Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Jumanji is a 1981 picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg. You may be familiar with the 1995 film adaptation starring Robin Williams.

Chris Van Allsburg has said that this story started with imagery. He wanted to put unexpected things together, such as a rhino in a living room. He describes the effect on readers as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Album design and photography by JEB 1977 Urana records
Album design and photography by JEB 1977 Urana records
Joop Polder Tram In The Forest 1970’s
Joop Polder Tram In The Forest 1970’s

Cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.

Another descriptor for the Jumanji variety of art is Surrealism. Artists have been juxtaposing unfamiliar objects for many years. The Surrealist art movement began around 1920, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious. Freud’s personal favourite Surrealist painter was Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.

Contemporary artists continue to work in Surrealist style. Check out the paintings of Vladimir Kush below, who also places unexpected things togethe, creating a new world:

Continue reading “Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg”

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Byron Barton

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport (1980) is an American picture book written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Byron Barton. This story teaches the young reader to recognise a regional stereotype, and to question its veracity. This story was chosen for the first season of Reading Rainbow.

I had to look up the meaning of gila monster:

A heavy, typically slow-moving lizard, up to 60 cm (2.0 ft) long, the Gila monster is the only venomous lizard native to the United States and one of only two known species of venomous lizards in North America, the other being its close relative, the Mexican beaded lizard (H. horridum).

Wikipedia
Continue reading “Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Byron Barton”

Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown

Marc Brown Arthur's Eyes

Arthur’s Eyes (1979) by Marc Brown is an early story of the popular Arthur series, about an ambiguously animal creature (only after looking it up do I understand he’s a brown aardvark) who lives with his nuclear family in an American suburb. This is a well-crafted story and really speaks to its young audience. The book is now over 40 years old. Reading Arthur’s Eyes in 2020, I notice some ideological issues with the plot and characterisation that date the story badly.

Continue reading “Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown”

Mercy Watson To The Rescue by DiCamillo and Van Dusen

Mercy Watson To The Rescue cover

Mercy Watson To The Rescue (2005) is a picture book divided into chapters for the emergent reader, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. I love the Mercy Watson series, and have previously written about Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride and Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig and Mercy Watson Fights Crime. This installment is similar to Mercy Watson Fights Crime, because she ends up saving the day, purely by accident!

Continue reading “Mercy Watson To The Rescue by DiCamillo and Van Dusen”

Zoo by Anthony Browne (1992)

Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.

20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:

from Punch, 1867
from Punch, 1867 by Du Maurier
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover fair zoo noah's ark
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion

SETTING OF

  1. PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
Kabakun is a classic Japanese picture book published in 1962. Told by a boy who visits the zoo for fun, this is about a day in the life of two hippopotamuses. The illustrations make the hippos seem enormous on the page, so this picture book makes an excellent case study in how to achieve that effect. It is not, however, a critique of zoos.
  1. DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
  2. LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
  3. ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
  6. WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ZOO

PARATEXT

Zoo Anthony Browne cover
Zoo Anthony Browne cover

Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.

SHORTCOMING

Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.

zoo characters introduction
There is a lot of ironic distance between words and pictures in this book. The words say the boys are excited; the facial expressions tell a different story.

Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.

dad horn clouds
The symbolic stripes (meaning bars on a cage) may need to be pointed out to the youngest readers, but those clouds forming devil horns are not at all subtle, and should alert the most naive of readers to the idea that these pictures contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Seeing these obvious horns, the young reader is encouraged to find more clues in the pictures, in a Where’s Wally kind of way.

The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.

The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.

DESIRE

The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.

However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)

OPPONENT

The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.

Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.

The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.

PLAN

The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.

THE BIG STRUGGLE/CLIMAX

So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.

Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.

ANAGNORISIS

The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.

Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.

In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:

“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”

First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people.
Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.

The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.

NEW SITUATION

That night I had a very strange dream.

Do you think animals have dreams?

The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.

The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)

RESONANCE

In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.

Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.

Home » suburbia

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Individuality, The Self and Social Norms In Children’s Stories

What is ‘the self’?

In Medieval times, people believed that individuals had a predetermined life path. You could learn your destiny by connecting with God. Some modern people still think in these terms.

LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE

Academics who study different cultures have come up with various ways of taxonomising those cultures. Some of those grand theories are pretty well-known among laypeople. I’m familiar with the axes of individuality, collectivism, e.g. family oriented vs individualistic. You also get hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.

Recently I listened to cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand talk about her theory of ‘loose’ vs ‘tight’ societies on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.

This spectrum refers specifically to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. We don’t often recognise the rules that are all around us until someone breaks them.

Are you living in a tight or in a loose society?

  • Would you avoid crossing the street when the little flashing man remains red, even if there are no cars coming?
  • Are you fined for littering, chewing gum or for leaving dog poo on the street?
  • Are you currently dressed in almost identical clothing to the people around you?
  • Do the city clocks each display the same time?

If so, you’re probably in a tight culture.

Gelfand tells us that the most successful societies tend to sit somewhere between loose and tight.

It’s not just societies we can describe as loose or tight, but each of us living within our society sits at a slightly different point along the spectrum. Situations also vary in tightness — a job interview is a ‘tighter’ situation whereas a party with friends is a ‘looser’ situation.

This metric is independent from other variables like economics and political leaning. Tightness tends to be positively correlated with collectivism but there are many tight, individualistic societies e.g. Switzerland. Brazil is the inverse — they value family but have looser norms.

Looser cultures have more tolerance for difference. This includes tolerance for people of different races and religions. Looser cultures are more open to change, more creative and also have more crime.

Tight cultures are more ethnocentric,  have more cultural inertia and less creativity.

EXAMPLES OF LOOSER SOCIETIES/contexts
  • Oregon, USA
  • New York, USA
  • New Zealand
  • Italy
  • Brazil
  • Greece
  • Public parks (tighter in Pakistan than in the USA)
  • University
  • Rural areas in China
EXAMPLES OF TIGHTER SOCIETIES/contexts
  • Alabama, USA
  • North Carolina, USA (honour cultures tend to be pretty tight)
  • Japan
  • Singapore (known as the ‘fine country’ — you can get fined for chewing gum)
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Libraries
  • Funerals
  • Job interviews
  • The military
  • Airlines
  • Urban areas in China

Why do some countries evolve tighter? It depends on how much threat that culture has endured historically, whether from chronic natural disasters (Japan) or from war, or from population density. Singapore is so tight to allow so many people to live together. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive. However, diversity can override population density when it comes to settling at a point on this continuum. New York is also densely populated but unlike Singapore is loose. Mobility is another lever towards looseness.

Freedom to break rules is not just a geographical thing — it’s also a socio-economic thing. Within the same societies, richer people tend to value individuality while poorer people tend to value conforming to social rules. This is because when rich people break rules, the rule breaking itself is interpreted differently, with far more leniency.

NEW ZEALAND VS JAPAN

I love Gelfand’s theory of culture — it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in New Zealand, rarely leaving New Zealand until the age of 17 when I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan. The hardest thing to adapt to was the tightness of Japanese society. I found the differences fascinating:

  • In New Zealand no one cared if we walked down the street eating a sandwich. In Japan however we were given strict instructions not to eat in public. An exchange student had the previous year got into big trouble for eating bread at the school train station.
  • In New Zealand I had worn mufti (free choice) clothing in senior high school. In Japan, my host mother requested I avoid wearing my very comfortable, bright red corduroy trousers because ‘people would talk’. In New Zealand, if you’re feeling a bit chilly you put on long sleeves and long pants. In Japan, there are set days when you are supposed to switch from summer to winter clothing and vice versa.
  • In New Zealand, small talk has no particular script. There are certain safe topics, such as the weather, but there is not the stock of ‘set phrases’ that has evolved in Japanese. When you write a letter in Japanese, it is mandatory to open with a poetic phrase about the weather. It is also mandatory to include two pieces of paper in the envelope even if you’ve only written on one.

