle on about it, they have no idea what he’s talking about. When Tom shows them the other world it is no longer there.

In this way, Tom’s sense of reality, as well as his black and white sense of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, is challenged. Tom’s Aunt and Uncle aren’t lying, even though they can’t see the truth right in front of them, because that is just not their reality.

The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A similar event occurs in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, when Lucy takes the other Pevensie children back to the wardrobe only to find the back has closed up. Lucy is heavily penalised for lying until it is proven otherwise. Edmond pays the greatest price for the greatest lie — knowing the world of Narnia exists without reporting the truth of it to Susan and Peter, redeeming Lucy in their eyes.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Dark Materials trilogy is all about shades of grey over black and white. She is smart and spirited and plucky and at times is a quick thinker but she is also naive and is still learning who to trust with the truth. Before she runs away from Mrs Coulter she is summoned by a man called Lord Boreal. He asks her questions.

“And is Mrs Coulter keeping you busy? What is she teaching you?”

Because Lyra was feeling rebellious and uneasy, she didn’t answer this patronizing question with the truth, or with one of her usual flights of fancy. Instead she said, “I’m learning about Rusakov Particles, and about the Oblation Board.”

The man presses her to tell him what she knows about that.

“Did Mrs Coulter show you a picture like [a photogram where you can see Dust]?”

Lyra hesitated, for this was not lying but something else, and she wasn’t practised at it.

As you can see, Pullman makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill lying and something deeper and unnamed — I’ll call it Preserving The Truth.

Lyra gets more worldly over the course of the story, as all main characters must in myth-structured stories. She naturally learns how to lie, sometimes to comic effect and sometimes because it is a matter of life and death.

After Lyra runs away she is approached by another suspicious man who tries to spike her coffee. To the delight of the reader, Lyra has already told the man that her name is “Alice” and that her father is “a murderer”.

“I told you, he’s a murderer. It’s his profession. He’s doing a job tonight. I got his clean clothes in here, ’cause he’s usually all covered in blood when he’s finished a job.”

“Ah! You’re joking.”

“I en’t.”

Further Examples of Secret-keeping In Children’s Stories

  1. Secrets are dangerous and should be shared with a trusted individual such as a parent, teacher or friend. This is a non-controversial message about secrets and a safe one to put in a book. No parent likes to think that their young child is keeping secrets from us. Parents are terrified of grooming and we no longer automatically trust teachers, coaches and bus-drivers. We like to think our children will tell us everything. Gatekeepers of children’s books therefore like books with this message.
  2. However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
  3. Even though it’s best to share your own secrets with friends, your friends‘ secrets should never be shared with others even if you feel you yourself need psychological support. Once you pass on a ‘secret’, it’s no longer a secret.
  4. Among groups of friends, secrets are swapped (even complete fabrications) as a mode of toxic bonding. Mean Girls features a Burn Book, for example, started by Regina George for two reasons: First it establishes a social hierarchy with herself at the top and second it bonds a small group of insiders together, using shared ‘knowledge’ as currency. People (mostly female characters) who use secrets and lies as social currency deserve every horrible thing that comes to them, and readers should never imitate this behaviour in real life. These stories exist to show readers that it happens, why it happens, and asks them to criticize the practice. There is also that wish-fulfilment of retribution in Mean Girls, when Regina George finds she’s met her match in the down-to-earth newcomer whose social gullibility turns out to be her strength. Machiavelli agreed that lies always hurt the teller, and Aesop agreed.
  5. Is lying by omission to help someone else a good secret or a bad secret? Not all secrets are the same. They come in different colours — black, white and grey. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk does a good job of exploring this line of thought. The Case For Teaching Kids To Lie, Just Like Adults, from Fatherly.
  6. If you try to keep some horrible deed secret then get caught out, don’t deflect blame. Lying for your own gain and only your own gain means you deserve retribution. Pig The Fibber by Aaron Blabey is a humorous picture book example of this message.
  7. If you have suicidal thoughts or have been abused then you should never, ever keep that secret. That’s the message of 13 Reasons Why. The TV adaptation comes with messages about the existence of Lifeline, a mental health helpline.
  8. Perhaps the most famous liar in children’s literature is Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie. The image of a growing nose has entered the public consciousness and idiomatic language, regardless of whether we’ve ever read the story or not. The messages about lying are complex in this classic. Pinocchio is not the only liar. Gepetto sells his winter coat (which he needs) in order to buy Pinocchio a school book but he tells Pinocchio the coat was too hot anyway. Presumably this lie is okay, because it’s a ‘white lie’, designed to avoid a child feeling bad and help him in the noble goal of getting an education. For more on lying in Pinocchio, see here: “Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous.”
  9. While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children. 
  10. Beware ‘tricky’ adults. An example of a nasty-nice stranger who reels a child in with lies is the White Witch, who reels him in with Turkish delight than tells him to keep a secret. The secret-keeping leads to Edmond being ostricised by his family when they find out he’s been lying about the existence of Narnia. The message in C.S. Lewis’s Christian works is that lying is always bad and will always be found out. We are often told that lies will always be outed. This stems from the monotheistic view of the omniscient eye watching our every move, reinforced by the idea that all our bad deeds will be judged upon our death. But not everyone holds these views. Do lies really always come out? Is there some law of ‘physics’ which makes that happen? Or perhaps this is far, far from reality — many secrets and lies die everyday around the world, along with the people who’ve been keeping them. And were they right to keep them?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Notion of The Living Truth

