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 howBrave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.
Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.
THE MAGICAL SETTING OF BRAVE
I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.
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 andbelieve. I prefer those ones.
That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?
Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.
Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.
“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.
I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.
This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.
Merida’s anagnorisis — that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.
STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.
Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”
Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.
When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.
Brenda Chapman, after her firing
It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.
Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.
Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.
Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:
In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:
These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Possible reasons suggested by Myers:
The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.
I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.
Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:
While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.
1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES
Oedipal narratives are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother.
They tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.
Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.
There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.
2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother.
The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.
Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume
3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES
Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories.
In anti-Freudian narratives, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother.
In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as: nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.
So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:
Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
Does the mother undergo her own arc?
BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE
The story in a nutshell:
Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.
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.
Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.
Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.
‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.
Merida in a voiceover
Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.
Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.
The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.
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.
What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.
I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the mother-daughter relationship?
One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.
Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.
Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.
Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:
Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.
By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.
My questions revisited:
Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.
I’ve written much more about how Brave is not a successful subversion of gender tropes in this post.
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.
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 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:
Describes a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.
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.
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.
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?
Sadness is obvious, because Sadness is literally blue.
This is Joy when she is focused on solving a problem. Confusingly, Joy has blue hair. Conveniently, Joy’s dress is green.
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.
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?
The main character of the real world thread: Riley
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, inMillion 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 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.)
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?
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.
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.
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 podcastprovides 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 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.”
The Little Engine That Could has influenced many writers. Some children’s book authors enter children’s book publishing because they bring fame, not because they bring originality. So often in celebrity picture books, the message is simplistic and unnuanced. The ‘Never Give Up’ maxim is a particular favourite of authors who haven’t read many picture books. Take Elbow Grease, written by American wrestling professional John Cena. An underdog racing car is picked on by his brothers. In order to win a place in their masculine hierarchy he must beat them in a race. Significantly, there must also be a girl to impress. (Don’t mistake this for gender inclusion.)
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.
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.
Experience the true story of lifelong activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins and her participation in the Capitol Crawl in this autobiographical picture book.
This is the story of a little girl who just wanted to go, even when others tried to stop her.
Jennifer Keelan was determined to make a change―even if she was just a kid. She never thought her wheelchair could slow her down, but the way the world around her was built made it hard to do even simple things. Like going to school, or eating lunch in the cafeteria.
Jennifer knew that everyone deserves a voice! Then the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that would make public spaces much more accessible to people with disabilities, was proposed to Congress. And to make sure it passed, Jennifer went to the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC to convince them.
And, without her wheelchair, she climbed.
ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP!
From Ashima Shiraishi, one of the world’s youngest and most skilled climbers, comes a true story of strength and perseverence–in rock-climbing and in life.
To a rock climber, a boulder is called a “problem,” and you solve it by climbing to the top. There are twists and turns, falls and scrapes, and obstacles that seem insurmountable until you learn to see the possibilities within them. And then there is the moment of triumph, when there’s nothing above you but sky and nothing below but a goal achieved.
Ashima Shiraishi draws on her experience as a world-class climber in this story that challenges readers to tackle the problems in their own lives and rise to greater heights than they would have ever thought possible.
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:
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:
a reluctant main character who wants things to stay basically the same
something happens ― a problem, a spanner in the works
character resists change but is forced to get involved anyway
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.”
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?
Many cis men have been socialized to ignore both indirect and direct “no” signals from women, and some of them really lean into that and feel entitled to push their luck until they get a response they decide is clear enough, at which time they make it maximally weird and awkward in order to punish and dissuade future rude cock-blocking from the likes of you.
Captain Awkward (who also has some tips for if you’re trying to extricate yourself from a situation with these kinds of cis men).
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
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
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.
In =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. Ready Player Two is no better, actually worse for a number of different reasons.
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.
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:
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 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.
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 are for the marketing copy.
Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Wolkwhich, 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 , the ugly cost of challenging authority , the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy , then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own .
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?
You’ve probably seen Pixar’s 22 Tips on Storytelling because it’s done the rounds, but in case you have not here they are. I’m doing something a little different with it — I’ve divided the tips into ‘tips for the writing process itself’ and ‘storycraft tips’.
