Creepiness In Art And Storytelling

Two Dancing Fools, Hendrick Hondius (I), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1642 wild things

We know when something is creepy. But how to define it?

On The Nature of Creepiness is a study by McAndrew and Koehnke, who realised there had never been an empirical study on what humans find creepy. The results were ‘consistent with the hypothesis that being “creeped out” is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty’.

Being ‘creeped out’ is sometimes associated with the physiological reaction of feeling ‘cold or chilly’, which makes me think of ghost lore. According to many folk beliefs, ghosts bring coldness with them. But the sensation of feeling chilly also happens when we feel socially excluded, so feeling that coldness is part of a more generalised defence mechanism.

THE CREEPIEST OCCUPATIONS

Four occupations were considered far creepier than others:

  • Clowns see this post for why, exactly, we probably find clowns creepy (it’s the smile and the mask)
  • Taxidermists because of their proximity to death, and their apparent fascination with it
  • Sex shop owners their apparent fascination and proximity to sex
  • Funeral directors because of their proximity to death, making them the embodiment of The Grim Reaper (Where there is death, there are funeral directors, after all.)

Many storytellers have been utilising the creepiness of these jobs in their narrative, sometimes subverting audience expectations by humanising people with creepy jobs, other times using them straight outta the box.

Pictured above
  • The clown from Stephen King’s IT (one of many creepy clowns across storytelling).
  • Angela from Six Feet Under, who has every creepiness factor except being male
  • Arthur from Six Feet Under, whose ambiguous sexual orientation becomes fodder for speculation in one episode in particular, resulting in Arthur being falsely accused of sending feces to the Fishers.
  • Barry from Dinner For Schmucks:

Barry who seems to lack an internal filter, and who spends his off hours building lovingly detailed dioramas featuring taxidermied rodents inadvertently turns the tables on the assembled guests.

Both Roach and Carell joined Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies for a discussion about the film, loosely adapted from the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons. In that film, the idiot character creates elaborate designs out of matchsticks; Roach says he made a conscious decision to change Carell’s obsession to express who he is a bit more.

“There’s a little hint of something sad underneath, and the [stuffed] mice become a way for him to express this optimistic view of life,” he says. “And that’s what made it seem like a kind of creepy-funny thing at first, and then these layers unfold.”

Dinner for Schmucks, NPR

CREEPINESS IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Storytellers and illustrators of children’s books can make deliberate use of the creepiness factor to create a frisson of suspense or joyful terror in young readers.

Below is the artwork of an illustrator whose work I grew up with. The Grahame Johnstone sisters were very good at creating creepy villains.

Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone - Sleeping Beauty
Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone – Sleeping Beauty

They did this by making use of features which have since been listed in the creepiness study above. Which of the following can you see?

  • standing too close
  • greasy hair
  • peculiar smile
  • bulging eyes
  • long fingers
  • unkempt hair
  • very pale skin
  • bags under their eyes
  • dressed oddly
  • licked their lips frequently
  • dirty clothes
  • laughed at unpredictable times
  • made it near impossible for someone to leave without being rude
  • relentlessly steers conversation toward one topic

The greenness of her skin affords an extra level of creepiness which is available in fantasy but not seen in real life. We can deduce that if green-skinned people existed in real life, we could add that to the list of creepy.

The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998

CREEPINESS CHANGES OVER TIME

When you spend a lot of time looking at illustrations from the first and second Golden Ages of children’s literature, you realise that our idea of ‘creepiness’ must have changed.

As one example, let’s take a look at Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, written by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, published in 1962. This is an especially interesting example as it won a Caldecott Honor Medal. This book was fully accepted by audiences at the time.

Now take a look at contemporary consumer reviews of this picture book on Goodreads. The first thing you notice is how many people find the large rabbit creepy.

He’s either imaginary, or been exposed to a radioactive carrot. Either way, I see this kid spending her adolescence in therapy.

CONSUMER REVIEW

Some readers find the rabbit less creepy once they code him as imaginary.

I wanted to like this story but it always felt a little squicky to me. Then I read the intelligent comments of my friend …. And, among other praises and analyses, she pointed out that Mr. Rabbit may be an imaginary friend.

Well that makes so much sense to me now that I actually do feel comfortable loving the story now!

CONSUMER REVIEW

Others had no trouble realising the rabbit is imaginary:

I do really like the aspect of the rabbit being bigger than the girl, making it clear that he is an imaginary helper.

CONSUMER REVIEW

The following reader made a great job of cataloguing exactly why she finds the large rabbit creepy:

 I found Mr. Rabbit verging on creepy. Walking on two legs, wearing no clothes, suggesting to the little girl that she buy her mother red underwear, leaning on the little girl presumptuously – violating her personal space – There’s another picture where Mr. Rabbit sits atop a fence and looks at the reader with an expression that seems to say, “Get me out of this picture book.” And in another, he lounges inappropriately on the forest floor, stretched out almost like a courtesan in a nineteenth century painting, his paw touching the little girl’s skirt. It doesn’t help that the contours of his body are those of a middle-aged man growing a beer belly.

CONSUMER REVIEW
  • Ambiguity: Is this a man or is it a rabbit?
  • (For some readers: Is this a real rabbit or is it imaginary?)
  • Standing too close
  • Touching
  • An age difference
  • He is male (therefore statistically more likely to be a sexual predator)

But what did 1960s audiences think of this book? Looking at other examples of 20th century children’s stories, elongated limbs of animal characters (ie. children with human heads) were common. I haven’t seen these proportions on animal characters in contemporary children’s books:

There was far less awareness of predatory adult behaviour in the 1960s. We know this. Changes in attitudes, sadly, track directly with men leaving primary teaching positions. By the end of the 1980s, the book buying public had started to think quite differently about stories in which grown men hang out with ‘little girls’. (The word ‘little girl’ is used to refer to the child character in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.)

Or perhaps something else is at play. Perhaps readers in the 1960s were less likely to ascribe any gender at all to a fantasy rabbit? If Mr Rabbit is in fact agender, that would remove one of the known creepiness factors. As a corollary, commentators will quite often say that Winnie-the-Pooh is agender.

I don’t entirely buy this. Children, for sure, absorb gender markers such as the word ‘Mr’ when decoding a text or a situation. This has been studied in educational settings, and even applies to so-called ‘universal he’. (Girls don’t think ‘he’ includes girls.)

INTERROGATING OUR OWN CREEPINESS RESPONSE

When we consider the creepiness of ‘standing too close’ I’m reminded of how British people mostly have a much smaller personal distance than Australians and New Zealanders. Yet this is a cultural difference, and we should code it as such.

When I think of people who ‘relentlessly steer conversation toward one topic’ I think of certain neurodiverse individuals, their disabilities around pragmatics and the joy they derive from deep and special interests. When it comes to hobbies, hobbies which involve collecting things are seen as creepy. (And more creepy still when the item collected is related to death or sex in some way. Collecting dolls is also widely considered creepy.) Neurodiverse people with special interests often collect items related to that special interest.

Watching something as a hobby is also considered creepy, including bird watching.

Should we really consider such hobbies creepy? Bird watching harms no one.

Roy Cropper was initially introduced as a potential creep. But he soon becomes a rounded character, known as a hard worker, and the audience learns to empathise. A modern audience would probably code Roy as autistic.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker encourages us all to trust our instincts when assessing potentially dangerous people. He’s not wrong about that, and I’ve recommended his book to many people.

“intuition is always right in at least two important ways;
It is always in response to something.
it always has your best interest at heart”
 

Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

“Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.”

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

At the same time, our assessment of ‘creepy’ has been shaped by our exposure to narrative (cultural and in fiction), and also by our own prejudices and lack of awareness of different cultures and neurodiversity.

Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining why young people are more likely to be creeped out than older people, who have seen a broader range of individuals, and are therefore more likely to sense the main factor behind creepiness: ‘ambiguity’.

CREEPINESS AND ASYMMETRY

When artwork is nowhere near symmetrical and we don’t expect symmetry, that’s not creepy. Perfect symmetry is also not creepy. But once the artwork approaches symmetry then messes with it a little, now the viewer is plunged into an uncanny valley of symmetry: We espect symmetry, but don’t get it.

The illustration below by David Hockney is the perfect example of creepy asymmetry.

David Hockney (British, b.1937) Park of Sources, Vichy, 1970

CREEPINESS AND CAMERA ANGLE

In static imagery, a low angle shot can add to the creepiness, as demonstrated by the following cover illustration, aided by its off-kilter perspective.

DISCUSS

Does the following creep you out and if not, why the hell not? What happened to you?

Also: What makes it creepy? Be specific.

Walter Early illustration for a 1945 Borden Dairy Company advertisement
Walter Early illustration for a 1945 Borden Dairy Company advertisement by Keith Ward (1906-2000)

Ward created a long series of ads featuring Elsie the Cow and her family. Elsie was seen in advertising campaigns for over 30 years, but she was never able to make the transition to television. (I wonder why.)

She was created in 1936, when the dairy industry saw highly-publicised price wars between farmers and dairy processors that caused larger dairies to be portrayed unfavorably. (Walter Early drew the first Elsie the Cow cartoon, which makes his name aptronymic.) The company first started advertising in medical journals, which featured a variety of cartoon cows with several different names, including Mrs. Blossom, Bessie, Clara and Elsie. A typical ad showed a cow and calf talking in a milk barn.

Except for the rare promotional appearance, she was retired in the late 1960s. However, Borden’s kept her image on their products. Over the following years she went through a few changes, arguably becoming creepier and creepier. This cow could already talk, but she was subsequently given the ability to stand upright. Eventually she became a creepy admixture of cow and housewife.

Header illustration: “Two Dancing Fools” by Hendrick Hondius (I), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1642. The image reminds me of illustrations of the Wild Things by Maurice Sendak. Sure, they’re fools and they’re only dancing, but they are also very creepy.

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

Continue reading “Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles”

The Psychology of Hoarding

Benjamin Walter Spiers - _Old armour, prints, pictures, pipes, China (all crack'd), old rickety tables, and chairs broken back'd_ Thackeray

How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

Alice Munro, “Free Radicals

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Benjamin Walter Spiers - An interior, a still life
Benjamin Walter Spiers – An interior, a still life

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

There was an old man on the border
illustrated by Hilda Boswell

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

Anti-hoarding poster from Germany
Anti-hoarding poster from Germany

RELATED

I think the lack of acquisitiveness is, interestingly, a sort of old age thing. I have a houseful of possessions; I don’t want any more things. But when you were younger, you often wanted new things, yes indeed. You coveted a lovely new rug or you coveted something new for the kitchen. I don’t do that now because in a sense I’ve — I was going to say, “I’ve got it all,” but no, you can always have something that’s even better than what you’ve already got. But I seem to have lost that feeling of, “Ooh, I really just must have that,” whatever it was. It goes, which is something of a relief.

Penelope Lively, NPR Interview

Header illustration by Benjamin Walter Spiers – Old armour, prints, pictures, pipes, China (all crack’d), old rickety tables, and chairs broken back’d Thackeray

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Junie B Jones Stupid Smelly School Bus

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.

Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.

Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because:

  • Junie B is considered a bad role model for children. She is self-centred, doesn’t do as she’s told and rather than learn to be a better person at the end of this particular story, she learns to join in with the exclusionary behaviour if she’s to get on in life, or first of all, on the bus.
  • The language used is deliberately incorrect, to mimic the voice of an almost six-year-old. Instead of using the proper word for something, Junie B will describe it in her own language. She also uses grammar in an original way. (I find Junie B. very fun to read aloud, even so.)

Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.

NYT

I have noticed a very similar discussion going on with the contemporary, super popular Dogman series by Dav Pilkey. A lot of adults don’t like the bad grammar, because they feel children learn literacy from these books, and if they read incorrectly spelt words, they’re going to subconsciously mimic the spelling.

I can’t cite linguistic research around this, but the conclusion feels intuitively wrong. If children were really that impressionable, puns would also be banned, for promoting the ‘incorrect’ reading of a word. Yet children’s literature is full of wordplay, and I’m yet to hear a gatekeeper complain about that.

As a character, Junie B. Jones is the daughter of Ramona Quimby, along with Judy Moody, Clementine (by Sara Pennypacker) and other highly spirited girls.

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO JUNIE B.