Bonhoeffer argues that it is naive and misleading, perhaps even dangerous to suppose that the literal truth always or even typically conveys what we mean when we talk about telling the truth. Of course we often tell a straightforward lie, and for morally blameworthy reasons. But we also often make statements that are not literally true—that are in fact literal lies—while conveying a deeper truth that an honest statement of the facts could not communicate. So, for example, if Geppetto told Pinocchio, “I sold my coat in order to buy you a schoolbook,” he would be speaking the literal truth, but his meaning might well be (or be understood by Pinocchio as) “Look what sacrifices I make for you!” By telling Pinocchio that he sold his coat because it was too hot—a lie—he communicates to Pinocchio something like “My coat doesn’t really matter to me, and your schoolbook does, and I don’t want you to feel bad about the fact that I sold my coat.” This is a very nice example of what Bonhoeffer means by the living truth, the more important meanings in communication that may not, and sometimes cannot, be conveyed by strict reportage. So many of the stories we tell our children are of this kind—Santa Claus is the obvious example—and we should ask ourselves, as parents and also as lovers: How many stories might my child, or my boyfriend, or my partner, or my mom be telling me, not in order to mislead me but rather to tell me something that, if said outright, might be misunderstood or cause me harm?

The New Yorker

Apart from Pinocchio, can you think of some children’s stories which play with the concept of ‘the living truth’?

At what age can (neurotypical) children understand this concept? For many autistic children, development is atypical when it comes to social lying. When you live with an autistic child you realise the extent to which everyday communication runs on secrets, lies, omissions and short-cuts as social niceties. Autistic readers in particular can benefit hugely from children’s literature which explores the full gamut of ideologies around secret-keeping and lying.

What does the field of psychology tell us about the toll of secret-keeping?

Traditionally, scientists have studied secrecy as a social act, as the wilful hiding of information from others. According to this view, it’s the suppression of the secret—the keeping it in, the self-monitoring, and the tactical contortions that go with it—that exact a cost on the keeper. But Slepian argues that secrets cause suffering in other ways, too. Yes, there are occasions when you have to actively steer a conversation away from the rocks, like when you’re attempting to disguise from your office mates the fact that you’re looking for another job. But most of the time you’re by yourself with your secret, thinking about the many ways in which it could be discovered or you might accidentally let it slip. […]

It is established that keeping a secret can take a toll:

