Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling

brave movie poster

Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.

A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.

Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.

THE MAGICAL STORYWORLD OF BRAVE

“I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.”

@LizzRoinett, Twitter video

A fantasy medieval Scotland. This is ancient Scotland in the same way Princess Mononoke is ancient Japan — it’s a vision of the past according to a contemporary audience, when we imagine the world really was ruled by magic. In both Brave and in Princess Mononoke, you’ll find magical spirits in the woods. Here they are known as ‘wisps’ and they play a critical role in the plot, leading Merida first into the witch’s cottage, next on her journey of discovery as she finds out what happened to that guy who asked the witch for strength. (He turned into a bear and stayed like it, upping the stakes for the mother.)

I think this part aspect hits on why I found Brave lacking as a satisfying story: First the audience is told that we must believe in magic. I have an issue with this general ideology. Merida’s father says he doesn’t believe in magic. He is proven wrong as the audience is shown the wisps on screen. “Well he should because it’s true,” says Merida, our viewpoint character. Of course, she means it’s true within the world of this particular story. But I feel we have a problem with magical thinking across contemporary society, and it bothers me when a sympathetic viewpoint character in a story basically tells the audience that you’re fool for not believing in magic. There are ways  of writing magic into stories which don’t chastise anyone for failing to trust and believe. I prefer those ones.

That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?

Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.

Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.

“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.

I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form  is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.

This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.

Merida’s anagnorisis —  that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.

William Powell Frith - The Fair Toxophilites 1872
William Powell Frith – The Fair Toxophilites 1872

STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.

Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”

Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.

When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.

Brenda Chapman, after her firing

It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.

Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.

Tharini Viswanath

Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.

Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:

In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the  multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:

These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Possible reasons suggested by Myers:

  • The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
  • Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.

I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.

Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:

While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.

1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES

These stories are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother.  These stories tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.

Examples:

  • Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
  • Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
  • My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.

There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.

2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother. The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.

Examples:

  • Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
  • Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume
3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories. In these stories, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother. In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.

So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:

  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc?
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy - The Daughters of Atlas 1896
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy – The Daughters of Atlas 1896

BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE

The story in a nutshell:

Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.

Tharini Viswanath

SHORTCOMING

This is not a story in which a repressed female character with no voice learns to discover her voice. Merida knows her mind from the beginning of the story, which is exactly the thing that makes Brave a slightly different take on the Female Maturity Formula:

Merida … clearly has a voice early in the film. And by standing up to her parents and refusing to go through with the betrothal, it does seem as if she has both agency and an established subject position as a headstrong tomboy. She uses her mother’s language – ‘That’s what you’ve been preparing me for’ – against her, to establish her own position on the issue. Merida represents the capacity to act independently of social restraint: her vehemence at the idea of marriage does, in a way, make the viewer question dominant social ideologies, especially as Merida opposes the marriage plot trope, where Disney Princesses before her rarely question the concept of falling in love and/or getting married. (As a matter of fact, the heteronormative romance between princesses and young men they hardly know drives the plot of almost every Disney film.

Tharini Viswanath

Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.

DESIRE

Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.

‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.

Merida in a voiceover

Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.

OPPONENT

Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.

The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.

PLAN

As I mentioned above, Merida’s plan is pretty terrible. Her initial plan works.

“I’ll put a spell on my mother and then she won’t make me get married.” In other words, I’ll change my mother rather than sacrifice my own bodily autonomy. After that her plan is to follow the magic.

BIG STRUGGLE

The most irritating thing about this movie — to me — is the elongated male big struggle scene going on at the castle all the while Merida and her mother are on this emotional journey, into the subconscious symbolised by the forest. There’s a real ‘boys will be boys’ ideology going on here. Of course men fight each other, that’s what men do… Isn’t it funny watching them go at it, though?