The Junie B. series are early readers, but have found an unlikely audience with older kids, as have the Dogman and Wimpy Kid books appeal across the spectrum of middle grade readers (helping to turn them into best sellers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is especially resonant with my ten year old daughter because on her very first day of kindergarten, she decided to get on a different bus to visit a boy’s house for a playdate, and the teacher didn’t realise she’d switched lines. It was a 39 degree (>102F) day here in Australia, and my five year old was lost in a dangerously hot world for over an hour. Though we got her back safe and sound (an hour and a half later!), that afternoon remains one of the most stressful parenting experiences I’ve had to date. I’ve since realised our daughter is the real world personification of Junie B. She even LOOKS a lot like Junie B., especially now she’s growing out her fringe and wears a headband. She even got glasses since.

Though the gatekeepers of children’s literature don’t like these highly imperfect fictional girls, Junie B. is a realistic child. Imperfect children do exist. Junie’s emotions are real emotions — her motivations are based on real anxieties and desires. If we keep books about imperfect kids out of real kids’ hands, we are diminishing the emotional scope for children. And the ‘bad’ emotions are the ones we need to see shared by others, to help us feel less alone. Not only that — uncomfortable emotions are the most interesting emotions. They make for great storytelling.

Seeing Junie B in my own child does affect my reading of Junie’s personality — she strikes me as ADHD phenotype, as all the most interesting fictional girls seem to be. All of these girls are descended from a much earlier ADHD phenotype girl — Anne Shirley. Put Anne Shirley in a 1992 American kindergarten and I’m pretty sure you get Junie B. Jones.

A further note on ADHD: These fictional girls would be hyperactive type. The inattentive type is more common in girls, but not as interesting on the page. ADHD is not a good name for what the condition really is. We focus on the ‘hyperactivity’ but there’s far more to being ADHD than most people know, including myself, before I realised I had given birth to one such creature. ADHD kids are inquisitive, notice small details, hyper focus on their interests for hours at a time (but fail to focus on things they find boring), and they have more trouble than most people controlling their emotions.

An emotion that many ‘neurotypical’ people (I’m not sure there’s any such thing as neurotypical) have trouble understanding — rejection sensitive dysphoria. That is, the feeling that you don’t measure up and that everybody hates you deep down. When I say that Junie B. and her fictional ilk seem to be the ADHD phenotype, authors use the most fun parts of ADHD in their middle grade fiction. The less fun parts are not well-explored in children’s literature, and I believe there is room for that still.

Then again, Barbara Park does understand this phenotype really well. Partly because I read Junie B. through the ADHD lens, I code Junie B. as a hugely unreliable narrator. In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. feels she is rejected as soon as she sits down. She is indeed rejected by the girl with the white handbag, but then she extends that out and spots kids as ‘meanies’, but for all we know, they’re doing nothing to give her that impression. She simply imagines they’ll be mean to her. Her irrepressible curiosity and unhelpful imagination leads her to explore another boy’s school bag, but when he shifts seats, she sees that as a rejection of her. He is therefore set up as her long term opponent. This personality trait is set up for laughs as part of the long-running character humour, but a more accurate reading of Junie’s personality does require a reader old enough to code Junie B. as an unreliable narrator. Younger readers — readers who are themselves in kindergarten — are likely to understand Junie’s experiences as the ‘truth’ of the situation.

POLITICAL PROBLEMS WITH JUNIE B.

I have my own political issues with the Junie B. Jones series, completely unrelated to the ‘poor role mode’ and ‘bad language’ arguments.

It all started with Anne of Green Gables (and probably even earlier), but I have grown tired of the opponent web in these middle grade books about highly spirited girls. Almost always, without fail, the opponent is a ‘girly-girl’. I’ve written much more extensively about that phenomenon here, and argue that there are real world consequences for such stories. I stop short at saying such books should be banned however; I would simply like to see a wider variety of character webs in middle grade fiction.

Barbara Park was a white woman, and most people who work in publishing are also white. Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten is notorious among Native American peoples for its poor portrayal of Native American culture. (I haven’t read it myself.) The #OwnVoices movement is going some way toward making this situation better. Let’s hope stories such as that would fail to get through all the checks and balances in 2018.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JUNIE B. JONES

While I’m here, I’ll take a good look at the structure of this book. (This is mainly for writers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is 6570 words and can be read by a proficient reader in about an hour. For a ten year old, it’s a bedtime read.

SHORTCOMING

I consider Junie B.’s rejection sensitive dysphoria her biggest shortcoming, but I don’t believe this is the child reader’s interpretation.

Junie B., like all the other little kids out there, have one overarching shortcoming: They have to do what adults tell them to do, even if that thing is big and scary and terrible. An adult might choose not to get on the bus. Indeed, many adults get also hate buses, but they get to drive their own cars. But kids are basically prisoners. All kids can identify with that.

DESIRE

Junie is driven by the desire not to do something (ride the school bus) which, in narrative terms, works equally well as a strong desire to do something. Her morning bus experience wasn’t great, but when a girl in her class mentions that you get milk poured over your head on the afternoon school buses, Junie understands that to mean ‘everyone, all the time’, and now she is highly motivated to avoid the bus home.

OPPONENT

Junie sees everyone as her opponent, even though she lives in a very cosy world and is completely looked after.

Her mother is her first opponent, for making her do something she doesn’t want to do.

Next, every single one of the kids at school are potential opponents. She initially thinks maybe she can be friends with the girl on the bus, but when that doesn’t pan out, she expands her generally negative feeling out and by the end of the day, everyone is an opponent.

Although Junie B. pits everyone against her, Barbara Park includes in every book a ‘cutaway shot’ to a smiling, benevolent adult, to show that the adults are really on Junie’s side, that they find her funny and adorable. I find this cloying when I read a lot of Junie B. books back-to-back — it’s a consistent feature of this series. But at the same time, it’s necessary, because without the adults on her side, Junie B. really has no one. (Mostly of her own doing.)

PLAN

We don’t see Junie’s plan until she does it, which is pretty much how Junie herself works. I’m sure she didn’t plan to hide at home time, but she thought of it, saw an opportunity and did it.

Now the story enters carnivalesque mode, in which Junie enjoys the fun of being at school all alone. She gets into the teacher’s desk, pretends to be the teacher, sniffs out some clay, gets into band-aids in the nurse’s office, and wears her jumper in a form of dress-up play.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene begins in the nurse’s room, where Junie B. is surrounded by the accoutrements of injury and death, in the most cosy way possible.

The big big struggle scene itself (the climax) is on the childhood equivalent of a Thelma and Louise film, with emergency services all turning up for Junie’s ’emergency’.

We don’t see her parents’ side, because that would not be fun at all. I’m sure they were worried out of their minds. (We don’t hear about the AMBER alert that went out.)

ANAGNORISIS

Although Junie B. is irreverent and although this series is not exactly famous for its didacticism, the lecture she gets first from the police officer, next from her mother in the car is the part where Junie (and the reader) learn that running off as she likes is not okay.

But Junie has her own anagnorisis, which almost cancels out the ‘good message’ dished out by the parents. She realises she can cope with riding the school bus if she behaves how the other kids behave. She will find herself her own bus buddy, and use her own purse to reserve their seat.

Of course, adults like to think that the kid world is far more inclusive than that. We like to think that children can sit where they like on the bus, that there is no meaningful pecking order, that our child would be receptive to another child expressing interest in an adjacent seat. But there is always a huge disconnect between The Rules and The Reality of childhood. A great number of middle grade authors fail to get a handle on the reality of childhood tribalism, and instead stick to a kind of utopia, or more likely, they go some way towards addressing bullying culture, but present a black and white dichotomy of ‘goodies’ and ‘bullies’, without depicting the huge in-between that is most of us — joining in with the system as best we can.

NEW SITUATION

Junie B. is now happy to ride the bus to and from school. We know her adventures at school will continue.

Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques

Somersault_movie_poster

Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland.

SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AMERICAN HONEY AND SOMERSAULT

  • Both are written from a female point-of-view, with a feminine sensibility
  • Male characters are often the cause of the downfall, and definitely the cause of the downfall at the beginning. In both we have a step-father figure sexually assaulting the young woman supposed to be in his care.
  • The older women in these young women’s lives are hugely problematic and can’t see past the system which pits young women in sexual opposition to older women, seeing themselves not as mentors but as opponents.
  • The young woman — the hero — sets out on a mythic journey of her own, pushed out of what sufficed for a home by her wicked step-mother archetype.
  • Along the journey she meets a range of opponents and allies — her challenge is to understand who is a true opponent and who is a true ally. This is not an easy task, because the people she meets are problematic characters in their own right, with dishonesties of their own. More complicated than that, problematic people can prove allies in their own warped way, by offering a lesson in how not to lead a good life.

THE ENDING

The major difference between Somersault and American Honey is the ending, but it’s only a surface difference: In American Honey, Star never returns home. She has found a new home, on the road. But Heidi of Somersault returns home to her mother, in a presentation of a happy ending. I don’t see this as a happy ending. It depends on whether the  mother has undergone some sort of revelation in Heidi’s absence. Heidi may be better to stay away from her mother. But this is left off the screen.

STORYWORLD OF SOMERSAULT

The setting is different, of course. Somersault is set in Jindabyne, or ‘The Australian Alps’ — probably not the image of Australia most non-Australian audiences would associate with this country. The narrative takes place at the end of winter, as work for itinerant workers is winding down. Abbie Cornish (who plays Heidi) spends about half the film wrapped up in winter gear and the other half naked as a baby (which I think is partly the point).

Behind closed doors, Heidi reveals her childlike side, conducting imaginary romantic dialogues with Joe in the mirror and poring over her scrapbook. Ms. Cornish, who suggests a teenage Naomi Watts, evokes the full spectrum, from vulnerable child to self-assured young woman, of Heidi’s personality.

NYT

See also: The Seasons Of Storytelling

Jindabyne feels like a heterotopia even to Australian audiences. There’s a creepy-as-all-get-out crime film, also set in Jindabyne. (The film is called Jindabyne., because that’s all that’s required for a creepy title.) Jindabyne is cold when the rest of Australia remains warm. Three hours from Canberra, even Canberra feels removed to the major cities of Australia, so that’s saying something. (I live near Canberra myself.) As a ski town, Jindabyne is busy at some times of the year. The snow melts and it quickly returns to its semi-deserted state. Horripilation is inherent to such places, which is why Stephen King knew to set a story in a resort town at its deserted time of year. Birds, humans, any kind of wildlife know, instinctively, that when a place clears out, something feels horribly off. It’s probably primal.

The Shining movie poster

There has been heavy post-processing with Somersault, with the blues and whites as a symbol for emotional detachment.

CHARACTERS OF SOMERSAULT

Australian filmmakers are often good at writing authentically naiive dialogue. Their young characters are not mini-adults. They are authentically young. Another excellent example is Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). It’s pretty painful to watch, actually. If only the characters could communicate better, they could live happily ever after. But we talked exactly like this at their age. We didn’t know what we wanted. We certainly did not know how to get it, and neither does Heidi. Nor does Joe, played by Sam Worthington.

Cate Shortland’s Somersault reminds me of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. Both are stories about sexual violence against women. Both writers have been careful to include a wide spectrum of men, each representing an archetype. In Somersault we have a lot of bad men, but each is bad in his own way:

  • The mother’s boyfriend sees nothing wrong with doing sex to his teenage step-daughter when he gets the opportunity. The opportunistic, unthinking, but still very damaging man.
  • Joe is a product of a masculine culture in which being manly is the only option. His same-sex kiss gives the audience insight into how Joe must be struggling to conform to this role. Joe steps in to be the hero when Heidi is in danger of being raped. Punching a guy in the face is the only tool he has.
  • Joe’s father is no help to him. We see him briefly, reading the paper, doggedly avoiding any sort of emotional connection with his son, even though the son is desperately seeking that with him. ‘Don’t wake your mother.’ This is a man who fulfils the role of husband and father, but probably only on the surface. He goes through the motions of being a good man but his head is down the whole time.
  • Joe’s friends exist to show the masculine friend dynamics. Their bonding is done via women, exchanging information about who is sleeping with who, treating sex like a conquest and boast-worthy achievement. Screenwriting gurus will tell you the hero needs a big argument with an ally at some point. The friend will interrogate the hero’s decisions. Heidi has no friends in Jindabyne, so as proxy, it is Joe who has the big argument with one of his friends about how he is living his life. Joe definitely has his own character arc in this film.
  • Off-screen, we have Irene’s son who has murdered a man. This guy is your ultimate, clear-cut villain. But he’s not interesting. We never meet him. The shades of grey are far more interesting for women writing stories about rape, the male gaze and everything in between.
  • The guy credited only as ‘staring man’ represents the male gaze in general, and foreshadows something even more creepy when Heidi asks for a job at the ski supplies shop.
  • Turns out this creepy guy (revealed later to be Bianca’s father figure) is another opportunistic type. At first I thought he was a replica of Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, only in another town. But unlike Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, this guy is older and knows exactly what he’s doing. Bianca’s father is deliberately (rather than stupidly, inadvertently) destroying the relationships women have with each other. He goes home and lies to Bianca that Heidi made a pass at him. He is disgusted by his own aroused response to Heidi and turns it outward.
  • Likewise, Cate Shortland takes the storytelling opportunity to make a distinction between the two men who Heidi ‘invites’ back to her room. One of them suggests they leave, knowing that sex with a stoned person can never be consensual. But when his friend goes ahead with it, he collapses into laughter, prioritising the friendship with his mate over the safety of the young woman. Both are bad; one is slightly worse. On the other hand, is one really worse? Neither of them pull back from the situation.