Secrecy, as they see it, is less an activity than a state of being. We don’t keep secrets; we have them. And what’s harmful about a secret isn’t the content so much as the mind’s need to keep revisiting it and turning it over—not the murder itself but the incessant beating of the telltale heart. […]

However, if the secret-keeper is able to avoid ‘dwelling’ on it — if the secret isn’t actually bothering them — well, no problem? We shouldn’t assume that keeping secrets is always going to be harmful for the keeper. It depends on the secret and on the person:

By a margin of two-to-one or more, people dwelled on their secrets on their own time far more than in social situations. And the dwelling, more than the concealing, hurt their sense of well-being. By constantly chewing over a secret, Slepian suggested, people remind themselves of their own deceptiveness; they feel “inauthentic, disingenuous.” […]

Other people, or the same people in different situations, might be better off sharing secrets to avoid letting it harm their sense of integrity. This may apply in particular to sharing with others who we really are. For example, living one’s whole life concealing sexual orientation/identity is going to take a very real emotional toll on a person:

Secrets are largely solitary creatures and can be tamed with company. “Talking about it with another person will really go a long way,” he said. Melissa Ferguson, the Cornell psychologist who studied the cognitive and physical effects of concealing one’s sexual orientation, added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the costs of social secrets.

The New Yorker 

On the other hand, for many young gay and transgender people around the world, coming out to their families and communities is more physically dangerous than the secret-keeping is emotionally dangerous. In which case, what is the answer for those readers looking for similar lives within books? Dan Savage, well-known gay sex columnist, often advises young people from bigoted communities be very careful about coming out, as it can lead to loss of educational opportunities, homelessness and physical harm. The time for coming out can occasionally be postponed a few years.

Alongside all those stories about unburdening, stories about secret-keeping — at least for a while — are also needed.

FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING

1. The Tech of TV News Might Make It Easier for Pundits to Lie

2. Valuing Those Who Tell You The Bitter Truth

3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian

4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.

5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships

6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt

7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs

8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR

9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR

10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life

11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.

12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris

13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily

14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest

15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time

16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central

17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street

18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel

19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks

20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings

21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP

22. How can we make people more honest? a video.

23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism

There are many songs dedicated to the idea that women are (sexy) liars.

24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily

She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’

‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’

‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’

‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’

– from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea

25. Here’s What You Need To Know About Liars from Business Insider talks about two different kinds of liars: polite, everyday liars and ‘prolific’ liars. Given the dominant cultural narrative about how women lie (about being raped, about liking computer games, about liking sex etc.), I’d like to point out that men are statistically more likely to be prolific liars.

26. I love children who lie for no reason, by Elena Ferrante

Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant. After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.

The Kings Of Summer movie poster

 

GENRE BLEND OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’. Continue reading “Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)”

Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation happens rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on a woman’s life, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented in fiction. We need more of it. Girls going through adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.

Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.

Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context

Is it there but disguised?

Most ancient stories (up until recently, let’s be honest) have been recorded by men, and men are less likely to write about a uniquely female experience. But when it comes to sexual availability of women, then it does affect men. Take the symbolism of the mermaid versus the siren, for instance, which includes symbolism of menarche:

The single-tailed mermaid and the double-tailed species have not inspired distinct stands of stories. The little mermaid of the single fishtail strikes the onlooker as rather more virginal than the siren who exhibits herself by holding up her two tails on either side of her cleft; she has survived more vigorously in subsequent fairy tales and legends that tell of female initiation to love. The double tail suggests the onset of menarche and sexual maturity (Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for example, bleeds when her tail is divided into legs and she becomes a human),

— Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman

Menstruation In Middle Grade Literature

May 28 is World Menstruation Day, which aims to bring awareness to how lack of menstrual management products leads to further disadvantage in poor communities. At SBS Life, Vivienne Pearson asked: Where is the children’s fiction which includes periods? Most of the fiction she located for her daughter is from the 1960s and 70s, indicating there has been a disproportionate lack of stories which include menstruation published since then. This is especially disproportionate given the fact girls are reaching menarche younger and younger. It is now very common for girls to get their periods before age 11.

