Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy

Diary Kid banner morons

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.

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 adult buddy comedy has a specific kind of audience, mainly comprising young men.

I’ve never found kicks to the groin particularly funny, although recent work in the genre of the buddy movie suggests audience research must prove me wrong.

Roger Ebert

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

I still write for adults and I write with the idea that maybe my brother or my father will read what I’m writing. Every so often, I’ll come up with a joke that isn’t as good or maybe is a little bit broad, and I’ll think, “Hey, that’s not up to my standards,” but then I’ll think, “Maybe kids will like it.” That’s when I always pull back. That’s where my line in the sand is. I figure if I keep thinking that way and start writing for kids, that the quality will erode and self-destruct. I keep my eye on that line.

Jeff Kinney, The Atlantic

Kinney started writing for adults and found that his audience was actually kids.

Similarly, Lauren Wolk wrote her critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow thinking she was writing for an adult audience. It was the publisher who realised it was for a middle grade audience, and the revisions turned it into a children’s book.

And when I was writing I was thinking about an adult audience, somebody who would like to look back on childhood. So I was surprised when my publisher said, ‘You know what? This would work as a children’s series

“I like things that kids like. I like the food that kids like unfortunately.”

“I actually feel like it’s pretty easy to get into the mind of a kid. I think what’s hard is coming up with something that’s original. It’s very easy to come up with something that’s derivative or it’s been done a million times tropes, but it’s hard to come up with a real nugget, you know, something that really that people haven’t seen before.”

For more opinions on the differences between writing for adults and children, see this post.

GENRE/CATEGORY OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Buddy Stories

The buddy story is actually a combination of three genres:

  • Action
  • Love
  • Comedy

Blake Snyder lists three categories:

  • Love
  • Action
  • A Boy And His Dog

The Boy and His Dog gives us a “catalyst” character who enters the hero’s life, changes him, then leaves. The movie ET is like this. And stories like Rain Man and Lethal Weapon give us a main character who changes drastically while the secondary character changes little or not at all.

But, in general, the Buddy Love plot involves two characters who start off hating each other, realise that they need each other (and work well together!), hate that even more, conflict conflict conflict, have one big final fight… and then “surrender their egos to win.”

Snyder includes in this category such gems as Wayne’s World, Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Finding Nemo. They all share the dynamic of two characters debating “important story issues.”

A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole.

Raison d’être Of The Buddy Story

The buddy story results in a kind of spoof of the earnest love story, in which we learn that life is better when you are part of a couple. The buddy story aims to make the audience laugh but usually also to go ‘aww’, because the relationship between the buddies is probably quite sweet, after going through some trials.

The buddy strategy allows the writer to cut the hero into two parts, demonstrating two different approaches to life and two sets of talents. These two characters are ‘married’ in a metaphorical sense.

Characters You’ll Find In Buddy Stories

Usually you fill out the character web with at least one outside, dangerous, ongoing opponent. And because most buddy stories use a mythic journey, the buddies encounter a number of secondary opponents on the road. These characters are usually strangers to the buddies, and they are dispatched in quick succession. Each of these opponents should represent a negative aspect of the society that hates the buddies or wants to break them up.

There will be a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go. In any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent.

As in the love story, one of the buddies should be more central than the other. Usually it’s the thinker, the schemer, or the strategist of the two, because this character comes up with the plan and starts them off on the desire line.

Often one’s a cop, the other’s a fed, or one’s a cop the other’s a crook, or one’s a by-the-book detective and the other’s the precinct’s resident loose cannon. They have to work together to get something done (like solve a crime). Buddy cop movies are a slightly different genre mashup: Action+Love+Crime (without the comedy).

Occasionally you get a female buddy movie, like The Heat (2013)

The  ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the stand out example, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend. The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.

Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.

Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion, though the female buddy story is becoming more popular.

Illustrated Novels For Middle Grade

Kinney’s books with their “drawings that provide moments of relief and comedy” are a bridge between picture books for little children and the more serious young adult fiction favoured by teenagers. Kinney thinks there should be a lot more books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid that help transition young readers.

Publishers and author/illustrators have taken note.

There are good and bad results that occur when a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid hits the stratosphere. On the one hand, suddenly publishers are a lot more open-minded about breathing life into books that mix text and images in new and unique ways. The door opens a little wider for unconventional titles that straddle a variety of writing genres and styles and (normally) don’t win any literary awards. That’s the good. The bad thing is that as a result any book that tries to make any headway in the market using pictures as well as text (and PARTICULARLY if it has a diary/journal format) is on some level going to be slapped with a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid Wannabe” label by the critics out there unwilling to read it closely.

— Betsy Bird, from her Goodreads review of The Popularity Papers

Big titles in this category of books include:

  • Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
  • Dogman is also by Dav Pilkey and is an off-shoot of Captain Underpants in which the boy characters draw the comic
  • Big Nate series by Lincoln Pierce is perhaps the most similar
  • The Treehouse series from Australia
  • The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett
  • Stick Cat by Tom Watson
  • Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life, written by someone in the James Patterson franchise
  • Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Others are aimed squarely at girls, indicated by pink and pastels on the cover.

I could be wrong, but when you have a purple book with doodled flowers and ladybugs and two female characters on a cover, boys sometimes tend to go screaming in the opposite direction. This is a shame since I think guys could get a huge kick out of this storyline. If boys read the pinkness that is Babymouse (and they do, they do) then they should read Ms. Ignatow as well.

Betsy Bird
  • Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell
  • Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton
  • Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
  • Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle
  • The Popularity Papers by by Amy Ignatow

WHAT DOES KINNEY’S WRITING PROCESS LOOK LIKE?

Kinney spent about eight years working on Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Once the first book took off the deadlines shortened considerably and it now takes him about nine months to create a book from start to finish.

He usually ends up dropping a major storyline. Sometimes the book is too short so he has inserted a new character. (This character was the most loved by the publisher in the end.)