Merida herself encounters a variety of big struggle scenes, escalating in stakes:

  • Fights with her mother about being ladylike, in a montage sequence
  • Fights with her mother at the dinner table about ladylike amounts of food
  • Fights with her mother about getting married
  • Faces the witch in the forest, who seems amiable but turns out to be an opponent later — a false ally opponent, who in the end turns out to have done the right thing for Merida. Good-bad-good witch.
  • The mother turns into a bear. This is an annoying turn of events because she could have told her father what had happened and what she’d done. He had the power to stop the men marauding the bear, were they to find her. Instead, Merida confides to her three little brothers, and none of them thought to tell the father, either. Presumably this is because the father is pretty useless. Hence, unsatisfying.
  • In the forest, Bear Elinor fights the baser nature of herself while Merida helps her through it.
  • After Merida’s big speech, in which she and Elinor have part of their anagnorisis, the story should really be over now, but no. The writers didn’t have a movie-length amount of material, so what did they do? Wrote another elongated rough n’ tumble big struggle scene, centring on the men marauding around the castle after the bear. The stakes are ostensibly very high — if they catch Elinor they will kill her. But this entire sequence feels like a carnivalesque insertion into a story which started off as a mythic journey, and I’m not sure it works to pad a mythic story out with carnivalesque hi-jinx. It feels like… padding.

Here’s a typical reaction from one reviewer:

The film takes an odd turn and seems to lose momentum temporarily once the spell is cast.

Reelmama

What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.

ANAGNORISIS

I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the  mother-daughter relationship?

One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.

Tharini Viswanath

BRAVE AND THE STORYTELLING ROLE OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

Why does Elinor transmogrify into a bear? Why indeed? It’s a little scary for the  youngest viewers. My daughter was scared by this scene when she saw it in 2012, though the rest of the story is set in a kind of forest utopia.

First there’s the story reason for why she turns into a bear:

The fact that Elinor gets turned into a bear comes as no surprise: the witch’s cottage Merida stumbles upon is full of bear carvings. On a superficial level, the viewer is expected to read the figure of the bear as being synonymous with the body: the bear is unruly, large, disruptive, and in need of direction, and Mor’du, the demon bear, supports this description.

Tharini Viswanath

Dig a bit deeper though, and transmogrification itself seems to symbolise the changing state of the female body, especially as she becomes a mother:

As a woman, Elinor signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, and as a bear she is able to restrict the shaping, manipulation and stereotyping of the female body. […] Reduced to her body, the once articulate Elinor is defined by her animalistic needs. Elinor-asbear embodies monstrous motherhood. She is physically overwhelming, monstrous in shape and size, and dominates space and situation; in short, she is too large and too powerful to ignore.

Tharini Viswanath

Importantly, only Merida is able to see that the bear is her mother:

[A]nd with good reason: Elinor’s inability to control her fertility (Merida’s three younger brothers eat some of the abject cake and turn into bears as well) and repress her sexuality make her ‘monstrous’ in male eyes.

Tharini Viswanath

Transmogrification demonstrates the centrality and importance of language, and of communication in general, because if you won’t listen to each other, you might as well be unable to communicate:

Until Elinor transforms into a bear, the two women talk past each other, and may be speaking two languages as different as English and Bear. As McCallum notes, ‘meanings are always, to some extent, culturally constructed, and the learning of another language entails learning the cultural codes through which a linguistic community represents and makes sense of the world’.  Both Elinor and Merida need to learn to speak each other’s ‘language’ in order to communicate, a task they are able to achieve only when faced with dire consequences. Arguably, this language difference is also one of intergenerationality.

Tharini Viswanath

Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.

Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.

NEW SITUATION

Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.

Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:

Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.

Tharini Viswanath

By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.

My questions revisited:
  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.

RELATED

What does it really mean to be ‘brave’? Could we be wrong about its definition? I definitely think the concept needs an update.

I’ve written much more about how Brave is not a successful subversion of gender tropes in this post.

The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes for a long time.
The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes of masculine mythic stories for a long time.

Inside Out Story Structure

Inside Out

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

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.

Therapists who work with neurodiverse kids love Inside Out. My ADHD daughter’s occupational therapist recommended I rewatch this film with her 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: Used to describe a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

Green Zone: Used to describe the ideal state of alertness. A person may be described as calm, happy, focused, or content when he or she is in the Green Zone. The student feels a strong sense of internal control when in the Green Zone.