Heidi is invited back to Bianca’s house and we are introduced to Bianca’s little brother. Bianca’s mother is training him with flashcards to read faces. (An ineffective exercise, by the way, since a description of the expression is written right below the face itself. Presumably the kid can read words if not faces.) Bianca explains to Heidi later that her brother is autistic. In an outdated, 2004 explanation of autism, she explains that her brother lacks ’empathy’, unable to read other people. This is completely inaccurate — we know that now. Bianca describes not empathy (which autistic people have in spades), but social-emotional agnosia.

With increasing autism awareness, storytellers are now making use of autistic characters to say something deeper about their themes. I believe Cate Shortland has written these characters to show us all the different ways in which people misunderstand each other. The autistic boy shows us an exaggerated form of misunderstanding, which means the theme is hammered home strong for the audience.

THEMES OF SOMERSAULT

Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, describes this story as ‘a movie about the looks on people’s faces and the disparity between the surface and the roiling chaos beneath.’ People are different underneath. People are hard to read, even without their clothes. People tell lies. They leave things out.

The anagnorisis for Heidi is not made clear to the audience. What, exactly, has she learned from this experience? She tells her problematic proxy boyfriend she’s glad they met. She’s definitely meant to have learned something from this guy. But what? I believe this is left to audience imagination. I don’t believe she’s learned much about boyfriends, unfortunately.

Here’s what she has definitely learned: She cannot be her authentic self if she goes through life telling lies. Irene has learnt this too. They learn it together. The Battle scene which leads to this anagnorisis is the argument between Irene and Heidi in which Irene evicts Heidi for inviting young men in the middle of the night. These boys create a scene. (The attempted rape and punch to the face is the first stage of the Battle scene, but is not the part that leads to the anagnorisis.) Only then does Heidi’s mask come off. (Masks are very important in storytelling, especially in certain genres, especially at the Anagnorisis stage of a story.) Heidi admits to Irene that her mother is not dead. In turn, Heidi reveals to Irene that she knows Irene’s son is in prison, and demands to know exactly why. Only when the two women are completely honest with each other are they able to find temporary peace. Although I suspect Heidi went on to have many more terrible boyfriends, I imagine she’s more truthful with herself and to them. This alone will have helped her a bit.

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Humour Study: Overly Literal Characters

Atypical Netflix

Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.

If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels outdated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.

But has the archetype of the overly literal fool gone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:

  • White
  • Male
  • Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
  • Non-empathetic
  • And overly literal, to his own detriment

CASE STUDY: ATYPICAL

Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:

Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

What Netflix Comedy Atypical Gets Right and Wrong About Autism

Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly,a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.

WHAT’S BEHIND THE STEREOTYPE?

The following observations are from an #ActuallyAutistic perspective:

Autism and Literal Speech

Taking things literally is an extremely famous autistic trait, suggesting that irony, sarcasm, metaphor is entirely beyond us. But these things often aren’t [beyond us at all], so what’s really going on?

In my various communications with autistic folk (quite a lot, considering how anti-social I am) I’ve found increasing evidence that autistic people can recognise figurative, ironic language quite well, most of the time. I think the real story is a bit more complex. Straightforward irony and sarcasm can be pretty clearly signposted in speech after all – the whole ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ thing.

I think autistic people can get pretty adept at spotting these signs and even use them themselves. I’m going to basically think out loud now all the instances where I have taken things literally, to see if a pattern exists. Please join in.

So one type of implication that I *always* run the risk of missing is implied instruction. Such as, ‘ooh it’s got dark’ meaning ‘put the light on’ or ‘well, someone has to do it’ meaning ‘I want you to do it’. I miss this kind of thing very frequently. However, I don’t tend to miss implied criticism at all. In fact, I’m liable to hear it even when it isn’t there. All the time.

So what’s the difference? I think it’s to do with interaction with other mental states. The implicit instruction one is demanding some action as a result, and I think autistic people have a great deal of inertia a lot of the time that slows us changing tasks. This makes picking up on and acting on implicit instructions even less likely? Whereas picking up on criticism fits nicely with the sort of C-PTSD we often pick up from our endless failed interactions with neurotypical people — we become very very sensitive to such things and have been conditioned to expect criticism – is that just me?

Similarly, I tend to totally misunderstand sarcastic criticism. Like if a friend says, jokingly, that something I did was crap, I’d unfailingly take this to heart. I’ve tended to avoid people who like using this sort of humour. Whereas sarcastic praise is fine. I can handle that, even though it’s critical. It’s very confusing.

Another type of thing I’ll misunderstand is exaggeration. I’ll always take it at face value. If someone says they’ve had the worst day ever, I’ll believe that and be horrified for them. Anyone else do this? It’s like my brain doesn’t accept exaggeration as an option. So many times I’ve been amazed that people have seemingly recovered so quickly from what they described as dreadful, terrible things. I just never picked up on the fact they were exaggerating for effect.

Whereas I’m actually very good at identifying when people aren’t telling the truth, especially those little white avoidant lies like ‘I’m fine’ when they’re not. This seems to fit an easy pattern I can handle. I don’t know why. I’m not sure whether there’s a unifying pattern here, but I think that the issues around inference become more complicated when criticism is involved, due to the insidious effects of trauma in autistic people.

Once again it seems possible that an old obvious identifier of autism may actually be inextricably mixed up with the symptoms of trauma, like so many other traits.

We end up wondering what autism would be like without the trauma – how would it present? Maybe one day we’ll find out?

Pete Wharmby on Twitter, @commaficionado

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Humour in SpongeBob SquarePants

Below, an insight into the pitfalls of using stereotypically autistic tropes to create a character, and why it is problematic to then deny your character is written to be autistic. (Denial may work to get the author off the hook, but does nothing for the autistic community, who can see right through it.)

It’s very trendy, at the moment, to write characters coded as autistic. There have been several hits in books, films and television, that feature a particular kind of character. Usually, though not always, male. Usually, though not always, with savant-type abilities in some suitably nerdy subject. If not a savant as such, they are still very academically gifted. They are socially inept to the point of being flagrantly offensive and oblivious to it. They have no understanding of sarcasm or irony. Usually these characters are written by someone who isn’t autistic. Sometimes they admit that the character is supposed to be autistic, and sometimes they don’t. Claiming that the character isn’t autistic seems to be a good defence against irate autistic people like me saying “can you not with this terrible representation and encouraging people to laugh at us? You know it’s ableist, right?”

Eleanor Oliphant’s Story and Why It Doesn’t Belong To The Author Who Wrote It
1963 illustration of Amelia Bedelia, the tentpole 'overly literal' character of picture books.
1963 illustration of Amelia Bedelia, the tentpole ‘overly literal’ character of picture books.

FURTHER READING

You Don’t Have to Be a Superhero Recent onscreen depictions of autistic adults reflect our growing understanding of a lifelong condition from Vulture

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Inside Out And Neurodiversity

Inside Out

Inside Out is a 2015 Disney Pixar animated film for children. This is one of Pixar’s most popular. Inside Out is therefore fascinating from a writing point of view because it an example of the battle-free myth form, which we haven’t seen much of until recently.

This one is also a pedagogically useful film. Occupational therapists are using it with young neurodiverse clients.

From the December 6, 1938 of LOOK magazine "The Wonders Within Your Head"
From the December 6, 1938 of LOOK magazine “The Wonders Within Your Head”

Inside Out And Neurodiversity

All children must learn at some stage how to recognise and name their own emotions. This is harder for some than others. Even among the neurotypical population, a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty identifying how they feel.

Inside Out Colour Stripes
Inside Out Colours

Therapists who work with neurodiverse kids love Inside Out. My ADHD child’s occupational therapist recommended I re-watch this film with them and discuss the emotions according to a program called “The Zones Of Regulation”. These zones are designed to be a non-threatening, non-judgmental way of describing states of mind:

Blue Zone

Describes a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

Green Zone

The ideal state of alertness. A person may be calm, happy, focused, or content when they are in the Green Zone. They feel a strong sense of internal control.

Yellow Zone

A heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or fear when in the Yellow Zone. Their energy is elevated yet he or she feels some sense of internal control in the Yellow Zone.

Red Zone

An extremely heightened state of alertness. People experience anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, extreme grief, terror, or elation when in the Red Zone. They feel a loss of control.

Characters Of Inside Out

How do the characters map onto The Zones Of Regulation?

Blue Zone

Sadness is obvious, because Sadness is literally blue.

Green Zone

This is Joy when she is focused on solving a problem. Confusingly, Joy has blue hair. Conveniently, Joy’s dress is green.

Yellow Zone

This is Joy when she is jumping up and down with glee. This is also Disgust, who is coded green in Inside Out. Fear, coded purple in the film, also goes into the yellow zone.

Red Zone

Anger is literally red. But as the neurodiverse population knows well, there’s more to heightened emotions than anger. My AD/HD kid is frequently in this zone when she is elated, e.g. at the school disco.

Two Main Characters In A Hollywood Film

Though common in novels, it is unusual in Hollywood to have two main characters. The safest, most financially successful Hollywood blockbuster has a single main character and audiences follow throughout the film.

Who are the two main characters of this film?

  1. The main character of the real world thread: Riley
  2. The main character of the fantasy world inside the little girl’s head: Joy

In some stories a character tells a story about someone else. In this case there’s a main character of each thread. For instance, in Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character is the star of the main story, but Morgan Freeman is the star of the narrated, metadiegetic level of the story. (Note: Hillary Swank is not the main character of either thread. She exists as a tool for the narrative arc of the men.)

Inside Out Control Panel
Inside Out Control Panel

Story Structure Of Inside Out

Inside Out offers two full stories running parallel to each other, intersecting. Stories like these demonstrate why the concept of ‘subplot‘ isn’t useful. Each thread is its own full story, and one would not satisfy without the other.

Two storylines with two separate main characters mean two separate desires. These two different but intersecting stories interweave. So it appears to the audience that there is a single storyline.

What Makes This A ‘Female Myth’ Story?

First, take a look at the traditional mythic structure. (When I say ‘traditional’, I only mean the last 3000 years. Battle-free myths prevailed before that.)

Now take a look at battle-free mythic structure.

It’s not the gender of the main character which determines whether a story is mythically male or female. Though I did notice the gender-neutral name of Riley. Riley is not strongly femme coded . If animators changed character design and nothing else, Riley would make for an equally believable boy. That said, most main characters of male myths are masculo-coded, and vice versa.

WHAT IS A BATTLE-FREE MYTH?

A battle-free (feminine) myth is partly about what is not in the narrative.

What is ‘missing’ from a battle-free myth? In a ‘normal’ (expected) story the writer aims for the strongest opponent possible. This creates the greatest amount of conflict. That’s not how a battle-free myth works. In a battle-free myth there is no physical conflict with the big monster type of opponent.

Sure enough, the plot during the middle of Inside Out lags a little. Each time I’ve watched Inside Out, I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, just after the midway point. (My kid didn’t. For kids, the amazing spectacle of hijinks inside the brain sustains their attention.)