January: Starts writing jokes. Types them into his phone because it’s always on him. At first they are not cohesive at all, but eventually he picks there’s a theme to them and builds a plot around that.

May: Takes all the 350 jokes and start writing the actual manuscript. That takes about a month. He knows he needs between 350 and 400 image ideas. Then he can ‘whittle it down’.

June/July: Because he still has a day job, Kinney does all the illustrations in two months of 14 to 17-hour days.

ILLUSTRATING DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

I couldn’t draw like a professional cartoonist and I knew it and I couldn’t do anything about it.

So eventually I found — it was sort of like a Peter Principle sort of thing where I said well, if I draw like a seventh grader then, you know, I’m going to act like I’m doing that on purpose. So that’s where the idea for Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid came from.

For anyone drawing in this style, they need to walk a fine line between “believably childlike” and “unbelievably good”. One way other illustrators have achieved this is by using childhood writing implements such as crayons (see The Popularity Papers), collage (Charlie and Lola) or dye (Eric Carle).

After coming up with the jokes Kinney classifies them e.g. a single image joke, a four image joke.

He actually starts drawing very late in the game.

Each drawing – 320 is the ideal figure he’s arrived at per book – takes an hour to do.

Kinney uses Adobe Flash for drawing software and a massive Wacom tablet. He does a rough sketch then goes over the top more slowly and carefully. Each illustration takes an hour to do It takes about 350 to 400 hours to do the illustrations for one of the Wimpy Kid books.

BETA READERS

“Humour is such a subjective thing that I’m constantly polling people to see what works and what doesn’t.”

“I turn in probably about eight drafts of my book. It’s pretty labor-intensive and  And I often hand out my first draft to about four or five people from different walks of life because people respond to different things. And I try to find where there’s consensus. So that’s a big part of the process.”

Kinney has always used his boys as beta readers, though when he first started the younger boy was a bit too young yet.

Once the book is “on the press”, he launches into a minor but important ritual – reading the new book to his sons aged 11 and 14. I can’t imagine either of my lumbering teenagers with their china-crashing propensities sitting still long enough for this. “My older one is 14 now and he’s 6 ft 1 — my height. So yeah, laying in bed next to him is kind of weird. I’m sure he won’t be doing that next year,

JEFF KINNEY’S INFLUENCES

Kinney is also a big fan of World of Warcraft, which influenced the interactive storytelling he does in his day job.

STORYWORLD OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Diary of a Wimpy Kid opens with Greg just about to start middle school. Also known as junior high, it’s a two-year bridge from elementary school and high school in the US education system, where 11- to 13-year-olds are stranded in a kind of no-man’s land between childhood and adolescence. It seemed to Kinney to be a perfect setting. ‘Our junior high was separate, you had to drive quite a way to get to it, and it always felt to me like we were being segregated from the general population. It’s as if society kind of hides you in middle school while you’re in this larval state.’

The Telegraph

Jeff Kinney himself lives in Plainville, Massachussets, New England. His family has the financial means to live somewhere more glamorous and expensive but chooses to stay in an ‘ordinary’ American town, partly because he likes it there, partly because moving to somewhere like Beverly Hills or Paris would change the nature of his stories. This indicates that Plainville itself is no doubt an influence on the setting of Wimpy Kid.

The film adaptations are filmed in Vancouver, Canada.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

I have heard Jeff Kinney’s work described as ‘plotless’.

The humour is gentle, the plot negligible

The Guardian

This view is echoed by the author himself:

With my Wimpy Kid books ironically I don’t care that much about story. I see my books as joke delivery mechanisms.

But if I’ve learnt one thing over the course of writing this storytelling blog it’s this: Every well-known, widely-loved story follows classic story structure, whether the author realises it or simply intuits it. Even people like David Lynch, who insist they don’t follow any story structure, end up following it despite themselves.

Jeff Kinney’s novels really are more like a book of cartoons when it comes to story structure. Like, say, Calvin and Hobbes, the books comprise a series of interlinked vignettes. Each vignette has a fully formed story structure in its own right.

See: How To Structure Any Story (or vignette)

ABSENCE OF CHARACTER ARC IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

One thing absent in all sit-coms and comedy series is the character arc. The plot is not character based but action driven. If Greg Heffley were to grow up we wouldn’t have anymore books.

“Greg is in this state of, you know, pre-adolescent amber in a way. He’ll never grow up. He’s going to be frozen in this state for the rest of his life so you’ll never see much character development there.”

“What I came to appreciate is that Greg’s DNA is in comics. And the best cartoon characters never grow up. Charlie Brown has a first day of school every year. So in The Ugly Truth, which is about puberty, Greg can see all of his peers growing up and he’s so ready to cross the threshold, but he can’t and he doesn’t know why. Because he’s a cartoon character, he’ll be in a state of arrested development for ever.”

Jeff Kinney

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

The Mother

As for Susan Heffley, ‘I think of her as being an everymom. I get ideas from all around me, and then I just hang them on the archetypes that exist in my books. But a lot of the inspiration for that character comes from my wife. For example, on my son’s sixth birthday party, she wrote on the invitation that everybody should bring a book. She didn’t want a lot of junk in the house, so my poor kid got a ton of books on his birthday.’

The Father

“When fathers appear in children’s picture books, they’re angling for laughs, taking their sons on adventures or modeling physical strength or stoic independence. There is the rare exception in children’s books where a father baldly demonstrates — without symbolic gestures — his love for his son (a few are “Guess How Much I Love You” and “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!”). Just as women’s studies classes have long examined the ways that gendered language undermines women and girls, a growing body of research shows that stereotypical messages are similarly damaging to boys.”

Andrew Reiner, The New York Times
Greg’s Brothers

“If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, you know what it’s like to have Rodrick in your house, and if you have a younger sibling then you know what it’s like to have Manny. But what I’ve done is take all of the crummy things that I did as a kid, and that even my younger brother did as a kid, and I’ll hang all of those things on Rodrick.”