You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? [This is them basically telling writers to give main characters moral shortcomings, psychological shortcomings, ghosts and desire, then putting them through the wringer during the big struggle phase.]
What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. [This is echoing advice from everywhere — put your character through so much crap that they come to the precipice of death.]
Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. [‘Avoid deus ex machina’ is related to this tip. In children’s stories, don’t get adults to fix kids’ problems, either. It’s not unheard of, but hard to make that work.]
What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
INSPIRATION AND THE WRITING PROCESS ITSELF
You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Related to theme, why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? [Yep, that’s what this blog is for.]
Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
There’s this gag in many humorous children’s stories which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome. It’s when a male character dresses as a female character. This gender inversion in itself is meant to be funny. But why?
For very young children, inversions are funny in general. Hat on the dog type gags will really tickle a three-year-old.
GENDER EXPANSIVE CHARACTERS FROM ANTIQUITY
The gender inversion story is as old as myth. Take Loki. Loki can be a cool example of the literal gender-binary-blurring of the Archetypal Trickster. As well as transforming into various animals, Loki also presents as a woman occasionally if a trick demands it, and in one famous case, does both, shifting into a female horse and becoming the mother of a magical beast. Marvel has deemed their version of Loki officially gender fluid.
Bonnie Bullough report that cross-dressing played a prominent role in “many non-Western religious traditions and exists in the mythologies of many peoples.”. For exdample, they explain that cross-dressing practices are evident in Hinduism, where androgyny is idealized and highly valued, and similarly have a place in Islamic culture, where muslim dervishes exhibited a form of “psychic transvestism” that greatly influecned Sufi philosophy. In Myanmar, cross-dressing behaviour is interpreted in light of “animistic beliefs still ingrained in Burmese Buddhism”. Further examples of cross-dressing behaviour abound in Masai, Indian, Papua New Guinean, Madagascan, and Tahitian cultures. A particularly notable example of cross-dressing practices can be found in the history of North America, where “white explorers and missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found that many Native American tribal cultures recognized multiple genders, including ‘women-man’, and ‘men-women’ who took on cross-gender roles, often involving cross-dressing.
Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Children’s Literature and Culture) by Victoria Flanagan (2007).
BINARY GENDER IS COLONIALISED GENDER
Men dressed as women in April 1451 during Cade’s Uprising to protest that, for them, the world had turned topsy turvy.
The Decolonizing Sexualities Network: a transnational collective that brings together academics, activists and artivists from across the global norths and souths for whom colonialism, coloniality and decolonization are central to the analytics, politics, experiences, and movements of gender and sexuality.
GENDER IN MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN CULTURES
Even in Christianity, art historians have pointed out the proliferation of 14th-16th C religious images which depict Mary’s breast alongside Christ’s wound, intermingling the symbolism of milk with the symbolism of blood. Blood and milk are both associated with nourishment and a performance of maternal identity. Although we code Christ as masculine, what was Christ actually doing? Christ was like a mother figure, bleeding to give life to Christians in the same way mothers lactate to give life to babies. (In Medieval times, people thought breastmilk was a type of blood.) Sure, these are just images we’re talking about. Images are symbolic. But symbolism in art speaks to widely held concepts of the people living at that time. We know that Medieval thinks had a more fluid notion of gender identity than Christians who came after. Like Christ’s body, everyone’s body was in some ways male and some ways female.
GENDER SPECTRUMS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Almost every culture operates under a system of patriarchy, and by increasing the binary genders to look more like the spectrum that it is doesn’t automatically elevate communities out of patriarchy: almost without exception, cishet men remain at the top of this gender hierarchy, no matter how cultures break it down. However, the following list exemplifies how so many cultures do at least recognise that gender is a spectrum, not a binary:
North America has Two-Spirit. Identifying with masculinity and femininity, indigenous North American two-spirit people are often said to contain both male and female ‘spirits’. They’re often revered in their communities as a channel between the physical and spiritual realms.
Samoahas Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama. Fa’afafines’ roles in society move fluidly between the traditional male and female. Fa’afatama is another fluid gender for those assigned female at birth.
South Asia has Hijras. This third gender is centuries old. Hijras are associated with sacred powers. The name usually refers to those assigned male at birth but who don’t identify as male. In 2014, India legally recognised hijras as a third gender after they were criminalised by the British in 1871.