Yellow Zone: Used to describe a heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or fear when in the Yellow Zone. The student’s energy is elevated yet he or she feels some sense of internal control in the Yellow Zone.

Red Zone: Used to describe an extremely heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, extreme grief, terror, or elation when in the Red Zone and feels 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 coloured 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 coloured red. But as the neurodiverse population knows well, there’s more to heightened emotions than just anger. My ADHD daughter is frequently in this zone when she is elated, e.g. at the school disco.

Two Main Characters In A Hollywood Film

Though pretty common in novels, it is very unusual in Hollywood to have two main characters. The safest, most financially successful Hollywood blockbuster has a single main character who we follow throughout the film. Who are the two main characters of this film?

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

There are a number of stories in which a character tells a story about someone else, in which 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.)

Story Structure Of Inside Out

Inside Out gives us two full stories running in 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 do its job without the other.

Two storylines with two separate main characters means two separate desires. These two different stories stuck together are structured together so that it appears the the audience that there is one 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 big struggle-free mythic structure.

Take note that it’s not the gender of the main character that determines whether a mythic story is structured male or female. Though I did notice the gender-neutral name of Riley — Riley is not specifically coded as feminine. If the animators changed the look of her and nothing else, Riley would make an equally believable boy. That said, most main characters of male myths are gendered male, and vice versa.

A big struggle-free myth is partly about what is not in the narrative.

What is ‘missing’ from a big struggle-free myth? In a ‘normal’ story the writer aims for the strongest opponent possible, creating the greatest amount of conflict. That’s not how a big struggle-free myth works. In a big struggle-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 daughter didn’t — for kids, the amazing spectacle of hijinks inside the brain is enough to sustain their attention.) There’s a case to be made that perhaps big struggle-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, without feeling ripped off? If the big struggle-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 hungry for this kind of story, as proven by the earnings. The big struggle-free myth is very new to a modern audience, and writers should be hyperaware that they’re going to foil expectations. Battle-free myths need to be better written, more engaging and probably have higher budgets than run-of-the-mill male myth forms 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 that it’s impossible to be joyful all the time 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, homanculi-ed with representations of the major human emotions. The outtake sequence will show that everybody has the same range of emotions inside their heads, too.

Inside Out expresses a modern view of psychology. While fairytales gave us a good/evil binary, in which characters were born good or bad, later stories kept the binary but attributed evil to ‘possession’ or child abuse. Last century offered stories like The Iron Giant. In order for that story to work, the author first set up a binary of good versus evil. However, the story is typical of its era: The Iron Giant has been designed with evil intent, but in the end he can choose to use his powers for good. Hence the Superman references sprinkled throughout. 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.)

The modern view of human psychology is that there is no single ‘self’. We are all capable of being all sorts of 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, Inside Out is careful to steer 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

The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

persistence

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

This is a ‘truism’ because it contains an element of truth. Modern parenting and teaching gurus have spread the message that we should praise children not for being smart but for trying hard, moving away from ‘talent’ mindset into ‘growth’ mindset. Becky is good at math because she worked hard. Johnny knows all the characters of Harry Potter not because he has a superlative memory but because he’s read the complete series three times.  That’s ‘growth mindset’.

This generation of parents has also been exposed to Malcolm Gladwell’s principle: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to mastery. According to this theory, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Though the number 10,000 has since been shown to be limited to certain skills with stable structures, the thinking behind it rings true; you, too, can master a complex skill if you put in sufficient time and effort.

This ideology is especially strong in Japanese narrative. In the Hayao Miyazaki animated film Spirited Away, the child hero Chihiro gets locked inside a fantasy theme park world and must save her parents from ending their days as bacon by… you guessed it: working hard.

In the West there is no shortage of gritty fictional kids.