Adult Opponents

“Gathering jokes is the hardest part of the process, and he finds himself leading an odd double life, empathising with Greg about the unfairness of adults – while laying down similar boundaries with his own boys. ‘In my books, for example, Greg picks the Scout troop that does the least community service, and in my real life I’m the Scout master who is always trying to get them to do community service projects.”

VOICE

Markedly absent from the Wimpy Kid books: Dialogue. There are few speech bubbles in the illustrations and because this is a summary of a boy’s day, he does not render people’s dialogue. Instead, he writes two matter-of-fact, understated sentences then draws a picture. Two sentences, a picture. That’s the general pattern. Naturally, being a diary, the stories are written in first person.

UNRELIABLE NARRATION IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

“When you read my books, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit because Greg sometimes has a big adventure during the day and he goes to bed at 3 in the morning and yet he’s still writing his journal entry from that day. I think that with this series you have to understand that Greg is sort of an unreliable narrator in a way. Oftentimes what he’s writing will contradict what you see in the pictures. That’s a lot of fun I have with that is to show conflicting points of view and to show that Greg isn’t always on top of things.”

“I was a little bit concerned because Greg is an unreliable narrator, not a great role model but I think kids really get that. What I found is that they are not going to imitate Greg, much in the way they don’t imitate Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace. “I think you like to see somebody behaving badly because you 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.”

What has made them so popular is how acutely he observes tweenage life. From the finely differentiated grades of coolness to the politics of school lavatories, he describes a world that is nostalgically familiar to most adults, and Greg handles it all so ineptly – while remaining blissfully oblivious to his own failings – that younger readers can enjoy laughing at him, safe in the knowledge that they are coping slightly better.

The Telegraph

HUMOUR IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

“[As a kid] I liked the humour [in Judy Blume’s Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing] which was realistic and not outlandish.”

When Kinney started writing for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, he spent about four years trying to remember what it was like to be a kid, recalling as much detail as possible from his childhood. He was trying to remember what it was like to be a child.

“I don’t have fond memories of middle school, but I think bad memories can make for good comedy.”

Therefore, much of the humour comes from Greg’s perspective. Kinney makes an effort to get inside his head and imagine how he would interpret a situation.

“I’m trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure out a way to get a good story out of it or something credible, then I’m very satisfied, but really I’m trying to keep the kid laughing and oftentimes if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the jokes and it burns through too many pages. So I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke anytime.”

Jeff Kinney

Kinney is aiming for two jokes per page.

The writers of The Simpsons are also very mathematical about the joke calculation of every episode. People have made graphs on that. The Crepes Of Wrath episode from season one of The Simpsons was 23 minutes long and contained 47 verbal jokes, 36 visual gags and 7 cultural references. It also contained 6 ‘callbacks‘. A callback refers to a joke that refers to a previous episode. It’s a reward for regular viewers and treated as a bit of an Easter egg. Seinfeld was one of the first shows to make heavy use of callbacks.

ABSENCE OF MORALS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

People ask me all the time if there’s a moral or a lesson to my books and I would say that I don’t feel that that’s my job is to moralise to kids or bake in some sort of a lesson into my books. You know, I’m really trying to entertain kids with those books. And I figure that if there is a lesson, it’s that reading can be fun because adults read for fun and for entertainment and why shouldn’t kids? There’s no better lesson than that. I think that if you open a book and it feels welcoming and it doesn’t feel like work, that a kid can really feel comfortable with that and then move on to bigger and better things as they usually do.

I actually feel conflicted about the world of literature as handed down from adults to kids because I think that it’s very important that kids have a filter that somebody can tell kids what quality reading is. And, you know, my books are candy and they don’t have a lot of vitamins. I think that kids need their vitamins too, but I think that sometimes adults miss the mark. They hand kids books that maybe they were forced to read as kids. Forced is maybe too strong of a word but, you know, books they were asked politely by their teachers to read that really have no — they have no relevance to the kid’s life.

Some people criticise him for being a bad influence on kids and I don’t really understand that because I think that Greg is an average kid or at least he’s like I was as a kid, which is not fully formed, not always making the right decisions, but thinking of yourself because you can’t yet see outside of yourself. You know, a kid in middle school doesn’t have such a great awareness of the world around them.

Absence of morals doesn’t equal absence of ideology.

‘The Snail Under The Leaf’ Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish,1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish,1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

  • American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
  • Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
  • Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of YA books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.
  • The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation is depicted rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation right now, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on lives, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented across storytelling. We need more of it. People going through female 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.

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

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

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.

The 2020 updated TV series based on The Babysitter’s Club, when watched alongside Anne With An E makes one thing clear: In the year 2020, popular middle grade and YA series starring girls do not avoid menstrutation. The menarche is full of dramatic potential and regularly explored. In both The Babysitter’s Club and in Anne With An E, a main character gets her period for the first time.

Keep watching and another thing becomes clear: It’s never mentioned again.

Part of me thinks this is a form of feminist activism. Some studies have shown that young menstrators are highly influenced by their environment. When surrounded by others who see menstruation as a positive part of their lives rather than a messy impediment, they are more likely to see their own period as not a big deal. I suspect the writers of these female positive shows are attempting to teach the same — once you learn to deal with it, not a big deal. Not scary, not that painful, and not at all an impediment to playing sport, going on adventures or doing whatever your heart desires.

This does not line up with reality, in which one in five teenage girls experience bleeding to a point where it seriously impacts their lives. Interestingly, this proportion lines up with the numbers experiencing life-impacting bleeding around perimenopause. Statistically, one of the Babysitter’s Club cast would also be experiencing flooding and serious pain.

