The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

bloodline in fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?

When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.

The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:

If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast with Carl Zimmer

Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.

Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?

FEATURES OF A CHOSEN ONE STORY

The bloodline plot often involves an orphaned character. (Or a character who thinks they are orphaned.) Orphans are super popular in children’s literature, especially in American children’s literature.

Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.

The Afictionado

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

REASON ONE: CHOSEN ONE STORIES ARE UN-DEMOCRATIC

Here’s a spirited argument from Brent Hartinger:

I can’t STAND the whole idea of the “Chosen One” — someone who, usually by virtue of their family background, is destined for greatness. The prophecies all say so!

I’ve hated this trope as long as I’ve been alive. The Force runs strong in the Skywalker family? Harry Potter is a celebrity at the start of his story, destined to kill Voldemorte (or die trying)? Frodo must destroy the One Ring that his cousin/uncle brought back from his adventures, redeeming the family name?

Where does all this leave the rest of us? We’re supposed sit back and let the Chosen One complete his destiny? If we’re lucky, we might get to help?

Oh, goody.

This annoys me because it’s so clearly based on the idea of royalty: that some family lines are simply better than other ones. They’re chosen by God, or the gods, or Destiny itself. (Often, this is couched in the idea that this greatness is some kind of unbearable “burden,” one that must be kept hidden from the ignorant rabble, but that’s mostly just a bunch of bunk. From the point of view of all these stories, the main character is the “cool” kid, even if the actual cool kids can’t see it yet.)

But I believe to the core of my being that greatness is democratic: it’s damn hard, but it’s available to ALL of us.

Brent Hartinger, fantasy author

Bloodlines stories are rarely truly feminist stories. That’s because most stories, even those set in fantasy worlds, work on the principle of patrimony.

It’s the rare novel which subverts this, though some do. One of the earlier subversions happened in On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight (1990). As Roberta Seelinger Trites describes:

While Birle [the main girl character] chafes against the narrowness of being female in this feudal society, Orien [her male love interest] questions the entire premise of the feudal society. Rejecting his patrimony, he bitterly tells Birle that knowing who one’s father is does not matter: “I know my fathers, for generations past”. He wonders why patrimony exists and why classes even exist, what gives one set of people the right to rule another, and why women are as disfranchised as they are.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

(Importantly, the story never switches to that of the boy character. He is only ever an accessory to the female character’s self-actualisation.)

REASON TWO: LAZY CHARACTERISATION

Characters of the chosen one archetype are hailed as the most important personin their setting for reasons that are entirely outside their control. The archetype is used to prop up bland characters who have done nothing to earn praise. Because these characters were born better than everyone else, they don’t have to practice or work hard to make a difference. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is worshiped because of what his mother did, while his hard-working friend Hermione sits in his shadow.

Mythcreants

REASON THREE: IN REAL LIFE IT’S NEVER JUST ONE PERSON SAVING THE DAY

Even when one person takes all the glory.

Because the chosen one is destined to change the course of history all on their own, the efforts of a larger community are quickly sidelined or forgotten. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance looks incompetent after Luke Skywalker swoops in and takes out an entire deathstar. And unlike many other chosen ones, he actually had some outside experience. By leaving the world-saving to one person, you’ll get a setting that is shallow and simplistic. No one makes history in a vacuum.

Mythcreants

In real life, there’s a human tendency to credit one person with doing all the work of saving the day, especially if that person happens to be a white man. (Compare responses to Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane safely ‘all on his own’ to many comments regarding Tammie Jo Shults, attempting to diffuse heroism to all the men in her arena.)

The following responses can be found on any comments section without scrolling far:

“Max Stone’s” element of truth is that many individuals are involved in a rescue operation. The difference is, our dominant cultural narrative gives sole credit only to men. This is how history books end up with far fewer female heroes.

Rather than continue to give sole credit to heroic, individual white men, we should treat male heroes as we currently treat female heroes.

This article from The Atlantic builds a good case: we expect too much of the President of the United States. The job itself has expanded over the decades. This may have something to do with all these (fictional) narratives in which one white dude saves the day, maybe? And now we think that’s how things should work?

BLOODLINE AND STAR WARS

I am not a Star Wars fan myself, but I would like to include a Twitter thread from someone who is. Star Wars is such a culturally significant story, and says a lot about what a ‘universal’ audience wants from blockbusters.