PERSISTENCE IN PICTURE BOOKS
  • The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper   This is the ultimate persistence picture book, known to many of us. It has even entered popular vernacular as a shorthand trope for believing in yourself:
    So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, “I think I can”? No, although that doesn’t hurt. Saying something doesn’t mean you believe it, and frankly, your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.
    The Science Behind Why “I Think I Can” Actually Works This from a Goodreads reviewer: “The lesson of this book isn’t perseverance, it’s that 3/4 of people you meet will leave you to die on the side of the road. An important lesson, sure, but I think I’d rather wait until at least kindergarten before I start teaching my son that.”
Little Engine That Could persistence
“I am a persistent person,” says man, citing evidence.
  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss A boy plants a carrot seed. Throughout the story various people tell him the seed won’t grow, but the boy never gives up. Another picture book using a garden as a metaphor for patience is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. A little boy works hard to grow a lush, green garden only to find out the winter snow has ruined most of it. But he doesn’t get discouraged and, together with some neighbors, works hard to make it green again.
  • Brave Irene by William Steig This is basically a mythological hero(ine) in picture book format Irene Bobbin has to brave snowy, stormy weather to deliver a ballgown. She meets lots of obstacles on the way but doesn’t give up. She is rewarded at the end with kindness, a hot meal and personal satisfaction.
  • Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems  Elephant and Piggie meet a new friend, Snake, who wants to play catch with them. Snake has no arms. The characters never give up on trying to find a solution to include Snake.
  • How To Catch A Star by Oliver Jeffers A boy really wants to catch a (highly metaphorical) star. He comes up with all kinds of ways to try to catch one, but none of the ideas seem to work. He doesn’t give up. The message is pretty clear with the text: “But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” He gets his star, though in a humorous, ironic twist, it might just be a washed-up dead starfish. This saves the story from being 100 per cent sap.
  •  Stuck by the same author is also a story about persistence. Oliver Jeffers’ persistent boys are a running theme in his picture books.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me could be the ultimate anti-rape culture book in the right hands.
  • Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges  Ruby, the main character, is determined to go to college when she’s older instead of getting married and staying home as is the normal tradition of her family.
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires  A girl sets out to make the most magnificent thing, assuming it will be easy. She knows exactly how it will work; all she has to do is make it. But making this most magnificent thing turns out to be anything but easy and she tries and fails repeatedly. Eventually, she gets really mad and decides to quit. But after her dog convinces her to take a walk, the girl comes back to her project with a new perspective and manages to get it just right. We have the full range of emotions in here. The journey towards death is perhaps overkill when it comes to picture books, but in storytelling speak, the near death experience is ‘almost gave up’.
  • Salt In His Shoes by Deloris Jordan & Roslyn M. Jordan A biography of Michael Jordan, as written by his mother and sister. Message being: Never give up and you too can be a great athlete. Though you’ll find this on lists of ‘picturebooks about perseverance’, there’s a hefty dose of magical thinking in there, too. Michael feels the reason he isn’t very good at basketball is because he’s short. His mother suggests he put salt in his shoes and say a prayer to help him grow. This is apparently why he grew. (Around age 8 I prayed every night to become tall, too. Didn’t work for me.)
  • Luigi and the Barefoot Races by Dan Paley Another story about sport and perseverance, though this one is fictional. This is not about an underdog trying to beat the fast kid but about the fast kid being pressured from below by a contender. Kids who are great at sport are thereby catered for in picture book world.
  • Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni A mouse dreams of becoming an artist when he grows up. He works hard to fulfil his dream and ends up displaying a painting in a museum.
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save up coins to buy a chair after their furniture is destroyed in a fire.
  • Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats A boy really wants to whistle. He tries really hard and eventually whistles to his dog.
  • Ready, Set, Skip! by Jane O’Connor is another book about mastering a particular skill.
  • Froggy Rides a Bike by Jonathan London Whistling, skipping, riding bikes… these are all childhood skills where parents first realise whether they’ve got a naturally persevering child or not.
  • Betty Bunny Wants A Goal by Michael Kaplan When kids get a bit older, sports is a good way to learn perseverance, so long as the child is the competitive type.
  • Stickley Sticks To It! A Frog’s Guide To Getting Things Done by Brenda S. Miles A picture book with an overt didactic purpose in the title, probably purchased by parents who know their kids need to hear the lesson.
  • The Pout-Pout Fish Goes To School by Deborah Diesen This going-to-school book underscores the message that school requires hard work you won’t necessarily magically learn how to read. (Though some kids seem to.)
  • Flight School by Lita Judge It’s easy to exhaust the skills that need to be mastered by toddlers and young kids (at least, the interesting ones) but there’s a whole other list of skills to be mastered once we turn to the animal kingdom. In this story a little penguin is determined to fly. The bird-literature reader knows that penguins can’t actually fly. The ending is similar to what Oliver Jeffers did in How To Catch A Star when the dream is impossible, the writer can modify the ending so the kid character still gets what they want, albeit modified. This penguin learns to fly with a little help from technology. The front cover shows him with feathers tied onto his little wings, somewhat ruining the denouement. You Can Do It, Bert is a similar book but features a nervous bird who can actually fly. He’s just a little anxious.