Heavy menstrual bleeding is a common problem during adolescence.  In fact, almost 50% of women report having heavy periods at some point during their reproductive years. Heavy menstrual bleeding can negatively impact quality of life, school attendance, and participation in after-school sports and activities.

However, just because it is a common problem doesn’t make it an easy topic for young women to discuss with parents or health care providers. Girls and parents often have difficulty assessing what constitutes normal menstrual cycles or patterns of bleeding.

Young adults experiencing heavy, problematic periods are common, and invisiblised in fiction made specifically for them. What does this say, implicitly? If you find your period problematic, that’s on you. And you are basically alone.

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 Young Adult 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.

The Last Taboo Is Actually Menopause

Menstruation is becoming more commonly mentioned in stories for and about young people, probably due to period activism and a culture which names and avoids shaming of any kind.

The cessation of menstruation is another matter. Break of Day by Colette is one of the few novels about menopause.

By the way, there’s a non-fiction book by Professor Susan Mattern called The Slow Moon Climbs, This book makes the case that menopause is a collection of symptoms and shouldn’t properly exist as a single concept, much like ‘hysteria’ was conceived last century.

Menstruation At TV Tropes

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

Related Links About Menstruation

  1. As pointed out by Jezebel: The mainstream media is out to teach you that menstruation is terrifying. (Fun fact, Fear of Menstruation= Menophobia, apparently.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared
  10. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel
  11. Menstruation in SF.
  12. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue
  13. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow
  14. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph
  15. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.
  16. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argument: PMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate
  17. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel
  18. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel
  19. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach
  20. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky
  21. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net
  22. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine
  23. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project
  24. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman
  25. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News
  26. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9
  30. 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.)
  31. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag
  32. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.
  33. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid
  34. ActiPearls and Having a Happy Period is a critique of a ‘sanitary pad’ commercial from Bad Reputation, in which ‘chemical stench equals sanitation’.
  35. ‘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.
  36. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel
  37. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

BASIC CHARACTERISATION OF ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET

PREMISE

An 11-year-old girl moves to the suburbs where she must make new friends and face the challenges of puberty.

SHORTCOMING AT BEGINNING

Naive, poor judgment of character, self-absorbed, a follower rather than a leader

BASIC ACTION

Interacts with a number of different peers and attends a variety of churches

CHANGED PERSON

Realises she doesn’t have to have the world all figured out, that she’s still pretty young. Realizes also that she shouldn’t believe everything she hears.

MARGARET IS THE BEST MAIN CHARACTER BECAUSE…

  1. Like the reader she is new to the setting and is trying to work things out. This is why ‘moving house’ stories are so popular in middle grade and young adult literature.
  2. Margaret is flawed but not so flawed that she is borderline unlikeable (e.g. Nancy Wheeler). Not all characters must be likeable but in a story like this, Margaret really does have to be relatable/liked. As is common in children’s stories with female main characters, Margret also has physical imperfections — sticking out ears, kinky hair that’s growing out).
  3. Margaret learns the lesson that is the moral of the story: Think for yourself, don’t believe gossip. Probably the two most important lessons for middle graders to learn before going to high school.

HOW MARGARET IS INTERESTING

She does funny things like:

  • stuffs her bra with cottonwool
  • uses a sanitary pad even though she isn’t yet menstruating
  • visits the store to buy supplies and gets embarrassed when there’s a male clerk serving
HOW THE AUDIENCE IDENTIFIES WITH MARGARET
  • Her embarrassment/shame/impatience/fear surrounding puberty
  • Her unhappiness at family disharmony
  • Her disappointment at losing the trip to Florida
BUT NOT TOO MUCH

Margaret goes above and beyond the normal preparations for puberty, nad does some wacky thing e.g. “I must, I must…” The audience laughs at her sometimes.

HOW THE READER EMPATHISES WITH MARGARET

We understand what Margaret’s exact worries are because:

  1. We have first person point of view insight into her thoughts
  2. We see her do wacky things due to insecurity.

In other words, we are always shown why Margaret acts as she does.

MARGARET’S NEEDS

Psychological Need: To be accepted by peers and to develop physically in a way she considers ‘normal’, which is itself a symbol of her normality, and is the thing that she feels will lead to the peer acceptance.

Moral Needs: She must avoid judging others based on gossip, and stop listening to every wacky bit of advice from her ‘Queen Bee’ friend, focusing on friendships with nicer people like Laura and the other girls in Nancy’s posse.

MARGARET’S DESIRES

To get her period and grow ‘a bust’. The story ends as she gets her period. This is the sustaining desire line, though it’s the surface level one. She really wants to be normal to fit in, as expressed by the psychological shortcoming.

MARGARET’S MORAL CHOICE

  1. Margaret can go along under the guidance of the controlling Nancy Wheeler and be part of Nancy’s gang.
  2. Or Margaret can be true to herself by permitting herself to like the people who are truly likeable, and generally thinking for herself.

This particular moral choice rings so true to my experience of going to a new school in Year 7. I vividly remember having to make that choice in a very public way. One group of girls sat on the far side of the classroom. The other sat apart. Someone challenged me to ‘pick a side’. “Don’t sit with those girls, they’re dicks,” said one girl from the prettier, more coiffed group. I had enough to make my decision — I wasn’t going to be part of the group who called the other group ‘dicks’.

Chapter One

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared, God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me, God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.

Margaret has several key big struggles in the story, and the first is an argument with her faux-opponent Laura. After this conversation, Margaret has learned that she shouldn’t judge other girls based on how they look; nor should she be jealous. Laura teaches Margaret a little empathy. Margaret apologises.

‘I don’t know, I said. ‘I never thought about it.’

‘Well, try thinking about it. Think about how you’d feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.’

I thought about it. ‘I’m sorry, Laura,’ I said.

But Margaret still has a few things to learn before her moral shortcoming has been corrected. Next she has the showdown with Moose, in which she learns that she shouldn’t listen to hearsay, even if it comes from her (ostensibly) best friend:

Nancy told me that Evan told her that you and Evan—’ I stopped. I sounded like an idiot.