I could list many, many more examples of the differences between New Zealand and Japan’s social norms. Overall, I think the extremely circumscribed lifestyle required of Japanese people is what ultimately sent me back to live the rest of my adult life in the West. Fascinating as these differences are, I prefer living in a looser society long term. These days I live in Australia, which I imagine is similar to New Zealand, leaning loose.

Tight and loose are dynamic constructs. It’s possible that after the  mass shooting incident in Christchurch recently that my hometown has veered a little tighter than before.

Tight/looseness is a concept Gelfand prefers to reserve for describing societies rather than individuals because the terminology can get confusing once we start using the same word to describe both. (That’s what happened to the word ‘collectivist’, which is applied to both societies and to individuals.) When describing individuals, be mindful of an important distinction — we’re referring to mindsets rather than ‘personalities’.

Psychologists can do experiments that make people tighten up — all we need is a perceived threat and we tighten up. However, it takes a lot longer for tight mindsets to loosen up. Psychologists are currently trying to work out a way of loosening up a society that has become too tight to allow for adaptability.

https://twitter.com/AdelaideBook/status/1299461678120067072
When I was at high school the default trope for English teachers was ‘Individual vs Society’ and lit was read through that lens. The “vs” part was taken for granted: an adversarial relationship, now being played out every day in public health matters: mental health vs contagion. Kerryn Goldsworthy

SOCIAL NORMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”

Morrissey

During her interview with Carroll, Gelfand mentions picture books, which got me thinking about whether picture books, as a corpus, swing loose or swing tight.

Elmer is the story of a patchwork coloured elephant. Do you remember how Elmer ends? Hint: The story does not end with Elmer painting himself grey in order to fit in.

Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.

(Elmer’s Special Day has since been turned into an app, if you happen to own an Apple touch device.)

Other examples of picture books in which the reader is encouraged to break the mould:

  • Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  • Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch
  • Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
  • Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
  • Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
  • Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds
  • A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Carla’s lunch box is filled with odd delights like the Olive, Pickle and Green Bean Sandwich, the Banana-Cottage-Cheese Delight, and the unforgettable Chopped Liver, Potato Chips, and Cucumber Combo. To Carla, they are delicious and creative lunches, but her teasing classmates are unconvinced and abandon her at the lunch table to eat her bizarre sandwiches alone. One day, however, tables turn when Buster—the worst tease of all—forgets his lunch on the day of the picnic and Carla thoughtfully offers him her extra sandwich. Her own spirited nature helps Carla teach her classmates that “unusual” can actually be good. 

Gelfand uses American muppet characters to illustrate various loose vs. tight personalities, with Bert (or Ernie and Bert) at the tight end, Animal at the loose end.

Bert doesn’t even want to play a simple guessing game. Animal, on the other hand, performs Bohemian Rhapsody on stage and doesn’t bother getting the words right.

In 1990s Japan, it’s telling of the tightness that there was a TV game show in which the contestants had to perform a pop song from memory without getting a single word wrong.

The following is a topic for someone’s PhD, but I put it to you that people who write for children and who are drawn to children’s publishing tend to swing loose, compared to their surrounding culture. The big publishing houses in America cluster in New York, which swings loose. If they were clustered in Alabama, we’d probably see children’s books swing slightly tighter.

Instead of looking at the geographical spread of publishing houses, safer to look at the stories themselves. What is the dominant ideology regarding following the rules? Gelfand has noticed many picture books place emphasis on Being Yourself. But who, exactly, has the luxury of being themselves?

In tight cultures such as Japan, children are taught to be keen self-monitors, to look at their own actions and be aware of how they are fitting in. Structure and conformity is prioritised in these societies.

In loose cultures, children (and adults alike) need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. In loose cultures we are going to encounter a lot of unexpected behaviours and weird situations. Picture books such as those listed above seem to have a message which teaches children to be comfortable with ‘weird situations’. To encounter a patchwork elephant is the ultimate weird situation, picked as metaphor for looseness by David McKee.

MIGHT SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT A CHILD’S RESPONSE TO A PICTURE BOOK?

Socio-economic difference in regards to social norms can be seen in children by age three. Working class parents teach their children that rules are important. Upper class kids are more likely to laugh when puppets in a lab break the rules.

I refer you now to the great corpus of carnivalesque children’s books. With Gelfand’s research in mind, might carnivalesque stories be decidedly middle class?

SOCIAL NORMS AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The ideology of looseness = good persists right through the age-range of children’s books, intensifying in young adult literature. Below is a rare critique of this ideology, by someone who lives in New York (a loose city), but whose biography shows was educated at a private girls’ college in Pennsylvania (possibly tight):

“Not like the other kids” is a dangerous ideology, and it’s one that constantly gets peddled, especially to the kinds of teens who are choosing to spend their free time reading YA novels. Out of all the toxic ideas I believed as a teenager, this is probably the one that I’m still struggling the most to get away from. And it’s not one I’m happy to see repeated in literature, or in the communities discussing literature.

But the protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist if they were just like all the other kids. Would they?

YA Subscription

On the Mindscape podcast interview, Sean Carroll quips that ‘all those stories about Hollywood rich kids who refuse to follow the rules are just the truth’.

original cast of Beverly Hills 90210

Gelfand responds that the socioeconomic-looseness relationship is, like many things, curvilinear.

In The Giver, Lois Lowry uses the motif of a mirror (and a character’s lack of interest in it) to signal that the individual is less important than the group.

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

The Giver

FURTHER READING ON SOCIAL NORMS

More on some of the books listed above…

PEARL BARLEY AND CHARLIE PARSLEY BY AARON BLABEY

Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.

SUNDAY CHUTNEY BY AARON BLABEY

This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.

Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.

Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)

Here is a great interview with Aaron Blabey.

MILO ARMADILLO BY JAN FEARNLEY

A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.

I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.

Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.

The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.

WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR WORLD? BY BOB GILL

This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.

I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.

(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)

NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED BY MO WILLEMS

I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.

In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.

LUKE’S WAY OF LOOKING BY NADIA WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATED BY MATT OTTLEY

Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.

One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.

Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.

Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.

GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE BY GILES ANDREAE ILLUSTRATED BY GUY PARKER-REES

The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.

This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.

LA COSA PIU IMPORTANTE BY ANTONELLA ABBATIELLO

The most important thing for the rabbit is having long ears, but the giraffe doesn’t agree: it is better to have a long neck to reach the most supple leaves on the top of the trees, isn’t it? That’s how a passionate discussion among the animals of the forest starts, during which each one of them celebrates their own main feature as the best that one could have.

Meanwhile the pictures consequently modify the appearance of the participating animals bestowing the praised feature to each of them. It is only thanks to a wise owl that the animals are persuaded to stop their crazy game of imagining themselves all the same, and each one finally starts to feel important for their own peculiarities. … [This book] represents an invitation to look at diversity as a richness.

The World Through Picture Books

ZOMBIES DON’T EAT VEGGIES!

A parent/child inversion in which the child wishes to eat vegetables while the parents (who are zombies) hate them.

Mo Romero is a zombie who loves nothing more than growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. Tomatoes? Tantalizing. Peppers? Pure perfection! The problem? Mo’s parents insist that their niño eat only zombie cuisine, like arm-panadas and finger foods. They tell Mo over and over that zombies don’t eat veggies. But Mo can’t imagine a lifetime of just eating zombie food and giving up his veggies. As he questions his own zombie identity, Mo tries his best to convince his parents to give peas a chance.

MARKETING COPY

The child eventually ‘comes out’ as being different (a veggie eater), and feels like an LGBTQ metaphor which I wasn’t expecting. Maybe we’re supposed to read it as coming out as a vegan? I guess readers will apply their own interpretation to this supernatural plot. The message? It’s okay to be who you are. No matter what, your family will accept you.

This isn’t the same advice given to teens, of course, who are well advised to do whatever they need to do in order to keep safe before they can escape the many bigoted families who are still in plentiful supply.