CHALLENGES FOR THE BATTLE-FREE MYTH

Perhaps battle-free myth stories should be shorter than your average male myth story. But will audiences buy a ticket to something that lasts one hour, or one-hour-ten? If the battle-free myth form is to exist equally among the corpus of entertainment available, the entire structure of Hollywood probably needs to change first.

That said, audiences are eager to see this kind of story. The battle-free myth is very new to a modern audience, and writers should be hyperaware that they’re about to foil expectations. Battle-free myths need to be better written, more engaging and probably have higher budgets than run-of-the-mill male masculine forms of myth in order to compete.

Theme And Ideology Of Inside Out

What’s the difference between the premise and the reason for writing?

PREMISE

After moving interstate, a girl learns to live with some difficult emotions for the first time in her life.

I imagine the writers wanted to do something like this:

Show it’s impossible to be joyful all the time. Do this by creating two side-by-side plots, with one thread taking place in a realistic modern day San Francisco, and another fantasy world inside one girl’s head. Express these homanculi-ed characters as major human emotions. In an outtake sequence, show that everybody has the same range of emotions inside their heads, too.

GOOD-EVIL BINARY

Inside Out evinces a modern view of psychology. While fairy tales gave us a good/evil binary, later stories kept the binary but attributed evil to ‘possession’ or child abuse.

Last century gave us stories like The Iron Giant. In order for that story to work, the author first set up a binary of good versus evil. Ted Hughes’s story is typical of its era: The Iron Giant was designed with evil intent, but in the end he chooses to use his powers for good.

That accounts for the Superman references sprinkled throughout The Iron Giant. Superman is the archetypal ‘Use your powers for good’ character. (The much later, 1999 film adaptation of The Iron Giant winks to the audience on this point, by creating a character who wears a yin yang dressing gown.)

INSIDE OUT AND THE IDEA OF THE SINGLE SELF

The modern (Modernist) view of human psychology is that there is no single ‘self’. We are all capable of being many things, depending on the time and place. Moreover, these emotions are not inherently ‘good’ or inherently ‘bad’. Like the psychologists who have come up with therapies for neurodiverse kids, Pixar’s Inside Out steers clear of value judgement.

[Inside Out] also reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.

The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is not a little world full of anthropomorphic creatures, of course. But it is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.

This, however, is just the first crack at the myth of the enduring, unified self. What the film also shows is that each of these parts is impermanent. Riley’s personality is represented by a series of islands that reflect what matters most to her: friendship, honesty, family, goofiness and hockey. But as life becomes difficult, each of these in turns threatens to crumble. And that is how it is in the real world: as we grow and change and life takes it toll, some of the things that matter most to us will endure, others will fall away and new ones will come in their place.

Julian Baggini, The Guardian
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Black Mirror Season Four Storytelling Takeaways

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Each story says something about our relationship to technology and how technology affects our relationships with others.

SEASON FOUR: USS CALLISTER

LOG LINE: A virtual woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.

Think Inside Out but for adults. As in the Pixar film for children, we have two separate plot lines running in parallel but intricately linked — one taking place in the ‘real world’, the other an ensemble cast of characters who exist only in one of the real world characters’ heads. The ‘main character’ of the ‘real world’ layer is different from the ‘main character’ in the fantasy layer, though I talk more about character function below. As is the case in Inside Out, I feel USS Callister does lag a bit in the middle, but I know this opinion isn’t shared by all types of viewers. Unlike Inside Out, one of the storylines in USS Callister is a happy ending, the other a tragedy.

USS Callister

I’ve seen approximately five minutes of Star Trek in my life, which was enough — given its pop cultural status — to know that the game spoofed in this episode was Star Trek. There’s nothing subtle about that. This genre spoof was the source of its humour — the buttons where it doesn’t matter which one you push, it’s all the same, to the smooth crotches sans genitalia, which is a comment on the sexlessness of Star Trek, but also a comment on the inhuman asexuality thought to be a defining characteristic of the show’s super fans.

The episode opens with a lengthy Star Trek scene which almost lost me as I zone out for the jargon, but then we’re in an elevator with Jesse Plemons’ character and I’m suddenly interested — this is a West World sort of story where a digital gaming life exists beyond the futuristic real world. At first we don’t know if it’s the reverie of a trekkie on his way to work, but sophisticated drama can no longer get away with such simplistic tricks. We know there has to be more to it than ‘then he woke up and it was all a dream’.

The writers use every trick in the book to endear us to Robert Daly. As I’ve already explored in a close reading of the Breaking Bad and Sopranos pilots, when creating an antihero you really need to go over the top to engender empathy first. Daly is:

  • very competent — genius, in fact, a ‘sublime coder’
  • comically under-appreciated
  • we see him humiliated when he trips over someone’s poorly placed sports bag (sports bag to set up your classic nerd vs jock opposition)
  • he is further humiliated when we see a couple of colleagues seeming to laugh at his misfortune through glass walls
  • he has been socially excluded in the office, shown by him tentatively asking if a guy will make coffee for him, as well as for everyone else
  • a reveal is that he is in fact one of the two big bosses, and the fact that everyone is treating him as the underdog when he is the brain behind the entire company feels upside down and very wrong to the audience
  • his business partner is a real asshole, flicking him on the back of the head
  • but Daly is nice to his underlings, to the point where the underlings are doing the job of project management on their own (Daly’s psychological shortcoming)

Jesse Plemons is the perfect actor for this role, playing both bad guys (Breaking Bad) and underdogs (Friday Night Lights etc.), but always with humanity.

Level of Technical Detail

I watched USS Callister with my husband, who happens to be a developer — not for a gaming company but in cybersecurity. I noticed that he was far more engaged with this episode than I was, so I’m sure this storyline appeals especially to viewers who are:

  1. Star Trek viewers
  2. Work in offices
  3. Especially developers/testers/project managers and anyone else in that chain
  4. Gamers

I’m none of those things and my husband ticks all four boxes. I zoned out at the beginning and also later, during the big struggle sequence. “Do you understand what’s going on?” I asked. “Yeah, I get it.” I waited until after the episode before asking him to fill in the gaps.

Turns out I hadn’t missed as many things as I had thought because there are certain parts of the tech we’re meant to gloss over. Namely:

  1. How do the clones have all their memories to the point that think they’re the same, sentient individual as their real-world counterparts? Wouldn’t they have no memory? This is glossed over in the story but we do hear the phrase ‘sentient code’. There’s no such thing, of course, so we’re not supposed to understand it at all. We’re supposed to just go with the idea that Daly has found some way to clone not only bodies with DNA, but also the memories of the original brain.
  2. How does Daly get stuck inside the game world when the others get out, into the wider world of the game? It helps to know that by getting through a firewall the digital clones will lose any mods that Daly gave the game. So once they break past the firewall, they’ve escaped him. Asking for more details than that is fruitless because getting stuck inside a game is total fantasy. Thusly, it doesn’t matter how they get in and out.

So that was an interesting case study in how much tech detail is required to satisfy a technical sort of viewer, notorious for pedantry when it comes to fake IT plots written by non-IT people, and almost always fans of mimesis, even in story. As a non-tech viewer, I was left with the feeling I had missed a lot, but now I’ve had a post-episode discussion I’m pretty sure the tech details in this plot work like the buttons on the spaceship — “You can press any one, it doesn’t matter.” Transliteration: “You can make up concepts without explaining them, just so long as the viewer gets the gist.”

Predictability

It has been said of Charlie Brooker’s plot lines that at some point in each story the audience is ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’. Meaning, events have been set up, they’re in motion, we know what’s going to happen. Now we’re just waiting for it to play out. (Others less generously call this the ‘yeah, no shit’ rule.)

That may be so, but these stories are far from predictable. The interesting settings keep us engaged. I didn’t predict what was happening in this particular episode of Black Mirror, partly because the tech concepts were new to me, but my husband picked immediately that we were looking at a West World sort of plot. He also knew immediately that Nanette was sending the message to her real world self.

When Nanette manages to blackmail her real world self with naked pictures, that is the point we’re waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop’. We know they’re going to get out. This is when the tech details become interesting (for technical viewers) and the humour is amped up a bit (with genre parody of Star Trek, as well as in the acting itself).

Character Functions

What are the character functions of USS Callister?

  • The story tricks us into thinking that Robert Daly will be the main character in many senses of the word — the guy we see the most of, the guy we feel empathy for, the guy who will undergo the character arc. But it is soon revealed that Daly is an antihero, and although his circumstances change, he doesn’t really undergo a character arc. His manic laugh at the end puts us in mind of a baddie like The Joker, who has been defeated but hasn’t grown psychologically.
  • Nanette is a classic viewpoint character — she’s new to the Infinity Office and to the spaceship, which puts her in the exact same position as the audience. It is Nanette who undergoes a character arc. Okay, technically she doesn’t. Technically she bifurcates early in the story and her clone is put into a position where she transforms from a mild-mannered, fangirling office worker into a powerful leader.
  • We empathise at various points with Daly (first), Nanette (second) and maybe even with the clone of Walton after he tells us about how he has been manipulated by Daly and lost access to the real version of his own son. At the end we may even feel a little sorry for Daly, stuck there forever in space. That’s pretty terrible. Unlike the others, Daly isn’t a clone of himself — it’s the real Daly there in the game. A brief shot of him slumped at his computer shows that he is effectively brain dead. Also, the real world Daly is not an asshole. This is an example of a story that really plays with character empathy.
Themes

Thematically, MSS Callister is another story of its time. At the end of 2017 I am put in mind of:

  • Men in the workplace who are passive aggressive bullies to other men, because those men are competing for a position in the pecking order. But when it comes to the bullying of women, the woman only needs to piss him off by being sexually desirable and out-of-reach, and then the bullying becomes sexual, also known as sexual assault. Daly is a sexual predator, but only in the virtual world. (Unless swiping someone’s DNA and creating a sentient clone to use and abuse can be considered assault, which I’m sure it can, to be fair.)
  • Which plays into how I feel about underdog male gamers. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the worst offenders online are probably underdogs in their real lives, and take out their aggression online, with avatars they perceive to be weaker than them (female avatars being worst targeted).
  • As usual for a Black Mirror episode, we are asked to consider the gap between ‘the real world’ and ‘the virtual world’, with the inevitable conclusion that these days there is no gap. The person who is an asshole online but meek at work is the same (real) person.
  • But as far as that online bully is concerned, others online are not real. To the online bully, he might as well be abusing avatars.
  • What does it mean to be a ‘real person’? Is it really so bad to create digital copies and abuse them? Is that abuse? What if the existence of the fake people is the outlet that allows you to make it through your working day among people who you despise, without blowing your top? Is it okay then? Also, were these digital copies real? If they are sentient, aren’t they basically real people, and should be treated as such?

ARKANGEL

LOG LINE: After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her.

Arkangel Black Mirror

Arkangel is the name of the company trialling chips for parents to implant permanently into their children’s heads in order to keep an eye on them. Archangels are angels higher in rank than ordinary angels (good to know you can’t escape a very human pecking order up there). Why the change of spelling? A reference to Noah’s Ark? Where the apocalypse is coming, and only those in the know will be able to save their children, by means of the latest in technology? I don’t know.

It makes sense that Jodie Foster directed this one — she’s done her share of ‘missing child’ films, notably Flightplan. If the first episode of series four appealed to gamer techie types, this one appealed to parents, especially mothers. I don’t enjoy stories in which a child goes missing. On my daughter’s first day of kindergarten her school put her on the wrong bus. This was a 39C afternoon (102F) in rural Australia, and since I didn’t even know she was on a bus (the school office had closed), that was the most harrowing hour and a half of my parenting life so far. Most parents have lost a kid at some point, if only for seconds. The fear is utilised in this story. Even non-parents are able to empathise with loss of a loved one.

This is the ‘grain’ of season two’s The History Of You, but applied to a child.

Story Structure

It’s a solid plot, following the mainstream conventions of storytelling:

  • A single main character (the mother)
  • Who is faced with a moral dilemma
  • And is eventually set up as an opponent to her own daughter
  • Although we are given enough information to empathise with the mother’s decision we do not approve of all of it
  • The mother makes a bad decision (to keep using the tracker app) and is punished in the worst way
  • Ending in the tragedy of a broken family and a damaged daughter on the path to destruction (reminiscent of Rhonda Volmer’s fate in Big Love, getting into a truck with an unknown man and leaving town.)
Themes

Arkangel is an unsubtle critique of helicopter parenting and censorship, coming down firmly against it. A mother and daughter have a great relationship until the daughter discovers her mother has been spying on her in her most intimate moments. And I guess that tablet is not based on an Apple iPad, because it is used to bludgeon the mother’s head without shattering the screen.