One of the MANY problems with overvaluing the bloodlines and legacy in Star Wars fandom: I’m a biracial woman of color. Blood purity and legacy when centered on white people has always been about white supremacy.

In worlds where that’s idealized people like me are exterminated. So having that very real inevitable outcome of imperialistic breeding be shown to be flawed and destructive, as well as intrinsically linked to a fascist regime that upholds oppression and exploitation of marginalized people is very validating.

As well as the damaging psychological toll that early indoctrination of children into any organization, whether it is the Jedi order or the Stormtrooper program. I’m still very disappointed that I have not seen anyone draw parallels between Luke’s early training of Ben and Finn’s abduction into Stormtrooper training. Both of these men were fucked up by the previous generation’s pushing their political and religious aspersions onto kids. Much of the subtext, that I am most likely reading into, the new cast of characters is that this is a generation of war orphans.

Whether they had parents or not, each one of them has been deeply marked by galactic civil war. Poe is a child of the Rebellion, a second generation rebel fighter. That brings with it high expectations, familiar ties to the cause and a still very childish ideation of what he believes heroism is. Rey lives in a literal Emperial graveyard, survives on salvaging scraps from the past. Jakku is such a fantastic subtle marker of how broken the galaxy was left after the last war. It’s quite a contrast to the opulent splendor or Canto Bight. Finn’s a literal child soldier, taken by a war machine fed by wealthy imperialistic interests and political apathy. Rose is deeply marked by the fractured and corrupt galactic politics of this post war universe. Her childhood was stolen in much the same ways as Rey and Finn. Kylo Ren is the ultimate failure of the precious generations, but also the embodiment of generational trauma. Both in the actual abuse his mother suffered under his grandfather, the misguided choice to train him as a child, and the stain of overvalued bloodlines and “legacy”.

I don’t feel like this narrative is mocking of berating it for falling in love with the romantic notions of destiny and heroism. I feel it’s, if a bit sarcastically, redirecting us to what lies beneath these seemingly mystical and wondrous ways in which people change their world. It’s ALWAYS people. Not magic. Not powerful death machines. People shift the tides of war. People save each other. People do this because of love, friendship, family, and faith in a better future. To me this recaptures the magic of A New Hope, but more importantly our first experience of it. Where it was just about random people stumbling their way into friendship and saving the galaxy along the way. Just a farm boy, smuggler, and rebel princess. Anything was possible.

They won not because of magic or machinery. They won because Han Solo couldn’t abandon his new friends, showed up in the very last minute of the big struggle, kicked Vader in the dick, so Luke could blow up the Death Star. Luke didn’t defeat the Emporer using the Force. Anakin Skywalker decided he couldn’t let his son die for a reason. A father chose to save his son’s life. The Lightside of the Force is love and hope. The Darkside is hate, anger, and fear. These are not exclusive to one family, bloodline. Neither is the Force.

Fangirl Jeanne, twitter thread.

DOES THE WORK OF LEIGH BARDUGO SYMBOLISE A CULTURAL SHIFT IN STORYTELLING?

I have reason to believe The Chosen One story is falling out of fashion, but that’s mainly based on observing the career trajectory of Leigh Bardugo. Now, I read a lot of publishing blogs, listen to agent podcasts and whatnot and I’ve never heard any series recommended by publishing people as much as Six Of Crows. Agents love this series. Importantly to my theory: Six Of Crows is not Bardugo’s first fantasy series. What is it about this one that made it take off, and what made it take off at this cultural moment? Bear in mind, most children’s publishing people are lefties:

Six of Crows was radically different from the original trilogy. It had nothing to do with royalty or secret powers or chosen ones or any of the things that people still seem so hungry for—and to be clear, those are all tropes I’ve written and tropes I like, so I get the appeal. But I was in a place where I wanted to talk about characters who the world sees as expendable, not the ones with grand destinies.

Leigh Bardugo, talking with The Mary Sue about moving away from her also popular but not mega popular blood lines stories.

IN DEFENCE OF THE BLOODLINE ARCHETYPE

It’s impossible to write about chosen one stories without mentioning Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s series is proof that many readers love chosen one narratives. It’s also worth pointing out, because it’s easy to forget, that Harry Potter is now 20 years old. In sociological terms, that’s more than an entire generation. But even in 2018, Harry Potter remains super popular with young readers. Harry Potter is as popular as it ever was. The biggest argument in favour of chosen one stories: Readers love them.