Albania has Sworn Virgins. People assigned female at birth (oftentimes self-identifying women) take on the social identity of a man for life, though this is often simply a response to an oppressive patriarchy rather than a response to a person’s gender identity. (As you can probably tell from the name, Sworn Virgins are also forced taking a vow of chastity).
Nepal has Metis. Officially recognised as a third gender in Nepal in 2007, metis have a long history in the Himalayan region. Assigned male at birth, they assume a traditional feminine appearance. Nepal set a global precedent with a third gender category on official documents.
Indonesia has Bugis. Indonesia has for centuries seen gender as a spectrum. In addition to ‘male’ and ‘female’, Indonesia recognises three additional genders. Bugis genders include ‘calabai’ (feminine men), ‘calalai’ (masculine women) and intersex ‘bissu’ priests.
Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have Brotherboys and Sistergirls. Brotherboys are people with a gender experience inconsistent with their assigned sex, with a male spirit and male roles in the community. Sistergirls are the inverse.
Thailand has Toms, alongside about a dozen or more common gender identities. Toms are women who adopt masculine mannerisms, aesthetics and speech. Toms are often attracted to ‘dees’ – women who follow traditional Thai gender norms.
GENDER MARKERS ARE HIGHLY CONTEXTUAL AND VARIABLE
Now’s a good time to point out that expressions of gender are contingent upon era and place. The man in the image below is wearing typical men’s swimwear of the 1920s. However, a modern audience may look at the blue swimsuit and assume a man is wearing ‘women’s’ swimwear. There’s no such thing as men’s and women’s swimwear. Clothes do not have an inherent gender. Likewise, pink has only been ‘for girls’ since the 1940s.
DOES GENDER INVERSION EQUAL SUBVERSION?
Artists have played with gender inversion for many decades as a way of subverting the gender binary. The question to ask: Is this gender subversion, or is it unhelpful inversion? The multi-component test for this: Is this a boy being dressed as a girl, against his will, for humiliation purposes?
My issue is not with characters who crossdress by their own volition. In fact, anything we can do to mess with the gender binary is just fine with me.
I’m not talking about the long history of girls dressed up as boys to allow girls boy-like freedom. Those are largely subverting the gender binary rather than reinforcing them.
Were it not better, Because that I am more than common tall, That I did suit me all points like a man? Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will, We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside, As many other mannish cowards have That do outface it with their semblances.’
As You Like It
But this my masculine usurped attire . . . Conceal me what I am, and be my aid For such disguise as haply shall become The form of my intent . . . Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
Parvana is eleven when the Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan. Her father is arrested, and women are not allowed to leave the house without a male escort. Parvana must disguise herself and find work to save her family.
There’s a common difference between fictional girls-dressed-as-boys and boys-dressed-as-girls. When female characters dress as boys, they generally do so to pass as male and go on adventures. They are treated with respect and carry out tasks as well as male characters would be expected to do. This debunks gender binary stereotypes by saying that girls can do anything boys can do if given the chance. It also highlights the existence gender hierarchy by showing that girls are treated better when they shuck off their feminine accoutrements. However, when fictional male characters dress as female characters, they are almost always comically unconvincing. This works to reinforce gender binaries rather than to challenge them. (You can’t be a ‘real‘ woman unless you look and act in a certain way, unattainable to ‘natural’ men and boys.)
That said, scholars have noticed that when girls dress up as boys in stories they either die the end or return to their pre-adventure, feminine state. Sometimes these girls are ‘reintroduced into the stereotypical feminine matrix’, as Maria Nikolajeva says in Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers.
In this post I’m talking specifically about boys and men dressed up as women and girls for laughs.
To pre-empt anyone thinking at this point that jokes are just jokes, separate from the ‘real’:
Humour can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.
Film School Rejects
Clothing is a potent cultural symbol of gender and sexual difference, and the wearing of clothes deemed socially appropriate for the opposite sex is generally considered to be a transgressive and provocative act.
Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (2007).
Taylor Swift wasn’t the first to explore these ideas in a music video.
Gender inversion is ancient, and also a very old gag.