At what point do we lose empathy for the mother? The mother is a good antihero because I understand her motivation at all times, even while disapproving of her methods. I never lost empathy for the mother, but it’s clear from the moment the chip is implanted where this story is going to go. It goes exactly where you think it’s going to go. This is another ‘waiting for the second shoe to drop’ plot. But that’s okay. It’s still a gripping story. Arkangel is an example of a story which is predictable but still satisfying. Not everyone agrees:

It feels like one of those lightbulb ideas of Charlie Brooker’s that sputters and dies in the execution, a bit like last season’s “Playtest.”

Sophie Gilbert

As Gilbert goes on to say, the interest in this story is not in the plot — it’s in the message:

Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear.

Where the message itself falls short:

But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.

The story itself doesn’t offer its audience anything new in its ideas, but what it can do is open up a dialogue. This is a Black Mirror episode I would like to watch with my daughter at some stage, to open up a discussion about parental surveillance and its limits. Because we’re already here. We already keep track of our children using the preinstalled Find My Friends app, or with a GPS wristband. The photographing of everything and its obligatory uploading onto social media means parents know far more about the current generation of teenagers than they ever knew before.

Side note: When the daughter has been shielded from anything raising her cortisol levels she is eventually unable to read situations correctly. A psychologist tells the mother ‘I don’t think it’s autism.’ I’m grateful for this snippet of dialogue because there’s this erroneous idea circulating that ‘too much screentime causes autism’. Sometimes when storytellers (accidentally) create stories which intersect with certain popular but bad ideas it’s necessary to forestall misreadings  in this way.

Further side note: I blame Charlie Brooker first and foremost, but there were women working on this episode. A woman directed, women acted the parts. I can’t understand how misinformation about the emergency contraceptive pill slipped past. “Emergency contraception, for terminating a pregnancy,” are the words. Emergency contraception is for preventing pregnancy, not terminating it. This kind of misinformation has real world effects.

CROCODILE

LOG LINE: A woman interviews various people using a device that allows her to access their memories.

Crocodile Black Mirror

This wasn’t a good episode. It felt recycled and unoriginal — partly because Charlie Brooker seems to be borrowing from his own self, with another chip stuck to the side of the head. This is another take on the The History Of You episode, which was very strong and felt totally original. This episode even recycles a song from an earlier episode. I wonder if this was deliberate or due to budget constraints.

There’s nothing engaging about watching a character dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, involved peripherally in a murder, then making a huge leap as murderer, then serial murderer, then baby murderer. The motivation here didn’t feel strong enough.

This routine murder plot is improved by the parallel plot of the woman whose job it is to interview witnesses to crime scenes, recording their memories then amalgamating them to establish the truest account of an event. But even here, there’s no time to see her as a person — we only see her doing her job (empathetically) and also getting a guinea pig, which you just know is going to function as a Chekhov’s Gun, because there was unusual emphasis on it. The scene where she is given the guinea pig does accomplishes nothing but to show her in the home environment — in order to avoid acting like a big giveaway (at a certain point, after the reveal that the baby was blind), its introduction would’ve needed to be more subtle.

But maybe the writer wanted us to guess correctly that the guinea pig was going to be used. I was really looking forward to seeing inside a guinea pig’s head but alas, the episode ends before we get to see it! I imagine including guinea pig observations would tip the sci-fi thriller horror into comedic territory though, because some people have attached GoPros and heart rate monitors to their dogs and those are pretty darn funny.

David Sims pinpoints the main problem with the plotting of this episode:

Any hint of lingering humanity is quickly erased as Mia turns into a rampaging monster. Soon, she’s only killing people to set up further plot points in an episode that turns into a strange sort of treatise on body cameras and crime surveillance.

The Atlantic

As I was watching it I got a little bored by the story and it’s not until the insurance agent’s storyline is introduced that we get any sci-fi stuff at all. Unfortunately that’s why you sit down to watch a Black Mirror episode. Without the sci-fi tech stuff, some of the plots aren’t strong enough on their own, and Crocodile is one of example.

HANG THE DJ

LOG LINE: A new dating app hits the scene, where the matched couples are told how long their relationships will last.

Hang The DJ

Romance is really hard to write, despite all the genre beats being there for you, and despite romance genre readers expecting a happy ending and therefore predictability. One of the reasons romance is so hard to write is because in contemporary Western culture it’s hard to come up with a reason to keep two romantic opponents apart for the entire length of a movie. People tend to get together early on these days, so the sexual tension is cut short. The fact that this is a TV length episode and not a movie helps the writer, too. Yet, as others have noted, it still sagged in the middle a little. That’s how hard it is to write romance. I don’t think romance is Brooker’s particular thing.

I enjoyed “Hang the DJ” a lot, although it sagged a little in the middle, like Black Mirror episodes tend to do.

Sophie Gilbert

Charlie Brooker has taken the technology of dating apps and swung the hook-up culture in the opposite direction, leading once more to a conservative, dystopian, The Giver type scenario in which technology is used to take choice and control away from people looking for love. The technology itself is keeping two lovers apart. (Ostensibly.)

This episode is traditionally satisfying because the nature of the technology is explained early on. Also, the main characters are empathetic and we relate to their very human plight. Even more satisfying is the massive reveal at the end, harking back to the San Junipero episode in which we find out these people are VR. But in San Junipero, suddenly things that didn’t make complete sense, do. For instance, the women in San Junipero are outrageously blase about a near-death experience with a car wreck. This makes sense in hindsight, when we realise they can’t die inside the simulation, because they’re already dead on the outside world. Hang the DJ isn’t as satisfying in that respect because the angst and anguish over sleeping together and the annoying tics and the unsatisfying sexual experiences don’t map well onto a VR world.

METALHEAD

LOG LINE: A black and white film about a woman attempting to survive a dangerous land full of “dogs”.

metalhead

Kudos to the CGI studio who made that creepy ass dog beetle thing because the success of this episode hangs on the sheer terror of being chased in a cat-and-mouse plot where Charlie Brooker hasn’t told us any backstory whatsoever, including why this woman is breaking into the warehouse and why she is being chased. In other words, we don’t see her psychological shortcoming (though her ‘moral shortcoming’ might be ‘breaking into places she shouldn’t’). Her only desire is surface level — to get something from a warehouse, then to escape with her life from a terrifying machine. We don’t see any ‘under the surface’, psychological desire. This is a straight horror, without the character development. It is what it is.

We do get a few clues at the end — she’s breaking into the warehouse to get a teddy bear, for a child? My husband found this episode far more satisfying than I did. He didn’t care why she was being chased. But I don’t watch a story for the thrill alone — I felt frustrated that we were given nothing, nothing at all — just plonked into what is effectively someone’s nightmare — no context, just terror. Hearing about someone’s nightmare is more riveting than hearing someone recount a random, absurdist dream but… only just?

I suspect the team who came up with this story have seen the horrifying videos coming out of MIT’s robotic department.

Then again, there’s a real life analogue and reality is even more scary than fiction.

The Russian military is … investing heavily in new technologies to transform its armed forces, developing robots that are capable of mounting operations to evacuate wounded soldiers from the big strugglefield and to diagnose and treat casualties. Researchers are also working on biomorphic robots like the four-legged Lynx, which will be equipped with a machine gun and anti-tank guided missiles and will be able to operate in conditions including on ice and in sand that would test, challenge and tire human soldiers.

— The New Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan (2018)

It’s called Laikago.

BLACK MUSEUM

LOG LINE: An anthology of its own, a woman enters the Black Museum where the proprietor tells her stories relating to the artifacts.

black museum black mirror

The tech plot in this one seemed to drill down deeper and deeper in a kind of vortex plot, a mise en abyme of embedded consciousnesses. It gets confusing if you’re on your phone at the same time. Even so, I was able to guess who the young black woman is.

If Stephen King put you off clowns, this may well put you off monkeys.

This desert museum functions as a kind of hell-on-earth, but I was strangely reminded of Willy Wonka. Here we have a man who takes great delight in showing off his macabre little world. This tour guidance looks and feels more like stage performance. Like Wonka, the tour guide in Black Museum displays “a frightening combination of warmth, psychosis, and sadism”.

Charlie Brooker has imagined a more realistically diverse future in many ways — mixed race couples, for instance, and a Muslim insurance agent in a previous episode. But in Brooker’s vision of the future gender dynamics are as cliched as ever. It’s mothers who become problematic helicopter parents, and Hang The DJ couples are 100% hetero, despite a huge number of young people identifying as queer even today.

In Black Museum I rolled my eyes at the wife inside the husband’s head, reminding him to wash his hands, vaguely disgusted by his bodily functions in a prissy, motherly kind of way, despite being his former lover. The episode could have been written the other way around (the husband inside the wife’s head) but I suspect we would’ve had an inverse set of sexist tropes. (A husband who gets sick of watching rom-coms, overly interested in looking at himself naked in the mirror etc.) It remains very difficult for writers of sci-fi to reimagine a world in which gender norms have been challenged. Yet these same writers have no problems coming up with original and interesting technological scenarios. I conclude that these writers don’t even want to imagine a world in which a wife inside a husband’s head might, say, become as masculine as the husband himself, because she has become one with him. Or a man who learns to embrace femininity.

Season Four of Black Mirror has been patchy but compulsory viewing for me. Brooker has done a great job of taking either an accepted or negative truism about certain technologies then flipping to its ironic opposite outcome. I did feel that Brooker is borrowing from his own work a little too heavily, suggesting he’s running out of ideas, or is being pushed too fast to create. Next season I would love to see revisionings of what it might look like to exist as human alongside these future technologies, rather than simply plugging 2017 humans into a projected future. Of course, sci-fi has always been about current times, never really about the future. Even so, sci-fi writers need to take the least conservative (most progressive) version of 2017 if they want to get anywhere near close to challenging the collective imagination.

  • Fathers who look after children
  • Gender tropes subverted
  • People who understand what the emergency contraceptive pill actually does
  • Queer sex normalised and fully catered for in popular apps
  • Female villains who actually have some depth
  • Black doctors who are the stars of the show, not just black sidekicks and scrappy underdogs

That kind of thing.

RELATED

Three short films about surveillance

  • Blaxites highlights issues that arise when different data systems are connected.
  • A Model Employee examines data ownership and the need to earn a system’s trust.
  • Frames exposes the problems in trusting sensor data and facial recognition to interpret human behaviour.
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Humour Writing And Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob and Patrick

SpongeBob Squarepants is a fast-paced children’s cartoon for a dual audience, written by a guy who is also a marine biologist. This is a highly successful and long-running show, with humour that broadly appeals.

This series has been running since 1999. Critics say the show has been declining in quality in the last few years, which is what critics also say of The Simpsons. What is the longest time a comedy series should run for? Are there any examples of comedy series lasting longer than a decade without a serious decline in quality? I can’t think of any myself.

[Update: Sadly, Stephen Hillenburg died September 2018.]

Here I use Scott Dikkers’ 11 Categories Of Jokes to focus on the humour of SpongeBob.  I’ve used so many SpongeBob examples in that original post that I’m ready to do an entire SpongeBob post. (If you feel that analysing jokes takes the joy out of comedy, this post is not for you!) Studying humour is a lot like doing tennis drills. Concentrate on form and process during deliberate training sessions, but once you’re playing a game (actually writing comedy) we need to put everything you know aside and get into a state of flow.

It’s also worth looking at other people’s comedy writing to hone your own sense of what’s funny and what’s not. While I find most of SpongeBob’s humour funny, I get annoyed with some of it, too. (Backed up by Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid sales as evidence, sexism sells.)

First a note about the structure.

THE PLOT STRUCTURE OF SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS

A lot of the SpongeBob Squarepants episodes follow  a very common plot structure for fast paced comedies of about 11 minutes long. (This is also about the length of a We Bare Bears episode — equally fast paced with a heavy joke density and surprisingly complex plots.)

The double thread plot is popular with SpongeBob writers.

  • The plot will begin either with SpongeBob or with his opponent.
  • SpongeBob gets into trouble.
  • The opponent also faces challenges.
  • These two threads come together during the Battle sequence, and the audience learns how the two separate threads are inextricably linked. One thread doesn’t fly without the other.