Readers have always loved them, so I’d be surprised if we see the end anytime soon.

Commenter Bruce Hahne points out that the ‘un-democratic’ work ethic implicit in the Chosen One criticism is borne by an equally problematic Protestant work ethic. Taken too far, that, too, can marginalise entire groups of people who are unable to contribute to GDP: Hahne also gives us a brief history of Chosen One stories in popular culture:

Rule out The Chosen One as an origin trope and you kill Green Lantern (all of them), Thor, Harry Potter, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson version), Buffy, and probably about half of Greek mythology.

God also disagrees with you:

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)

No hard work and right choices there, he was just chosen.

Storytellers use The Chosen One because it works, it continues to work, and movies that use this origin trope well make money.

BLOODLINE STORIES: TIME FOR A MODERN RE-VISIONING?

Some bloodline stories are less problematic than others, or perhaps problematic in a slightly different way. Compare Harry Potter to Matilda:

An interesting case … is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who off the bat has a lot in common with Harry Pottera young person in an obnoxious and abusive family who happens to have supernatural powers, both immediately relatable as heroes and providing the wish-fulfilment that we could magic ourselves out of horrible situations we’ve been raised in. Both end up leaving their toxic home environments and end up surrounded by people who love them. There’s a crucial difference between the two, though: Harry is saved by the reveal of his secret and much more appealing family lineage, and Matilda voluntarily leaves her biological family for better prospects.

Harry’s story is a much more common one: your life is terrible, orphan hero? Surprise, your real, but sadly dead and unable to help you, leading to you propelling the plot on your own, family were magical, giving you a portal to a better life you’ve been unknowingly destined for since the get go. This goes all the way back to Oliver Twist, the kicked-around workhouse boy discovered by chance by a rich old man who realises Oliver is his grandson. Happy endings ensue after plentiful struggle. This is a good narrative, and kind of so ingrained in our collective hearts that Matilda’s seems shocking in comparison: she left her blood relatives? But they were supposed to be where the hope was!

Matilda’s happy ending is being adopted, rather than the other way around. She finds someone kind and good, who knows her struggle, and together they rise up against the awful characters surrounding them and go off together to make their own family. Family is redefined as people who love, accept and protect you, and Matilda’s blood relatives are told, narrative-wise and literally, to go stuff themselves.

Afictionado

In other words, J.K. Rowling goes with the ideology that ‘your own family is best’, whereas Roald Dahl and his editor explore the possibility that some families are just terrible and you’re better off rid of them. This is still uncommon in children’s literature, but a surprisingly high proportion of adults are estranged from their natal families. This remains a cultural taboo.

One in 25 adult Australians will be estranged from their family at one point, but it’s a issue that’s rarely discussed openly.

— SBS

Afictionado also points out that when we open our hearts to ‘found family’ stories (rather than ‘be loyal to your blood family at all costs’), this paves the way for a more diverse representation of family structure in fiction:

Matilda has a single adoptive mother. Lilo [from Lilo and Stitch] has her older sister, brother-in-law, extra-terrestrial best friend and two cross-dressing alien dads. Steven Universe has three (occasionally five) shapeshifting alien mums and a human dad who supports from the sidelines. Mako Mori has her adoptive father/teacher/saviour, drift companion and an entire army of international pilots and technicians who she’ll heroically protect.

Afictionado

FURTHER READING

“My Father Will Hear About This”: A Look at Magical Aristocracy from Afictionado

Father Tropes In Fiction

George Sheridan Knowles - Page and Monarch forth they went, Forth they went together, Through the rude wind’s wild lament, and the bitter weather 1898

Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

Luke, You Are My Father – when a character in a story finds out who their real parent is. An Arthurian trope. In some versions of Arthurian mythology, Mordred is the son of Arthur and his sister, who was sent away to die as an infant, as he was destined to kill Arthur later on. Which he did when he showed up as an adult. In Northern Lights, Lyra finds out that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father.

I Am Not Your Father – There will be a reveal that a child’s parents are not the real parents after years of Oblivious Adoption. After a long time, the adoptive parents finally tell him.

Tell Me About My Father – We see the female version of this in Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

The father from Because Of Winn-Dixie

Sins Of Our Fathers – This describes the act of exacting revenge upon the descendants of the one who originally did the wrong.