A commonality in the best of these picture books is that the main character goes through a range of emotions: disappointment, fear, frustration and satisfaction. Sometimes elation. The model children manage their emotions, keeping them in check at all times. Comedic characters might have a hissy fit at some point. Comedic characters are relatable, and they’re funny because of that.

A lot of these main characters are anxious types. According to my kid’s paediatrician, ten per cent of children fit the criteria for anxiety, and it’s worth pointing out that ‘reluctance to try something’ or ‘reluctance to try again’ correlates with anxiety.

The most contemporary of these books sometimes star highly imperfect child characters. Older style stories seem more likely to set these kids on a character arc where they turn out better at the end. This makes the older books seem more didactic. There is a movement against overt didacticism at the moment, though I do notice that didacticism is just fine if the book is also very funny.

PERSEVERANCE AND MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

By the time readers are into middle grade books, there isn’t much difference between middle grade and adult character arc in any good story the main character needs to be one of the following:

  1. Active
  2. Actively Passive

What does it mean to be ‘actively passive’? This is when the character has received the Call To Adventure but goes out of their way to avoid getting involved. That in itself is doing something.

A typical pattern involves:

  1. a reluctant main character who wants things to stay basically the same
  2. something happens a problem, a spanner in the works
  3. character resists change but is forced to get involved anyway
  4. at some point in the story (often around the mid point) the character buckles down, deciding that this journey they’re on needs to be seen through to the end.

If that’s not a ‘perseverance’ character arc, I don’t know what is. Perseverance ‘perseveres’ throughout stories for all ages.

PERSEVERANCE AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS

“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means he is troubled.” 

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
PERSISTENCE AS PROBLEMATIC ROMANCE TROPE

In Hollywood films for adults there is a recent history of stories which rewards men for persistence in the pursuit of romance:

If a man in a movie researches a woman’s schedule, finds out where she lives and works, even goes to her work uninvited, it shows his commitment, proves his love. When Robert Redford does this to Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, it’s adorable. But when she shows up at his work unannounced, interrupting a business lunch, it’s alarming and disruptive.

If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular, everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction. The King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Basic Instinct. When the men pursue, they usually get the girl. When the women pursue, they usually get killed.

Popular movies may be reflections of society or designers of society depending on whom you ask, but either way, they model behaviour for us. During the early stages of pursuit situations in movies and too often in life the woman is watching and waiting, fitting in to the expectations of an overly invested man. She isn’t heard or recognized; she is the screen upon which the man projects his needs and his idea of what she should be [I call this the Pygmalion Principle of storytelling, in which a woman is moulded into a full human being only by [her relationship with] a man).

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

The films listed by de Becker are well-known problematic storylines but we see it too in more recent stories. When a woman stalks a man, she is rarely rewarded for it.