If you’re a wide reader of realistic middle grade fiction aimed mainly at girls, you can’ t help but notice the lack of 9, 10 and 11 year old characters who either have their period, whose friends have their period, or all the worrying and anxiety that tends to accompany the onset of getting a period.

Public Attitude Towards Menstruation In Fiction

Sharing an article about lack of menstruation in children’s literature, SBS Life asked on their Facebook page: Today is World Menstruation Hygiene Day. Young adult fiction is the perfect way to destigmatise periods, so why aren’t more authors writing about it?

Obviously, people who comment on Facebook articles are a self-selecting group. They are mainly Australian, Gen X and older, and I doubt many of them actually read the article. Of those who did, another large chunk of them have seen the Harry Potter movies (or heard about them), and that’s as close as they’ve come to children’s literature in 20 years. A number of commenters were bored or borderline outraged to find a story about menstruation in fiction  in their feed.

Please please dont! Things like that do not need representation in the fictional world

I want to pretend I don’t get my periods. Don’t need to watch it on TV 👎😣 no one likes them!

Comments showing disgust demonstrate the very need for the representation of menstruation in fiction. I’m never really impressed by Facebook commentary. But the overwhelmingly negative response to his article disappointed me, still.

Apart from simple disgust, negative responses  fell into three broad categories.

We don’t talk about poo, so don’t about periods.

No one uses the toilet either in movies.

Probably for the same reasons there aren’t many stories about bowel actions 💩!

Probably for the same reason authors don’t write about peeing and pooping.

for the same reason u don’t see charactors shitting or taking a leak

Because it doesn’t move the story forward, what a stupid question. Just to drive this home, why don’t history books have chapters devoted to Stalins bowel movements?

They don’t usually write about doing a poo, or any other bodily function either, unless it’s relevant to the story then those things are left out.

..and why don’t they ever take a crap or urinate? – because the Abrahamic religions have demonized all activity relating to the naughty bits 

In 24, nobody has a pee or poo during the whole 24hrs! 😇

Actually, children’s literature does talk about poo. Often. The entire subcateogry of ‘gross out’ literature exists to fill a very specific developmental period in childhood, during which time we all learn to normalise toileting. Fart and bum jokes or anything containing underpants is THE most reliable way to crack a joke in this age group, lasting from the early to middle primary school years. Scott Dikkers even confirmed that for me in his book on comedy writing — don’t pull out the bum joke too early because it’s the pinnacle.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not making an argument for periods to be included in the gross out genre. The history of misogyny, taboo, disgust and ostracisation is too strong and present for that treatment. Including period blood in gross out gags would further stigmatise the process. I am in full favour of more naturalistic and regular mention of periods in realistic, middle grade fiction especially.

Judy Moody is a nine-year-old third grader. It is odd that Judy Moody isn’t thinking about periods, isn’t touched by prepubescent hormones, and that none of her friends have either.

Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is the same age as Judy Moody. Clementine is curious and anxious and looks to the future, often getting things wrong. But not once has she given a thought to impending puberty.

I can say the exact same thing about other main characters in realistic middle grade fiction starring girls.

Part of this problem is down to a wider trend: The preference of ‘tomboy’ girls over ‘girly girls’ as main characters. Tomboyish, hyperactive girls comprise the majority of main characters of middle grade fiction, partly because they are so driven and interesting. (This switches around in YA, to the chagrin of agents looking for self-driven, sassy girls in their #mswl.) Girly-girls sit still and do as they’re told. They’re cast as opponents to our tomboy heroes. This in itself is problematic. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but didn’t mention the unintended consequence of complete erasure of periods in realistic middle grade fiction. Clementine is a wiry, prepubescent character and I’m not arguing that Clementine per se should have been about periods. I’m saying that’s all there is, for 8 year old girls who will start menstruating the following year. There’s nothing for them. It’s not even covered in schools until they know all about it through hands on experience.