Seinfeld also uses this structure a lot.

OPPONENTS

The characters who live in Bikini Bottom have their own web of opposition which provides the most layered and interesting conflict of each episode. However, there is usually a big, bad baddie who comes into town. In episode one it’s a hoard of hungry anchovies. In Bubblestand it’s a massive bubble which envelops Squidward’s house and carries him away, suddenly uniting the SpongeBob/Patrick team with Squidward — they (briefly) feel sorry for him.

SpongeBob’s gang is made up of his best friend Patrick, who is the stupider but kinder version of SpongeBob, much like the Greg Heffley and Rowley friendship in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then there’s Squidward making up the threesome, who is sort of part of their gang but not actually because he doesn’t find SpongeBob and Patrick funny. Squidward embodies the seven deadly sins and then some — depending on the episode, Squidward is everything we despise in people. He is haughty, has no sense of fun, sarcastic, selfish and so on.

The threesome/twosome friendship plus an oddball outsider is pretty common in comedy.

In Seinfeld we have Jerry, George and Elaine, plus the unfathomable quirk of Kramer across the hall.

As  mentioned above, there’s the Wimpy Kid stars and then there’s Fregley, who would like to be one of the gang but is just too odd for even Greg and Rowley, who get up to plenty of odd stuff in their own right. That’s the raison d’etre of these super odd character of course — Fregley’s weirdness actually provides verisimilitude to whatever those other two get up to. It doesn’t matter how weird Greg’s life is, it’s never as weird as Fregley’s.

Although these characters spend a lot of time conflicting with each other, they do band together when a bigger, badder outsider comes along. This creates a double layer of opposition:

  1. Opposition within the in-group
  2. Opposition between the in-group and the outsider (the big, bad baddie who comes into town)
Pilot Episode

SpongeBob wants a job at the Krusty Krab as a cook. He is sent out on an impossible mission to find a super powerful spatula (which he ironically finds easily at the supermarket).

Meanwhile, back at the Krusty Krab, a whole lot of hungry anchovies turn up and create havoc for the restaurant owner and Squidward. (The anchovies are the big, bad outsiders.)

These two plot threads come together as soon as SpongeBob arrives back at the Krusty Krab with his super-powerful spatula, which just so happens to be exactly the unlikely implement needed to knock out meals at a super quick rate, feeding all the hungry anchovies and saving the day.

Bubblestand

This is a quiet story, which is in line with the mesmerising activity of bubble blowing. SpongeBob sets up a bubble stand (like a lemonade stand) right outside Squidward’s house.

Inside his own home, Squidward tries to practise his clarinet, but the bubbles outside are creating an unlikely amount of trouble for him.

The threads come together when a bigger, badder opponent comes into town, suddenly putting these neighbours on the same side. (A massive bubble which carries Squidward away.)

Ripped Pants

This episode does not have the dual plot line going on. It is a simple parable with a clear message for its viewers: If you keep recycling a joke it stops being funny and starts irritating people. You will alienate your friends. This episode therefore has the single strand plot line, like a parable. The New Situation phase is actually a song, explaining the lesson in the way those old parables and Charles Perrault fairytales used to do in a paragraph.

Walking Small

This episode opens with the point-of-view of the opponent — the tiny Plankton, who wants SpongeBob to help him clean up the beach, as he himself is too small to make a difference. Plankton is not a formidable villain, but is still an opponent, because SpongeBob does not want to spend his days cleaning up the beach. SpongeBob’s goals are simply to have fun. Plankton is a fake ally opponent, instructing SpongeBob to be formidable, though SpongeBob obviously doesn’t have it in him, being nice when he’s meant to be assertive. SpongeBob eventually realises what the deal is and decides that if he can’t be aggressively mean, he can be aggressively nice. The entire story takes place on ‘the beach’, which is funny because there can’t be a ‘beach’ at the bottom of the ocean. The outtake shows him enjoying a game of volleyball, and the lesson is that it’s more fun to be nice than to be maniacal.

Notice that the ‘lessons’ in SpongeBob episodes are very obvious ones, and therefore very knowing. Though the youngest viewers might take these lessons to heart, older viewers know that these lessons exist only because SpongeBob is a parody of didacticism itself.

HUMOUR IN SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS

Even the music goes a long way towards setting a comical scene, with a tune by Tiny Tim in the pilot, and an outtake tune which sounds like slightly off-beat banjos. (Country music is easy to make fun of, just as it’s easy to make fun of country hicks.)

1. IRONY

The entire series is ironic on every level. But let’s break it down just a little.

Irony is a ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.

In that pilot episode, we don’t expect SpongeBob to arrive back with a super powerful spatula, which we have been told doesn’t even exist. On a story level, we didn’t expect SpongeBob to secure his job at the Krusty Krab by saving his new boss from marauding hungry anchovies.

Irony might simply be the opposite reaction from the one expected. For instance, when selling door-to-door, Patrick’s eyeballs pop out of his head like worms and he gets them slammed in the door. Instead of saying “ouch” (the expected reaction) the eyeballs look around and Patrick says, from the other side of the door, “ nice place you got here!” This joke has several funny filters, the other one being he is so stupid he can’t feel pain.

2. CHARACTER HUMOUR

This is where it’s very easy to get mean about certain groups of people. But it’s also where a lot of excellent humour comes from.

GENDER, AGE AND POWER

Much humour derives from power flowing away a character, especially if that character generally has a powerful position in society. Mermaid Man, for instance is a parody on the superhero trope. Mermaid Man has no power at all really because:

  1. He lives in an old people’s home
  2. He dresses as a girl

Ageism is a slightly separate issue — we’re all going to get old at some point (if we’re lucky). Sexism, on the other hand, will never affect hetero cis boys in quite the same way so it’s worth taking a much closer look at that.

While Barnacle Boy is neutral and therefore unproblematic, the fact that his sidekick Mermaid Man wears the bikini of shells means that Mermaid Man is doubly disempowered: age and gender expression are against him. At first glance this may seem innocent humour, except that the joke doesn’t work if genders are reversed.

MEANNESS EXERCISE FOR COMEDY WRITERS: This is always a good yardstick to measure by. Does the joke still work if you reverse the genders? If not, it will stand out as horribly dated in a few decades’ time, and as horrible right now to many of your contemporary audience as well.

SpongeBob Squarepants the series gets a lot of mileage out of sexist jokes, which is what inevitably happens when the entire writing team is men — they inevitably write for a male audience.

Why is the town called Bikini Bottom? Because for boys there seems to be some discomfort around female clothing. And anything that causes mild discomfort is ripe for turning into comedy. Pants in general are also generally funny in children’s comedy, but if those pants are related to sexuality, now you’ve got a joke that spans two opportunities for discomfort: bum jokes AND sexual humour, otherwise known as ‘adolescent humour’.

Sandy Cheeks the squirrel is the female sexual opponent, meaning SpongeBob is sexually interested in this character, tries to impress her, and much of the humour derives from him failing as a man. This pokes fun at masculinity, at the same time as reinforcing it. No one is meant to learn from SpongeBob how to be a man, just as no one really takes the didacticism of SpongeBob straight. But this line of jokes remains problematic, not because of its explicit message, but because of the tacit ones. Anyone working in advertising will tell you, tacit messages are the more powerful.

We first meet Sandy in Tea At The Tree Dome. Sandy invites SpongeBob back to her dome where there is no water (because she is a squirrel). SpongeBob has told Sandy that he, too, likes water-free places. This is a joke aimed at the older portion of the audience — an example ‘reference humour’ based on the common phenomenon of trying to make out you like the same things as a sexual target even though you really don’t. It is always revealed over the course of a relationship that you really don’t like the things you pretended to like, which is a great example of transgression comedy, in which the ‘mask’ comes off and we laugh because it is both deserved and uncomfortable, and the reactions of the characters delight.

We next meet Sandy Cheeks at the beach, where Sandy continues to innocently think she and SpongeBob are just friends. She laughs wholeheartedly at SpongeBob’s jokes and SpongeBob thinks he’s well and truly on his way to persuading Sandy that he would make good boyfriend material. But then a big, strong manly crab turns up and Sandy decides to go with him to lift weights. SpongeBob is thoroughly humiliated when it turns out even Sandy can lift heavier weights than he can. Comedy comes from SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming — even a stick with marshmallows on the ends sends him sinking into the sand. Viewers of all genders are familiar with the male tendency to show off for sexual gain. Everybody gets the reference humour of this dynamic. But it’s only one end of the gender spectrum who sees themselves time and again as the unwitting object of the desire in comedy. Spoiler alert: the femme coded genders.

This seems utterly innocent, until you take a look at SpongeBob’s utter persistence. He believes that so long as he persists, Sandy will eventually become his girlfriend. She’s simply too stupid to realise what he’s trying to achieve. In this super common (bog standard) comedy plot line, the ideology of persistence has a real and damaging effect on how boys are taught to see girls. The audience is taught to empathise heavily with the ‘loss’ of romance (though it was never achieved to begin with). That means we empathise with SpongeBob, but at no point empathise with Sandy. At the extreme real life version of this narrative, we get a boy shooting an ex-girlfriend in school, and the police describe the boy as ‘lovesick’.  That’s because we are all taught time and again, from drama to comedy, to empathise with the plight of romantic failure, and not taught to empathise with the object’s wish to be friends, or to be left well alone.

Weirdly, we learn later in the Ripped Pants episode that SpongeBob has ‘lost his best friend’ (owing to bad jokes about ripped pants). Yet he interacts with this ‘friend’ like she’s a sexual target. This is why I don’t buy arguments that SpongeBob Squarepants the show can’t be a sexist show because SpongeBob the character is asexual.

Some of the episodes with Sandy Cheeks are downright weird. In the Texas episode, Sandy is sad. SpongeBob is the last to understand why (long after the viewers), hanging off that trope that men can’t understand women and women’s feelings. Eventually Sandy sings a heartfelt ballad about how much she misses Texas and SpongeBob finally understands her sadness. Sandy gets on a bus to leave Bikini Bottom forever, but SpongeBob and Patrick realise (by accident) that if they insult Texas she will hang around to defend her home state. Earlier, they stand by her bed and watch her sleep. Which, fine, but take all these behaviours together and the entire episode comprises creepy boundary crossing and negging. (Stephenie Meyer catches a lot of crap for the exact same storyline — a male character goes into a female character’s bedroom and watches her sleep.) Because of the (mock) didactic story structure of this series, Sandy learns at the end that home is where there are people who care about you. (Caring = insulting the things you love.)

Mrs Puff, because of her female gender, also becomes a romantic target even though she is initially presented as a middle-aged motherly teacher type. She becomes the romantic object for the older Mr Krabbe, who is so enamoured by her he bankrupts himself buying her gifts. Although the male characters are always presented as inept and slightly crazy for the lengths they will go to for love, the fact remains — if a female character appears in SpongeBob, she is eventually utilised as a romantic target. A female character’s sexuality is therefore her main characteristic.

The character of Squidward is basically an Incel archetype, before the Incel became a thing. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci uses Squidward as an example of a ‘millimeters of bone’ meme. If you’re not sure what that refers to, lucky you. Maybe stay well away.

INTELLECT JOKES

Every comedy needs a stoopid character. SpongeBob Squarepants is pretty stoopid, but Patrick is even stoopider. The jokes get funnier once we realise this is their ‘thing’. Expectation makes humour work even better. It works best when the stoopid character comes up with something even stoopider than the audience themselves can imagine.

The stupidness of Patrick is surprisingly simple and effective. When Patrick announces something which is blatantly untrue, my nine-year-old finds this hilarious. This ironic distance between what the viewer can see versus how Patrick interprets the situation creates an ironic distance which young viewers find very appealing. For instance, Patrick blows a bubble which looks exactly like an elephant. “It’s a giraffe!” he exclaims, making my nine-year-old giggle. [Update: The erstwhile nine-year-old is now a tween and has told her father to shut the hell up with this category of jokes, in fact all jokes, thanks.]

SOCIAL CAPITAL JOKES

Squidward Tentacles is set up as the Loser character from the very first moment we meet him with this visual gag of him trying to remove some graffiti which won’t come off with rubbing:

Squidward Loser

Squidward’s nose has a phallic quality to it, drooping in disappointment or whenever his attempts to climb up the social hierarchy have failed.