Ghost World is a 2001 film based on a graphic novel. But our main female character is pretty far from ‘adorable’. Enid is snarky, sarcastic and self-destructive. Every time someone offers her an opportunity to succeed, she sabotages it. In a Pigman type storyline (harking back to the Paul Zindel novel from the 1970s), Enid and her friend start stalking a vulnerable man for kicks. While she ‘gets the guy’, suggesting her stalking persistence has paid off, the viewer can see that playing wifey to this much older loser is not in Enid’s best interests. She ends up leaving town. In his review, Roger Ebert nevertheless calls this a happy ending:

The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?

Roger Ebert
The Notebook

The Notebook based on a Nicholas Sparks ‘love tragedy’ is a classic example of a man who won’t take no for an answer. It is so irritating to watch his obsession rewarded as the film progresses. Bear in mind that Noah has already asked Allie, “Do you wanna dance with me?” “No,” she says. “Why not?” The boy with Allie with steps in and says, “She’s with us,” (because he knows that other men only listen to men), but still Noah won’t take Allie’s clear no for an answer. Noah has been taught that persistence pays off, even if it means ignoring a woman’s feelings altogether. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8ldUWIruvs

Even people who dissect romantic stories pointing out all their plot problems tend to skip over the biggest problem  of all.

TURNING 20: HOW AN ICONIC ’90S FILM NORMALIZED STALKING regarding There’s Something About Mary, from Bitch Media.

Groundhog Day

Pop Culture Detective pinpoints Groundhog Day as the ultimate example of creepy stalking and also uses a bunch of other Hollywood movies as examples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=185&v=rZ1MPc5HG_I

Ratatouille

Showing men kissing women against their will hurts kids and leads to date rape. Folks, in Ratatouille, there are THREE females – two characters and one bridal caketopper – that are kissed against their will. Each of these is presented as humorous or romantic.  Are you kidding me? When kids see these images, 1) they learn that when girls say no, it is romantic or funny to kiss them anyway, which can lead directly to date rape. 2) Girls learn that what they want or say is not important, and that what a guy really wants is for them to put up a half-hearted fight and then submit.  Is this really what you want to be teaching? I fervently hope that Ratatouille is the last time we will ever see that kind of thing in a Pixar movie.

Bitch Flicks
Twilight

Famously in Twilight, Edward Cullen is so persistent he ends up creepily stalking Bella in her actual bedroom, watching her as she sleeps. This is nothing if not persistence. According to the setting, Edward has some kind of animal instinct and can’t help himself. (Plain old persistence by another explanation.)
 

Ready Player One

I’ve noticed Ready Player One called out for problematic stalky tropes on Twitter.
 

Bollywood Films In General

College student Shakti Singh, 20, said he would like a girlfriend but has no clue how to get one.

With little help from their conservative parents but with easy access to the Internet, he and his friends model their behaviour on the swains in Bollywood romance movies. The genre — often with a hero who breaks down a woman’s reluctance — has been criticized for glorifying stalking and rape.

“There is a lot of effect from movies,” Singh said. “Even though the girl says no he continues chasing her, and she still says no. But in the end he gets the girl.”

Now multiply that impression by the several million unattached young men watching these movies nationwide. The state recently launched a program to curtail these misguided “Romeos,” with special police squads to patrol shopping malls, college campuses and bus stands where chronic harassers gather.

“I won’t tease in the village. I will get beaten up. But outside I do,” boasted Lal Singh, a field worker, 31.

Too Many Men, Washington Post

PERSISTENCE CALLED OUT

Disney/Pixar really does have a speckled history of getting things really right and other things spectacularly wrong. That’s because although the funding all comes from the same corporation, the ideologies of writers differ quite a lot.
 
Sometimes Disney writers are able to see through the persistence-as-romance bullshit. The writers of Disney’s Hercules (1997) did a great job with Megara’s dialogue in this scene:
 

Megara Rape Culture Hercules

 
Writers Ron Clements and John Musker were making a parody of a Greek tragedy, and to modernise it without the film being completely misogynistic and violent and so on they had no choice but to make the characters more modern and woke. This is how the film begins:

Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece…
there was a golden age of powerful gods…
and extraordinary heroes.
And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes…
was the mighty Hercules.
But what is the measure of a true hero?
Ah, that is what our story is…
Will you listen to him?
He’s makin’ the story sound like some Greek tragedy.
Lighten up, dude.
We’ll take it from here, darling.
You go, girl.
We are the muses…
goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes.
Heroes like Hercules.