Another possible issue: The adult gatekeepers of kidlit  think boys will be icked out by any talk of periods, and even if they’re not, boys may conclude books including menstruation are not for them. This halves your potential book sales, and means these books won’t be purchased by schools in class sets. In smaller markets, like that in Australia, if a book isn’t going to be purchased by schools it may not break even. (It’s worth saying at this point that John Marsden does mention menstruation a couple of times in his Tomorrow When The War Began series, which is purchased in bulk by high school English departments across Australia and New Zealand. The action plot and the large number of boys in the cast no doubt compensates.)

We don’t talk about masturbation, so don’t talk about periods.

If we follow your logic, why did Harry Potter never have a wet-dream? Be careful what you wish for.

I ejaculated in my pants today and would like to drop that into a conversation with someone.

There is also a need for wider portrayal of masturbation in MG fiction and up, especially when it comes to girls, but that is a different issue. We can do both. We can fix both.

Also, there’s plenty of talk about masturbation. Where has this person been? The issue is more that masturbation is not considered appropriate reading material at the age most people discover it in earnest, if they haven’t already. (Adolescence.) It is absolutely odd that we only talk about male masturbation, that masturbation is still seen as a sexual failing (see the advertising campaign about ‘tossing’)

The New Zealand version of this advertisement even shows a young woman making the unambiguous wanking hand movement at a young man who litters.

In any case, the idea that ‘we don’t do masturbation well, so we shouldn’t do menstruation well either’ is… ridiculous. We are doing our young people a huge disservice.

Menstruation is never relevant to a story

A number of commenters assumed that menstruation is always uninteresting and irrelevant to plot:

Every word that doesn’t further the plot is wasted. Basics of creative writing

Probably for much the same reason we don’t usually see them on the toilet or cleaning their teeth … routine bodily functions typically add nothing to either the plot or character development.

Whether it is in movies, television or books writers of YA fiction will focus on important plot related stuff

And because SBS used an image from a Harry Potter movie to illustrate ‘children’s literature’, a number of commenters rolled their eyes and argued that Harry Potter would not be improved by inclusion of menstruation:

“Hold on Harry, I know we have to fight Voldemort but I just need to nip to the loo and change my tampon first”
Doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading does it

They don’t go to the toilet either. Oh for there to have been a scene in The Philosopher’s stone where Hermione took a dump and Ron and Harry crossed swords at a urinal.

Someone even used her status as an English teacher (ie, not a writer — don’t @ me, I’ve been both) and told us about the irrelevance of menstruation in some hypothetical fiction she obviously has in mind:

As an English teacher, if the content is not relevant to the storyline or character development in anyway then WHY put it in. South Park on the other hand … 😂

These commenters are missing the point entirely. There is so much to be said about the experience of menstruation, which — as I argue above — is far more dimensional than poo. (Unless a young person is living with IBS or similar, in which case it would impact their life, and be as worthy of fictional representation as any other body-related issue.)

  • Because we still live in a culture of shame, simply by mentioning periods in fiction serves to break that taboo. That in itself is huge.
  • Men may not realise this and women may have forgotten, but for periadolescent girls, periods are scary. BLOOD. COMING OUT OF YOUR BODY. How much will it really hurt? (All other instances of blood gushing out of a girl’s body hurt.) How much will come out? Will it fountain out of me? Will it come out during maths and stain the back of my summer school tunic, and will everyone shun me forever? Stephen King co-opted the scariness of periods for his debut horror YA novel, Carrie, for which he received a massive advance. The story is part of our lore and has been adapted for film twice. King doesn’t have any idea what the day-to-day reality of menstruation is actually like (see below), but try and  tell me periods aren’t anything to write a book about.
  • Periods change the way girls live their day-to-day lives. I mean, the entire ‘plot’ of their real lives. How does a fictional character on the swim team deal with her heavy periods and clotting? What does she do when periods coincide with big races? How does a ten-year-old cope at a sleepover when none of her friends have got theirs yet? Where does she put her used pads when there’s no bin in the toilet? Is it okay to ask the friend’s dad, since the mum lives at a different house? The plain old logistical problems around periods are endless. How do fictional characters cope with these issues, seriously, comedically? In either treatment, girls can learn scripts.
  • Periods can hurt. What is it like to live with that pain, and also have to pretend — because the culture insists on it — that pain doesn’t exist? Many girls are dealing with this. Leaving aside childbirth, there are two times in a woman’s life when periods are statistically more likely to be super painful and super heavy — cruelly, that’s when you first get them and last get them: adolescence and peri-menopause. It is just so very validating to read a fictional version of your own experience. This is why we read! To feel less alone. The idea that fiction is not reality misunderstands the entire raison d’être for fiction.