Standard 50s Father – Mr Dursley from Harry Potter, the father from Freaks and Geeks (though it’s set in 1980). In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have a father figure rather than the father (Tom’s uncle) who is literally a 1950s father because this book was written in the early 1950s.

Mother Nature, Father Science – If a show has men and women both from an academic background, the man will typically have a degree in science, math, or engineering, while the woman will have one in arts or literature. (This may be why so many mad scientists are male.) Even if both characters are scientists, expect the man to research physics or mathematics and the woman to research psychology or biology. This reflects real life, but children’s literature both reflects real life AND influences it, so children do need to see more STEM mums and nurturing dads. (We are starting to see the nurturing dads, usually when the mother has been disappeared in some way.)

Lineage Comes From The Father – This can be a sexist trope: a great deal of the time characters in the Heir Club for Men who insist on having a boy are men, that when a character has a legacy of royalty, villainy or heroics it comes from the father. Even for female characters. The implicit assumption is that if a character is going to inherit something of relevance from their bloodline, it’s going to be from their father’s side, never their mother’s. However, writers can imbue a story with far more nuance than that. Children can turn out like their fathers even when it’s not a good thing. Bill of Big Love was kicked out of home as a young teen and has since appeared to make it okay in regular Utah, middle-class society. But he will never shake his background or his core beliefs learned while growing up within a cult of polygamy. He is more like his horrible birth father than he realises, and pays for it. It seems for a while that his eldest son is following in his footsteps. The audience realises that there is no real ‘supernatural’ type religious calling but that the son is instead influenced by an influx of teenage hormones, and that is the main reason he can see himself with multiple wives. A picture book example of this is Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough. It’s out of print but you can listen to the author read it on YouTube.

Fantasy-Forbidding Father – A father, mother, or guardian (these last two are less common) disapproves of their child or ward reading “fairy stories”, playing fantasy or SF games, sports, and even such “useless” hobbies as astronomy, boxing and being literate. In extreme cases, anything the child likes that isn’t directly and concretely tied to whatever it is their dad does for a living (or that he wants them to do for a living) is seen as an utter waste. The dad may even break, burn or sell anything of this nature their child owns, possibly even punishing or locking them up. In Freaks and Geeks Nick Andopolis has one of these dads — a military Dad who does not approve of his son’s playing the drums. The audience may be able to see both sides in this case, because Nick is genuinely terrible at the drums and doesn’t practice. Many a heroine of a Pony Tale was saddled with parents like these, when they weren’t obstructive in some other way to her dream of becoming an equestrian.

Supernatural-Proof Father – Usually, when a household starts experiencing supernatural events the whole family experiences them.Well, almost everybody. The father, as the head of the family and the most “sensible and grounded” member, is the last person to encounter (or admit encountering) these bizarre events. We have this kind of father in the horror film Insidious, though it turns out that technically he was the first to see the ghosts and has simply repressed his trauma.

Disappeared Dad – Children’s literature is full of Dads who are absent, either because they have left the family unit or because they’re too busy with their work. Bella Swan’s father grants her sufficient space for her to get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural happenings.

Action Dad – This is the father who realizes something is happening, and isn’t going to stand for it, particularly if it poses any kind of threat to his family. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Papa Smurf.

Archnemesis Dad – aloof, remote, and offer scant praise for their children’s achievements. Some expect their kids to act like adults from an early age and offer no guidance. Lord Tywin Lannister, the dwarf’s dad from A Song of Fire and Ice.

Bumbling Dad – Born out of the Sitcom Dysfunctional Family, he’s a deliberate subversion of theStandard ’50s Father. Now so ubiquitous the older trope is nearly forgotten. Homer Simpson, Papa Bear of the Berenstain Bears, Frank Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe Ron Weasley’s dad in Harry Potter.

Human Mother, Non-Human Dad – In the Japanese comic book (and movie) Wolf Children, the mother is fully human, but the father is a werewolf. His children inherit his werewolfishness.

Jock Dad, Nerd SonBill, from Freaks and Geeks (in relation to his mother’s boyfriend, who is also his P.E. teacher.

Overprotective Dad – Kat’s father from 10 Things I Hate About You.

Papa Wolf – when bumbling Dad turns into action Dad. The dad on The River Wild, in which the last line is given to the young son: something along the lines of “My mother is really brave but my father saved the day”, just to remind a conservative audience that the character arc really belongs to the man, even though the film ostensibly follows the path (“river”) of the mother.