Norsemen (2016)

Norsemen is a Netflix series for adults.

The tides may be turning on the ideology of persistence in fiction, at least in certain genres. The pilot (“Homecoming”) episode of this Norwegian comedy features a great scene in which a man clearly about to die (it’s no real spoiler to say that he does die) is told by his nonchalant wife that if he only thinks outside the box and tries his best he will survive.

For an alternative take on the persevere at all costs mentality, take a look at discussions in AD/HD world: The Empowering Effect Of No Longer Denying Your Limitations.

WHY DARCY IS SUCH A SWOONWORTHY CHARACTER

Persistence in Pride and Prejudice

Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAbKBUJ4NRY

TAGLINES

Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.

THE LOGLINE/PREMISE

For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets‘ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.

GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe:

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.

OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.

Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”

Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxUeTGf4NiU

The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-bVA5kuu8I

But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.

Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

are friends by virtue of them having been positioned in close proximity to each other. Each of the women is nothing alike. Instead, each stands for a different ‘virtue’:

  • Aria = artsy
  • Spencer = clever girl
  • Hanna = It Girl
  • Emily = sporty girl

The marketing machine behind The Spice Girls also knew what a great formula this is. The audience has a ready-made story for each girl, and we don’t require much information to get us started.

Though we also see this dynamic in stories for adults, it is common in children’s literature to find that ‘the’ main character is in fact made up of a group, and each in the group makes up a different potential facet in a child reader. We see it in series such as Winnie-the-Pooh to the Famous Five.

In Ann Brasheres’ The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants we even have the narrator explain that each one of the four main characters is completely different — it’s as if we make up different parts of the one person. So, yeah. Just like Winnie the Pooh.

Desperate Housewives also makes use of the Dead Girl Trope. Being a parody, does Desperate Housewives subvert it, or reinforce it? This can be argued both ways.

Something I’m wrestling with right now is whether subverting the Dead Girl trope is the way to go, or should we be trying to push back against that kind of mode of storytelling and not make everything a mystery that can be solved? I think there are Dead Girl shows that do subvert a lot of tropes. Pretty Little Liars and a lot of really silly teen shows like Riverdale, in [their] pulpy-ness and how over the top they go and how many rules they break, do in some ways undermine the rules of the Dead Girl show. They make it so they’re not really solving any problems, they’re not coming into any existential answer. They’re just winding their way through this maze that’s been created by violence and misogyny. It’s more like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland than Sherlock Holmes.

Alice Bolin

STORYWORLD OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.

Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:

  • The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
  • The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
  • The structure of the stories, which are bookended in a way many children’s books are, as well as smaller things such as switching from iterative to singulative time.
  • Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.

Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.

A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.

Bob Daily, Executive Producer

Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.

BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.

AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE

Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)

At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.

Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.

The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.

As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.

Example from Season One, Episode 7:

The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn.  Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].

In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.

SHORTCOMING

Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self.  But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.

Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.

Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.

Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.

DESIRE

For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.

Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.

Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will  be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)

Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.

Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.

Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.

Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.

This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD

Susan —  When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)

Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.

OPPONENT

An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.

Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.

Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon  her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.

Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.

Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.

PLAN

We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.

Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.

Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.

Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.

Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.

BIG STRUGGLE

Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.

Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.

Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.

Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.

ANAGNORISIS

In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.

Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.

John York: Into The Woods

Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.

But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.

Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault

It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.

Mary Alice Young

In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.

These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.

Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.

Mary Alice Young

Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk which, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)

The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:

Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship [1], the ugly cost of challenging authority [2], the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy [3], then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own [4].

Mary Alice Young

NEW SITUATION

Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.

We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.

It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind.   Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.

Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.

Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.

Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?

Susan — And Susan is moving in with Mike.