SPORK BY KYO MACLEAR AND ISABELLE ARSENAULT

One of Spork’s parents is a fork, the other is a fork. He doesn’t feel he fits anywhere. He first tries to be more spoony, then more forky. When a new baby joins the household he finally gets taken out of the drawer for some use and is happy being himself.

Picture books as listed above teach children ‘You are fine the way you are’. Closely related: the instruction to just be yourself. Underlying this message is the ideology that there is such a thing as the One True Self.

Is there such a thing? And even if there is, might these ideas stop being useful after a certain age? This notion is very Western.

I loved Sean Carroll’s interview with Joseph Heinrich at the Mindscape podcast. They talked about the WEIRDness of the West. (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.) The discussion drove home to me just how Western my readings of narrative is. They put into words a few ideas I’ve been nascently interested in myself, such as how in the West, we’re obsessed with the notion of the ‘one true self’. To behave differently in different situations is considered two-faced (in a bad way), but in non Western cultures, this is considered necessary. In tentpole stories from the West (ie. Hollywood), a ‘happy’ outcome is for a character to learn who they ‘really are’, as if the ‘one true self’ is even a thing.

A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word

Yiyun Li, Chinese born American writer who emigrated to America age 23

Main aspects of a WEIRD person:

  • WEIRD people are individualistic rather than relational, focusing on individuals’ attributes and aspirations instead of thinking about relationships between people (leading to overconfidence and a tendency to self-enhance rather than to humility). A lot of emphasis is on creating a unique, high-value individual self. This kind of thinking pushes us into going to the gym and reading interesting books.
  • WEIRD cultures are much more interested in guilt. (If you don’t do well, it’s clearly your own fault.)
  • Analytic rather than holistic thinking. Looking for categories, assigning properties rather than looking at background relationships in context.
  • A concern with  impartial principles over the kind of in-group loyalty and social relationships that govern so much social structure.
  • WEIRD people are more future-oriented, or more willing to extend their selfhood to other places and times and act in a way that benefits the future self. (Deferring gratification is a Protestant thing.)
  • On the topic of time, WEIRD people think about time in absolute sense. Many of us learned to read time on a clock with numbers, where the hand moves around the clock. That’s actually a number line, a linear number line that’s been wrapped around in a circle. 
  • WEIRD people think that there is virtue in being the same when acting with different sets of people, whereas non-WEIRD societies take for granted we would act differently in different circumstances. Non-WEIRD people have classifactory relationships, evident in customs such as calling someone ‘uncle’ who is not your uncle. This reminds you to treat this guy as you’d treat an uncle, rather than as you’d treat a same-age friend. WEIRD cultures valorise the ‘single unified self’ that behaves the same way to all different people in all different circumstances. There is popular discourse about finding your true self. “It’s somewhere in there. If I can just find it, I’ll be happy.” In contrast, non-WEIRD cultures consider it wise and sensible to not always present the same face in a different situation. 

Act Like Someone Else

In an interview on the Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams [milkshake duck], dismisses the common advice to ‘just be yourself’ whenever you’re faced with a difficult situation in which you don’t feel confident. Instead, he advises to act like someone else. He argues that everyone acts all the time, according to how they think they are expected to perform.

  1. What do you think of this advice?
  2. Do you think you have an ‘essential self’?
  3. If so, when does this essential self come out? Are some people better at acting parts than others?
  4. How do you think you are at acting the role that is expected of you? Do you think that people who can act the part end up doing better overall than those who can’t/don’t?
  5. Does the expectation to act different parts according to circumstance vary from culture to culture?

We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works so we embrace it.

All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin, page 2

The Problem With Expressive Individualism

In research on American high schools, one finds the idea that American schools are intertwined with notions of “expressive individualism” – the idea that human beings should find out and be true to who they really are on the inside. Might this also contribute to school shootings?

Suburban high schools, in particular, are seen by the middle class as places to accomplish expressive projects. Sociologist Robert Bulman points out, for example, how Hollywood films set in suburban settings focus on student journeys of self-discovery, while urban school films focus on heroic teachers and academic achievement. In the same vein, many suburban school shooters see what they are doing as acts of self-expression.

Reading stories of school shootings, one often finds moments in which the shooters claim that something inside, whether hatred or frustration, needed to find expression. An example of this is the manifesto left by Luke Woodham, who shot two students in 1997. “I am not spoiled or lazy,” he wrote, “for murder is not weak or slow-witted, murder is gutsy and daring.” The school became the place where Woodham thought he could express the gutsy and daring person he found on the inside.

Why security measures won’t stop school shootings

Much of the world’s most popular memoir and fiction — from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — centers on the idea that we might go out into the unknown and come back having found our singular, definitive self. Motivational speakers build brands on that idea.

Cody Delistraty

RELATED

Hollywood films share ideologies in common with children’s stories. Individuality as prized in humans is one example:

Parents and schools should place great emphasis on the idea that it is all right to be different. Racism and all the other ‘isms’ grow from primitive tribalism, the instinctive hostility against those of another tribe, race, religion, nationality, class or whatever. You are a lucky child if your parents taught you to accept diversity.

Roger Ebert

FURTHER READING

Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don’t stand out–under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes–for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.

But the delicate scales of popularity suddenly shift, and Stargirl is shunned for everything that makes her different. Somewhere in the midst of Stargirl’s arrival and rise and fall, normal Leo Borlock has tumbled into love with her.

In a celebration of nonconformity, Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity–and the thrill and inspiration of first love.

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » suburbia

Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate diCamillo

“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.

SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)

ERA

This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.

What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:

  • wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
  • a chair in the bedroom
  • a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
  • a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)

It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)

Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)

A split screen from Pillow Talk, 1959

Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.

A GENUINE UTOPIA

Even in a genuine utopia, something exciting must happen. The storyteller’s challenge is to create the frisson of excitement while preserving the cosy, safe environment.

How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:

Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy.
Each night, they sing the pig to sleep.
Then they go to bed.
“Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson.
“Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson.
“Oink,” says Mercy.

the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime

Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.

Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.

Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.

The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Marketing copy centers Opponent Leroy Ninker as the main character, with lots of fun onomatopoeia:

Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!

from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press

I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.

SHORTCOMING

Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.)

He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!

Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.

DESIRE

Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.

OPPONENT

Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.

Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:

  • archetypal robber
  • archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.

Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.

Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:

  • A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
  • He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
  • He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.

But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.

PLAN

Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.

His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.

One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.

BIG STRUGGLE

In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.

Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.

ANAGNORISIS

The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.

The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!

NEW SITUATION

We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.

Home » suburbia

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Lady Bird Film Study

Lady Bird film poster

Lady Bird is an American coming-of-age film written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who won a bunch of awards for it. I can see why.

A similar film, but underrated, is The Edge Of Seventeen. If you loved Lady Bird, watch The Edge Of Seventeen. Also, if you like Lady Bird, you like young adult fiction. Lady Bird may not feel like a YA story because this is also a story about a mother who is learning to let go. In this respect I liken it to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

Another film considered just as good as Lady Bird, but about a black, gay man is Moonlight. Here’s why we should be paying attention to that film, too.

By the way, there’s an extension for Chrome and Firefox with alows you to stream films with screenplays side-by-side, in sync. Lady Bird is one of the featured films on ScreenplaySubs.

SETTING OF LADY BIRD

Though set in 2002, Lady Bird is considered a ‘period piece’. 9/11 was a year ago, and this influences American culture at the time. The character Lady Bird is drawn to New York, not despite the bombings, but possibly because she’s drawn to excitement (naively).

The story is not autobiographical, but Sacramento was chosen because Gerwig knows this area so well, having grown up here and attending a Catholic girls’ school. The significant thing about this setting: It is not New York. A young woman like Lady Bird feels like nothing important happens here. This story could equally have been set in the Midwest, or in the American South.