The following snippets just skim the surface of the plethora of ways in which menstruation can be relevant to plot, character arc and theme:

KATRINA McIntosh*, an eastern suburbs mother with a daughter in year 7, was surprised when her daughter’s sleepovers and pool parties suddenly became complicated midway through grade 6. When dropping their children off, mothers would confide that their 11-year-old daughters had started their periods and would not be able to go swimming. Other girls needed discreet assistance to ensure privacy when they changed for bed at night. ‘The girls are still young and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They were too embarrassed to tell each other and it got tricky with swimming and sleepovers,” Ms McIntosh says.

[…]

Alice Friend, from central Melbourne, whose daughter started menstruating in year 6, says their school only had one toilet with a sanitary bin in it ”and all the girls were embarrassed to go in because that was like a sign that they had their period”.

Sydney Morning Herald

Early menarche can mean being forced to grow up before one’s mind, and decision-making abilities, are ready. “If you’re 11 and you look like you’re 15 or 16, people will treat you like you’re 15 or 16.”

Splinter News

When puberty gets very early it’s no longer in synchronisation with brain development. They have a souped up car but they don’t have the skills to drive it.

Bruce Ellis, psychologist

Below, feminist thinker Ariel Levy explains the excitement of menarche. Perhaps girls in general feel far more positively about menstruation than is depicted in fiction for girls, when it is depicted.

It’s worth mentioning that not all depictions of menstruation should be miserable:

ELEANOR DUKE: You write about doing your first story for New York: “I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.” You also talk about being excited from a young age about being a woman. What do you think caused you to feel that womanhood was exciting and beautiful, and got you interested in writing about women?

ARIEL LEVY: The excitement, I think, was that we were excited about going through puberty, we were excited about changing, about the future arriving. It was the arrival of various kinds of maturity. I don’t know if it was that we were excited to be women, we were just excited that there was going to be evidence, in the form of blood, that we were old, we were changing, and that everything would change.

interview with Ariel Levy

And here’s why menstruation needs to be a part of middle grade fiction, not just YA and above:

Ms McIntosh says her daughter’s former primary school provided ”quite graphic” sex education. ”But it was all cast into the future. They never said, ‘It is normal that this will happen to some of you this year’, so it was a shock for the girls when it did.”

Sydney Morning Herald

A Brief History Of Menstruation In Children’s Literature

According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1970s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.

– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

Harriet The Spy

In the second half of [the twentieth] century, as feminism launched its second wave, the limits of socially acceptable behaviour for girls were steadily pushed back, and one “subversive” book after another was at first condemned and then applauded. When it first appeared, in 1964, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was criticized because its heroine secretly observed and dispassionately recorded the foolish behaviour of adults. Its sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was censured because, for the first time in juvenile literature, it mentioned menstruation. Now both books are widely recommended.

— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Are You There God, It's Me Margaret menstruation

As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.

In fiction for and about boys, however, anything associated with girls is too often presented negatively. As ever, the attitudes of the writer cannot be separated from the work.