The British pantomime tradition has prolonged the life of the medieval diablerie, and Mother Goose, irreverently guying her betters, crossed over from the nursery and the riddle book to flourish on the boards. Significantly, Mother Goose is a drag role; like Widow Twankey or the Wicked Stepmother, she was played by a pantomime dame in the Christmas dramas and music-hall revues. The earliest piece extant to pluck her from the pages of children’s collections of tales or rhymes and put her on stage was called Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg, and it blended, as the title suggests, com media dell’arte stock characters with British comic fairytale motifs. Sex reversals pointed up the magic as well as the absurdity: the name of Pulcinella, Mister Punch’s clownish ancestor from Italian masked comedy, ends in the feminine a which retains the memory of his bravest. Mother Goose triples the inversion: she is played by a man to look like a cross-dressed woman who herself looks like Pulcinella/Punch.
Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde
GENDER ‘INVERSION’ RESTS UPON A BINARY NOTION OF GENDER
A binary view of gender is no longer supported by science, let alone the lived experience of many people. But in order to find gender inversions funny, the (conservative) audience must have a binary and immutable view of two genders, with strict rules applied to each. As soon as the audience understands that gender roles are fluid, and that gender is a continuum, the joke fails. A man in a dress would no longer be funny if men were permitted to wear dresses without ridicule.
Wayne’s World (attracting a teenage and early adult audience) came out in 1992.
But what else does this gag rely on in order to ‘work’? It relies on an implicit narratee agreement that gender transgression is shameful and humiliating. There are other victims enclosed in this joke, aside from the fictional heroes of Wayne’s World.
‘Conservative’ commentators often start with the absurd claim that telling schoolchildren about transgender identity is ‘child abuse’, then swivel into insinuations of paedophilia. Above all, we’re impostors, a cheat, a ‘travesty’ (deconstruct that), a parody of womanhood, a pretend: a pretend sister to feminists, a pretend hot date to regular guys. I expect it’s this alleged deceptiveness of trans women, along with our sexualisation, that explains why so many people in so many states of America apparently think it’s OK to chase us out of women’s toilets at gunpoint, or beat us up or rape us if they see us at the drive-in.
A recent example of gender inversion as gag can be seen in Paddington (2014), in which Hugh Bonneville attempts to pass as a cleaning lady.
In order to see the dark side, it’s necessary to consider why this is funny.
The character Mr Brown is, by the part of the story, known to us as a stiff upper lip, well-to-do fellow who dresses in a manly suit and must earn a lot of money. He lives with his wife and two children in a very large London house. When we see him dressed as a cleaning lady, he has been stripped of his masculine stripes. He is now on the lowest rung of London’s socioeconomic ladder, and the gender switch underscores the fact. Notice how he’s not a cleaning gentleman. Notice he’s wearing pink, not blue. Femininity is presented in opposition to his masculinity as father and provider. The gag is that he couldn’t possibly stoop any lower. The invisible ideology is that a woman (doing typically woman’s work — and also underscoring that cleaning should be woman’s work) is worth less than a man.
Children don’t look all that hard at it, of course. For a young audience, a man dressed down as a woman is like a dog wearing a hat. This scene is funny because it’s incongruous. However, there are real world consequences when children’s films stoop to using this particular gendered incongruity (as if there aren’t a million other incongruities from which to choose): We are teaching children to find transgender women funny, weird, exotic and unnatural. Laughable.And it’s really only an incongruity if you subscribe to a strict gender binary in the first place, in which cleaning is for ladies and well-paid suit-jobs are for men. Invisible ideologies are the most dangerous.
The gag relies on homophobia. During this sequence, cleaning lady Mr Brown is propositioned by a man in a suit who, we are meant to believe (I suppose), genuinely believes Mr Brown is a woman. The cross-dressing gag can therefore only be funny if we ignore the diversity of human attraction.
The gag also relies on transphobia.
If you’ve seen Paddington 2, you may have noticed that the prisoners are devastated to find Paddington has put their light-coloured prison uniforms through the wash with red socks, which means they all end up wearing pink.
The man dressed down as a woman gag can be found all over children’s film. I’ll list just a few examples, but take a close look at the release dates. This gag simply will not die, despite more obvious advances such as marriage equality.