PLOT OF LADY BIRD

As Steven Colbert says in his interview with Saoirse Ronan, you can tell someone the entire plot of this film and still not ruin it, because this is very much a character driven story. When listed, there’s nothing in this plot which stands out as spectacle, or ‘original’. The brilliance of this story is in the emotional impact, which is created by well-drawn, relatable characters and focus on details.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LADY BIRD

SHORTCOMING

If you’ve seen the film Frances Ha, you’ll start to see Greta Gerwig is associated with a type (in Frances Ha as an actress, in Lady Bird as writer and director). This type is a young woman who:

  • Has artsy aspirations without the talent to match
  • Schemes her way into situations with the sorts of people she wants to mirror
  • Makes social mistakes/self-sabotaging decisions
  • Is assertive almost to the point of aggression (especially as perceived when it comes from a girl)
  • Doesn’t process consequences well

Frances Ha as a character is a softer character than Lady Bird. But for comparison purposes I’m picking a different film altogether—Diablo Cody’s 2011 film Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary. Critics and audiences alike found the character of Mavis Gary unlikeable, but not in a cool, antihero way a la Walter White — in an unpleasant ‘why am I wasting time watching this person’ kind of way.

Honestly, I think part of it is that Charlize Theron seeks roles that play down her Amazonian good looks (e.g. Monster) but because of how she looks she’ll always be the pretty girl. Studies have been done on beauty, and once you’re over about a seven out of ten your beauty is no longer beneficial to you. (Outside modelling and certain kinds of acting, I guess.) So part of the audience reaction to Mavis Gary might have been to do with Charlize Theron, and our perception that because she conforms to The Western Beauty Ideal then any other failings are absolutely her own fault.

But the unlikeability of Mavis Gary was definitely also in the writing. Female characters don’t need to be likeable. I doubt Diablo Cody was even trying to make a likeable character in Mavis. I’m sure she wasn’t. The problem is, Mavis isn’t sympathetic, either.

Below is an early clip from the movie in which Mavis tries to be a trickster character. Bear in mind, audiences love trickster archetypes.

Notice her trick fails. Mavis Gary now comes across as a bit simple, and also unkind. My sympathy is with the young woman checking her in, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve worked in customer service. But Lady Bird is also a trickster who fails.

  • She gets caught stealing wafers from church
  • She pranks the nun’s car and gets caught.
  • She whispers something outrageous during an anti-abortion talk and gets herself suspended from her Catholic school.
  • She cracks on she’s living in a flash house and is caught.

The difference is that the audience is already on side with Lady Bird. As my daughter put it, “I don’t like Lady Bird but she’s funny, so I like her.” Lady Bird is a lovable rogue. An interesting aspect of human psychology: Just because someone is rude doesn’t mean we don’t want to be around them. Especially if that person is a fictional character. And in real life: Rude people secretly impress us, even if we don’t really like them.

  • The audience is primed to hate self-appointed dobber girls like the one who catches them eating wafers.
  • The nun finds the prank funny. The nun obviously likes Lady Bird.
  • Most of the audience of this particular film would be sympathetic to Lady Bird’s reaction to the anti-abortion lady, if not to Lady Bird’s way of protesting.
  • Lady Bird is caught out lying about her house, but apologises immediately. Her vulnerability is transparent as she asks if they’re still friends. The popular girl looks into her mobile phone and we know this is going to get around. We also understand Lady Bird’s reasons for wanting to appear rich. There is a huge difference between her home and the homes of her private school classmates and most people feel uncomfortable in the company of people vastly more wealthy than ourselves.

Objectively though, the character of Lady Bird is — all things considered — just as self-centred, just as dismissive of people around her and just as rude as Mavis Gary — most of the time. The wonderful thing about writing YA characters is you can legitimately show a number of sides to them as they try to figure out who they are.

Lady Bird is given zingers in her dialogue — the kind of zinger we would like to carry up our sleeves. The audience loves characters who speak the truth, or their own truth, without duplicity.

“Lady Bird. Is that your given name?”
“Yes. I gave it to myself. It was given to me, by me.”

We have also seen Lady Bird throw herself melodramatically from a moving vehicle in order to make a point to her mother. This kind of self-sabotaging slapstick is funny to watch.

She sees the funny side of situations, like when she’s caught by her brother stealing a magazine. The screenwriter has chosen the unexpected reaction here. The more expected reaction is mortification or fear or embarrassment. But no, Lady Bird is an original. She laughs. Later, she laughs when the goody-two-shoes church girl tells her off for eating the wafers. We like characters who drift through a story able to laugh at things. I think this is because we, as audience, are able to see the lighter side from our seats, and this pushes the amused character closer to us, almost breaking the fourth wall. In contrast, Mavis Gary does not have a sense of humour.

Another reason we’ll happily follow Lady Bird: She knows exactly what she wants and she goes for it, even when she’s nervous. Even when it’s ridiculous. We like characters who know what they want and go for it.

Here she is expressing interest in a boy. Lady Bird doesn’t wait around to be asked.

That particular scene does double duty—she feels misunderstood by her boss who accuses her of flirting. “I wasn’t flirting.” And it’s true. She wasn’t. Flirting is a passive thing that girly-girls do. Lady Bird was expressing directly and assertively interest in a boy and setting up a rendezvous. When characters are misunderstood by other characters, we empathise with the side who is misunderstood. We don’t like Mavis Gary in Young Adult because the other characters peg her correctly and treat her possibly better than she deserves to be treated.

Other characters love Lady Bird. It’s clear her mother loves her very much. Her father loves her in a more demonstrative fashion. Lady Bird’s teachers love her, even after she pranks the nun (harmlessly).  I call this the Gone With The Wind trick. We only put up with Scarlett O’Hara because she’s surrounded by people who love her. In contrast, Mavis Gary has no one. The character of Gemma is a mirror character to Lady Bird — Gemma is not supposed to be liked by us. Gemma is the Popular Teenage Girl trope, though she’s written a bit more subtly than most characters of this trope. She is acted beautifully with an absolutely vacant face. In the pool scene it is clear that Gemma doesn’t want for much in life — she just wants her popular high school life to continue along a rich girl track, in the same suburb. As mentioned above, it’s harder to empathise with characters who don’t have a strong desire line. This might be because without a strong desire, characters are boring to watch.

Surrounding your main character with laughable tragic stereotypes is another way to make the main character the likeable one. Lady Bird’s brother and girlfriend are getting into the vegan, hippie movement but their logic doesn’t hold water (at least, for much of the viewing audience).

But this particular story isn’t all about the teenage daughter. This is also the mother’s story. I really felt for Marion McPherson, driving away from the airport, then circling back because she didn’t want her daughter to see her crying. This moment reminded me of the heart-wrenching moment in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, where the mother realises that her child’s childhood has come to an end, and that she’ll be entering a new phase of her life as a distant advisor parent rather than as a manager parent.

This is a scene which can only be appreciated by older viewers, I feel, more so if they are older parents. Australian TV personality Amanda Keller describes it beautifully below.

DESIRE

Lady Bird  establishes the Desire Line of our main character very early on — in the opening scene. This diatribe could sound on the nose, but because it’s an argument the scriptwriter gets away with more. (A truism about argument dialogue in fiction.)

The desire for something more, something big, something MAGNIFICENT! is not original to Lady Bird. This is an old desire, seen in classic literature:

Lucy never knew her desires so clearly as after music. She had not really appreciated the clergyman’s wit, nor the suggestive twitterings of Miss Allan. Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the windswept platform of an electric tram.

A Room With A View, E.M. Forster

Note that in older classics, the functions of story come much more gradually. Lucy displays no real desire to the reader until the beginning of Chapter Four. Forster’s novel is described on the cover as ‘The tender story of a young girl’s awakening’. (I wouldn’t call a young woman a ‘young’ girl but that’s by the by.) The wanting of Something Big But Don’t Know Quite What Yet is characteristic of coming-of-age stories. (And though I haven’t done a study on it, I suspect it’s especially common with young female characters, because of the cloistered environment they’re brought up in.) It also describes Thelma in Thelma and Louise. The desire to be something else isn’t even necessarily noble.