The following remarks from Jeff Kinney stands out to me as troublingly femme phobic. When Wimpy Kid create was asked about childhood influences on his reading here’s what he said:

I also sort of inherited my sister’s Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret and I avoided that one. In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place.

That comment reflects the attitude about girls which shines through in all of the Wimpy Kid books. Specifically: Girl stuff is gross, girls themselves are alien creatures and in order to preserve your masculinity you must stay the hell away from any of it.

Carrie

Carrie menstruation

Though not marketed specifically ‘for children’, this story is a young adult novel by any common definition.

Carrie director Kimberly Peirce tells us why tampons are still terrifying at io9

Review of Carrie from FSR

And here is Stephen King himself talking about Carrie.

Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man? I argue in my Goodreads review that in fact Stephen King doesn’t quite get female stuff right. Though our sympathies are with the girl who menstruates, King is nonetheless relying on the Gothic tradition of female bodies as terrifying.

Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.

[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.

Bad Reputation

Menstruation Horror And Taboo In Netflix’s Anne With An ‘E’

In the 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables, Walley-Beckett changed Anne’s age from 11 to 13. As a consequence, it was likely Anne would start menstruating. This event is used as a catalyst for Matthew’s buying her a grown-woman’s dress with puffed sleeves, not a Pride and Prejudice type party with the Barry’s to say thank you for saving their youngest from croup.

This change in plot has the effect of asking Anne what it means to be a woman — all the good things as well as all the bad. It also takes the emphasis off Anne’s needing to look pretty and dress up for what is essentially, culturally, an opportunity to put oneself on the marriage market. The addition of Anne’s first period makes the show more feminist.

It is unlikely that Anne will mention her period ever again, however, as the girls have told her it’s a taboo topic. And Walley-Beckett approaches her series with ‘documentary like’ realism.

Further Suggestions

I haven’t read these — they’ve come up in my search for material on this topic:

  • Waiting For It by Christine Keighery (Australian)
  • Terry Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ is a series of fantasy books. More than one character refers to having her ‘Moon flow’. He writes very good, strong female characters by the way.
  • Tamora Pierce does not shy away from menstruation.
  • An all male short film on menstruation has created a storm in India, because there are no women and men have to bleed.

Menstruation In YA and Adult Stories

The Red Tent

If there’s a tentpole novel about menstruation, this is it. Or, this was it in the 1990s. A high school friend was in love with this book and really wanted me to read it. I read it many years later. This particular friend was the earliest to hit adolescence in our class. She was the first to start her periods at age eight, and the primary school even had to install disposal bins in the girls’ toilets for her benefit, and hold a special assembly for all the girls explaining what they were for. Looking back, I can see how important this book was to that friend, who for some long months was alone in her experience of menstruation.

The Red Tent Menstruation

As awful as it feels to be alone, at least there’s the consolation of having passed a rite of passage:

When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.

In some religious and cultural thought, bodily fluids are thought to be a matter of ‘waste’. Every sperm is precious; every menstruation a wasted opportunity to have procreated:

Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”

Worse, bodily secretions are thought to be ‘sin’. Male ejaculation is seen as sinful and private. The advantage of having a male body is that  you (more or less) control when this happens. Without modern medicine, women have no control at all over their ‘sinful secretions’.

I have long wondered if women bleed monthly because of the moon, or if the female and lunar cycles are plain old coincidence. (After all, they don’t match up exactly.) Regardless of the answer, femininity has inevitably been linked to lunar cycles. And of course the moon is heavy with symbolism of its own.

“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth–to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks–for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts–setting them out, alone and afraid, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”

Lack Of Menstruation In Fiction Is The Norm

I recently watched Runa British miniseries created by Jonathan Pearson, Marlon Smith, and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, written by Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan for Channel 4. Run is a well-written, suspenseful crime story which focuses on immigrant experiences — a welcome change for diversity on screen. Notice it was written entirely by men, though? I made a point of looking at the credits afterwards, because of a particular scene.