Kids love making an unreasonably cranky character crankier. In Bubblestand there is a delight seeing the bubble elephant go inside Squidward’s house, disturbing his wind instrument practice. The audience is therefore reminded just how nasty Squidward is at the beginning of each episode. We are never trusted to remember, or rather, his nastiness gives us permission to laugh at him when he ends up in a full-body bandage or whatever. (The film Office Space uses the full-body bandage gag. Being live action, you’d think this’d be disturbing, except the guy who ends up completely incapacitated is wildly happy about it due to receiving compensation — an ironic reaction, hence the joke.)

There is literally no such thing as too many reminders that horrible character is horrible. Even when Squidward isn’t there, SpongeBob is making fun of him to impress Sandy Cheeks (in Ripped Pants). In Jellyfishing, Squidward is horribly sarcastic about not wanting to go jellyfishing with SpongeBob and Patrick. He suffers an accident on his bike and ends up in full body bandages. Patrick’s efforts to look after him end up with further injury to Squidward because of Patrick’s stupidity.  Eventually Squidward is stung by an enormous jellyfish. Patrick and SpongeBob are stung by a smaller one so don’t get off scott free. I wonder if the writers thought dishing out all the bodily harm to Squidward and none to SpongeBob and Patrick was too much. I think they made the right choice. In the predictable and conservative sense of justice we all have as audience, SpongeBob’s naivety and Patrick’s stupidity did need punishing, just a little bit.

But because we’ve seen Squidward looking down on our empathetic characters, the writers do their absolute worst. Just when we think Squidward can’t be put through any more pain, the following day Squidward is in a bed on wheels rather than in a wheelchair. Now the audience needs a small reminder that this is cartoon violence. So they show us Squidward chuckling as the big jellyfish turns up again, like a classic horror creature that just won’t quit.

So that’s a case study in how to get away with extreme violence:

  1. Keep reminding the audience that the suffering creature deserves what they’re about to get
  2. Punish every character, according to their exact crimes, even the sympathetic ones
  3. Let the audience know that the terrible injury isn’t that bad.

3. REFERENCE HUMOUR

Reference humour refers to common experiences that the audience can relate to.

As mentioned above, a lot of the reference humour is specific to the heterosexual male experience.

On the other hand, NO ONE gets off scot free in this comedy — everyone is laughed at. But notice how Sandy doesn’t get to make her own jokes. Instead, she’s laughing her head off at SpongeBob. Only the male characters are allowed to be both funny and laughed-at. That kind of asymmetry for the girls — who are always the ‘straight guy’ yet just as often clueless — is what’s problematic here. This dynamic is closely related to the Female Maturity Principle of Storytelling.

Sandy in Ripped Pants
Here is Sandy laughing at SpongeBob’s sandcastle jokes. Note the ‘pink bow’ (a flower) slapped onto her head. This marks the female character out, usually in a cast of all male characters. ‘Femininity’ is thereby Sandy’s defining feature. AKA The Smurfette Principle.

There are jokes in SpongeBob which appeal to a mature audience but which safely pass over a child’s head. For instance, one episode opens with SpongeBob intently peering at some sort of tentacled sponge on his TV. When his snail cat walks by Spongebob declares that he wasn’t really watching that, he was only switching between channels.

4. SHOCK HUMOUR

In Ripped Pants, SpongeBob is trying to lift ‘weights’ (marshmallows on a stick) when he rips his pants in front of a much entertained audience. This is both reference humour and slightly shocking, in that it exposes a part of the body not normally exposed.

5. PARODY HUMOUR

The beginning of the Jellyfishing episode features a heist movie parody. Patrick and SpongeBob slide daringly down a rope but have to pause for a long moment to blow on their hands, which are burning in pain — something that never happens to ‘real’ cat burglars.

In the Something Smells episode SpongeBob eats a lot of onion and scares others away. He concludes he is too ugly to exist, at which point Patrick finds him in a dark place playing moodily on a grand piano, reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera (even though I have never seen that).

In Plankton, a crabby patty pretends to be friends with SpongeBob in order to learn the secret recipe for crabby patties. The plankton baddie makes use of various technology to achieve his aim, including a mind-control device and another machine which tells him exactly what something is made of. He also has a gramophone, which he pulls into the scene whenever he needs some melodramatic music. This is meta humour, and the humour comes from the fact that extradiegetic sound effects are now diegetic. Not something the audience would ever put into words, but we realise the plankton thinks he is in some kind of crime movie, and is loving it.

SUPERHERO PARODY

Superheroes often have a getaway vehicle with some amazing power in its own right, be it a magic carpet, turbo rocket or whatever. In the final episode of the season one, Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man also have a vehicle with superpowers, but that superpower turns out to be a hindrance rather than a help: it is totally invisible. This means they can’t find it when they want it. They walk into it, walk around feeling for it, and one of them is always getting burnt to a crisp because he accidentally stands behind the exhaust pipe. This ‘burnt to a crisp’ scene happens twice. The first time we see how he gets burnt — the second time he walks onto the stage already crispified, and we feel a little smart knowing how he got that way.

EXERCISE: Can you think of something that is sometimes a help to your characters but is also, more often a disadvantage, getting them into trouble? List all the ways in which they can get into trouble then take two or three and repeat.

The entire Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episode is about underwhelming jobs for two superheroes, providing one long juxtaposition. At another point in the episode, they are called upon to open a jar for SpongeBob, who has previously been established as a comically weak character.

6. HYPERBOLE

Everything is over the top. So, SpongeBob doesn’t want to be late for his job interview? He’s set up a mechanical Wallace and Gromit type contraption to get himself ready in seconds. It even changes him out of his pants. SpongeBob is scared about the interview? He literally tries to run away as soon as he gets to the place. This is a blend of hyperbole and reference humour, because we all know how we’d like to run away whenever we feel scared.

SpongeBob doesn’t simply trip on a nail sticking out of the floorboards and fall over — he bounces and flips and enters into a never-ending series of smacks, where gravity doesn’t exist (unless it’s required for the scene).

Squidward doesn’t just get a minor injury catching jellyfish — his body is entirely covered in bandages and he wheels around on a gurney.

Sometimes a character gives the wrong (overblown) response to a situation:

“Make him feel good.”
“I love you.”

LAYERING

Sometimes, hyperbole means layering:

“I’m so old I’ve got hairs growing out of the wrinkles on my liver spots.”

7. WORDPLAY

WACKY NAMES

SpongeBob Squarepants itself is a wonderfully wacky name, as is Squidward Tentacles. Notice, however, that not all the characters have wacky names. Sandy Cheeks is kinda sexual. Patrick is aggressively ordinary. So is Gary. It’s this tension between weird names and normal ones that creates the humour — the difference draws attention to the wacky ones. These names also give us a clue about the character’s personality: While Patrick is often funny because he is stupid, he is always well-intentioned. In some ways he plays the ‘straight guy’, starting from the first time we see him, in which he gives SpongeBob a pep talk about how SpongeBob needs to go to his interview even though he’s terrified.

Sometimes wordplay involves drawing attention to language in a way that we may not have noticed before:

“The finest eating establishment ever established for eating!”

“Do you smell it? What’s the smell? A kind of smelly smell that smells… smelly!”

I have no idea why we find phrasal repetition hilarious, but it also explains Boaty McBoatface and all the subsequent snowclones.

Goo Lagoon

“This is my lab!” (Viewer expects to see a science lab but sees a dog) “And THIS is my laboratory!”

EMPHASIS ON NAMES OVER SUBSTANCE

When the recipe-stealing plankton throws seaweed into his ‘ingredients machine’, the machine tells him seaweed is made up of fifty percent sea, fifty per cent weed. This useless information, derived from the name of the product rather than the chemistry, foreshadows how useless the machine will be when trying to decipher what’s in a krabby patty.

EMPHASIS ON THE LITERAL MEANING OF PHRASES

“What? You’re off your rocker!”
‘Camera’ pans out to show an empty rocking chair beside the character.
Character sits in rocker and says the same thing again.

Old man (Mermaid Man) buys ice cream from truck.
“A double scoop of prune with bran sprinkles,” he says, which is character humour to emphasis his oldness.
Next, “Goes right through me!” he exclaims. (The food shoots an actual hole through his middle.)

CHARACTERS MISUNDERSTAND WORDS

These work like puns but have no obvious antecedent.

SpongeBob: “We need to become entrepreneurs.”

Patrick: “Is that gonna hurt?”

8. JUXTAPOSITION

Juxtaposition is evident all over the setting, starting from the pet snail that meows like a cat. Another word for this is ‘surprise’. Yet we are not surprised at all, because in the real world, people tend to keep cats, not snails. A lot of the humour in this series comes from the writers and storyboarders pasting modern American life onto marine life — an awkward and funny endeavour.

I put any kind of ‘flip’ joke into this category.

Squidward is a more serious and adult character who occasionally reveals his childlike side by engaging in childish things like blowing bubbles when he thinks no one is looking. The juxtaposition between Squidward’s posing and his inner child provides plenty of humour. In this respect he’s like the Dwight Schrute character of the American version of The Office.

TRICKSTER FLIP

In the pilot, Squidward tells the boss SpongeBob is definitely not right for the position, but instead of a flat no, SpongeBob is sent on an impossible mission to find a thing that obviously doesn’t exist. (Obvious to the viewer, not to SpongeBob himself.) This is the restaurant owner being a trickster. Note that because this is the pilot episode, the audience doesn’t know that this particular spatula doesn’t exist. That’s why we see Squidward and the restaurant owner chuckling about its non-existence after SpongeBob has gone.

Takeaway point for writers: Don’t worry about being too obvious. Joke density allows an audience to accept over-explanations, on-the-nose narration and a host of other storytelling techniques eschewed by other genres.

But soon we’ll see that SpongeBob himself is a trickster, as he finds a way to fulfil his mission. He goes to the supermarket and, believe it or not, they only have one in stock. (Audiences of comedy will also happily accept this kind of deus ex machina solution to a problem.)

Audiences love tricksters, and we don’t mind who the trickster is. In this series, everyone has their turn outwitting each other with tricks, plans and wily scams.

9. MADCAP

SpongeBob doesn’t simply place meat patties onto the grill — he pings them out with his eye sockets. That’s just one example of many.

He regularly kills himself only to pop back up again. e.g. Slicing himself into thirds then immediately reforming into his character. He is literally indestructible.

His body morphs according to his emotions. Like Courage the Cowardly Dog, he can mould his spongey body into any shape that he likes. Whereas Courage does this once per episode, SpongeBob does it frequently, as the story sees fit.

10. META-HUMOUR

DELIBERATELY ON-THE-NOSE NARRATION

SpongeBob Squarepants as a series makes heavy use of what I’ll call ‘on-the-nose narration’. In a straight (non-comedic) story, having a character announce to no one in particular all about the scene and backstory is a definite no-no, but here it is totally accepted. This is almost a kind of parody on stories in general. The writers are asking, “Why are we even telling you all this stuff? Why are you even watching this made-up crap?” The answer, of course, is you’re watching it PURELY for the jokes. There is no higher reason for these stories to exist — no moral, nothing.

As an example, take the pilot episode. SpongeBob stands outside a restaurant and embarks upon a monologue all about the Crabby Patties, telling us that help is wanted and letting us know his reason for going in. (To get a job.)

Throughout the series, each episode is introduced by an ambiguously foreign-sounding narrator who invites us to remember that this is just a silly story and not to be taken seriously.

SATIRE OF HEIST/SPY STORIES

In one episode SpongeBob wears a disguise which is no such thing. Characters within the setting are fooled by his giant Afro wig and headband from the seventies, which is also so big it includes the filter of madcap.

SATIRE OF GET SMART/INSPECTOR GADGET ETC.

One episode features super spy equipment which is a pen that also turns into a pencil.

SPONGEBOB’S DIFFERENT VOICES

Related to this is one of SpongeBob’s character traits: While he has a ‘SpongeBob’ voice which we all recognise immediately, he regularly breaks out in a completely different voice (though voiced by the same actor). When he uses this voice he is usually parodying some other genre.

“I’ve been training my whole life for the day I could join the Krusty crew!” he says, flinging open the doors of the restaurant where he wants to get a job. Visually, this is like an old Western. In terms of dialogue, he is parodying any sort of ‘hero’s journey’ character arc, in which a boy (most often a boy) dreams of being something important and then achieves his wishes, but not without trials and tribulations.