Parent Ex Machina – This is when a mother or fatherly figure swoops in to save the day, much as a god did in old dramas. This is an absolute no-no in writing fiction for children. Cheryl Klein advises in her book Second Sight, if you find yourself with a plot that a child wouldn’t be able to solve because of their age, you can do something to fix it: Turn the unsolvable plot into a subplot while giving the child protagonist more autonomy in the main plot. Children must be the fully fledged protagonists of their own stories.

Team Dad – More often than not the disciplinarian, lead-by-example-kind of character in contrast to the warm, nurturing tendencies of a Team Mom. The Team Dad is almost always the oldest member of The Team and if he isn’t The Leader, then he’s definitely The Mentor, and in family-based teams, he is the father (or at least the big brother) of at least one member. This character doesn’t have to be an actual Dad and doesn’t actually have to be male — though usually is. A good example from kidlit is Julian from the Famous Five series, or Dick from The Faraway Tree series — Enid Blyton loved Team Dad boys. Open page one of The Wishing Chair and highlight the mansplaining dished out to Molly from her brother, who looks the same age as she is.

Veteran DadPark’s father from Eleanor & Park. The gay dad across the road in American Beauty.

The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling

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 becauseitis 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:

  1. Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
  2. 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 

Pixar writers are held up regularly as the top of the field when it comes to modern storytelling.
Pixar writers are held up regularly as the top of the field when it comes to modern storytelling.

  1. Immature characters: Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the Pig, Mr Potato Head, Rex the Dinosaur, Slinky Dog
  2. Mature character: Bo-Peep

(In Toy Story, other female characters exist but either never have their faces shown — e.g. mother — or only exist in their relationship to Andy — e.g. baby sister. These female characters can’t be classified at all.)

Toy Story is just one example of Pixar’s Maturity Formula.

The protagonists of The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and Up are actually adult men. […] The Pixar maturity formula is a script that appears in most of [Pixar’s] films.

Is Gendering Maturity Actually A Problem?

This female maturity formula can be interpreted as either a positive or as a negative for girls. Below,  a Tumblr user chooses to interpret the female maturity formula in Star Wars as a sign of general female strength.

Leia

Women save the galaxy

Some argue that when boys are consistently shown as inept, or when men in commercials are shown as bumbling, that’s actually evidence of sexism against boys and men.

The truth is, this gendered maturity formula in storytelling is terrible for girls and women. Despite many who conflate ‘girl power’ with equality, gender equality in fiction will only happen when we see just as many flawed and weak female characters as there are flawed and weak male characters. The reason it’s safe to depict male characters as bumbling is because we get to see a good number of boys and men in charge of their own destinies — making plans, existing in their own right, growing (or diminishing, in tragedies) as people.

Equal numbers of female characters must go through their very own character arcs before we can say gender equality has achieved. That is the measure. Not ‘kickass’ but flat girls. Not sassy girls standing up for themselves when boys go about their journeys. Not the girl who turns up to do the off-the-page, boring research. Equality is not girls stepping up to the plate to teach boys a lesson when boy main characters are in trouble, in a form of ‘deus ex little mother’.

In order for main characters to undergo full character arcs, they need to be the stars of the story.  However. In order to grow, you must start out as bumbling or naive or lacking in some way. There needs to be a scope of change. Female characters need their very own Character Arcs. This character arc, this movement from not knowing to knowing, is the main necessary requirement for ‘hero’. Otherwise you’re just a supporting character.

If we’re to take the good parts of gender stereotyping (girls are awesome because they are so mature!), we’re obliged to accept its damaging flip side. As summarised by Trites:

This cultural narrative ties into at least three conceptualisations that are salient to a cognitive study of growth in adolescent literature. First, the cultural narrative that women are more mature than men is predicated on the false assumption that women [are] already mature as a result of their ostensibly maternal nature. That is, since girls will presumably become mothers and care-givers, they are supposed to somehow automatically — almost magically — mature in order to nurture others.

Second, if nurturance provides girls with an automatic route to their maturation, this cultural narrative falsely implies that females really have only one path to maturity: the predetermined path to parenthood.

Third, this cultural narrative insinuates that male growth is more varied and interesting and thus deserves more attention and praise than female growth.