Run is no better or worse than any other show depicting a rape scene, but in general I feel women should be called in for #ownvoices critique in these scenarios, since a scene with a man raping a woman (the general gender dynamic in these scenarios) is more triggering for women in general. (Men raping men seems to trigger men who aren’t otherwise triggered by rape — I refer to common male responses to one of the first depictions of male rape in popular entertainment — the film Deliverance.)

In Run: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety.

The first problem with this scene concerns the camera choices. The camera focuses not on the facial expressions of the old man during this rape but on the young woman, first as she slowly disrobes under duress. If the director was going for scary, he should have focused on the slow disrobing of the man — his facial expression, looking straight into the camera or just past it would have better depicted the terror of our focal character, the victim. Instead, by focusing on the disrobing of the young woman, the show’s creators end up with a scene which looks very similar to a sex scene. Why does this matter? Sex scenes are meant to be sexy. Rape scenes, however, are meant to be terrifying. When a rape scene uses the film techniques of a sex scene, there is a real risk of mixing those two things together. There are real world consequences for the cultural conflation of sex and violence against women, which pervades stories in the current era. Even the male viewer, so used to the male gaze that he doesn’t notice it’s there, would benefit from seeing that rape scene from the girl’s point of view rather than looking at the girl. I see no better way of depicting the terror of being raped by a bigger, stronger man than by putting the viewers (of all genders) into the point of view of the raped, not the rapist.

You know what else could have been done, had the creators really wanted to show how shocking this rape scene was? When the young Chinese woman slowly pulls down her underwear, under duress, the underwear is clean. Sure it was clean. It always is, on screen. Yet when rape of women really happens, in real life, there’s about a 25% chance that a woman’s underwear contains blood. Tampons are one thing, and if a woman is raped while wearing a tampon it would be a different kind of shocking to be shown the icky aftermath of that (instead we usually see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t realistically be using a tampon because of cultural ideas about virginity and so on. This is the sort of knowledge that only women seem to have, and the disproportionately low number of women working in TV and film affects what we see on screen.

Menstruation At TV Tropes

The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.

The Menstrual Menace

No Periods Period

All Periods Are PMS

As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (Fun fact, Fear of Menstruation= Menophobia, apparently.)

 

Related Links About Menstruation

1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got. I think this link needs a trigger warning, but if you are a man writing about a woman, or having sex with women, or related to a woman, give it a read.

2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.

3. Have you heard the term ‘sexually antagonistic coevolution’? If not, you can find out what it means here, in which we are told that men prefer the voices of ovulating women over the voices of menstrual women.

4. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.

5. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.

6. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.

7. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.

8. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared

9. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel

10. Menstruation in SF.

11. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue

12. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow

13. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph

14. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.

15. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argumentPMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate

16. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel

17. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel

18. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach

19. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky

20. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net

21. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine

22. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project

23. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman

24. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News

25. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals

26. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.

27. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.

28. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9

29. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)

30. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag

31. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.

32. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid

33. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.

34. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.

35. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel

36. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate

Punishment In Children’s Literature

Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. This is not because children’s authors don’t want to create stories in which bad behaviour wins out, but because adult gatekeepers are squeamish about giving those stories to children, lest they side with the naughty characters and consider them role models.

If you enjoy spending  your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One of those things:

The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.

Award winning modern picturebooks such as This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen get multiple reviews of this kind. An Australian example is Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin.

Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the young reader is asked to identify with a character and that character is basically an asshole, and nothing

So, given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks of:

  • Community service
  • Fines
  • Incarceration
  • Bodily harm
  • Serious injury
  • Death
  • Torture followed by death

at their disposal.

But what if picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)

If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?

Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:

[We are conditioned by narrative to believe] that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.

I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.

Junkee

JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT

The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.

Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain.  It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN

In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.

Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:

[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:

I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”

— Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?

Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.

SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING

The Highway Rat punishment

Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what will be sell well. Continue reading “Punishment In Children’s Literature”