OPPONENT

Lady Bird’s mother is her not-so-secret ally opponent — on the surface this mother/daughter relationship is antagonistic, but underneath the mother is wholly supportive. Shouty-arguing juxtaposes tender moments such as lying in bed together, asleep. Marion is wholly justified in being annoyed with her daughter for insisting on going to New York to study. She works so hard as the only income earner and now her husband is taking out a second mortgage on their house, when Lady Bird could have had an education nearby.

Lady Bird finds herself a romantic opponent, which seems to go remarkably smoothly until she realises he’ll never be into her. The next boy also goes well, until it turns out he has maybe lied to her about his virginity. Or maybe Lady Bird imagined an alternate scenario. The latter is probably more likely, because we’ve already seen that Lady Bird is prone to flights of fancy. The post-coital scene works well because Kyle Scheible isn’t being all that unreasonable. I can see the writer has sympathy for his own worldview.

The more interesting peer opposition is between Lady Bird and her best female friend, Julie. This is ultimately a love story between a girl and her best friend and between a girl and her mother. The boys come and go. When they dance together at the end, it is clear that beats from the romantic genre have been overlaid onto the friendship between two girls. Bicker bicker, kiss kiss, only it’s platonic.

PLAN

The desire mentioned above is no help to the story until your character makes a plan. Lady Bird’s plan is to:

  • Do some things to bolster her college applications
  • To her this means being in the school production
  • Get into one of the best East Coast colleges
  • More immediately, her plan is to find a high school boyfriend
  • And when that doesn’t work out, her plan is to get with the cool band boyfriend
  • In order to do this, she needs to ditch Julie and get in with the popular girl, who knows him.

It’s all of a piece. Unfortunately, as part of this plan to Be Someone, despite coming from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ Lady Bird loses herself to her goal. The goal itself is not the problem — her plans to get it are terrible. She’ll need to come to this realisation over the course of the story, and she does.

BIG STRUGGLE

Because this film covers several relationship dynamics, there need to be an equal number of Battle Scenes.

  • With the first break up: Walking into the toilet cubicle, followed by crying with Julie in the car
  • With the rock band boyfriend: Sitting at the end of the bed, after un-special sex
  • With Gemma: In her real kitchen, her lie uncovered
  • With Julie: In the school yard, in which Lady Bird accuses the friend’s mother of having fake tits
  • With the mother: It’s to pick ‘a’ big struggle scene because every scene between mother and daughter is full of conflict. This is the genius of the screenwriting here — the big big struggle scene is very quiet and contracted. The mother doesn’t say much at all and Lady Bird ends up slamming the car door. This is the scene that leads to the anagnorisis (for the mother), so that’s how I am confident that this is Their Big Battle. Note also that relationships aren’t like movie sex — two characters in a big struggle aren’t going to have their anagnorisis simultaneously. Lady Bird does not have any anagnorisis at the airport. This is not her scene. It’s only later, once her father gives her the mother’s trashed love letters that she realises how much her mother loves her. Speaking of which anagnorises…

ANAGNORISIS

The film could have ended with Lady Bird leaving at the airport. But it didn’t. If it had ended there, the airport scene would have had to be from Lady Bird’s point of view. Instead, this wrapped up the mother’s character arc. The mother has learned that she needs to let go of her daughter.

Instead, the story follows Lady Bird to New York, where she settles in, slowly, and starts to appreciate some of what she had back in Sacramento. This is symbolised by her wandering into a Catholic church after a real bender of a weekend. Not religious at all in Sacramento (she was only sent to Catholic school because the state school was considered too dangerous), she now embraces some of what the church has to offer. Or perhaps it mostly reminds her of home. Lady Bird’s anagnorisis takes place as she watches the singers in the church. We only know she’s had some sort of epiphany when she calls her mother afterwards. The function of the New York scene sequence is to show Lady Bird’s anagnorisis.

Another coming-of-age film which could have ended in a boy’s hometown but actually followed him as he began his new life in New York: Adventureland. Some reviewers thought the film would have been better without that final sequence. This is not something that has been said of Ladybird. This is because the ending sequence of Adventureland ends with the main character joining his love interest in New York. The audience didn’t need to know whether that relationship was going to work out or not. A feature of teenage-hood is falling in love and then quite often needing to move on from that person, even though things might have worked out if both characters had been thirty and ready to commit.  Moreover, there is nothing ironic or surprising about the New York scenes of Adventureland.

This is not the case with Lady Bird. We need to see her make a big mistake, getting herself hospitalised after drinking too much. We do need to see her reclaim her birth name, because that tidies up her character arc — she is comfortable to be herself now. Being away from Sacramento makes her proud to be from (and of) Sacramento. We need to see her wander into the church. Now we know that Lady Bird has fond memories of her high school years.

Here’s what makes Lady Bird rise above other, similar films: Greta Gerwig has pulled off a a story in which both mother and daughter experience a self-revelation, each because of the other. This creates a powerful story with a moving ending.

As The ScreenPrism states, what helps Lady Bird deliver its unique, emotional punch is that it is a story from “the perspective of the teen and the parent learning to let go.” Yes, Marion is over-bearing and often unfair but Lady Bird is selfish and often acts in disregard of those around her. Without one perspective, we wouldn’t be able to see the other in a sympathetic light. Together, both mother and daughter prove that there is no easy way around growing up, no way to ensure that you won’t get hurt and no way to be the best person you can be. It’s all a process of gradual understanding. Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated screenplay uses multiple perspectives to show that just because you feel sad, doesn’t mean that it’s all about you and just because it’s not all about you, doesn’t mean that you can’t feel sad.

Movie Maker

I’ve treated Lady Bird as the main character, but to backtrack, Marion’s character arc is set up more subtly but set up nonetheless. There’s almost a Save The Cat scene in which Marion gives a baby present to a work colleague who has just become a new father. Later, in the clothing store, she comments on some other acquaintance’s new baby (or perhaps it’s the same baby). What’s the interest with babies? Babies are so full of potential. When you have a new baby, that baby could be anyone. Marion is losing her younger baby. Her interest in other people’s says a lot about her mindset. She still wants to mother. She makes eggs for Lady Bird who ungratefully complains they’re undercooked. “Make your own fucking eggs, then,” Marion says. She wants to mother, but it’s now unappreciated. This is something all parents go through. It’s highly relatable.

NEW SITUATION

We know Lady Bird is going to be okay in New York. I suspect she’ll be really proud of coming from Sacramento after a little while, though the previous night she lied that she came from San Francisco, repeating an old pattern.

Her relationship with her mother will improve with geographical distance between them, but whenever she visits home for special occasions they will continue in their old, established dynamic of bickering I bet. Lady Bird might even return to Sacramento after she graduates. I hope she did!

FURTHER READING

Matt Bird’s Ultimate Story Checklist for Ladybird

Home » suburbia

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

The Iron Giant Storytelling Technique

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant is a 1968 science fiction middle grade novel by Ted Hughes, adapted for film in 1999 by Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird.

Brad Bird later wrote the screenplays for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Tim McCanlies has worked on Denis the Menace, among many other things.

SETTING OF THE IRON GIANT

PLACE

Rockwell Maine, in a leafy, hilly suburb. The diner is the hub of the community. This is also where Hogarth’s mother works. Since waitressing pays so badly, this conveniently keeps Hogarth’s mother working long hours. Hogarth has plenty of time to himself. Lack of money is also useful to the story because Hogarth’s mother is keen to have a boarder, looking past the fact that Mr Mansley might be evil.

The Iron Giant diner

A shot of Annie reminds me of a shot from Thelma and Louise.

Annie The Iron Giant
Annie The Iron Giant
Louise at the diner calling Thelma
Louise at the diner calling Thelma

In general, parents who are tired and overworked are useful in children’s stories. It gets them out of the way. (See below.)