Carolyn Daniel in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature notices the same thing I’m talking about here. Daniel puts it as follows, though she’s writing specifically about gross-out books aimed at boys:

It is my belief that the reading pleasures of girls and boys are often polarized along the axes of plaisir and jouissance respectively, just as…adult and child pleasures differ. The girl reader …takes up an ostensibly “adult” and accommodating stance in relation to the social order, while the boy is positioned as the “real” child.

— Daniel

(Plaisir is French for ‘pleasure’; jouissance means ‘enjoyment.)

Girls don't mature faster than boys
Girls don’t mature faster than boys

The idea that women are the morally superior sex can be seen throughout history in the West, from this angle it seems most obvious in America during Prohibition. Susan Faludi sums up 2017 by looking back on recent history:

American women started the “social purity” movement against prostitution and “white slavery” of girls. The most popular women’s mobilization of the 19th century wasn’t for suffrage — it was for Prohibition, a moral crusade against demon men drinking demon rum, blowing their paychecks at the saloon and coming home to beat and rape their wives. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union quickly became the nation’s largest women’s organization.

Did that war against men behaving badly feed into the larger big struggle for women’s equality? In many ways, yes: Susan B. Anthony herself began as a temperance organizer. But a good number of women who railed against alcohol’s evils shrank from women’s suffrage. Fighting against male drunkenness fell within the time-honored female purview of defending the family and the body; extending women’s rights into a new political realm felt more radical and less immediate. Frances Willard, the temperance union’s formidable second president, eventually brought the organization around to supporting the female franchise by redefining the women’s vote as a “home protection” issue: “citizen mothers,” as the morally superior sex, would purge social degeneracy from the domestic and public circle.

The New York Times, The Patriarchs Are Falling. The Patriarchs Are Stronger Than Ever.

That was America’s history, but similar stories played out in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand around the time women were fighting for the vote. “We deserve the vote because look, we’re morally upright people.”

The Female Maturity Formula Is Everywhere

The female maturity formula can be seen all over the place, not just in Pixar films. Here are just a few case studies of standout examples.

Dreamer

The worst example I’ve seen in a film ostensibly for children  is a Dreamworks production starring Dakota Fanning. As a child actor, Fanning often got these ‘old soul in a young body’ type roles. This time we see her in Dreamer (2005), which is about the emotional arc of the father, despite being marketed and ostensibly made for adolescent girls.  Go to the IMDb entry and you’ll be recommended the Flicka franchise and Black Beauty as view-alikes. Make no mistake, this film ends up being about the father. As mentioned in the logline, the girl (Cale) ‘catalyzes’ the father into action, and into his own emotional arc.

Cale Crane catalyzes the rescue and rehabilitation of Sonador, a race horse with a broken leg.

To save you watching it yourself, The Roger Ebert website offers further details of how, exactly, Cale inspires her father:

Ben later admits, “If Cale hadn’t been with me that night, I’d have left that horse on the track.” But Cale is there, and looking at her big sad eyes, her father has the leg splinted and wrapped, and brings the horse back to the stable. This inspires an argument with Palmer, who is forced to regard the results of his own bad judgment. Ben resigns, taking a pay-out — and the horse.

I can’t think of an inverse example of film-making and marketing, in which adolescent boys are expected to sit through a movie length story about how a boy inspires the emotional arc of his mother, in which most of the talking is done by the women, between women.

The Man In The Moon

A film with a similar vibe to Dreamer was Reese Witherspoon’s debut as a young actress in a 1991 coming-of-age film called The Man In The Moon. 14-year-old Dani Trant is the youngest character in years but repeatedly demonstrates better communication skills than the men in her life (namely her father and the attractive young man next door), probably due to evenings talking with her kind older sister, who functions as a mentor. Dani tells the boy next door she loves him and he literally turns away.

There is another massive problem with this film, but it is inextricably linked to the Female Maturity Formula. Since Dani arrives as a fully-formed individual on this Earth, she (and the audience) is unlikely to have any kind of awakening when her own father gives her a hiding with a belt for sneaking out one stormy night. Later, it’s little girl Dani who tells her physically abusive father that she understands why he did it — he didn’t mean to thrash her — he was just scared. The father literally gets out of the car and walks away, without acknowledging the fact (to woke 2017 eyes) that he is grooming his daughter to be abused by men who love her. For girls, even in a coming-of-age story, the girl is all-too-often emotionally articulate and self-aware from the get-go. ‘Coming-of-age’ in this sort of story simply means ‘falling in love for the first time’ (which is why some people profess to hate the ‘coming-of-age story’ even though there are plenty of great ones).