Moose shook his head at me. ‘You always believe everything you hear about other people?’ he asked.

I didn’t know what to say.

Moose kept talking. ‘Well, next time, don’t believe it unless you see it! Now if you’ll move out of my way, I’ve got things to do!’

I didn’t move. ‘You know what, Moose?’ I asked.

‘What now?’

‘I’m sorry I thought you were a liar.’

Finally, Margaret experiences her first period. The wish to start menstruating (and fill out a bra) is the main desire line throughout the novel, so when she gets a clear marker that puberty has properly begun, we have the end of our story.

Sex In Stories For Teenagers

Flash from an Old Flame, Cosmopolitan- January 1957 Illustration by Bernard D'Andrea

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

Daily Life

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

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

A Librarian

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

Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex

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

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

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

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

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

Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below:

Media has been called a “super peer,” dictating all manner of behavioural “scripts” to young people, including those for sexual encounters: expectations, desires, norms. In one era, they learn that you don’t kiss until the third date; in another, they learn that sex precedes an exclusive relationship. Bryant Paul, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington who studies “scripting theory,” explained, “I’ll ask students, “Think about how you learned what to do at your first college party. You’d never been to one, but you knew that couples would go off to someone’s room.” And they’ll say, “Yeah, from American Pie and all those movies..” So where are they learning their sexual socialization, especially in terms of more explicit behaviours? You’d be foolish not to think they’re getting ideas from porn. Young people are not tabulae rosae. They have a sense of right and wrong. But if they’re repeatedly exposed to certain themes, they are more likely to pick them up, to internalize them and have them become part of their sexual scripts. So when you see consistent depictions of women with multiple partners and women being used as sex objects for males, and there’s no counterweight argument going on there…” He trailed off, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken.

Over 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to porn online, many accidentally. By college, according to a survey of more than eight hundred students titled “Generation XXX,” 90 percent of men and a third of women had viewed porn during the preceding year. On one hand, the girls I met knew that porn was about as realistic as pro wrestling, but that didn’t stop them from consulting it as a guide. Honestly? It pains me to hear that the scatological fetish video Two Girls, One Cup was, for some, their first exposure to sex. Even if what they watch is utterly vanilla, they’re still learning that women’s sexuality exists for the benefit of men. So it worried me to hear an eleventh-grader confide, “I watch porn because I’m a virgin and I want to figure out how sex works”; or when another high-schooler explained that she watched it “to learn how to give head”; or when a freshman in college told me, “There are some advantages. Before watching porn I didn’t know girls could squirt.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls And Sex

Porn-viewing teenagers are not tabulae rosae and neither are book-consuming children.

  • When children see only white people in books (with the odd token black kid) they learn that white is the norm.
  • When children are heavy readers and find, without counting, that 2 out of 3 characters are gendered male, they learn that when women and girls take up 50 per cent of the space, they are taking up too much space.
  • When children see that only men read newspapers in picture books they learn that newspapers — and keeping up with current affairs — is a male concern.
  • When children see only heterosexual parents they learn there is no other upright way to live.
  • When children don’t see doing their share of caring and housework — in books as in real life — they learn that women are naturally better suited to household duties.

To writers I would say: To what extent must this particular story be a window on this real, imperfect world, and to what extent can you provide a better, aspirational one while maintaining a recognisable milieu?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEX IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

AN EARLY 20TH CENTURY EXAMPLE

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Little House series with her daughter Mary from the 1930s, had a real life which wasn’t quite the fairytale depicted in the stories or in the Disney miniseries. Laura Ingalls married “Manly” Wilder at the age of 15. Manly was at the time 25. This age difference and the marriage of a bride so young was common and acceptable in that time and place, but by the 1930s had become a taboo subject in a feel-good story for children. The real age difference was therefore never mentioned.

Would this age difference be acceptable in a book for children today? We see in children’s literature what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable. In other words, children’s books tend to be slightly more conservative than the dominant culture, then move on. A bit like churches.

(For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.)

Anyhow, that choice — to leave the age gap completely off the page — is a telling writerly decision.

THE 1970S: JUDY BLUME

In many young adult novels, teenage sexuality is defined in terms of deviancy — even when the message to the reader is a Judy Blume special: “Your masturbating/wet dreams/desire to have sex/(fill in the blank) is normal.” Such novels reflect cultural norms that tend to define teenage sexuality in terms of deviancy in an attempt to control adolescents; nonetheless, reassurances to teenagers that their actions are normal still start from the assumption that someone thinks their actions are not.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Seelinger Trites is very good at explaining that thing where authors try to say one thing and accidentally (inevitably) end up saying something else as well. This reminds me of a real-life incident recounted to me by a friend: An older woman approaches a younger woman and says, with earnest sincerity, “You’re lucky you’re so pretty.”  Maybe this older woman saw that as a compliment, but the fact she saw the need to say it suggested there may be people in this world who don’t think it, or that the younger woman needed to hear it, because she may have been getting a different message. In any case, the younger woman didn’t feel comfortable about ‘the compliment’, because here’s a sad fact of life: It’s impossible to offer reassurance without also making (implicit) reference to the troubling side.

That aside, Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. Forever wasn’t actually a groundbreaker — there were books which came before and they did the same thing. Before Forever we had novels by Norma Klein and others. They equalled Forever in content though weren’t quite so well written. So Forever is the groundbreaking book best remembered today.

(When you look closely at a Judy Blume novel you’ll be struck by how perfectly they are plotted. In this post I take a close look at Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. You can’t fault it.)

The striking thing about Forever is how clinical and de-eroticised the sex actually is. There really is nothing titillating about it, despite how often it was banned at the time of publication.

Forever looks super conservative by today’s standards.