By the way, there is a bright line between the pink prison uniforms of Paddington 2 and the pink prison uniforms of “Industry Baby”, a music video by Lil Nas. The latter is a celebration of queerness and also functions as social protest, much like a Pride Parade. Despite the difference in ratings, the children’s film has a far more damaging political ideology, which is why ratings in general must be met with scepticism.
LITTLE RASCALS (1994)
Two of the little boys dress as ballerinas. The thing about dressing very young boys up as girls — they actually do look like girls. Sexual dimorphism hasn’t kicked in yet.
Coded as girls, Alfalfa uses this opportunity to big himself up with his love interest. The boys are ushered onto stage with all the girls, who have been assiduously practising. Naturally, the boys stuff up the dance, but this is seen as amusing and delightful by the adult audience.
Dressed as girls, these boys suddenly attract the sexual attention of boys. Fair to say, this franchise has not aged well. (I especially did not need that cameo of Donald Trump, especially the outtake of him spitting his popcorn kernels onto someone else sitting in the bleachers.)
A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
During the circus scene, one of the Fly Brothers says to Francis (thinking he’s a girl), “Hey, cutie! Wanna pollinate with a real bug?”
SHARK TALE (2004)
In this story there is a ‘sissy’ shark who at one point ‘dresses’ like a dolphin as a disguise, to his macho father’s chagrin.
SHREK 2 (2004)
This film is full of cross-dressing gags.
the implication that Pinocchio likes wearing women’s underwear
a throwaway line about the big bad wolf in Grandma’s nightgown being ‘gender-confused’
a visual gag involving a deep-voiced male bartender in wicked-stepsister drag
Patriarchal older brother Peter punishes Edmond by telling him he deserves to wear a fur coat for girls; subtext reading, Edmond has now been demoted for lying.
Sub-subtext reading, lying — like wearing fur coats — is a girly thing to do.
FANTASTIC MR FOX (2009)
We don’t actually see any ‘cross dressing’ in this film, but dressing as a girl is still used as an insult. From the script:
BEAVER’S SON (to Ash): We don’t like you, and we hate your dad. You’re too snazzy. You dress like a girl. You’re creative. Now grab some of that mud, chew it in your mouth, and swallow it.
(For many other reasons I believe the Wes Anderson adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox is a film for nostalgic adults rather than for children themselves.)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)
When Barbie, dressed in Ken’s astronaut suit, gets Buzz’s instruction manual from the Bookworm he notices Barbie’s high heels and sighs disgustedly.
This hints that he believed Ken had begun cross-dressing, and that dressing as a woman is a tiresome thing.
In another scene in the vending machine, Ken claims that he’s not a girls’ toy, meaning he does not want the other toys thinking he’s gay/sissy due to being part of the Barbie franchise: Making fun of boys who transgress gender lines hurts kids. In Toy Story 3, Ken laments, “Why do people always call me a girls’ toy?”, and he’s laughed at for having “girl’s handwriting.” What the film is teaching here is that 1) girl’s toys and handwriting aren’t as good as boy’s toys and handwriting, and thus 2) girls, and feminine boys, just aren’t as good as masculine boys. This is called gender policing, homophobia, and misogyny. It hurts kids. And you know what? This joke wasn’t necessary. No one would have enjoyed Toy Story 3 one whit less if the homophobia was left out. You make people laugh in plenty of other wonderful ways in every movie — why do it at someone’s expense?
The rolling credits at the end of this film are accompanied by (omitted but not really omitted) scenes. “It’s not about the treasure,” says one of the pirates, “it’s about how you feel inside.” The Pirate Captain responds dismissively with, “You’re not a man disguised as a woman, are you?” Also: “Grow yourself a beard. It’ll make your face look less lumpy.”
(Something tells me the creators of this film weren’t thinking too hard about their script. At least they took out the bad-taste leprosy joke before the final cut. But was there a feminist in the room?)
THE RADIATOR SPRINGS 500 1/2 (2013)
At the beginning of this TV episode (part of the Cars franchise) a car gendered male called Mater is dressed as an Hawaiian hula girl. As part of his disguise he has coconuts placed on his headlights, an allusion to breasts similar to Mia and Tia’s headlights flashing in Cars.