TIME

Though the novel was published in 1968, The Iron Giant is set earlier, in 1957. This is the era of the Cold War, an inextricable part of the story. At this time in history — it’s easy to forget now, or perhaps we’re starting to be reminded again — people lived in fear of an atomic explosion. They remembered the last ones. Especially in America, I’d say. (I’m not sure the fear was equally strong in New Zealand, where my parents were growing up.) American children were being taught what to do in the event of a bomb. (In New Zealand they were being taught what to do in the event of an earthquake.)

the iron giant autumn colours

The Iron Giant takes place unambiguously in autumn. I wondered if this was mainly an aesthetic choice rather than a symbolic one (as seasons often are). Because a lot of the story takes place in a forest, which allows for a beautiful palette of orangey reds. At the end of the film I realised how well the red contrasts against the magical green bomb type thing released by the Iron Giant, symbolically contrasting this visitor from outer space with his environment, underscoring how he doesn’t belong there, and will never fit in.

The beautiful colours of autumn also serve to create a kind of utopia. And as we all know, utopias attract big, horrible events.

Note also that Rockwell, Maine, is set next to the ocean. I wondered if the town is inspired by Rockland, Maine, which is a real place. In fact, the town is named after Norman Rockwell, the famous American artist known for his utopian depictions of American 1950s childhood.

Norman Rockwell Saying Grace
Norman Rockwell Saying Grace

MILIEU

The 1950s was a weird decade. It seems a certain proportion of the population would love to return to this era. We think of the 1950s as emblematic of how families had always been — nuclear families with the father going to work, the mother making home cosy, full-time caring for the children, with White people dominating the utopian neighbourhoods, Black people out of sight, out of mind.

In fact, the 1950s were unique. That’s not how the world looked before, and the world will never look like that again. But because this decade is utopian in our collective memory, storytellers (and audiences) seem to really like 1950s stories. We have the threat of something, but it never really happens. (Atomic warfare.) Characters live with the memory of something terrible — Hogarth is a baby boomer, but did his father die in the war? Was his father a wartime soldier fling?  (The movie doesn’t tell us.)

This era is well-known to be a patriarchal time. Part of Hogarth’s vulnerability is that he only has a mother. When his mother finds love with Dean McCoppin, Hogarth’s life has not only become more stable, but also more safe. He has a man in the house — not the fake man who flees in terror at the end, with the ironic name of Mansley, but a real man. Interestingly, the screenwriters of the 1999 film updated this book by making Dean McCoppin a hippie character. McCoppin is a bit of an anachronism — the hippie movement began in San Francisco at the beginning of the 1960s, so McCoppin is a few years ahead of his time. (Or super ahead of the curve.) I think the screenwriters took ‘year of publication’ as setting rather than ‘original year of setting’ from the novel.

But even in stories made today, the ultimate happy ending for a child living with a single parent is for the parent to find a partner. Indie coming-of-age drama The Birder’s Guide To Everything does this, as does horror film Lights Out, in which the older sister accepts advances from the sort-of boyfriend.

NOTES ON THE MOVIE

Though Ted Hughes didn’t live quite long enough to see the movie in its finished form, apparently he loved what the screenwriters did with his story. (Unlike, say, Roald Dahl, who refused to even watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

  • Dean McCoppin is established as sympathetic with a Save the Cat moment. In the diner he backs up the local drunkard who has seen something, standing up for the guy even when the other men laugh. We initially wonder if McCoppin’s going to be friend or foe – he looks ominous with the dark glasses and slicked back hair.
  • Hogarth is a trickster – doing exactly what his mother told him not to, eating junk food and watching scary movies. He is a boy who is influenced by pop culture of the 1960s. We’re reminded of this with the close up on the magazine. He’s off on a mission, but he thinks it’s a pretend adventure. He is also shown to be empathetic towards creatures with the squirrel. His mother tells us he has a history of collecting animals. For Hogarth, the Iron Giant is kind of like finding a woodland animal.
  • The Iron Giant is presented as childlike first by mirroring Hogarth’s way of sitting on the ground. Then he offers Hogarth the gift of metal. This is a thank you present — the Iron Giant has been saved by Hogarth, who switched off the electric power station. Hogarth then trains the Iron Giant as if he’s a dog. My daughter says that the Iron Giant is her favourite character.
  • Hogarth thinks he should tell an adult but, talking to himself, immediately changes his mind. “People always wig out and start shooting when they see something they don’t like.” When children in stories see something amazing and choose not to tell adults, this needs to be covered in the story. Hogarth lists a whole number of reasons for not telling. “If I tell Mom, that’ll start the screaming…” It turns out later that Hogarth has indeed talked to his mother. “That’s funny, he’s so tight-lipped now. The other night he was going on about hundred foot robots and so on.” But this is left off the screen.
  • The Iron Giant is set up as a duckling type creature, following Hogarth as if he’s fallen in love with him in a maternal way. Now he starts misbehaving like a very dangerous toddler, eating the railway line. Hogarth’s motivation changes: now it’s his mission to stop this creature from wreaking havoc. Though Hogarth is the parent with the robot, at home he very much needs to be parented.
  • Kent Mansley turns up the opponent within the house. Even his name suggests that his masculinity is going to outstrip Hogarth’s. He’s also an opponent for the attentions of Hogarth’s mother – if Hogarth is not careful he might end up with him as his step dad. Mansley has a strong desire line of his own – to provide his boss with photographic evidence of the giant so that the government can send troops over to get it.
  • The detached hand is a horror movie trope, though this one is mischievous rather than horrible. It was used more recently in The Cloverfield Paradox, with both comic and horror effects.
  • The next problem is finding enough metal for the Iron Giant to eat. The scrap yard they find just so happens to belong to the Dean guy from the café, the one who let a squirrel out of his fly. He gets some great lines.
  • Dean is portrayed as a hipster. He drinks coffee, a fairly new drink back then. (My parents started drinking regular coffee in the 1970s, though that was New Zealand.) He’s also an artist, and though left off the page in this children’s film, he’d be a dope smoking kind of guy who probably thinks he’s hallucinating when he sees a massive tin man turn up in his scrapyard.
  • “I’m not the kind of guy who reports things to the authorities.” This is what Dean says when Hogarth says he’s not going to call his mom, is he? This is the lampshading the writers have already had to do for Hogarth himself – why wouldn’t an adult just call someone about this thing?
  • Hogarth is adamant that ‘it’ is a ‘he’, though where does he get that idea? Robots don’t have gender markers. The viewer is not encouraged to question it. He is big and therefore dangerous and does not have a pink ribbon on his head and is therefore coded male. I bet he has a crop growing out the back.
  • Hogarth spikes Mansley’s drink with laxative — about the only kind of drug spiking considered funny and therefore allowable in children’s stories. (Though if you’ve had it done to you as a high school prank, it really ain’t funny — my brother’s friends poured an entire bottle into his coke.)
  • Hogarth considers it ‘undignified’ to have the mighty Iron Giant doing ‘arts and crafts’. While Hippie Dean lives outside the strict masculine gender norm, Hogarth doesn’t.
  • The death of the deer symbolises what could happen to the Iron Giant if the authorities were to find him. The Robot doesn’t understand the concept of death and has to have it explained. Hogarth then goes into the concept of ‘souls’, lending a religious tone to it.
  • Hogarth’s trickster side, established early, comes in handy later, when he sneaks out of bed ahead of Mansley, leaving behind the helmet to make Mansley think he’s still there.
  • Over the course of the story, the Iron Giant develops his own motivation –- he wants to be Superman. Giving up on this dream, he sees the opportunity to save two little boys hanging dangerously off a building. For more on ‘main characters’ and ‘how do identify the star of the story?’, refer to my post on character functions. Both the Iron Giant and Hogarth change over the course of the story. Hogarth comes of age because of his bravery (and possible self-sacrifice) — he doesn’t know for sure that his presence is going to turn The Iron Giant from a raging maniac back into a loveable big pet.