  • First you seek advice by going to the clinic like a good girl and get yourself some birth control
  • The book describes vaginal examinations and how to have them (in the United States)
  • It also describes penises
  • Premature ejaculation
  • Impotence
  • Intercourse during menstruation
  • STD (called VD back then)
  • ‘Broken hymen’ (in fact hymens don’t break — they stretch)
  • Premarital pregnancy
  • Giving babies up for adoption
  • Play-by-play on how to have sex (or one kind of sex)
  • The young woman is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control.

The text tries to liberate teenage sexuality by communicating that curiosity about sex is natural, but it then undercuts this message with a series of messages framed by institutional discourses that imply teenagers should not have sex or else should feel guilty if they do.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygiene and practicalities of the sex itself. Even though sex is much more a part of young adult literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.

Also, the idea that health of the family is the girl/woman’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:

caring-is-for-mothers
THE 1990S AND THE AIDS EPIDEMIC

It’s only now that I’m middle aged that I realise the extent to which the AIDS epidemic influenced the messages my generation received about sex, coming-of-age in the 1990s. We received no real sex education; we received scare mongering. We put condoms on bananas and took notes about all the different kinds of STDs. We were made to line up boy-girl-boy-girl in a shockingly heteronormative exercise, then told that this was a visual representation for how disease and infection can spread through a community like wildfire. The clitoris was not mentioned once.

There wasn’t much to be gleaned from young adult literature of that time, either. That, too, was influenced by the AIDS epidemic, and authors became leery of writing sex scenes in their books for teenagers. The 1990s was when the Sex Novel evolved into the AIDS novel. An early example was published in 1986. It was called Night Kites, by M.E. Kerr.

A classic young adult novel from this era is Weetzie Bat, published 1989.

Weetzie Bat… is predicated on the notion that sexual expressions of love are good, whether they are expressed between people of the same or opposite sexes. But Block cannot escape the trappings of our culture: writing within a post-AIDs culture, she only sanctions sex that occurs between committed, loving couples in permanent relationships.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

(I wouldn’t call 1989 a post-AIDs era… 1989 was right in the throes of it from what I remember. But I get the point.)

POST-WESTERN AIDS

Fast forward to 2004. AIDS is under control in the West, or at least feels like it. It’s only now that we get Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, with a gritty exploration of sexuality. This book would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. My own sex education in this decade consisted of sexually transmitted diseases and the labelling of the reproductive organs. We also learned how to put a condom on, using our fingers as stand-in members, but even that is related to avoiding diseases. There was nothing whatsoever about relationships, consent, or the idea that sex can be pleasurable. Perhaps adults just assumed we would know this already, and it was their job to provide ‘protection’? But it wasn’t at all obvious.

RETRIBUTION AND SEX IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT NOVELS

Sex is no longer a taboo subject and is therefore more common. But it is never, even today, something that just happens; it’s almost always a key aspect of the plot and there are always consequences. If the sex is reckless then invariably the female protagonist has a pregnancy scare or ends up pregnant. Despite the fact that now it is more common to depict protagonists having sex, it has not become normalised.

An example of this kind of morality occurs in a subplot of Numbers by Rachel Ward. The male character dies, then lo and behold, the female character is pregnant. [I’ve noticed a lot of war stories contain this plot. The male has to go off to war, and it’s discovered that the woman left at home is going to have his, or someone else’s baby.] Sex cannot pass by unnoticed.

In Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, the two main characters who are deeply in love have sex. The boy dies; the girl gets pregnant.

In Twilight Bella and Edward get married, have sex, and Bella dies (sort of).  Again, huge consequences. In Twilight, the absence of sex is the sex. [The Erotics Of Abstinence.]

With the notable exception of the Twilight Series, the culture has moved on from the idea that sex must only happen within marriage, but hasn’t moved all that much further; sex is still something you do only within a loving, secure relationship. You must think carefully and deeply about birth control first.

In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament.

Paris Review

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS AND SEXUAL IDEOLOGIES

Some of these ideas seem so ‘obvious’ that they do actually need to be pointed out as ideology.

Seelinger Trites points out that even when there is no obvious ideology in a young adult novel which deals with sex, there is usually the following power dynamic:

the character’s sexuality provides him or her with a locus of power. That power needs to be controlled before the narrative can achieve resolution.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

POWER = GOOD SEX AND SATISFYING ORGASM

Well, who would argue with that?

Sexual potency is a common metaphor for empowerment in adolescent literature, so the genre is replete with sex.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

It’s worth pointing out because then you’ll start noticing how rare it is for teenage characters in young adult novels to achieve satisfying sexual experiences.

Seelinger Trites points out that teenage characters in young adult novels agonise about almost every aspect of human sexuality:

  • decisions about whether to have sex
  • issues of sexual orientation
  • issues of birth control and responsibility
  • unwanted pregnancies
  • masturbation
  • orgasms
  • nocturnal emissions
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • pornography
  • sex work

The occasional teenage protagonist even quits agonizing about sexuality long enough to enjoy sex, but such characters seem more the exception than the rule.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

HAVING SEX MAKES YOU A GROWN UP

Or in other words, sex is a rite of passage. This is a weird one, because it often occurs alongside the message that…

SEX IS POWERFUL SO BE CAREFUL WITH IT

STRUCTURE OF A YOUNG ADULT ROMANCE NOVEL

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but here’s a very typical sequence in a young adult romance. Summarising from Roberta Seelinger Trites:

  1. Two teenagers feel sexually attracted to one another
  2. Something will keep them apart. During this period, each character thinks the attraction is unrequited.
  3. They’ll eventually share their feelings with each other and learn that it’s mutual.
  4. However, they don’t immediately get into it. They will agonise about what happens next, scared and worried about sex.
  5. They do end up expressing their passion with some sort of sexual contact.
  6. Maybe one character or the other regrets the action, because there are unwanted consequences. This might be pregnancy, family/peer group repercussions, or one character might betray the other.
  7. The two characters may end up together at the end of the novel, or they may break up.