At Baby Corp, a lot of VR babies are walking around. Tim walks into a little girl and to the viewer it looks as if he is a boy wearing a dress. Boss Baby, voiced by Alec Baldwin, says, “Stop embarrassing yourself.” Why is it embarrassing to look like you’re wearing a dress? Because girls wear dresses and girls are stupid.
I think the writers knew that this was a problem. Instead of taking the horrible jokes out they turned the film into a circular story structure by suggesting that the same story was going to happen all over again, but this time to a girl and her little sister. This is faux gender equality which exists only on the surface. Too many people buy into it.
The film is a Hindi remake of the 2011 Tamil film Kanchana. Director Raghava Lawrence has been at the helm for both movies. Starring Akshay Kumar, the movie is about a transgender ghost taking revenge on a family and possessing the star character.
Obviously, just the premise is transphobic. The only trans character in the movie isn’t a person, just an evil, vengeful spirit. In addition, she’s being played by Kumar, a male actor. The movie is billed as a “horror/comedy,” and the preview does a lot with getting laughs from situations where Kumar’s character puts on a saree or acts in feminine ways, making the ghost’s gender the punchline of the joke.
GENDER INVERSION AS GAG IN MIDDLE GRADE LITERATURE
BARKING MAD BY TOM E. MOFFAT (2015)
Barking Mad features a ‘bitchy’, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying.
It is nearly an Obligatory Joke for a cross-gender body-swap couple to have some reaction of shock/disgust/surprise to the other’s genitalia. In the anime Your Name we have two unrelated strangers dealing with their new bodies whereas the sibling swap has an extra layer of built-in disgust due to the children being related. In Barking Mad, our boy protagonist is so disgusted at the thought of his older sister’s body that he holds on all day without using the toilet. We aren’t told how the sister dealt with her brother’s genitalia in the toilet because the story does not switch to her point-of-view.
When seen over and over again, this story of adolescent disgust directed towards female bodies — often, as in this story, because they’re related by blood, but sometimes as a way of showing the boy hasn’t reached manhood and is not ready for sex — I feel this trope has real-world implications for how society is already ridiculously coy (at best), disgusted (at worst) by womanhood. Even today, basics such as the clitoris are often left off diagrams when teaching female reproduction to adolescents, yet all genders will definitely be told about male masturbation and ejaculation.
I was already nervous about the way this body swap was going to be handled after one of the early jokes involves the humiliation of a police officer, who is down-troued in a slapstick joke. Not only does he suffer humiliation owing to the airing of his underwear — the underwear is specifically described as pink. Why? Everyone knows why, but it sounds worse when it’s put into words: Pink is so heavily identified with femininity that when men are associated with this colour they are associated with women and girls. This is humiliating for men precisely because femaleness is associated with lesser power. In this version of (toxic) masculinity, manliness is not the better flipside of ‘boyhood’, but of ‘womanhood’. This sort of humour, in which boys and girls are pitted against each other is still popular, no doubt about it.
David Walliams has sold millions of children’s books around the English speaking world doing very similar things. My eight-year-old daughter laughed when I read the joke. She, too, had already internalised this far more subtle form of sexism. (Update: They have since learned to read critically.)
BIG NATE SERIES BY LINCOLN PEIRCE
Taking just a single book in this series (Genius Mode, 2013), which I happen to have read due to my child getting it out of the library, a large proportion of the gags are gender inversion gags.
Nate feels humiliated because the school photographer puts powder on his nose (which leads him to break out in a rash). The first half of that gag is supposed to be funny because boys aren’t supposed to wear make up.
Nate hates figure skating. He is humiliated when his father retrieves figure skates when the most respect-worthy people at the rink will be playing the masculine-coded sport of ice hockey.
It’s surprising Nate is such a raging femme phobic because his own father and role model is quite at home doing what he loves. The entire gag of one comic strip rests upon the image of Nate’s disgust at his father who is off to yoga. The father carries his yoga mat very much as if it’s a handbag. The gag would not work if the father was setting off to engage in a masculine-coded activity.