11. MISPLACED FOCUS

Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man are keeping watch on top of a tower, telling each other how they must always be prepared for when disaster strikes. Importantly, their dialogue comprises a list of cliches about being alert. But when SpongeBob turns up unexpectedly they fall off the tower in fright. That’s when we learn SpongeBob has only brought them donuts.

In Your Shoe’s Untied, the big reveal at the end of the story is that SpongeBob’s cat-snail has feet with shoes on, which we can only see if he lifts up his slimy body. We saw Gary the snail wander into the living room at the very beginning of the episode, so the story feels circular and complete at the end, when it is revealed that Gary is the only creature in Bikini Bottom who is able to tie shoes. Yet we never thought to look.

SPONGEBOB AND AUTISM

I hear so much from parents of autistic kids and caretakers of autistic kids, and this happens so much and comes up so often that somebody should write a term paper on it, that SpongeBob in particular is something that speaks to them. It’s the thing that they laugh at, the thing they obsess at, the thing they talk about and know every line of every episode […] And I don’t know what there is in that show that talks to kids that are on the spectrum, I don’t know, but more than other cartoons, that one … maybe because SpongeBob as a character is a little autistic. Obsessed with his job, very hardworking, gets really really deep into something.

Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob via the Marc Marron podcast, episode 324

Can SpongeBob be coded as autistic? Tom Kenny describes a stereotype of autism above. (Not all autistic people are obsessed with their jobs, for instance.) While Patrick is the ‘optimistic-happy-stoopid’ archetype, SpongeBob’s comic ‘stupidity’ takes a different form. When it suits the storyline, SpongeBob’s shortcoming looks more like social naivety/obliviousness. This is a gag utilised in the Netflix series Atypical (which I’m not recommending, for various reasons).

SOCIAL NAIVETY

This social naivety stands out in the Graveyard Shift episode.

SpongeBob doesn’t understand that Squidward is making up a scary story on the spot in order to scare him. There are plenty of clues for the audience, putting us in ‘audience superior’ position, a form of dramatic irony which is really enjoyable for kids, especially. Namely, Squidward has to ask SpongeBob what day it is today (Tuesday) before declaring that the spatula handed monster will be turning up today. Squidward is forced to admit he’s joking after SpongeBob won’t stop a lengthy bout of crying. But when SpongeBob learns he’s supposed to laugh, he laughs longer and harder than is natural or comfortable. As a consequence, Squidward is forced to be mean again to stop SpongeBob from laughing. It appears from this scene that SpongeBob behaves in a way that he feels he should, getting it slightly wrong he also fails to pick up he cues that Squidward is joking and needs to be told. This behaviour is known as ‘masking‘ among autists and perhaps explains why some of SpongeBob’s behaviours feel familiar, leading to an extra layer of reference humour for many viewers on the autistic spectrum.

The following gang of three ‘boys’ is pretty common in drama/comedy:

  1. One is neurotypical but an outcast for some reason (e.g. late puberty for Sam in Freaks and Geeks). This is the guy the audience identifies with. SpongeBob’s extreme shortcoming is the equivalent to Sam’s short stature.
  2. One is an over-confident but misguided skeeve. (That’d be Neal in Freaks and Geeks.)
  3. One could be coded as autistic due to his naivety and loveable innocence. (That’d be Bill from Freaks and Geeks.)

EXERCISE: We can paste this triad onto many shows. Try it for The I.T. Crowd or for Seinfeld. Or for kids’ books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s pretty obvious, right?

ALSO INTERESTING

It’s admittedly a stretch to identify parallels between Star Trek and SpongeBob, but the affinity is stronger than it might first seem. The cartoon’s core emotional triad contains powerful echoes of the anxiety-ridden three-way that gave Star Trek its homoerotic frisson.

Squidward, the new Spock

Storytelling Tips From The Edge Of Seventeen

coming-of-age

The Edge of Seventeen is a coming-of-age movie about an American girl called Nadine who struggles to fit in. That could describe many of us in our teen years, but with Nadine there’s a bit more to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

The film opens to a witty, high stakes dialogue scene in which Nadine rushes to her history teacher and tells him she’s going to kill herself. Mr Bruner is an excellent contrast to Nadine because he is calm and ironic and on the face of it, cruel. Nothing is a drama to him, not even suicide threats from students.

Next we have Nadine as storyteller narrator guiding us through her early life. This ends with her father dying two years back, and she sums this period up as ‘it was shit’ so she doesn’t bore us with the details. The father is grounded while the mother is not. Basically, the writers are taking a girl and doing the worst possible thing to her — taking away her father just as she enters the adult world. We’ve seen just enough of the father to fall in love with him ourselves, too.

When we’re in ‘the present’ the story starts in earnest, with Nadine talking to her best friend under a tree at lunch break, announcing her desire to have sex.



SHORTCOMING

I’m not suggesting the writers knowingly did this, but I read Nadine as an autistic girl. I believe we’re to read Nadine as living with depression. My reasons for autism in no particular order:

  • She has problems making any friends (at all) in primary school. This isn’t just a depressive episode — this is a lifelong struggle with social interactions.
  • Eventually another little girl approaches her with a caterpillar and because this other girl is kind and nurturing they are best friends for years.
  • When this relationship breaks up Nadine literally has no one else to turn to. She has been clinging possessively to this one friend the whole time. She has expanded her social circle only by clinging on to the sardonic history teacher who spends lunchtimes in his classroom avoiding people. She either doesn’t notice his bluntness or finds it at least understandable.
  • She is inclined to ‘burn bridges’. When she cuts off Krista for dating her brother this really feels like it could be done forever.
  • Her mother says at one point, “I’m done trying to understand you!” (Even her own mother doesn’t understand her.) A lot of people don’t understand autism, especially as it typically presents in girls.
  • Nadine is interested in love and sex but gets herself into a situation she really doesn’t want. The whole thing is better inside her head. But she doesn’t know she doesn’t want it until she’s right in it. She is socially naive. She also makes an offer to Erwin which he takes seriously. She wants to make jokes but doesn’t quite know how to do it. She explains that she was only parodying a movie when she asked him if he wanted to have sex with her in the pool.
  • She has no idea what to do at parties but is nevertheless drawn to them. When she finds one girl to talk to it turns out that girl is also socially inappropriate, so rather than rejoin the group she takes off, telling Erwin the party was ‘cancelled’.
  • After getting herself into an unwanted hookup with a boy who doesn’t like her as a person she makes reference to the make and model of the boy’s car. He accuses her of making fun of his car. She says “No, I was just being specific about the car.” Miscommunication + keen eye for detail + tendency to be unnecessarily specific.
  • Nadine is prone to anxiety and depression and is constantly viewing herself from the outside. She has internalised society’s criticism of her. Girls on the spectrum, or with any other invisible differences, get criticised a lot.
  • She hasn’t passed her driver’s licence. A disproportionate number of autistic people have trouble with that. This means she’s behind her peers in terms of freedom and reliance on other people.

So there you have it. Call it depression or autism or plain old end-of-childhood, those are Nadine’s psychological and moral shortcomings in a nutshell.

Her problem is that her social circle isn’t wide enough to withstand relationship break ups.

DESIRE

As mentioned above, the main desire line revolves around Nadine wanting to have sex with a particular boy. It’s significant that the writers had her announce this intention right at the beginning of the ‘present timeline’ within the world of the story because until the main character wants something the audience can’t ‘care for the character’. She says the boy is “so much more attractive since he came back from juvie.” And that’s all we really need to know about him.

Of course Nadine wants other things more generally and in a deeper way. She wants her best friend to stop dating her brother, for instance. She wants her mother and brother to get off her back. She wants independence. But these desire lines are at a higher level of abstraction, so in order to drive the story forward the writers gave Nadine the very specific, and comedically ripe, goal of wanting to have sex with the boy who just got back from juvenile detention. (She is the ‘anti-Kat’ from 10 Things I Hate About You.)

Because Nadine is so lacking in self-awareness, the audience knows immediately in a form of dramatic irony that this thing with the juvie boy is a self-destructive desire and will not work out at all. Partly this is because movies are inherently conservative, even the indie films like this one, because we have mostly internalised the idea that when girls have sex with bad boys, for the sake of having sex, the girl will end up hurt. There is no question in our minds that she could hook up once with the bad boy, have great sex, and walk away a slightly more rounded person.

Also because Nadine is so lacking in self-awareness she will change her mind before the end of the movie. The audience knows she will. She’ll realise that the socially awkward but rich and talented and handsome Erwin is a much better match for her. Characters don’t often change their minds about what they want but it does occasionally happen in a story, as it’s connected to the anagnorisis (that they were wrong about themselves). Another film which does this is Legally Blonde. The main character thinks she wants the boy but it turns out she wants a career.

OPPONENT

Nadine’s opponents are also the people closest to her.

  • Her brother Darian is interesting because he is presented to the audience as a classic jock. Over the course of the movie we learn that there is far more to him than the beefed up, health conscious athlete. He takes over as caregiver after their father dies, because the mother is also neurotic. For Nadine he is an opponent because he has everything she wants. He is handsome, popular and socially adept. He is the golden haired boy when it comes to their mother. Classic sibling rivalry but taken to the extreme.
  • Krista is a best friend who suddenly becomes an opponent when Nadine disapproves of her sleeping with her brother. She has ‘joined the dark side’. In the story Krista is not given much in the way of ‘personality’ or ‘spark’. She is the Diana of Green Gables, or any other nice girl who exists in contrast to a fiery heroine.
  • Nadine’s mother undergoes a bit of a character arc when she texts ‘OK’ instead of requesting Nadine call her immediately. She has realised that what Nadine needs is a bit of freedom, and that she can’t do anything to help her out anyway.
  • The audience probably knows that the history teacher is playing a part when he pretends to be this uncaring person who hates teaching. Mr Bruner is a ‘fake opponent ally’ who looks after Nadine later when she’s in crisis mode. He also gives her money for a frozen yoghurt. We suspect he’s in his classroom at lunchtime not to avoid everyone, but for precisely the opposite reason — to be there for the oddballs who need him. We also have it confirmed that he is not what he seems when we see he’s got a wife and family — this is after Nadine has accused him of being bald, lonely and single.

PLAN

Nadine (sort of) plans to have sex. With the juvie guy (Nick). She mistakenly thinks having sex will plunge her into adulthood and she can bypass the rest of the awkward inbetween years. She tells Krista she’s going to have sex with him in the Petworld storeroom and the audience thinks she’s joking, but she really does stalk him at his workplace, and in an ill-considered moment she accidentally sends a stream-of-consciousness offer of sex, which he takes her up on.

This plunges her into her main crisis and she runs to the history teacher in a repeat of what we saw in the opening scene. The most memorable line is repeated, “I’m going to kill myself” then there is a cutaway and we understand the initial scene just took place.

BIG STRUGGLE

Nadine has a very bad day. She won’t get out of the car when her mother drops her off. The mother decides to just take her to work with her and she can sit there and be quiet. Nadine takes off in her mother’s car. She arranges to meet up with the boy for sex. She is abandoned after that goes all to hell. She has no choice but to call the history teacher to rescue her, then she won’t get into her brother’s car when he turns up to give her a ride home. This sequence naturally provides much opportunity for interpersonal conflict.

ANAGNORISIS

After Erwin awkwardly presents his short film on stage Nadine realises she really likes him. She gives him a bunch of flowers and tells him, in a supremely awkward moment, that she realises the film was about her.

The audience, also, has been lead to believe the film was about her. But in a surprise ending, Erwin tells her it wasn’t about her at all. We have been seeing the world guided by Nadine as storyteller, so this comes as a surprise to the audience as much as to Nadine. We may choose not to believe Erwin when he says this. His actions have spoken otherwise, or maybe off screen he just plum changed his mind.

NEW SITUATION

Because this is a ‘quirky’ film with characters who say one thing and want another, or who say one thing and mean another, a nice, neat ending in which Nadine ends up with Erwin would not feel right. Instead we are left with them awkwardly together but not together. We hope they’ll get together properly in their own time. Or perhaps they’ll be good friends.

More important, Nadine has made friends with her brother and Krista again. She is no longer alone in the world.

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Stevie Nicks apparently wrote her iconic song Edge of Seventeen after painkiller side effects subsided. She went to studio 54 to celebrate and realized she was gayer than she thought, then wrote Edge Of Seventeen about a woman.