The message in this case: Sex is powerful and can hurt people, so be careful when you mess around with it. Make sure you’re ready.

THIS IS HOW TO DO SEX, YOUNG FOLK

Many young adult novels seem to assume that the reader has a sexual naivete in need of correction. Some young adult novels seem more preoccupied with influencing how adolescent readers will behave when they are ot reading than with describing human sexuality honestly. Such novels tend to be heavy-handed in their moralism and demonstrate relatively clearly the effect of adult authors asserting authority over adolescent readers.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

BE CAREFUL, GIRL GATEKEEPERS

This idea isn’t dead, so writers still need to be careful to avoid the message expressed in your typical 1970s young adult novel:

Sexual liberation is a good thing, but … it is the girl’s job to make sure that male sexuality is not so liberated that she becomes victimized.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Classic examples of these books include:

  • Forever (1975) by Judy Blume
  • My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) by Paul Zindel — a teenage girl is hurt by her own lack of control. Zindel condemns the character he creates who has an abortion.
  • Edith Jackson (1978) by Rosa Guy — another teenage girl is hurt by her own lack of control. Guy seems pro-choice and applauds her character she creates who has an abortion but, like Zindel, her book implies that promiscuous sex in the first place is the real problem.
  • Weetzie Bat (1989) by Francesca Lia Block — Weetzie gets beaten up and date-raped when she does not carefully guard her sexuality early in the novel.
  • It Happened to Nancy (2004) by the editor of Go Ask Alice — an egregious example of victim-blaming. A 14-year-old date-rape victim contracts AIDS and dies.

DRUG USE LEADS GIRLS INTO SEX WORK

Go Ask Alice (1971) is a good example of the idea that drug use leads directly to (terrible) sex. The narrator of the journal ends up prostituting herself to buy drugs. Go Ask Alice is well-known for being anti-drug, but it’s easier to gloss over the ideology around sex.

A lot of people assume that drug use is what leads women to enter the sex work industry in the first place. But those people have it ass-about. Women commonly enter the sex industry clean and of their own volition (bearing in mind that choices aren’t made in a vacuum). It is true that sex work and drug use are linked. But the sex industry itself lends itself to drug use and abuse. (Incidentally, the same can be said of homelessness. Homelessness leads to drug addiction, not the other way around.)

The real relationship and the link between drug addiction and sex work is much more complex than the simplistic causal attribution of sex work to drugs. Drugs and sex work are interconnected in a vicious cycle of violence and corruption and in most instances they affect the most vulnerable parts of society. This link between them does not imply that drugs are responsible for pushing women into sex work. Sex work and drug use can have a merely coincidental connection and both can be the symptoms of traumatic experiences in the lives of the women involved.

Unveiled: The sex industry and drug abuse

WHEN EXPLICIT IDEOLOGY GOES SIDEWAYS: FROM TITILLATION TO VOYEURISM

I faced this issue when watching Mad Men, which hooked me in but annoyed me at the same time. I have friends who can’t watch it because, for them, watching sexism in action is not entertainment. Did Mad Men depict sexism in order to critique it, or did it promote it? For a few seasons there, titillation definitely won out. There’s nothing wrong with titillation in itself, though it often occurs alongside objectification and violence, sans the encouragement to critique. In the end, it’s impossible to make a distinction when it comes to Mad Men. The same can be said for many stories aimed at a young adult audience.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism/titillation. Forbidden provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur.

Fade by Robert Cormier is another young adult book largely about an incestuous brother/sister relationship. The main character is able to turn invisible, which allows him the role of voyeur as he sneaks into houses. The reader, of course, accompanies him on this ride. Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace nor emotional understanding, but I was both highly entertained and disturbed by it as a 14 year old. I read it later and was slightly bored by it. This wasn’t because I knew the plot — enough time had elapsed for me to completely forget about that. I only remembered I had enjoyed it. (Perhaps you have had a similar experience revisiting children’s literature — a good reminder that stories affect teenagers differently.)

WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?

Most experiences of sex in young adult novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, mentioned above, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still explicitly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”

Melvin Burgess writes about sex from the boy's perspective

A large proportion of young adult readers are girls. Young adult romance skews even more female. Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in young adult literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in young adult fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]

The reasons for this are probably so obvious it’s hardly worth pointing out: There is an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet. Pretty sure boys are seeking out their sex education somehow, though it’s not from young adult romance. Girls are doing that too, but perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to those other types of media. Young adult romance is an acceptable way to learn about sex even in conservative homes. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film clip, say. Also, the vast majority of Internet porn is made with a male audience in mind, and over 80 per cent of it depicts violence against women. (Yes, that statistic does include BDSM, which can be consensual — still scary for young people.) Internet porn is not a safe and welcoming place for girls to learn about sex. In fact, it is actively terrifying. (It’s not a good place for anyone to learn how sex is done. That’s not what porn is for.)

INTO THE RIVER BY TED DAWE

Into The River is a New Zealand young adult novel which caused a furore when it won a big literary prize. It would probably have otherwise gone under the radar, but first it was banned for under 14s then, after much discussion, the ban was lifted.

Although the book describes a number of “unacceptable, offensive and objectionable” behaviours, the board said the book “does not in any way promote them”.

This story is social realism done very well. Speculative fiction works so well in young adult stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that tendency is explored in social realism sometimes it becomes melodramatic. But in a magical world, that same drama seems almost persuasive.

Though explicit, the sex scenes are in context. The moral panic that came about is often directed at prize winners.

Compare the content of Into The River with Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan. Why are more gatekeepers not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks equally, but it contains no sex. So it seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex.

There is a real sweetness about the main character of Into The River. There’s no explicit and direct message, but Dawe holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.