MESSAGE OF THE IRON GIANT

The message in the movie is simplistic, but appropriate to its young audience:

“You are who you choose to be.”

As you can see, there’s nothing subtle about it. Hogarth even whispers it at the big big struggle scene, as voice over narration.

In order for this to work, the writers first establish a binary of good vs evil. The Iron Giant learns to be ‘good’ because he learns from Hogarth, who is likewise morally good. He is kind to animals (though perhaps catching them and bringing them into the house isn’t so kind, really). The Iron Giant has been created to destroy, however. It is only via his relationship with Hogarth that he can override this functionality. There is no moral ambiguity.

When we see hippie McCoppin wearing that yin yang dressing gown in his house, I do wonder if this is a wink to the adult audience — though this story establishes the good/evil binary, the dressing gown expresses a slightly more sophisticated (and modern) idea of psychology — that there’s a little bad in good people and a little good in bad people. We’ve since moved past this — the contemporary view is that we are all capable of great good and great bad, depending on context. Children’s lit is yet to catch up.

Moral Dilemma

Theme is expressed most clearly through a moral dilemma. In this story, it is the Iron Giant who has the moral dilemma — does he carry out his original purpose, to destroy mankind like a massive gun, or does he continue being good, as he has learnt from human Hogarth Hughes (note the alliteration). Hogarth stands for humanity in the humane sense. (I explained this to my daughter, whose initials are also HH. I’m not sure she caught my drift.)

For more on symbolic names, see this post.

Ideally, moral dilemmas have no easy resolution. But the choice between ‘not destroying the world’ and ‘destroying the world’ is not really all that hard — we know what he’s going to choose. There’s no reason for him to destroy us. But that’s because we don’t have the other side of the story. Who knows? Maybe the universe would be better off without humans? This is actually pretty similar to how war works — our side is the good side. We don’t think about the terrorists and their motivations.

The idea that ‘People choose to be good or bad’ applies to anyone, and to anyone with access to the nuclear codes. The main part of the message is that no one is ‘inherently evil’, which is actually an evolution on the fairytale binary.

A good/evil binary is comforting, and I think this is why it features so heavily in children’s stories. Ted Hughes wrote this story to comfort his children after their mother, Sylvia Plath, suicided.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROBOTS IN FICTION

L. Frank Baum’s 1907 character was a precursor to modern sci-fi robots.

In Andy Buckram’s Tin Man by Carol Ryrie Brink (author of Caddie Woodlawn), Andy uses scraps around his farm to build several robots that will help him with his chores.

Since the first detonations of atomic bombs in the 20th century, pop culture has been morbidly fascinated by the realisation that humanity has developed tools powerful enough to destroy itself. For instance, Black Mirror reveals our fear of robots and algorithms we can’t control.

Weird Tales v08 n06 (1926-12) the metal giants
Weird Tales v08 n06 (1926-12) the metal giants

Today’s tin men stories are about:

  • surveillance
  • virtual reality
  • artificial intelligence

What are we afraid of?

  • privacy breaches
  • a loss of the simple pleasures of real life and real human interaction
  • automation leading to loss of our jobs
  • loss of personal autonomy
  • anything we can’t understand or imagine

We’re told to fear robots. But why do we think they’ll turn on us?

Modern Examples

Focusing on the dark side:

  • Westworld
  • Black Mirror
  • H+

An article at LA Screenwriter divides robot characters in fiction into

The Iron Giant starts off as a friend then turns into a protector.

Illustration by W.W. Denslow from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" tin man
Illustration by W.W. Denslow from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” tin man
Albert Magarian, published in 'Amazing Stories' 15, No. 2, December 1941 tin man robot
Albert Magarian, published in ‘Amazing Stories’ 15, No. 2, December 1941
NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordaan purple robot
NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordaan
Susumu Eguchi Illustration, Poster for a children's science exhibition in the Tobu department store, 69-70 robot
Susumu Eguchi Illustration, Poster for a children’s science exhibition in the Tobu department store, 69-70 robot
Libico Maraja robot heart
Libico Maraja
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015) robots
The Third In Line from The Sketchbooks Of Mattias Adolfsson (Sanatorium Publishing 2015) robots
Dean Ellis (1920 - 2009) 1975 illustration for Henry Kuttner's The Proud Robot
Dean Ellis (1920 – 2009) 1975 illustration for Henry Kuttner’s The Proud Robot

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Rise of the Machines from Smithsonian Libraries

Verbal Diorama discuss The Iron Giant at their movie podcast.

HitchBOT Was A Literal Pile Of Trash And Got What It Deserved from Deadspin

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » suburbia

Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.

Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)

What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.

IRONY

Any difference between expectation and outcome

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)

CHARACTER HUMOUR

Comedic character acting on personality traits

A lot of the humour of Kath and Kim comes from understanding who the characters are and laughing at them whenever they do something which is ‘just like them’. In order for this to work, the writers have to set up the characters and dynamics as quickly as possible. It starts with the intro — Kim ‘thinks she’s all that’, whereas her mother has her own sense of fashion and doesn’t realise when she’s looking ridiculous.

STRAIGHT GIRL, MADCAP GIRL

The dynamic between Kim and Sharon is seen in a lot of comedies. Here we have a stoopid/naive character whose best friend is no less stupid but more of a schemer. We see this between Patrick (stoopid) and SpongeBob Squarepants (a schemer). We see these two tropes in Seinfeld, though the mutual friend is Jerry: Kramer is the naive character and George is the schemer. In We Bare Bears Grizz is the schemer and Pan Pan is the naive one.

The friendship between Kim and Sharon is perhaps a specifically female one. Though not at all a comedy, Helen Garner writes of the real life friendship between Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao in her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation:

Perhaps they are most flagrant in adolescence: one girl is wild, bossy, selfish, flaring with hormones, crackling with sexual drive and careless of risk, but still dependent on the ballast provided by her companion, who is prim and cautious, not yet at the mercy of her body, one foot still planted in the self-containment of girlhood. They need each other. The well-meaning ‘supportive’ one trails along in the wake of her narcissistic friend, half aware that she is being used — as a cover against parental suspicions, a second fiddle, a handmaid, a foil. But she also feeds off the wrecker’s high-voltage energy.

The tendency to form such partnerships doesn’t end with youth. Every woman I have asked about this knew immediately what I meant and could provide examples. Many a woman has shifted, as different stages of her life brought forth different needs, the paring most poignantly when it inspires comedy: Dame Edna and her drab bridesmaid Madge; Kim and her browbeaten best friend Sharon Strezlecki in Kath and Kim. Even as we laugh, the spectacle disturbs us: we wait breathlessly for the worm to turn. And yet it is a relationship that benefits both partners. It would be hard to say, at its height, whose power is the greater.

Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were another real-life couple whose friendship was depicted as toxically imbalanced in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, though to what extent can one girl influence another? That’s the interesting question.

Orange Is The New Black arguably has a number of such partnerships. The most extreme and disturbing of those is between Crazy Eyes and Vee, because Vee knows exactly what the relationship is, and how she’s using another person for her own gain. The friendship between Alex Vause and Piper Chapman might be a better example, at least in the prequel years leading up to their time in prison.

Most television series with a wide cast of characters, and which also happen to pass the Bechdel Test, have at least one relationship that fits this description. In Mad Men there was Joan Holloway’s friend and room mate Carol.

In Six Feet Under it was Claire Fisher and Edie. It seems writers (and audiences) find such friendships especially interesting when one has lesbian interest in the other. But I haven’t seen exactly the same dynamics become so common in fictional male friendships, unless I’m missing something.

Mena Suvari was cast as a very similar sort of girl by Alan Ball in American Beauty, using Thora Birch’s character as her supporting role. Of course, the plot subverts audience expectations about how this friendship really works, therefore relying on the audience’s implicit understanding of how these friendships tend to work before the reveal is at all surprising.