Stephen King’s IT

Guess which of the child characters below takes the maternal lead at the point where decisions must be made, bravery must be mustered?

It Child Characters

What do you suppose goes through the minds of people creating these stories? If anything?

We might have a bit of a gender diversity problem here fellas, given how it’s, you know, 2017 and certain reviewers are harping on about wanting more ‘strong female characters’ and all that. Yeah but no, there’s no gender problem in this particular film. It’s still totally relevant and totally needs another remake. I mean, step away from the metrics and look at what the girl does. She’s the most sensible and brave of them all! If anything, the boys are misrepresented!

A Brief History Of The Female Maturity Formula

The Female Maturity Formula of storytelling all started long long ago, with The Odyssey, and the loyal sidekick-wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

Penelope Odyssey

We’re now so used to this trope it’s hardly noticeable anymore. It’s especially prevalent in comedies, probably because male comics need a straight-‘man’, (which really should be renamed ‘straight woman’) and most of the Pixar films are a mixture of ‘adventure + COMEDY’, after all.

Beware The Story With Two Or More Boys And One Girl

Okay, let’s step away from Pixar for a minute. Take Sony Pictures’ Monster House (2006). If you’re familiar with children’s stories you already know this from the promotional image: The boy in the middle is The Every Boy (he’s white and average BMI); his chubby best friend is the comical character who is, developmentally, slightly behind the main character. He wants to go trick-o-treating, for instance — our main boy thinks he’s too old. These two have a problem to solve, but they don’t have any clues how to solve it until the devious, whip-smart, no-nonsense girl comes along to drive their action forward. (Jenny also serves as the love interest.)

Monster House minority feisty

The two-boy, one girl trio is very popular across middle grade stories, but take a close look at who gets to crack the jokes. Who is likeable? Whose eyes do we view the story through? Most importantly in this discussion: Who gets the chance to develop as a person?

The Female Maturity Formula is closely related to The Minority Feisty trope which itself came from The Smurfette Principle. We see it also in ParaNorman, a horribly sexist film produced by Laika. In fact, writers seem afraid to step away from this formula. It has proved a hit with largely uncritical audiences.

Children’s writers learned from comedy for adults, of course.

The Female Maturity Formula In Comedy Series

The main characters of Black Books are Bernard, Manny and Fran. Each of these characters has major flaws — Fran is an alcohol-addicted, self-absorbed shopkeeper who ‘sells a lot of wank’ and is probably on the sociopathic spectrum. But when the boys need to learn a lesson, it’s Fran who sorts them out. Here the three of them stand, just after Bernard has fired Manny on his first day working at Black Books. Fran comes in to give Bernard a dressing down for being mean. The source of the comedy in this scene comes from Bernard’s behaving like a little boy and from Fran behaving like his mother. While Fran is an equally flawed human being, the writers will happily use her if they need a mother figure, and audiences don’t question it.

Black Books Comedy Maturity Principle

Throughout The IT Crowd it is Jen who plays the motherly role to Moss and Roy. Like Fran in Black Books, Jen has her own significant moral and psychological shortcomings, but she too comes in handy as the mother figure when the male characters need to work something out. This is the overriding humorous dynamic that runs throughout the entirety of the series. Because there is such a strong history of the Female Maturity Formula in 3000 years of storytelling, writers assume it wouldn’t work if the genders were swapped.  And yet…The IT Crowd often switches gender stereotypes around for laughs (as they do in this very scene, in fact, with Roy calling Moss his wife). The problem is, comedy needs the audience to have a shared understanding of gender roles in order for the comedy to work.

It is therefore very difficult for comedy writers to lead the charge when it comes to forging ahead with brand new tropes.

The IT Crowd Maturity Principle

The tentpole example of the Female Maturity Formula in terrible sit-coms would have to be the wife from Everybody Loves Raymond, whose long-suffering, eye-rolling wife plays the straight-man to Raymond’s antics.