THE CULT OF VIRGINITY

The Gossip Girl series has been described as Sex In The City for modern teenagers. Although there is sex, it is littered with consequences and always for the girl. The character Blair spends the entire first novel gearing up to have sex with her boyfriend, who she has been seeing for two years.

(For more on the Gossip Girl series, series such as this have been criticised by Naomi Wolf. This paper further delves into the role of these books and the impact they may/may not have on teenage girls.)

A book of short stories called Losing It, written by many prominent different children’s authors, write about lots of different ways of losing virginity. So many books revolve the plot around two people having sex and one of them is a virgin. Losing virginity is like a gate through the door into adulthood. Virginity is a strong symbolic obstacle.

PREGNANCY AS REPURCUSSION

Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry is a rare example of a story about teen pregnancy that is not all about the girl. He doesn’t know his former girlfriend has had a baby when she turns up one day and leaves him with their baby.

Boys Don't Cry Sex In YA

The books featured above are the Big Books about sex and teens, and there are almost certainly lesser known books which take a more mature [less didactic, more naturalistic] view of teenage sex.

Before Margo Lanagan switched to writing fantasy, she was writing social realism. In one of her early novels, The Best Thing, a teenage girl is pregnant, but Lanagan subverts our expectation of motherhood as punishment; she instead simply becomes a mother. And everything is okay for her, no better or worse than new mothers of any age. Diablo Cody also did this when writing the screenplay of Juno.

LGBTQ SEX

Sex in young adult fiction is largely heteronormative and has only recently started to branch out into stories about other sexualities and gender identities.

That said, one of the earliest (the earliest?) was published in 1969: I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip by John Donovan. Unfortunately, LGBTQ novels of the 1970s always seemed to end with the gay character killed in a car accident. They became known as ‘Death by Gayness’ books. The lead character presumably died as punishment for being gay — not the sort of message anyone would have taken heart in.

The first young adult novel to deal with lesbian identity was Ruby by Rosa Guy in 1976. But Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982) remains more iconic.

Vanessa Wayne Lee is a scholar who divided lesbian novels into three main categories:

  1. Stories that assume lesbianism needs to be normalised. These stories often come across like information books with a bit of a story wrapped around them. (Like Judy Blume’s Forever is basically a sex manual.) She calls these “education texts”
  2. Stories that explore the formation of lesbian identity (coming out stories)
  3. Stories decenter the sexual identity of the character. Gayness will still be problematized but identity isn’t the central issue. Wayne Lee calls these “post-modern”. When Wayne Lee made these distinctions, she noted that this last category tends to be found in novels for older readers, but that has since changed in young adult.
CLICHES AND PITFALLS
  • The death as punishment story, in which a gay character dies because they are gay — avoid. (This is reminiscent of the pregnancy as punishment for sex story about heterosexual teenage girls.)
  • Less obviously problematic but still a problem: A story in which homosexuality is presented as just like heterosexuality. The aim here is to normalise, but this way of normalising homosexuality is highly problematic, not least because it uses heterosexuality as the basic standard and model. Anything outside that norm inevitably becomes a kind of deviation, undermining the whole intention.
  • There are some stereotypes which play into some highly problematic beliefs about homosexuality, for instance the domineering mother. It has been thought that gay men become gay because of an overbearing mother (and passive male role model), so bear that in mind when creating the character a gay teenager’s mother.
  • Related to that, homosexuality in a problem novel can sometimes seem like the author is saying that this problematic life event lead to the homosexuality. That’s the gayness as deviation and disorder mentality.
  • Gay sex as pleasurable is too rarely depicted in young adult. Stories tend to be all about the politics around it and not about the sex itself.

There are others, of course.

Am I Blue: Coming Out From The Silence (1994) was the first young adult anthology dealing with gay and lesbian issues.

These days many young adult novels include/star a LGBTQ character and the queerness is not the problem. They more and more just happen to be gay. An example of this is David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003). In this story the homecoming queen is also the star quarterback.

See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard

Also Would You Want To Read That? Using book passes to open up secondary classrooms to LGBTQ Young Adult literature from Emily S. Meixner

And Creating A Space for YAL With LGBT Content In Our Personal Reading from Katherine Mason

Connecting LGBT To Others Through Problem Novels from Hayn and Hazlett

10 Of The Best Teenage Novels With Gay and Lesbian Characters from Books For Keeps

The Heart Has Its Reasons by Michael Cart was published in 2004 and is a groundbreaking study of LGBTQ literature.

“I wanted something 100% pornographic and 100% high art: the joy of writing about sex by Garth Greenwell in The Guardian

TEENAGE EROTICA

House Of Holes has been recommended in major publications as a good example of erotica for a teenage audience. Erotica, of course, is a different thing from ‘the odd sex scene that crops up in typical young adult literature’.

The good news is that there is nothing in House of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).

In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.

The New York Review Of Books

TRENDS IN THE 2010s

In the past young adult novels have been very careful with their depictions of sex, usually alluding to it with a lovely romantic “fade out”. However, I’ve noticed a difference in the past few years as more and more novels are being more umm, specific, in the descriptions of sex. In addition to including these moments, characters have also had discussions about their feelings, whether positive or negative, towards sex and their sexual identity. I’ve also noticed an increase in a discussions of consent regarding sex as the couple in question has a healthy chat prior and often the subject of protection is addressed as well.

Rich In Color

The fade out trope when applied to sex is also known as ‘pan to curtain’.

FURTHER READING

What’s Going On Inside Of Me? Emergent female sexuality and identity formation in young adult literature, by Evelyn Baldwin

Emily Maguire is an Australian author, including of young adult novels such as Taming The Beast. In this article she explains what it was like to be a teenager, sex-drive-wise. It’s an awesome article.

Scarleteen is an excellent online resource for teenagers. Tagline: Sex Education For The Real World

Header illustration: Flash from an Old Flame, Cosmopolitan- January 1957 by Bernard D’Andrea