A further underlying gag through Big Nate is that smartness and studying is a feminine-coded trait, to be avoided at all costs. A defender might argue that another boy character is into studying, and shown to be a success with girls because of it. But this boy is not the viewpoint character.
Do stories like Big Nate really make fun of the main character, or do they reinforce an existing cultural message that girl-coded activity is inferior, and boys must work hard to avoid it?
My answer is that it does both.
GENDER INVERSION AS PUNISHMENT IN REAL LIFE
Whether the pink clothing was designed as a punishment or not, note the context carefully:
Arpaio saved worse abuse for others. Those who were in full detention had to wear pink socks, underwear and flip-flops. They ate peanut butter and bread, and the only other meal they received was baloney and bread. They also had the option of “slob,” which was an unknown, disgusting substance that looked like some kind of thick stew and tasted like cardboard. (The poor people in the work furlough program who couldn’t pay for vending-machine food had no choice but to eat it.)
In the story, this is the event which transforms the masculine prison culture into a kinder, softer one in which men are allowed to show their feminine side. In comedy, character transformation does often take place after ridiculous events. That’s part of the comedy. But as part of the wider culture of gender inversion as humiliation, I can’t find this gag genuinely funny.
BOYS DRESSED AS GIRLS AND THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY
When male characters dress as female characters in children’s films, they’re doing it as a kind of mask, in preparation for their ‘real’ nature being exposed in a comical exposure scene. This is a common gag in comedy — if the main plot rests on it, it’s called a transgression comedy. The world of children’s stories is yet to see many transgender stories.
However, we are starting to see a few transgender stories in entertainment for adults. While transgression comedies for children are not the same as transgender narratives for adults, there are clear parallels. I believe we should look to the transgender community to fully understand the implications of playing gender inversions for gags.
Trans Narratives is an organisation helping trans people share their stories. They have called for a boycott of cis-men (be they gay or straight) playing trans women on screen.
“Feedback indicates that most trans people are offended by Hollywood’s employment of cis men who put on a dress trying to imitate trans people. If it is no longer acceptable for white folks to play African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, why is it acceptable for men to play trans women?”
An admin of the page wrote in another: “As a trans woman, I know from personal experience that many gay men believe that trans women are really gay men who refuse to deal with being gay men. I’ve been told this to my face.“So perhaps the gay men who insist on ‘gay-splaining’ that Matt Bomer should be playing a trans woman just can’t get over the notion that trans women are in fact women, not gay men.” Another read: “On Trans Narratives I asked the trans community what they thought of cis men playing trans women. The vast majority of trans people say it exploits us. Don’t debate us! Don’t tell us it’s just a movie and these men are just acting. Listen to us! Listen to a mother of trans children.” — Pink News
MALE VILLAINS CODED AS FEMME
Related to this is a kind of inverse, utilised to hugely problematic effect in Silence of the Lambs, for example.
When men are coded as femme (rather than necessarily ‘disguised’ as a woman) this signals a particular form of evil. We have to take into account the long tradition of designing villains to be visually femme-coded or queer-coded: visibly crossing the usual barriers between “masculinity” and “femininity” as a method of othering them and making them unusual and scary compared to the straight-laced, normative heroes.
they use the ‘woman’s weapon’ of cleverness and speech
they are shapeshifters, so you never know who they ‘really are’.
This is all related to a loooong history of women as liars in dominant culture.
Although we don’t empathise with these characters, in stories we find them fascinating:
We all connect to that in-betweenness in our own ways, and enjoy living vicariously through these characters who take it to the extreme… and who can, perhaps, present that Otherness much more openly than we can.
I’m a woman! I’m glad my conception of masculinity is not centred on such a bowel-loosening fear of women and femininity that being compared to one is the very worst thing that could ever happen to me as a man.
Header illustration by Theodore G. Haupt (1902-1990) 1929. Perhaps we’re supposed to code this picture as an illustration of an underwear thief. But there are other reasons why a masculo-coded individual may be travelling with lacy underwear.
When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.
What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults because it is Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:
Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.
This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:
A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.
Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:
Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)
Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.
THE EXAMPLE OF TOY STORY
Immature characters: Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the Pig, Mr Potato Head, Rex the Dinosaur, Slinky Dog
Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:
floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
hovering — a subgenre in African American books
leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.