Everybody Loves Raymond characters

This gender dynamic in American sit-coms is so common that comedian Louis C.K. satirised it in the first scene of season 2, episode 7 of Louie: Oh Louie!/Tickets. (It’s such a shame Louie C.K. is such a predatory asshole in real life, showing that an understanding of a sexist culture doesn’t necessarily help one to rise above it. Ditto for Jay Asher.)

Wife: "Louie! I love you." Louie (coming out of character): "Why would you say that? I was just being an asshole.
Wife: “Louie! I love you.”
Louie (coming out of character): “Why would you say that? I was just being an asshole.

In Futurama we have Turanga Leela:

Futurama Poster

[Leela] is one of the few characters in the cast to routinely display competence and the ability to command, and routinely saves the rest of the cast from disaster, but suffers extreme self-doubt because she has only one eye and grew up as a bullied orphan.

Wikipedia

By the time Futurama came along, its audience was used to this dynamic in The Simpsons, with Marge and Lisa being the sensible characters of the show.

All this comes to a natural head with the belief that women just aren’t funny.

Women Aren't Funny

The Female Maturity Formula In Picture Books

Old Tom

Books for the youngest readers are not exempt. This is cultural conditioning that happens from birth. Sadly, sexism sells. Stories which conform best to long-held storytelling rules are those most likely to be made into children’s television shows.

Old Tom's Holiday

Old Tom is not the most congenial or mannerly cat, but his owner Angela Throgmorton loves him dearly. Even she will admit, however, that he’s been a bit of a pill lately. When she wins a vacation for one, Angela is pleased to inform Tom that he must stay home. She suggests he clean his room.

from the Kirkus review

Zog

Julia Donaldson is regularly hailed as an author who breaks down gender stereotypes. This is true — in traditional tales boys save girls, not the other way around. In Donaldson’s books girls do traditionally masculine activities and vice versa. However, the following summary of Zog describes exactly how ‘girl heroes saving boys’ is Female Maturity Formula rebranded:

Zog is an accident prone dragon failing in his training but he gets by with help from a mysterious girl. When he has to take on the hardest task at Dragon School — capturing a princess — she’s on hand to save the day again.

The Gender Agenda: A First-Hand Account of How Girls and Boys Are Treated Differently by James Millar and Ros Ball

Note that the girl is not the star of the story. She is the hero and saviour, but also the more mature and sensible helper. She is a traveling angel trope, coming to the rescue whenever Zog  injures himself in his quest to become a fearsome dragon. The story is undoubtedly a spoof on the classic ‘girl princess saved by a knight from the scary dragon’ story which is why, at first glance, it looks like a feminist triumph. However, a closer look positions the girl character in the same old, same old sexist stereotype of mature little arbitrator. The scene in which Princess Pearl stands between the dragon and the knight, breaking up their fight, is staged exactly the same as the Black Books frame above — a female character between two warring male characters, telling them off for fighting. Not only are girls good little nurses (to male characters) but they’re also useful when it comes to breaking up fights (between male characters).

Zog ends with a monologue by Princess Pearl — she doesn’t want to be a princess, prancing around in a silly, frilly dress’. She wants to ‘be a doctor and travel here and there’. The ending is inverted, with Pearl running off with the dragon as mode of transport and the knight who she has inspired to join her in her pursuit to practice medicine. Notice how the knight and the dragon have had the character arc? Princess Pearl has not. Don’t mistake ‘change of plan’ for ‘change in character’. At first glance Pearl appears to change because her nursing skills have lead her to the conclusion that she’d make a good doctor. But she started the story as a caring, mature character and ended exactly the same way. The knight was an archetypal warrior who learned to care for others after the little mother’s speech. Zog’s was a coming of age story. Zog is therefore an excellent case study of how inversion does not equal subversion. This picture book appears at first glance to challenge gender stereotyping, but reestablishes girls as caring, mature (good little mothers) and natural arbitrators in the concerns of males, who are central.

The Girl Swot As Variation On The Formula

There is so much to say on this particular topic that it deserves its own post.

The 'Everybody Loves Raymond' character web is everywhere, including in Calvin and Hobbes, in which the girl and the mother get to play the straight 'guys'.
The ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ character web is everywhere, including in Calvin and Hobbes, in which the girl and the mother get to play the straight ‘guys’.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. In Seinfeld we saw equal opportunity Assholery with Elaine Benes. We need that in children’s stories, too.

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Junot Diaz and the Problem of the Male Self-Pardon from Slate is inextricably linked to everything above.