In Freaks and Geeks, the relationship between Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly is difficult to understand unless you understand this particular power dynamic. The writers did a bit of lampshading in order to explain the relationship, making Kim’s interest in Lindsay very obvious: Kim was trying to show her parents that she had turned a new leaf in order to keep her car. Befriending the study nerd was part of her plan.

In Gilmore girls we have Paris as a comically A-type personality who needs a cast of supporting characters in order for her to feel competitive and worthy. Paris only has ‘frenemies’. Though her relationship with Rory gradually becomes more like a friendship as the seasons progress.

STOOPID CHARACTERS AS ‘STOMACH

Often correlating with stoopid characters — they tend to be the ‘stomach’ of the group. In his book Secrets of Story, Matt Bird writes about a common character ensemble in which characters will correlate with heart, head and stomach. This doesn’t just work for comedy, by the way. In other words, one will be the thinker, one will be the emotional character and the other will go with their gut. In comedy, the stomach is often quite literal — Kim ploughs headfirst into things and she is always eating.

I argue that of the characters in Kath and Kim, Kath is the head — it’s all relative — and Sharon is the heart, most likely to be sobbing at any point, or to feel lonely.

Kath Day-Knight is a more unusual comedic character (noice, yeah, different, yes it’s unusual…). She has similarities to the 1950s housewife we’ve seen before in American comedies, but the refreshing thing about this series is that she isn’t the ‘straight-man’ to her slob of a husband.

I wonder if Turner and Riley despise the Married With Children and Everybody Loves Raymond marriages as much as I do, because they’ve gone out of their way to create in Kel Knight a man who is their opposite. In this marriage it’s Kath who is a slave to the gender binary. Unusually for comedy series she undergoes a character arc after learning about Kel’s bisexual years in the army, and even sets aside her spare room for his man bags.

REFERENCE HUMOUR

Common experiences that audiences can relate to

  • Having an argument in your front suburban yard and nosy neighbours look at you
  • Going to an expensive gift shop at the mall where you get the feeling the shop assistants are laughing at you as soon as you leave the shop
  • Trying to park at the mall and having a concrete pillar ‘leap out at you’
  • Getting a pet that turns out to be more work than you thought
  • Getting an invitation to a baby shower from someone you don’t really like
  • Having kids move back in the moment you repurpose their old bedroom
  • Having kids come back home and raiding your fridge
  • Wanting to look good at your school reunion to show what a success you turned out
  • Feeling middle age and embarking upon a health and fitness regime
  • Settling into the routine of a new relationship — who does what jobs around the house, and how
  • Going on holidays with your in-laws and feeling like you don’t have enough time on your own
Brand Names

I wasn’t living in Australia when I first watched this series, but it’s refreshing to watch a locally produced show in which you recognise the brand names. This is a disadvantage we have when watching American or British humour — I suspect I’m missing the full extent of the humour because even if I recognise names, I don’t fully understand their cultural associations. (I’ve also been watching To The Manor Born lately, in which we have not only a cultural difference but an historic one.)

When Kim chastises Sharon for stealing her Petit Miams, I know exactly what those are. I know people in my own life who can’t leave them alone if they happen to be in the fridge. Kath and Kim elicits laughs by being super specific when referring to items. Kath is especially funny because she is still living in the 1970s.

SHOCK HUMOUR

Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humour and swearing

Kath and Kim is not a particularly shocking show, though if you watch it with your kids you’ll have a bit of explaining to do. Mostly they’re sex jokes.

A running gag is that Kim is grossed out by her mother’s references to sex with Kel, who she finds repulsive. Juxtaposed with that is the suggestion that Kim has terrible sex and doesn’t understand what good sex feels like.

In one episode Kath has lost her mojo. The therapist advises them to ditch the clothes. Kath and Kel take this literally. They arrive home from doing the groceries stark naked, and do the gardening naked too. Sharon and Brett decide it’s a great idea, and though we don’t see it, Sharon recounts a slapstick pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey episode in which she falls over naked and ruins a chance with her current crush.

PARODY HUMOUR

Mimic a character, trope, genre as closely as possible

Kim’s husband Brett has also been seen before in comedy, for instance in Keeping Up Appearances, but as the series wears on, it is clear that Brett is not really the victim he appears to be at first glance — he is masochistically turned on by a wife who seems to have memorised The Rules, which I’d almost forgotten about but remember that phenomenon? Sadly, the series is still going, with revisions ‘for the digital generation’. Authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider advocate that women ‘treat em mean to keep em keen’. First published in the year 2000, perhaps Western culture was feeling nervous about the turn of the millennium. Kim is a parody of that book and the culture that sprang up around it.

HYPERBOLE AS HUMOUR

Exaggeration to absurd extremes

Every episode takes ordinary situations to absurd extremes — you can rely on it.

Kath is a bored housewife so enrols in a floral design course. The drama around finding the right kind of flower is all out of proportion to the actual direness of the situation, but the episode ends with Kath using a whole pineapple as hat decoration instead of the flowers she originally wanted. The writers don’t stop there — she wins the TAFE competition. In the episode final conversation Kath and Kim have outside, Kath compares herself to Nicole Kidman by saying that she’s been snubbed. Others in her course complained that a pineapple is not a flower.

This joke was set up particularly well because as we see her using Kel as model for her ridiculous floral hats, she is unhappy with every creation she makes. “Oh, that’s not right,” she says, frustrated. Because we know that Kath has an ostentatious sense of fashion, and that even the final creation she comes up with will be gaudy and over-the-top, it is funny to see that even Kath has her own inner sense of style, and that she (and she alone) can tell the difference between one of her gaudy hats and one that is perfect.

WORDPLAY HUMOUR

Puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.

Kath and Kim is big on word play and it works so well because you’ve probably heard people make exactly the same mistakes yourself. My great auntie says ‘prostrate cancer’ instead of ‘prostate’ and part of me thinks it’s because ‘prostate’ is too uncomfortable for her to say. That’s how it works on Kath and Kim.

  • ‘Pacifically’ instead of ‘specifically’, except when they actually mean ‘Pacific’, in which case they’re going on a ‘Specific Cruise’. (The pattern is well-and-truly set up before the inversion gag is revealed.)
  • A lot of the jokes are malapropisms, or phonological similarities “casting nasturtiums”, “I need breakfast, I’m ravishing.”

MADCAP

Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical

Some things are inherently weird-looking, and Kath and Kim make the most of the silliness of:

  • Home-use exercise machines
  • Power walking
  • Disco dancing
  • Irish dancing
  • Inability to take steps while holding the ball in netball

Almost every episode features a ‘big struggle scene’ in which the characters look silly, but these characters look silly at every opportunity. Kath only smokes (in secret) while wearing a rubber glove. We all know women of about that age who don’t want to stain their fingers, which makes this a combination of madcap and character reference humour.

MISPLACED FOCUS

Attention is focused on the wrong thing

When Kath starts to worry about her ‘chooky neck’ after enduring insults from her teenage-like daughter, she doesn’t realise she’s starting to get upset and is walking like a chook.

In a later episode, Kim doesn’t realise that her hair extension is made of horse’s hair which makes her desirable to her mother’s irascible wedding horse.

REPETITION (RUNNING GAG)

Scott Dikkers of The Onion talks about ‘jokes about jokes’, but the equivalent of that in Kath and Kim is when the audience waits for something we know is coming, and are satisfied when it does. At one point in every episode Kath will tell two fighting factions to ‘Look at moi, look at moi’.

This form of ‘waiting for the snap’ is also used by Catherine Tate, for instance in her Nan skits, in which Nan always switches from nasty to nice or vice versa. The key in writing this kind of joke is giving the audience enough clues to know when it’s going to happen.

  • In Southpark it’s ‘They killed Kenny, you bastards!”
  • In Keeping Up Appearances someone will mispronounce Mrs Bucket’s name and Hyacinth will roll her eyes and says, “It’s BOUQUET!”

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » suburbia